City guides

Top 10 free things to do in Chicago

It’s not as hard as you might think to visit Chicago on the cheap. Make the most out of your next trip with these activities that are so cheap, they’re free!

December 1, 2022
 min read
Last updated:
Jan 23
Cloud Gate, also known as "The Bean," in front of high rises in Chicago.

It’s easy to spend next month’s rent on a visit to Chicago, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Despite being a world-class city, Chicago is one of the easiest places to explore on the cheap. In fact, many of the city’s best attractions are completely free to enjoy! We love free stuff as much as you do, so let’s go with the best free things to do in Chicago.

Lincoln Park Zoo

Visit one of the only zoos in the country with free admission and one of the best free family things to do in Chicago. Open and free year-round, if you visit in the winter, you’ll be treated to the zoo’s holiday events calendar, plus you’ll get to watch how the nearly 200 different species behave in the city’s chilly climate. (Don’t worry about the more fragile critters. Wildlife experts have parameters in place to make sure they’re not exposed to more than they can handle.) 

(Open 8 AM to 5 PM daily)

Lions at the Lincoln Park zoo, Chicago. Photo by lincolnparkzoo on Instagram.
Photo by lincolnparkzoo on Instagram.

Chicago Conservatories

More into plants than animals? The stunning Lincoln Park Conservatory near Lincoln Park Zoo is home to more than 40,000 exotic and local plants under a spectacular glass dome. Visits are free and year-round, but you need to make a timed reservation online before you go. 

The sprawling gardens at Garfield Park Conservatory are another option for year-round plant life if you’re closer to the city’s West Side. This one got a boost from Yelp back in 2021 when it was named the best garden in North America by its users. Reservations are free but required for any visit.

(Lincoln Park Conservatory open 10 AM to 3 PM Wednesday-Sunday; Garfield Park Conservatory open 10 AM to 8 PM Wednesday, 10 AM to 5 PM Thursday-Sunday)

Flowers and hanging baskets at the Chicago Conservatories.
Photo by lpconservancy on Instagram.

Chicago Cultural Center

Think museums and “cultural activities” are out of your budget? Think again! The Chicago Cultural Center was completed in 1897 as the city’s first public library and today is a hub for free things to do in the city. Today, this Chicago institution is more well-known as the home of the largest stained glass Tiffany Dome in the world. If you have time to gaze up for a bit while you’re there, try to find your zodiac sign within the fish scale design of this impressive piece of art.

All done? Take a free guided tour with staff at the center, explore the rotating art exhibits on display, and access the city’s underground pedestrian walkway, the Pedway. You can access the Pedway from the center’s Randolph Street lobby. It’s a great way to get around downtown when the temperatures dip, and it’s free too.

(Open daily, 10 AM to 5 PM)

Tiffany glass dome in the Chicago Cultural center.
Photo by chicagoculturalcenter on instagram.

Self-Guided Mural Walks

Do tickets to the famous Chicago Art Institute sound too pricey? We’ve got a great solution to get you art on a budget. Take a free mural walk to some of Chicago’s best public art! You’ll get to explore some of the city’s lesser-known, vibrant, residential neighborhoods and be your own guide for these, so no tipping required. If you’re not sure where to start, here are our favorites, all within walking distance of each other:

  • Greetings from Chicago (2226 N. Milwaukee Ave.): Chicago was the first city to get a postcard mural from the artists behind The Greetings Tour. See the original in Logan Square.
  • Robin Williams (2051 N. Milwaukee Ave.): This tribute to the late actor is just a few blocks south down Milwaukee Avenue. You’ll probably see the blue background first. He’s surrounded by images of one of his iconic roles: Genie from Aladdin.
  • Vivian Maier (1651 W. North Ave.): Continue south into Wicker Park for another tribute mural from Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra. The colorful image depicts late Chicago photographer Vivian Mauer. 
Muddy Waters colourful guitar mural in Chicago
Photo by insidechicago on Instagram.

Millennium Park

If you’re visiting Chicago for the first time, Millennium Park is probably already on your to-do list. Take a selfie at Cloud Gate, the mirrored art installation affectionately known as “The Bean.” A dusting of snow in the winter months makes those social media photos even more whimsical. Millennium Park is also the city’s playground for free events in every season. In the winter months, race around the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink with just a free reservation. In the warmer months, the Jay Pritzker Pavilion hosts free live music events and movie screenings.

The Chicago "bean" in winter with snow.
Photo by millenium_park on Instagram.

Harold Washington Library Center

Bookworms won’t want to miss one of the biggest public libraries in the world. If it’s a nice day, walk the full city block it dominates on State Street to get a sense of the enormity of this place. Once inside, don’t skip the Winter Garden, a favorite meeting spot for locals with plenty of light no matter what’s happening outside with the weather. Special collections require a free appointment, but if you’re at all interested in Chicago history, the library keeps archives dating back to the Civil War and is always free to visit.

(Open 9 AM to 8 PM Monday-Saturday, 1 PM to 5 PM Sunday)

The roof of the Harold Washington library in Chicago from inside.
Photo by chicagoinfinite on Instagram.

The Museum of Contemporary Photography

This free museum from Columbia College Chicago is one of the best places in the Midwest to dive into photography as an art form. Explore exhibits on digital photography, photojournalism, mixed media, and more, including works from current and former students. Exhibits are constantly changing and often tied to current events, so what you see today likely won’t be what you see on your next Chicago visit. Reservations aren’t required but are recommended on weekends so you won’t have to wait.

(Open 10 AM to 5 PM Monday-Wednesday, 10 AM to 8 PM Thursday, 10 AM to 5 PM Friday-Saturday, 12 PM to 5 PM Sunday)

A display of black and white photos and a bench at The Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago.
Photo by mocpchi on Instagram.

The 606

The Bloomingdale Trail, or better known as “The 606,” is Chicago’s newest urban trail. It’s perfect for active visitors who want to get their steps in and see some of the city’s best neighborhoods while they’re at it. You’ll pass through Wicker Park, Bucktown, Humboldt Park, and Logan Square as you walk the former rail line. These are some of the city’s hippest neighborhoods and there’s always something to see. Enjoy easy access to each one if you want to get off the trail for a drink and a bite to eat. 

Photo of snow covered trees on the 606 Bloomington Trail in Chicago.
Photo by the606chicago on Instagram.

National Museum of Mexican Art

Visit vibrant Pilsen for this free museum that celebrates the city's impressive Mexican culture. The collection includes textiles, photography exhibits, and more than 18,000 paintings from the 1500s to present day. It’s the largest museum dedicated to Mexican art in the country. Check the museum’s website before you go to see if there are any live theater, music, or dance performances happening during your visit.

(Open 10 AM to 5 PM Tuesday-Sunday)

Close up of painted Day of the Dead skull sculptures at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago.
Photo by explorenmma on Instagram.

Chicago’s Free Museum Days

We’ve already mentioned a few museum freebies, so you know Chicago visitors are spoiled for choice when it comes to the city’s cultural offerings. If you want to visit some of the more well-known museums on your Chicago trip, check to see whether your top choice has any free days. Many are limited to Illinois residents, but if you’re lucky enough to be a local, you can save quite a bit on your visit. The Adler Planetarium, Field Museum, Museum of Science and Industry, and the Shedd Aquarium all have free days on select dates throughout the year.

The outside of the Adler Planetarium with people lined up on the steps on a summer day with blue sky.
Photo by adlerplanet on Instagram.

Plan a Cheap Trip to Chicago

You don’t need to spend a lot of money to enjoy everything Chicago has to offer. You don’t even need to spend any money to have a fantastic visit in this city. Want more help with your Chicago trip planning? The travel experts at SuperTravel are here for you. We can help you access special rates on hotels that you won’t find anywhere else, all over our messenger app. Save up to 50% on your stay to start your budget trip to Chicago off right.

*Prices fluctuate based on season and day of the week.

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Agnes Groonwald

Agnes Groonwald is a freelance writer and creator of Travel on the Reg, a blog for regular travelers who want to travel in a regular fashion. In her world, travel is awesome, but it can also be scary, funny, or less than Insta-perfect. She was born and raised in Chicago, but is currently writing from the road as a digital nomad with her husband and dog Kimmy Kibbler.