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Winter Garden at Harold Washington Library Center
Photograph: Shutterstock

The 26 best free things to do in Chicago

Immerse yourself in the city without breaking the bank with some of the best free things to do in Chicago

Written by
Zach Long
Contributors
Emma Krupp
&
Erin Yarnall
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It’s an old cliche that the best things in life are free, but sometimes that’s actually true, at least in Chicago. While you could have fun (and spend a pretty penny) going to concerts, buying cocktails and cheering on sports teams at costly games, there’s plenty to do throughout the city if you’re on a budget. Explore some of the city’s best museums, learn a thing or two at beautiful libraries, or show off some of your moves at some of the city’s many ice rinks, because even when the weather turns bone-chillingly cold, there are  still an abundance of things to do in the city for free. Here’s our list of the best free things to do in Chicago.

RECOMMENDED: Our complete guide to the best things to do in Chicago

Best free things to do in Chicago

  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Loop

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. 

  • Things to do
  • Lincoln Park

See more than 200 species of animals—from apes to zebras to giraffes—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 flamingoes) and reptiles (snakes, crocodiles and turtles).

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  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • East Garfield Park

Reservation via Garfield Park Conservatory website required.

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 cactus-filled Desert House and the lush green Fern Room. The conservatory also offers free digital tours, which take users through its nine different rooms and garden areas.

  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Millennium Park

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. The park features a robust series of free programming in the summer, but there are plenty of reasons to visit even in the colder months. See sculpture installations from local artists, watch skaters twist by on the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink or take a walk amid the dormant—but still lovely—landscapes of the 3.5-acre Lurie Garden.

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  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Millennium Park

Dubbed “Chicago’s front yard,” Grant Park’s 319-acre expanse is home to the Art Institute of Chicago, Buckingham Fountain, various public art installations and Museum Campus. The park can get crowded during summer’s peak festival season—when it hosts hundreds of thousands of visitors for events like Lollapalooza and Taste of Chicago—but it’s pleasantly devoid of people during winter. Take a stroll through the North Rose Gardens, visit the seated statue of Abraham Lincoln or walk among Magdalena Abakanowicz's Agora sculptures on the south end of the park.

  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Hyde Park

With a collection of more than 16,000 fine art objects, including 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.

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  • Things to do
  • Literary events
  • Streeterville

It's certainly possible to spend a bunch of money at this tourist hot spot, which is packed with restaurants, bars, departing boat tours 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.

  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Lower West Side

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 an expansive permanent collection, rotating exhibits, performing-arts showcases and educational programming that represents the creativity of Mexican culture.

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  • Attractions
  • Libraries, archives and foundations
  • Loop

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.

  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Lincoln Park

Reservation via Eventbrite required. 

Housed under a glass dome and  greenhouse rooms that were built between 1890 and 1895, you'll find thousands of plants 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. Be sure to make a free timed reservation online before you visit.

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  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Sheffield & DePaul

Make a reservation via Tock.

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.

  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Millennium Park

One of the latest additions to the Chicago Park District, Maggie Daley Park offers 20 acres of recreational opportunity, including an expansive playground, towering climbing wall, mini golf course, skating ribbon and more. For wintertime fun, rent a pair of skates (or bring your own) and take a spin around the ribbon, but make sure to get a ticket for that in advance.

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16th Street murals
Photograph: Time Out/Zach long

13. 16th Street murals

Stretching from the Chicago River to Western Avenue, the walls of an old railroad embankment host a vibrant and evolving outdoor gallery of murals by prominent and emerging artists. Take a stroll along 16th Street to spot murals by revered local artists like JC Rivera and Hebru Brantley, as well as an infamous painting of a severed possum by Belgian street artist ROA.

  • Things to do
  • Rush & Division

Libraries are hubs of knowledge, and there are few places where that is more evident than the Newberry Library, an independent research library that’s been free to the public since it was established in 1887. Take a look at the library’s collection, which houses approximately 1.6 million books, 600,000 maps and 250,000 postcards, among many, many more items. You can even  put together your family tree with the library’s free-to-access genealogy resources.

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  • Things to do
  • Humboldt Park

Humboldt Park was once the nation’s greatest public park, boasting acres of Prairie-style gardens, grazing livestock 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 and pay your respects to the former home of Chance the Snapper.

  • Things to do
  • Literary events
  • Woodlawn

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, Sky Landing.

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  • Music
  • Rock and indie
  • Ukrainian Village
  • price 1 of 4

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 oftentimes free for shows that feature a mixture of local bands and touring acts. And on Friday afternoons, country act the Hoyle Brothers sometimes play a free set of twangy tunes for the after-work crowd beginning at 5:30pm. 

  • Bars
  • Sports Bars
  • Lake View
  • price 2 of 4

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, with the purchase of a beverage. 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.

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  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Hyde Park

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.

  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Loop

Online reservations via the museum’s website are recommended. 

Founded in 1976, the Museum of Contemporary Photography—part of Columbia College Chicago—collaborates with artists and photographers to present exhibitions of film and digital images. Columbia College frequently presents works from its collection or commissions photographers to develop exhibits that display the capabilities of visual art. Visit to tour thought-provoking exhibitions or check out public lectures, discussions and other events held online and in person.

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  • Things to do
  • Literary events
  • Little Italy, UIC
  • price 1 of 4

In 1931 Jane Addams became the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her social work and co-founding Hull House on the city’s Near West Side. The famous home served recently-arrived European immigrants, and now serves as a museum and gallery on the campus of University of Illinois Chicago. The museum is free to all UIC students, staff and faculty and has a suggested donation of $5 for any other visitors.

  • Things to do
  • Literary events
  • Suburbs
  • price 2 of 4

Registration via the Chicago Botanic Garden website required for nonmembers. 

For one week each month 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 and walking over). Once you arrive, stroll through dozens of wildly different landscapes, including areas devoted to aquatic flowers, fruits and veggies, roses, prairie plants and woodland vegetation.

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  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Humboldt Park

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.

  • Art
  • Arts centers
  • Douglas

This Bronzeville incubator for Black art is the only Works Progress Administration-funded community art center that's still up and running—more than 80 years later—and the oldest African-American arts center in the country. Visit to check out the Center's dynamic permanent collection (including works from founders Margaret Taylor-Burroughs and Charles White), rotating exhibitions and free events.

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  • Things to do
  • Literary events
  • Uptown

Since 1860, the Graceland Cemetery has been the final resting place for numerous famous Chicagoans, including urban designer Daniel H. Burnham, film critic Roger Ebert and business magnate Marshall Field. Take a self-guided tour of the interesting statues and ornate mausoleums (there's a free audio tour on the cemetery’s website) or just walk around to admire the beauty of the space.

  • Museums
  • Near South Side
  • price 1 of 4

There are a lot of homes to tour in Chicago, but none of them have the history that Clarke House Museum does. That’s not an exaggeration, as Clarke House is the oldest surviving home in the city. The Greek Revival home was constructed in the Near South Side in 1836, and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. The house has survived fires and two different moves, and now sits in the Prairie Avenue Historic District, where it’s used as a museum to showcase what life was like for a family in pre-Civil War Chicago.

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