Chicago has plenty of great stuff to see and do for free – here are all the best bits © Boogich / Getty Images
From the Art Institute to skyscraper-viewing boat tours, there are plenty of brilliant things to do in Chicago that will leave your purse aching.
But there are also many ways to experience the Windy City’s art and architecture, blues and city views without spending anything at all. Keep your budget low with these best things to do in Chicago for free.
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Make the most of Millennium Park's free events
You could spend the entire day taking in Millennium Park’s mother lode of freebies, especially in summer. Stretch in a morning yoga class. Admire soaring public art and splash in the fountain-turned-water-park in the afternoon. Then catch a concert at Pritzker Pavilion in the evening. The free shows (jazz and world music on Mondays and Thursdays; classical music on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays) are a Chicago highlight, where locals gather to picnic and sip wine as melodies fill the air.
Tours around the Chicago Cultural Center
The exquisite, beaux-arts, block-long Cultural Center began its life as the Chicago Public Library in 1897. Now it offers a trove of gratis goodness, including museum-quality art exhibitions, foreign film screenings, music, dance, theater and family events.
On Thursdays and Fridays volunteers and staff lead free hour-long walking tours of the building. On Fridays through Sundays volunteers add free hour-long tours of downtown to the mix.
Chicago's Navy Pier has plenty of free things to do as well as knockout views © f11photo / Shutterstock
Enjoy lakefront views from Navy Pier
Yes, it’ll cost you to spin on the Ferris wheel or set sail on a boat – the most popular things to do at Navy Pier – but the cool breezes and terrific lakefront views are always free. The Pier also prides itself on its year-round program of complementary events, such as cultural celebrations, art exhibitions, al fresco films, and rocking concerts.
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Watch Art on theMart in the evening
The Art on theMart video art extravaganza – a trippy light show projected on the world’s largest commercial building for 30 minutes twice each evening – is one of the quirkiest things to do at night in Chicago.
Best of all, it’ll delight your eyeballs free of charge. The spring 2022 program runs April through June with shows at 8:30 and 9pm. Check the website for showtimes the rest of the year.
Visit the Design Museum of Chicago's rotating exhibitions
The free Design Museum puts on cool exhibitions that change regularly and cover everything from stage design to textile design, game design to the parallels between design and sound.
Free music sets are often scheduled ahead of the main performance at Buddy Guy's Legends club © Marc Lachapelle / 500px
Catch live music for free at Buddy Guy’s Legends
Chicago’s musical claim to fame is the electric blues — and Buddy Guy’s is the place to hear a fret-bending set for nothing. While evening shows cost $15 to $25, musicians often play free acoustic blues or jazz from 5 to 8:30pm at the restaurant/club before the main performance.
See the animals at Lincoln Park Zoo
Lincoln Park Zoo has entertained families for free for more than 150 years. Lions roar, apes swing, polar bears swim and snow monkeys chill just blocks from downtown’s skyscrapers.
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Walk the city with a Chicago Greeter
Top-class walking tours in the Windy City don’t come as free and breezy as the two- to four-hour guided trips by Chicago Greeter. Choose a theme, maybe history or architecture, or pick a neighborhood, perhaps arty Pilsen or historic Uptown.
Book at least ten business days in advance. Not only is this service free, the greeters – all locals – adhere to a strict no-tipping policy.
Settle in at Whistler for eclectic performances
The Whistler is part-gallery, part-cocktail lounge and part-venue for local indie bands, jazz combos, electronica, country music, and DJs. There’s never a cover charge. Instead, most everyone purchases a snazzy drink to fund the nightly performances (although it's not compulsory).
Garfield Park Conservatory is a wonderful, calming experience © Nagel Photography / Shutterstock
Wander around Garfield Park Conservatory
The 1907 hothouse bursts with cacti, ferns and flowers. Outdoors, roam the grounds past a carnivorous plant bog, lily pool, labyrinth and Claude Monet’s recreated garden, then attend a demonstration on beekeeping or composting – all free.
Explore African American arts and culture at Stony Island Arts Bank
The far-flung Stony Island Arts Bank now trades in cultural capital rather than cash. This rewarding free-to-visit center of African American arts hosts provocative exhibitions and works by new and emerging contemporary artists, as well as weekend DJ sets. Hours vary, so check the website before embarking.
Celebrate Latinx artworks at the National Museum of Mexican Art
Colorful folk art and politically-charged paintings grace the walls at the free National Museum of Mexican Art, the USA’s largest Latinx arts institution. Afterward amble around the neighborhood to see images of Aztec gods, singing gauchos, and other works by Mexican muralists splashed across the buildings – a sort of outdoor gallery that continues the theme.
Maggie Daley Park is the perfect playground for a day out with the family © f11photo / Shutterstock
Have a family day out at Maggie Daley Park
Families love Maggie Daley Park’s fanciful, free playgrounds in all their enchanted-forest and pirate-themed glory. Multiple picnic tables make the park an excellent spot to relax as well.
Follow the 606 between neighborhoods
An elevated train track converted into a smart, 2.7-mile trail, the 606 unfolds overhead and connects the hipster hoods of Bucktown, Wicker Park, and Logan Square. Look for murals, public art installations and cool views of L trains zipping by – it all costs nothing.
Learn about modern architecture at Charnley-Persky House
Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Charnley-Persky House when he was just 19 years old. Register in advance for the free 45-minute tours that run on Wednesdays at midday. See how he left behind the baroque decorations of Victorian design and kicked off a simple style that laid the foundation for modern architecture.
Watching the Buckingham Fountain light show is one of the best free things to do in Chicago at night © joe daniel price / Getty Images
Be dazzled by the light show at Buckingham Fountain
The centerpiece of Grant Park, Buckingham Fountain is one the world's largest with a 1.5-million-gallon capacity and a 15-story-high spray. The central fountain symbolizes Lake Michigan, with the four water-spouting sea creatures representing the surrounding states.
So far, so super-sized. The fountain then lets loose on the hour from 9am to 11pm early May to mid-October, accompanied at night by multi-colored lights and music, and all for free.
Play free arcade games at Replay Lincoln Park
A little off-the-beaten-path, this dark Chicago bar is loaded with scores of pinball machines, classic arcade games like Tetris, Donkey Kong and Paperboy, plus plenty of up-to-date beat-’em-ups like Mortal Kombat and Tekken 5 — all available to play for the cost of a drink.
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Enjoy Chicago's best view at Signature Lounge
It’s the worst kept secret in Chicago: Signature Lounge has the best views of the city’s skyline. Best of all, it’s free.
Take the elevator to the 96th floor of 875 North Michigan Avenue (still locally known as the John Hancock Center) and order a – admittedly pricey – beverage while enjoying the views from some 1000ft up in the sky. It’s even more impressive at night, but children aren't allowed in the lounge after 7pm. Be prepared for a crowd.
There's free street art all through the Pilsen neighborhood © Maremagnum / Getty Images
Admire the murals and street art in Pilsen
The neighborhood of Pilsen is famous for its murals that splash across churches, schools and cafes, all of which can be seen for free and on foot.
The 16th Street railroad embankment unfurls a particularly rich vein, with 50 works by local and international artists adorning a 1.5-mile stretch between Wood and Halsted Streets.
The whole of 18th Street station is a work of art too — its walls and steps are adorned with murals. Don’t miss the house of muralist Hector Duarte, a few blocks southwest of the station. He’s covered it with his most striking work Gulliver in Wonderland.
Join the locals at popular Montrose Beach
Chicago has plenty of great beaches, but Montrose Beach – the dune-packed, nature-filled stretch of sand in Uptown – is amongst its most popular. Many rent kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and jet skis here, but with a good book, some shorts and a towel, it’s just as lovely whiling away a day for absolutely nothing too.
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Peruse the exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Photography
This free museum focuses on American and international photography from the early 20th century onward. The permanent collection includes the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Harry Callahan, Sally Mann, Victor Skrebneski, Catherine Wagner, and 500 more of the best photographers working today.
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Browse the fine-arts collection at Smart Museum of Art
Named after the founders of Esquire magazine, who contributed the start-up money, this is the official fine-arts museum of the University of Chicago.
The free collection holds 5000 years' worth of works. Twentieth-century paintings and sculptures, Central European expressionism and East Asian art are the strong suits. Hepworth, Warhol, and Kandinsky are just a few of the big-name artists on offer.