10 Free Things to Do in Chicago Year-Round

Photo courtesy of Photo by Jamie Bartosch
Photo courtesy of Photo courtesy of Choose Chicago
By Jacky Runice, Chicago Local Expert

When you see the price of admission to museums you'll be giad to know that most of our world-class museums offer free days - so check the web sites and plan your visit accordingly. 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 the City of Chicago's web site  and opt in for "Free, Free, Free," an e-newsletter with a monthly list of free 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. 

10. Chicago Riverwalk
Photo courtesy of Chicago DCASE

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, have a bite and drink in the city's distinctive architecture, watch boats float by, drop a line to fish off a pier, jog and stroll. The seasons bring interactive activities, art installations, live music and other unexpected happenings. It's comprised of 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, surrounded by floating gardens, is the place for Insta pics. Educate yourself about the canal system and engineering marvels in the Jetty area. 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 or rent a kayak right along the waterfront.

9. Smart Museum of Art
Photo courtesy of John Zich

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 such as the first U.S. exhibition of self-trained revolutionary artist, Tang Chang. Expect hands-on art-making programs for families and thought provoking lectures and symposia for adults, too.

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

The most popular exhibit every year at The National Museum of Mexican Art is the Day of the Dead display that dazzles adults and kids with gleaming altars, whimsical sugar skull sculptures and vivid art in various media all celebrating the dearly departed in weird, wonderful ways that are rarely grim. But wait- there's more! The accredited museum in Pilsen opens up Latino life and history via art all year long. The permanent collection, 10,000 objects strong, includes folk art, ephemera, sculpture, textiles and drawings. Live performances are regularly scheduled and the center hosts special events throughout the year. After visiting the Museum, opt to have some authentic Mexican food nearby since Pilsen is home to many Mexican restaurants and bakeries.

7. Chicago Cultural Center
Photo courtesy of Mr. T in DC

From 1897 to 1991, the magnificent building served as Chicago's first central public library dazzling visitors with access to knowledge but also two stunning stained-glass domes, intricate mosaics of Favrile glass, mother-of-pearl and colored stone, rich hardwoods and lovely staircases. Bookshelves have been replaced with free wonderful art exhibits, music, dance, theater, panel discussions, films, lectures and family events. It is, however, still home to the world's largest Tiffany stained-glass dome (restored to its original splendor in 2008) so you can get a taste of Chicago history, design (the Beaux Arts style was influenced by the buildings of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and its interior rooms were modeled on the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence and the Acropolis in Athens) as well as catch a noon-time jazz concert, see a Keith Haring exhibit or listen to a lecture about Nietzsche and human nature.

6. Millennium Park
Photo courtesy of Harold Rail

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 5-acre urban oasis.

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

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 will divide bike and pedestrian paths and is expected to be complete by the end of 2018.

4. Garfield Park Conservatory
Photo courtesy of mheisel

Designed by 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.

3. 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. 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.

2. Chicago Greeter
Photo courtesy of Choose Chicago

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 over a dozen languages, too.

1. Jay Pritzker Pavilion
Photo courtesy of Photo courtesy of Choose Chicago

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 and 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 venue also hosts eclectic activities like yoga sessions and outdoor film screenings.