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101 things to do in Chicago: free things to do

Leave your wallet at home while you visit museums, parks, beaches and more of the top free things to do in Chicago

Expensive dinners and pricey music festivals are great, but it's important to remember that you can have a ton of fun in Chicago without spending a dollar. Leave your wallet at home and take in a free concert in Millennium Park or stop by the Chicago Cultural Center to peruse some pieces from local artists. Of course, you can also take advantage of the great outdoors by spending an afternoon on the beach or taking a hike through a neighborhood park. Leave you bank account alone and indulge in some free things to do in Chicago.

RECOMMENDED: Take a look at all 101 things to do in Chicago

Free things to do in Chicago

See animals (for free) at Lincoln Park Zoo

Housing more than 1,200 animals, the Lincoln Park Zoo is one of the few remaining free zoos in the United States. The 35 acre menagerie may seem small, but it packs in plenty of amazing sights, including popular attractions like the Kovler Lion House and the Regenstein Center for African Apes. In the winter many of the animals go indoors and the ZooLights go up in celebration of the holiday season, making this zoo a year-round attraction.

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See concerts and public art in Millennium Park

A veritable outdoor gallery of public art, Millennium Park contains a selection of Chicago’s most iconic sights, ranging from the popular Cloud Gate (better known as “The Bean”) to the towering Crown Fountain, which features a rotating display of local faces. When the weather is warm, you can see a free concert at the Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion or watch a movie on a gigantic LED screen.

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Commune with nature at the Chicago Botanic Garden

Water plants are in abundance at this beautiful site near the banks of the Skokie River, where the sprawling gardens are a series of islands. At the Chicago Botanic Garden, you can stroll through 24 landscapes, including the Japanese Garden and the Regenstein Fruit and Vegetable Garden.

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Score a free meal for your kids

Despite having such tiny stomachs, kids' meals can be expensive. Although many kids' menus at Chicago restaurants offer reduced prices, sometimes it's nice to dine out knowing that your kids eat free (especially when most of the food ends up on the floor anyway). Sit down at a place with great grub for adults and free lunch for the little ones.

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Spend an afternoon at a free art gallery or museum

Want to take a gratis trip to a gallery and see some art? You’re in luck, because some of the city's most progressive art museums and galleries don't charge admission, giving visitors access to enough paintings, sculptures and installations to fill an entire day. Whether you're a fan of contemporary art or want to see some classic pieces while you're spending an afternoon in the Loop, you'll find exciting works at these free art museums and galleries.

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Go to a museum without paying for your ticket

Contrary to popular belief, you don't have to spend a fortune in order to visit some of Chicago's best museums and cultural institutions. If you're willing to plan ahead, you can take in masterpieces at the Art Institute or gaze at tropical fish while strolling through Shedd Aquarium without spending a dime. You'll need to be an Illinois resident to take advantage of many of these offers, but that's just one of the perks of living in Chicago.

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Soak up some sun at the beach

Chicago may not boast a tropical climate, but when it gets muggy during the summer, you’ll find people flocking to the beaches that line the coast of Lake Michigan. Most of the Park District’s beaches feature amenities like lockers, concession stands, volleyball courts and even free Wi-Fi. Large crowds typically gather at the centrally located North Avenue Beach, but you can head north or south to find roomier patches of sand.

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Enjoy locally produced art at the Chicago Cultural Center

When the Chicago Public Library moved into the Harold Washington Center, the city turned its former home into the Chicago Cultural Center. Visitors can take advantage of a variety of free programming, including free classical concerts, dance performances and exhibitions from local artists. It’s also worth stopping by to view the century-old building’s beautiful architectural flourishes, including the world's largest Tiffany stained-glass dome.

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Cool off in a public swimming pool

If a trip to the beach isn’t in the cards, the next best thing is a relaxing dip in one of the Park District’s swimming pools. There is a variety of facilities available in parks all across the city, including lanes for lap swimmers, slides for the kids and concession stands for a post-swim snack. Whether you want to practice your dive or simply dip your toes, a day at the pool is a fun (and free) way to spend a hot summer day.

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Walk among ferns and flowers at the Garfield Park Conservatory

Described as “landscape art under glass” when it opened in 1908, the Garfield Park Conservatory is one of the largest of its kind in the nation. Inside, visitors will find 120,000 plants spread across 1.6 acres, including the popular Fern Room, which features an indoor lagoon and waterfall. A popular rain-or-shine destination for nature lovers, the conservatory hosts seasonal flower shows as well as occasional concerts and events.

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Spend a day exploring Chicago’s public parks

You don’t have to take a trip downtown to hang out in a world-class Chicago park and get back in touch with nature. If you’re on the the North Side, spend an afternoon amid the lagoons of Humboldt Park or flying a kite on Cricket Hill in Lincoln Park. The South Side offers ponds for fishing in Washington Park as well as the relaxing atmosphere of Jackson Park’s Japanese-styled Osaka Garden.

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Hoedown with the Hoyle Bros. at Empty Bottle

The Bottle has long been the hub of underground rock in town, and it has the graffiti, stains and smells to prove it. Though the most reliable option on the calendar is this tight and rowdy alt-country combo. The Hoyle Brothers rip up the joint every Friday at 5:30pm. It’s free, leaving you with more cash for cold PBRs. The owners have swanky new venues like Thalia Hall and the Promontory, but this scuzzy bar with the crooked stage is all character.

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Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day the Chicago way

Like any good Midwestern city, Chicago is serious about commemorating this popular Irish holiday. Each March, organizers dump a bunch of yellow liquid into the river, shifting its usual murky hue to a dirty shade of green for the rest of the day. There are also two parades to attend: one in Grant Park and the other on the far South Side of the city.

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