20 Best Free Chicago Attractions
Chicago has plenty of attractions you can enjoy for little to no money. Just a walk down Michigan Avenue can be a tourist’s delight. The city of Chicago is known for its impressive cityscape, delicious food, and friendly locals. Chicago also boasts a variety of free attractions and activities to enjoy. We put together a list of our favorite places you can visit for free here in the Windy City. Many of the city’s finest attractions are always free to enter or offer free admission on certain days. Here are 20 of the best free attractions in Chicago:
Chicago Cultural Center
Established in 1897, this intriguing cultural center offers free admission to people of all ages. Guests can observe the works of art featured in the extensive art galleries. The center also regularly showcases music performances and is even the main performance venue for the Chicago Children’s Choir.
Tours of the facility are offered to guests who wish to learn more about the center’s history, architecture, and overall goals.
Lincoln Park Conservatory
This large conservatory contains numerous exotic plant life species. Specific sections of the conservatory include the Palm House, Fern Room, Show House, and Orchid House. Multicolored flowers, ancient ferns, and vibrant green plants provide a visual treat for onlookers. Beautiful statuettes and other decorative objects enhance the conservatory’s overall appearance. The conservatory also includes several small ponds and fountains. The glass ceilings found in each section of the conservatory allow natural sunlight to shine down and provide nourishment to all of the plants and flowers. Clear walking paths allow visitors to tour the facility with ease.
The glass ceilings found in each section of the conservatory allow natural sunlight to shine down and provide nourishment to all of the plants and flowers. Clear walking paths allow visitors to tour the facility with ease.
Lincoln Park Zoo
Lincoln Park Zoo is one of just three zoos in America that are free every day. (The others are in Washington D.C. and St. Louis.) Kids can explore tropical rainforests, reptile houses, exotic birds and mammals right in the heart of Chicago. At certain times guests can observe training and feeding sessions.
Located next to the Lincoln Park Conservatory, this zoo is one of the few free zoos in the world. Guests can get acquainted with animals like the aardvark, black bear, and alpaca. The zoo also features Amur leopards and tigers. Bald eagles, European white storks and ostriches also make their home in this attraction. Visitors who would like to learn more about snakes spotted turtles and other mysterious creatures can check out the reptiles and amphibians exhibits. The zoo even offers education programs to children and school groups.
Founded in 1868, Lincoln Park Zoo is among the oldest zoos in the country, providing entertainment and education for free to visitors of all ages. The winding paths in this 35-acre attraction lead to a multitude of indoor and outdoor exhibits, all located just off Lake Michigan. Open year-round, the zoo is also dotted with numerous shops and restaurants, so there’s always somewhere heated or air-conditioned to step into.
Lincoln Park Zoo (free!): 2200 N Cannon Dr; 312-742-2000
The National Museum of Mexican Art
The National Museum of Mexican Art is the largest Latino cultural organization in the country. Located in the Pilsen neighborhood, the museum promotes appreciation and understanding between cultures and contains kid-friendly exhibits. The museum is closed Mondays, and open 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Tuesday – Sunday. Parking is at a premium in the crowded Mexican immigrant neighborhood. Consider taking public transit.
Artworks telling the story of Mexico’s vibrant culture and history are on display inside this popular city attraction. Collections include folk art pieces, photography and colorful paintings. Beautiful authentic Mexican textiles are also showcased. In addition to its permanent collections, the museum also hosts several temporary exhibitions throughout the year.
Knowledgeable tour guides provide even more details about many of the featured art pieces. Visitors can also enroll in education programs specifically designated for children, teens and families. The museum even offers special film, literature and women’s programs.
Millennium Park offers free concerts in the summer and ice skating in the winter. The park was completed in 2004 and is located in Chicago’s Loop, right near the Art institute and Grant Park. The Crown Fountain is a welcome respite for overheated tourists on hot summer days. Free concerts are at the architectural marvel known as the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. The nearby Lurie Garden is a 2.5 acre garden of perennials, bulbs, grasses, shrubs and trees. Don’t forget to stop for a family portrait reflected in The Cloud Gate sculpture, affectionately known by Chicagoans as The Bean.
Opened in 2004 as a park with a difference with walking paths and flower gardens. The “Bean” is a sculpture by Anish Kapoor a large stainless steel shaped jelly bean. Many events happen in the park all year. Michigan Avenue (312 742 1168).
This spacious city park is one of the most popular outdoor gathering spots in the city. People often come to this park to enjoy cycling, jogging, and socializing. Many outdoor music concerts are also held at this location during the summer months. The modern sculpture known as Cloud Gate is one of the most noticeable features of the park.
The massive Crown Fountain features a waterfall, a spout and an interactive video tower. Visitors can see tulips, exotic grass, and other forms of plant life during certain times of the year by taking a stroll through the picturesque Lurie Garden. The park additionally features other unique outdoor sculptures and fixed objects.
Navy Pier is Chicago’s most popular tourist attraction. The 3,300 foot long pier juts into Lake Michigan. It was built in 1916 for trade ships and passenger steamers, as well as public gathering and entertainment. While it can cost the kids’ college fund to spend a day at the Pier, there also are a few free and family-friendly things to do there.
The Chicago Children‘s Museum is free 52 days a year. Free trolleys provide transport to the pier during operating hours and “Dock Street” on the pier offers space for walkers, bicyclists and joggers. The Pier Players, a group of jugglers, mimes, stilt walkers, comedians and musicians, perform free almost every day. Crystal gardens is the Pier’s glass enclosed indoor garden with more than 70 palm trees and seasonal flowers and plants. Fireworks shows are every Wednesday and Saturday evening from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows
Located along the famous Navy Pier, this museum showcases colorful stained glass window displays featuring depictions of religious figures, pristine landscapes and unique patterns. The museum has been a favorite attraction among Chicago locals since it opened in 2000. Certain displays even feature images of notable Chicago athletes.
There is even a display made entirely out of soft drink bottles. Special lighting behind each stained glass panel is used to illuminate every detail for the eye to behold. A barrier made out of bulletproof glass is used to protect each panel from damage. The museum also allows visitors to bring food and beverages through the gallery.
Chicago Children’s Museum
The Chicago Children‘s Museum includes a realistic firehouse kids can play in, artwork by Chicago kids and families, and an urban garden with giant insects and flowers. For those who love dinosaurs, there is a recreation of a 1997 expedition to the Sahara that unearthed a new species of dinosaur. An inventing lab lets your child be a scientist for the day. The museum is free on Thursdays from 5-8 p.m. and the first Sunday of each month from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Also situated along Navy Pier, this fun attraction offers free admission to museum members and children under the age of one. Children who are 15 years of age or younger can enter the museum for free on the first Sunday of every month.
The WaterWays, Treehouse Trails and Dinosaur Expedition areas are among the exciting interactive exhibits geared toward enriching young minds. Children can also have a blast by visiting the Skyline, Kraft Artabounds Studio and BIG Backyard sections. Visitors who wish to learn even more about the museum’s exhibits can take part in special education programs.
Harold Washington Library
Named after notable Mayor Harold Washington, this huge city library is the largest public library in the world. The building’s eccentric architecture and modern statues fixed atop its roof make this library an eye-catching addition to the local cityscape. Guests can tour the building’s 10 floors to find book titles under every literature genre imaginable.
The library contains additional resources detailing subjects like history, social sciences and city government. The library even includes a grand auditorium and exhibit hall. Audio and visual rooms as well as music practice rooms are additional features of the library.
Museum of Contemporary Photography
This free museum is located on the campus of Columbia College Chicago and has been showcasing photographic masterpieces since 1984. Several traveling exhibitions make their way through this museum each year. Black and white photos as well as photos featuring vibrant colors adorn the facility’s walls.
Many of the photographs show images of famous athletes, beautiful landscapes and abstract objects. Visitors can also choose to purchase special editions of fine prints.
Chicago Water Tower
This city landmark was completed in 1869 to hold clean drinking water for the city’s residents. Architect William W. Boyington designed the limestone structure to resemble a small European castle. The tower miraculously survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and stands today as one of the city’s most iconic structures.
The tower includes a photo art gallery and is open for free tours.
Swedish American Museum
People can enjoy free admission into this museum if they come on the second Tuesday of every month. Children under the age of one as well as museum members can always enter the museum for free. This museum details the history of America’s immigrants from Sweden.
Visitors are also given the opportunity to learn more about the history of the museum itself as well as the facility’s Swedish immigrant founder named Kurt Mathiasson.
Grant Park‘s extraordinary Buckingham Fountain draws countless numbers of curious onlookers who are interested in seeing the elaborate water shows. The fountain bears a semblance to the Latona Fountain located on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles in France.
Special jets timed with musical scores have been programmed to shoot water into the air during certain notes of the music. Beautiful lights around the fountain are turned on during the evening hours for a more surreal effect. The surrounding cityscape creates the perfect backdrop for this exquisite landmark.
Art Institute of Chicago
Located on Michigan Avenue, the Art Institute of Chicago has a world famous collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist artwork. Admission is free every Thursday from 5-8 p.m. For kids there are art making activities and games, a family room, and puzzles, blocks, games and a library.
Illinois residents have the opportunity to see this museum for free if they visit every Thursday during the evening hours. Permanent and temporary collections include numerous classic and contemporary art pieces. The museum also features an abundance of ancient artifacts from Europe, Asia and the Americas.
Visitors can even see antique weaponry from the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Several local artists also have their works displayed inside the museum. Portraits featuring artistic representations of some of Hollywood’s biggest stars provide additional splendor.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago proudly presents this free museum to the public. Daily guided tours give visitors the chance to learn more about the Federal Reserve System as well as the local Chicago Fed. Visitors can also see an extensive collection of historical currencies.
Visitors are also shown an informative film and are allowed to take part in a question and answer session following the film’s showing.
Ping Tom Memorial Park
People who visit Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood can stop by this peaceful city park to admire its serene setting. The park was dedicated to a civic leader named Ping Tom who was a member of many of the city’s community development programs.
A pavilion resembling an Asian pagoda is the park’s centerpiece. The park’s Chinese gardens contain species of ginkgo trees and bamboo plants. This peaceful green space also offers a respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Clarke House Museum
This historic home was built in 1836 and is the oldest home in Chicago. It had previously been owned by a hardware businessman named Henry B. Clarke. The house was originally in a different location before being moved on two separate occasions. People can visit this house every Wednesday to receive a free tour of the property.
Visitors can learn more about how the house managed to survive fires and other natural disasters throughout its history. The house contains old photographs and antique furnishings.
Glessner House Museum
Adjacent to the Clarke House Museum, this city landmark is another attraction worth touring. The home dates back to 1887 and was designed by Henry Hobson Richardson. John J. Glessner lived in the house along with his family.
The home’s interior features portraits of the Glessner family along with several art pieces and vintage furniture items. People who would like a free tour can visit the home on Wednesdays.
Garfield Park Conservatory
The Garfield Park Conservatory is a best-kept secret, even among Chicagoans. The conservatory, easily reached from downtown via the Green Line elevated train, is always free and has different educational activities throughout the year. Wild Wednesdays are the last Wednesday of each month and include animal activities and scavenger hunts. The conservatory is open daily from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., and Wednesdays 9 a.m. – 8 p.m.
People who are visiting Garfield Park are encouraged to stop by this elaborate conservatory. Markers featuring the names of the plants and trees are clearly visible throughout the facility. Guests can also choose to participate in guided tours of the entire conservatory.
Visitors can even take part in educational seminars providing information about proper plant care. This versatile attraction is also a popular venue for weddings, business meetings and other types of special events.
Oriental Institute Museum
The museum located at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago provides the perfect opportunity for visitors to learn more about Asian culture and history. The museum includes several ancient pieces from Syria, Anatolia, and Nubia.
Artifacts salvaged from archeological expeditions include statuettes, pottery pieces, and art pieces carved into slabs of stone. There are also several historic photographs taken during excavation projects.
National Veterans Art Museum
Art pieces dedicated to the men and women who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces are displayed throughout this honorable museum. All of the pieces were created by veterans. Photographs, paintings and drawings depict images of combat and military camaraderie.
Most of the museum’s pieces focus on the Vietnam War and the effects of war in general. Active military personnel can even participate in free therapeutic art workshops complete with complimentary art materials.
Maxwell Street Market
Maxwell Street Market, located in Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhood, gives immigrants and locals a place to sell their products. All year round 518 vendors set up stands from 7 a.m. – 3 p.m. and sell clothing, jewelry, produce, CD’s and household goods. There are authentic Mexican food stands and live blues playing within the market. There are several pay to park lots nearby and you can also take transportation by bus or train. It’s free to wander, but if you want to buy, bring cash.
The Field Museum home of the T-rex named Sue, is free the second Monday of each month from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Permanent exhibits include the Crown family play lab with artifacts and specimens, dinosaur bones, a pueblo, animals and science activities.
Chicago Parks & Gardens
- Chicago Botanic Garden
About 25 miles north of downtown a very large park. 1000 Lake Cook Road , Glencoe
- Graceland Cemetery
A large cemetery that started in 1860 with some good architecture, just north of Wrigley Field. 4001 N. Clark Street (773 525 1105).
- Grant Park
Well known Buckingham fountain accompanied by music and coloured lights at night time. Lake Shore Drive (312 742 7650).
- Jackson Park
About 8 miles south of the Loop is an area of lagoons, lush vegetation and sand dunes on the shore of Lake Michigan .
- Lincoln Park
Home of Lincoln Park Zoo and Lincoln Park conservatory based on Crystal Palace in London . Visitor Centre is at 2045 N. Lincoln Park West.
- Oak Park
Ten miles west of Chicago has the Ernest Hemingway Birthplace Home and Unity Temple.
Chicago greeters will help you see the most interesting parts of the city in a free two-hour tour on foot or via public transit. Tours are offered in 25 neighborhoods and 40 popular interests. Register 7 to 10 days before arrival. The service is provided by the Chicago Cultural Museum and there is a no-tipping policy. If you didn’t register, take a tour with an Instagreeter, who will give you a one-hour tour of the city on the spot. The tour highlights history and architecture and is first come, first served. This service is offered Friday through Sunday 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. at the Chicago Cultural Center.
- 20 Best Free Chicago Attractions
- Chicago Cultural Center
- Lincoln Park Conservatory
- Lincoln Park Zoo
- The National Museum of Mexican Art
- Millennium Park
- Navy Pier
- Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows
- Chicago Children’s Museum
- Harold Washington Library
- Museum of Contemporary Photography
- Chicago Water Tower
- Swedish American Museum
- Buckingham Fountain
- Art Institute of Chicago
- Money Museum
- Ping Tom Memorial Park
- Clarke House Museum
- Glessner House Museum
- Garfield Park Conservatory
- Oriental Institute Museum
- National Veterans Art Museum
- Maxwell Street Market
- Field Museum
- Chicago Parks & Gardens
- Final Word