Blake Walsh

15 Free Things to Do in Evanston, IL

  • Published 2023/02/18

Evanston is a small city on the northern outskirts of Chicago in Cook County, Illinois.

Like most towns and cities in Illinois, this one boasts a beautiful view of Lake Michigan.

Historically, Evanston became known throughout Illinois, and the region after Northwestern University opened in the mid-1800s.

During the American Civil War, Evanston sided with the Abolitionists and the Union Forces to end slavery in the nation.

Today, this small city is home to over 75,000 residents and thousands of university students thriving in its tightly knitted community.

Traveling to Evanston is a worthwhile experience, especially for historical enthusiasts.

Evanston’s streets, parks, and buildings have a fascinating history.

Besides, this city is home to some of the most gorgeous beaches and sceneries of Lake Michigan.

Also, it’s home to quirky public art installations and plenty of outdoor activities, which you can mostly enjoy for free.

Read below for a few free things to do in Evanston, Illinois.

Explore Northwestern University

Far view of Northwestern University

Eugene Moerman /

Northwestern University is probably the most famous educational institution in the region.

This university, situated along Clark Street, is one of the top research universities in the nation and the oldest in Illinois.

Besides, many visitors love to visit this university to glimpse its historical past.

It has gorgeous landscapes, intricate building architecture, and other attractions.

Music center at Northwestern University

Bryan Pollard /

This university is also home to the Wildcats, who compete in the Big Ten Conference football at Ryan Field.

You can see so many things at Northwestern University, whether you’re a student or a visitor fascinated by its beauty and prestige.

Drop by this prestigious university upon arriving in Evanston to kick off your adventure with a bang.

Theology building at Northwestern University

Ken Wolter /

Travel Back in Time at the Evanston History Center

Head to the Evanston History Center to dive into the city’s rich history and heritage.

You can visit this place along Greenwood Street.

Those fascinated by Evanston’s backstory can join the guided tours of the center’s famous and historic Dawes House.

This elegant mansion served as the residence of former United States Vice President Charles Gates.

Besides being a history center, the mansion also serves as a National Historic Landmark.

This place is managed and taken care of by the hardworking volunteers and curators of the Evanston History Center, which offers guided tours and historical lectures.

Visiting this place allows you to explore more of Evanston’s rich history through the lives of the Dawes.

Find Rare and Local Plants at the Ladd Arboretum

Ladd Arboretum is a charming community garden and conservation center.

You can visit this arboretum along McCormick Boulevard.

This nursery was established through the collaboration of locals and civic-minded groups in Evanston.

Today, this 17.3-acre arboretum houses hundreds of plants and tree species, which now serve as home to various bird species.

Nature lovers love to stroll through its nicely paved bike path, surrounded by rare and local flora.

Besides the plants and birds, Ladd Arboretum is also home to numerous public art installations, such as the “Silver Wings” sculpture which adds beauty to this place.

Appreciate the Stunning View of Clark Square Park

Clark Square Park is known for its tranquil atmosphere and stunning view of Lake Michigan.

You can visit this park along Sheridan Road, near Evanston’s downtown area.

The park, which spans only 5.23 acres, is known for its peaceful atmosphere, perfect for unwinding and relaxation, especially with friends and family.

However, many parkgoers love to spend their time here to see the stunning view of the vast Lake Michigan.

At the same time, they appreciate the therapeutic fresh breeze from the lake.

Head to Clark Square Park and enjoy its stunning views and calm atmosphere, a worthwhile experience you mustn’t miss.

See the Sky at the Dearborn Observatory

Dearborn Observatory is one of Northwestern University’s most visited attractions.

You can visit this observatory along Tech Drive.

Richard Romanesque constructed the observatory in 1888 using rusticated limestone.

Romanesque then added a massive refracting telescope, allowing them to see stars, planets, and galaxies more clearly back in the day.

Today, the observatory remains open and provides the public with unique weekly stargazing experiences.

Visiting the observatory is a worthwhile experience, especially if you’re fascinated to see the celestial bodies on a century-old telescope.

Besides stargazing, Dearborn Observatory is a treasure trove of history because of its age and contribution to astronomy.

Check Out the Block Museum of Art

Exterior of Block Museum of Art

Paradoxsociety, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Block Museum of Art stands out among the other attractions at Northwestern University.

You can visit this massive art museum along Arts Circle Drive.

This museum which opened in 1980, houses an impressive graphic art collection.

The art collections date from the 1930s and 1940s, featuring Chicago’s retro culture, life, and art.

While visiting this art museum, you’ll see many artworks, such as paintings, sculptures, photography, films, and prints.

Most of the artworks you’ll see detail Chicago and Midwestern’s past and culture.

Inside you’ll find some outstanding works from Barbara Hepworth, Jasper Johns, Carrie Mae Weems, and plenty more artists.

Explore the Block Museum of Art for a one-of-a-kind travel experience.

See the Quirky Murals at Evanston Garage Door Gallery

Evanston Garage Door Gallery is a unique public art installation that many visit for its uniqueness and colorful appeal.

You can visit this drive-through art gallery between Thayer and Isabella Park alleys.

Art lovers can conveniently take photos of the murals painted on garage doors, walls, and doors on the street side inside their cars.

Local artist Teresa Parod initiated this project, a one-of-a-kind public art installation.

Parod turned this section of Evanston’s streets into a colorful canvas to express her passion for arts.

Visiting this drive-through art gallery is something you mustn’t miss in Evanston.

Remember to list down the Evanston Garage Door Gallery in your itinerary for more fun activities.

Uncover the Mystery behind the Josie Lyon Statue and Grave

Head to the Josie Lyon Statue and Grave in Calvary Cemetery for a one-of-a-kind history lesson.

Many visitors in Evanston never forget to drop by this famous grave.

It’s widely known for its life-sized statue of a nine-year-old boy who unfortunately died too young in 1891.

The statue belongs to Joseph “Josie” Lyon and stands on his grave in Calvary Cemetery.

Lyon’s descendants encased the statue in a glass-fronted enclosure to preserve it.

Visiting this statue isn’t that scary at all.

Instead, seeing the statue and grave offers you a unique historical experience you’ll only see in Evanston.

Besides the Josie Lyon Statue and Grave, Calvary Cemetery is also the final resting place of notable personalities in Illinois.

Traverse the N. Shore Channel Trail

The N. Shore Channel Trail is a famous outdoor attraction loved by hikers and outdoor enthusiasts.

This trail stretches over 13 miles and covers parts of Evanston.

For a great outdoor adventure, head to this trail and see Evanston from a different perspective.

You can either hike or bike through this trail which takes you to various sceneries, neighborhoods, and parks in Evanston and neighboring towns and cities.

The hike takes about four hours.

However, depending on the stopovers you have, it may take longer because you will take photos of the gorgeous scenery you’ll see.

Nonetheless, your hike through the N. Shore Channel Trail guarantees a splendid hiking experience.

Besides hiking, this trail is also a perfect birdwatching and wildlife-viewing destination.

Enjoy the Outdoors at Dawes Park

The waters of Dawes Park

James Andrews1 /

Dawes Park is the most popular venue for locals during summer.

This park along Sheridan Road was named after former vice president Charles G. Dawes, a proud son of Evanston.

The park is situated nearby Dawes’ massive historical mansion; hence, it was named after him.

Flora at Dawes Park

nick11290 /

Besides, the park is a great place to enjoy the outdoors.

During summer, locals dip at Lake Michigan and enjoy plenty of water activities at this park.

At the same time, Dawes Park is also home to numerous events which many locals look forward to each year.

These festivals include the annual arts festival, barbeque cookouts, fairs, and carnivals, making this park an exciting place to visit.

Pass the Time at Beck Park

Beck Park is one of the several neighborhood parks you’ll likely visit during your trip to Evanston.

You can check out this park along McDaniel Avenue.

The park has a lovely peaceful atmosphere, equipped with a playground, plenty of trees for shade, a picnic area, and walking paths.

In addition, it has a vast green open space for various outdoor activities.

Head to Beck Park and appreciate its calm atmosphere, perfect for passing the time and relaxing.

Stretch Your Muscles at James Park

James Park is a lovely outdoor recreation area loved by locals.

You can visit this park along Mulford Street.

This is your go-to park if you feel like stretching your muscles.

This park is an urban recreation area where many locals love to play sports.

It has an athletic field, multiple basketball courts, tennis courts, soccer fields, and baseball diamonds which everyone can use.

Whether you’re a seasoned athlete or a weekend warrior, you’re guaranteed to have fun playing at James Park.

Bring some sports gear to Evanston and engage with locals at this park.

See Great Performances at the Starlight Concert & Movie Series

The Starlight Concert & Movie Series is one of the community’s most sought-after activities because of its free movie nights and concerts.

This free movie and concert series happens from July to August in various city venues, particularly at parks.

It’s a wholesome activity you and your loved ones can enjoy and see highly-entertaining Hollywood flicks.

Otherwise, you can get serenaded by local musicians who perform for free to everyone.

Besides movies and concerts, the Starlight Concert & Movie Series also offers dance nights that entertain everyone.

Try Outdoor Activities at Lovelace Park

Before heading home, check out Lovelace Park for one more round of fun-filled outdoor activities.

You can visit this park along Gross Point Road.

The park is a popular fishing area because its pond regularly supplies fish.

At the same time, the park has a nice trail many hikers love to explore.

You can hike, jog at the park’s paved trails, or perhaps walk your dog for a more pleasant experience.

Plenty of outdoor activities await you at Lovelace Park, making it a recommended place to drop by before wrapping up your Evanston travel adventure.

Meet the Locals at Downtown Evanston

Buildings along Downtown Evanston

EQRoy /

Downtown Evanston is the best place in the city to meet the locals and enjoy its complete set of services and amenities.

This charming district in Evanston boasts turn-of-the-century brick buildings which house local businesses along its tree-lined streets.

Strolling through this downtown area lets you see how locals go with their everyday lives.

The grounds of Downtown Evanston

James Andrews1 /

At the same time, you’ll come across various art installations and galleries, welcoming locals and young students from nearby Northwestern University.

Expect a lively atmosphere when strolling through Downtown Evanston and enjoy its warmth.

The road of Downtown Evanston

James Andrews1 /

Final Thoughts

Evanston is a great travel destination for those who want an immersive historical adventure.

It’s mainly because of its rich history, which you can see and experience up close through its historic landmarks and famous university.

At the same time, you’re guaranteed to enjoy spending time at Evanston’s parks and outdoor attractions, which won’t burn a hole in your wallet.

For a well-organized budget-friendly trip, use this post about the free things to do in Evanston, Illinois, as your itinerary.

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