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Lincoln Park Conservatory
Photograph: Jaclyn RivasLincoln Park

The best free things to do in Chicago this month

No need to break the bank—check out all the fun (and free) stuff happening throughout the city this month.

Emma Krupp
Written by
Emma Krupp
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As it turns out, some of the best things in life—or at least, some of the best things to do in Chicago—are free. That's especially true at the start of a new year, when so many of us are nursing a holiday-shaped hole in our wallets (or alternatively, a New Year's resolution to spend less). For free fun this month, beat the cold inside of temperature-controlled greenhouses, check out a series of puppet shows popping up in neighborhoods across the city or honor MLK Day with free film screenings. Plus, don't miss out on gallery shows, markets and other recurring events that won't cost you a dime. Ready to save some money? Check out more of the best free things to do in Chicago this month.

RECOMMENDED: The best cheap eats in Chicago

Time Out Market Chicago
  • Time Out Market
  • West Loop

On Friday and Saturday nights, the DJ Firm brings some of Chicago's top DJs to Time Out Market Chicago to spin tunes for guests. Enjoy a drink from the Time Out Market Bar or some delicious dishes from one of the food hall's many vendors while you listen (or dance) to the music.

The best free things to do in Chicago this month

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  • Things to do
  • Ice skating
  • Millennium Park

Skate under the Chicago skyline and within eyeshot of the Chicago Christmas Tree at the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink in Millennium Park. Admission to the rink is free, and you can rent skates for $13–$15. Plus, take advantage of free skating lessons on most Saturdays and Sundays from 8am–9am, where you can learn both beginner- and intermediate-level skills. Note that you'll need to make a free online reservation for both regular skating and lessons this year, and if it seems too warm to skate, call ahead—this rink is open through March 6, weather permitting.

  • Things to do
  • Ice skating
  • Millennium Park

Situated in the heart of downtown Chicago, with the city's sweeping skyline as a backdrop, the Skating Ribbon at Maggie Daley Park is a winter attraction unlike any other. Skaters can lace up and wind around a winding ice-covered path that's twice the length of a lap around a traditional rink. This year's edition of the ribbon will be decorated with designs inspired by Vincent van Gogh's "Sunflowers" and "Starry Night" paintings, a collaboration between the art exhibition "Immersive Van Gogh" and Chicago Park District. 

Admission to the Skating Ribbon is free during weekdays if you bring your own skates; otherwise, reservations are $5 (with skates on weekends on holidays) or $16–$20 if you need to rent a pair. The Ribbon stays open through March (weather permitting) and even offers limited hours on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.

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  • Things to do
  • Festivals
  • Wrigleyville

The Cubs may be hibernating for the winter, but Gallagher Way provides some excellent reasons to hang out in Wrigleyville during baseball's off-season. The Wrigley Field-adjacent space hosts a variety of seasonal activities, including an ice skating rink, photos with Santa and holiday movie screenings on every Wednesday in December. Once the holidays are over, the skating rink at Winterland will stick around through February 20. Visit the Winterland website for reservations, hours and additional information about programming.

  • Art
  • Painting
  • Loop

The Chicago Cultural Center hosts the first comprehensive retrospective of Robert Colescott, a 20th century American painter whose incisive, large-scale work took aim at racial inequities in America—among other social ills—with humor and wit. The exhibition examines Colescott's work throughout the decades, moving through the artist's stylistic evolutions from riffs on the Bay Area Figuration of the '50s and '60s to his graphic style of the '70s and beyond, as well as his role in bolstering Black representation in art.  

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  • Sports and fitness

Hit the ice at the Chicago Wolves Ice Rink at Rosemont's Parkway Bank Park, where you can reserve a free 45-minute skating session every day through December (including holidays); the rink will also be open on Sundays through February. Use of the rink itself is free—with skate rentals available for $8—but you'll need a credit card to hold your reservation online. 

  • Comedy
  • Uptown

This weekly “live magazine” is a cavalcade of culture, politics and wit featuring journalists, actors, comedians and musicians offering idiosyncratic reports on the news of the day. Head to Uptown’s iconic Green Mill for drinks, hot takes and laughs; the longstanding Saturday afternoon edition tends to run about two and a half hours.

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  • Shopping
  • Markets and fairs
  • West Loop

Originally established in the late 1800s, the Maxwell Street Market brought vendors, musicians and cooks to an open-air flea market where shoppers could find just about anything they wanted. The market introduced the Maxwell Street Polish sausage, provided a venue for rising Chicago blues musicians and was immortalized in a scene in The Blues Brothers. These days, the market sets up on nearby Desplaines Street (between Roosevelt and Howard) on the first and third Sundays of every month, where visitors will find vendors hawking their wares, an abundance of delicious Mexican food and occasional performances by local bands and dance troupes. Don't let the cold or wet weather scare you away—the Maxwell Street Market takes place outdoors year-round.

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