The JS Guide to Getting Everything for Free in Chicago
Chi-Town's best sights and bites may have price tags that rival LA and NYC, but we've got the keys to seeing the Windy City without spending a cent. Here, our top tips on things to do for free in Chicago.
Chelsea is Brooklyn-based travel writer, editor, and photographer. When not home eating her way through NYC, she's gallivanting across the globe, sailing the coast of Croatia or hiking the peaks of Peru. Her superpowers include booking flight deals and sleeping in small plane seats.
Work Up a Sweat
Good news: you don’t have to burn money to break a sweat in the Windy City. Moksha Yoga offers free classes with their teachers in training at three locations, while the studio’s non-profit program, Everybody Yoga, brings classes to Chicago’s parks, beaches and festivals in the summer. For the early birds, there are community workouts like Tai Chi, Yoga, Pilates, and Zumba on Saturday mornings at the Great Lawn in Millennium Park, as well as Tuesday and Thursday yoga sessions. Pack your racket and play a few sets on the public tennis courts in Roosevelt Park, or bust a move at the season-long SummerDance festival, with evening lessons—ranging from tango to country and swing to folk—followed by two hours of live tunes and grooving at the Spirit of Music Garden in Grant Park.
Catch a Flick
Looking for romantic date ideas without cashing in your paycheck? Thanks to Chicago’s abundance of free flicks and public screenings, the summer love doesn’t have to sizzle and fade. Pack a picnic and snuggle on the lawn at the Movies in the Parks summer series, which features hundreds of showings, such as Avengers: Endgame and Hocus Pocus, in parks across the city. If the weather turns sour, head to Delilah’s on Lincoln Avenue to catch a rock documentary and throw back one of the bar’s 750 whiskeys on Tuesday, Saturday, and Sunday nights.
Listen to Free Tunes
In the Second City, music junkies get their fix of tunes without having to sing the broke blues. Enjoy some smooth listening at the Chicago Jazz Festival, the city’s longest-running lakefront music festival, from Aug. 29 to Sept. 1 in Millennium Park. Small pubs and clubs also host headliners and local bands with zero cover charge. Rock out in the Ukrainian Village at the Empty Bottle on Free Mondays or sway to Tuesdays on the Terrace live jazz nights at the Museum of Contemporary Art. There are also complimentary world music ensembles at the Old Town School of Folk Music and classical performances in Preston Bradley Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center.
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Peep some Art
While Chicago’s star museums charge for admission, most have free days and nights to explore their galleries. For a modern twist, hit the Museum of Contemporary Art on Tuesdays, and get lost in the Art Institute of Chicago on Thursday evenings, both of which are free to Illinois residents only. The City Gallery, located inside the historic Water Tower on the Magnificent Mile, is open to everyone all week. Don’t miss the handful of gratis galleries—knockouts include the Museum of Contemporary Photography for skilled snapshots, Smart Museum of Art for impressive American collections, and the National Museum of Mexican Art.
Go for a Stroll
The Windy City is home to some of the best parks, gardens, and streets to take a leisurely stroll. The Park Boulevard System links 26 miles of greens and historic buildings, while the 25-acre Millennium Park is the city’s largest lawn, punctuated by the iconic Cloud Gate sculpture, the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion and Buckingham Fountain’s water display. Lincoln Park, one of the most notable grounds, has four free conservatories (Palm House, Fern Room, Orchid House and Show House) that provide a tropical escape in the heart of the concrete jungle. You can also follow a local guide on a two- to four-hour complimentary walking tour of the neighborhoods and districts with Chicago Greeter.
Get Your Food and Drink On
Save your dollars on drinks by hitting up cheap booze joints. Guests at Hotel Palomar Chicago can bed down and drink up at the evening wine receptions (5 p.m. to 6 p.m.) in this hip River North spot. Hang around long enough on a Wednesday night at Lincoln Park's Burwood Tap (a.k.a. past 8:30 p.m.) and you'll be treated to free wings (on Thursdays, you're treated to free pool). And, what could be better than a liquor-meets-dessert combo? On the Near North Side, More bakery creates cocktail-inspired cupcakes, such as the margarita with tequila-lime icing and salt sprinkles, and gives them away during happy hour (5 p.m. to 7 p.m.) on Fridays.
Hit a Hot Event
Get more bang for your buck by passing up expensive entertainment for the Windy City’s free festivals and events. In the summer, Navy Pier shoots off fireworks on Wednesday and Saturday nights, and on August 17th and 18th, jets fly the skies with the Chicago Air and Water Show at the North Avenue lakefront. Feeling crafty? The Renegade Craft Fair in the Wicker Park neighborhood showcases an eclectic mix of artists and creative knick-knacks. In August, catch the Bud Billiken Parade, the country’s oldest and largest African American parade, and a few weeks later, live la dolce vita at the Festa Italiana, which celebrates the heritage of Chicago’s vibrant Little Italy community.
Find Fun for the Whole Family
Traveling with the family can cost a handful, especially if you’re paying for a team of tots. Save the cash for college and take advantage of Chi-Town’s affordable kid-friendly activities. Spend the day with the lions, tigers and bears at the Lincoln Park Zoo, or take the troops to the Chicago Children’s Museum on Thursday evenings, when there’s free entry for everyone. If you have a Chicago Public Library card, check out a Kids Museum Passport for a week of free access (for four family members) to 15 museums including the Adler Planetarium, Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Chicago Children’s Museum. During the warmer months, the Family Fun Festival holds daily arts and crafts, games and events for the little ones in Millennium Park.
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Chicago’s colleges may be some of the best in the nation, but they aren’t the only places to learn a thing or two in this city. The Dearborn Observatory on Northwestern’s campus is open to the public on Fridays from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. for stargazing through the large telescope. Go green at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum's rooftop gardens, where you’ll learn about energy-efficient technology, on free admission Thursdays for Illinois residents, or discover the design behind Chicago’s architecture at the Archicenter's exhibitions. History buffs can head to DuSable Museum of African American History on Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., plus the famous Chicago Public Library and landmark Jane Addams Hull House are both continually open to the public.
Lit lovers appreciate the city’s artsy side, with its plays, poetry and performances. Throughout the year, the Shakespeare Project of Chicago offers public productions and the Chicago Cultural Center hosts a variety of visual, literary and performing arts for free. Or, try your hand at an original piece with the Story Club's poetry slams and open mic nights.
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