Chicago is one of the most interesting and exciting cities in the World. Its towering Skyline, Fantastic Architecture, and wonderful Culture all make for a rich and fascinating City. But a Big Bustling Metropolis like this comes with a price tag and visiting the City can be expensive! We have a whole host of money-saving tips in our Chicago Money Saving Guide, but one way to spend absolutely nothing is to take a look at our 10 Best Things to do in Chicago for Free Guide and find some of the absolute top things to do in the City without spending a dime!
Unlike someplace, the list of free things to do is not a second choice list, some of our choices are absolutely do-not-miss attractions and landmarks that just can’t be skipped, they just don’t happen to cost anything. So look through our list and bookmark the page so once you are in the City you can check off all of the Windy Cities best free attractions!
We notice a lot of other lists of this type have the Loop as a thing to do, but really this is unforgivably vague. The Loop is the heart of Chicago but it’s not a single thing to do, so we list the individual attractions that make the Loop the heart of Chicago. While you absolutely must check out the loop, you would be hard-pressed to miss it n reality and many of our attractions will take you there anyway!
1 – Lincoln Park Zoo
One of only a few Zoos in the United States that is completely free! For that reason alone the Zoo is well worth a visit, however, if you are thinking the zoo might be a low-end offering with only a few low-key animals and exhibits, then you are wrong. This zoo easily outclasses many paid-for zoos and is up there with some of the best!
It starts with the location Lincoln Park would make this list without the Zoo! The beautiful park is in the Northside of Chicago, just beyond the gold coast, and offers 1000+ acres of rolling parkland and beautiful lakeside beaches, pitted with lakes ponds, and rivers Providing stunning vistas with the City Skyline as a Backdrop. It is well worth a visit as the 20-million annual visitors would attest.
Inside the Park, the Zoo itself occupies 49 Acres of rolling land with over 1250 Animals. Polar Bears are the Headline Exhibit with their underwater viewing area in the Arctic Tundra Exhibit. There are Big Cats, including Lions, Leopards, and Jaguars. Monkey Exhibits, Chimpanzee and Gorillas, Endangered Black Rhino, Giraffes, Antelopes, Zebras, Reptiles House, the list goes on.
In fact, it is probably easier to list what isn’t there, Pandas, Elephants, and Tigers are about all that is missing (and the Zoo has housed Tigers and Elephants in the past) its incredible that such an attraction is free, so remember to help support the Zoo by visiting the food outlets and gift shops as these provide the primary funding to keep the Zoo open and FREE. Upgrade projects are usually privately funded by wealthy donors!
Lincoln Park Zoo is really one of those places that you haven’t really visited Chicago unless you have been! it is easily one of Chicago’s Must-see attractions let alone FREE attractions
2 – Chicago’s Fabulous Parks
Another one of the Cities Must-Sees regardless of costs, we could probably fill this list with nothing but Parks, all of which are free, but instead, we will lump them together. Huge swathes of $billion real estate are given over to Chicago’s amazing Park system and spending some time exploring these wonders is an absolute must!
Grant and Millenium Park
Front and Center right in the heart of Chicago and pride of place on the waterfront are Chicago’s main Parks, Connected but different in nature Gran Parks and Millenium Park are Chicago’s answer to Central Park NYC.
Millennium Park is right in the heart of the City and features many sculptures and works of modern art installations erected in the park to celebrate the turn of the millennium. The Cloud Gate is now one of Chicago’s most recognizable landmarks and a must-stop Selfie location. The Park, which is really just the Northwestern portion of Grant Park, is dominated by the Jay Pritzker Pavilion which is used for many Free outdoor music festivals and concerts such as the Grant Park Music Festival. Also, check out the Crown Fountain and the McCormick Tribune Plaza & Ice Rink, and Lurie Garden.
Grant Park, one of the oldest in the City is the remaining part of this prime real estate and takes up over 390 Acres of prime waterfront to the east with stunning Cityscape to the west. The center is dominated by the incredible Buckingham Fountain. A colossal 100+ ft wide fountain that shoots water over 150ft in the air making it one of the biggest fountains in the world. Regular shows, including nighttime illuminations, make the fountain a must-visit in the City.
Surrounding the fountain and throughout the rest of the park are manicured Italian Style gardens. The entire park is picture-perfect with seasonal plantings and generally beautifully sculpted vegetation elegantly backdropped by the CityScape. It really s a wonderful place to simply get away from it all and relax.
Technically an extension of the monstrous Grant Park, the Museum Campus is at the far south of the park and encompasses the amazing Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and the Alder Planetarium. While the Paid Museums are the focus of this park there is still plenty of beautiful open space to enjoy great views of the City, the Lake, and the Burnham Habour
Down past the Museum of Science and Industry in South-Side Chicago, you find the Sprawling Jackson Park. 500 acres of natural parkland. If Grant Park is a manicured perfectionist vision of a park, then Jackson Park is the wild and uncouth cousin. Things here are far more left to nature to do its thing. While lawns are regularly mowed and the area just has a more basic natural feel to the place. This is somewhat ruined (or improved?) by the golf course, but you can avoid this or just ignore the silly men trying to lose their balls.
Make sure you head out onto Wooded Island to find the beautiful Japanese Gardens.
3 – Navy Pier And FREE Fireworks Shows
Chicago can be a bit heavy at times, Filled with incredible museums, Culture, and Architecture. It’s a fantastic city, but it can be a bit much. The Navy pier is the fun side of the City. While most of the pier’s attractions are paid the pier itself is free and offers amazing views of the city and up and down the Lake Shore Coastline. The Piers Victorin style and period architecture make walks to the end scenic and historical.
During the Summer there are twice weekly Firework Displays from the Pier which are great fun and free to all, so an evening enjoying the pier and taking in the sights and sounds while watching the fireworks is a very cost-effective date, and even if you jump in the Centennial wheel it will only cost $15 and offers some staggering views of the City.
4 – The Magnificent Mile
The Magnificent Mile is the Shopping district of Chicago and while shopping is not really a “free” activity it is if you don’t buy anything. The Mile is also far more than some faceless mall. The Buildings and architecture and general vibe of the street make this a must-see of the City even if you have no desire to splurge.
And there are plenty of opportunities, with nearly 500 shops and outlets of some of the most luxurious brands in the world all appearing along with this, not quite one-mile street. Just about every conceivable luxury Fashion brand has a shop on the mile, including but not limited to, Armani, Cartier, Tiffany, Versace, Luis Vitton, Jimmy Chop, and Gucci, in fact, Wikipedia lists over 70 and is still not nearly complete. Simply put if you do not have a Chicago, Miricle Mile Presence, you really haven’t made it yet, at least not in America. This high amount of Luxury Brands makes window shopping a LOT of fun!
There are a large number of more down-to-earth stores, brands, and Department stores, but while these are quite fun to look around they can be found in every city across the states so window shopping is less fun than real shopping. The Mile also hosts a high number of restaurants, bars, and cafes. It is a fantastic location and one not to be missed.
5 – Chicago River Walk
As far as free activities the Riverwalk really does take some beating, this 1.3 Mile pathway cuts right through the heart of the City, with staggering views of the towering buildings and the city’s Architecture. Following the Rivers, South Bank from Lakeshore Drive, all the way through to Lake Street at the confluence of the north and south branches of the Chicago River.
The Route is lined with various cafes restaurants and bars and offers a really unique perspective on the city. The Walk feels timeless and part of the city but its current renovation has only finished in 2017 and was previously unused and derelict waste ground or simply inaccessible. it is such a wonderful project and really opens up the river to everyone.
6 – The L – Brown Line
Ok, this is not exactly free, but insanely inexpensive, and for many, you will have a Day, 3 Day, or Week Pass for the L-Train anyway. Worst case you need to stump up $2.50 for the train fare.
The L Train is such a wonderful and iconic part of the City that EVERYONE should ride it. For many, this is simply how you will get around. But even if not you should definitely take a ride on these elevated trains to get a fantastic perspective on the City. The best line for this is Brown Line
Starting on the Loop the line takes the 1.79-mile journey around Downtown Chicago 3 or 4 floors above ground level, giving a really unique perspective on the streets below and the monstrous skyscrapers rising above. After a full loop, the line heads out of the city center and heads north through the River North District. Then passing through Old Town Chicago, Wrightwood Lake View and finally ending up in Albany, The return let is just as wonderful; as the distant skyline draws nearer and nearer until you once again hit the Loop!
For many Chicago Residents, this is just “getting about” but for new visitors it is a really fun and exciting take on the city! Take a ride with the Video Below!
7 – The Gold Coast
Beaches are not the first thing you think of when visiting Chicago! However, along the aptly named gold coast, there are several fantastic beaches and waterfront locations that feel almost like being by the ocean. Of course, the water is fresh and not quite as inviting during the long cold winter. But plenty of locals use the area’s beaches to cool off during the summer. Take the “when in Rome” approach and only swim if others are already doing so.
The main draw for this, however, is the simply staggering views. From the very aptly named “photography point” you get incredible views of the city Skyline. Chicago really does have an awe-inspiring and very imposing Cityscape, the like of which provided most of the Dark Night Trilogy Gotham backdrops, and the Gold Coast is one of the best places to take a step back and get uninterrupted views of the whole skyline rising out of the lake!
8 – Lake Front Trail
The four main Lakeside parks of Chicago are all connected by one long uninterrupted trail called the Lakefront Trail. Starting at Kathy Osterman Beach in North Side Chicago the Trail runs South along the entire length of Lincoln Park before passing through the Gold Coast, Grant Park, Burnham Park, and Grant Park, and finally ending way down on the South Side on the far side of Jackson Park.
Running for over 18 Miles continuously on the Lakefront trail could easily take you a full day to walk, or significantly less if you cycled or even jogged it! Most people will only take on a section of the path (Unless Cycling). Picking the Tail up at Lincoln Park Zoo, and heading as far south as the Museum Campus is around 4 miles, or 8 if you walk back. The Trail encounters some beautiful vistas, buildings, and views of the City and Lake, and is well worth a morning or afternoon exploring!
9 – Chicago Cultural Center
An absolutely Stunning Building and a location not to miss when visiting the City, The Building houses many changing exhibits which are all free and cover a wide range of cultural interests. The Center itself would easily be worthy of an entrance fee but is run by the City and is free to all.
Above all in the Center is the actual building itself, the two Tiffany Glass domes, ornate Marble staircases, and generally staggeringly beautiful architectural design. Right in the heart of the Loop the Chicago Cultural Center is one of the most visited buildings in the City and a must-do for everyone regardless of the fact it is free!
10 – Garfield Park Conservatory
Last on the List is the Garfield Park Conservatory. A little further out of your way than most of Chicago’s attractions but an easy hop on the EL. The entrance is free but they do ask for a very modest $5 donation to support the conservatory, but it is not required if you really are looking for 100% free activities. It is a small price to pay for the stunning tropical plant displays.
With over 4 acres of indoor and outdoor displays the Conservatory has near endless exhibits, some are changeable with the seasons while others are following the climates of their native origin, the tropical greenhouses are able to replicate a myriad of different climatic regions. There are many examples of really rare, exotic, and endangered plants in the collections such as the stunning Persian Lillies, the stinky Calabash Tree, the endangered sea coconut, and the intriguing Octopus of the Desert.
It is a wonderful place to explore and well worth the trip on the EL, you can also check out Garfield park while there. And if you really enjoy the Conservatory you should also take a look at the Lincoln Park Conservatory as well for a bit more of the same really!
Have Your Say
Got a great idea for Free Activities in Chicago? Think we have missed something off our list? Or maybe you have done and hated something we have suggested? Whatever your thoughts on our top 10 is, let us know in the comments below. We love hearing your thoughts and always invite any conversation.