Travel in 2021 has changed drastically, so while I try to keep up posts to date please follow advice from your government's official website about travel abroad, and make sure you have adequate travel insurance which covers COVID disruption*

Free Things to do in Chicago Illinois

I visited Chicago about 18 years ago, so I have quite dim memories of the “Windy City”.  As part of the guest post series about North American cities, Danielle from Rambling Companion has written a much better article than I ever could about free things to do in Chicago Illinois!

On the shores of Lake Michigan, Chicago is one of the largest cities in the USA.  There are plenty of free things to do in Chicago to keep you busy; these are some of my favourites.

*This site contains affiliate links. If you click through the links on this page and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Thank you for supporting Tales of a Backpacker.[Learn more]

Chicago Travel Tips

Before we share our favourite free things to do in Chicago, check out our top travel tips to help you book your Chicago vacation on a budget:

The Best Free Things to do in Chicago

Historic Buildings in the Loop

The Loop is Chicago’s main downtown area. It is bound by Van Buren, Wabash, Wells, and Lake Streets. Many of Chicago’s most historic buildings are located in the loop.

The Willis Tower was the world’s tallest building until 1998. Including the antenna, it is 1,730 feet tall. The skydeck is located on the 103rd floor and at 1,353 feet, it is the highest observation deck in the United States. 

Just down the street from Willis Tower, the Rookery Building was also one of the grandest buildings at the time it was built. The architects and Chicago-legends, Daniel Burnham and John Root moved their offices into the building following its completion. They also commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to modernize the lobby. 

The Chicago Cultural Center was the first permanent home for Chicago’s Public Library. It also features the largest Tiffany dome in the world with 30,000 tiny glass pieces. The building offers free tours Wednesday through Saturday at 1:15pm. 

As the Loop was the center of Chicago for many years after the Great Fire, it includes several historic retail and theatre buildings. Additionally, iconic Chicago statues including Untitled by Picasso, Miró’s Chicago, and the Bronze Cow are displayed throughout the Loop. 

The El Elevated Train in the Loop - Free Activities in Chicago
The El Elevated Train in the Loop – Free Activities in Chicago

Chicago Riverwalk

The Chicago Riverwalk is a 1.25 mile path that follows the banks of the Chicago River from Lake Shore Drive to Lake Street. Along the path you will find outdoor bars and restaurants, museums, and public art.

Eleven moveable bridges operate along the Chicago Riverwalk. It is impressive to watch the bridges raise and lower as the sailboats navigate the river. From April to October, the bridges typically move on Wednesday’s during lunchtime. Relax on the steps between LaSalle and Clark Street to watch the spectacle.

LOVE FREE STUFF? Click here to discover 38 ways to travel for free

In the evenings, visit the Chicago Riverwalk to enjoy the largest digital art projection show in the world. Art on the Mart projects contemporary artwork across the 2.5 acre river-façade of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart. The best views are experienced from the Chicago Riverwalk between Wells and Lake Street. There are two shows per night, seven days a week from April until December.

Chicago Riverwalk & Bridge - Free Things to do in Chicago
Chicago Riverwalk & Bridge – Free Things to do in Chicago

Free Things to do in Chicago: Navy Pier 

The Navy Pier is one of Chicago’s most visited tourist attractions. Restaurants, beer gardens and attractions fill the 3,300-foot-long pier. Great views of the Chicago skyline are visible from the end of Navy Pier.

One of the main attractions on Navy Pier is the iconic 200-foot tall Centennial Ferris Wheel. From Memorial Day through Labor Day, visitors fill the pier and surrounding areas on Wednesday and Saturday evenings for the popular fireworks show. 

View of Navy Pier from the water - Things to do in Chicago for Free
View of Navy Pier from the water – Things to do in Chicago for Free

Lincoln Park Zoo

Founded in 1868, Lincoln Park Zoo is one of the oldest in the country. It also happens to be one of the few free zoos in the country. The Lincoln Park Zoo is home to over 1,000 animals. Located along the coast of Lake Michigan, just north of downtown, the Lincoln Park Zoo is the perfect place to spend an afternoon. Enjoy great views of the city from the South Pond Bridge.

My favorite time to visit The Lincoln Park Zoo is during their special event, ZooLights. ZooLights is one of the highlights of Chicago’s holiday season. The entire zoo is decked out with musical light displays, hot apple cider and ice-sculpting demonstrations! 

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: Free Things to do in Phoenix

Lakefront Trail

The Lakefront Trail is an 18 mile path along Lake Michigan. It offers beautiful views of Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline from both the north and south vantage points. Popular sections of the trail pass by Lincoln Park, Navy Pier and Grant Park. 

Another popular path is the 606 which connects several western neighborhoods. It was modeled after New York’s High Line, as it is also an old railroad track. There are several parks, restaurants and retail stores to explore along the path. 

Aerial View looking north toward North Avenue Beach and Lincoln Park in Chicago
Aerial View looking north toward North Avenue Beach and Lincoln Park in Chicago

North Avenue Beach

The two most popular and crowded beaches in Chicago are the North Avenue beach and Ohio Street beaches. Several people also hang out on the cement beach along the Lakefront Trail between North Avenue and Ohio Street.

While not as comfortable as a typical beach, this space offers a pool-like experience as you don’t have to worry about the sand and can jump into the lake.

Another popular option is Montrose Beach. It has a much quieter atmosphere and offers great views of the Chicago skyline. As an added bonus, a stretch of this beach is designated for dogs. It is entertaining to watch dogs of all sizes play and run around the beach.  

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: Free Things to do in Detroit

Free Things to do in Chicago: Grant Park 

Located between the Loop and Lake Michigan, Grant Park stretches 312 acres. Within Grant Park are several notable features including Buckingham Fountain, Museum Campus, Maggie Daley Park, and Millennium Park. 

Cloud Gate, lovingly known as “The Bean” is a highlight of Millennium Park. While exploring Millennium Park, also check out the Crown Fountain displaying faces spurting water at each other from 50-foot-tall video screens. Additional attractions are the gardens, and the impressive Jay Pritzker Pavilion.  

Buckingham Fountain - Free Things to do in Chicago
Buckingham Fountain – Free Things to do in Chicago

Humboldt Park

Humboldt Park is a neighborhood haven featuring baseball fields, soccer fields, basketball courts and tennis courts. There are walking paths around the lagoon, a beach and formal gardens. The National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture is located within the park and free for all visitors. 

The summer of 2019 was an exciting summer in Humboldt Park because an alligator was spotted in the park! Locals fondly took to calling it “Chance the Snapper.” After the local team spent a week trying to capture him without success, an expert was brought in from Florida. Within 36 hours, Frank Robb captured the 5-foot-3-inch alligator with a fishing pole. 

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: Free Things to do in Montreal

Magnificent Mile 

The Magnificent Mile is a nickname for North Michigan Avenue. It runs from the Chicago River all the way up to Oak Street. Along this stretch of Michigan Ave you will find several luxury stores, restaurants and attractions. The world’s largest Starbucks is one of the many highlights in the shopping district.

Chicago landmarks line the Magnificent Mile from beginning to end. The Wrigley Building and the Tribune Tower mark the beginning of the Magnificent Mile while the John Hancock Tower is found near the end of the shopping district. One of the best free skyline views of Chicago is enjoyed from the ladies bathroom in the Signature Room at the 95th floor of the John Hancock Tower. 

Chicago River - Free Things to do in Chicago Illinois
Chicago River – Free Things to do in Chicago Illinois

Garfield Park Conservatory 

The Garfield Park Conservatory showcases thousands of plant species from around the world in eight indoor display gardens. In addition to the indoor gardens, the conservatory features 10 acres of outdoor gardens.

Highlights of the indoor gardens include the Palm House, Fern Room, and Desert House. The Palm House transports visitors to a tropical oasis upon entry. It displays over 70 palms and additional plants from warm landscapes all around the world.

The Fern room features a swampy landscape and a lagoon complete with koi and turtles. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Desert House’s dry conditions holds a vast collection of cacti and succulents.

Are these enough free things to do in Chicago to inspire you to visit the city?  Do you have any other recommendations?  I’d love to hear your thoughts, please leave your comments below.

About the Author

Danielle Mondus founded Rambling Companion, a travel website highlighting destination advice, itineraries and adventure stories. In her spare time, she is an amateur chef, hiker and comedian.  You also can follower her adventures on Instagram and Facebook.

If you’re looking for travel insurance for your trip to the USA, get a quote now from World Nomads.

Like this post?  Pin it to read later:

Pin for Top Free Activities in Chicago Pin for Chicago Free Things to Do

Just to let you know, this post may contain paid or affiliate links, which help to maintain Tales of a Backpacker and give me the chance to keep travelling, and to keep creating awesome content for you!

Tales of a Backpacker is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to  I only recommend goods and services I believe are useful and reliable.

Last updated: October 8, 2021

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *