There are so many free things to do in Chicago, you’d need months to do them all! Here’s the lowdown on free museums, free guided tours, and free things to do with kids in Chicago.
Chicago is home to incredible architecture, world-class art collections, vibrant neighborhoods, and a surprising variety of outdoor activities (yes, even in the wintertime). Chicago also boasts so many free activities and attractions that even the most ambitious traveler would have a hard time hitting them all in one visit—so bookmark this list for your next trip.
Free Museums, Art, and Culture in Chicago
Chicago Architecture Foundation: Interested in the rich architectural history that helped put Chicago on the map? The Chicago Architecture Foundation welcomes visitors with free historical exhibits and programs, many of which are kid-friendly, including a cool replica of all of downtown Chicago. For more information, visit Architecture.org.
Chicago Cultural Center: The Chicago Cultural Center houses a variety of cultural and historical exhibits, and hosts free cultural events all year long. For more information, visit CityofChicago.org.
DuSable Museum of African American History: This progressive museum showcases immersive multimedia exhibitions on every aspect of African American history, and offers free admission on Sundays. For more information, visit DuSableMuseum.org.
First Friday Art Open House at the Flatiron Arts Building: Wicker Park’s Flatiron Arts Building is the studio home of dozens of working artists, who open their doors the first Friday of each month for an evening of performances, open studios, and art exploration. For more information, visit FlatironArtsBuilding.com.
Jane Addams Hull-House Museum: The research home of Jane Addams (the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize) is now a vibrant and fascinating museum and research center, free to the public. For more information, visit HullHouseMuseum.org.
McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum: The Chicago River runs through the heart of the city (and on St. Patrick’s Day, it famously runs green). Learn about the city’s river and its moving bridges at the McCormick Bridgehouse and Chicago River Museum, which is free on Sundays (kids 5 and under are always free). For more information, visit BridgehouseMuseum.org.
Museum of Contemporary Photography: Columbia College Chicago houses the best collection of contemporary photography in the city, and is totally free. (Note that the museum is closed whenever Columbia College is not in session, so check their hours before you go.) For more information, visit MOCP.org.
National Museum of Mexican Art: Packed with incredible artworks and home to some super-cool cultural events (like a Day of the Dead ball), this museum in the Pilsen neighborhood is always free. For more information, visit NationalMuseumofMexicanArt.org.
The Driehaus Gallery of Stained Glass on Navy Pier: This stained glass museum makes a serene change of pace from the crowds on Navy Pier, and it’s one of the few attractions on Navy Pier that are actually free. For more information, visit DrieHausMuseum.org.
The Smart Museum: This small-but-mighty museum at the University of Chicago is home to a thought-provoking collection of modern, contemporary and ancient art, and is always free. For more information, visit SmartMuseum.UChicago.edu.
The City Gallery in the Historic Water Tower: Tucked away inside this landmark structure on the Magnificent Mile (built in the nineteenth century as part of the city’s municipal water system) is a free mini-museum that spotlights the work of notable Chicagoans. For more information, visit CityofChicago.org.
Free Visitor Tours of Chicago
Chicago Greeters: If you don’t know a local to show you around town, Chicago Greeter may be the next best thing. This free program matches you with a volunteer tour guide for a 2-4 hour guided visit of the city, based on your interests and their expertise. For more information, visit ChicagoGreeter.com.
Free Tours by Foot: If you prefer walking tours with a group (the more the merrier), Free Tours by Foot offers a variety of free Chicago group walking tours. For more information, visit FreeToursbyFoot.com.
Free Music and Comedy in Chicago
Free Concerts at Jay Pritzker Pavilion: The beautiful Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park hosts a variety of music festivals and concerts, including the Grant Park Music Festival, which runs spring to fall and is free. For more information, visit GrantParkMusicFestival.com.
Free Improv at Second City: The world-famous comedy workshop offers free improv shows after the regular nightly performances every day except Fridays. For more information, visit SecondCity.com.
Free Improv at Quenchers: The popular pub and event space in Logan Square hosts free improv comedy shows every Monday night. For more information, visit Quenchers.com.
Free Live Music at JBTV: The acclaimed 24-7 live music program, which helped make bands like No Doubt, Smashing Pumpkins, and Green Day famous, hosts live free studio tapings featuring a variety of up-and-coming musical acts for rock lovers aged 18 and up. For more information, visit JBTVMusic.com.
Free Parks and Outdoor Activities in Chicago
Chicago Botanic Garden: Located 20 miles north of the city in Glencoe, the lovely Chicago Botanic Garden offers is close to the Braeside station on the Metra, the Chicago area’s light rail system, and is free every day. For more information, visit ChicagoBotanic.org.
Garfield Park Conservatory: Lush greenhouses and outdoor gardens—plus kids’ activities and innovative landscape art installations—make the Garfield Park Conservatory a must-visit in any season. Bonus: It’s totally free, 365 days a year. For more information, visit GarfieldConservatory.org.
Humboldt Park: Humboldt Park, located west of downtown in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, is perhaps best known for its landmark brick field house, its prairie lagoons, and for the annual Puerto Rican Day Festival and People’s Parade held here each summer.
Ice Skating: If you bring your own skates, you can ice skate for free at the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink in Millennium Park, or at the Skating Ribbon in Maggie Daley Park, which lets you skate along a winding ice lane with the city skyline in the background, rather than just around a rink in circles.
Lakefront Trail: Walk a section of the city’s beautiful 18-mile Lakefront Trail and take in the people-watching and the waves off Lake Michigan. The trail passes a number of the city’s biggest draws, including Lincoln Park, Soldier Field, Navy Pier, and the Museum of Science and Industry.
Lincoln Park: Located in the heart of Chicago’s North Side near the lakeshore, Lincoln Park is home to the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Lincoln Park Conservatory, and a nature museum, as well as 1,200 acres of shady trails and beaches.
Lincoln Park Zoo: The beloved urban zoo is free every day of the year, and offers plenty of free activities and events. For more information, visit LPZoo.org.
Millennium Park: Most visitors to Chicago make time for a photograph next to Cloud Gate, the silver “bean” sculpture that Millennium Park is best-known for. But you could easily spend a day exploring this sprawling downtown park complex, which includes an ice rink, a theater, art exhibits and family programs, the tranquil Lurie Garden, and the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, which hosts free events and concerts from spring through fall. For more information, visit millenniumpark.org.
Public Beaches: Take a dip in clear, cool Lake Michigan waters at any one of Chicago’s many public beaches, all free and open to the public. The most popular beaches are the North Avenue Beach and the 63rd Street Beach.
Free Activities for Kids in Chicago
Free Children’s Admission at the Art Institute: Children under 14 are always free at the Art Institute of Chicago in Grant Park. For more information, visit ArtIC.edu.
Buckingham Fountain: The iconic fountain in Grant Park does a fun water display every hour on the hour from mid-April to mid-October.
Free Nights at the Chicago Children’s Museum: Visit the Chicago Children’s Museum free on Free Family Nights, Thursdays from 5-8 pm. Children under 15 are also free the first Sunday of every month. For more information, visit ChicagoChildrensMuseum.org.
Free Children’s Admission at the Chicago History Museum: Children under 12 are always free at the Chicago History Museum. For more information, visit ChicagoHistory.org.
Lincoln Park Zoo: This beloved urban zoo, with daily activities, a carousel, and a variety of wildlife from antelopes to zebras, is free every day of the year. For more information, visit LPZoo.org.
Free Outdoor Movies: The Chicago Park District screens a variety of free outdoor movies at parks across the city in the summertime. For more information, visit ChicagoParkDistrict.com.
Navy Pier Fireworks: On Wednesday and Saturday nights in the summer, Navy Pier puts on an impressive fireworks show, best viewed from the lakeshore where you can catch its reflection in the waters of Lake Michigan.
Free Food and Drink in Chicago
Free Admission to Taste of Chicago: While food and beverage tickets are $8.50 for 12, you can get through the gates to the huge annual summertime extravaganza that is Taste of Chicago for free. While you’re there, you can check out a day’s worth of concerts, since the festival pulls in musical acts and other events. For more information visit TasteofChicago.us.
Free Festivals and Events in Chicago
Chicago is a town that loves a good neighborhood party. Every year there are over 400 neighborhood festivals, all free—find out where there’s a neighborhood party happening during your visit at the City of Chicago’s events calendar.
Throughout the year, you’ll find a variety of free art and music festivals all over town. The biggest and best-known include:
Chicago Blues Festival (June)
Grant Park Music Festival (June-August)
SummerDance in Grant Park (June-September)
Chicago Jazz Festival (September)
World Music Festival (September)
Open House Chicago (October)
Lights Festival on the Magnificent Mile (November)
Christkindl Holiday Market at Daley Plaza (November-January)
Free for Illinois Residents
The Art Institute of Chicago is free to Illinois residents every Thursday from 5-8 pm and also offers discounted admission to Chicago and Illinois residents every day. Children under 14 are always free, and certain public areas of the museum are also open to the public free of charge.
The Museum of Contemporary Art is free on Tuesdays for Illinois residents year round.
The Chicago History Museum offers free admission for Illinois residents on select days throughout the year.
The Museum of Science and Industry offers free admission for Illinois residents 52 days of each year, and Illinois teachers, active military, firefighters, and police are always free.
Shedd Aquarium offers several free days for Illinois residents each month, plus discounts and free passes for Illinois teachers, active military, firefighters, and police.
At the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Lincoln Park, Thursdays are suggested admission only days for Illinois residents year round.