Chicago always gets the backseat when it comes to other major US cities like New York and LA. Sure, we aren’t quite as big and flashy as NYC, and our weather is a roller-coaster in comparison to LA, but Chicago has more than its fair share of culture and charm. Oh, and our beaches along Lake Michigan are real. Just ask the surfers! Transportation and food already shatter your wallet, but there’s plenty of free ways to entertain yourself! As someone who has lived in or around Chicago for my entire life, I have compiled a list of things that are free to do in Chicago!
“The Bean” and the rest of Millenium Park
If you didn’t visit Cloud Gate AKA “The Bean” while you were in Chicago, did it really happen? TONS of tourists and school groups flock to the bean on a daily basis. This attraction is hard to dodge, and a more seasoned tourist might choose to pass it up, but I have been there dozens of times!
There are interesting sculptures and other art around Millenium Park. In the summer, there are fountains with alternating pixelated faces on them. They blink and spit water into a crowd of children looking to cool off from the humidity. It is basically Chicago’s public water park in the summer months. In the winter, it becomes a hub for holiday celebrations as a result of the enormous Christmas tree and skating rink. Watching people stumble and inevitably fall as they skate is enjoyable, especially when you can observe from above.
But seriously, go to the bean, take some pictures, and try to find your image in the reflection. After all, it is part of the full Chicago experience.
Chicago Cultural Center
This building used to be a library, but now it’s open to the public as a museum and a place for fancy events. I’m not sure how I missed this spot, but I just went here for the first time a few months ago. Everyone visiting the city should make the Chicago Cultural Center a priority. It is not disappointing! Make your way to the exhibit dedicated to Chicago music and the room with the dome ceiling (pictured). The Chicago Cultural center is literally a 2-minute walk from Millennium Park; it’s right across the street! Do yourself a favor and explore this noteworthy building.
StoryCorps, a program located in the building, is also fascinating. You can listen to life stories and make an appointment to share your own. Generally, it is a recorded dialogue between two people who have a compelling discussion to preserve or story to share.
Bahá’í House of Worship
While not technically located in Chicago, it’s just a short walk from the purple line. Everyone is welcome to admire this gorgeous design located across from the beach in the suburb of Wilmette. The temple stands out from the mostly residential neighborhood. Nine gardens surround the building, and if you visit in the summer, the fountains and flowers add to its beauty. This is one of my favorite spots in the suburbs. In high school, my friends and I would visit the Bahá’í House of Worship when we needed to de-stress. The inside of the temple is just as aesthetically pleasing as the outside, but pictures are not allowed.
Interesting side note: There are only seven major Bahá’í temples worldwide! This is one of the seven and the only one in North America.
North Ave and Oak Street beach can get wild on the hottest days of the summer, but there are plenty of less-known free beaches along the lake if you’re looking to avoid the crowds. Chicago beaches are free, but if you venture into the northern suburbs, there is almost always a fee to go to the beach.
If you don’t have the budget to go to Antarctica, don’t worry! If you’re in Chicago during the winter, just go to the beach. Chicago is the Antarctica of the Midwest. Once I went to the beach in the winter and tried to walk on the ice, but I fell through, so it is probably best to admire the frozen lake from a distance.
Admire the architecture & views of the skyline
Wandering aimlessly through a city can often give you the best feel for the locals and culture. I might be biased, but Chicago has some of the most gorgeous architecture in the world. There are tours designed specifically for architecture, but you could also make your own tour if your bank account is not prepared for that!
Oh, and get that insta-worthy shot of the skyline! My favorite views of the skyline are at Oak Street Beach, Navy Pier, and near Museum Campus, but it looks great from all angles. You’ll be sure to see it as you’re cruising down LSD (Lake Shore Drive) or making your way to the Shedd Aquarium. There is something magical about looking at the skyline no matter when you visit.
3 Arts Cafe (Restoration Hardware)
While you might want to buy something from the cafe or restaurant (you probably should) if you plan to stay, you don’t have to. The chandeliers, plants, and other decorations give the cafe regal vibes.
There are five floors to this place, but I only made my way through one of them. This is a great place to meet up with friends, relax, or study. I plan to make this one of my regular study spots when I return to Chicago.
This is sort of shameless promotion for my university, but Loyola is truly a special place. Loyola is not your typical tourist destination, but let me tell you, we have views of the lake like no other, a campus near the Water Tower, and a church (her name is Madonna) with stained glass. If art is your thing, stop by Loyola University’s Museum of Art! Admission is always free and the exhibits rotate. The Schreiber Center at the downtown campus is a great place to catch up on some work or read a book. The views of the city are pretty awesome too.
One of my favorite things to do in the summer is to catch a free concert or a movie at Pritzker Pavilion. There is a nice variety of music and shows. Something for everyone can be found between pop, jazz, gospel, and more. This past summer, they played my personal favorite Disney movie, Coco. Typically, movies are played on Tuesday evenings, while you can listen to some music on Mondays and Thursdays.
Lincoln Park Zoo
Anyone can stroll into this free zoo. Lincoln Park Zoo has an abundance of animals as expected, but there are also lively seasonal events. Come in the fall for Fall Fest, or during the winter for the ZooLights, if you want to get into the holiday spirit. Thousands of lights illuminate the zoo, and some of the lights are even animal-shaped.
Maggie Daley Park
You are never too old! Maggie Daley Park is one of the few places that allows you to fully feel like a kid again, minus the judgment of onlooking parents. Additionally, not many other playgrounds have such a clear view of the skyscrapers. I have fond memories of going to this park with my friends after prom senior year of high school. You can climb up to the top of the playground and slide down the humongous slides, get lost in a maze, and play with distorted mirrors.
After eating all that deep-dish pizza, you might be looking for a way to burn off those calories. Bike, walk, or run the Lakefront Trail for exercise or just for the views. The trail runs right along the lake, as you could probably guess from the name. Spanning 18 miles, you can start on the north-side and find yourself near touristy Museum Campus or maybe somewhere different!
Michael Jordan, Obama, & Shameless house
Chances are you won’t get an invite inside these homes, but many people take pictures outside of them. Michael Jordan’s mansion is located in the suburb of Highland Park. People often pose next to the entrance gate labeled with the number 23. Another famous Chicagoan, Barack Obama, lived in Hyde Park before he became president, and his home is still there! He visits Chicago and his old home from time to time.
In the past few years, a series called Shameless has come into the spotlight. The show takes place in Chicago and is actually filmed here too. Many fans of the show stop to take pictures on the front steps of the house. Some people even catch the actors at their favorite local Chicago hangouts.
Free Museums ($$$)
National Museum of Mexican Art (one of my favorites), Clarke House Museum, Federal Reserve Money Museum, Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art, DePaul Art Museum, Museum of Contemporary Photography, and more!
If you happen to be an Illinois resident, there are loads of museums in addition to this list that allow free or reduced entry!
If this didn’t convince you to visit Chicago, I dunno what will. It is one of the best cities in the world, so Shut Up and Go! And remember… “if it’s free, it’s for me, and it’s for you too!”