25 Free Things to Do in Chicago, IL

Free Things to Do in Chicago, IL
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Located on the shore of Lake Michigan, Chicago is a bustling metropolis boasting gorgeous architecture, diverse museums, and a picture-perfect skyline.

This city in Cook County has an attraction for every kind of traveler: from families, architecture enthusiasts, art junkies, nature lovers, and nightlife seekers.

Even better, you can plan a Chicago vacation without spending a fortune!

If you plan to visit Windy City for a weekend getaway, here are 25 free things to do in Chicago, Illinois.

Meet the Animals at Lincoln Park Zoo

Interior view of the Lincoln Park Zoo
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Experience wildlife in the heart of Chicago at Lincoln Park Zoo, one of the few free-admission zoos in the country.

It is also the oldest zoo in North America, founded in 1868.

Take a zoo tour and rediscover the other creatures living on the planet.

A lion posing majestically at Lincoln Park Zoo
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Lincoln Park Zoo is home to around 1,100 animals from 200 species, including big cats, gorillas, reptiles, polar bears, and more.

Besides its diverse animals, the zoo houses over 2,000 plants from 1,200 species, including 100-year-old oak trees.

Giraffe at Lincoln Park Zoo
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Watch Free Art Shows at the Chicago Cultural Center

Exterior view of the Chicago Cultural Center
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Discover Chicago’s lively art and cultural scene at the Chicago Cultural Center.

The structure is a work of art featuring Neoclassical-Italian Renaissance elements, including two stunning Tiffany glass domes.

The Chicago Cultural Center holds thousands of programs, shows, and exhibitions, some of which you can watch for free.

Central dome at Chicago Cultural Center
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Experience the beauty of Chicago’s art and architecture on a Preston Bradley Grand Hall tour and marvel at the glass domes.

Catch free dance performances, seminars, theater shows, film screenings, and musical concerts.

Interior view of the Chicago Cultural Center
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Take a Walk along the Chicago Riverwalk

Signage of the Chicago Riverwalk
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Enjoy riverside views from the Chicago Riverwalk for a quintessentially Chicago experience.

The multi-use public space stretches six blocks between State Street and Lake Street, lined with shops, cafes, bars, small parks, and other exciting sights.

Go sightseeing along the Chicago Riverwalk and check out different works of art, take riverside photos, rest at one of the parks, and soak up the vibrant atmosphere.

People enjoying their day at Chicago Riverwalk
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Along your walk, pay respects at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, dedicated to the Illinois residents who fought in the Vietnam War.

Visit at night and see how the skyscrapers light up, creating a beautiful reflection against the water.

View of the Chicago Riverwalk
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Ride a Bike along the Lakefront Trail

Winter view of the Lakefront Trail
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Lakefront Trail is an 18.5-mile-long multipurpose path with trailheads at Lincoln Park and Jackson Park.

It’s ideal for walking, jogging, biking, rollerblading, and skateboarding.

The trail also serves as an alternate route for personal transport commuters on their way to and from work.

Visitors cycling at Lakefront Trail
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Because of its location, Lakefront Trail also offers some of the best views of Lake Michigan.

On your biking trip, you can drop by the nearby parks like Grant Park, Maggie Daley Park, or Ohio Street Beach for a quick break before resuming.

Morning view of the Lakefront Trail
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See the Botanical Wonders of Garfield Park Conservatory

View of the Garfield Park Conservatory
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Garfield Park Conservatory takes pride in being one of the largest free-admission conservatories worldwide.

Also referred to as “landscape art under glass,” it occupies 12 acres of stunning flora worldwide.

There are thousands of plant species across indoor and outdoor gardens, including fern gardens, palm gardens, and a desert-like garden featuring cacti and succulents.

Fresh green plants at Garfield Park Conservatory
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Take a break from the hustle and bustle of Chicago and explore Garfield Park Conservatory, letting you gain a deeper appreciation of our natural surroundings.

The conservatory also hosts cultural performances, educational demonstrations, and more.

Statues at Garfield Park Conservatory
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Stroll around Millennium Park

Scenic view of Millennium Park
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You can’t miss Millennium Park if you're visiting Chicago.

The park occupies 24.5 acres and offers plenty of green spaces, outdoor venues, and public art, with towering skyscrapers as a backdrop.

It also houses different works of art, with the Pritzker Pavilion, Cloud Gate, and the Crown Fountain being the most famous.

Closer view of the Millennium Park
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Spend the morning or afternoon exploring Millennium Park and soak up the breathtaking city views.

See the colorful flowers at Lurie Garden, watch fun videos from Crown Fountain, and pose for a mirror selfie at the iconic Cloud Gate, locally known as The Bean.

Enjoy Lakefront Views from Navy Pier

View of the Navy Pier
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Navy Pier is a former Navy training center and is now a lakeside pier and popular tourist destination.

With fun carnival rides, museums, bars, and shops, it’s the perfect location for a fun family bonding day.

Also known as the People’s Pier, Navy Pier showcases some of the city’s best public art installations.

Games at Navy Pier
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Visit the pier and see large boats cruising along the lake, take photos of the art installations, and discover what makes it a favorite among tourists and locals.

If you’ll visit in summer, make Navy Pier your final stop and stay for the breathtaking fireworks display.

Top view of the Navy Pier
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Walk along the 606

Stunning view along the 606
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Similar to the High Line in New York, the 606 is a former rail line turned into a linear park.

The 2.7-mile elevated park connects Wicker Park, Bucktown, Humboldt Park, and Logan Square.

Enjoy a relaxing and unique way of exploring Chicago by walking or biking along the 606, occasionally stopping for scenic views and photo ops.

Bike trail at 606
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In addition to its vantage points, you can find various murals, pocket gardens, and an observatory.

Catch fantastic sunset views from the park, and after sundown, bring out your binoculars for a night spent stargazing.

Learn about Mexican Culture at the National Museum Of Mexican Art

Exterior view of the National Museum Of Mexican Art

Discover thousands of Mexican artworks at the National Museum Of Mexican Art.

Established in 1982, the museum is home to one of the US’ largest collections of Mexican art.

In addition, the establishment holds various cultural programs like theater, dance, and music performances to showcase Mexico’s fascinating yet rich culture.

Interior view of the National Museum Of Mexican Art
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Tour the National Museum of Mexican Art and see textiles, mosaic art, paintings, three-dimensional art, and other works that exemplify Mexican culture.

The museum also holds one of the country’s largest Día de los Muertos exhibits, featuring altars and art related to the traditional holiday.

See Various Artworks at the Smart Museum of Art

Walkway near Smart Museum of Art
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The Smart Museum of Art is the fine arts museum of the University of Chicago.

It contains around 15,000 works, including Asian, European, Modern, and Contemporary Art.

Some of the items at the museum are also used for related courses at the university.

Entrance to the Smart Museum of Art
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Tour the Smart Museum of Art and discover many artworks, including Japanese ukiyo-e prints, Chinese literati scroll paintings, and dining room furniture designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The museum also houses notable works from Chicago artists.

Interior view of the Smart Museum of Art
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Take Photos of the 16th Street Murals

A photo walk along the 16th Street Murals is a must on every art lover’s list of things to do in Chicago.

The street started as a slight movement to create murals along the road and is now a popular attraction.

Checking out the murals is one way to see a different side of Chicago’s art scene.

Bring your cameras and embark on a scenic walk across the 16th Street Murals.

Ready your best angles and strike a pose with the murals for that Instagram-worthy shot.

Hang Out at Grant Park

Stunning view of the fountain at Grant Park
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Grant Park is a 319-acre urban oasis at the heart of Chicago’s business district.

If there’s a place that best showcases what the city has to offer, the park has to be it.

It houses well-known landmarks and tourist attractions, including Millennium Park, Maggie Daley Park, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum Campus.

Colorful flowers at Grant Park
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Aside from being a hangout for locals and tourists, Grant Park hosts food and music festivals.

Because of the park’s large area, you can dedicate half a day or even a whole day to exploring the park.

Aerial view of the Grant Park
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Step Back in Time at the Henry B. Clarke House

Facade of the Henry B. Clarke House
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Take a trip down memory lane at the Henry B. Clarke House, also known as Clark House Museum.

It’s Chicago’s oldest house, surviving two moves, a fire, and decades of changes.

Today, the Greek Revival-style house serves as a mansion, offering visitors a look into what life was like back then.

Join a free guided Henry B. Clarke House tour and get a deeper insight into Chicago’s history.

See the interiors, learn about the Clarke family, and discover the house's history.

Enjoy a Moment of Silence at the Harold Washington Library Center

Exterior view of the Harold Washington Library Center
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The Harold Washington Library Center is an architectural standout in the city.

Its red brick exterior and ornate roof ornaments draw you in from the outside, while its interior features various artworks and exhibits.

The library houses millions of books and educational resources which you can access for free.

Interior view of the Harold Washington Library Center
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Browse the shelves at the Harold Washington Library Center, find a quiet spot to read, and take a few moments of silence.

Head to the library's ninth floor and see the beautiful winter garden with its glass roof.

Reading area at Harold Washington Library Center
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Marvel at the Plants of Lincoln Park Conservatory

Visitors admiring the plants at Lincoln Park Conservatory
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Take a break from the towing skyscrapers of Chicago and enjoy a change of scenery as you explore the Lincoln Park Conservatory.

The botanical garden is housed in an elegant Victorian Era glass house spanning three acres.

Inside the Lincoln Park Conservatory, find four large rooms with exotic plants worldwide, including rare orchids, giant ferns, and palm trees.

Facade of the Lincoln Park Conservatory
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After exploring the indoor exhibits, head out and visit the formal gardens and conifer gardens.

Although the conservatory has free admission, visitors can donate to help maintain its beauty.

Lily pond at Lincoln Park Conservatory
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Enjoy Outdoor Activities at Maggie Daley Park

Bird's eye view of the Maggie Daley Park
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For a fun day with the family, spend the day at Maggie Daley Park.

Located in the busy Loop community, the park offers Chicago residents and tourists a quick break from the fast-paced city life.

Park facilities and amenities include picnic groves, playgrounds, tennis courts, a climbing wall, and an ice skating ribbon.

Rock climbing at Maggie Daley Park
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Bring the family to Maggie Daley Park for a relaxing picnic and enjoy many fun activities.

Although park access is complimentary, skate rentals and other facilities may require payment.

People having fun at Maggie Daley Park
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Admire Art at the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture

Closeup of the brick architercture at National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture
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The National Museum Of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture is a Queen Anne Revival-style building housing traditional and contemporary Puerto Rican artworks.

It aims to promote and showcase Puerto Rican art and culture through historical and anthropological exhibitions, educational programs, and events.

As beautiful as the building looks from the outside, enter the museum and discover years’ worth of Puerto Rican art.

Outside view of the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture
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Artworks and collections at the National Museum Of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture date back to the late 18th century.

Take inspiration from the vibrant paintings, murals, and stories of the artists as you explore the exhibitions.

Soak up the Sun at Ohio Street Beach

Shoreline of the Ohio Street Beach
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From Chicago’s skyscrapers and buildings, head to Ohio Street Beach for some sun and sand.

The beach provides skyline and Lake Michigan views and is one of the many places of interest along Lakefront Trail.

Because of its unique orientation, Ohio Street Beach is an ideal training ground for open-water swimming.

Visitors playing in Ohio Street Beach
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Otherwise, you can head to the beach, lay down a mat, get your tan, and bask under the warm sun.

Although the beach is open all day, swimming is only allowed when lifeguards are on duty.

See the History of Photography at the Museum of Contemporary Photography

Unique modern architecture of the stairs at Museum of Contemporary Photography
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Over the years, photography has evolved from bulky cameras to sleek smartphones.

At the Museum of Contemporary Photography, you should gain a deeper appreciation of this art form as you browse its exhibits.

Find 16,000 photographs and objects in the museum, including photograms, digital pieces, and gelatin-silver prints.

In addition, the permanent collection features work by artists like Harry Callahan, Dorothea Lange, and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

The Museum of Contemporary Photography also features photos from cities in the Midwest, including Michigan, Ohio, and Iowa.

Research Your Family History at Newberry Library

Exterior of the Newberry Library
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Satisfy your curiosity at Newberry Library, an independent research library near Washington Square Park.

It’s also one of the oldest cultural institutions in the city, established in 1887.

Whether you want to read a book in silence, discover something new, or research your family genealogy, Newberry Library has it for you.

Besides millions of books, find manuscript pages and historical maps.

You can also join a guided library tour to learn more about its architecture and history.

Tour the Hull House

Facade of the Hull House
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Explore Hull House, also known as the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, for a dose of history.

It’s one of the first social settlements in North America, founded in 1889 by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr.

This National Historic Landmark features exhibitions and programs on the history of activism, progressive education, and other democratic principles.

Dining area at the Hull House
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Go on a tour of Hull House and explore two buildings: the Hull Home and the Residents’ Dining Hall.

Although Hull House has no admission fee, visitors should make a timed tour reservation.

Interior view of the Hull House
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Check Out the Fascinating Chicago Water Tower

Top of the Chicago Water Tower
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From the outside, the Chicago Water Tower looks like a castle surrounded by tall buildings.

But inside, it houses a gallery showcasing photos of Chicago taken by photographers from Chicago.

The water tower is also one of the most famous landmarks in the city, having survived the Great Fire of Chicago in 1871.

View of the Chicago Water Tower
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Although you can see the Chicago Water Tower from the outside and admire its architecture, make the most of your visit and check out the City Gallery.

Wander the halls and see colored and black-and-white city photos from different perspectives.

See Contemporary Art at the Renaissance Society

Interior view of the Renaissance Society
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Located on the University of Chicago campus, the Renaissance Society is an art museum featuring works from contemporary international artists.

Inspired by the word Renaissance, meaning “revival” or “rebirth,” the museum also showcases avant-garde art.

Visit the Renaissance Society and see a different kind of art as you explore the white-walled gallery space.

Aside from the exhibitions, the institution holds concerts, lectures, and performances that give visitors a deeper insight into modern art.

Moreover, these events are free and open to the public.

Swim at North Avenue Beach

Crowded North Avenue Beach during a hot summer day
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North Avenue Beach is one of Chicago’s most popular beaches near Lincoln Park.

The beach has 22,000 square feet of fine sand, nearby trails, and plenty of facilities for everyone to enjoy.

It’s also famous for the Beach House, an ocean liner-inspired building boasting scenic views of the shore and skyline.

Men playing volleyball at North Avenue Beach
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Visit North Avenue Beach, dip in its blue waters, or walk along the shore and feel the sand between your toes.

The nearby trails provide biking, jogging, and rollerblading opportunities.

Paddleboarding at North Avenue Beach
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Relax at Jackson Park

Japanese garden at Jackson Park
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Spanning 551 acres, Jackson Park is one of Chicago's largest and most historically important parks.

The park features an 18-hole golf course, a driving range, a disc golf course, and other sports fields.

Jackson Park also has green spaces like the Perennial Garden, Japanese Garden, and Wooded Island.

Golden statue of republic at Jackson Park
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Find solace and a change of pace by spending a lazy afternoon at the park, admiring the greenery and tranquil atmosphere.

Spot birds at Wooded Island and catch the stunning cherry blossoms in the Japanese Gardens during springtime.

Pretty little bird at Jackson Park
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Final Thoughts

Chicago is a city that has everything a tourist wants: historical sights, architectural wonders, a vibrant art culture, and gorgeous natural wonders.

While one would think that have to break the bank to enjoy a vacation here, this is false.

Let this guide of the free things to do in Chicago, Illinois, help you create the best budget-friendly itinerary!

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