10 Free Things to Do in Chicago Year-Round

Photo courtesy of Photo by Jamie Bartosch
By Megy Karydes

Architectural tours, brewery tours, parks and zoos…for free? In Chicago? Not only are they free, many Chicago cultural institutions, restaurants, hotels and a range of companies offer free amenities to both locals and visitors alike.

Looking for a place that offers free happy hour? Ask a local. Want to visit one of our many world-class museums? Almost all of them offer free days. Want to enjoy a scenic path for your morning run? Chicago’s Lakefront Trail can’t be beat. Ice skating is free during the winter at Millennium Park.

For those visiting Chicago, book a Chicago Greeter (for free, of course) and let them know what you’d like to see. They’re well-versed on Chicago’s history, past and present, and are happy to share their knowledge with you.

No visit to Chicago is complete without a photo with Cloud Gate, affectionately called The Bean by locals. Located at Millennium Park, the park also features free live music just east of the park at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion during the summer months.

The Lincoln Park Zoo, just a few miles north of downtown, is free 365 days a year while the Garfield Park Conservatory offers a beautiful respite just west of the Loop.

Decide what you most want to see when you visit and then use our guide to help you plan. Chicago may be rich in history but it can also be very inexpensive to enjoy.

10. Navy Pier
Photo courtesy of jlwelsh

Since 1916, Navy Pier has been home not only to the military but to scores of special attractions. Now purely commercial, the Pier offers everything from an IMAX theater to performances by a Shakespeare troupe. You can view dancing in a grand ballroom, ride the splendor of a fifteen-story Ferris Wheel (a replica of the one at Chicago's 1893 World's Fair), or relax to the sounds of waves quietly lapping on the lakeshore. The Chicago Children's Museum is on the second floor and there are dining options on the premises. A series of special events happen throughout the year including seasonal celebrations, festivals and cultural events to public shows in the exhibition hall space. The website has an up-to-date calendar worth checking out in advance of a visit.

9. Revolution Brewery
Photo courtesy of Revolution Brewery

Want to drink some free beer? And do a free brewery tour? Revolution Brewery offers complimentary tours for those 21 and up on a first come, first serve basis, usually on Wednesday through Friday evenings and on Saturday and Sunday afternoons (see website for tour days and hours). The brewery does not accept reservations and space is limited to 30 people. It's recommended you arrive early, put your name on the list and enjoy a pint at the bar until the tour begins. Tours last about 45 minutes and include a tasting of when of their beers at the end.

8. Ping Tom Memorial Park
Photo courtesy of © City of Chicago

To find Ping Tom Memorial Park, which can be tricky. In fact, most Chicagoans couldn't point it on a map. Take a water taxi since Chinatown is a stop and it lets you out at Ping Tom Memorial Park. If you're driving or walking, cross the railroad tracks at W.19th Street, turn right on S. Wells Street and continue onto China Place (it's behind Chinatown Square). The entrance (and exit) to the park can sometimes get blocked by trains on the railroad tracks that run across the entrance and you may be waiting a good 20 minutes for the trains to pass. Named after Ping Tom, a Chinese American businessman and civic leader who was a driving force behind this park, it's a beautiful, quiet park. A Pagoda serves as the centerpiece and a circular playground makes it easy for parents to keep a watchful eye over their children.

7. National Museum of Mexican Art
Photo courtesy of National Museum of Mexican Art

This accredited museum in the Pilsen area is dedicated to preserving and facilitating knowledge about Latino life and history. Exhibits focus on Mexican culture as it's represented in the US and in Mexico, and the permanent collection includes folk art, ephemera, sculpture, textiles and drawings. Performing arts are also featured and the center hosts special events throughout the year to advance the museum's objectives. The Museum proudly houses more than 7,000 objects and its permanent collection is one of the largest of Mexican art in the country. After visiting the Museum, opt to have some authentic Mexican food nearby since Pilsen in loaded with great Mexican restaurants and bakeries.

6. Lurie Garden

Lurie Garden is a five-acre garden where every season is represented since it sits in the shadow the city's towering skyscrapers, Millennium Park and Lake Michigan. Visitors can pass a fifteen-foot high hedge on either side to enter and feel engulfed in the beauty of the perennial garden. A hardwood footbridge over shallow water lets passerby take their time and soak in the beauty that surrounds them, both the industrial steel buildings and the delicate gardens among them. Seasonal tours are offered on Thursday, Fridays and Sundays through mid-September but the gardens are open year-round for anyone to enjoy at any time. A number of free events are offered throughout the year.

5. Millennium Park
Photo courtesy of © Cesar Russ Photography

Millennium Park is Chicago's crown jewel. With the change of seasons, the park attracts thousands every day. Summertime means a stellar line-up of concerts at Jay Pritzker Pavilion (during the day, on most Tuesdays through Fridays, the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus can be heard for free in the Pavilion as musicians rehearse for upcoming concerts). Winter brings out the ice-skating rink and Christmas lights. Get a picture with the Cloud Gate sculpture, or 'The Bean' as we call it in Chicago and at Crown Fountain, two 50-foot glass block towers at each end of a shallow reflecting pool. The towers project video of faces of Chicago citizens on LED screens and having water flow through an outlet in the screen to give the illusion of water spouting from their mouths. At the southern tip is Lurie Garden, a 5-acre urban oasis featuring perennials, bulbs, grasses, shrubs and trees.

4. Chicago Lakefront Trail
Photo courtesy of Photo by Jamie Bartosch

The city really comes alive when the weather warms up enough for its residents to hit the Lakefront Path. Located east of Lake Shore Drive, the Lakefront Trail is an 18.5 mile linear path that stretches from the far north part of the city to the south side. Neighborhoods dot the path as well as notable cultural landmarks including the Museum of Science and Industry; the Field Museum of Natural History; Shedd Aquarium; Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum; the Chicago Children's Museum; the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum; Lincoln Park Zoo, and the South Shore Cultural Center. The paved path is very popular among walkers, joggers and bicyclists and it will and does get crowded during the warm weekends. Expect to slow down around Navy Pier, one of the most congested points on the trail. Still, the Lakefront Path is one of Chicago's best and free sightseeing attractions.

3. Garfield Park Conservatory
Photo courtesy of Garfield Park Conservatory

A serene, tranquil setting is the trademark of one of the world's largest indoor gardens but it's also a great place for kids of all ages, too. The Elizabeth Morse Genius Children's Garden is open during normal hours. As kids enter the garden they are greeted by a giant, meandering vine with larger-than-life sized roots. A 7-foot-tall seed begs to be climbed (climbing is encouraged) and kids love to touch the Sensitive Plant which is so shy it cringes when touched. Another favorite is the Balsa Tree which emits a hollow sound when its trunk is tapped. The youngest set have their own place to explore colors and textures of soft-form blocks and play rings in the special permanent Crawling Area.

2. Lincoln Park Zoo
Photo courtesy of grendelkhan

An ape house, a birdhouse and a working model of a five-acre Midwestern farm are just a few examples of what makes this zoo special. Founded in 1868 and known as America's oldest free public zoo, the Lincoln Park Zoo still manages to charge no admission and remains open year-round. Set on scenic park grounds with lush lawns and pleasant walkways, the zoo greets visitors with the beauty of Georgian Revival buildings and a spectacular greenhouse. Prominent zoo residents include elephants, giraffes, sea lions, gorillas, reptiles and an endangered Siberian tiger. The Zoo is open 365 days a year and constantly hosts events and activities.

1. Chicago Greeter
Photo courtesy of Choose Chicago

Want to explore Chicago like a local? Chicago's Greeter program pairs visitors with a free tour guide who can take you to any of the 25 city neighborhoods or 40 attractions, depending on you and your group's interests. Each guide can accommodate up to 6 guests so it's a pretty intimate and customized tour. Registration requires a 10 day advance notice. For those who can't (or didn't) commit that early, on-the-spot InstaGreeters provide hour-long guided tours around the downtown area and leave every half hour beginning at 10am , last walk at 3pm Friday, Saturday and Sundays 11am-2pm. Pick up locations for those walks are at the Chicago Cultural Center and Millennium Park.