With one of the world’s most impressive skylines, a number of superb museums, and a gut-busting menu of classic foodstuffs, Chicago naturally lands on many “cities to visit” lists. Thankfully, even if you’re on a tight budget, the Windy City is an easy destination to fully experience, thanks in part to the many free things to do in Chicago. Below, we’ve highlighted 13 of our favorite Chicago activities that don’t cost a penny.
Everybody knows about Chicago’s scenic lakefront, but don’t forget its river. A walk along the Chicago River takes you past some of the city’s biggest and best skyscrapers, as well as a number of restaurants and bars that have set up shop in recent years. Bonus tip: Don’t miss Art on the Mart, an artistic video show projected along Merchandise Mart, which begins 30 minutes after sunset, Wednesday-Sunday.
It’s a Chicago rite of passage–at least for tourists. The Anish Kapoor sculpture Cloud Gate, known to locals as “the Bean,” works like a carnival funhouse mirror from its picture-perfect spot in Millennium Park. As a result, people flock here to get the city’s most famous selfie. Try it yourself, but beware: your social-media accounts are going to explode.
Yep, there’s a free zoo right in the heart of Chicago! (To be fair, you do have to pay for parking.) The Lincoln Park Zoo invites families to meet 200+ different species, from polar bears to eastern screech owls to harbor seals. It also hosts ZooLights, one of the city’s most-popular seasonal events in November and December, when more than 2.5 million holiday lights illuminate the zoo’s already-charming setting.
While people might first think of Denver or Portland as a great brewery town, Chicago actually boasts the most microbreweries of any U.S. metropolitan area (it has 167, as of December 2018). And you can tour many of them for free: Lagunitas in Douglas Park offers a whimsical, Willy Wonka-themed experience, while Lake Effect Brewing in Irving Park specializes in small-batch experimental brews. Cheers!
From Edgewater Beach in the north to Jackson Park in the south, Chicago’s beloved Lakefront Trail spans almost the entire length of the city. Eventually, every Chicagoan experiences at least part of this 18.5-mile long pathway, whether on bike, by foot, or via skateboard. Along the way, you’ll breeze by gorgeous architecture, serene parks, peaceful marinas, and...we're missing something. Oh right, the lake!
Chicago is where luminary architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Daniel Burnham ran their firms. Sure, you can see their work from the outside, but it's better to admire these landmark buildings from inside. You're invited to step inside the Chicago Cultural Center (home of a spectacular Tiffany glass dome), Wright’s outstanding lobby inside The Rookery, and the Hogwarts-esque 2nd floor at the former Chicago Athletic Club.
There's a reason it isn’t called the “Unimpressive Mile.” You’ll see what makes the Magnificent Mile—a stretch of MIchigan Avenue just north of the river—worthy of its name right at the beginning, where the spectacular Spanish-influenced Wrigley Building and the cathedral-esque Tribune Tower make a grand entrance. For the next mile, you can shop at the city’s most luxurious shops, highlighted by the Water Tower Place Mall.
Not far from “the Bean” in Millennium Park, the McCormick Tribune Plaza & Ice Rink is a favorite for hopeless romantics in need of a good date-night activity. The skyline setting, right along Michigan Avenue, is particularly charming at night when the city is lit up. The rink only charges for rental, so bring your own skates if you happen to have starred in a Mighty Ducks film and already own a pair.
Chicago’s answer to New York’s highly successful High Line project, the Bloomingdale Trail (aka as “the 606”) is a 2.7-mile-long elevated railroad track repurposed as a pedestrian walkway/bicycle trail. This isn’t your parents' old-timey pennyfarthing path—it regularly rotates in new artwork, and its height makes you feel like you’re floating amongst the buildings its passes by, rather than simply walking underneath them.
No matter your interest, there’s a museum in Chicago for you. And if you’re lucky, you can visit one of them for free. Each major museum offers a “free day” for Illinois residents: the Field Museum often offers Wednesday admission for free, the Chicago History Museum is free after 12:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, and the famed Art Institute is free from 5–8 p.m. on Thursday evenings. That means free Picasso, Monet, and Van Gogh. Score!
One of the great free things to do in Chicago on a winter’s day is to warm up inside a steamy jungle ... or a super-dry desert, if that's more your style. That’s the beauty of the Garfield Park Conservatory, a 2-acre glass domed greenhouse with six warm gardens teeming with trees and plants. Ponder the cacti in the Desert House, or breathe in the humid art underneath massive fronds inside the Palm House.
While Garfield Park is one of the great things to do in Chicago for free in the winter, here’s one we would only recommend for the summer. Enjoy cooling off by diving into Lake Michigan from one of two dozen free beaches. Follow the Lakefront Trail to the uber-popular North Avenue Beach (home to plenty of beachfront bars), or drop in from the South Side’s Promontory Point. Either way, save your deep-dish pizza feast for after your swim.
Chicago is where the skyscraper was born, and you could make a day out of visiting highlights of its monumental skyline. Start with Willis Tower, the world’s tallest building from 1973 until 1998, and end at the John Hancock Center, its supertall brother along the Mag Mile. Along the way, see the corncob-esque Marina City Towers, Jeanne Gang’s mesmerizing Aqua building, and the old Montgomery Ward Building, headquarters for a little company called Groupon.