The Best Free Things to Do in Chicago
Plenty of people head straight for a shopping trip down the Magnificent Mile or to one of its many high-end restaurants when they visit Chicago, but the world-class city is just as accessible to those on a budget, too. Here, a round-up of our favorite free activities in the Windy City that prove its many attractions are available to everyone.
1) Get up close and personal with the new arrivals to Lincoln Park Zoo, like a little baby Diana monkey and a big female polar bear. The zoo is open 365 days a year, with exhibits ranging from a Farm-in-the-Zoo, to a Waterfowl Lagoon, to an Arctic Tundra, and tons of habitats in-between.
2) Experience the sounds of the Chicago Jazz Festival in Millennium Park. The annual festival is in its 41st year and will run from August 23 through September 1, 2019.
3) Squeeze in a workout in the sun on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings, with free yoga, tai chi, zumba, pilates and more exercise classes on the Great Lawn in Millennium Park.
4) Check out one of more than 200 free concerts that the Chicago Cultural Center hosts every year, like the 4th Annual Chicago House Music Conference & Festival. A bonus if it takes place in the Preston Bradley Hall, which has the world’s largest Tiffany dome.
5) Interested in exploring a new neighborhood? Make an appointment with a Chicago Greeter and you can get a 1- to 4-hour customized, guided tour through the city.
6) Look over the three millennia of Middle Eastern treasures at the Oriental Institute, part of the University of Chicago in Hyde Park. The Human-Headed Winged Bull, a 16-foot-tall, 40-ton relief, dominates the Mesopotamian Collection in the Khorsabad Court.
7) Learn about social reformer Jane Addams (who was also the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize) at the Hull-House Museum on the University of Illinois at Chicago campus. You’ll find a mix of exhibits -- including one focused on the importance of play -- on her efforts to improve the lives of the poor
8) There’s flora for everyone at the Garfield Park Conservatory, which contains spectacular aroids, a lush fern room, and a fine children’s garden, complete with play area. Don’t miss the “Persian Pool” and its collection of site-specific glass lily pads created by world-famous glass sculptor Dale Chihuly.
9) Experience a sunset along The 606 with a walk, stroll, or run. Chicago’s elevated park has excellent views of the skyline, and along the way you’ll see great murals and an outdoor observatory. There are also events run by The 606, like stargazing with an astronomer and bonfires.
10) From ancient Chinese pottery to Picasso, the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago is a great place to spend an afternoon. The outdoor sculpture garden features works by Richard Hunt and Louise Nevelson.
11) Located just north of the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool is a perfect respite from the surrounding bustle in any season. The treasures here include a council ring, an expansive range of well-tended Midwestern plant life, and a prairie-style pavilion.
12) With galleries profiling everything from North Korean society to monumental architecture from around the world, the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College is a gem. If you’re lucky, you might be in town for one of their exhibition openings or engaging talks.
13) To explore the National Museum of Mexican Art is to know the breadth of the Latino experience, in Chicago and beyond. On any given visit, you might see an exhibit on immigration narratives or another on Mexican psychedelia.
14) Millions enter the Water Tower Place Mall every year for intense shopping, but how many walk across the street to the original Water Tower’s City Gallery? It’s a tiny marvel on Michigan Avenue, and you might find a photographic tribute to Charlie Trotter or an exploration of Chicago’s printmaking traditions within.
15) Inside the Harold Washington Library Center, visitors can make their way through more than 50 pieces of public art. Jacob Lawrence’s bright and exuberant celebration of the late Harold Washington, an inveterate reader and the first African American mayor of Chicago, is centrally located inside the main lobby.
16) Ever wanted to hear John C. Reilly as Abraham Lincoln? David Schwimmer as the Bean (a.k.a. Cloud Gate)? It’s all possible via the Statue Stories Chicago program. Just swipe your phone on the statue’s tag to hear more than two dozen sculptures come to life as you visit them all around the city.
Max Grinnell is a contributor to Travel + Leisure.You can follow him on Twitter @theurbanologist.
Looking for more on what to do in Chicago? Read T+L’s Guide: Chicago.