The author, Lea Rose reading a book at the Poetry Foundation, one of the free things to do in Chicago

18 Best Free Things to Do in Chicago in 2023 (By a Local)

I’m a Chicago, Illinois local who loves finding fun and free things to do in Chicago. And trust me, there are quite a few!

The abundance of free activities and popular attractions is what makes Chicago such a fun destination to live in and visit.

My guide covers free Chicago attractions for all ages and interests, plus free activities every time of the year. I share my favorite free activities in Chicago, as well as several hidden gems that may even surprise long-time locals!

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18 Best Free Things to Do in Chicago

Lincoln Park Zoo

Chicago’s zoo is full of diverse animal habitats and interactive experiences in the heart of Lincoln Park.

A hippopotamus at the Lincoln Park Zoo
A baby hippo

📍 Google Maps | Phone: (312) 742-2000 | Website | Hours: 8 am – 5 pm Mon – Fri, 8 am – 7 pm Sat & Sun 

The Lincoln Park Zoo is arguably Chicago’s best free attraction. I love visiting this zoo and always take friends and family here when they come to visit me. 

The zoo is pretty large and houses around 200 species of animals and 16 exhibits in total. It’s a great attraction for visitors of all ages. Enjoy interactive experiences like the Endangered Species Carousel, seal training and feeding, and exploring the park at your own pace. 

Lincoln Park Zoo is located in Lincoln Park, which is the largest park in Chicago. Ticketed entry isn’t needed for free admission. All you need to do is walk on in. The zoo does have parking, but I recommend taking public transportation, as zoo parking is overpriced and street parking can be unpredictable.

Chicago Cultural Center

A center for arts, culture, and public events in downtown Chicago. 

View while on the staircase going to the Tiffany Dome
Coming up the stairs to the Tiffany Dome

📍 Google Maps | Phone: (312) 744-5000 | Website | Hours: 10 am – 5 pm daily 

The Chicago Cultural Center is often overlooked, but one of the coolest Chicago attractions. It’s located in the Loop, just across the street from Millennium Park. The cultural center is home to several art galleries, two enormous stained-glass domes, and an awesome local gift shop.

Visiting the Cultural Center is a great way to see Chicago architecture. Free cultural exhibits and other free events are commonly hosted here, like music and dance performances. You can also enjoy a free tour if you’re interested. 

Millennium Park

Chicago’s most iconic park, home to Cloud Gate (“The Bean”) and other attractions.

People taking a photo with "The Bean" in Millennium Park
“The Bean”
View of people around the Crown Fountain
Crown Fountain 

📍 Google Maps | Phone: (312) 742-1168 | Website | Hours: 6 am – 11 pm daily

Millennium Park is an iconic park, home to one of Chicago’s most famous landmarks: Cloud Gate, better known as “The Bean.” You can enjoy other Chicago attractions here, like Crown Fountain and Lurie Garden. 

Jay Pritzker Pavilion, one of the city’s best music venues, often hosts free live music. Free festivals and events are also commonly held in this park, such as the Chicago Jazz Festival, Chicago Blues Festival, and Grant Park Music Festival. 

📚 Related Reading: Millennium Park is located in the Chicago Loop, which is one of the best places to stay for first-time visitors. This is also the best place to stay if you’re only in Chicago for a day.

Grant Park

“Chicago’s front yard” is where you’ll find landmarks, Chicago museums, and endless green space.

View of the lion statue outside The Art Institute of Chicago
The Art Institute of Chicago is located in Grant Park

📍 Google Maps 

Grant Park is the larger park that houses Millennium Park in the downtown Loop. It’s over 300 acres large and home to some of the best things to do in Chicago. 

These attractions include Buckingham Fountain, tons of open green space, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Free events like the Grant Park Music Festival and Taste of Chicago also take place here throughout the year. 

Grant Park is sandwiched between city blocks to the west and Lake Michigan to the east. This means you can also access the Lakefront Trail, Navy Pier, and Museum Campus from here. 

👉 Pro Tip: The Art Institute is free for Illinois residents on select weekdays throughout the year. It’s also free year-round for kids under 14, Chicago teens, and active-duty service members.

Lakefront Trail

An 18-mile urban trail that snakes along Chicago’s Lake Michigan coastline, perfect for walking, running, and biking. 

The author's friend biking during a sunny morning at the Lakefront Trail
My friend biking ahead of me

📍 Google Maps  

Hitting the Lakefront Trail is one of my favorite free things to do in Chicago. It’s an 18-mile-long pedestrian trail that hugs the city’s lakefront. This is the perfect place to enjoy beautiful views of the Chicago skyline and Lake Michigan. You can also reach Chicago beaches via the Lakefront Trail, like North Avenue Beach.  

The Lakefront Trail is totally free to access and makes for a fun activity if you visit during the spring through fall. I recommend walking or renting a Divvy bike, a low-cost way to get around. 

Chicago Riverwalk

An urban trail located in the heart of downtown Chicago, perfect for sightseeing and people-watching.

View of skyscrapers at the Chicago Riverwalk
Views from the Chicago Riverwalk

📍 Google Maps | Website | Hours: 6 am – 11 pm daily 

The Chicago Riverwalk is another awesome pedestrian trail that visitors (and locals!) should take advantage of. This walkway sits along the Chicago River in the heart of downtown. Walking here is great for sightseeing in Chicago on a budget

The Riverwalk is just over a mile long and allows you to admire Chicago architecture and the Chicago skyline up close. Shops, cafes, and restaurants dot the Riverwalk, and it’s the perfect place for people-watching. I recommend picking up some food to-go and finding a spot to sit along the river. 

📚Related Reading: Chicago River Tours


The world’s largest digital art installation is the perfect evening event along the Chicago Riverwalk.

Colorful light show at the ART on THE MART at night
ART on THE MART lights up the night

📍 Google Maps | Website | Hours: Showtimes Vary 

ART on THE MART is one of my go-to free things to do in Chicago. It’s a massive digital art display that gets projected on the facade of the Merchandise Mart. This contemporary art show takes place almost every evening throughout the year. 

You can watch ART on THE MART from the Chicago Riverwalk and even enjoy a drink or food at ​​Brews & Bites Riverwalk. This is a great evening activity for groups and couples.

Maggie Daley Park

A massive playground in Grant Park where kids can play, let loose, and explore.

A dolphin statue at the Maggie Daley Park
A play area at Maggie Daley Park

📍 Google Maps | Phone: (312) 742-3918 | Website | Hours: 6 am – 9 pm daily 

Visiting Maggie Daley Park is one of the top kid-friendly activities in Chicago. It’s among the best Chicago parks and is located east of Millennium Park in Grant Park. It contains a play garden, rock climbing wall, picnic areas, and pathways for your kids to run, scooter, bike, and more. Wintertime brings a fun ice skating ribbon rink.

Overall, Maggie Daley Park is a great spot for kids to play and parents to relax and take in the Chicago skyline. It’s also a good spot for people of all ages to enjoy recreational activities like tennis, mini golf, and more.

Navy Pier

A downtown Chicago pier full of rides, attractions, shops, and restaurants. 

Clear blue sky over the Navy Pier in Chicago
At Navy Pier

📍 Google Maps | Phone: (312) 595-7437 | Website | Hours: 11 am – 9 pm Sun – Thu, 11 am – 10 pm Fri & Sat 

Navy Pier is one of Chicago’s top attractions. It was formerly a Navy port during WWII, but today, it’s a lively hub for museums, shops, restaurants, and rides. Navy Pier is the perfect place to enjoy free events and things to do. 

The Chicago Children’s Museum is a free museum at Navy Pier. Events like free movies and workout classes are commonly held here. The summer season brings free fireworks. I recommend checking out the Navy Pier calendar to discover all the free things to do here. 

Harold Washington Library Center

One of the largest public libraries in the world, home to a peaceful winter garden space.

View of people inside the Harold Washington Library Center
Inside the Winter Garden

📍 Google Maps | Phone: (312) 747-4300 | Website | Hours: 9 am – 8 pm Mon – Thu, 9 am – 5 pm Fri & Sat, 1 pm – 5 pm Sun 

The Harold Washington Library Center is a massive Chicago public library located in the Loop. The library itself can be cool to wander, but I recommend hitting the elevators and heading straight to the ninth floor. Here, you’ll find the Winter Garden. 

The Winter Garden is a beautiful space to sit and relax with a book or study. It’s a hidden gem and totally free to visit. There’s also a small museum here that covers the legacy of Chicago Mayor, Harold Washington. 

Lincoln Park Conservatory

A vibrant greenhouse with a diverse range of plant life located in Lincoln Park.

Colorful flowers inside the Lincoln Park Conservatory
Blooming flowers

📍 Google Maps | Phone: (312) 742-7736 | Website | Hours: 10 am – 5 pm Wed – Sun, Closed Mon & Tue 

The Lincoln Park Conservatory is another free Lincoln Park attraction that’s located right next to the Lincoln Park Zoo. This Chicago botanic garden is a beautiful space to escape into an oasis of plants and greenery. It’s not super large and can be explored in an hour. 

Be sure to reserve your tickets ahead of time online. Again, admission is free but you have to reserve a timeslot. 

👉 Pro Tip: The Garfield Park Conservatory is another Chicago botanic garden located just outside Chicago in Garfield Park

Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool

A small, but peaceful lily pond in Lincoln Park, perfect for a little escape from the city bustle. 

View at the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool in Chicago
Peaceful lily pool

📍 Google Maps | Phone: (773) 883-7275 | Website 

Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool is a small but serene garden located next to the Lincoln Park Conservatory. Here, you can meditate by the lily pond, appreciate the landscape art around you, and just enjoy an escape from the city. The garden was designed by architect Alfred Caldwell and is meant to resemble a Midwestern prairie. 

National Museum of Mexican Art

This Pilsen museum is home to one of the largest collections of Mexican art in America.

People working together for a wall art in National Museum of Mexican Art
Artwork in Pilsen (photo: Conchi Martinez / Shutterstock)

📍 Google Maps | Phone: (312) 738-1503 | Website | Hours: 10 am – 5 pm Tue – Sun, Closed Mon

The National Museum of Mexican Art is one of the lesser-known Chicago museums and is worth checking out. It’s located in the Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen (which made our 2023 list of the best places to visit in the USA!). 

Here, you can wander and enjoy one of the largest collections of Mexican art in the country. The permanent collection includes paintings, sculptures, photographs, and more. Music, dance, film, and theater events take place here as well. It’s one of the best free museums in Chicago.

Poetry Foundation

A serene cultural center and library dedicated to poetry, located in River North. 

View of bookshelves inside the Poetry Foundation
Inside the poetry library

📍 Google Maps | Phone: (312) 787-7070 | Website | Hours: 11 am – 5 pm Wed, Fri, Sat, 11 am 7 pm Thu, Closed Sun – Tue  

The Poetry Foundation is a unique hidden gem in downtown Chicago’s River North neighborhood that literary enthusiasts will love. The building of the Poetry Foundation is peaceful, open, and airy. Yet, it feels cozy all the same, with floor-to-ceiling collections of poetry. 

A multitude of readings, workshops, and events are hosted here. I recommend visiting for a quiet, calming escape from the city to immerse yourself in words. Just be mindful of the volume of your voice here, as it’s meant to be a quiet space. 

Museum Of Contemporary Photography

A contemporary photography museum containing over 17,000 works.

View of arts inside the Museum Of Contemporary Photography
Inside the art gallery

📍 Google Maps | Phone: (312) 663-5554 | Website | Hours: 10 am – 5 pm Mon, Tue, Wed, Fri & Sat, 10 am – 8 pm Thu, 12 – 5 pm Sun

The Museum of Contemporary Photography is located a few minutes south of the Art Institute across from Grant Park. The museum is pretty small and can be enjoyed within an hour. The rotating and permanent collections of contemporary photography are interesting. Overall, this is a nice free museum to visit for a change of pace from other art museums. 

Online reservations are encouraged, but walk-ins are welcome if the museum’s not too busy. 

Smart Museum of Art

A modern art museum in Hyde Park with a focus on Asian and European artwork.

View of paintings inside the Smart Museum of Art
Inside the Smart Museum of Art (photo: EQRoy / Shutterstock)

📍 Google Maps | Phone: (773) 702-0200 | Website | Hours: 10 am – 4:30 pm Tue –  Sun, Closed Mon 

Smart Museum of Art is a small but interesting modern art museum located on the University of Chicago’s campus. It features work by a mix of Asian, European, and Chicago artists in its permanent collection and rotating exhibits. There’s also a sculpture garden to wander outside. 

Note that although the museum is free to visit, you’ll have to pay for metered parking if you drive. 

City Gallery at the Historic Water Tower

A downtown landmark with a small photography gallery inside.

Clear blue sky over the building of the City Gallery at the Historic Water Tower
Outside the Historic Water Tower

📍 Google Maps | Phone: (312) 742-0808 | Website 

Hundreds of visitors and locals alike pass the Historic Water Tower on N Michigan Avenue every day. But few know that there’s a free art gallery inside. The small gallery features the work of local Chicago photographers. Stop in for a quick look around and admire the architecture of this iconic landmark. 

Note that The City Gallery is temporarily closed. Check the website for updates.

👉 Pro Tip: The Historic Water Tower is in the same area as the John Hancock Building and Museum of Contemporary Art. This area is a great spot to begin a Chicago itinerary.

Clarke House Museum

Chicago’s oldest surviving home, which visitors can tour and learn about its history.

Clear blue sky over the Clarke House Museum
Outside Clarke House (photo: Thomas Barrat / Shutterstock)

📍 Google Maps | Phone: (312) 744-5000 | Website 

Clarke-Ford House is the oldest surviving home in Chicago, located in the South Loop. This Greek Revival building from the 1800s has been turned into a home museum, which can be visited for free. 

The home showcases what domestic life would have looked and felt like before the Civil War. The ornately decorated rooms are fun to explore through a free tour, but be sure to wander around the gardens that surround the home, too.

Note that the Clarke House Museum is temporarily closed for repairs. Check the website for updates.

FAQs About What to Do in Chicago for Free

What are the best free things to do in Chicago? 

The best free things to do in Chicago are exploring Lincoln Park Zoo, visiting Navy Pier, and enjoying scenic walkways like the Lakefront Trail and Chicago Riverwalk.

What are the best free things to do in Chicago with kids?

The best free things to do in Chicago with kids include visiting Lincoln Park Zoo, Maggie Daley Park, and the Chicago Children’s Museum at Navy Pier.

Is it free to go to Millennium Park? 

It is free to go to Millennium Park. Many of the attractions within Millennium Park are also free to see and visit, like the Bean and Crown Fountain.


I hope you discovered some new free things to do in Chicago! The diverse range of budget-friendly activities make Chicago a great place to visit and live. Check out our guide on the best things to do for more fun attractions in the Windy City! 

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