There’s so much to do in Chicago, it’s easy to give your wallet a break without sacrificing your social life. From art shows to concerts to festivals, there's plenty of entertainment that's available free of charge. There's no need to stay hidden inside with so many fun things to do that won't cost a cent.
The best free things to do in Chicago
You don't have to look any further than Pilsen to find one of the largest Latino cultural organizations in the U.S. 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 an illustrious Mexican culture.
Rhona Hoffman Gallery, founded as Young Hoffman Gallery in 1976, is one of the oldest galleries in the West Loop. Specializing in international contemporary art in all medias, particularly of the socio-political variety, Rhona Hoffman exhibits young and emerging artists alongside established ones.
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 Warhol.
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 or view the small Harold Washington museum, where memorabilia related to the building's namesake is collected.
Located in the East Pilsen Industrial Corridor, CUAS is an emerging mixed-use art space that facilities "creative juxtapositions." The community cultural institution presents work by contemporary artists and promotes projects and hosts events by creative-sector groups—everything from pop-up dinners to the Pilsen Flea Market to Slow and Low, a community lowrider festival.
Founded in 1976, the Museum of Contemporary Photography collaborates with artists and photographers to present exhibitions of analog and digital images. Columbia College frequently presents works from its collection or commissions photographers to develop exhibits that display the capabilities of visual art.
Under a glass dome and in greenhouse rooms on just more than a half acre thrive more than 40,000 plants representing around 200 species. Attractions include an extensive fern collection, a room full of dozens of orchid varieties and a 100-year-old, 50-foot rubber tree. Flower shows change with the seasons.
Founded in 2005 as a curatorial effort, devening projects + editions now includes a Garfield Park gallery space showcasing site-specific exhibitions by international contemporary artists in every medium. Multiples by exhibiting artists often accompany these shows.
Owned and operated by Chicago artist Laura Lee Junge and partner Chris Jackson, this Wicker Park gallery displays Junge's own work in addition to exhibitions from contemporary artists. The general public can visit the gallery free of charge seven days a week, while patrons can take home prints and reproductions that are produced (and framed) on site.
Located in the Ludington building on Columbia College's South Loop campus, the Glass Curtain Gallery exhibits emerging and mid-career artists in all media. Showcasing a mixture of national and international artists, this free museum also offers workshops and lectures that allow anyone to learn more about art.
Carrie Secrist Gallery celebrated its 20th anniversary in early 2013 and over the past two decades has focused on established contemporary artists, with a recently renewed interest in adding new, emerging artists to its roster. Among our favorite works the gallery has exhibited are Kim Keever's water tank diorama photography; Megan Greene's recontextualized Audubon prints and Derek Chan's abstract paintings thoughtfully incorporating Native American symbolism.
Described as “landscape art under glass” when it opened in 1908, the conservatory, while being one of the largest in the world, also boasts revolutionary architecture. With the building’s haystack shape and walls of stratified stonework, landscape architect Jens Jensen considered the Fern Room in particular, with its “prairie waterfall”—a stone and water element within a glass structure—to be one of his greatest achievements. About 120,000 plants representing some 600 species occupy the conservatory’s 1.6 acres, and four times a year flower shows premiere to herald the change in seasons.
Founded by John Corbett and Jim Dempsey in 2004, Corbett vs. Dempsey reflects its owners diverse interests: jazz, film, American modernist traditions, middle-American approaches to abstraction and contemporary art. Located on the third floor of the Dusty Groove building, the art gallery (like a fine record shop) places an emphasis on digging up undiscovered talent, often featuring great regional art.
This 24.5-acre park features Frank Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion and serpentine bridge; sculptor Anish Kapoor's 110-ton Cloud Gate (a.k.a. “The Bean”); and Jaume Plensa's Crown Fountain, with its ever-changing array of locals' faces spewing water very five minutes in the summer months. The Lurie Garden wows with year-round flower displays and monthly garden walks.