If you are visiting Chicago and are looking for some great ways to see the city on a budget, then we’ve got a great list for you. Check out the top free things to do in Chicago – Things like snapping a selfie at the famous Chicago Bean sculpture, or seeing all the animals at the 100% free Lincoln Park Zoo, or maybe you want to get out and ride a bike on Chicago’s popular Lakefront Trail, or the urban Bloomingdale Trail. There are some great free Chicago Festivals that you should consider too, like the Chicago Jazz Festival and the famous Taste of Chicago Festival. With so many great free things to do, you can save money, while still exploring all that this amazing city has to offer.
If you are wanting a more exhaustive list of the best things to do, check out our guide to the 52 Best Things to do in Chicago.
1. Lincoln Park Zoo
A top free thing to do in Chicago is exploring Lincoln Park Zoo. This amazing zoo offers an amazing free experience that you and your kids will absolutely love. Being one of the oldest zoos in America, it is also free to visit, making it one of the few major zoos in the United States that doesn’t charge an admission fee. The Zoo houses over 1,100 different animals including zoo favorites like penguins, gorillas, monkeys, lions, and polar bears. The zoo also has some rare animals, like the endangered pygmy hippopotamus, and the West African Dwarf Crocodile. We think you’ll agree that the Lincoln Park Zoo as one of the absolute best free things to do in Chicago.
2. Chicago Bean (Cloud Gate)
Another great free thing to do in Chicago is to visit the popular Chicago Bean sculpture. While most people know it as the Chicago Bean because of it’s a bean-like shape, the sculpture is actually named “Cloud Gate” and is located in Millennium Park near downtown. It’s actually one of the most photographed pieces of public art in the world and you too can snap a selfie in front of this mesmerizing sculpture. Designed by Chicago artist, Sir Anish Kapoor, this sculpture was designed to resemble liquid mercury and from a distance, it does indeed look like molten metal.
It’s fun to walk around the Chicago Bean to see your reflection change and warp depending on what side of the sculpture you’re standing on. It’s truly an amazing and unique piece of art and well worth a visit, especially if you’re already exploring Millennium Park.
3. Navy Pier
If you want to experience Chicago’s most visited destination, then you’ll want to make your way down to the Navy Pier. This huge pier is bustling with activity and covers over 50 acres of space out over Lake Michigan. The Navy Pier is packed with fun for the whole family with amusement rides, gardens, parks, restaurants, shops, event spaces and so much more.
Originally built in 1916, the Navy Pier was originally called the Municipal Pier and used as a traditional loading spot that managed freight and passenger boat traffic, and through the years it has developed into more of a multi-dimensional entertainment and cultural center of Chicago. We think this is one of the top things to do in Chicago with kids and offers something for the whole family!
4. Magnificent Mile
For an upscale shopping and dining experience, you can stroll Chicago’s famous Magnificent Mile near downtown Chicago. The Magnificent Mile is an upscale section of Michigan Avenue and features some of the most swanky retail stores and restaurants and has been compared to other famous shopping destinations, like Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, or 5th Avenue in New York. There are also many famous hotels and buildings lining the Magnificent Mile, and even if you won’t be shopping here, it’s worth walking this fancy district just to experience Chicago’s main luxury district. There are also typically interesting street performers showing off their unusual skills and this makes for an entertaining stroll along one of Chicago’s most famous streets.
5. Buckingham Fountain
Located in the very heart of Grant Park, the Buckingham Fountain is one of the main attractions in the park and mesmerizing to watch. With the fountain water show starting every 20 minutes, you can see the fountain in action – with a timed water show that’s a truly relaxing experience. This huge fountain was dedicated way back in 1927 and holds a staggering 1,500,000 gallons of water. Since the park is open all day and into the night, you can see the fountain water show from April to October, and the fountain can be experienced from 8 am to 11 pm at night. If you watch the show at night, the water is lit up with colored lights to go along with the water display, and we think that watching the show at night is the best way to experience of Buckingham Fountain.
6. Grant Park
Affectionately known as “Chicago’s front yard”, Grant Park is an epic urban park and a breath of fresh air in the heart of bustling downtown Chicago. This truly massive park features many themed areas, event spaces, and gardens across its huge 319-acre footprint. Inside Grant Park, you can visit the famous Millennium Park art installations, stroll through the beautifully landscaped Maggie Daley Park, witness the water fountain show at the Buckingham Fountain, among many other activities and destinations you can enjoy within the park. There are so many things to do and see here at Grant Park, it would truly take days to explore it all, and that’s why Grant Park is a top outdoor thing to do in Chicago in summer, spring and fall months.
7. Lurie Garden
Lurie Garden is a beautifully crafted garden that’s a great place to relax and maybe even enjoy a picnic on a warm day. This exquisite garden is located in the Millennium Park and actually is a “rooftop garden” as it sits on the roof of the Lakefront Millennium Parking Garage below. Lurie Garden is split into 2 sides, with one side featuring thousands of colorful blooming flowers and the other side features flowers and plants under the shade of the surrounding shade trees. There is also a running stream that flows through the center of the garden and borders the wooden boardwalk that takes visitors through the heart of the garden. This garden is yet another great reason to visit Chicago’s famous Millennium Park.
8. Oak Street Beach
Oak Street Beach is considered one of Chicago’s best man-made beaches and is located right on the edge of downtown Chicago. This beach is a great place to relax, and enjoy the water and it can get very crowded on warm summer days. You’ll find people playing volleyball at the official volleyball courts, and you can order some food at the beachside restaurants. For a great thing to do in Chicago in the summer months, we think an afternoon at Oak Street Beach is a great option and should be near the top of your sunny day list.
9. Lincoln Park Conservatory
The Lincoln Park Conservatory is a great place to visit and also an unusual thing to do in Chicago for a few reasons. The main conservatory building is a unique Victorian-style glasshouse that was built in the late 1800s and has multiple themed garden rooms for showcasing beautiful and rare plants and flowers. Surrounding the building are other gardens as well as many sculptures throughout the Lincoln Park Conservatory grounds. If you are thinking about visiting the Lincoln Park Zoo, you should also make plans to stop by this unique conservatory – it’s well worth spending an hour or two walking the peaceful grounds.
10. Chicago Riverwalk
A really fun thing to do while you’re in Chicago is exploring the Chicago Riverfront – Also known as Chicago’s “Second Waterfront”. This winding path follows along the downtown portion of the Chicago River and has been built up over time to include shops, boat facilities, gardens, and parks. For a fun and unique way to experience Chicago, walking the Chicago Riverfront is among the top ways to see the city and explore downtown.
11. Chicago Water Tower
The Chicago Water Tower is an iconic building in Downtown Chicago that served as a water-pumping station to pull water in from Lake Michigan. The building has survived many city catastrophes including the great Chicago Fire and now serves as an art gallery for historic photographs and films from local Chicago artists that are now on display. If you want to see what the historic city of Chicago was like throughout the years, you’ll want to explore this special museum that now lives in the historic Chicago Water Tower.
12. Crown Fountain
For another unusual thing to do in Chicago – you can visit the famous Crown Fountain. This public art piece is located in Millennium Park and features two 50-foot towers that project digital images onto their sides to create interesting visual expressions. Also, since this is a fountain, it’s a fun place for kids to splash around in the shallow water between the towers. While Chicago seems to be full of public art installations, we have to say that Crown fountain is one of our favorites given its unique and imaginative design. If you’re going to be visiting Millennium Park, don’t miss out on this special fountain.
13. Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio
For all you architecture nerds, the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Chicago is a special destination. This is the home that the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright built and raised his 6 children in. The house has now become a historical landmark on the National Register of Historic Places and has been lovingly restored to its original condition. The house is quite interesting architecturally and shows many of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous design elements and also displays many sculptures on the exterior that were designed by Frank’s collaborator, Richard Boch. This home is worth a visit if you appreciate modern architecture and especially if you are a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work.
14. Jay Pritzker Pavilion
The Jay Pritzker Pavilion is a massive outdoor concert and event space located in the heart of Millennium Park and features many concerts, events, and shows throughout the year. The design of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion is very unique and was designed by the famous architect Frank Gehry and opened in 2004. The stage area of the pavilion is designed out of a mesmerizing & flowing walls of metal that are meant to project the sound from the stage out over the audience. There is fixed concert seating for 4,000 people in the pavilion and beyond that there is a grass amphitheater that can hold 7,000, making this venue able to hold over 11,000 people at maximum capacity. It is a real treat to see a concert at this special venue, so be sure to review the Jay Pritzker Pavilion event calendar to see what’s playing during your visit.
15. Maggie Daley Park
If you are looking for a park that has it all, you might want to visit the extraordinary Maggie Daley Park. This 20-acre park in Chicago’s greater Grant Park is fun for the whole family and a great thing to do in Chicago with kids. Maggie Daley Park was first opened in 2014 and has tennis courts, picnic lawns, themed gardens, huge play areas for kids, Ice skating rink, and rock climbing walls, and so much more. If you are looking for a park that can keep your kids busy all, day, we think Maggie Daley Park is your best option.
16. Lakefront Trail
If you are wanting to get out for some exercise, then the Lakefront Trail should be high on your list of destinations. This nearly 20-mile-long pathway snakes along the western Lake Michigan shore, connecting many of the lakefront parks, beaches, and waterfront recreation areas. It’s a popular spot for bicycling, running, skateboarding, and walking, and it can get crowded on warm summer days. On some extra busy days, this trail is known to see over 70,000 visitors. For a great way to see the city and to get some exercise, we’d highly recommend you enjoy the scenery from the popular Lakefront Trail.
17. North Avenue Beach
For another popular beach destination in Chicago, you can enjoy the sun, sand and water from the North Avenue Beach. This broad beach is located right next to downtown and also right next door from Oak Street Beach. Many consider this the top beach in Chicago due to its abundance of sand and also because it has the largest lifeguard staff. North Avenue Beach hosts a large international volleyball tournaments each year and you will often find serious volleyball matches in progress on most sunny afternoons. This beach can also get quite crowded on warm summer days, so be prepared to get there early to lock in your spot on the sand.
18. The Bloomingdale Trail
The Bloomingdale Trail is an interesting path to visit in Chicago as it is built on top of a reclaimed raised railway. The city of Chicago decided to turn on old raised train line called the Bloomingdale Rail Line into a community path and “greenway” that could be enjoyed as a unique recreational destination. The trail fully opened to the public in 2015 and is 2.7 miles long and features a paved pathway and landscaped areas along the trail. The Bloomingdale is now enjoyed by joggers, bike riders, and is loved by the residents that live in the surrounding neighborhoods and is a fun path to experience as you are up high above the city streets below.
19. Northerly Island
Northerly Island is a manmade peninsula that juts out into Lake Michigan and is the home to the Adler Planetarium, a concert venue, and a winding system of pathways throughout the open nature areas. With a lagoon in the center of the island, visitors can often see many types of birds, butterflies, and other wildlife while walking the miles of pathways that traverse this 90-acre island. Northerly Island pathways are open at night until 11 pm and walking the trails here is a fun thing to do in Chicago at night, but make sure you bring a flashlight as these paths aren’t lit.
20. Michigan Avenue Bridge
This unique and iconic bridge was important to the expansion of the city of Chicago. The Michigan Avenue Bridge was the link that finally connected North and South Chicago together on one straight boulevard through the heart of the city. The design of the bridge is interesting for a few reasons. First, it is a bridge that is built in two pieces so that it can lift up to let tall boats through – and it does this twice per week in the spring and fall. Second, this bridge is built with 2 separate levels – a double-deck bridge that lets faster traffic go on the top level and slower commercial traffic travel on the bottom level.
It is thought that this is the first bridge of this kind to ever be constructed to have vehicle traffic on both levels. To learn more about this amazing bridge you can visit the McCormick Bridgehouse which sits on the south side of the bridge and is now a museum that celebrates the history and design of the Michigan Avenue Bridge.
21. BP Pedestrian Bridge
The BP Pedestrian Bridge, or BP Bridge for short, is an interesting snakelike curving pedestrian bridge that crosses over Columbus Drive and connects visitors between Millennium Park and Maggie Daley Park. The bridge is constructed out of stainless-steel plates for the outside shell, and the walkway itself is made from Brizillion hardwood boards, so its a bridge that feels more like a beach boardwalk. With its unique design, it is truly half public art-piece and part bridge and well worth a visit if you are exploring one of the surrounding parks. We think the BP Pedestrian Bridge is actually one of the highlights of the downtown parks and should definitely be on your Chicago itinerary.
22. Oz Park
OZ Park is a sprawling and fun park in the North Chicago Lincoln Park neighborhood that has many great features for kids. Among the many features, this park is “Wizard of OZ” themed and showcases many statues of characters from the movie, like the Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow, and of course, Dorothy and Toto throughout the park grounds. Oz Park features large play areas for kids, a winding walking path, and athletic courts for basketball, volleyball, and tennis. If you are visiting or staying in or around the Lincoln Park neighborhood and you have kids, then OZ Park is a must-see and another fun thing to do in Chicago with Kids.
23. Chicago Pedway
Like other cities in the colder regions of North America, the winter weather in Chicago can be blisteringly cold and the streets nearly impossible to navigate during the common winter storms. That’s where the Chicago Pedway comes in. The Chicago Pedway is a massive system of underground tunnels, enclosed bridges, and shopping areas that connect a majority of Chicago’s downtown business district and enables workers and visitors to connect between subways and most of the buildings around downtown without facing the weather. Visiting the Chicago Pedway is a fun way to travel around downtown in the wintertime. Learn more about the Chicago Pedway here.
24. Humboldt Park
Humboldt Park is an interesting park on Chicago’s west side that is known for its interesting architectural, and natural features. Spread out over nearly 200 acres, Humboldt Park has many interesting and fun areas to explore. There are many great areas of this park, including recreation facilities for various sports, an inland beach at one of the manmade lakes, flower gardens, famous bronze sculptures, and multiple large playground areas for kids throughout the park. Also, there are multiple historic buildings on the property include the famous Boathouse Pavilion and the Humboldt Park Stables to new a couple. We think this is one of the great historic parks of Chicago and it’s a great place to explore during your visit.
25. Taste of Chicago Festival
To see what it’s like to visit the world’s largest food festival, you can explore the Taste of Chicago – a yearly 5-day festival held in Grand Park in early July. This tasty festival showcases the broad variety of foods found in the Chicago food scene as well as features cooking shows and demonstrations, art exhibits, concerts, and play areas for kids. To go along with all the great food, there are also top music artists on hand to provide entertainment throughout the festival. Another great thing about this festival is that it’s absolutely free, and so we vote this as one of the top free things to do in Chicago if you are visiting during July.
26. Chicago Jazz Festival
Another great free thing to do in Chicago, the Chicago Jazz Festival is a popular 4-day event that’s held in Millennium Park. This festival showcases many internationally famous jazz icons and talented local jazz artists and you can hear many different types of jazz music on various stages throughout the park. Thousands of jazz fans come from around the world to experience this immersive celebration of jazz and you can too, for free! The Chicago Jazz Festival is another reason why Chicago has become a cultural center of the midwest.
For a taste of China right in the middle of Chicago, you can stroll the foreign streets of Chicago’s Chinatown district. As Chicago was one of the first and largest settlement of Chinese immigrants in the United States, it is no wonder that it now is home to nearly 100,000 Chinese people to this day. Walking the streets of Chinatown makes you feel as if you’ve transported halfway around the world, with authentic Chinese shops, restaurants, boutiques, and grocery stores lining the streets. We think a trip to Chinatown in Chicago is a great cultural experience for anyone and a fun place to visit especially if you enjoy authentic Chinese food.