With the rising cost of living driven by inflation these days, it’s getting harder to save for spoils like expensive vacations. Even if you’re penny-pinching, though, there’s no reason why you can’t still experience a great holiday on a budget. 

Scouting for bargains on flights and accommodations will help you save on travel expenses, but what happens when you get to your destination? It might surprise you to know that when it comes to free stuff, Chicago has plenty to offer. 

This city in Illinois has it all—from gorgeous parks and cultural museums to zoos and urban street art. Here are some of the top things to do for free in Chicago. 

Things to Do in Chicago for Free

Who says you have to spend money to have a good time? These places of interest are free and will make your visit to Chicago more than memorable. 

Millennium Park

Millennium Park is home to the mirrored sculpture called Cloud Gate (also referred to by its nickname, “The Bean”), where posses of tourists flock to grab their Instagrammable images.

It’s a truly magnificent specimen of art that can’t help but draw the eye, and making a pilgrimage to visit it is one of the top free things to do in Chicago today. 

Tip: If you want to take a photo of/with the bean without people, go as early as possible to beat the crowd. Do a sunrise shot and capture the colors and reflections from The Bean from different angles!

The park is also home to the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, designed by Frank Gehry, which hosts free outdoor concerts during the summer months.

Millenium Park in Chicago

All you need to do is bring a picnic dinner and stretch out on the lawns for a glorious free music experience. Other free programs set for the summer months include art exhibits and sculpture installations by local artists. 

You won’t want to miss the Crown Fountain sculpture, an interactive video sculpture with a black granite reflecting pool that has become an icon of Chicago’s pop culture.

The lovely landscapes of the 3.5-acre Lurie Garden are also a big draw, even in the winter months. 

The Bean in Chicago

Chicago Riverwalk

When looking for free things to do, Chicago doesn’t come up empty-handed. The beautiful Chicago Riverwalk is one such thing.

There are plenty of restaurants, bars, and places to sit and enjoy the ambiance of the lapping waters of the Chicago River, surrounded by sky-high steel buildings.

It’s a free alternative to taking one of the highly-priced river cruises, plus you get a better feel for the urban life around you. 

One of the popular attractions along the Riverwalk is Art on theMART. It’s a vast permanent digital art projection that displays contemporary artwork across the enormous river-facing facade of theMART.

You can grab a seat on the jetty between Wells Street and Franklin Street and enjoy the nightly 30-minute show of projections that runs throughout most of the year. 

Riverwalk Steps in Chicago

Maxwell Street Market

If you’re looking for vibrant and bustling free places to go in Chicago, look no further than Maxwell Street. 

This traditional market has been operating for over 100 years every Sunday throughout the warmer seasons, typically from April to December. 

The Maxwell Street Market hosts vendors purveying all manner of trinkets and goods, from tools and clothing to baked goods and fresh produce.

Colorful umbrellas and tented stalls line the street where farmers, artists, small business owners, and re-sellers have been vending since 1912. 

Live music accompanies the hustle and bustle of the crowd, and some of the best street food in Chicago is ready for the taking. It’s a fun and eclectic way to spend your morning, and you might even walk away with a bargain or two. 

Maxwell Street market in Chicago

Lincoln Park

When considering free stuff to do in Chicago, a trip to Lincoln Park should be near the top of the list.

It’s a popular spot for photographers to bring their cameras and grab a snapshot of Lake Michigan and a forest of trees spread out before the gorgeous city skyline. 

The park shows off most during autumn when the bright yellows and maple browns of the leaves contrast the steel blues and whites of the skyscrapers behind them. 

Not only is it an aesthetic sight to behold, but it also houses some key attractions, such as the Lincoln Park Conservatory.

Forty thousand plants live within its glass greenhouse walls, including an extensive collection of ferns and a room filled with vibrant orchids.

Ultimately the park is a nature lover’s paradise—the perfect place to enjoy the city’s beauty and save some money while doing it. 

Lincoln Park view in Chicago

Buckingham Fountain

You might feel as though you’d accidentally stepped into a European city when you stroll past the Buckingham Fountain. Located in the center of Grant Park, it’s one of the largest fountains in the world. 

From 9:00 am daily, the fountain begins a routine where it puts on a mesmerizing water display for 20 minutes once every hour on the hour.

The center jet shoots water 150 feet into the sky during the display while intricate bursts of water crisscross in dazzling patterns. 

If that’s not enough to satisfy you, stick around until dusk when lights and music accompany the aquatic show.

The day culminates in a finale that takes place at 10:35 pm. Such a dazzling display earns the right to be considered one of the most spectacular free things in Chicago to experience.  

Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park in Chicago

The Beaches

When you’re looking for activities that are free in Chicago, going to the beach probably isn’t high on the list.

However, there are some noteworthy beaches to feel the sand between your toes and enjoy a sun tanning session along the fringes of Lake Michigan. 

Some of the beaches are more popular with tourists visiting the city because of their proximity to major attractions.

Two of these beaches include Ohio Street Beach and Oak Street Beach, both of which are located downtown. 

Another popular sandy site is North Avenue Beach, which happens to be situated right next to Lincoln Park, making it popular with locals and tourists alike. When it comes to free stuff in Chicago, a relaxing day at the beach tops the list.

North Avenue Beach in Chicago

Free Walking Tours

Many major cities offer exceptional free walking tours that rival paid ones, and Chicago is no exception. Free Tours by Foot is one of the several companies offering the opportunity to discover and learn more about Chicago without breaking the bank.

Of course, even though they are free, a tip is always highly recommended.

Their Chicago Architecture Tour will lead you along the Riverwalk through the history of the industrial landscape that is home to the world’s first skyscraper. (Don’t miss this one. Chicago is well known for its architecture.)

On the other hand, their Riverwalk and History tour will show you Chicago’s greatest triumphs as well as her most devastating tragedies. You will see the birthplace of the city where the original army settlements were. 

You can also check their other tours to pick the one that interests you the most.

Chicago Architecture

Lincoln Park Zoo

If you’d love to get up close and personal with some animals, then visiting the Lincoln Park Zoo is one of the best free activities in Chicago for you.

Home to about 1,100 animals, it’s one of the last free-to-visit zoos in the country. Even so, special programs and seasonal events ensure that no visit to the zoo is dull, whether it’s your first trip or your tenth. 

You’ll be able to see such animals as flamingoes, zebras, lions, bears, eagles, crocodiles, and turtles here. The list of inhabitants is constantly growing, with the recent additions of a pair of baby Japanese macaques (snow monkeys) and a new zebra foal.

New young animals aren’t always available for the public to see owing to their infancy, but you never know your luck. 

The park may sound intimidating with so many creatures to see, but its terrain is comfortable to walk, so you can easily explore the exhibits to your heart’s content.

The zoo is located in Lincoln Park, close to several other free things in Chicago that you can visit. 

Zebra foal

Street Art

There may be plenty of museums in Chicago, but not all of the well-known artworks are behind their walls.

The city is a haven for street artists and their culture of urban artistic expression; the streets themselves are lined with vibrant murals by emerging and prominent creators. 

Wandering about the different neighborhoods and enjoying the visual delights of these masterpieces is one of the best free things to do today in Chicago.

The most noteworthy areas to experience these murals are the Wabash Arts Corridor, Pilsen, and Logan’s Square. 

The Wabash Arts Corridor in particular is home to a multitude of large murals, including the famous “Moose Bubblegum Bubble” by Jacob Watts. It’s situated downtown and is close to Grant Park and the Art Institute, making it a convenient location for tourists. 

The “Greetings from Chicago” mural located in Logan’s Square is the most photographed street artwork in the city, so be sure to get a picture for your social media. 

Colorful Street Art Mural

Chicago Cultural Center

The Chicago Cultural Center is a free cultural municipal center—an iconic landmark building that opened in 1897 as a public library. 

These days, it hosts hundreds of free exhibitions and performances throughout the year. You’re just as likely to walk into a classical music concert as an art exhibition, all completely free.

If nothing else, the mesmerizing architecture of the building will likely bring you to hushed reverence. 

The Tiffany glass dome—the largest stained-glass dome in the world—will have you feeling as though you were gazing into the ethereal blue depths of heaven itself.

Renovated in 2008 to be entirely lit by natural light, it consists of 30,000 individual pieces of glass. Knowledgeable volunteers conduct free guided tours on Thursday and Friday afternoons at 1:15 pm. 

The Tiffany Dome at the Chicago Cultural Center

Sights & Places to Visit in Chicago for Free

With this list of free places to go in Chicago, you won’t be hard up for budget-friendly ways of enjoying the city.

Whether you choose to indulge your artistic side and go street art hunting, or spend some time in nature and explore the zoo, there are plenty of ways to keep entertained. 

Cloud Gate Bean Sculpture in Chicago

Are you looking for some more budget-friendly adventures in the country? Have a look at some of these cheap vacation destinations in the US.

Free Things to Do in Chicago: Stuff to do this Weekend
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