Like most cities, Chicago can be super expensive. There’s a fantastic restaurant scene, tons of broadway shows, concerts constantly… but as easy as it is to spend a fortune, you can also get to know the city on a budget. With plenty of free things to do in Chicago, you’re guaranteed to run into as many locals as tourists while exploring the city without spending a dime. The following list is made up of places that I visit regularly, and I’m never disappointed!
Free things to do in Chicago: Free Walking Tours
There are a handful of ways to take advantage of knowledgeable locals through free walking tours. Chicago Greeter offers free guides in many different neighbourhoods, depending on what you’re looking for. Most of their tours require registration beforehand, so use their website to choose what works best for your trip!
The Freehand, a super hip new hotel in Chicago’s River North neighbourhood, offers pay-what-you-want walking tours every Saturday at 10 am. They meet in the hotel lobby and walk south into the loop, and then back to the hotel. It takes about two hours, leaving you ready for lunch and with some fun facts about the city. Although payment isn’t required, if you enjoy the tour, let your guide know! Café Integral is the hotel’s coffee shop, serving gourmet drinks and yummy bites to eat if you get there early and want to take advantage.
Details: The Freehand is located at 19 East Ohio Street. Chicago Greeter locations vary by tour.
Free things to do in Chicago: The 606 Trail
Both old and new, The 606 is an elevated railway-turned-trail running through Northwest Chicago. It connects four diverse neighbourhoods over 2.7 miles, wonderfully maintained with a variety of flowers and shrubs. It’s a great way to see Chicagoans enjoying their beautiful city – you’ll witness people strolling with their dogs and a cup of coffee, as well as bikers commuting to work. Because it’s elevated, you can also peek into some awesome homes. There are urban gardens and ridiculous patios, and you walk through all sorts of areas. Use The 606 (named for the first three numbers in all Chicago zip codes) to get to a new brunch spot, go for a run, or take a walk! There are twelve entrances/exits, making it easy to come and go as you please.
Details: The East Trailhead is located at Walsh Park off of Ashland (1800 North and 1600 West). The West Trailhead is located at Ridgeway (1800 North and 3750 West). There are a total of twelve access points, about every quarter mile, including 17 access ramps. To access public transportation, take the Blue Line to either Western or Damen. There are water fountains and benches along the way. However, there are no restrooms on the trail.
Free things to do in Chicago: Go to Millennium Park
Millennium Park is a 99,000m² of green space smack dab in the middle of downtown Chicago. There you can find many art sculptures and free events available.
First, you have Lurie Garden, 20m² of meticulously well-maintained flowers and shrubbery. Next, Cloud Gate, otherwise known as The Bean due to its shape, is a seamless stainless steel sculpture you probably have heard of and definitely should check out to see the crazy reflections.
Below The Bean, free ice skating (rentals are $12) on McCormick Tribune Ice Rink in the Winter. The Jay Pritzker Pavilion (on the other side of The Bean) holds free workouts, movies in the park, and concerts in the summer. You can bring goodies and a picnic here, and some of my favourite summer nights have been spent drinking wine and playing card games while an orchestra performs in the background. For children, there’s plenty of room to run around, and you’re guaranteed to see a lot of splashing and giggling at the Crown Fountain. The Crown Fountain has a reflection pool and cascading waterfall off two 50-foot projections of Chicago resident faces. Finally, suppose you want a more complete tour of Millennium Park. In that case, Chicago Greeters offers free guided walks (May – October) where you’ll learn more about the park’s art, history, and architecture. Meet at the Chicago Cultural Centre (77 East Randolph Street) at 11:30 am or 1:00 pm.
Details: Located at the Northeast corner of Michigan Avenue Randolph Street. There are public restrooms and restaurants (Park Grill is very yummy!). It’s accessible by train, bus, or car.
Free things to do in Chicago: Go to Maggie Daley Park
Maggie Daley Park is located just east of Millennium Park, across the BP bridge, at 337 East Randolph Street. Formerly North Grant Park, this area was transformed into an outdoor recreation area with many fun activities. The old large parking lot was redesigned to improve the lives and culture of Chicago’s children. In the winter, you can ice skate the never-ending skating ribbon; there are a climbing wall, tennis courts, play areas, and of course, gardens! It’s a great area to stroll through and especially necessary if you’re with kids that have some extra energy to burn.
Details: Located at 337 East Randolph Street, just to the east of Millennium Park. The fieldhouse has lockers and restrooms, and you can also rent skates here. In addition, there is a snack kiosk, and a restaurant will be opening later in 2016.
Free things to do in Chicago: Visit the Lincoln Park Zoo
Lincoln Park Zoo is a free zoo in the middle of one of Chicago’s largest parks. Right on the water, you can stop by the zoo if you’re walking along the beach or if you’re exploring Chicago’s Northside. You’ll be surprised at the variety of animals- there are lions, tigers, even polar bears! Fun for all ages, there’s a Farm-in-the-Zoo petting section for little ones too. Also, check their website because they often have Zoo Lights in the winter and various beer festivals in the summer.
Details: Located at 2001 North Clark Street. There’s a parking lot at 2400 North Cannon Drive ($20+ for more than 30 minutes), but plenty of public transportation options are available. Take the #151 or #156 bus and get off at Stockton & Webster to enter the zoo’s West Gate or Stockton & Armitage for the Farm-in-the-Zoo. The #22 and #36 bus exit at Clark & Webster for the zoo’s West Gate. If you’re on the el, take the brown or purple line to the Armitage station and walk east on Armitage for about a mile to the Café Brauer Gate.
All of these activities are fantastic ways to get to know Chicago on a budget. Whether it’s sunny or there’s a chill in the air, you’ll find Chicago and its architecture a pleasure to explore. There’s so much to do and learn, so take advantage of all the city has to offer! In no time, you’ll feel right at home and fit in just like a local.