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Free and Cheap Things To Do in Chicago

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Chicago is one of the most vibrant and exciting cities in the United States. However, it can also be one of the most expensive cities to visit. Fortunately, there are plenty of cheap things to do in Chicago that allow visitors to experience all the city has to offer without breaking the bank.

Free and cheap things to do in Chicago

Free and Cheap Things To Do in Chicago

Chicago offers a plethora of free and cheap things to do. Whether you are a budget traveler or simply looking for affordable entertainment options, Chicago has something for everyone. From free days at cultural institutions to free tours, live music, and delicious hot dogs, this vibrant city provides an array of experiences to explore. In this article, we will delve into some of the best places to visit in Chicago on a budget, highlighting the great way to enjoy this city without breaking the bank.

Finding Free and Cheap Activities – Chicago Parks

Chicago on a budget is easy when you pack up a picnic and head to one of the many public parks. Most city parks are free, and some private venues like Ravinia have low cost tickets for lawn seating where gourmet picnics are the rage.

Children enjoy visiting the Lincoln Park Zoo and the Oz playground, and couples can find the perfect spot for romance in the gardens or along the beaches of local parks.

Maggie Daley Park

Maggie Daley Park offers a great way to spend an afternoon in Chicago. Visitors can enjoy free tours of the park’s gardens, playgrounds, and other attractions. There are also plenty of food vendors selling Chicago-style hot dogs, which are a must-try when visiting the city.

Chicago Park District Oz Park

Dedicated to former Chicago resident Frank Baum–author of “The Wizard of Oz”–this section of Lincoln Park on Burling Street features Dorothy’s Playlot, an extensive playground with modern equipment to suit children of all ages and sizes. Enjoy a picnic in the Emerald Garden, where bigger than life sculptures of the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow and, of course, Dorothy and Toto adorn the beautiful grounds. Tennis and basketball courts and a softball field are provided free of charge, or you can bicycle and jog along the many footpaths.

Ravinia Festival

The ultimate picnic experience in downtown Chicago is the summer outdoor concerts held at Ravinia, just north of Chicago, and for just $10 to $15 you can get a lawn ticket for a summer show. Since this venue allows you to bring tables, chairs, coolers and alcohol, lavish picnics are common. If you do not have picnic equipment, just rent lawn chairs and tables on-site. Of course, your view of the band won’t be great, but you will be able to hear just fine as you dine on your favorite picnic dishes.

Chicago Cultural Center

The Chicago Cultural Center is a great place to experience the arts and culture of the city. Admission is always free, and visitors can explore a range of exhibits and special events throughout the year.

Lincoln Park

Open year-round, the expansive Lincoln Park Zoo and Conservatory in north Chicago is always free and the gardens surrounding the conservatory are a perfect place for romantic picnics. During the summer, the north shore beach is a popular spot for family picnics and sports while you enjoy the view of downtown, especially during the annual Chicago Air and Water show in August. To work up an appetite, rent a paddle boat and explore the small lagoon at the south end of the zoo.

Gillson Park

If you like to grill for your picnics, you can get a free permit at Gillson Park if you are a resident, or just pay $10 for a non-resident permit. The park has 60 acres of beachfront property where you can bring your dog to join in the fun. There is a daily admission to swim in the Langdon Park Beach, or seasonal passes are available.

Chicago Riverwalk

The Chicago Riverwalk is a scenic 1.25-mile promenade along the banks of the Chicago River. This popular destination offers visitors beautiful views of the river and the city’s impressive architecture, as well as access to numerous shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues. The Riverwalk is an excellent place to go for a leisurely stroll, enjoy a drink or a meal, and take part in various activities such as boating, kayaking, or biking. With its lively atmosphere and diverse offerings, the Chicago Riverwalk is a must-see attraction for anyone visiting the city. It is free and open to the public, and visitors can enjoy great views of the city skyline, public art, and special events throughout the year. Visitors can also rent paddle boats and kayaks to explore the river.

Crown Fountain at Millenium Park

Settle into a grassy spot on the lawn at the Crown Fountain at Millennium Park near Michigan Avenue and Monroe Street to watch amazing displays on the two 50 foot tall glass towers that combine light, water, glass and digital technology to create a stunning visual feast. Since the towers often feature photographs of Chicago residents, many locals stroll by frequently to see if their face is on the big screen, which makes it a doubly good place for people watching while picnicking.

Enjoying what Chicago has to offer does not mean that you have to spend a lot of money. Many of Chicago’s architectural and historical landmarks can be enjoyed for free; there are also plenty outdoor parks where you can exercise, run or frolic, as well as beaches from which you can appreciate the view of Lake Michigan.

Millennium Park

Particularly during the summer, Millennium Park offers many free attractions on its 24.5 acres overlooking Lake Michigan. The Jay Pritzker Pavillion hosts free concerts, including a daily noontime show from June through September (see Resources for the list of performers). Anyone can play in the Crown Fountain, which shoots water every five to seven minutes from April to mid-October. On Saturday mornings from June through September, there are yoga, Pilates and dance aerobics classes on the Great Lawn. Take a portrait in front of the popular mirrored Cloud Gate sculpture. Admire the Lurie Garden, which is particularly colorful from June to September.

The Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park is a great place to catch a free live music performance. The pavilion hosts a range of concerts and performances throughout the summer months, and visitors can also enjoy free movies and other events on select nights.

Chicago’s Lakefront

Along the Lakefront, The Chicago Park District manages 26 miles of beach and a cement trail that is perfect to run, walk, rollerblade or bike along. Admission is free. The 2010 beach season runs from May 28th to September 6th. Lifeguards are on duty on each beach from 11:00 am to 7:00 pm throughout the season, and starting at 9:30 am between June 21st and August 15th. Only on certain beaches can you bring a dog. To check conditions on the beach before you go.

Garfield Park Conservatory

The Garfield Park Conservatory is one of the largest and most beautiful conservatories in the United States. Admission is free, and visitors can enjoy a range of plant-life and special exhibits.

Lincoln Park Conservatory

The Lincoln Park Conservatory offers visitors a chance to explore a variety of gardens, including the Palm House and Fern Room. Admission is always free, and visitors can enjoy educational tours and special events throughout the year.

Finding Free and Cheap Activities – Chicago Museums

One of the best ways to save money while enjoying some of Chicago’s cultural offerings is to take advantage of the free days at various museums and attractions. Many museums, such as the Art Institute of Chicago, have designated free days for Illinois residents. This allows visitors to explore world-class art and history without spending a dime.

Additionally, taking part in free tours is a fantastic way to learn about the city’s history and architecture without spending a fortune. Chicago offers numerous guided walking tours that delve into the city’s rich past and vibrant present. These tours provide a unique insight into the city’s architecture, public art, and special events.

World-Class Museums Are A Popular Spot

Chicago’s museums charge admission for their art exhibits, but sometimes they host free museum days or reduced-price days. If you want to visit several, such as the Field Museum, the John G. Shedd Aquarium, the Museum of Science and Industry, National Museum Of Mexican Art, The Art Institute Of Chicago, The Chicago History Museum, Museum Of Contemporary Art and the Adler Planetarium, buy a CityPass. The CityPass saves you money on admission to these sights as well as the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower and John Hancock Building.

Tuesdays at the Museum of Contemporary Art

Every Tuesday is free at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) near the Magnificent Mile shopping district. The MCA’s permanent collection specializes in visual art after 1945 and work by Chicago-based artists. The MCA also hosts national and internationally traveling exhibitions. On Tuesday evenings from 5:30 to 8:00 p.m. from June to September, there is a free jazz concert on the terrace.

Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago is one of the premier museums in the United States. On free admission days from 5 pm to 8 pm, admission is free for Illinois residents. Visitors can enjoy a wide range of exhibits, including masterpieces from renowned artists such as Monet, Van Gogh, and Warhol.

Chicago History Museum

The Chicago History Museum is a must-visit for anyone interested in the history of the city. Admission is free on Tuesdays from 2 pm to 9 pm. Visitors can experience exhibits that tell the story of the Chicago’s cultural and political history, including its role in the Civil Rights Movement.

National Museum of Mexican Art

The National Museum of Mexican Art is one of the best places to experience the culture and art of Mexico in the United States. Admission is always free, and visitors can enjoy a variety of exhibits, including folk art, textiles, and photography.

Finding Free and Cheap Activities – All Around Chicago

Harold Washington Library

The library is named after a congressman who became Chicago’s first black mayor and died in office in 1987. The library pays tribute to his spirit and accomplishments in a permanent exhibit. The library also holds extensive collections of music, including Chicago blues, has a large garden room and holds traveling exhibits. Admission is free.

The Neo-Futurarium

Chicago has a proud tradition of theater, from off-Broadway shows to small productions. An inexpensive local favorite is the Neo-Futurarium, whose signature production is a nighttime, for-adults show in which the ensemble performs 30 short plays in 60 minutes in an order selected by the audience. These plays are sometimes funny, sometimes abrasive, sometimes somber and sometimes just weird, but they are all performed with heart and honesty.

Navy Pier

Located on the north end of the lakefront and marked by a giant Ferris wheel, Navy Pier is a boardwalk and collection of shops, bars and restaurants. Admission is free, and the people-watching is spectacular. Food selections include dog-and-burger stand fare, which is a bit less expensive than the sit-down restaurant options.

Sears/Willis Tower

No matter what its proper name is (it was renamed Willis Tower in July 2009) people in Chicago will always call this behemoth building the Sears Tower. It is downtown at 233 S. Wacker Dr., and it stands 1,450 feet, making it the tallest building in North America. Tourists can ride an elevator to the top and look out the windows for a stunning view of the greater Chicago area.

On a clear day from the Sears Tower Sky Deck 1,353 ft. (412.4 m) up, you can see 40 to 50 miles (64.3 to 80.4 m) out into Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin. Lines are shorter after 5:00 pm. Come to the Sky Deck 30 to 45 minutes before sunset to capture a panoramic view with your camera (see References for exact sunset times). Included in the visit to the deck itself is an interactive exhibit about Chicago’s history in six different languages: English, French, German, Japanese, Polish and Spanish. Outside, there are high-tech telescopes to examine the city below you in detail and kid-level views for children.

Live Music and Delicious Hot Dogs

Chicago is renowned for its thriving music scene, and there are plenty of opportunities to catch live performances without spending too much money. Many bars, clubs, and music venues offer free or cheap shows, allowing visitors to enjoy local talent and discover new sounds.

While exploring the city, don’t forget to try one of Chicago’s famous hot dogs. These tasty treats can be found at affordable prices throughout the city and are a must-try for anyone visiting Chicago on a budget. Sampling these delicious hot dogs is not only a cheap and filling meal option, but it is also a quintessential Chicago experience.

Buddy Guy’s Legends opened in 1989, and though it’s still a bit new and frankly a bit clean for a blues club, it is a destination for blues lovers. The club is at 754 S. Wabash Ave. Admission for headlining shows falls in the $10 to $20 range, but the club often has free acoustic opening acts during the early evening.

A local favorite is the Elbo Room, 2871 N. Lincoln Ave. This small basement nightclub hosts local and touring acts from every genre, seven nights a week.


The big city of Chicago is at its best during the summer, and part of the reason is that the city is home to two baseball rivals: the Chicago Cubs of the North Side and the Chicago White Sox of the South Side. The Cubs play at Wrigley Field, 1060 W. Addison St., and many home games are played during the day (a tradition; Wrigley Field did not get stadium lights until 1988). The White Sox play at U.S. Cellular Field, 333 W. 35th St.

Ticket prices generally hinge on how well the teams are doing. Weeknight admission is generally cheaper, and in some cases under $30, but be prepared to sit high up.

Architecture and Tours

Chicago had a building boom in the 1930s, when Gothic architecture was the style of the day. This left the city with a collection of handsome business buildings and churches. The Tribune Tower at 435 N. Michigan Ave. is one such building. The building’s large ground-level windows allow passersby to stop and watch a live broadcast on WGN radio.

But there’s more to Chicago landmarks than Gothic buildings; the city has identified the most popular, designed self-guided tours and posted the maps on the city website.

Additionally, taking part in free tours is a fantastic way to learn about the city’s history and architecture without spending a fortune. Chicago offers numerous guided walking tours that delve into the city’s rich past and vibrant present. These tours provide a unique insight into the city’s architecture, public art, and special events.

Chicago is a fantastic destination with plenty of free and cheap things to do. From free museum days to live music and delicious hot dogs, there is something for everyone to enjoy. Exploring the city’s public art, taking part in free tours, and experiencing the vibrant atmosphere of the city are all great ways to make the most of your visit. So, whether you’re looking for great views, Saturday nights full of live music, or simply want to enjoy a fun and budget-friendly adventure, Chicago has it all. Plan your trip today and embark on an unforgettable journey in the Windy City.

With dramatic architecture, historical sites and numerous public parks, Chicago is a popular vacation destination throughout the year especially the holiday season. The Windy City offers an array of free activities including ice skating, swimming and self-guided walking tours. Whether you are in town for a weekend getaway or a family vacation, Chicago offers plenty of free things to do throughout the year.

There are plenty of fun things and free things to do in Chicago that won’t break the bank. From great views and public art to special events and live music performances, visitors can experience all the city has to offer without spending a lot of money. So why not spend your Saturday nights exploring the best cheap things Chicago has to offer?