Free Things To Do in Chicago

There are a lot of great things to see and do in Chicago that won’t cost you a dime. This post will cover some of the most interesting and fun activities you can enjoy for free. There will also be sections dedicated to both family-friendly and nighttime attractions.


TOP 10 THINGS TO DO FOR FREE

This section will include our top ten free things to do in Chicago. Whenever possible, we will mention if any of these activities are either family-friendly or fun after the sun goes down.

If you’re interested in learning more about the city, consider taking one of our free Chicago walking tours.

You may also want to consider getting a Chicago tourist pass to save money on some of the most popular attractions in the city.


1. Take a Free Sightseeing Tour

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.

 

Free Chicago Walking Tour

 

Check out the calendar for tour options and times.

In addition to our name your own price guided tours, we also offer self-guided tours and GPS enabled audio tours.


2. Enjoy a Free Concert or Festival

Each year, Chicago hosts over 400 festivals throughout the different neighborhoods. All festivals are free, and feature live music, food, drinks, and art. Find the calendar of festivals here.

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, nation, 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 along side 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 off of the German tradition, this is one of the largest Christmas markets in the United States, bringing in over 1 million visitors annually. Snack on traditional German food as you stroll through the market, taking in the festivities.

3. Explore a Free MuseumChicago Museum Mexican Art

There are a number of great free museums in Chicago. And many of the higher profile ticketed musuems have free days and ways to enter at a discount.

We go over all of the free museums and attractions below.

One of our favorite free Museums in Chicago is the National Museum of Mexican Art. Located in Pilsen, the heart of Chicago’s Mexican community, you will find the National Museum of Mexican Art.

This museum presents more than 3,000 years of Mexican culture through events and art exhibits. As one of the United States’ largest Mexican art collections, this museum strives to present the beauty of Mexican culture, north and south of the border, and use this to build a positive community.

1852 W. 19th St.
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10:00AM-5:00PM


4. Stroll a Neighborhood

Many tourists attractions are centralized in the Loop, but you’ll find a lot more of Chicago to explore in neighborhoods like Wicker Park

Baseball fans need to check out our Wrigleyville Guide

You can also take one of our neighborhood tours, like a tour of Lincoln Park that focuses on its Gangster history.

If taking a stroll isn’t up to your speed, take our self-guided bike tour around Chicago. You’ll have to supply the bike, but you can get inexpensive rental options discussed in the post.

Or 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:

On a budget? You can still get a taste of Chicago with some of the Best Cheap Eats in the city and afterwards look into some of the Local Coffees of Chicago.


5. Take in some Chicago Architecture for Free

Located across from Millennium Park, the Chicago Cultural Center is a beautiful, and free destination.

Completed in 1897 as the central public library for Chicago, this building has since been transformed into the country’s first and most comprehensive free municipal cultural venue.

Step inside to admire the two Tiffany stained glass domes and catch the view of Millennium Park while exploring the art exhibits, shows, films, and lectures that take place here.

The best part is that they offer free guided tours of the building. You should call ahead of time to reserve a spot. For some groups, public tours are Wed-Sat: 1:15 pm.

78 E. Washington St.
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 9:00AM-7:00PM, Friday and Saturday 9:00AM-6:00PM, Sunday, 10:00AM-6:00PM

The Intercontinental Hotel has a secret tour of the hotel!  If you go to the concierge with an I.D.- you can borrow their audio tour and explore this magnificent 1929 Medinah Health Club.  This tour is one guest at a time and takes about 15 minutes. It is definitely worth it. Located at 505 N. Michigan of the Magnificent Mile.

We also offer a name your own price Architecture Tour for a guided tour option that covers some of the unique structures of the Chicago skyline.


6. Take the Kids to a Park

After a day at the museums, sometimes you just need to run around. There are a lot of ways to explore Chicago’s outdoors from visiting Lake Michigan to exploring Chicago’s Beautiful Parks.

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. Completed in 2004, this park was a gift to the city from Mayor Daley and has quickly become one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations. Constructed within the borders of Grant Park, this park provides a diverse event calendar with free entertainment year round. We explore the park on our Millennium Park Tour!


7. Check out the Public Art

The art in Chicago isn’t always in museums – though Chicago has a great art museum centrally located near the Loop – but much of what you can find in the city is public art. 

 

Chagall Mural Group Photo
 
No entry fee, no docent – in fact, no walls. They are outside in parks and plazas! Read more about public art in Chicago.


8. Consider an All-Inclusive Tourist Attraction Discount Pass

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.

If you get this attraction pass and use it to take a bus tour, visit the Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum, the service will already have paid for itself. 

 

 

After that point, every activity you take part in is entirely free. You could take this opportunity to see the city from above at the Skydeck or the Art Institute.

Whatever you choose to do, there are quite a few fun and family-friendly attractions included with a city pass. 


9. Take a Brewery Tour

Brewery tours are a great way to learn about local beers and their brewing process, and they often include free samples. T

he following breweries offer free tours at various times throughout the week. Some breweries require online reservations, so be sure to plan ahead!

Find out more about various brewery tours and where to find the best craft beer.

Lagunitas Brewing Company
2607 W. 17th St., 773.522.2097
Free Tours: Multiple tour times offered every day
Included: Free sample

The Lagunitas Brewing Company is a California craft brewing company and one of the most rapidly expanding breweries in the United States. They opened the Chicago location in 2012. Lagunitas is popular for its original spin on traditional beer. Enjoy a free brewery tour with samples included, or sit down to with a beer accompanied by food at the Taproom.

Revolution Brewing
2323 N Milwaukee Ave,  (773) 588-2267.
Tours: Every Wednesday-Friday at 6:00 pm and 7:00 pm and Saturdays at 3:00 pm, 4:00 pm, 5:00 pm, and 6:00 pm.
Tours include a tasting.

Burnt City Brewing
2747 N Lincoln Ave, (773) 295-1270.
Free Tours: Every Wednesdays at 7:  pm.

Lake Effect Brewing Company
4727 W Montrose Ave., (In the Back), (312) 919-4473.
Free Tours: Every Saturday, 2:00 PM, 3:30 PM and 5:00 PM (samples are extra)
Reservations here.


10. Visit Navy Pier

600 E. Grand Ave.

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 and is lined with entertainment inside.

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.

For more information on Navy Pier, visit our guide to visiting or take our Chicago Riverwalk and History Tour!

 


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FREE FAMILY-FRIENDLY ACTIVITIES

The following section will include a lot of fun and free activities that you can enjoy with your family in Chicago. Make sure to check our other sections for even more ideas such as

Don’t forget that there are a lot of great family-friendly activities included at a huge discount from Chicago tourist passes.


Garfield Park Conservatory
300 N. Central Park Ave.
Park Hours: 9:00AM-5:00PM

This “landscape art under glass” houses thousands of plants throughout its eight rooms. Highlights include diverse tropical plants, 84 variations of a palm trees, and an assortment of cacti.


Maggie Daley Park
337 E. Randolph St.
Park Hours: 6:00 AM-11:00 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.


The Smart Museum
5550 S. Greenwood Ave.
Hours: Tuesday-Wednesday and Friday-Sunday, 10:00AM-5:00PM, Thursday, 10:00AM-8:00PM

The Smart Museum is also 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.


Chicago Architecture Foundation
Atrium Gallery, 224 S. Michigan Ave.
9:00AM-9:00PM

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. Each October, the CAF hosts Open House Chicago, where people can explore buildings that are normally off limits to the public. This is the largest architecture event in the city, drawing in tens of thousands Chicagoans and tourists from around the world.


Lincoln Park Zoo
2001 N Clark St
Park Hours: April-October: 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM, November-March 10:00AM-4:30PM

The Lincoln Park Zoo is one of the oldest, and last remaining free zoos on 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. Our Lincoln Park and Gangster Tour will escort you right the front door of the zoo!


Harold Washington Library
400 S. State Street
Hours: Monday-Thursday 9:00AM-9:00PM, Friday and Saturday, 9:00AM-5:00PM, Sunday, 1:00PM-5:00PM

Chicago Public Library houses 80 libraries across all different neighborhoods in the city. Since 1991, the Harold Washington Library has been the central library in city, located near the business district downtown. 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.


Money Museum
230 S LaSalle St
Hours: Monday-Friday, 8:30AM-5:00PM

This small museum is located in the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. This bank is part of a network of 12 that make up the central bank for the United States. Look for the “visitors center” sign to find the museum. There are 45 minute guided tours every day at 1:00PM. Learn about the history of money, pick out the counterfeit bills, and see the glassed in display of one million 1 dollar bills. Step into the picture kiosk to get your face placed on a bill!


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FREE THINGS TO DO AT NIGHT 

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 such as 

Don’t forget that a lot of great nighttime attractions are included with the Chicago tourist passes.


Chicago Athletic Association Game Room
12 S Michigan Ave
Hours: Sunday-Friday, 11:00AM-2:00Am, Saturday, 11:00AM-3:00AM

This building was first opened in 1893 as an upscale athletic club, founded by some of the most influential businessmen in the city. As one of the few athletics clubs to survive the Great Depression, the club only recently closed, and reopened as a luxury hotel in 2007. Inside this historic Chicago Athletic Association building, you will find much more than a hotel.

On the second floor there is a Game Room with 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 front he bar or coffee shop.


Take a Night Tour

We offer evening options for many tours to take advantage of eerie atmosphere for our Ghost Tours or cooler temperatures for our Chicago Riverwalk and History tour.

You’ll also find the evening as a great time to take one of our self guided tours and GPS enabled audio tours.


Check out some Live Music

Chicago has a rich music scene, with its culture of Chicago Blues and Jazz. But there are many bars across the city that will have live music to entertain you without a cover charge. Nick’s Beer Garden, the Zebra Lounge, Paradise Park, and California Clippers, just to name a few.

Millennium Park also regularly offers free concerts in the evenings.


John Hancock Building
875 N. Michigan Ave.
Hours: Sunday-Thursday, 11:00AM-12:30AM, Friday-Saturday, 11:00AM-1:30AM (must be over 21 past 7:00PM)

Scrapping the sky at 100 stories, this is the second tallest building in the Chicago skyline. Above the businesses, apartments, and the 360 observation deck, you will find the Signature Lounge on the 96th floor. Rather than spending $20 dollars for the observation deck at the Willis Tower, enjoy the magnificent view nestled along the lakefront for free while you sip on a cocktail. Feel free to stop down at the 95th floor for the bite to eat at the restaurant, the Signature Room.


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 Pack Man.


Navy Pier Fireworks

One of the best views of our skyline can be seen from the end of Navy Pier.  This tourist destination is definitely worth a visit, check out our self-guided tour for a little more information.  During the summer, Navy Pier presents fireworks every Wednesday and Saturday night.  Watch the sky light up with color while you enjoy the cool breeze from Lake Michigan.


Chicago Summer Dance
Grant Park, Spirit of Music Garden, 601 S. Michigan Ave.
Fridays, Saturdays 6-7pm, Sundays 4-5pm, June-September

Now is your chance to become Fred Astaire! Or better yet, Bob Fosse, who was a Chicago native before he jazz handed his way into our hearts.  Chicago Summer Dance is a FREE activity in Grant Park.  You can swing, waltz, cha cha and more with guided lessons and a live band.

Be sure to check their calendar for specific dates, times, and dance styles!


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FREE CHICAGO ATTRACTIONS

In this section, we will provide a list of several attractions you can visit for free in Chicago. If you want to learn about even more locations you can visit, make sure to check the rest of this post for additional details about activities that won’t cost you a dime.

It’s also important to note that some of the most popular attractions are much more affordable when you use a Chicago tourist pass.

In addition to some of the sites already mentioned in sections above, such as Chicago Cultural Center, Money Museum, National Museum of Mexican Art , Lincoln Park Zoo and the Smart Museum of Art you’ll find a number of other free museums and attractions in Chicago.

Chicago Design Museum

This museum features tours, workshops, and artistic design exhibitions.  It is free and open to the public on Tues-Sat: 12pm-7pm.

The Design Museum’s goal is to strengthen the culture and community across the design world. 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.

City Gallery at the Historic Water Tower 

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! The address is 806 N. Michigan Ave. Mon-Fri: 10am-6:30pm; Holidays, 10am-4pm.

National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture 

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 by Fromman & Jebsen.  Of course, you will want to go inside to see the colorful and inspiring art too! Located at 3015 W. Division. Tues-Fri: 10am-5pm; Sat 10am-2pm.

First United Methodist Church
77 W. Washington St.

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, measuring from the church’s street level entrance to the top of the steeple. However, the levels in between are rented out to different business, so some would say that is cheating! Tour the church for free any day of the week.

Poetry Foundation
61 W. Superior St.
Hours: Monday – Friday 11:00AM– 4:00PM

Poetry Magazine was first founded in 1912 to provide a platform for poetry. 100 years later, the magazine provided a physical space for poetry, open to the public with a variety of free events and resources for all generations of poetry lovers. The Poetry Foundation is the only library solely dedicated to just poetry in the Midwest. But this space reaches beyond just a library, as it also provides a public garden, rotating exhibition library, online archive and access to Poetry Magazine, and a variety of free public events for the whole family. Check out their calendar to find an event going on during your visit!

Museum of Contemporary Photography
600 South Michigan Ave
Hours: Monday-Wednesday and Friday-Saturday, 10:00AM-5:00PM, Thursday, 10:00AM-8:00PM, Sunday, 12:00PM-5:00PM

Founded by Columbia College, this museum seeks local, national, and international artists to present a wide variety of work. This stimulating space calls attention to the cultural, political, and artistic impact of photography, and celebrates both contemporary and traditional pieces.

The Newberry Library
60 W. Walton St.
Reading Room Hours: Tuesday-Friday, 9:00AM-5:00PM, Saturday 9:00AM-1:00PM
Exhibition Gallery Hours: Monday, Friday, Saturday, 8:15AM-5PM, Tuesday-Thursday 8:15AM-7:15PM

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.

The Oriental Institute Museum
1155 E. 58th St.
Hours: Tuesday, Thursday-Sunday, 10:00AM-5:00PM, Wednesday, 10:00AM-8:00PM

Founded in 1919, this is an active research center and museum dedicated to discoveries from the ancient world. 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.

Hull House Museum
800 S. Halsted St
Hours: Tuesday – Friday, 10:00AM-4:00PM, Sunday12:00PM-4:00PM

The Hull House Museum is dedicated to founder Jane Addams and her work in the late 1800’s towards social reform and recreating the American democracy. The museum is housed in two of the original Hull House buildings, and hosts exhibits that focus on policy efforts. Admission is free with a suggested $5 donation.

Cambodian American Heritage Museum 

This museum honors and celebrates the Cambodian American Heritage.  There are rotating classes, exhibits, and art. Located at 2131 W. Lawrence Ave.

Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago 

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”.  It is located at 5811 S. Ellis Ave. Tues-Fri: 10am-5pm; Sat-Sun: 12pm-5pm.


Discounts for Chicago Museums & Attractions

If you served in the military, many museums offer discounts or free admission for military families (with proper I.D.) Many Chicago museums offer discounts or free admission to Illinois teachers and some discounts are offered to Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan teachers (with proper I.D.).  Be sure to check for discounts  for students, senior citizens, and Chicago police officers and first responders for all museums in Chicago! 

Year-Round Museum Discount Offers for Illinois Residents

  • Chicago offers Free Museum Days for Illinois every year so be sure to check your travel dates!
  • Museum of Contemporary Art is free for Illinois residents (with a valid I.D.) every Tuesday. 
  • The Chicago History Museum is free for Illinois residents (with a valid I.D.) every Tuesday from 12:30pm-7:30pm. 
  • The Art Institute is free for Illinois residents (with a valid I.D.) every Thursday between 5:00pm-8:00pm. 

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 may present the card to receive $3 admission.


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FREE SEASONAL ACTIVITIES

The following section will provide a calendar full of free things to do during every month of the year. Each of these posts features at least a few seasonal attractions or events that won’t cost you a thing to enjoy.

Winter:

Holiday Markets
Chicago has great holiday markets! The Daley Plaza, in the heart of downtown, serves as home to the annual Christkindlmarket, which brings in more than a million guests annually. This market is based off of a Christmas Market in Nuremberg Germany, and sells a lot of German treats and mulled wine in souvenir mugs.

Ice Skating
Ice skating has had a rich history here in Chicago ever since the 1800’s. We have a 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.


Spring:

Lakefront Trail

As the weather starts to warm, Spring is a great time to take advantage of Chicago’s outdoor beauty, such as the Lakefront trail. This 18 mile trail runs along the western coast of Lake Michigan, and is a favorite for walkers, runners, and cyclists. This path connects most of the city’s beaches and passes notable attractions such as Navy Pier and Museum Campus. Take a stroll along the path, or use a Divvy Bike (Chicago’s bike sharing program) to make your way down the coast.

The Riverwalk

Chicago’s “Second Lakefront” is a pedestrian path stretching from Lakeshore Drive to Franklin Street, with plans to expand along more of the river’s banks. The Riverwalk is a beautiful place to explore with a unique perspective of the surrounding city. This area is full of food and drink venues, as well as entertainment options, including boat rentals and a calendar of seasonal events.

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!

The 606

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.


Summer:

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.

Public Beaches

Chicago is lined on the east by Lake Michigan, allowing for multiple public beaches lining the shoreline.

Street Festivals

Throughout the warmer months, there are street festivals all across the city! Neighborhoods show of their local goods with live music, vendors, and great food option. Read our Top 10 above for all the festivals available year round!

Farmers Markets:

Find farmers markets seasonally throughout the city, every day of the week. These markets provide the city with fresh produce, flowers, and sweet treats!


Fall:

Lincoln Park Conservatory

Escape the city air as you step into the Lincoln Park conservatory, a paradise under glass. Also free to the public, this conservatory and botanical gardens contains four rooms as a serene escape from the Chicago climate, stocked with tropical and exotic plants from around the world.

Free Tours By Foot: Ghost Tours

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.

Fall Food Festivals

What a delicious way to spend the autumn! There are a lot of special food festivals that happen in the fall months.


For more free things to do each month read our blog posts:


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