25 Free Things to Do in Chicago & Budget Tips

Skyscape with Cloud Gate, Chicago

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If you’re looking for free things to do in Chicago, you’re in luck!

The Windy City has no shortage of activities that won’t cost you a cent.

From exploring world-class museums to taking a leisurely stroll through one of the city’s many beautiful parks, there are plenty of ways to enjoy yourself without spending a dime.

Chicago is also home to a vibrant music scene, and there are always free concerts and performances to enjoy.

Plus, Chicago’s location on Lake Michigan in the state of Illinois means there are plenty of opportunities for swimming, sunbathing, and simply enjoying the fresh air.

So whether you’re a visitor or a local, be sure to check out some of these gratis attractions the next time you’re looking for something to do.

You may also like our 3-Day Chicago itinerary and guide to unique things to do in Chicago.

Free Outdoor Things to do in Chicago

Parks, beaches and river, Chicago has lots of outdoor space which can be enjoyed free of charge.

Spend a day at one of Chicago’s many beautiful parks

Chicago is home to some of the most beautiful parks in the United States.

Lincoln Park, Millennium Park, and Grant Park are all must-sees, and best of all, they’re free to enjoy!

If you’re looking for something a little more low-key, try one of the city’s many smaller parks, like Oz Park or Humboldt Park.

No matter what kind of park you’re looking for, you’re sure to find it in Chicago.

Check out the Bean at Millenium Park

One of the most popular attractions in Millennium Park is the Bean, otherwise known as Cloud Gate (201 E Randolph St).

This massive sculpture is made up of 168 stainless steel plates welded together, and it’s truly a sight to behold.

It’s fun to walk around and take pictures of the Bean from different angles, and on a clear day, you can see your reflection on its surface, making it one of the most Instagrammable places in Chicago.

Skyline with Cloud Gate, Chicago

Explore the Museum Campus

The Museum Campus (337 E Randolph St) is home to three of Chicago’s most popular museums: the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, and the Adler Planetarium.

While admission to these museums isn’t free, you don’t necessarily need to enter them to enjoy all that Museum Campus has to offer.

The grounds are beautiful, and there are plenty of places to relax and take in the panoramic views.

Plus, if you’re a resident in Illinois, you can visit the Field Museum for free on selected days.

Take a stroll along the city’s famed Magnificent Mile

The Magnificent Mile is one of Chicago’s most popular tourist destinations, and for good reason.

This bustling stretch of Michigan Avenue is home to some of the city’s best shopping, dining, and attractions.

It divides two of the best areas to stay in Chicago, Streeterville and River North, so chances are you’re going to be staying somewhere close anyways.

Even if you’re not looking to spend any money, the Magnificent Mile is still worth checking out.

There are always plenty of people-watching opportunities, and the architecture is simply stunning.

So whether you’re in the mood to window shop or just soak up the sights and sounds of the city, be sure to add the Magnificent Mile to your list of places to visit in Chicago.

Mag Mile is festive in winter, read our guide to Chicago at Christmas for more!

Swim, sunbathe, or simply enjoy the fresh air at North Avenue Beach

If you can’t imagine going on a vacation without spending some time on the beach, you have to check out North Avenue Beach.

This lakefront spot offers stunning views of the skyline, and it’s the perfect place to relax and enjoy the fresh air.

If you’re feeling more active, you can take a dip in the water or go for a run or walk along the beach’s scenic path.

One of the best free family things to do in Chicago on a nice day.

North Avenue Beach Chicago with US flag

Walk along the Chicago Riverwalk

The Chicago Riverwalk is a great place to take a stroll, people-watch, or simply enjoy the views of the river and the skyline.

This pedestrian path stretches for nearly two miles, so there’s plenty of ground to cover.

And if you’re looking for something to do along the way, there are plenty of restaurants and cafes to stop at.

So whether you’re looking for a leisurely walk or a chance to explore the city, the Chicago Riverwalk is a great place to start.

Did you know the water turns green for St Paddy’s Day?

Check out our guide to the best places to visit in the US in March for more!

Chicago Skylines building along green river of Chicago River on St. Patrick's day festival in Chicago Downtown

Check out the Honeycomb in Lincoln Park

The Honeycomb, officially known as The Education Pavilion, is one of the most unique structures you’ll see in all of Chicago.

Located in Lincoln Park, close to the Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo (2121 N Stockton Dr), this honeycomb-shaped pavilion is made up of hexagonal panels that create a beautiful visual effect.

And best of all, it’s free to check out!

So if you’re looking for a unique, Instagram-worthy spot in Chicago, the Honeycomb is definitely worth a visit.

Visit the Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park

The Buckingham Fountain (301 S Columbus Dr) is one of Chicago’s most iconic landmarks.

Located in Grant Park, this landmark fountain was built in 1927 and has been a popular spot for visitors and locals alike ever since.

It’s a sight to behold any time of the day but it’s particularly breathtaking during the water show, which occurs every hour.

Come after dusk, and you can enjoy a light and music display on the fountain as well.

The fountain typically runs from mid-April to mid-October so if you happen to be visiting in the summer period, don’t miss this entirely free attraction in Chicago.

Stroll around Navy Pier

Navy Pier (600 E Grand Ave) is one of Chicago’s most popular tourist destinations, and it’s easy to see why.

This 3,300-foot-long pier offers stunning views of Lake Michigan and the city skyline, and there’s plenty to do along the way.

You can ride the Ferris wheel, take a cruise on the lake, or simply wander around and enjoy the sights and sounds of the pier.

It’s free to enter so even if you don’t want to spend any money, it’s still a great place to visit for the views and vibes only.

Free Indoor Things to do in Chicago

The following free Chicago activities are all located indoors for windy or rainy day planning.

Chicago is the windy city after all!

Soak in the jungle vibes at Garfield Park Conservatory

If you’re looking for something to do that’s free and indoors, look no further than Garfield Park Conservatory (300 N Central Park Ave).

This stunning botanical garden is home to numerous plant species from all over the world, as well as some amazing tropical plants and exhibits.

It’s also a great place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, and immerse yourself in some lush, jungle-like atmosphere.

Whether you’re an avid gardener or just looking for something to do on a rainy day, Garfield Park Conservatory is definitely worth checking out.

It’s worth noting that although the botanical garden is free to visit, making online reservations in advance is encouraged to secure your spot.

Explore the Chicago Cultural Center

The Chicago Cultural Center (78 E Washington St) is one of the city’s most iconic buildings, and it also happens to be completely free to visit.

Located in the heart of downtown Chicago, this cultural center is home to numerous exhibits and art displays from local artists, as well as plenty of events and performances.

So if you’re looking for a free indoor activity that’s also great for people-watching and exploring, be sure to check out the Chicago Cultural Center.

Visit the City Gallery at the Historic Water Tower

For a truly unique experience, head to the City Gallery at the Historic Water Tower (806 Michigan Ave).

This free gallery is located in one of Chicago’s most iconic landmarks – the historic water tower that stands tall on Michigan Avenue.

The gallery itself features rotating exhibits from local artists, and it’s also a great spot for some photo ops.

And if you happen to be visiting in the winter, the Water Tower is also one of the best spots in the city to see holiday lights.

Browse the collections at the Harold Washington Library Center

Looking for something to do indoors that’s also free?

Head over to the Harold Washington Library Center (400 S State St), one of Chicago’s most beautiful buildings and a true architectural masterpiece.

This library is home to numerous collections and exhibits, as well as a number of events throughout the year.

Even if you’re not particularly keen on reading or studying, you can still enjoy browsing the collections and taking in the stunning architecture of this building.

So if you’re looking for a free indoor activity in Chicago, be sure to check out the Harold Washington Library Center.

Visit the National Museum of Mexican Art

The National Museum of Mexican Art (1852 W 19th St) is a cultural gem in the heart of Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.

This museum is home to a number of permanent and rotating exhibits, showcasing various aspects of Mexican culture from paintings and pottery to textiles, jewelry, and dance performances.

It also holds numerous events and workshops throughout the year, providing you with a great opportunity to learn more about Mexican art and culture.

Whether you’re a history buff or simply enjoy spending time in beautiful cultural centers, the National Museum of Mexican Art is a must-visit for anyone looking for free cultural things to do in Chicago.

Cheap Things to do in Chicago

While this guide primarily focuses on places to visit in Chicago for free, the following suggestions are worth considering so you don’t miss out on what the city has to offer.

Learn about Chicago’s history at the Chicago History Museum

The Chicago History Museum (1601 N Clark St) is one of the city’s most popular museums, and it’s also one of the most affordable.

This museum chronicles the history of Chicago from its early beginnings to the present day, with exhibits on everything from the city’s architecture to its food culture.

It also holds a number of events and programs throughout the year, so there’s always something new to check out.

And best of all, there are free admission days for Illinois residents with valid IDs.

For tourists visiting Chicago, admission to the Chicago History Museum costs under $20 making it one of the best cheap things to do in Chicago.

Enjoy the views from one of Chicago’s many observation decks

Like most major cities, Chicago is home to a number of iconic skyscrapers, and many of them have observation decks or viewing areas on their top floors and you can check out the views for around $30-35.

One of the most popular places to visit is the Skydeck at Willis Tower (233 S Wacker Dr) – the highest observation deck in the city.

If you’re not afraid of heights, another popular option is the 360 Chicago Observation Deck (875 N Michigan Ave).

Tickets to 360 Chicago is lightly cheaper than the Skydeck at Willis Tower.

Children under 3 can visit both observatories for free, making these a great option for families with young children looking for a cheap activity in Chicago.

Admire the Lake Michigan skyline from a sightseeing cruise

If you’re looking for a relaxing way to spend the day, consider hopping on a sightseeing cruise along Lake Michigan.

This 40-minute tour is a great budget option.

Sightseeing cruises typically run from April to October, so be sure to check the schedule in advance if you’re visiting during the off-season.

Attend a Family-Friendly Architecture River Cruise

Another popular option to see the city from a different perspective is to hop on a cruise along the Chicago River.

This architectural cruise is a great way to learn about the city’s history and see some of its most iconic buildings up close.

Tickets for this cruise are $25 per person, making it a great option for families or groups looking for a cheap activity in Chicago.

What’s more, the cruise has both indoor and outdoor decks so you can enjoy the views regardless of the weather.

Chicago River Boat Tour

Free Events in Chicago

The following free events and festivals in Chicago feature music and food!

Catch a free concert or performance

Chicago is renowned for its music scene, and there are always free concerts and performances to enjoy.

If you’re looking for something to do in the evening, be sure to check out what’s playing at Millennium Park.

The park hosts a variety of free concerts throughout the summer, so you’re sure to find something to your taste.

You can also find free performances at the Chicago Cultural Center and Navy Pier.

No matter what kind of music you’re into, you’re sure to find a free concert or performance to enjoy in Chicago.

Attend the Chicago Jazz Festival

The Chicago Jazz Festival is one of the city’s most popular annual events, and it’s also completely free to attend.

Held in Millennium Park every year, this festival features a wide range of jazz performers from around the world.

It typically takes place in early September, so be sure to check the schedule in advance if you’re visiting during that time.

Explore the food scene at the Taste of Chicago

The Taste of Chicago is a food lover’s paradise, and it’s also one of the best free things to do in Chicago.

This massive food festival features dishes from some of the city’s most popular restaurants, as well as a wide range of food trucks and vendors.

It typically takes place in late June and early July and you can find pop-up spots and food trucks in Grant Park and all around the city.

Although admission to the event itself is free, you will need to buy food tickets if you want to try any of the dishes.

Even if you don’t want to eat, it’s still worth attending the event as you can enjoy the performances of local artists for free.

Free Things to do in Chicago in Winter

Visiting from Thanksgiving through to January?

The following fun free things to do in Chicago all kick off for Christmas.

Ice skate at Millennium Park

In the winter months, Chicago becomes a frozen wonderland with plenty of spots to go ice-skating.

One of the best things to do in Chicago in winter is to go ice skating at Millennium Park right next to the famous Bean!

The park’s massive ice skating rink is open from early November to early March, making it the perfect activity for a winter day in the city.

What’s more, admission to the rink is free if you bring your own skates.

If you don’t have your own, you can rent skates.

Admire the frozen Lake Michigan

Another great winter activity in Chicago is to admire the frozen Lake Michigan.

As the temperatures drop, the lake transforms into a giant sheet of ice that’s perfect for ice-skating, sledding, and more.

If you’re looking for a scenic spot to take photos, head to North Avenue Beach where you can get a great view of the city skyline.

What’s more, there are plenty of food trucks and vendors at North Avenue Beach, so you can easily make a day out of your visit to this frozen wonderland.

Walk along the lakefront trail

If you’re looking for a great place to take a winter walk, look no further than the lakefront trail.

This 18-mile trail stretches along the shore of Lake Michigan from north to south, making it the perfect spot to enjoy the views of the frozen lake.

The trail is also well-lit at night, so it’s a great place to go for a walk after dark.

Whether you’re looking for a romantic stroll or just want to get some fresh air, the lakefront trail is one of the best free things to do in Chicago in winter.

Go sledding at Soldier Field

If you’re looking for an adrenaline-filled activity in the winter months, look no further than Soldier Field!

The iconic stadium turns into a giant sledding hill in the winter, and it’s one of the best places to go for some fun.

The hill is open from late November to early March, and you can bring your own sled or rent one for $10-15.

Visit the Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza

The Christkindlmarket is a European-style Christmas market that takes over Daley Plaza in the months of November and December.

This market features a wide range of vendors selling everything from handmade gifts to traditional German food.

It’s the perfect place to do some holiday shopping or simply enjoy the festive atmosphere.

And best of all, admission to the market is completely free.

Read our Chicago in winter guide of more.

Chicago Christmas Winter December Skyline Snow

Affordable Accommodation in Chicago

Chicago is a city that’s known for its expensive hotels.

However, there are some affordable options available if you know where to look.

Here are some of the best affordable accommodations in Chicago:

Lush gardens and tower buildings at Museum Campus, Chicago

How to Get Around Chicago on a Budget

The best way to get around Chicago on a budget is to use public transport, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA).

Chicago has an excellent rail and bus network that covers the entire city, making it easy to travel anywhere you need to go.

To save even more money, you can purchase daily or weekly passes at a discounted rate.

In addition, there are many bike-sharing stations throughout the city, so you can easily rent a bike for a day or two.

If you’re looking to explore the city on your own, consider walking or taking advantage of the free shuttle buses that operate in many of Chicago’s popular tourist areas.

No matter how you choose to get around, there are plenty of ways to explore Chicago on a budget.

Conclusion

No matter what time of year you visit Chicago, there are plenty of free things to do in this bustling city.

Whether you want to go ice skating at Millennium Park, explore the Chicago Riverwalk or catch a free concert, you’re sure to find something to your taste.

This article should have given you a good start on planning your trip to Chicago, thanks to all of the fantastic free things it contains.

What are some of your favorite free things to do in Chicago? Let us know in the comments below!

Text free things to do in Chicago image shiny bean installation with people looking at it

About the Author

Kriszti is a Budapest-based travel blogger with a never-ending wanderlust who is passionate about content creation, travel photography, and discovering new destinations, one place at a time. Her goal is to help her readers turn their travel dreams into reality by sharing her practical travel tips and detailed travel guides on her blog, She Wanders Abroad.

Follow Kriszti on Instagram.

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