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 strolling 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, with free concerts and performances to enjoy.

Plus, Chicago’s location on Lake Michigan in Illinois means plenty of opportunities for swimming, tanning, and enjoying the fresh air.

So whether you’re a visitor or a local, 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

With parks, beaches, and rivers, Chicago has lots of outdoor space that can be enjoyed free of charge.

Spend a Day at One of Chicago’s 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.

You will find it in Chicago, no matter what kind of park you’re looking for.

If you love seasonal changes, consider Chicago during fall to see the parks change color.

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 comprises 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 Museum Campus offers.

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

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

Aldern Platetariuam is also featured in our guide to date nights in Chicago.

Take a Stroll Along the Magnificent Mile

The Magnificent Mile is one of Chicago’s most popular tourist destinations and for a 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 will be staying somewhere close anyway.

The Magnificent Mile is worth checking out even if you’re not looking to spend money.

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 must check out North Avenue Beach.

This lakefront spot offers stunning skyline views, 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 stroll, people-watch, or 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 Chicago’s most unique structures.

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

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 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 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 also enjoy a light and music display on the fountain.

The fountain typically runs from mid-April to mid-October, so if you happen to be visiting in the summer, 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; there’s plenty to do along the way.

You can ride the Ferris wheel, cruise on the lake, or 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.

Free Indoor Things to Do in Chicago

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

Chicago is a 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 worldwide, 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 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 is completely free to visit.

Located in the heart of downtown Chicago, this cultural center is home to numerous exhibits, art displays from local artists, and 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 on Michigan Avenue.

The gallery features rotating exhibits from local artists and is 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 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, exhibits, and 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, 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 has several permanent and rotating exhibits showcasing Mexican culture, from paintings and pottery to textiles, jewelry, and dance performances.

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

Whether you’re a history buff or 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 offers.

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 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 several 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 several iconic skyscrapers; many have observation decks or viewing areas on their top floors.

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.

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

Tickets to 360 Chicago are slightly cheaper than the Skydeck at Willis Tower.

Children under three 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 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.

This cruise’s ticket is $25 per person, making it a great option for families or groups looking for a cheap activity in Chicago.

Moreover, the cruise has indoor and outdoor decks so that 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.

If you want something to do in the evening, 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 music you’re into, you’re sure to find a free concert or performance 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 annually, this festival features a wide range of jazz performers worldwide.

It typically takes place in early September, so check the schedule 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 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 and 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 is free, you must 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 winter, Chicago becomes a frozen wonderland with plenty of spots to go ice skating.

One of the best things to do in winte is ice skating at Millennium Park, 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.

Moreover, admission to the rink is free if you bring your skates.

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

Admire the Frozen Lake Michigan

They don’t call it Chiberia for nothing!

As the temperatures drop, the lake transforms into a giant ice sheet.

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.

Moreover, there are plenty of food trucks and vendors at North Avenue Beach, so you can easily make a day out of visiting 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 walk after dark.

Whether you’re looking for a romantic stroll or 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 fun.

The hill is open from late November to early March, and you can bring your sled or rent one.

Visit the Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza

The Christkindlmarket is a European-style Christmas market that takes over Daley Plaza in 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 for more.

Chicago Christmas Winter December Skyline Snow

Affordable Accommodation in Chicago

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

However, some affordable options are 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 covering the entire city, making it easy to travel anywhere you need.

You can purchase daily or weekly passes at a discounted rate to save even more money.

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 want to explore the city on your own, consider walking or taking advantage of the free shuttle buses in many of Chicago’s popular tourist areas.

No matter how you get around, many ways exist to explore Chicago on a budget.

Final Words

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 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, 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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