Outdoor and Drive-In Movie Theaters Near Chicago

Here’s where to watch beloved classic movies and new blockbusters al fresco in the Windy City.

At once nostalgic and COVID-safe, drive-in movie theaters have experienced a deserved resurgence over the past couple years, including throughout the Chicagoland area. For those averse to being price gouged over popcorn or crowding into indoor packed theaters (thanks, Tom Cruise), outdoor and drive-in movies provide that same cinematic wallop and communal experience, minus the exorbitant prices or risk of catching the latest Omicron variant while catching the latest Marvel romp.

In and around Chicago, al fresco films provide a family-friendly alternative. Although drive-in theaters have dwindled since their Americana heyday, a few holdouts are still going strong in the ‘burbs—and well worth the mini road trip for affordable double features and old-school concessions like cash-only candy and hot dogs. Meanwhile, if you’d rather unfurl a picnic blanket and BYO snacks, Chicago has plenty of outdoor movie experiences happening all summer long throughout the city. Whether you’re looking for an all-American blast from the past or a casual neighborhood outing in a park, here are the best outdoor and drive-in movie theaters near Chicago.

Pilsen
As per nostalgic tradition, drive-in movie theaters are typified as adorably rickety relics tucked away in quiet suburbs, surrounded by some manner of forest and/or field, far from the hustle and bustle of modern city life. While that is certainly true for most drive-in theaters, one venture is zigging against the zag right in the heart of Chicago. ChiTown Movies is a full-blown drive-in movie theater in Pilsen, the mural-clad neighborhood on the near southwest side. The theater is surprisingly huge for a city lot, with plenty of room for 10 rows of cars, all angled at a gigantic screen projecting single features like Shrek, The Sandlot, and the most Chicago movie of all time, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Customers can order food—like pizza, tacos, and wings—to be delivered right to their window.
Drive from Chicago: None—it’s in Pilsen.

Flickr/BWChicago

McHenry, Illinois
From the neon-clad jukebox and vintage arcade games to the old-school radios available to rent and listen to the movies, McHenry Outdoor Theater feels authentically preserved in time. Open since the ‘50s, not a lot has changed at this colossal drive-in complex north of the city, including its affordable double features and its comfort food provisions, from hot pretzels and hot dogs to the kind of nachos that come slathered in cheese as neon as the jukebox. Movies start at sundown, and include back-to-back blockbusters like Lightyear and Thor: Love and Thunder.
Drive from Chicago: About an hour and a half.

Route 34 Drive-In Theatre
Route 34 Drive-In Theatre

Earlville, Illinois
Nestled on a vast grassy field in the far western suburbs, there’s something extra peaceful and pastoral about Route 34 Drive-In Theater. Unlike many drive-in theaters, which are commonly located on gravel or dirt, the grassy terrain makes it more comfortable to sit outside on a lawn chair, or let the kids run around and frolic before sunset. The cash-only property opens on weekends at 6:30 pm, with back-to-back movies starting at dusk. On any given week, features can include DC League of Super Pets, followed by a whiplash pivot to Twister—a movie that famously features a scene with a drive-in movie theater being blown to bits. The theater also has an indoor pool table, and frills-free concessions include burgers and popcorn (made with real butter, as the website emphatically assures).
Drive from Chicago: About an hour and a half.

Valparaiso, Indiana
Located just over the Indiana border, the 49er Drive-in is a seasonal summer tradition that delivers the goods with dirt-cheap double features ($10 for adults, $5 for kids 5 - 11, free for 4 and under), periodic live music events, and an emphasis on family-friendly films—think Finding Dory followed by Alice in Wonderland, or DC League of Super Pets followed by the new Elvis biopic. The concessions menu is surprisingly robust for a drive-in theater, with extensive options like chili cheese fries, mini corn dogs, fried green beans, funnel cakes, Polish sausages, and Italian beef. You can even get a cappuccino, in case you need an energy boost for the second screening. It’s all cash-only, but there’s an ATM in the concessions area.
Drive from Chicago: About an hour.

Chicago Park District
Chicago Park District

Various locations
A summer rite of passage in Chicago, right up there with street festivals and rooftop imbibing, Movies in the Parks is a fun and festive way to take advantage of the city’s glory days. Courtesy of the Chicago Park District, the seasonal series projects outdoor films on pop-up screens in parks throughout the city until the end of August. Even cheaper than a drive-in theater, all movies are free to attend, and they’re the perfect setting for picnicking with family and friends (many movies are family-friendly, but some, like King Richard and The Gay Divorcee, skew more mature). Check the calendar for an exhaustive list of movies and parks, and there’s bound to be something that fits your fancy. Movies start right after sunset, but arrive early if you’d like to scope out a prime spot.
Drive from Chicago: None—they’re all over the city.

Millennium Park
A popular spot for outdoor concerts, festivals, and selfies by the Bean, Millennium Park is also a particularly beautiful place to take in an al fresco flick. With the staggering skyline as a twinkling backdrop, free-to-attend outdoor movies are screened on Tuesday nights through September 6 at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Just like concerts at the pavilion, though, the movies are especially popular, and the sprawling lawn is known to fill up rather quickly, so keep that in mind for your picnic strategy. Movies start at 6:30 pm, and this year’s roster features dance-inspired films with the theme “2022 Year of Chicago Dance.” These include Encanto, In The Heights, Dirty Dancing, and Save the Last Dance.
Drive from Chicago: None—it’s in the middle of downtown’s biggest tourist attraction.

Navy Pier
Navy Pier

Streeterville
It makes sense that Navy Pier, an almost infamously family-friendly tourist attraction jutting into Lake Michigan from Streeterville, would host an outdoor film series dedicated exclusively to family-inspired movies. Another free option, movies are aired in the grassy Polk Bros Park on pop-up screens overlooking the water. Held every Monday night through August 29, familial fare includes the requisite Encanto, Rent, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Minari, and Meet the Parents. Attendees are welcome to bring their own provisions, or grab something to-go from any of Navy Pier’s myriad fast-casual eateries, like I Dream of Falafel, America’s Dog & Burger, Big Bowl Chinese Express, Big City Chicken, and Frankie’s Pizza by the Slice.
Drive from Chicago: None—it’s right on the lake downtown.

Gallagher Way Chicago
Gallagher Way Chicago

Wrigleyville
Another free all-ages alternative is the ongoing outdoor film series at Gallagher Way, the meticulously landscaped park space surrounded by boutique restaurants, shops, and hotel rooms—oh, and Wrigley Field is across the street. It’s the perfect spot to fling a blanket, bring some snacks, and take in a flick. Held on Wednesday nights through September 21, eclectic movies include the inescapable Encanto, Grease, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Field of Dreams, which is the perfect thing to watch in the shadows of Wrigley Field.
Drive from Chicago: None—it’s across from Wrigley Field.

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Matt Kirouac is a travel writer working on a memoir about the epic ups and downs from life on the road as a gay couple—and the lessons learned along the way. Follow him on IG @mattkirouacofficial.