Everything to Do for Free in Chicago This Fall
Postmodern skyscrapers, world-renowned museums, contemporary art galleries, and a killer culinary landscape helped establish Chicago as a top-tier American destination decades ago. Since navigating for free in a world-class city can be tricky, we've dug up all of the gratis options on offer this fall.
Mull Around a Museum or Admire Some Art
Chicago is blessed with some of the most illustrious art, culture and history institutions in not just the U.S., but the world, and while they could very well be charging an arm and a leg for entry, there’s a surprising amount of free tickets floating around the city this fall.
The Chicago History Museum is free Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays in September, as well as October 1-2 and 7-9. Everything and anything you could want to know about the Windy City’s past and present can be found within the museum’s walls, from permanent exhibits like "Chicago: Crossroads of America," that explore the city’s famous architecture, diverse neighborhoods and early fashions, to rotating collections like "Chicago Authored," which looks at the city through the eyes of contemporary writers and Pulitzer Prize-winning greats like Gwendolyn Brooks and Upton Sinclair.
Free fall days (for Illinois residents, only) at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago – select dates now through December – grant visitors access to interactive, thought-provoking exhibits like "Numbers in Nature: A Mirror Maze," "Yesterday’s Main Street," and the "Whispering Gallery," as well as countless permanent fixtures that comprise the rest of the museum’s 400,000 square feet.
Every Sunday, the DuSable Museum of African American History offers complimentary admission for all to view the murals, mosaics and educational exhibits that serve to inform visitors about the experiences and achievements of African Americans around the world.
The Ed Paschke Art Center, in Jefferson Park, is free every day, so you can get your daily dose of embellished cow sculptures, pieces from Paschke’s 40+ year career, and abstract geometric paintings from the likes of Chicago native Wasalu Jaco (AKA Lupe Fiasco) whenever you have time in your schedule. DPAM, the DePaul Art Museum, also rocks on the house admission all day, every day, so you can check out permanent collections and current exhibits like "On Space and Place: Contemporary Art from Chicago, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and Vancouver" and "Matt Nichols: SomethingDivine," whenever you want.
For some al fresco art, September 30th and October 1st welcomes the sixth consecutive West Town Art Walk + West Town Food Truck Social. The open event is full of pop-up galleries, fashion showcases, live music, and performance art.
Like NYC, Chi-Town also has its fair share of striking architecture to show off, hence their very own Open House Chicago weekend. Get an inside look at some of the city’s most defining buildings and spaces like Frank Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion this October 15th and 16th.
Get Down at a Festival or Parade
This October 22nd marks the second annual Halloween Gathering Festival and Parade. Starting at 2pm, crowds gather in Millennium Park and the Sir Georg Solti Garden for activities organized by some of Chicago’s most renowned institutions like the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Following the daytime festival is the Spectacle Parade which starts at 6 pm at the intersection of Columbus Drive and Balbo Street – zany costumes, over-the-top floats and choreographed Thriller tributes all guaranteed.
On the 31st, the Northalsted Halloween Parade celebrates 20 years of LGBTQ-friendly holiday festivities. If for nothing else, make sure you stop by the celebration – in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood – for a costume contest with more than 2,000 fierce competitors.
Turns out, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade isn’t the only one to write home about. Over in the midwest, Chicago reps for all of Illinois with the November 24th McDonald’s Thanksgiving Parade. Now in its 83rd consecutive year, 5,000 participants and more than 100 floats, bands and balloons, will march down a 1-mile-long parade route.
We know fall is just starting, but it’s never too early to start thinking about the winter holidays, or at least holiday shopping, right? For 21 years now, the Christkindlmarket – a traditional German Christmas market inspired by the originals in Nuremberg– has been setting up shop in Chicago with specialty gift vendors and mouthwatering European fare. Window shopping is free, so head to the Chicago Loop between November 18 and December 24 to get some gift-giving ideas or make your own mental wish list.
To ease the transition from fall to winter there’s also ZooLights, at the Lincoln Park Zoo, which kicks off on November 25. Watch the space transform into a winter wonderland as 3D musical light displays, live ice sculpture carving events and children’s crafts booths quickly take over.
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Enjoy the Great Outdoors
The Green City Market was Chicago’s first year-round farmers market, having opened its sustainable doors some 18 years ago. Now operating on Wednesdays and Saturdays in Lincoln Park (May through October), and indoors at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum (November through April), market-goers can peruse the freshest produce in town, sit in on chef demonstrations and educational gardening sessions (like how to prep your garden for winter), and attend pop-up holiday markets.
Getting in some quality outdoor time is easy when the Chicago Botanic Garden offers up free admission every day of the year. More than 20 gardens makeup the lush complex, so don’t be surprised if hours go by and you’ve only made it through the bonsai collection, rose garden, and esplanade. The garden also hosts worthwhile special events, like the Fall Bulb Festival (on October 7th) – we hear there’s going to be a mountain of gourds and a straw bale maze, so get those iPhone 7 cameras ready.
Admission is always free at the Lincoln Park Conservatory and no matter what time of year you visit, exotic and tropical variations will be in full bloom throughout the Palm House, Fern Room, Orchid House, and Show House. For more open-air flora and fauna, as well as activities, you can also visit Lurie Garden in Millennium Park – which offers open yoga workshops, nature walks and book club events for children and adults – or Humboldt Park which hosts free studio art programs, bird watching walks, and music lessons around its sprawling 219 acres. Anyone in town for a museum day will also likely stroll through Grant Park (and if you don’t, you’re doing it wrong). The 319-acre waterfront slice does encompass the Art Institute, the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, and the Adler Planetarium, after all.
Private tours in any major city can cost you a pretty penny, but with Chicago Greeter neighborhood tours, local volunteers show visitors around on 2-4 hour tours of their home for nothing but tips. If you register at least 10 days in advance, you can choose between 25 different neighborhoods – Old Town, Hyde Park, the West Loop, Wrigleyville, etc. – tailoring your tour to specific points of interest, or if you want a local’s perspective you can leave the route up to your in-the-know greeter.
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Find Fun for the Whole Family
Chicago kids are rather fortunate in terms of wildlife, seeing as their urban hometown houses one of the country’s only 24/7 free zoos. At the Lincoln Park Zoo, you can check out new animal arrivals like baby snow monkeys, zebra foals and dwarf klipspringers, and hit the second-annual Fall Fest as many times as you want. Since it runs most days September through October, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to enjoy live music, pumpkin carving and educational animal chats without worrying about admission costs for a full family.
Another exciting option for families with curious tots is the Chicago Children’s Museum which offers free access on first Sundays and every Thursday evening after 5pm. Interactive rooms like the Dinosaur Expedition, Tinkering Lab and Zoom Room mean kids can dig for dinosaur bones in a simulated excavation pit, try their hand at all sorts of DIY projects, and learn about friction and acceleration as they send toy cars soaring around a 20-foot track.
Year-round we love a good pop-up, but work fall into the equation, and we’re even more ecstatic. The Chicago Park District’s free pop-up pumpkin patches, which run through October in neighborhood parks all across Chi-Town, are a game-changer for city kids who otherwise wouldn’t make it a farm this season.
Chicago’s Navy Pier is a one stop shop with acre upon acre of park, countless restaurants, the Chicago Children’s Museum, the iconic Centennial Wheel, hand-painted carousel, and an IMAX theater (and all of this is just the tip of the iceberg). While many of the attractions do charge for admission, there’s plenty to do free of charge, including public events like the Chicago Children’s Choir 60th Anniversary Celebration on October 6th and trick-or-treating, a costume contest and Halloween fireworks on October 31st.