Best free things to do in Chicago
See some 1,200 animals—from apes to zebras to flamingos—at one of the last free zoos in the country. The 35-acre attraction connects visitors with animals from all over the world and houses a variety of creatures, big and small, including mammals (beavers, lions, otters and bears), birds (penguins, eagles and parrots) and reptiles (snakes, crocodiles and turtles). Just walk in and make some new furry or scaly friends.
This 24.5-acre park is where you'll find the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion, the Cloud Gate sculpture (a.k.a. “The Bean”) and the Crown Fountain. In the summer, Millennium Park hosts a long list of free events, including the Chicago Blues Festival, the Millennium Park Summer Music Series, free movies screenings and the Chicago Jazz Festival. Of course, you can also stop by with a picnic basket, eat lunch on the lawn and soak in the skyline views.
Dubbed “Chicago’s front yard,” Grant Park’s 319-acre expanse is home to the Art Institute of Chicago, Buckingham Fountain and Museum Campus. Sections of the park are often used for events and festivals (such as Lollapalooza and the Chicago Marathon) in the summer, but on weekdays visitors are typically able to take a stroll through the area and enjoy the ample greenery. Each July, the free Taste of Chicago festival brings cuisine from local restaurants to the park, accompanied by a slate of free concerts.
Housed in a structure that’s as wide as an entire city block and dates back to 1897, the Chicago Cultural Center provides a place for locals and visitors alike to experience amazing art and beautiful architecture without spending a cent. On any given day, you might find a free classical concert being performed, an art exhibition on display in one of the building’s many galleries or tourists marveling at the world’s largest stained glass Tiffany dome. Don’t worry about paying for admission—nearly everything that happens in this building is free and open to the public.
Described as "landscape art under glass" when it opened in 1908, the Garfield Park Conservatory is one of the largest buildings of its kind in the world. About 120,000 plants representing some 600 species occupy the gigantic greenhouse, which is divided into areas such as the prickly succulent and cactus-filled Desert House and the lush green Fern Room. No matter what the weather is like outside, it always feels tropical inside this urban oasis (and you'll never have to pay admission to stop in and smell the flowers).
The main branch of the Chicago Public Library boasts nine floors of books, computer labs, meeting rooms and more. Head up to the ninth floor to see art displayed in the library's exhibit space, gaze up at the skylights that enclose the library's Winter Garden or view the small Harold Washington museum, where memorabilia related to the building's namesake is collected.
You don't have to look any further than Pilsen to find one of the largest Latino cultural organizations in the United States. Visit the National Museum of Mexican Art and explore a 6,000-piece permanent collection, rotating exhibits, performing-arts showcases and educational programming that represents the creativity of Mexican culture.
When the weather gets hot and sweaty in Chicago, locals and visitors flock to this popular beach, located just north of the Loop on the edge of Lincoln Park. You're free to sit in the sand or take a dip in the cool waters of Lake Michigan, but you'll also find volleyball courts, kayak rentals, a bar and grill that looks like a beached ship and more attractions at North Avenue Beach.
Polish American painter Ed Paschke grew up on the Northwest Side, attended the Art Institute and taught at Northwestern University. His confrontational, brightly-colored paintings typically dealt with topics like fame, sex and violence, inspired by the pop art of Andy Warhol. The Ed Paschke Art Center makes a collection of his work available to residents of the city he loved, and there's never an admission fee. The gallery includes a recreation of Paschke’s 2004 studio and works from each period of his artistic career.
The Chicago outpost of Lagunitas Brewing Company is the largest craft brewery in the city, mixing up barrel upon barrel of potent, hoppy concoctions. Visitors to the giant Douglas Park warehouse can take a free tour, complete with some complimentary beer tastings. The tours are offered on Monday and Tuesday at 1 and 3pm or Wednesday through Sunday at 1, 3 and 5pm. Our only advice is to show up early to get your name on the list.
Winding along the riverfront from Lake Street to Lake Shore Drive, the Chicago Riverwalk is packed with restaurants, bars and lots of amazing views of the towering architecture which surrounds the Chicago River. You can walk from one end of the path to the other, sit down and drink in the sights or return after sundown to view the nightly Art on theMart projections, which take over the side of Merchandise Mart (best viewed between Wells Street and Franklin Street).
Housed under a glass dome and in greenhouse rooms, you'll find more than 40,000 plants representing around 200 species at the Lincoln Park Conservatory. Attractions include an extensive fern collection, a room full of dozens of orchid varieties and a 100-year-old, 50-foot-tall rubber tree. Located near the Lincoln Park Zoo, a walk through the conservatory is the perfect way to cap off an afternoon spent admiring animals, reptiles and birds.
You'll usually pay a cover to see a show at the Empty Bottle, but there are two exceptions to that rule. On Monday nights, admission is usually free for shows that feature a mixture of local bands and touring act. On Friday afternoons, country act the Hoyle Brothers play a free set of twangy tunes for the after-work crowd from 5:30 to 7:30pm.
One of the latest additions to the Chicago Park District, Maggie Daley Park offers 20 acres of recreational opportunity. Walk across the BP Pedestrian Bridge from Millennium Park and you’ll be greeted by a 40-foot climbing wall, a quarter-mile skating ribbon (ice skating in the winter, roller skating in the summer) and one of the most whimsical playgrounds in the city. With facilities fit for kids and adults, this is a park where the entire family can spend the day having fun outdoors.
This Logan Square dive bar hides one of the most welcoming stages for emerging musical and comedic talents to play on, hidden all the way in the back of the room. Admission is always free and you're almost guaranteed to find a local indie rock group working out some new songs onstage or a comedy open mic that mixes sets from well-established funny folks with some nerve-wracking routines from first-time standups.
Humboldt Park was once the nation’s greatest public park, boasting acres of Prairie-style gardens, grazing animals and a meandering river scene. Though the animals are long gone, the park is still a gem among Chicago's public green spaces, filled with lagoons, tennis courts, an inland beach, a fieldhouse, baseball fields and bike paths. If you wander through the area long enough, you'll probably come across the Humboldt Park Boathouse, where you can admire the scenery, sit down for a meal at the cafe or rent a swan paddle boat.
As long as you're 21 years of age or older (sorry, kids), you can enjoy all the free arcade games you can handle at Replay Lincoln Park. Everything from the NBA Jam cabinet to the Lord of the Rings pinball table is set to free play, which means that you won't be pumping any quarters or tokens into the machines. You can spend all of the money you save on a craft beer or a cocktail at one of Replay's bars.
The Newberry Library, founded in 1887, is an independent research library located right in the heart of the Gold Coast. From illuminated medieval manuscripts to the personal papers of local authors, the Newberry is home to an impressive collection of work that visitors can browse at their leisure.
The folks at Busy Beaver Button Company churn out new flair for your denim jacket all day long, but the business's Logan Square headquarters also host the Button Museum, a collection of more than 9,000 historical pin-back buttons. Open to the public (free of charge!) Monday through Friday from 10am to 4pm, you'll find vintage advertising, political campaigns, sports and Chicago-centric buttons in cases lining the walls of this small but mighty museum.
After purchasing it from the city for $1, local artist and philanthropist Theaster Gates turned this long-vacant bank into a cultural institution. Inside the Stony Island Arts Bank, visitors can browse the archives of Johnson Publishing, see house music legend Frankie Knuckles's record collection or view art on display in the venue's ground floor gallery. Regular events and exhibitions make this South Side spot a must-visit for lovers of art, music, literature and more—and it's always free to visit.
Admission to the Chicago Botanic Garden is totally free, but if you're driving to the suburban attraction, be prepared to pay for parking (we recommend taking the Metra to Braeside). Once you've arrived, stroll through dozens of wildly different landscapes, including areas devoted to aquatic flowers, fruits and veggies, roses, prairie plants and woodland vegetation. Considering that the garden's permanent plant collection spans nearly 285 acres with more than 2.6 million plants, there's more than enough to fill an afternoon.
If you want to take a 2.7-mile jaunt through Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Wicker Park and Bucktown, this elevated path is the best way to get around. Built on an abandoned railroad line, the 606 is connected to parks and thoroughfares in some of the busiest neighborhoods on the North Side of Chicago. On a particularly nice day, you'll probably have to dodge cyclists and people pushing strollers, but the trail still provides one of the most relaxing and scenic ways to traverse the city.
As far as this gallery on the University of Chicago’s campus is concerned, the avantest of the avant-garde is the only one that matters. As for the name, well, the university wants to broaden the definition of "renaissance." (Think less Michelangelo, more the Next Michelangelo, in other words.) The white walls and high ceiling create a hyper-resonant environment. Many rising European artists get their only Chicago exposure here, and the shows are always free.
Jackson Park once hosted the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, but these days the 600-acre park offers golf, baseball, a fitness center, a playground, tennis courts and a network of paths for walking, running or biking. We recommend venturing to the Japanese-inspired Garden of the Phoenix to see Yoko Ono's permanent art installation, Skylanding.
With a collection of more than 15,000 fine art objects that include ancient Chinese artworks and thought-provoking contemporary pieces, the Smart Museum of Art is the kind of place where you can easily spend a few hours taking in all of the work on display. Located on the University of Chicago campus, admission to this museum's galleries is always free—and you'll probably encounter a few scholars combing through the collection.
It's certainly possible to spend a bunch of money at this tourist hot spot, which is packed with restaurants, bars, an IMAX cinema and a gigantic Ferris wheel. But visitors can also come and simply enjoy the sights from Navy Pier, including some epic views of the Chicago skyline and the waters of Lake Michigan.
Hop off the train at the Fullerton Red, Brown and Purple Line station and you'll find yourself at the front door of this art museum on the DePaul University campus. There are typically two or more small exhibitions on display simultaneously, featuring large sculptures, photographs, paintings and installations made by established and emerging artists. Admission is free (though donations are welcome), so don't be afraid to step inside and see what's on the walls.
The Whistler is probably best known for the creative cocktails it serves each night, but it's also one of the best places in the city to find a free show. Local jazz groups, DJs and rock bands regularly take over the venue's small stage, which also hosts regular events such as the Relax Attack Jazz Series and the monthly Slo 'Mo queer dance party.
There are plenty of places you could go to enjoy some free karaoke in Chicago, but this Ravenswood spot keeps the backing tracks going seven nights a week. Hidden Cove attracts young and old, singers and drunkards, so expect to witness some amazing performances and some… memorable ones.