10 Free Things to Do & See in Chicago
Visiting a big city does not always equate to spending big bucks. In fact, cities can often be the cheapest tourist destinations considering the many free attractions. Chicago is home to some of the world’s top tourist attractions including world-class zoos, museums, and parks. Many of these attractions are completely free. In fact, most of my favorite things to do in the city just happen to be those that cost nothing. A winning combination of stunning architecture & magnificent lake views leaves you with endless options for free fun.
Taking a trip to Chicago doesn’t have to cost a fortune. Yes, there are dozens of worthwhile activities that cost money (Shedd Aquarium, Chicago Cubs and Bears games, Brookfield Zoo, and The Field Museum to name a few). However, plenty of options do exist for those on a budget. All of my activities on my Top 10 list are worthy of a visit in my book. Take a look at my suggestions on the Top 10 Free Things to do in Chicago and feel free to comment below with some suggestions of your own.
1. Chicago Lakefront Path
The ultimate free activity in Chicago is the 18 mile long Chicago Lakefront Path. Riding, walking, or jogging along this scenic trail provides you with the best views of both Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline. Dozens of opportunities for viewing one of the country’s top skylines await you on this magnificent multi-use lakefront trail.
Don’t worry, you do not have to be an avid cyclist to enjoy this path. You have the option of starting at the midway point (near Millennium Park), which is the most scenic portion of the path. This path is absolutely flat with no hills, making it an attractive option for athletes of all levels.
Almost all of Chicago’s top tourist attractions are located directly on the path. Several top rated attractions located along the way include Chicago’s museum campus, Navy Pier, and Lincoln Park Zoo. Around mile 9, make sure to cross the street to take in the beauty of Buckingham Fountain.
Every aspect of the Lakefront Path is impressive. Chicago is a city of amazing architecture and top rated tourist attractions; the Lakefront Path gives you convenient access to the best of Chicago. An A+ path all the way!
2. Lincoln Park Zoo
There are only 3 remaining free zoos in the US. One of these just happens to be Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. This beautiful 35 acre zoo is open year-round, making it a fantastic summer or winter destination. The skyline views put this zoo in a league of its’ own. Some of you may ask why you would want to visit a zoo during Chicago’s cold, snowy winter season. The answer is Lincoln Park Zoo’s stunning holiday Zoo Lights festival, a festive annual event in which the zoo sparkles with over 2 million lights.
I was impressed with the holiday Zoo Lights extravaganza. The ice carving demonstrations and synchronized light and music shows add to the fun. Admission is just 5 bucks and free every Monday.
No matter what season you decide to visit, you are bound to be impressed by this small city zoo.
3. Millennium Park
While in Chicago, it would be hard to miss Chicago’s huge 300+ acre park. This highly regarded park features stunning architecture, art, and fountains. Millennium is home to the world famous Cloud Gate sculpture, aka “The Bean.” The unique reflective attributes of this piece of art make it a popular place for photography. Mike & I always have a great time taking various pictures of ourselves in front of the sculpture.
My personal favorite activity at Millennium is ice skating when the winter rink (McCormick Tribune Ice Rink) opens for the season. This rink is free to the public (aside from a small skate rental fee). Skating on a snowy winter afternoon with the incredible cityscape in the background is a one-of-a-kind Chicago experience.
4. The Art Institute of Chicago
The Art Institute of Chicago features one of the best art collections in the world. After visiting other art galleries across the US, I have appreciated the grandeur of this museum even more (it’s the second largest art museum in the country). On Thursday nights, don’t miss out on your chance to visit this museum free of charge (residents only). Also, this museum is free for Bank of America cardholders on the first full weekend of each month.
My favorite time to visit the museum is during the winter months when the tourist crowds have begun to thin out. Also, at this time of the year, the lions out front are decorated in holiday wreaths. The Art Institute is conveniently located just a short walk away from Chicago’s famous Magnificent Mile, making it the ideal stop after a day of dining and shopping.
5. Skyline Photography
Finding places to photograph Chicago’s amazing skyline is another excellent free activity. Chicago’s ideal location on Lake Michigan leads to many spectacular photo hotspots. Although there are plenty of great sites for capturing the perfect view, the best views can be found behind the Adler Planetarium. Every local knows this is the spot to capture the most gorgeous landscape photos. Even if you are not visiting the planetarium, you can still take pictures here free of charge.
If you want to snap the perfect picture of the Chicago skyline, your best bet is to head straight over to the Adler. What better souvenir to take home than your picture in front of Chicago’s magnificent skyline? The best part of all: you didn’t have to spend a dime on an overpriced souvenir!
6. Buckingham Fountain
Buckingham Fountain is one of the must visit spots for photography in the city. This beautiful fountain is one of the largest in the world. At night, the fountain dazzles even more with the addition of a spirited music and light show. This can’t-miss gem, located in Grant Park, is even more beautiful on a clear day when you can clearly see the city’s stunning architecture in the background.
Located within close proximity to most of the big downtown attractions, the Buckingham Fountain show can easily be incorporated into your trip. The fountain runs from 8:00am-11:00pm (April through October). The lighted night shows begin at dusk and run for 20 minutes (each shows starts on the hour).
7. Grant Park
This large 300 acre park is home to many of Chicago’s hot tourist attractions including the Museum Campus, Millennium Park, The Art Institute, and Buckingham Fountain. All of these attractions are worth a visit on your trip. Check for free dates offered throughout the year at the 3 main museums (Shedd, Field & Adler). Millennium Park and Buckingham Fountain are both free of charge all the time.
Numerous large festivals are held at Grant Park throughout the year, especially during the warmer summer events. Popular annual events include the Taste of Chicago and Lollapoolooza. The free summer concert series is another popular summer past time. I recommend planning a summer trip to take advantage of all the free entertainment.
8. Lakefront Beaches
Oak Street & North Avenue are 2 very popular beaches located in Chicago’s ritzy Gold Coast area. Oak Street, with the reputation of being the place “to see and be seen in the city,” is the more popular of the two. Both of these beaches are located directly on Chicago’s Lakefront Path and make for a nice summer break during your ride or walk.
The swimming at Oak Street Beach is pretty fun with big waves making for the perfect beach day. Spending the day at a clean, well-maintained beach with a fabulous skyline view; what better way to spend a hot, humid Chicago summer afternoon? Add in beach volleyball and a beachfront restaurant and you have more than enough options to keep yourself cool & entertained!
9. Navy Pier
You can’t leave Chicago without taking a walk around historic Navy Pier. This fun boardwalk doubles as a photography hotspot. Even better views of the pier itself await you on the Lakefront Path, which is adjacent to the pier. Many free events are held throughout the year, including a popular weekly summertime fireworks display.
For those looking to spend, you will find plenty of dining, shopping, & entertainment options on the pier. Treating yourself to an iconic (est. in 1926) Chicago rainbow cone (featuring orange sherbet, pistachio, Palmer House, Strawberry, and Chocolate) is a must! I also highly recommend a ride along the iconic Ferris Wheel. For under 20 bucks, you are treated to fabulous views of the city and lake. For those on a tight budget, the ride is a cheaper (and just as scenic) alternative to the pricey Willis Tower Skydeck.
10. Ice skating & holiday fun
Many tourists mistakenly think of Chicago as solely a summer destination. This is not the case! In fact, the holiday season is a fantastic time to visit the city. During the winter season, Chicago is still very much alive despite the bleak, cold, and oftentimes snowy skies. Numerous festivals, seasonal activities, and special attractions are held throughout this time.
Admission to the Christkindlmarket, a seasonal German inspired shopping village in Daley Plaza, should be a must on everyone’s itinerary. Another can’t-miss attraction is seeing the iconic Chicago Christmas Tree. From here, take the short walk over to Macy’s on State Street to see the famous holiday window stories.
The fun doesn’t stop here. Don’t forget about the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink, located in Millennium Park. Ice skating while taking in the city views is an especially memorable holiday activity. And don’t forget about the festive & free! holiday ZooLights display at Lincoln Park Zoo. The zoo is home to one of the country’s best free displays with over 2 million dazzling colorful lights.
There is so much to do and see around the holidays in Chicago. If you haven’t ever visited during the winter months, then you are missing out. You will never run out of free activities and events during your Chicago winter vacation.
Chicago Lakefront Path Address: 7100South/2560 East to 5800North/1000 West
Lincoln Park Zoo Address: 2001 N. Clark St. Chicago, IL 60614
Millennium Park Address: 201 E. Randolph St. Chicago, IL 60686
The Art Institute of Chicago Address: 111 S. Michigan Ave. Chicago, IL 60603
Buckingham Fountain Address: 301 S. Columbus Drive Chicago, IL 60605
Grant Park Address: 337 E. Randolph St. Chicago, IL 60601
Oak Street Beach Address: 1000 N. Lakeshore Drive Chicago, IL 60611
North Avenue Beach Address: 1600 N. Lakeshore Drive Chicago, IL 60614
Navy Pier Address: 600 E. Grand Ave. Chicago, IL 60611
Daley Plaza Address: 50 W. Washington St. Chicago, IL 60602
Macy’s on State Street Address: 111 N. State Street Chicago, IL 60602
For more information on holiday activities in Chicago, please visit my Christmas in Chicago! and The Best Holiday Activities in Chicago post.
Have you ever visited any of the attractions listed above? What are some of your favorite free things to do in and around the city?