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12 Best Free Things To Do In Chicago

Welcome to Chicago, a city brimming with free attractions and events for visitors of all ages! From iconic landmarks like the Bean at Millennium Park to the vibrant music scene at the Chicago Blues Festival, the Windy City offers countless opportunities for exploration without spending a dime.

Aerial view of Chicago
(Photo courtesy of WTTW)

In this guide, I’ll take you through unforgettable free things to do in Chicago, including attractions, cultural experiences, outdoor activities, live music, and entertainment options, and budget-friendly tips to make your Chicago adventure truly memorable.

An aerial view of a cafe in Chicago
3 Arts Club Cafe (Photo courtesy of

So, let’s dive into the world of free things to do in Chicago!

1. Millennium Park: The Bean and More

A trip to Chicago would be incomplete without a visit to Millennium Park, a must-see destination that showcases the city’s love for art, nature, and architecture. At the heart of the park lies the iconic Bean sculpture, formally known as Cloud Gate. This massive 110-ton reflective marvel has become a symbol of the city, attracting millions of visitors each year. But the Bean is just the beginning! The park also features the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Crown Fountain, and the serene Lurie Garden. With a beautiful view of the Chicago skyline, Millennium Park is truly an urban oasis.

The bean in Chicago
(Photo courtesy of Choose Chicago)

During the summer months, Millennium Park comes alive with free events, such as movie screenings, concerts, and even workouts. For a different perspective of the city, explore the nearby Chicago River and Chicago Riverwalk, offering additional free activities and stunning views. I especially enjoy the Chicago Riverwalk at night when the heat of the day has died down. Given the multitude of sights and activities, Millennium Park stands as a place you must visit when in Chicago. It is one of my favorite places to visit.

2. Lincoln Park Zoo

Another fantastic free attraction in Chicago is the Lincoln Park Zoo, home to over 200 species of animals. This beloved zoo offers visitors a chance to explore its exhibits, take guided tours, and attend special events, all without an entrance fee. To avoid the biggest crowds, plan your visit early when the zoo opens. The gates to the Zoo open at 8 am and the buildings open at 10 am.

Lincoln Park Zoo with crowd and lions
(Photo courtesy of WTTW)

Throughout the year, Lincoln Park Zoo hosts a full calendar of family-friendly events and festivals, such as the famous Zoo Lights during the holiday season. Boasting a varied collection of animals and engaging activities, the Lincoln Park Zoo continues to be a favorite spot for both residents and visitors. Just a short distance away, you can also find the Lincoln Park Conservatory, another popular attraction in the area.

3. Navy Pier

Navy Pier is a popular destination that buzzes with activity, offering a diverse range of:

  • shops
  • restaurants
  • amusement rides
  • cultural attractions

Set against the stunning backdrop of Lake Michigan, the pier provides breathtaking views and unforgettable experiences for all ages. Hop on a trolley ride, watch the fireworks, or listen to free concerts during your visit.

Ferris wheel and giant swings
(Photo courtesy of Choose Chicago)

For a dose of culture, I like to visit the nearby National Museum of Mexican Art it offers free admission, showcasing the rich heritage of Chicago’s Mexican community. Given its wide array of experiences, Navy Pier stands as a remarkable highlight among Chicago’s no-cost attractions.

4. Chicago Cultural Center

The Chicago Cultural Center is a historic building located in the heart of downtown Chicago. Its stunning architecture and ornate interiors make it a must-see destination for art lovers and history buffs.

Chicago Cultural Center roof
(Photo courtesy of Choose Chicago)

The center offers free art exhibitions, performances, and classes throughout the year, providing a space for visitors to experience the city’s thriving arts scene. In addition to its visual arts programming, the center hosts free classical concerts, showcasing local and international talent. Another remarkable institution contributing to the city’s vibrant arts community is the Hyde Park Art Center.

Whether you’re an art enthusiast or simply looking for a unique cultural experience, the Chicago Cultural Center is an essential stop on your exploration of the Windy City.

5. Smart Museum of Art

The Smart Museum of Art, located on the University of Chicago campus, offers:

  • Free admission
  • A diverse collection of ancient and contemporary artworks from around the world
  • Masterpieces by Goya, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Picasso
  • Thought-provoking exhibitions and classes
Art museum with white walls
(Photo courtesy of UChicago)

With its impressive collection and commitment to accessibility, the Smart Museum of Art is a must-visit destination for art lovers and curious minds alike.

Note: The Smart Museum of Art is temporarily closed for the Summer of 2024 as they are preparing for their 50th anniversary. They are expected to reopen in the Fall of 2024.

6. National Veterans Art Museum

The National Veterans Art Museum (NVAM) in Chicago is national museum dedicated to displaying artwork created by veterans, providing a unique perspective on the experiences of those who have served in the military. Founded in 1981 by Vietnam veterans, the museum was originally known as the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum. It has since broadened its scope to include works by veterans of all conflicts.

An exhibit featuring a mass pile of bones and skulls
Jim Leedy. “The Earth Lies Screaming,” mixed media and found objects, 1999 (Photo courtesy of

The NVAM houses a diverse collection of over 2,500 works, including paintings, sculptures, photography, and other mediums. The pieces explore themes such as the trauma of war, the journey of reintegration into civilian life, and the personal and collective memories of military service. The museum aims to foster understanding and dialogue between veterans and the public, highlighting the impact of war on individuals and society. As always, a big thank you to our vets for their service.

Note: The Veterans Art Museum is temporarily closed as they are adding a new exhibit, they are expected to reopen on July 1, 2024.

7. Poetry Foundation

The Poetry Foundation, located in downtown Chicago, is a cultural center dedicated to celebrating and promoting the art of poetry. It offers:

  • Free poetry exhibitions
  • Readings
  • Workshops
  • Classes

The foundation provides a space for seasoned poets and newcomers alike to explore the power and beauty of language.

Bookshelves lining the walls
(Photo courtesy of

Whether you’re a lifelong poetry fan or simply looking for a new cultural experience, the Poetry Foundation is a valuable resource and inspiring destination in the city.

8. Lakefront Trail

The Lakefront Trail is an 18-mile scenic path along the shores of Lake Michigan, perfect for walking, running, or biking while taking in the city’s beautiful skyline. The trail offers stunning views of the lake and city, connecting popular attractions such as Millennium Park, Navy Pier, and North Avenue Beach. Regardless of whether you’re a fitness buff or just seeking a relaxing walk, the Lakefront Trail has one of my favorite views of the city.

Aerial view of Lakefront Trail with water
(Photo courtesy of

For a convenient and affordable way to explore the trail, consider renting a Divvy bike from one of the many rental stations located throughout the city. With easy access to the trail and various neighborhoods, Divvy bikes offer a fun and flexible way to experience Chicago’s scenic beauty.

9. The 606

The 606 is a unique elevated trail connecting several Chicago neighborhoods, offering a great space for walking, running, or biking amidst urban art. Stretching 2.7 miles, this innovative park trail was constructed on a former railroad line and now links Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Wicker Park, and Bucktown.

A walking trail in Chicago while sunsets
(Photo courtesy of

One of my favorite things about The 606 is that it was originally a railway line that ran through the city. They took what was originally just an eyesore and turned it into a beautiful trail.

As you explore The 606, you’ll discover vibrant murals, sculptures, and gardens that celebrate the city’s creativity and community spirit. Whether you’re in search of a fresh running path or a relaxed walk through the core of Chicago, The 606 is an attraction you should not miss.

10. Maggie Daley Park

The Maggie Daley Park is a family-friendly park located in downtown Chicago. It features:

  • Play spaces inspired by classic children’s tales
  • A climbing wall
  • Mini-golf
  • A unique skating ribbon

Featuring a playful design and a variety of activities, the park guarantees limitless enjoyment for guests of all age groups.

An elaborate playground in Chicago
(Photo courtesy of

During the summer months, the park hosts free outdoor movie screenings as part of the Movies in the Parks series, offering a fun and relaxing way to enjoy an evening under the stars. With its wide array of attractions and activities, Maggie Daley Park is a must-visit destination for families and adventure-seekers alike.

11. Seasonal Free Entertainment

Chicago boasts a vibrant music and entertainment scene, with free events and performances happening throughout the year. The Grant Park and Chicago Blues Music Festivals and various Movies in the Parks, demonstrate the city’s varied and flourishing arts community.

Grant Park Music Festival

The Grant Park Music Festival is a free summer event featuring classical music performances in the heart of downtown Chicago. Held at the iconic Millennium Park, this annual festival showcases talented musicians from around the world, offering a unique opportunity to experience exquisite free live music performances under the stars.

Music festival in Chicago with large crowd
(Photo courtesy of Grant Park Music Festival’s Facebook Page)

With a full schedule of concerts and events at the Garfield Park Conservatory, the Grant Park Music Festival is a must-see for music enthusiasts and those seeking a memorable night in the city.

Chicago Blues Festival

The Chicago Blues Festival is a free annual event celebrating the city’s rich musical heritage and its connection to the blues. Featuring local and international blues artists, the festival offers an unparalleled opportunity to experience the soulful sounds of this iconic genre.

a singer with a guitar singing on stage
(Photo courtesy of

Held in June, the festival draws blues enthusiasts from around the world, eager to witness incredible live performances and immerse themselves in the city’s vibrant music scene. Don’t miss this unforgettable celebration of Chicago’s blues legacy! But before you go, check out the classic movie The Blues Brothers, which also blends the blues and Chicago.

Movies in the Parks

And speaking of movies, Movies in the Parks is a free summer series offering outdoor movie screenings in parks across Chicago. From family-friendly favorites to classic films, these events provide a fun and relaxing way to spend an evening under the stars. Pack a picnic, grab a blanket, and enjoy a movie night in the city’s beautiful parks.

A crowd awaiting a movie in a park
(Photo courtesy of

With showings scheduled throughout the summer, Movies in the Parks is an event film aficionados and families must experience.

Free Museum Days

Many Chicago museums offer free admission days for residents and visitors alike, allowing you to explore the city’s rich history and culture without spending a fortune. Institutions such as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago History Museum feature free admission days throughout the year, providing an excellent opportunity to experience world-class exhibitions and collections.

A statue of a lion outside of a building
Art Institute of Chicago (Photo courtesy of

Scheduling your visit to coincide with these free admission days allows you to take in the city’s varied museums and cultural centers without straining your budget.

12. Chicago Greeter Tours

Chicago Greeter Tours are:

  • Free
  • Customizable tours led by local volunteers
  • A unique insight into the city’s diverse neighborhoods
  • A great way to learn about Chicago’s history, culture, and hidden gems
  • An excellent way to connect with locals who are passionate about sharing their love for the city
three people looking at a fountain
(Photo courtesy of

To participate in a Chicago Greeter Tour, you can easily request a tour online or get in touch with the Chicago Greeter office directly. With a variety of themes and neighborhoods to choose from, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of the city from a local’s perspective.


In conclusion, Chicago offers a wealth of free attractions, cultural experiences, outdoor activities, and entertainment options for visitors of all ages and interests. From the iconic Bean at Millennium Park to the vibrant blues scene at the Chicago Blues Festival, there’s no shortage of unforgettable experiences to be had in the Windy City.

Chicago street with high buildings
(Photo courtesy of Bloomberg)

With a little planning and these free things to do in Chicago, you can make the most of your Chicago adventure without breaking the bank. So why wait? Start exploring the amazing sights and sounds of Chicago totally free, today!

The bean in chicago reflecting the city skyline
(Photo courtesy of

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“How boring would the world be if everywhere and everyone were the same. Safe travels and good adventures.” Scuba Jay

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