When exploring Chicago, you want to do everything. But, your budget is not limitless. The good news is, even though you can spend a fortune, touring this amazing city doesn’t have to be expensive.
While Chicago can most definitely be expensive, it is possible to explore without living on ramen for the next month. (Bagged ramen. Not the good stuff.)
How can you be a champagne tourist on a cheap beer budget? By discovering this:
There is an incredible number of free things to do in Chicago.
Attractions, tours, museums – there’s so much free stuff to do it’ll keep you busy for weeks. Illinois residents get even more of a break with several free museum days at the city’s world-class museums. Plus, there are tons of free events and festivals.
There may be affiliate links in this post, which means we may get a small commission. It’s at no extra cost to you and helps keep Your Chicago Guide free. Everybody wins!
I’ve rounded up as many of these free Chicago activities as I could find. If I’ve missed one, please let me know in the comments.
When you want to explore without breaking the bank, check out this ultimate guide to free things to do in Chicago!
Free Things To Do In Chicago
These free attractions and activities can help keep you on a budget without cutting into your fun.
"Park" seems like a bit of a misnomer when referencing this free Chicago attraction. Millennium Park is more than green space: it's a concert venue, an art museum, and a regional garden. During the winter there's ice skating, and during the summer you can start your day with yoga and end it with opera.
The Chicago Cultural Center was the nation’s first free municipal cultural venue, and today its free programming in the arts makes it one of the most popular attractions in the city. Be sure to check out the largest Tiffany dome in the world. It’s breathtaking!
Lincoln Park Zoo is one of the oldest zoos in the United States, and one of the last remaining free zoos. It’s open to all 365 days a year and features animals from every climate. It’s also dedicated to conservation and science, with one of the largest programs in the country.
Navy Pier is one of Chicago’s most popular attractions, and one of the most popular destinations in the Midwest. While there are fees at many of the attractions at Navy Pier, there are some that are free.
One of the best reasons to visit is the view, which is (of course!) free! The Pier extends half a mile into Lake Michigan, giving you some of the best views in the city.
The Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool is a hidden oasis just west of Lake Shore Drive and north of the Lincoln Park Conservatory – and unless you know about it, you’ll never find it.
Landscape architect Alfred Caldwell was hired by the Works Progress Administration to fix the Victorian-era lily pond after years of neglect. Enter the wooden gate from Fullerton Avenue, and you’ll see he did an excellent job.
This peaceful respite north of Chicago is free, although you will have to pay for parking. If you ride your bike there, however, you’ll get some exercise and won’t have to pay anything to wander this 385-acre attraction.
The Harold Washington Library Center is one of Chicago’s treasures. Inside its nine stories are books, of course, as well as music practice rooms, meeting rooms, extensive genealogy databases, and a Maker Lab.
Be sure to head to the top floor and soak in the sun in the Winter Garden (pictured).
Reach for the sky at the oldest planetarium in the U.S. From ancient navigational tools to one of the most technologically advanced domed theaters in the world, Adler Planetarium brings the stars to you. General admission starts at $18, but there are several free days a year for Illinois residents.
Ever wanted to see what a million dollars looks like? Or see inside a cash processing center? You can, and it’s free! The Federal Reserve Bank Money Museum even offers a free guided tour every weekday at 1pm.
The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday 10am to 4pm, and the cultural center offers several events. There are cooking classes, film screenings, and a monthly “Stammtisch.” This is a communal event featuring games, live music, dancing, dining, and drinking.
The Field Museum of Natural History is one of Chicago’s most iconic attractions. With millions of specimens in its collections, from gems to mummies to dinosaurs, the museum is a destination for people from all over the world. While admission can be pricey, you can visit for free during their Illinois Resident Discount Days.
Founded by Columbia College Chicago in 1976, the Museum of Contemporary Photography presents works that reflect a wide range of aesthetics and technologies. It’s the leading photography museum in the Midwest, and is continually searching for new talent to exhibit.
The museum is particularly interested in how photography impacts society, culture, and politics.
This museum and memorial tells the story of Khmer Rouge and the Killing Field through multimedia displays, archives, narratives, and a collection of monumental and authentic artifacts. Guided tours are available so you can learn more about what happened during the Cambodian Civil War. Hours are subject to change, so they advise that you call prior to visiting (773-878-7090).
Located in Pilsen, the National Museum of Mexican Art is the only museum dedicated to Latino culture that’s a member of the American Alliance of Museums. The museum has over 9,000 examples of Mexican art from ancient Mexico to the present as well as special exhibitions. While technically free, they do ask for a donation if you can spare it.
Dive into this museum dedicated to aquatic life. Built in 1930, more than 80 different habitats are represented. There are also live shows featuring dolphins, penguins, and even Beluga whales. Shedd Aquarium offers free days for Illinois residents as well as participating in Museums for All.
Founded in 1974, the Smart Museum of Art is part of the University of Chicago and is home to acclaimed special exhibitions and a permanent collection that spans five thousand years of artistic creation.
Free Chicago Tours
If you want a more in-depth look at Chicago's attractions, take a free tour!
Lurie Garden showcases a wide variety of plants, animals, and insects. This urban oasis exemplifies the city's motto, Urbs in Horto, or "City in a Garden." Free tours are offered year round on Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays.
This program provides a 2 - 4 hour tour of the city led by a local. The caveat? You can't be a local yourself. You'll need to register at least ten days in advance to take advantage of this free program.
Part of the Chicago Greeter program, this lets you drop in anytime the tours are offered. The Loop tour is available year-round, and one hour walks are offered Friday through Monday beginning at 10:30am and continuing hourly with the last walk at 2:30pm.
Map of Free Things To Do in Chicago
With all of these free attractions, museums, and things to do, you’ll definitely want to save this!