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Taking a trip to a big city like Chicago might sound like a costly endeavor, and it certainly can be if you want to dine at the finest restaurants and stay at the swankiest hotels. But what many people don’t know about the Windy City is that there are so many free things to do here too. From free museums to outdoor recreation and live shows, its easy to explore Chicago on a budget at any time of the year. Here are some of our favorite free things to do in the city!
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Chicagoans love their green spaces and embrace outdoor recreation after long winter months of hibernating indoors. A great way to get active and explore the many diverse neighborhoods in Chicago is to go for a bike ride, walk, or jog on the 606. There are 12 access points to the 606, which runs along the Bloomingdale Trail between Ashland and Ridgeway. Make sure to hop off the trail and explore the Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Logan Square neighborhoods while you’re in this part of the city.
Most zoos across the country come with an admission fee of $10 or more, but not the Lincoln Park Zoo. This is a wonderful free zoo that is one of the oldest in America and spans 35 acres right in the heart of the city. Here you can see monkeys, flamingos, zebras, birds, lions, bears, and many other creatures. Even if you’re short on time, it’s fun to walk through the zoo to check out a few exhibits on your way to do something else in the city. You can also grab a bite to eat at the zoo by stopping by the Park Place Café, Café at Wild Things, Patio at Café Brauer, or Eadie Levy’s Landmark Café.
One of the most recognizable modern landmarks in Chicago is the Bean, which is officially called Cloud Gate. This metal structure is surrounded by an event performance space, lots of seating areas, and beautiful gardens. In the summertime, you can stop by the park to listen to free concerts performed by a wide variety of artists. In this area, you can stop by the Goose Island Beer Garden, various food trucks, the 3.5-acre urban sanctuary that is the Lurie Garden, and see rotating art exhibitions. Check the city’s event calendar for Millennium Park to see what’s going on during your visit!
The Chicago Cultural Center has been open to the public since 1897 and was created with the spirit of ancient Rome and Greece in mind. Architecture buffs will love this downtown building and its large dome, Tiffany glass, and intricate artwork. You can take a free tour of the center to learn more about it or attend a performance, lecture, or film screening for free here too. The building is open from 10am to 7am on weekdays and from 10am to 5pm on weekends. Free tours are offered on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 1:15pm.
The Lakefront Trail is ideal for biking, walking, jogging, rollerblading, people-watching, and accessing the beaches along the way. You can bike over 18 miles from Ardmore Street to 71st Street to get some exercise or just go for an easy stroll to take in views of Lake Michigan and the city skyline. The lakefront is also a great way to access many free summer festivals and concerts that celebrate jazz, blues, food, and much more.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by tall buildings and lots of people and traffic in Chicago. This is why a trip to the Garfield Park Conservatory might be exactly what you need to relax and refresh yourself. It’s free to visit the large public conservatory and learn about plants from all around the world. The conservatory is open daily from 9am to 5pm and open late until 8pm on Wednesdays.
While some Chicago museums have free days, others are free every day of the year. One such museum is the National Museum of Mexican Art, which is in the Pilsen neighborhood and charges no admission. You can learn about Mexican art and culture in this traditionally Latino neighborhood and maybe even attend a music or dance performance during your visit. This museum is open from 10am until 5pm on Tuesdays through Sundays. Private tours in both English and Spanish can be arranged by scheduling in advance.
Chicago is a city of diverse cultures, and you can continue learning about this diverse history at the Oriental Institute Museum. The museum is part of the University of Chicago and has exhibits that highlight the art and history of Egypt, Persia, Mesopotamia, and other Eastern regions. Donations are suggested but not required, and the museum is open from 10am to 5pm on Tuesdays through Sundays.
For a more modern museum experience, make sure to stop by the totally free Museum of Contemporary Photography. This is a Columbia College museum located in the South Loop neighborhood. It’s a relatively small museum, but it typically features the works of both new and well-established photographers in the region. Come here to learn about Midwestern photographers and be inspired by their works that spark social change. Various lectures about photography, lunch and learn events, artists talks, and first look exhibits take place here too.
Many travelers don’t think about stopping into libraries in new cities they visit, but these are great free places to visit where the learning possibilities are endless. The main branch of the Chicago Public Library is the Harold Washington Library, which is in the South Loop neighborhood and decorated with grand details in the marble floors and intricate ceilings. There are millions of books here to flip through, a public art collection, and a glass panel dome over a lovely garden. You can request a 30-90-minute tour of the library by scheduling in advance or simply explore it on your own.