This post will cover some of the best free things to do in Chicago, including nighttime, seasonal, as well as family-friendly attractions and activities.
Free Tours By Foot offers an assortment of walking tours, as local guides lead you through various parts of the city, filling the time with facts and anecdotes about the area.
Operating on a pay-what-you-like basis, this option allows you to choose the expense of this endeavor.
You’ll be sure to walk away satisfied, and with suggestions of what to eat and see for the rest of your stay.
Check out the calendar for tour options and times.
Each year, Chicago hosts over 400 festivals throughout the different neighborhoods. All the below festivals are free and feature live music, food, drinks, and art.
Some of the most popular festivals include:
Chicago Blues Festival (June) During three days, 500,000 fans flood the 5 stages of the Chicago Blues Festival, making it the largest free blues festival, and largest music festival in Chicago.
Chicago Gospel Music Festival (June) Local, national, and international Gospel Music performers provide soul music for the people of Chicago during this weekend festival.
Grant Park Music Festival (June-August) This music festival stretches through the entire summer season, providing 10 weeks of classical music concerts, including performances by the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra, the Grant Park Chorus, and other featured performers on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights.
SummerDance in Grant Park (June-September) SummerDance provides fun for the whole family! One hour dance lessons are followed by live music performers of all different genres when dancers can put their new moves to practice.
Taste of Chicago (July) Chicago is a city that loves to eat and provides a diverse food scene. Enjoy the live music and family-friendly activities, while you purchase food samples at one of the largest food festivals in the world.
Chicago Jazz Festival (September) Enjoy the diversity of the jazz genre at the Chicago Jazz festival and hear performances by local, national, and international performers.
World Music Festival (September) This large, 11-day festival showcases over 650 performers from over 80 countries around the world. Enjoy the music alongside 650,000 other concert-goers.
Open House Chicago (October) During Open House Chicago, explore some of the most intriguing buildings throughout the city that are normally off-limits to the public.
Lights Festival on the Magnificent Mile (November) Kick off the holiday season with the Festival of Lights. With a parade and fireworks, the city comes to light during this annual event.
Christkindl Holiday Market at Daley Plaza (November-January) Based on the German tradition, this is one of the largest Christmas markets in the United States, bringing in over 1 million visitors annually.
Find a full calendar of Chicago festivals here.
There are a number of great free museums in Chicago. Those that are not always free typically have free hours or free days.
There are also a number of ways to save money on museum admission like getting a tourist attraction discount pass.
One of our favorite free museums in Chicago is the National Museum of Mexican Art.
It is located in Pilsen, the heart of Chicago’s Mexican community. You may want to combine your visit to the museum with a Mexican Pilsen Food Tour!
Below we list several other free museums and attractions.
Many tourist attractions are centralized in the Loop, but you’ll learn more about Chicago by visiting one of its neighborhoods like Wicker Park.
If you like to explore new places through their restaurants, take one of our self-guided food tours as a way to learn about the history of and try a few food samples as you go:
We offer a free, guided Architecture Tour that covers some of the unique structures of the Chicago skyline.
One free building that is a must-see is the Chicago Cultural Center. You can take a free guided tour of the building but you should call ahead of time to reserve a spot.
Step inside the center to admire the two Tiffany stained glass domes and catch the view of Millennium Park.
You can also catch the art exhibits, shows, films, and lectures that take place here.
After a day at the museums, sometimes you just need to run around.
We list all of our suggest free things to do with kids in a section below.
Millennium Park is one of the highlights of a visit to the Loop.
We explore the park on our Millennium Park Tour!
The art in Chicago isn’t always in museums. Much of what you can find in the city is public art.
Be sure to look for the dozens of sculptures and other pieces of art along Magnificent Mile.
You can also find public art in parks and plazas, and throughout many neighborhoods in Chicago.
Read more about public art in Chicago.
Although the pass itself isn’t free, some of the activities available with an all-inclusive tourist attraction discounts pass could be free if you use it effectively.
Whatever you choose to do, there are quite a few fun and family-friendly attractions included with a city pass.
Brewery tours are a great way to learn about local beers and their brewing process, and they often include free samples.
Below we list breweries that offer free tours at various times throughout the week. Some breweries require online reservations, so be sure to plan ahead!
Find out about other brewery tours and where to find the best craft beer in Chicago.
Navy Pier continues to be one of the most popular destinations throughout the Midwest. Jetting out into Lake Michigan, Navy Pier provides a boardwalk with a sweeping view of the Chicago skyline.
Along the pier, you will discover shops, restaurants, a Ferris wheel, and other smaller amusement rides.
Navy Pier is also home to the Children’s Museum, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and boat tours.
This is a popular spot during the summer, in particular, providing free fireworks Wednesday and Saturday nights from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
See our post on Navy Pier for more information.
The following section will include a lot of fun and free activities that you can enjoy with your family in Chicago.
We list even more in our post on things to do with kids in Chicago.
Don’t forget that there are a lot of great family-friendly activities included at a huge discount from Chicago tourist passes.
The Lincoln Park Zoo is one of the oldest, and last remaining free zoos in the country. Founded in 1868, this zoo presents the public with more than 1,000 animals and 200 species.
This zoo provides the city with a full calendar of family-friendly events and festivals, including the ever-popular zoo lights during the holiday season.
Park Hours: April-October: 10 am to 5 pm, November-March 10 am – 4:30 pm
There are many parks all across the city, but one of the Maggie Daley is one of the best parks for the whole family!
Maggie Daley Park is the newest addition to Grant Park, located in the northeast corner.
These 20 acres of transformed space have provided a great play space for kids and is a park prepared to entertain in every season with tennis courts, a rock-climbing wall, ice skating, and mini-golf.
Park Hours: 6 am – 11 pm
The Smart Museum is located on the University of Chicago’s campus. The museum contains 15,000 pieces in four permanent collection galleries devoted to modern art, Asian art, European art, and contemporary art.
Hours: Tuesday-Wednesday and Friday-Sunday, 10 am – 5 pm, Thursday, 10 am – 8 pm.
This “landscape art under glass” houses thousands of plants throughout its eight rooms.
Highlights include diverse tropical plants, 84 variations of palm trees, and an assortment of cacti.
They offer an array of family and programs and events.
Park Hours: 9 am – 5 pm
The Chicago Architecture Foundation provides a free space dedicated to the rich architectural history of Chicago.
This family-friendly stop contains exhibits, programs, and a replica of downtown.
Hours: 9 am – 9 pm
This beautiful building is one of the largest public libraries in the world. On the 9th floor, discover the peaceful winter garden and explore the various special exhibits and collections showcased for the public.
Chicago Public Library Cardholders can also take advantage of Kids Museum Passports. Passes are available for 15 different museums and allow for free admission for a family of four.
One child under the age of 18 must be present, and no more than two adults. Find the passes and check on availability here.
Hours: Monday-Thursday 9 am – 9 pm, Friday and Saturday, 9 am – 5 pm, Sunday, 1 pm – 5 pm
This small museum is located in the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, part of a network of 12 that make up the central bank for the United States.
There are 45-minute guided tours every day at 1 pm. Learn about the history of money, pick out the counterfeit bills, and see the glassed-in display of one million 1 dollar bills.
Hours: Monday-Friday, 8:30 am – 5 pm
In this section, we will provide a list of interesting activities you can enjoy in Chicago after the sun goes down. Check our other sections for even more ideas.
Don’t forget that a lot of great nighttime attractions are included with the Chicago tourist passes.
See Live Music
Chicago has a rich music scene, especially Blues and Jazz. There are many bars across the city with live music that don’t have a cover charge.
Also, throughout the year, there are festivals that have free live music with some night shows.
Millennium Park also regularly offers free concerts in the evenings.
See the Chicago Skyline
Instead of paying $25 for a ticket to one of Chicago’s observatory decks, you can get the same great views if you go to the Signature Lounge at the top of the John Hancock Building.
Though you will have to purchase something from the menu, drinks range from $10 and up. Sip on a glass of wine or even a smoothie while admiring the stunning Chicago skyline.
See Free Fireworks
One of the best views of our skyline can be seen from the end of Navy Pier. During the summer, Navy Pier presents fireworks every Wednesday and Saturday night.
Navy Pier is a destination that is definitely worth a visit at any time of year. Check out our self-guided tour of Navy Pier for a little more information.
One of the few athletics clubs to survive the Great Depression, the club building is today a luxury hotel. But the sporting spirit survives in the Game Room!
The Game Room at the CAA offers shuffleboard, pool tables, foosball, and bocce. Open to the public, the games are free to use!
Find the Game Master to make a reservation while you enjoy something to sip on in front of the bar or coffee shop.
Arcade Game Bar
Head to Headquarters Beercade to enjoy vintage arcade games, over 70 draft beers, and a unique food menu.
The best part? All of the games are free, so don’t hold back as you make your way from pinball to Donkey Kong to Pac-Man.
In this section, we will provide a list of several attractions and museums you can visit for free in Chicago.
If you are planning on seeing some of Chicago’s most popular attractions, note that many of these charge admission, but will be much more affordable when you use a Chicago tourist pass.
See our post on museums you can visit for free in Chicago for an extensive list.
With permanent and rotating exhibits, programs, and workshops, this museum attempts to invite people into a conversation about design and the impact it can have on society and humanity.
This lovely museum is located inside of the historic Water Tower which is on Chicago’s famous Magnificent Mile. It shows the work of local photographers and artists. It is definitely worth a peek!
This stimulating space calls attention to the cultural, political, and artistic impact of photography, and celebrates both contemporary and traditional pieces.
The Newberry Library is an independent research library. Founded in 1887, this library is located in the Gold Coast neighborhood and presents the public with an inspiring collection of research materials, medieval manuscripts, and work by local authors.
Located on the University of Chicago’s campus, this archeological museum displays permanent and special exhibits with artifacts related to ancient civilizations in the Near East, such as Egypt, Israel, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.
The Hull House Museum is dedicated to founder Jane Addams and her work in the late 1800s towards social reform and recreating American democracy. Admission is free with a suggested $5 donation.
This museum honors and celebrates the Cambodian American Heritage. There are rotating classes, exhibits, and art.
The Renaissance Society (a.k.a. The Ren) offers programs and exhibitions constantly embracing “the evolving question of what art is in the present moment”.
Located in the heart of the Puerto Rican community of Humboldt Park is the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts. The building itself is an architectural gem built in 1895. Of course, you will want to go inside to see the colorful and inspiring art too!
Explore the “Chicago Chapel in the Sky”. First United Methodist Church is the oldest church in the city, first founded in 1831. The church occupies the first story as well as the top floors of the Chicago Temple Building. It is considered the tallest church in the world. Tour the church for free any day of the week.
The Poetry Foundation is the only library solely dedicated to just poetry in the Midwest. There are a variety of free public events for the whole family. Check out their calendar to find an event going on during your visit!
Always check for free or reduced admission for students, senior citizens, and members of the military and their families.
Many museums offer discounts or free admission to Illinois teachers and some discounts are offered to Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan teachers (with proper I.D.).
Chicago police officers and first responders for all museums in Chicago!
Year-Round Museum Discount Offers for Illinois Residents
Museums for All
Many Chicago museums participate in Museums For All, an initiative designed to make museums more accessible to families nationwide by removing financial barriers. Museums give discounts to anyone with an EBT or WIC card. Present the card at the entry to receive $3 admission.
Here are highlights of free things to do seasonally.
Below this section, we have links to our monthly posts where you can find even more free things to do.
Free Concerts/ Movies in the Park
Millennium Park has a full calendar of events during the summer, including concerts and movies in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Other parks across the city will also take their turn in hosting free movies in the park.
Chicago is lined on the east by Lake Michigan, allowing for multiple public beaches lining the shoreline.
Throughout the warmer months, there are street festivals all across the city! We list the best of these above in our Top 10 section.
Find farmers’ markets throughout the city, every day of the week. These markets provide the city with fresh produce, flowers, and sweet treats!
Explore the darker history of Chicago as you explore the city streets at night with our local guides. Learn about the most haunted hotel in Chicago, see the streets where America’s first serial killer, H. H. Holmes, roamed, and hear about the downtown prison breaks.
What a delicious way to spend the autumn! There are a lot of special food festivals that happen in the fall months.
Free to the public, this conservatory and botanical gardens contain four rooms as a serene escape from the Chicago climate, stocked with tropical and exotic plants from around the world.
The Daley Plaza, in the heart of downtown, serves as home to the annual Christkindlmarket, which brings in more than a million guests annually.
Winter Wonderfest at Navy Pier
Part of the Navy Pier, until early January, this part of Chicago becomes a giant playground.
There are few rinks across the city, the most popular being the Millennium Park McCormick Tribune Ice Rink and the Maggie Daley Skating Ribbon. Skating is free if you have your own skates, or you can rent skates on-site for $15.
Chicago’s “Second Lakefront”, the Riverwalk is a beautiful place to explore with a unique perspective of the surrounding city. Learn more about the riverwalk, the buildings that surround it, and the history of the river on our Free Tours by Foot Chicago Riverwalk and History Tour!
This 18-mile trail runs along the western coast of Lake Michigan and is a favorite for walkers, runners, and cyclists. Take a stroll along the path, or use a Divvy Bike (Chicago’s bike-sharing program) to make your way down the coast.
The 606 is an elevated trail that connects three neighborhoods in the city. Named after the first 3 digits in the city’s zip code, this is a perfect trail for running, biking, and walking while exploring the neighborhoods of Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Logan Square.