11 Completely Free Things to Do in Chicago

Fun doesn’t have to cost a thing.

Chicago may be the best city in the world, but there’s no denying that experiencing the best of what the city has to offer is, unfortunately, incredibly expensive. Luckily, there are better ways to experience the city than spending your time at an overpriced brunch in the West Loop. From museums to shows to events to parks and beyond, there are tons of wonderful things to do in Chicago, even if you’ve left your wallet at home.

Hike the North Branch Trail

Skip the lakefront and head to the river for one of the most beautiful walks, runs, or bike rides you’ll ever have. The North Branch Trail stretches up past the city limits up through Skokie, winding through some of Chicago’s most beautiful parks. Spend an afternoon walking along the river, and make sure to spot the hidden BMX park in the trees as you go.

The Art Institute of Chicago
The Art Institute of Chicago

Free museum days

Although all of Chicago’s museums are well worth their price of admission, for people looking to save a few bucks, each of them reserves a block of time at which admission is completely free. That day changes for each museum, so for your convenience, we’ll list them here:

Lincoln Park Zoo
Lincoln Park Zoo | alisafarov/Shutterstock

Get wild at the Lincoln Park Zoo

There are vanishingly few zoos nationwide that are free to the public, but thanks to the generosity of its donors and a grant from the Chicago Park District, the Lincoln Park Zoo is free to visit, and has been ever since it opened its doors back in 1866. Not only is the zoo home to almost 200 different species, but it also plays host to a variety of free events year-round, from adults-only nights to educational talks to holiday celebrations.

Visit Navy Pier like a local

Yes, Navy Pier is our city’s second-most-hated tourist trap behind The Bean. We also know that it’s seemingly designed to ensure that you get a low balance alert from your bank before you leave. We also also know that the previously-free Crystal Gardens are closed now as they’re going to be replaced by a paid immersive augmented reality experience of some kind. This is all true. It’s also true, however, that admission to the pier is free, and that if you look past the overpriced touristy attractions, there are non-stop free installations and events on the Pier year-round, from free movies and concerts to spectacular holiday installations. Take the day off one Tuesday in December, avoid the crowds, and walk the length of the pier watching the snowfall, giving the holiday lights a picture-perfect powdered-sugar dusting. They can’t charge for that.

The 606
The 606 | Thomas Barrat/Shutterstock

Walk/bike/scoot the 606

If the North Branch Trail is a bit far from you, make your way over to the 606. Converted from an abandoned rail line and opened (at least, partially) to the public back in 2015, The 606 has now grown into a bonafide trail-slash-running-route-slash-green-space-slash-art-museum that is a must-visit for tourists and locals alike. The 2.7-mile trail is dotted with greenery and art installations, and plays host to a whole bunch of seasonal events (and, for you runners, races).

Spend an afternoon with Free Street

Looking to experience Chicago’s performing arts scene without paying Theater District prices? Free Street has been around for 51 years, organizing community arts events, educational talks, workshops, and yes, amazing performances. Deeply rooted in the city’s history and branded as “Theater for people who hate theater,” Free Street endeavors to tell all the hard, wonderful, complicated stories Chicago has to offer, while providing workshops and collaborative spaces for artists to hone their craft as well—all on a pay-what-you-can pricing plan.

Free Chicago Walking Tours
Free Chicago Walking Tours

Take a free walking tour

Sure, taking a tour of a city you already live in might feel a little touristy to some, but those people are missing out. Free Chicago Walking Tours hosts, well, free walking tours of Chicago year-round, led by local guides who really know their stuff. For locals (and especially locals who don’t live downtown), we suggest their tour of Chicago’s “city under the city,” the Chicago Pedway—though their tour of the Chicago Riverwalk is also not to be missed.

Take a class at a community garden

If you have a green thumb, it’s worth looking up whether there’s a community garden in your neighborhood. There are dozens upon dozens of community gardens in Chicago, each with a different focus, from edible gardens to artist gardens and beyond. You can find a community garden location near you here—and applying to be a part of your local garden is completely free! Even if your garden isn’t currently taking applications, however, it’s worth checking to see if the community of gardeners in your area are hosting any upcoming workshops or classes for aspiring gardeners.

Garfield Park Conservatory
Garfield Park Conservatory | Nagel Photography/Shutterstock

Touch grass at one of Chicago’s two free conservatories

Chicago’s slogan “Urbs In Horto” literally translates to “City in a Garden”, and in keeping with the slogan, there is no shortage of public green spaces to visit. If you’re looking for something a bit more horticulturally interesting than your local park, make (free) reservations to visit either the Lincoln Park or Garfield Park conservatories. Both are absolutely stunning, from the meticulously-maintained lily pools in Lincoln Park, to Garfield Park Conservatory’s lush palm house. Stop doomscrolling and touch some grass.

Newberry Library
Newberry Library

Get lost in the stacks at Newberry Library

Sure, Chicago has plenty of wonderful museums, but for something truly different, stop by the Newberry Library, a non-circulating research library complete with exhibitions, events, and programs—all of which are 100% free to the public. Tour the space, take in a lecture from a visiting researcher, or take part in a map-making or calligraphy workshop, and return home with a new skill.

National Museum of Mexican Art
National Museum of Mexican Art

Visit a museum not on free museum days

Yes, we all know that Chicago’s biggest museums have days when they open their doors to the public—but there are plenty of museums in the city that never charge admission. The City Gallery is located right in the heart of downtown in the Historic Water Tower, and hosts rotating exhibits showcasing local artists and photographers. The National Museum of Mexican Art is one of the premier Latino museums nationwide, not only showcasing wonderful Mexican art, but also providing resources, educational programs, and professional development for Mexican artists. Visit the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum to learn about one of the most important social reformers in the history of the city, with a pay-what-you-can entry fee, or head to the oldest house in Chicago, the Clarke House, for a window into what pre-Civil War Chicagoans lived like. All free, and all more than worth your time. And finally, one of Chicago’s biggest and best museums, the Museum of Contemporary Art, has moved to a pay-what-you-can admission structure, so that everyone can enjoy the art they have to offer.

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Sam Greszes is a contributor for Thrillist.