Top 12 Free Things to Do in Chicago

Chicago is one of America’s most iconic cities. Known for its world-class architecture, exciting sports teams, diverse neighborhoods, and famous music scene, the Windy City has something for everyone. While Chicago can be an expensive place to visit, there are plenty of free things to see and do.

Magnificent Mile StrollEnjoy window shopping and architecture.
Millennium Park VisitSee “The Bean” and enjoy free concerts.
Grant Park ExplorationAdmire Buckingham Fountain and lake views.
Free MuseumsVisit museums with free admission days.
Free Walking TourExplore neighborhoods and learn history.
Free FestivalsAttend cultural and music festivals.
Free Comedy ShowEnjoy comedy at various venues.
Jog or Bike RideUse the Lakefront Trail or The 606 for views.
Lincoln Park ZooFree admission to see animals in natural habitats.
Skyline ViewsFind spots for free views of the skyline.
Navy Pier VisitWalk the pier and enjoy free attractions.
Public Transit TourUse the CTA for self-guided city tours.

This article will highlight the top 12 free attractions and activities in Chicago that will allow you to experience the city without breaking the bank. From museums to parks, festivals, and more, you’ll discover how to make the most of Chicago on a budget.

1. Take a Stroll Down the Magnificent Mile

Name and Location: Take a Stroll Down the Magnificent Mile along N Michigan Ave in downtown Chicago.

History and Significance: Dating from the 1890s, this upscale district stretches 13 blocks with luxury shopping, dining, museums, architectural landmarks and people watching.

What to Expect: Stroll down Chicago’s bustling “Main Street” gazing up at historic skyscrapers and landmarks while window shopping high-end stores.

Visitor Information: The Mag Mile is openly accessible daily. Attractions like shops may have varying hours.

One of the best ways to take in the sights of Chicago is by walking down the famous Magnificent Mile. Located along Michigan Avenue, this stretch features high-end shops, restaurants, hotels and attractions. Even if you don’t plan on spending any money, window shopping along the Mag Mile provides endless entertainment. Be sure to look up and admire the historic architecture as you walk. Don’t miss the Tribune Tower, Wrigley Building, and Hancock Center along the way.

2. Visit Millennium Park

Name and Location: Visit Millennium Park found downtown.

History and Significance: Chicago’s town square since 2004, Millennium Park houses acclaimed public artworks like The Bean, gardens, pavilions and event venues across 25 acres.

What to Expect: See Cloud Gate’s reflection, Crown Fountain’s changing faces, outdoor concerts, Lurie Garden and art exhibitions at Chase Promenades.

Visitor Information: Millennium Park stays open from 6am to 11pm daily with free admission.

Millennium Park is one of Chicago’s most popular attractions. Located in the Loop area, this urban park features contemporary public art installations, gardens, pavilions, and more. A must-see is Cloud Gate (nicknamed “The Bean”), a giant reflective steel sculpture shaped like a bean. Kids will love splashing in the Crown Fountain, which has an interactive video display. From May to September, you can enjoy free concerts at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Take an architecture boat tour departing from the park for skyline views.

3. Explore Grant Park and Buckingham Fountain

Name and Location: Explore Grant Park & Buckingham Fountain along Lake Michigan.

History and Significance: Home to iconic events like Lollapalooza, Taste of Chicago and much more over 319 acres since 1835, this Chicago hub features Buckingham Fountain as its centerpiece.

What to Expect: Picnic, visit Crown Fountain and Maggie Daley Park, walk through gardens and enjoy the 15-minute evening fountain light shows from mid-April to October.

Visitor Information: Grant Park is open 6am to 11pm; Buckingham Fountain generally operates April–October from 8am–11pm.

Home to festivals like Taste of Chicago and Lollapalooza, Grant Park serves as Chicago’s front yard. Stroll through the 319-acre green space and admire the views of Lake Michigan. Don’t miss the iconic Buckingham Fountain, one of the world’s largest. The fountain puts on an hourly water and music show from April through October. Have a picnic, rent a kayak, or visit one of the park’s several monument sights and public artworks.

4. Visit Free Museums

Name and Location: Visit Free Museums like the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen, International Museum of Surgical Science off LSD or others.

History and Significance: Along with prominent paid institutions, Chicago offers many acclaimed niche museums covering art, science, history and culture with free entry.

What to Expect: Chicago has diverse specialty museums where visitors can admire Mexican artworks, medical artifacts, global cultures, outsider art, Holocaust exhibits and more at no cost.

Visitor Information: Free museum hours vary, but are typically open 5-6 days weekly from 10am-5pm.

Many of Chicago’s best museums offer free admission. The National Museum of Mexican Art showcases Latino art and culture. Learn about Chicago’s history at the Chicago History Museum. The Museum of Contemporary Photography exhibits modern photography. The National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture and the DuSable Black History Museum are also free. Most major museums like the Art Institute and Field Museum offer certain free days as well.

5. Take a Free Walking Tour

Name and Location: Take Free Walking Tours like from Chicago Architecture Center or Chicago Cultural Center downtown.

History and Significance: Expert volunteer docents lead scheduled walks illuminating Chicago’s rich history, stunning design and public art treasures.

What to Expect: Learn insider tidbits touring The Loop or a specific neighborhood, hearing stories behind prominent buildings, sculptures and city growth.

Visitor Information: Free tours are generally 1-1.5 hours, covering under 2 miles with varying frequency and meetup spots.

To get better acquainted with Chicago’s different neighborhoods, take a free walking tour. The city has several companies and organizations that offer complimentary tours led by knowledgeable guides. You can take a guided walk through key downtown areas like The Loop or delve into specific neighborhoods like Chinatown. Topics range from Chicago’s gangster history to theater and blues music. Most walking tours meet at specific locations and run 1-2 hours.

6. Go to a Free Festival

Name and Location: Go to Free Festivals like Gospel Fest in Millennium Park, Printers Row Lit Fest in the South Loop and dozens more.

History and Significance: Chicago hosts vibrant cultural celebrations downtown like Blues Fest while neighborhood street fairs showcase local flavor from Little Italy to Andersonville and beyond.

What to Expect: Find rows of vendors, stages with live music, beer gardens and carnival rides at summer fairs plus arts events, holiday celebrations and other festivities.

Visitor Information: Festivals take place most weekends around Chicago between May and October with open access, sometimes requiring tickets for concerts.

From music festivals to cultural celebrations, Chicago hosts free festivals nearly every weekend in the warmer months. Lollapalooza and the Chicago Blues Festival bring huge crowds downtown. The Taste of Chicago has free concerts and samples from local eateries. More quirky fests include the Chicago Hot Dog Fest, Windy City Ribfest, and Mole de Mayo. Neighborhood street fests like those in Little Italy and Greektown offer family fun. Check event calendars online to see what’s happening during your visit.

7. Catch a Free Comedy Show

Name and Location: Catch a Free Comedy Show like at Zanies Comedy Club or Laugh Factory Chicago in various locations.

History and Significance: Known for improv and Second City alumni, Chicago lets visitors experience its famous stand-up comedy scene via free weeknight showcases.

What to Expect: Laugh it up as amateur and pro comedians try out edgy new material on stage at local comedy institution showrooms around the city.

Visitor Information: Comedy clubs host free weeknight showcases year-round, usually later evenings from around 9-11pm after dinner sets.

Chicago has a renowned stand-up comedy scene. You can often find free or inexpensive shows at venues like Laugh Factory, Zanies, and The Second City. Check event schedules online to find free comedy nights. You may be able to catch improv, open mic nights, or even some well-known comedians trying out new material at these venues for free.

8. Go for a Jog or Bike Ride

Name and Location: Go for a Jog or Bike Ride along the Lakefront Trail.

History and Significance: Built along scenic Lake Michigan, this 18-mile paved trail connects green spaces from Ardmore Street to 71st Street since the 1960s.

What to Expect: Enjoy running, walking or cycling past beaches, marinas, parks and skyline views with occasional public artworks dotting the path.

Visitor Information: The Lakefront Trail is openly accessible year-round from 5am to 11pm based on Chicago park hours.

See Chicago’s lakefront parks and neighborhoods from a different perspective by going for a jog or bike ride. The 18-mile Lakefront Trail offers scenic views of Lake Michigan. Neighborhood paths like The 606 give you an up-close look at Chicago’s diverse communities. The city’s Divvy bikeshare program lets you rent bikes for $15 a day. Cycling or running lets you cover more ground and take in the city sights at your own pace.

9. See the Animals at Lincoln Park Zoo

Name and Location: See Animals at Lincoln Park Zoo in Lincoln Park neighborhood.

History and Significance: Founded in 1868, this zoo pioneered lush naturalistic habitats and boasts over 1,100 animals across 35 lush acres.

What to Expect: Observe lions, snow monkeys, penguins, polar bears and more roaming habitats modeled after Africa, Asia and circumpolar regions.

Visitor Information: Lincoln Park Zoo is free and open year-round, 365 days a year between 10am-5pm.

From gorillas to polar bears, lions and penguins, Lincoln Park Zoo offers free admission to see animals from around the globe in natural habitats. This 35-acre zoo located along Lake Michigan has been a beloved Chicago institution since 1868. In addition to the animals, the zoo hosts learning programs, special events, and even an impressive holiday light display during Christmas. It’s an excellent free activity for families and animal lovers of all ages.

10. Take in Stunning Skyline Views

Name and Location: Take in Stunning Skyline Views from Hancock Observatory 1,000 feet up or various rooftop bars.

History and Significance: Epic city sightlines give visitors the chance to marvel at Chicago’s towering architecture from high vantage points.

What to Expect: Gaze out across Chicago’s urban expanse showcasing the Willis Tower, Tribune Tower, Marina City and beyond from lofty viewspaces extending up to 1,353 feet.

Visitor Information: Signaturecocktail prices at rooftop lounges; Hancock Observatory is $19.

You don’t need to pay for a skyscraper observatory to see Chicago’s famous skyline. Head to the free observation deck at John Hancock Center for views that are just as spectacular. Or visit 360 Chicago’s TILT attraction for free panoramic vistas and the thrilling sensation of leaning over 1,000 feet above Michigan Ave. Grab a drink at Cindy’s rooftop bar or the Signature Room in Hancock for sky-high views.

11. Visit Navy Pier

Name and Location: Visit Navy Pier on Lake Michigan.

History and Significance: Opened in 1916 as a shipping/recreation venue, the 3,300-foot pier today hosts rides, shops, boat cruises, dining and entertainment year-round.

What to Expect: Ride the 196-foot Ferris wheel, visit free museums and exhibitions, see the Chicago Children’s Museum, catch street performances and admire lakefront views.

Visitor Information: Navy Pier is open 10am-10pm in summer, 10am-8pm in winter. Entry is free; attractions cost extra.

Navy Pier is a Chicago icon featuring shops, restaurants, gardens, rides, and more. While attractions like the Centennial Wheel and Children’s Museum charge admission, you can still visit the 3,000 foot pier for free. Stroll along the lakefront, ride the historic carousel ($3 per rider) and take in views of the skyline. Visit in the summer to catch free firework displays on Wednesday and Saturday nights. The Crystal Gardens and Stained Glass Museum are also free.

12. Take a Free Public Transit Tour

Name and Location: Take Free Public Transit Tours departing from the Chicago Cultural Center downtown.

History and Significance: Expert guides lead 2-hour bus tours on select summer weekends imparting Chicago history and architecture as seen via motorcoach.

What to Expect: Hear contextual stories highlighting famous buildings, movie sites and neighborhoods while seeing key landmarks via comfortable transportation from unique angles.

Visitor Information: Free tours run Saturday & Sunday mornings at 11:30am from June through October only. Space is limited.

Chicago has an extensive public transit system that makes it easy to navigate the city. The CTA buses and L trains can essentially give you a narrated tour of Chicago’s neighborhoods and landmarks. The 146 Express bus goes along Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile up to the Gold Coast. The Brown Line L train takes you from downtown to historic neighborhoods like Lincoln Square. Use Transit Stop app to learn about sites along the way. With your feet up and the views rolling by, city sightseeing doesn’t get much easier than this!


Visiting Chicago doesn’t have to break the bank. From world-renowned museums and parks to exciting festivals and iconic architecture, the city offers an array of free things to do. Use public transit to access free attractions around town. Take free walking tours to dive deep into Chicago’s culture and history. Experience the lakefront, comedy shows, markets, events and more without spending a dime. Follow this guide to enjoy Chicago on the cheap.

With free activities ranging from strolling down the Magnificent Mile to exploring the Lincoln Park Zoo, you’ll get a quintessential Chicago experience even on a tight budget. Regardless of the season or your interests, Chicago has an abundance of free attractions waiting to be discovered.

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