Budget Travel

22 of the best free things to do in Chicago: art and architecture, blues and views

From the Art Institute to skyscraper-viewing boat tours, there are plenty of brilliant things to do in Chicago that will leave your purse aching. However there are also many different ways to experience the Windy City's art and architecture, blues and city views without spending anything more. Help you stay budget low with one of these best steps you can take in Chicago free of charge.

Make probably the most of Millennium Park's free events

You could spend the entire day consuming Millennium Park's mother lode of freebies, particularly in summer. Stretch inside a morning yoga class (end-May -Sep). Admire soaring public art and splash in the fountain-turned-water-park in the afternoon. Then catch a film or concert at Pritzker Pavilion. The disposable shows on Monday and Thursday evenings are a Chicago highlight, where locals gather to picnic and sip wine as music fills the environment.

Take a guided tour of the Chicago Cultural Center

The exquisite, beaux-arts block-long Cultural Center began its life as the Chicago Public Library in 1897. Now it provides a trove of gratis goodness, including museum-quality art exhibitions, foreign film screenings, music, dance, theater, and family events. On Thursdays and Fridays volunteers and staff lead free hour-long walking tours of your building.

Enjoy lakefront views from Navy Pier

Yes, you'll cough up to spin around the Ferris wheel or set sail on the boat – the most popular things to do at Navy Pier – but the cool breezes and terrific lakefront views are always free. The Pier also prides itself on its year-round program of complimentary events, for example cultural celebrations, art exhibitions, al fresco films, and rocking concerts.

Watch Art on theMart at night

The Art on theMart video art extravaganza – a trippy light show projected on the world's largest commercial building for 30 minutes twice each evening – is among the quirkiest things you can do at night in Chicago. Best of all, it'll burst your eyeball totally free. The 2022 program runs April through June with shows at 8:30 and 9pm.

Visit the look Museum of Chicago's rotating exhibitions

The free Design Museum wears cool exhibitions that change regularly and cover everything from stage design to textile design, game design towards the parallels between design and sound.

Catch live music for free at Buddy Guy's Legends

Chicago's musical claim to fame is the electric blues – and Buddy Guy's is where to hear a fret-bending looking for nothing. While evening shows cost $15 to $25, musicians often play free acoustic blues or jazz from 5 to eight:30pm in the restaurant/club before the main performance.

See the animals at Lincoln Park Zoo

Lincoln Park Zoo has entertained families for free in excess of 150 years. Lions roar, apes swing, polar bears swim and snow monkeys chill just blocks from downtown's skyscrapers.

Walk the city with a Chicago Greeter

Top-class walking tours within the Windy City don't be free and breezy because the two- to four-hour guided trips by Chicago Greeter. Choose a theme, maybe history or architecture, or pick a neighborhood, perhaps arty Pilsen or historic Uptown. Book at least ten working days ahead of time. Not only is this service free, the greeters – all locals – follow a strict no-tipping policy.

Settle in at Whistler for eclectic performances

The Whistler is part-gallery, part-cocktail lounge and part-venue for local indie bands, jazz combos, electronica, new bands, and DJs. There's no cover charge. Instead, most everyone purchases a snazzy drink to finance the nightly performances (although it's not compulsory).

Wander round Garfield Park Conservatory

The 1907 hothouse bursts with exotic cacti, ferns and flowers. Outdoors, roam the grounds past a carnivorous plant bog, lily pool, labyrinth and Claude Monet's recreated garden, then attend an exhibition on beekeeping or composting – all free.

Explore African American arts and culture at Stony Island Arts Bank

The far-flung Stony Island Arts Bank now trades in cultural capital instead of cash. This rewarding free-to-visit center of African American arts hosts provocative exhibitions and functions by new and emerging contemporary artists, as well as weekend DJ sets. Hours vary, check the web site before embarking.

Celebrate Latinx artworks in the National Museum of Mexican Art

Colorful folk art and politically-charged paintings grace the walls at the free National Museum of Mexican Art, the USA's largest Latinx arts institution. Afterwards amble around the neighborhood to determine images of Aztec gods, singing gauchos, along with other functions by Mexican muralists splashed over the buildings – a kind of outdoor gallery that continues the theme.

Have a family day out at Maggie Daley Park

Families love Maggie Daley Park's fanciful, free playgrounds in all their enchanted-forest and pirate-themed glory. Multiple picnic tables result in the park an excellent destination to relax as well.

Follow the 606 between neighborhoods

An elevated train track converted to a smart, 2.7-mile trail, the 606 unfolds overhead and connects the hipster 'hoods of Bucktown, Wicker Park, and Logan Square. Search for murals, public art installations and funky views of L trains zipping by – it all costs nothing.

Learn about modern architecture at Charnley-Persky House

Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Charnley-Persky House when he only agreed to be 19 years old. Register in advance for that free 45-minute tours that run on Wednesdays at midday. Observe how he left out the baroque decorations of Victorian design and began a simple style that laid the foundation for contemporary architecture.

Be dazzled by the light show at Buckingham Fountain

The centerpiece of Grant Park, Buckingham Fountain is a the world's largest with a 1.5-million-gallon capacity along with a 15-story-high spray. The central fountain symbolizes Lake Michigan, using the four water-spouting sea creatures representing the surrounding states. So far, so super-sized. The fountain then lets loose on the hour from 9am to 11pm early May to mid-October, accompanied during the night by multi-colored lights and music, and all sorts of for free.

Play free arcade games at Replay Lincoln Park

A little off-the-beaten-path, this dark Chicago bar is packed with scores of pinball machines, classic arcade games like Tetris, Donkey Kong and Paperboy, plus plenty of up-to-date beat-'em-ups like Mortal Kombat and Tekken 5 – all open to play for the cost of a glass or two.

Enjoy Chicago's best view at Signature Lounge

It's the worst kept secret in Chicago: Signature Lounge has got the best views from the city's skyline. On top of that, it's free. Go ahead and take elevator towards the 96th floor of 875 North Michigan Avenue (still locally known as the John Hancock Center) and order a – admittedly pricey – beverage while experiencing the views from some 1000ft in the sky. It's especially gape-worthy during the night, but children aren't allowed within the lounge after 7pm. Be ready for a crowd.

Admire the murals and street art in Pilsen

The neighborhood of Pilsen is known for its murals that splash across churches, schools and cafes, all of which is visible for free as well as on foot. The 16th Street railroad embankment unfurls a particularly rich vein, with 50 works by local and international artists adorning single.5-mile stretch between Wood and Halsted Streets.

The whole of 18th Street station is a work of art too – its walls and steps are adorned with murals. Don't miss the house of muralist Hector Duarte, a few blocks southwest of the station. He's covered it with his most striking work Gulliver in Wonderland.

Join the locals at popular Montrose Beach

Chicago has lots of great beaches, but Montrose Beach – the bronze, baseball pitch-shaped stretch of sand in Uptown – is amongst its most popular. Many rent kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and Jetskis here, but with a great book, some shorts and a towel, it is simply as lovely whiling away a day for absolutely nothing too.

See exhibitions in the Museum of Contemporary Photography

This free museum focuses on American and international photography from the early Twentieth century onward. The permanent collection includes the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Harry Callahan, Sally Mann, Victor Skrebneski, Catherine Wagner, and 500 more of the best photographers working today.

Browse the fine-arts collection at Smart Museum of Art

Named following the founders of Esquire magazine, who contributed the start-up money, this is the official fine-arts museum of the University of Chicago. The disposable collection holds 5000 years' price of works. Twentieth-century paintings and sculptures, Central European expressionism and East Asian art would be the strong suits. Hepworth, Warhol, and Kandinsky are only a some of the big-name artists on offer.

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