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Free and Fun Things to do in Chicago

Updated on November 3, 2012

Chicago nicknames

Chicago is also known as:

  • The Windy City
  • Chi-Town
  • Second City

Get to know Chicago

There are certainly always fun things to see and do in a big city, but did you with just a little looking you can find free things too. I know for a fact that there is no shortage of both fun and free things to do in Chicago!

Having lived in the Chicago suburbs for well more than a decade, what first attracted me to this part of the United States the most was the city of Chicago itself. Situated at the southwestern tip of Lake Michigan, the only great lake fully within U.S. borders, Chicago's downtown has awesome views of the lake. You can stand on one of Chicago's many public lakefront beaches enraptured by the beauty and vastness of Lake Michigan, yet turn around and see Chicago's magnificent skyline.

Chicago has almost three million residents, and in terms of population is considered the 3rd largest city in the U.S., behind New York and Los Angeles. It is a city of skyscrapers, partly as a result of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. After the fire destroyed nearly 4 square miles the cost of land skyrocketed and architects built upward, a trend that continues today. The newest skyscraper to dot Chicago's skyline is Trump International Tower, the second tallest building in the city, second only to the Willis Tower, better known for decades as the Sears Tower.

With its lakefront recreation and city amenities, it's no wonder that Chicago attracts nearly 45 million visitors annually. And for families or those on a budget, there are many fun and free things to do in Chicago. With a little planning ahead it's not hard to have a fun day for free in The Windy City.

Free Chicago Attractions

Lincoln Park Zoo:
Lincoln Park Zoo, 2200 N Cannon Dr, Chicago, IL 60614, USA

get directions

Lincoln Park Zoo is one of Chicago's free attractions.

Magnificent Mile:
N Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL, USA

get directions

Magnificent Mile

Millenium Park:
Millennium Park, 201 E Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60601-6530, USA

get directions

Millenium Park

Oak Street Beach:
Oak Street Beach, 1000 N Lake Shore Dr, Chicago, IL, USA

get directions

Oak Street Beach

Lincoln Park Zoo

Admission to the Lincoln Park Zoo is free for everyone. Situated minutes from Chicago's Magnificent Mile, monkeys, tigers, elephants, giraffes, lions, camels and many more exotic animals make Lincoln Park Zoo their home. Beautifully maintained by Chicago Parks, the zoo, with over 1200 animals and 230 species, is not too overwhelming in size, making it perfect for part of a fun day in Chicago.

At the southern end of the zoo's parking lot is a walking bridge over Chicago's famed Lakeshore Drive, connecting the Lincoln Park neighborhood to one of the free public beaches along Lake Michigan.

Zoolights, an annual display of over one million holiday lights at the zoo, is also free to the public, and is open from late November until the beginning of January.

>>> More information about Lincoln Park Zoo

The Magnificient Mile (North Michigan Avenue)

For window shoppers and people watchers, The Magnificent Mile, is one of Chicago's hot spots. This avenue of shops, dining, hotels, and culture, is known for its spectacular holiday displays. Each year more than 200 trees are illuminated during the Magnificent Mile's Light Festival, followed by a spectacular fireworks show over the Chicago River.

>>> More information about The Magnificent Mile

Cloud Gate or "The Bean" at Millennium Park

Cloud gate is bean-shaped sculpture in Chicago's Millennium Park that creates spectacular warped reflections of the city's skyline.
Cloud gate is bean-shaped sculpture in Chicago's Millennium Park that creates spectacular warped reflections of the city's skyline. | Source
Visitors to "The Bean" often take photos of their own reflections in the sculpture.
Visitors to "The Bean" often take photos of their own reflections in the sculpture. | Source

Millennium Park

Millennium Park, considered to be one of Chicago's top tourist attractions, is absolutely free. Additionally, free concerts, family activities, and exhibitions often take place at this park in the heart of the city. Perhaps renowned for being home to Cloud Gate, affectionately called The Bean, Millennium Park also has sculptures, gardens, an outdoor concert pavilion and an ice skating rink.

>>> More information about Millennium Park

Beaches along Lake Michigan

The twenty-six miles of Chicago lakefront is what makes Chicago truly a unique city. Hugging the shore of Lake Michigan, Chicago's lakefront includes about two-dozen beaches and miles of paved path for biking, walking, jogging, or rollerblading. One of the most popular beaches is Oak Street Beach located at the northern end of the Magnificent mile -- well within walking distance of shopping and dining.

Chicago Museums

Adler Planetarium:
Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum, Chicago, IL 60605, USA

get directions

Adler Planetarium

The Art Institute of Chicago:
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60603, USA

get directions

The Art Institute of Chicago

Chicago Children's Museum:
Chicago Children's Museum, 700 E Grand Ave #127, Chicago, IL 60611, USA

get directions

Chicago Children's Museum

Field Museum:
The Field Museum, 1400 S Lake Shore Dr, Chicago, IL 60605, USA

get directions

Field Museum

Museum of Science and Industry:
Museum of Science and Industry, S Lake Shore Dr, Chicago, IL 60637, USA

get directions

Museum of Science and Industry

Shedd Aquarium:
Shedd Aquarium, Chicago, IL 60605, USA

get directions

Shedd Aquarium

Chicago museums sometimes offer free or discount days

Chicago is home to many museums, and while all of the museums have an admission fee, most have a couple days a month where admission is absolutely free to certain people. Additionally, corporations may sponsor free-admission events, so it is always worth checking in advance to see if free admission may be available.

Here are examples of some of the free admission days offered during 2012:*

Adler Planetarium offers free general admission to:

>>> More information about Adler Planetarium

The Art Institute of Chicago offers free admission to:

  • Residents of Illinois on the first and second Wednesdays of every month
  • All children under age 14
  • Members of the Art Institute of Chicago
  • Illinois educators who sign up for Educator Network

>>> More information about The Art Institute of Chicago

Chicago Children's Museum at Navy Pier offers free admission to:

  • Children under age 15 on the first Sunday of every month (Target Free First Sundays)
  • Everyone on Thursdays from 5-8 p.m (Kraft Free Family Night)
  • Civil servants (police. firefighters, veterans, and teachers) one time per year
  • Members of the U.S. military on active duty four times per year

>>> More information about The Chicago Children's Museum

Field Museum offers free basic admission to:

>>> More information about Field Museum

Museum of Science and Industry offers free basic admission to:

>>> More information about Museum of Science and Industry

Shedd Aquarium offers free general admission to:

  • Illinois residents on Shedd Aquarium community days
  • Visitors who present a valid Bank of America/Merrill Lynch ATM, credit or debit card, along with photo identification on each month's first full weekend for a one free mini-pass (Bank of America's Museum on Us)
  • Educators from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin after registering for a free pass
  • Members of Shedd Aquarium
  • Some corporate connection members

>>> More information about Shedd Aquarium

*Discounts and free days may change. Please check with each museum for their most current discounts and promotions. Special exhibits may have additional fees even on free days.

Views of Chicago

Chicago hugs the shore of Lake Michigan. There are many free beaches in Chicago.
Chicago hugs the shore of Lake Michigan. There are many free beaches in Chicago.
Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park is a familiar land mark in Chicago where many free festivals and free concerts are held each year in Chicago.
Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park is a familiar land mark in Chicago where many free festivals and free concerts are held each year in Chicago.

Chicago festivals and events

Throughout the year there are many free festivals and events held in Chicago:

Grant Park Music Festival

  • Free admission
  • Classical music at Millennium Park
  • Held June 13 - August 17, 2012

>>> 2012 Grant Park Music Festival Schedule

Chicago Blues Festival

  • Free admission
  • Largest free blues festival in the world
  • Held for 3 days June 8-10, 2012

>>> 2012 Chicago Blues Festival Events & Headliners

Chicago Jazz Festival

  • Free admission to performances held at Millennium Park and Grant Park
  • Usually held in September around Labor Day - August 30 - September 2, 2012

>>> 2012 Jazz Fest Performers

Taste of Chicago

  • While the food from the Chicago restaurants is not free, the entertainment, including some well-known musical performers, is free.
  • July 11-15, 2012

>>> 2012 Taste of Chicago Restaurant and Music Line Up

Chicago Air and Water Show

  • Free admission
  • Largest show of its kind in the U.S.
  • Held at North Avenue Beach
  • August 18 & 19, 2012

>>> 2012 Chicago Air and Water Show Events


  • 4th of July (Navy Pier)
  • After holiday lights are illuminated on Michigan Ave. in November (Chicago River)
  • New Year's Eve


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