Top Ten: Free things to do in Chicago. Chicago is a big city, and like most big cities, it can be expensive for residents and visitors alike. And yet, there are amazing, fun, and free things to do here. Below are some highlights. If you really want to check the city out read: Free or cheap things to do in Chicago and Free and cheap things to do in Chicago with Kids.
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Chicago Cultural Center: We post a lot of events from the Chicago Cultural Center here, because there are so many of them! The building itself is an architectural gem. It was built as the main branch of the Chicago Public Library and has the world’s largest Tiffany glass dome. The library is long gone; in its place are exhibition galleries, space for musical performances and lectures, and a great area for general hanging out on the ground floor. It’s all free, too. Whether you live here or are visiting, you need to check out the Cultural Center. Current events.
- Garfield Park Conservatory is a gorgeous indoor nature center. Its greenhouses have a variety of plants and a lovely children’s area. Admission is free, although donations are encouraged. I like to go in deepest winter to feel warmth, sunshine, and humidity. It’s not in the best area of Chicago, but I’ve never had a problem in the daytime. Between the free parking lot next door and the Green Line el stop at the door, you won’t have to wander around if you don’t feel comfortable.
The Signature Room at the John Hancock Building: The skyscraper was invented in Chicago, and visitors here want to see the view from the top. And why not? The John Hancock Building has a great view, and it has a secret – you can see the view from the restaurant on the 95th floor for free. Well, you need to buy a drink or a meal, but it is cheaper to buy lunch at the Signature Room than it is to pay for admission to the observatory and then buy lunch elsewhere. And, you’ll have plenty of time to savor the view.
- Lincoln Park Zoo is free and lovely and lots of fun. Although there is a fee for parking, you can avoid that by taking public transit or if the Parking Gods are with you. Sometimes they cooperate.
Millennium Park has been expensive for Chicago’s taxpayers, but it is free for everyone else. It has some great, interactive outdoor sculpture (e.g., the Bean, the Crown Fountain), walking paths, and regular free concerts in the summer and over the December holidays.
- The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago is the home of the fictional Indiana Jones. The very real museum has a small but outstanding collection of art and artifacts from the Middle East, including a mummy. Admission is free, but a donation is suggested. If you’re down in Hyde Park, you can see some other small free museums, the Smart Museum of Art and the Renaissance Society, and you can admire Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House – free as long as you stay outside. (Check out the view of the Robie House from the Booth School of Business across the street.)
- Federal Reserve Bank Money Museum is a small, free museum that comes with a souvenir! You learn about the history of money and the Federal Reserve, examine counterfeits, see what a million dollars looks like in one dollar bills, and take home a bag of real shredded currency.
- Museum of Contemporary Photography, part of Columbia College Chicago, is a small museum with free admission and an interesting collection. You can see both current and historic images any time the museum is open.
- National Museum of Mexican Art is located in Pilsen, a predominantly Mexican neighborhood on the South Side. The museum shows modern and historic works by artists from Mexico as well as Mexican artists working in the U.S. This is more of an art museum than a cultural center, although Mexican and Mexican-American culture are well represented. The surrounding neighborhood is a lively place with lots of murals and great restaurants.
Loop sculptures. Downtown Chicago has an amazing array of sculptures, monuments, and significant architecture. If the weather is favorable, you can follow the EveryTrail map and enjoy the sights. For free! Other great art tours: Free Art Tour of Lincoln Park and Free Art Tour of Grant Park.
And if these fun and free things don’t convince you that Chicago is America’s best-kept secret, well, I’ve failed.