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Free Things to Do in Chicago

10 free things to do in Chicago year-round


When you see the price of admission to museums you'll be glad to know that most of our world-class museums offer free days - so check the web sites and plan your visit accordingly. Then, there are those that are always free such as the National Museum of Mexican Art (reopens Sept., 2021) and the Smart Museum of Art. 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 and the Riverwalk just keeps on getting better with art installations, live music and nooks to hang out and watch the world go by. 

Book a Chicago Greeter and let them know what you’d like to see. They’re well-versed on Chicago’s history as well as its continuous progress and are happy to share their knowledge. 

No visit to Chicago is complete without a photo at Cloud Gate, aka The Bean, an undulating, shiny lump of cheer. 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. Across the street, the Chicago Cultural Center always programs free cutting edge art exhibitions and concerts. 

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

Go to Choose Chicago's web site and search "Free and Cheap Chicago" for a comprehensive list of free and low cost programs, events and activities happening throughout the city in museums, cultural centers and parks. Chicago is rich in history and culture but you don't have to be Warren Buffet or Jeff Bezos to enjoy it all. 


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Museum of Contemporary Photography
Photo courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Photography


The Museum of Contemporary Photography began its collection in the early 1980s and it now includes more than 16,000 objects by over 1,500 artists. Go beyond Ansel Adams and Diane Arbus at the leading photography museum in the Midwest. The museum continuously searches for new photographers so each visit is a revelation - that won't cost you a cent! In 2021, see "Much Unseen is Also Here," a show by two artists that includes large-scale views of places and people in the contemporary American landscape, and sculpture, drawings, and animation that examine representations of femininity prompted by who monuments historically depict. The Midwest Photographers Project is a revolving collection of portfolios by 72 established and emerging photographers from Illinois and neighboring states. The portfolios are loaned to the MoCP for three years. Consider taking a free docent-led museum tour or making an appointment to view works from the museum's collections.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The leading photography museum in the Midwest exhibits new national and international photographers - and entry is always free.

Jacky's expert tip: All visitors must make a reservation before visiting the museum. The MoCP is closed when Columbia College Chicago is closed, including all major holidays, and between exhibitions for installation. Be sure to check the homepage before your visit.

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The award-winning Chicago Riverwalk is a 1.25-mile promenade with opportunities to see art, hear music and people watch - all for free. Lounge on an Adirondack chair on the riverbank, drink in the city's distinctive architecture, watch boats float by, drop a line to fish off a pier, stroll. The seasons bring interactive activities, art installations, live music and other happenings. Enter at any major intersection and find six coves each with its own name, landscape and activities: The Marina; The Cove; The River Theater; The Water Plaza; The Jetty; and The Riverbank. Families should head to the sunny Water Plaza (LaSalle to Wells) where kids can frolic in water sprays and the Riverbank is the place for Insta pics. Choose any point on the map for a romantic date night stroll or if you have a few shekels, stop for a snack, beer or glass of wine.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Chicago's famous skyline creates an urban canyon that offers respite from traffic along with plenty of free activities.

Jacky's expert tip: The Marina area (State to Dearborn) may be the best place to snag seats for people watching and views of the Chicago River.

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No, it's not the University of Chicago waving its intellect at the rest of us (although it is on the campus), but rather this Hyde Park museum is named for brothers David and Alfred Smart, the original publishers of Esquire magazine. It just semantic serendipity that there are many very smart exhibits and programs at the free entry cultural institution. Among the collections, don't miss sculpture by Degas, Matisse and Rodin; Asian and European art; sleek furniture by Frank Lloyd Wright; and paintings and sculpture by Mark Rothko, Diego Rivera and Henry Moore. With over 15,000 objects, spanning five millennia of both Western and Eastern civilizations, Smart Museum also welcomes fantastic traveling exhibitions. Expect hands-on art-making programs for families and thought-provoking lectures and symposia for adults, too. Visit when the weather is cooperative and enjoy the outdoor sculpture garden featuring work by Scott Burton, Richard Hunt, and Arnaldo Pomodoro.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: A stop at the free Smart Museum of Art adds inspiration to a day exploring Hyde Park.

Jacky's expert tip: The museum reopens on April 8, 2021, and offers timed reservations to visit the special exhibition "Lust, Love, and Loss in Renaissance Europe."

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The 24.5-acre Millennium Park is one of the most extraordinary public spaces in the world, a stunning showcase for the visual and performing arts and a permanent homage to the vitality of our world-class city. The centerpiece of the park is the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion and there's not a chance you'll miss one of the world's largest outdoor sculptures by British artist Anish Kapoor - Cloud Gate - or the Crown Fountain designed by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa. The towers project video of faces of Chicago citizens on LED screens and water flows through an outlet in the screen to give the illusion of water spouting from their mouths. Be sure to admire Lurie Garden, a distinctive blend of spatial structure, plantings and lighting that's a five-acre urban oasis.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The park is the place to listen to free concerts, take a selfie at 'The Bean' or see perennials and prairie plantings at Lurie Garden.

Jacky's expert tip: The ice skating rink is open to the public and is free if you have your own skates.

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The Hyde Park Art Center has been the south side heart of contemporary arts and an incubation space for artists since 1939. The venue reopens in 2021 with a trio of exhibitions featuring established and emerging Chicago-based artists. See Cuts and Beats: Cecil McDonald, Jr., photomontages of manipulated historical images of Black artists (vintage sheet music covers, theater ads, and artist publicity photographs) with contemporary photographs taken by the artist himself in dance clubs around Chicago. Discover new artists the Ground Floor exhibit, an ongoing biennial exhibition and works in Next Window, Please! document the days between March and May of 2020 from the perspective of young Chicago artists. Upcoming exhibitions in 2021 include a major sculpture installation; a new series of large figurative paintings examining the service industry; a large-scale solo exhibition; and an installation of clay sculpture. There's always something new to see at this Hyde Park institution. Exhibition admission is free but advance registration is required.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Galleries at the free admission venue are full of new photography, painting, sculpture, sound and video works, much of it created during the pandemic.

Jacky's expert tip: Sure dining bets in Hyde Park include award-winning Virtue and the Caribbean-fusion menu (and 100 rums) at 14 Parish Restaurant & Rhum Bar.

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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; 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 warm weekends. Expect to slow down around Navy Pier, one of the most congested points on the trail. The Lakefront Trail Separation project divided bike and pedestrian paths in late 2018 so pedestrians and cyclists claim their own parts of the trail.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: One of Chicago's best free attractions, the 18.5 miles linear path hugs the lakefront and stretches from one part of the city to the other.

Jacky's expert tip: Metered parking is available at almost all of the parks along the trail.

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Designed by the renowned landscape architect, Jens Jensen, in 1906, the Conservatory is one of the world's largest indoor gardens, a respite of serenity, and it's also a great place for kids of all ages, too. Since the collection is constantly evolving with new specimens and hybrids, and the Show House changes several times a year, consider visiting more than once. Locals love lolling in the tropical Palm House or the Desert House especially in winter. The Elizabeth Morse Genius Children's Garden is open during normal hours where they can see larger-than-life-sized roots and seven-foot-tall seeds begging to be climbed. It's quite alright to touch the Sensitive Plant which cringes when touched and take a whiff of French Fry plants that may have them clamoring for a stop at McDonald's on the way home.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The third-largest garden under glass on the planet, Garfield Park Conservatory offers 12 acres of indoor and outdoor gardens.

Jacky's expert tip: The Spring Flower Show, Saturation, launches just as guests are welcomed back Feb. 27, 2021. All visits must be pre-booked in advance.

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Whether you've lived here since the first Mayor Daley was "the Boss" or you've just arrived from a small college to live in the big city, you'll have an enlightening time on a Chicago Greeter tour. Why did the Swedes settle in Andersonville and who this Anderson anyway? Tour the Old World neighborhood of Ukrainian Village filled with Eastern European restaurants and glorious churches like Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Cathedral which was designed by Louis Sullivan in 1899. The free, guided walks are led by local Chicagoans and the free, year-round service takes you to wherever your interests lie. See pubic art in Pilsen or learn about Lincoln Park. Greeter visits are offered in 10 languages and cover over 25 neighborhoods and 40 interest areas. Register at least 10 business days in advance for a free 2-4 hour guided visit of Chicago.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Visitors can tour the city like a local, with a local, for free.

Jacky's expert tip: The free Chicago Greeter program starts back up in spring, 2021. Just check the website when you register.

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There's an eclectic mix of live music performed on the Frank Gehry designed outdoor Jay Pritzker Pavilion from cutting-edge indie rock to Pacific Afro Colombian. Lawn seating is free, but don't worry about being too far from the stage. The proscenium bandshell is one of the world's most state-of-the-art outdoor music pavilions with spirals of stainless steel. It is the most sophisticated outdoor concert venue of its kind in the country. Pack a picnic and open your ears for the Grant Park Music Festival, the only remaining free outdoor classical music series in the nation. The Millennium Park Summer Music Series features free weekly concerts and the venue also hosts activities like yoga sessions and outdoor film screenings.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: It's a beautiful outdoor concert venue in downtown Chicago, and most of the shows are free.

Jacky's expert tip: Check the schedule because you might be able to see world-renowned acts like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or the Grant Park Music Festival at no charge.

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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. See a white blotched river stingray in a rainforest habitat; a dynamic, new exhibit home to African penguins; snap a selfie at the swan pond; and then there are the elephants, giraffes, sea lions, gorillas and reptiles. The Zoo is open 365 days a year and constantly hosts events and activities. Check the website for announcements on newborns - always a treat.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The free zoo, open every day of the year, is in a picturesque setting with lush lawns and award-winning habitats.

Jacky's expert tip: The zoo, reopening March 5, 2021, has free admission year-round but you must book in advance.

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Meet Jacky Runice

Born in Bucktown when bulletproof was a home safety choice and not a coffee order, Jacky Runice has been knocking around Chicago as a professional print, online and broadcast journalist and...  More About Jacky

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