Fun Free Things To Add To Your Chicago Bucket List

As a Chicagoan, it's a lot of fun to recommend incredible ways to experience this city – bonus points if those excursions are free. While Chicago can be expensive, just as any city can, it's also blessed with a ton of fantastic ways to spend a day without spending a dime (on admission, anyway). Not all of these activities will last an entire day, but a few of them are in the same area of the city, making for an easy way to hodgepodge together a day of adventure.

There are dozens of things to do for free around Chicago. Sometimes free neighborhood festivals or performances add to that list. Even so, some free activities like the ones below are the best no matter what time of year it is. While everyone has their opinions on Chicago attractions, this list is informed by this writer's personal experiences in the city. So please, visit the incredible Windy City and do more than touch the grimy Cloud Gate sculpture.

Walk the Lakefront Trail

You may or may not know that Chicago is part of the United States' third coast, a nickname derived from being nestled alongside Lake Michigan. Chicago is a neighbor to the largest freshwater lake in the country, and we're incredibly proud of our gorgeous lake. There is no better way to appreciate its vastness as well as the city skyline than from the sprawling Lakefront Trail.

The 18.5-mile trail follows the coastline of the city with over 50 connecting points so you don't have to traverse the whole thing. There are also some picnic tables and benches strewn along the trail to offer resting points. It is stroller-friendly if you have little kiddos along. Folks also love to rollerblade as well as bike down the path. Just watch out for the odd pedicab operator — it's not worth the fees.

Walking the Lakefront allows you some time to disconnect from the bustle of the city and enjoy the calming rhythms of the water. You can watch the boats bobble by and even catch the fireworks off of Navy Pier if it's the summertime.

Visit the Chicago Cultural Center

A breathtaking piece of architecture downtown, the Chicago Cultural Center (the CCC) is a hidden gem. That's an overused term, but truly, the CCC fits the bill. It even houses the largest Tiffany stained-glass dome on earth, which is well worth a short visit to see on its own.

Given that it's across the street from The Bean area of Millennium Park, it's almost silly not to stop by. Spending more than just a few minutes admiring the architecture might not be best for families with little kids. Although The Learning Lab is an interactive studio setting with activities for all ages, the experiences here vary.

Adults or artsy kids will appreciate the rotating cultural and art exhibitions on top of tours of the CCC to witness all of the architectural touchpoints. Some of the past exhibits have included Giving Back: The Soul of Philanthropy Reframed and Exhibited, The Great Chicago Fire in Focus, and Stand Up for Landmarks! Protests, Posters & Pictures.

Spend a day at the Lincoln Park Zoo

As one of the oldest zoos in North America, Lincoln Park Zoo (LPZ) has been part of Chicago's history since 1868. This wonderful zoo resides in the hip Lincoln Park neighborhood, and its hundreds of acres of nature, animals, and gardens will help you walk on the wild side. LPZ houses over 1100 animals from across 200 species. It was even the first place to support the birth of an American bison in captivity to help bring the species back from the brink of extinction.

With 15 exhibit areas on top of eateries and the garden, it's easy to spend a whole day at LPZ. It's designed in a sort of loop so you can meander your way through the zoo with breaks built in as needed. This is one of the best things to do with kids since the animals, zookeeper chats, and snacks are enough to keep those little faces smiling. Plus who could say no to the beautiful Endangered Species Carousel?

Wander the Chicago Riverwalk

Although Lake Michigan is Chicago's shining star of a waterway, we also deeply love our Chicago River. This marvel of human engineering is always a hotspot for people watching or meandering. Plus, from March through December, you can experience the free Art at THE MART projection show on the side of Merchandise Mart. This video art installation is a calming way to spend an evening with plenty of seating space for everyone.

Alongside the river is a free Riverwalk with sidewalk cafes, public art, and seating areas for you to enjoy all the views downtown has to offer. That includes the dozens of architecture tour boats that scoot along the river every day — don't forget to wave at the passengers! Contrary to public belief, Chicagoans are pretty nice.

An evening on the Riverwalk is a wonderful date night idea. Grab a drink at one of the eateries along the river, visit the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum, or just find some live outdoor music. All of that and more is available along the Chicago Riverwalk.

Explore Millennium Park

Home of Cloudgate, aka The Bean, Millennium Park is much more than just residency for a shiny bean-shaped sculpture. There are fountains, a seasonal skating rink, a music performance venue, and so much more. With a range of things to do and see, this is a great activity for families or any kind of traveler. Millennium Park has become one of the quintessential tourist attractions in Chicago, with The Bean being its most iconic visual.

Believe it or not, Millennium Park is actually part of an even bigger park. It covers nearly 25 acres of Grant Park. During the warmer months, there are myriad musical performances in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion which are free of charge. The biweekly Summer Music Series showcases a range of musical genres and the free film series are two of the most popular free events at the pavilion.

If you want more natural experiences in the park, go find some solace in The Lurie Garden. On the south side of Millennium Park, this garden area encompasses some beautiful flora, demonstrating the fascinating duality of Chicago. The dark area houses the plants who prefer shade as a metaphor for the city's past while the light area with sun flourishing plant life represents the city's bright future.

Revel in the greenery at Garfield Park Conservatory

Over in Garfield Park, the free Garfield Park Conservatory has been showing Chicagoans and visitors alike the beauty of nature for over a century. This botanical garden is always a fan-favorite way to spend an afternoon. You'll find refuge there, particularly on brutally cold winter days.

Kids will marvel at the sheer size of the conservatory. It's home to one of the largest greenhouses in the country, soaring overhead with its massive windows. You're engulfed in sunlight even in the dead of winter. The conservatory's collection is immense including a few cycads, or palms, that are over 200 years old.

There are eight distinct garden areas at the conservatory including the Children's Garden, the Fern Room, and the Desert House. Our favorite part of the conservatory though, hands down, is the Palm House. As the name implies, this is where the conservatory houses its astounding palm collection. It's the largest room here and immediately transports you to a tropical paradise without leaving Chicago.

Get artsy at the Intuit: The Center For Intuitive And Outsider Art

Since 1991, Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art has been offering art exhibitions aimed at everyone, not just traditional art museum types. The center's permanent collection includes around 1,100 pieces. Probably a better stop for couples, solo travelers, or groups of adults than families, Intuit is one of the foremost museums of both outsider and self-taught artists.

Some of the artists in Intuit's permanent collection include Miles Carpenter, Minnie Evans, Michel Nedjar, and Wesley Willis, just to name a few. Of course, one of the things that draws repeat visitors to the museum is the host of temporary exhibitions, introducing visitors to new artists.

But the star of the museum is the Henry Darger Room Collection. Darger was one of the city's most famous outsider artists who lived in a single-room apartment for almost four decades in Lincoln Park. This exhibit at Intuit recreates Darger's one-room world.

Embrace history at Jane Addams Hull-House Museum

Founded by Jane Addams, the first woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, this free museum focuses on policy and underserved communities. Technically the museum is free, however, there is a $5 suggested donation if you feel so compelled.

Addams and Ellen Gates Starr co-founded the Hull House in 1889 to serve European immigrants. It was one of the first social settlements (or neighborhood welfare agencies) in North America. The museum is located within two of those original settlement buildings — the Hull Home itself and the Residents' Dining Hall.

With the museum's collection of over 5500 artifacts, visitors get more insight into life on the Near West Side in the early 1900s. Most importantly, it showcases how immigrants fit into the fabric of the country's biggest and most diverse cities. Visiting exhibitions shed more light on social dynamics, too. A couple of their past exhibitions have included True Peace: the Presence of Justice and The Best Side: The Art and Soul of Jackie Hetherington.

Frolic in the flowers at the Lincoln Park Conservatory

Visiting the Lincoln Park Conservatory is a perfect way to spend a free day in Chicago, especially with the Lincoln Park Zoo. The two are right next to each other, and this conservatory is much smaller than the Garfield Park Conservatory. Unlike the facility at Garfield Park, the Lincoln Park Conservatory only houses four display rooms.

Despite that petite size, these rooms hold some incredibly rare plants. The Orchid Room is the most incredible spot with some unusual flowers you're unlikely to see anywhere else. Plus, the Formal Garden is one of the oldest public gardens in the city dating back to the 1870s.

Visiting the conservatory is free for self-guided tours. However, if you want a guide from the facility, you can pay a small donation. The Lincoln Park Conservatory is open every day. Since they're indoors, the four plant houses are open all year round, although the outdoor gardens have seasonal limits. Your best bet to see the gardens at their best is to visit them in spring and summer as the city's nature comes back to life. Keep in mind that there can still be snow and chilly temperatures in Chicago as late as April.

Take a shot at the Museum of Contemporary Photography

Located at Columbia College, the Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP) is one of the only museums of its kind in the region. Dedicated wholly to photography, the museum demonstrates how photographs represent life in a brief, still moment. The museum was founded in 1976 in place of the former Chicago Center for Contemporary Photography. It houses a collection of 17,000 works from over 1,800 artists.

Like several of the other free activities we've listed so far, the MoCP is also open every day except for major holidays. It's always free to visit and docent tours for groups of 10 or more through the museum are also free.

In addition, MoCP has some incredible temporary exhibits, showcasing how much can still be done in the realm of photography. A few of their past shows included Refracting Histories, American Epidemic: Guns in the United States, and Chicago Stories: Carlos Javier Ortiz and David Schalliol.

Get in some culture at the National Puerto Rican Museum

Providing art exhibitions, hands-on workshops, films, and even a fine arts/crafts festival, the National Puerto Rican Museum is a great stop on your Chicago tour. Formerly known as the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture, it is an important part of Chicago's cultural lexicon, housed in the historic Humboldt Park Stables and Receptory, a charming Queen Anne brick building.

Its name was officially changed to the National Puerto Rican Museum, as it is the only museum of its kind in the country. The only museum wholly dedicated to Puerto Rican art and culture, it has a lot to say about the island's culture.

This museum does have more limited availability than other locations we've mentioned thus far. It is only open Tuesday through Saturday each week. Docent-led tours are available for groups of 10 or more with a small fee attached and must be scheduled at least a week ahead of your visit.

Enjoy more art at the National Museum of Mexican Art

The most significant museum of Mexican art and culture in the country, the National Museum of Mexican Art (NMMA) is a one-of-a-kind experience. Housed in the largely Mexican-American neighborhood of Pilsen, the museum is the perfect segue to experience all the free public art in the neighborhood itself. Its collection includes over 18,000 pieces dating back to ancient Mexico.

Among the most important works in the museum's collection are Máscara con figuras pre-Cuauhtémoc by Alfonso Castillo Orta, The Legacy of Manifest Destiny by Marcos Raya, and Homage to Posada by Carlos Cortéz. The museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays as well as on major holidays. It is also incredibly accessible for anyone with additional sensory needs. The NMMA app is sensory-friendly, while the museum has free bags with items like earplugs and sunglasses available to check out during your visit.

Because of the size of this museum, you'll want at least a few hours to enjoy it to its fullest. It's a terrific excuse to get out and enjoy all the delectable food Pilsen has to offer.

Play around at Navy Pier

It surprises visitors that Navy Pier itself is a free activity. You don't have to pay to enjoy the pier, its sights, or its vibes. What you'll pay for here is anything else you want to add to your day of fun, whether that means tickets to the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, the Chicago Children's Museum, carnival rides, or any other attractions during your visit. Year after year, Navy Pier is one of the most visited attractions in the Midwest.

There is a wide range of dining options here, too, from the charming Lirica to a classic deep dish at Giordano's, making this a perfect family stop. Kiddos have a ton to keep them entertained, with rides as well as food options to keep them going. Because of this, Navy Pier is one of the most family-friendly locations in Chicago. Plus, most of it is indoors (except the carnival rides) so it's ideal all year long, even if the weather isn't cooperating.

See a new side of the city from The 606

A much different visual experience than the Lakefront Trail, The 606 is a 2.7-mile elevated trail that takes you through multiple Chicago neighborhoods. You can see in real-time the differences between these communities from the garden-like walking, biking, and jogging route. It is open every day, connecting Wicker Park, Bucktown, Logan Square, and Humboldt Park.

As it's primarily a pedestrian trail, you'll see lots of walkers, runners, and even roller skaters. Bikes are also welcome on the trail with rental stations dotted throughout the trailway. There are also public art installations throughout The 606 for everyone to enjoy. Like the Lakefront Trail, The 606 is a wonderful way to appreciate the greenery of the city while also experiencing several of its neighborhoods in one fell swoop.

This is one of those activities that frequent Chicago visitors may appreciate most. Once you've visited several times and gotten to know Downtown and the heavily touristed areas, you may be more open to exploring the lesser-known sights.

Why we chose these

There are a lot of stereotypes about Chicagoans. While we are known for being a little gruff at times, we're also extremely rooted in Midwestern niceness. Because of that, we love to talk to everyone about our favorite city. The free activities listed here are among this writer's favorite things to do around the Windy City.

A lot of visitors will make a beeline for The Bean and may not know the other iconic parts of the city. We highly encourage you to explore more of the sprawling Millennium Park and the city at large. It doesn't have to cost a fortune to get to know how incredible Chicago is.

When you live in a huge metropolitan area, things are quite expensive. As such, knowing what can be done for free on a weekend or time off is a big part of keeping the city life exciting. There are far more things one can do in Chicago free of charge, but these are the best ways to spend your time here. The array of activities gives you a broader understanding of the complexities of Chicago, including its natural beauty and cultural diversity.