Chicago skyline aerial drone view from above, lake Michigan and city of Chicago downtown skyscrapers cityscape, Illinois, USA
JaySi/istockphoto

12 Free or Cheap Things You Must Do in Chicago

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Chicago skyline aerial drone view from above, lake Michigan and city of Chicago downtown skyscrapers cityscape, Illinois, USA
JaySi/istockphoto

Cheap in Chicago

Exploring a new city these days isn’t cheap: There are vacation rentals to pay for, restaurants to explore, and museum fees to fork over. But every city — including Chicago — offers its locals and visitors options for free (or deeply discounted) fun, and we found more than a few activities in the Windy City that don’t require a chunk of change. From festivals to zoos to wine tastings, there are free or cheap things to do in Chicago, no matter the season.


Related: Free or Cheap Things to Do in New York City

People walk along the Lakefront trail in Chicago Illinois
Pgiam/istockphoto

Explore the Lakefront Trail

Whether you’re walking, biking, running, or rollerblading, traversing Chicago’s Lakefront Trail is a scenic way to explore where the city meets Lake Michigan. The 18-mile paved path stretches from Ardmore Street to 71st Street, and connects to a handful of outdoor destinations like South Shore Beach, Belmont Harbor, and Grant Park. Fuel up at a smattering of dining locations along the trail, including Caffe Olivia and Shore Club, then check out some of the trail’s adjacent attractions, like Navy Pier and the South Shore Cultural Center.


Related: The Best Lakes in All 50 States

National Musuem of Mexican Art
Phil B./Yelp

Visit a Museum or Two

Though there are plenty of museums in Chicago that offer free days, some are open to the public for free year-round. At the National Museum of Mexican Art, visitors can explore works by Frida Kahlo, Alfonso Castillo Orta, Francisco Flores, and others, in media that include paintings, photography, textiles, and film. The Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago boasts over 15,000 objects, including an outdoor sculpture garden highlighting works by Jene Highstein and Arnaldo Pomodoro. And at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art on the Northwestern University campus, visitors can take in exhibitions like “Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World,” and “A Site of Struggle: American Art against Anti-Black Violence.” 


Related: Must-Visit Food Museums Across America

Millennium Park
Gargolas/istock

Snap Some Photos in Millennium Park

Best known for Cloud Gate, the reflective sculpture most commonly referred to as “The Bean,” Millennium Park draws in tourists and locals alike. After snapping a few photos in front of the shiny art piece, stop by the Lurie Garden to check out what’s in bloom. Free concerts and outdoor movies are often held at Millennium Park’s Great Lawn in the summer, while the McCormick Tribune Plaza offers ice skating in the winter.


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Garfield Park Conservatory
Jemmie W./Yelp

Stop and Smell the Flowers at Garfield Park Conservatory

There are more than 2 acres of indoor displays and 10 acres of outdoor gardens to explore at Garfield Park Conservatory, a sprawling public attraction that is free year-round. Stroll around the City Garden, where you’ll find lily pools and aspen trees, or take a peek inside the Palm House, a tropical getaway that’s home to more than 70 palm varieties. At the Show House, annual flower shows are a vehicle for spectacular flowers to make their debut, while the Fern Room houses plants that nod to a prehistoric Chicago. 


Related: In Full Bloom: Gorgeous Botanical Gardens in All 50 States


Lincoln Park Zoo
Tellie N./Yelp

Get Wild at the Lincoln Park Zoo

Zoos aren’t for everyone, but if you have kiddos in tow and want to experience some wildlife in the heart of the city, head to the Lincoln Park Zoo. Admission is free, and with over 200 species of animals to admire, you could spend a whole day here. The zoo is home to aardvarks and African penguins, Madagascar tree boas and meerkats, and white-cheeked gibbons and wood turtles, and there are plenty of plants and gardens to explore as well. Check out the zoo’s events calendar to find out about goings-on each week, including wine tastings and zoo picnics.


Sunny summer afternoon along Chicago River riverwalk where people walk and relax while water taxi crosses river
Shelly Bychowski/istockphoto

Take in the Skyline From the Chicago Riverwalk

There are few places in the world where you can take a coffee break by a river while gazing up at the skyscrapers that surround you. The Chicago Riverwalk is the perfect place to do that: A 1.25-mile path that provides a front-row seat to the city’s stunning architecture. The Riverwalk is chock-full of public art, along with plenty of food and drink options that allow you to sip on beer, wine, coffee, and other beverages while people-watching along the Chicago River. Want to take in more views from the water? Hop on a boat cruise, rent kayaks, or fish for free from The Jetty (just make sure you have an Illinois fishing license). 


Chicago
400tmax/istockphoto

Look Up at the Chicago Cultural Center

Turn your gaze upward inside the Chicago Cultural Center, which draws in hundreds of thousands of visitors each year and is marked by two intricate stained-glass domes. Tours of the building are available on Thursdays and Fridays, along with gallery talks, lectures, and panel discussions — all free. All kinds of events happen throughout the year; wander in on any given day, and you may come across an orchestral concert or a touring artist exhibit. 


Group of people at a wine tasting in a winery while one woman is smelling the wine with eyes closed
andresr/istockphoto

Enjoy Free Wine Tastings Across the City

Sometimes wine just tastes better when it’s free. Create your own wine trail at bottle shops across Chicago that offer free or discounted tastings, like The Noble Grape (Wednesdays), Red & White Wines (Saturdays), and In Fine Spirits (various days). If you have a little more money to spend, there are more wine shops that offer flights and extensive wine tastings for a steeper fee. 


Reply Lincoln Park
Natalie J./Yelp

Get Your Game On at Replay Lincoln Park

A room full of free arcade games? Now that’s a solid way to spend an afternoon. Leave your quarters at home and head to Replay Lincoln Park, a Lake View bar where you can try your hand at Pac Man, Street Fighter II, and Donkey Kong, plus a slew of pinball favorites. When you need a break, sidle up to the bar for playfully named cocktails (think Chips Don’t Lie, a drink made with potato chip-infused vodka) and local beers. 


Related: 31 Bars With Arcades That Are Worth Your Quarters


Blues Fest Chicago
Jesse Z./Yelp

Attend a Festival

Some of the best fest festivals are free festivals, and Chicago has more than a few of them. The Chicago Blues Festival, which takes place throughout the city and in Millenium Park, showcases the best of blues (and celebrates the city as the genre’s birthplace). At the Grant Park Music Festival, free seating is available in the back half of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion Seating Bowl or on the lawn, where you can watch classic concerts during the summer series. Looking for something with a little more movement? The annual SummerDance series invites people to participate in dance lessons, watch professional dance performances, and listen to live music — all for free. 


Related: Great Summer Festivals in All 50 States


Hyde Park Art Center
Hyde Park Art Center/Yelp

Tap Into Your Creativity at the Hyde Park Art Center

At the Hyde Park Art Art Center, visitors are invited to attend artist workshops and talks, participate in art making and community collaborations, and tour open studios and exhibitions. In short: It’s all about creativity at this Chicago gathering spot. It’s also a place to catch some of Chicago’s up-and-coming contemporary artists before they hit it big. Read up on the center’s current exhibitions before you visit. 


Maxwell Street Market Chicago
Ernie H./Yelp

Score a Deal at the Maxwell Street Market

It isn’t free to shop at the Maxwell Street Market, of course, but it’s free to attend and you can do some haggling while you’re there. Get your shopping day started by eating some street food (Hello, Chicago hot dogs), then peruse the stalls of handmade crafts, home goods, clothing, records, produce, and more. You’ll always find some kind of live music, and the varied entertainment is great for children and adults alike.


Want to explore more cities on a budget? Check out exciting travel options on Cheapism.