Chicago has a never ending variety of things to do for people of all ages, but many can be pricey. If you’re looking to take a trip to the Windy City, everything can add up pretty fast. But it is possible to have a fun, activity filled trip without breaking the bank. Chicago has plenty of free things to do, including museums, city tours and the zoo. You just have to know where to look. Here’s our list of the best free things to do in Chicago, all kid tested and approved!
1. Art on the Mart
Art on the Mart is a free, state-of-the-art, 30-minute light show on the side of one of Chicago’s most historic buildings, the Merchandise Mart.
The show is viewable from along the Chicago Riverwalk (or on a boat in the Chicago River). Showings run daily at 7:30 p.m. and 8 p.m and you can check the website to see what shows are currently on view.
2. Stroll along the Riverwalk
See the artwork (look for the giant deer near the Merchandise Mart), party boats and restaurants as you take a scenic stroll along the Chicago Riverwalk. The path winds along the Chicago River and through the Loop (the nickname for downtown Chicago).
The riverwalk also has some yummy restaurants and is the place to catch a boat ride on the Chicago River. Those things aren’t free, but sitting on the benches along the riverwalk to people watch and enjoy some time outside is always free!
3. Chicago Air & Water Show and other free events
Kids love the annual Chicago Air & Water Show. This spectacular free event will make you oooh and aaaah as fighter jets, Blue Angels and stunt planes fly along Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline, and antique ships float past. The beaches will be crowded, but the kids will be wowed.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Go to any Lake Michigan beach on the Friday before the show, and you’ll see tons of planes practicing their stunts. It’s an impressive show, without the crowds.
Other free, family-friendly special events with live music in downtown Chicago include:
- Grant Park Music Festival – Free classical music concerts all summer and fall in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion
- Chicago Blues Festival
- Caroling at Cloud Gate (The Bean) in Millennium Park – on select dates every November and December
4. The Lakefront Trail
This is my favorite place to go in Chicago. Walk, jog, bike or rollerblade along the gorgeous 18-mile-long paved paths on the Lakefront Trail, with the Chicago skyline on one side and Lake Michigan on the other.
Free things to do while walking include watching the beach volleyball players at North Ave., visiting the dog beach at Montrose Avenue and checking out the boats out on the lake. Plus, as you move along Lake Michigan, you’ll cruise past iconic downtown sites like Buckingham Fountain, Navy Pier, Adler Planetarium, the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium and Soldier Field.
If you’re really ambitious, you can ride south to 53rd Street and see the beautiful Museum of Science and Industry, the University of Chicago campus and the Hyde Park neighborhood, where former President Barack Obama still has a home.
Dig your toes in the sand at any number of Lake Michigan beaches – you can go in the water, but it is COLD. You might want to just sit on the rocks and soak up the beautiful Chicago skyline views.
SheBuysTravel Tip: The bike path gets very crowded on the weekends. The best time to ride is early in the morning.
5. Lincoln Park Zoo
Lincoln Park Zoo is on every “Free in Chicago” list and for good reason. Admission to this excellent, lakefront zoo is free and it has plenty of exhibits for kids to see and learn about different species. Our faves? The gorillas and chimpanzees at the Regenstein Center for African Apes, and the polar bear and penguin exhibits.
In winter, Lincoln Park Zoo hosts a giant animal-themed holiday lights festival called ZooLights. While is not free, it is one of the best places to see Christmas lights in the Midwest.
6. Millennium Park
Millennium Park, downtown Chicago’s premiere park, is very family friendly. Start by taking cool selfies at “The Bean.” The landmark, bean-shaped contemporary art sculpture (it’s official name is “Cloud Gate,” but if you call it that, everyone will know you’re not a local!) is a mirror that reflects not just you, but the Chicago skyline. It’s one of the most Instagrammable spots in Chicago.
Next to The Bean is the Crown Fountain, where two water-spewing towers feature videos of people’s faces (it looks like they’re spitting water out of their mouths, which amuses the kids). The area is surrounded by bench seating, so you get a break while your kids splash around and get ridiculously wet.
Dry off with a walk through the flower-filled Lurie Garden (free guided tours are available on certain days), and then plunk down on the large lawn area at the architecturally stunning Jay Pritzker Pavilion, which is almost always hosting some type of free music or theater performance. The Lurie Garden is considered by many locals to be one of Chicago’s hidden gems. If the kids still have energy, go to the adjacent Maggie Daley Park. There is a huge play area and a climbing wall (advanced reservations required).
In the winter, you can ice skate for free in Millennium Park, with the lit-up Chicago skyline and The Bean as your backdrop, but there is a fee for skate rental.
Read More: Fun Things to Do in Wrigleyville with Kids
7. Garfield Park Conservatory
Garfield Park Conservatory is a hidden gem. Garfield Park Conservatory has meandering trails and massive, glass dome greenhouses filled with unique and cool-looking tropical plants, cacti, flowers and a children’s play garden that encourages climbing.
Just down the street is Inspiration Kitchen, a wonderful place to eat a meal – the restaurant provides job training for the homeless, poor and former prison inmates.
Another beautiful conservatory is the Lincoln Park Conservatory, the large greenhouse with the glass dome next to the Lincoln Park Zoo. Both Lincoln Park Zoo and Lincoln Park Conservatory have free admission.
Read More: Best Indoor Water Parks in Illinois
8. Tour Chicago Neighborhoods with a Chicago Greeter
Learn from a local! Take one of the free neighborhood walking tours from Chicago Greeter, which has more than 25 different tours in 10 languages. The tours will let you sample delicious foods in Chinatown, see the party atmosphere in Wrigleyville or just learn about cool stuff in downtown Chicago. You MUST register 10 days in advance for these tours, and you are expected to give the guide a tip.
The free tours most popular with families are Millennium Park and The Loop, the nature preserve in North Park and the Navy Pier and Chicago Children’s Museum tour.
Read More: Chicago’s Best Restaurants for Kids
9. Fireworks at Navy Pier
Navy Pier, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Illinois, puts on free fireworks shows over Lake Michigan twice a week – at 9:30 p.m. Wednesdays and 10:15 p.m. Saturdays, from Memorial Day through Labor Day. It’s synchronized to music, which can be heard all along the pier.
Entry to Navy Pier is free, and it hosts many free special events, including live music performances. So it’s a nice family-friendly place to take a scenic stroll. The pier juts out into Lake Michigan and offers some of the city’s best Chicago skyline views, especially from the famous Ferris wheel, which is $13-$16 per person.
See my list of fun things to do at Navy Pier here.
10. Visit Chinatown
Chinatown is a fun Chicago neighborhood to visit and a great place for cheap eats. We like the dim sum at MingHin Cuisine, a family-friendly restaurant with a rotating table center. Besides the famous Chinatown entry gate and the Nine Dragon Wall, you can shop in the tiny shops brimming with cheap little trinkets. My kids like to go to the Chinatown Square, which has a dozen statues of Chinese zodiac animals. They find the year they were born and read their horoscope.
Walking tours of Chinatown are also offered by Chicago Greeter.
11. Free Days at Chicago’s World-Class Museums
Almost every Chicago museum has free admission days. Often free admission is limited to Illinois residents, so check the museum websites while planning your visit.
The Art Institute of Chicago, home to the Thorne Miniature Rooms (a permanent collection that’s very popular with kids), offers free admission to anyone 13 and under. Illinois residents can visit free up to age 18. Adult admission is between $19-$25. There are a lot of fun things to do with kids at the Art Institute of Chicago.
The DuSable Museum of African American History, near the Museum of Science & Industry, has free admission on Wednesdays. It’s an excellent museum with numerous interactive exhibits that will educate visitors about the important racial issues facing our country now, as well as Black history.
A complete list of free museum days is here.
12. See the Public Art in Pilsen
Gorgeous, giant murals with poignant stories behind them, are painted on dozens of walls in the Pilsen neighborhood. Here’s a good guide to help you find them. Pilsen is not only known for its public art, but for its fantastic, budget-friendly Mexican food. Take a ride share or hop on the Pink Line of the L train to get to Pilsen.
See even more art in Pilsen’s small but impressive National Museum of Mexican Art. Hours are limited (10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.) but admission is free.
13. Walk or Bike ‘The 606’
Just beyond downtown Chicago, you can bike a short (2.7 miles) paved path through a few of the hip North Side neighborhoods like Wicker Park, Logan Square and Bucktown. The path has a few small park spaces, but its best feature is its proximity to great, post-ride restaurants.
Getting Around Chicago
It can be expensive to take a regular taxi around downtown Chicago. A cheaper, more fun and much more scenic way is to travel by water taxi.
One-way tickets are $6 and an all-day pass is $10 to sail along the Chicago River, connecting Ogilvie Transportation Center (Metra trains) and Union Station (Amtrak trains) to Michigan Avenue and Chinatown. And the water taxis run about every 15 minutes, so no long waits. They operate from April through December.
During the ride, the taxi winds through a narrow path of skyscrapers and passes under bridges, allowing passengers to see the Chicago Riverwalk restaurant patios and get a glimpse of several iconic buildings, including the corn cob-styled Marina Towers.
My kids and I like to sit on the water taxi’s upper deck. The kids spend most of the time looking over the railing, down at the water, but I like to look up at the city’s incredible architecture. The view is much better than the one you get from the back seat of a regular taxi.
Tickets can be purchased at the stops or on board.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Q: Are these activities suitable for all ages?
A: Yes! While the post is specifically geared towards things to do with kids, many of these activities are enjoyable for people of all ages.
Q: How long should I plan to spend at each activity?
A: It depends on the activity and your personal preferences. For example, the Lincoln Park Zoo could be a quick visit or a full day trip, depending on how much time you want to spend there. We recommend checking out each attraction’s website for more information on estimated visit times.
Q: Are these activities all located in the same area of Chicago?
A: No, they are spread throughout the city. We recommend planning out your itinerary ahead of time to make the most of your trip.
Q: Are there any additional costs associated with these activities?
A: While the activities themselves are free, there may be additional costs for things like parking or food. We recommend doing some research ahead of time to budget accordingly.
Q: What time of year is best to visit Chicago for these activities?
A: Many of these activities are available year-round, but some may be seasonal. For example, the Millennium Park ice rink is only open during the winter months. We recommend checking out each attraction’s website for more information on seasonal availability.