No need to break the bank for a great end-of-year in the Second City.
The holidays are expensive, from the gifts and travel to see the family, to even the dining out and revelry. So why spend even more for a night out on New Year's Eve? It doesn't have to cost a ton to have a great celebration. Try these four free things to do in Chicago on the last day of the year.
Chi-Town Rising, Chicago's newest festival for New Year's Eve, hosts a free family event from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. in Wrigley Square at Millennium Park. The theme brings families to New Year's celebrations around the world through activity stations designed around each culture. The main (adult) party along the Riverwalk charges for admission, but start out at this free event, then find a lookout over the Chicago River to hear live music, watch a giant star make its way up 360 feet into the sky (directly opposite of that tired old Times Square dropping routine), and catch the fireworks timed with Navy Pier's display at the end of the night.
People-Watch on Public Transport
Miller Lite is once again enacting its Free Rides program this year, offering fare-free trips on the CTA from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. Join in the pre- and post-parties on the train, or just ride along and revel in the revelers. The brewing company has run this program in Chicago for four years now, helping residents and tourists alike get home safely after a night out celebrating.
See the ZooLights
Lincoln Park Zoo is always free, and on New Year's Eve, visit for the ZooLights experience. This popular annual event shows the animals among twinkling lights, sparkling ice sculptures, and rollicking live local music. More than two million lights brighten up the zoo in near entirety with multicolored displays, allowing visitors to catch a glimpse of the animals at night—something normally not allowed at the 35-acre property. Food vendors and kiosks selling beer and hot chocolate stand by to keep guests refreshed.
Watch the Navy Pier Fireworks
Instead of crowding onto Navy Pier for the fireworks display (which is free) with thousands of other people, go down toward the museum campus and watch the show from the lakeshore, about two and half miles south. It's one of the best vantage points in the city, and best of all, not as crowded. The fireworks start at midnight and last about twenty minutes (shooting off more than $20,000 worth of explosives), so be sure to bundle up tight against the wind and cold.