Free Things to do in Chicago Illinois

On the shores of Lake Michigan, Chicago Illinois is one of the largest cities in the USA. Visiting Chicago can be overwhelming and expensive if you don’t know what you’re doing.  However, there are plenty of free things to do in Chicago if you know where to find them, so I’m sharing my top pick of the best free Chicago activities for you.  

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This is a guest post by Danielle from Rambling Companion who knows far more about Chicago then I do!  I visited Chicago about 18 years ago, so I have quite dim memories of the “Windy City”, so was thrilled when Danielle offered to write this post with all her top tips for what to do in Chicago for free!

Know Before You Go to Chicago

Before travelling to Chicago, make sure you book accommodation and popular attractions ASAP as hotels and tickets can sell out, especially in peak season.


$$ Hampton Inn Majestic Chicago Theatre District: great downtown hotel with free breakfast

$$ Hotel Chicago Downtown: another great location, shared workspace for digital nomads

HI Chicago, The J.Ira & Nicki Harris Family Hostel: Fabulous hostel with private & shared rooms

🚗 Hiring a car?  Find a great deal on car rental prices here.


1. Chicago Architecture River Cruise

2. Gangsters and Ghosts Tour in Chicago

3. Willis Tower Skydeck and The Ledge Ticket

How to Have an Epic (and Cheap) Chicago Trip

I love finding free things to do wherever I travel, and you can have an amazing time with a very limited budget. However, there are some things that might be worth paying for if you have the budget to do it. Perhaps by compromising and saving money on some things, you can afford to splurge a little on something you really want to do.

For example, you could save money by staying in cheap accommodation and doing lots of free activities in Chicago, and then treat yourself to a Chicago food tour or a unique experience like a Gangsters and Ghosts Tour in Chicago.

While I love saving money I also love dining out, and there are some incredible places to eat in Chicago so if you are saving so much money on free activities, you can choose a few things that are worth spending a little more on like a wonderful meal or some of these cool things to do. 

We’ve picked out some of the best cheap places to stay in Chicago, plus a bunch of free Chicago activities so you can do just that – and if you have the budget to treat yourself a little bit, these are some of the most popular tours and activities in Chicago that you might be interested in:

You can browse more tours and attractions in Chicago here on GetYourGuide. I use GetYourGuide to book tours and tickets as I love how you can choose from a variety of options to find the best for you, comparing prices and reading reviews. 

Using GetYourGuide means you also get immediate confirmation once you’ve booked which is perfect for last-minute plans, and when you book in advance you can cancel up to 24 hours before the activity in case your plans change.  However, If you prefer to use Viator you can find tours on Viator here.

That said, no matter what budget you have, there is no need to pay for activities in Chicago if you don’t want to. You can still have an amazing Chicago vacation without spending a lot of money, and have some unique experiences you will remember forever! 




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 1:15 pm. 

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 Wednesdays during lunchtime. Relax on the steps between LaSalle and Clark Street to watch the spectacle.

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 the 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! 

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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 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. 

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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 is 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. 

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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 lady’s bathroom in the Signature Room on 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 hold a vast collection of cacti and succulents.

Cheap Places to Stay in Chicago on a Budget

Whether you’re looking for a quick getaway or planning an extended vacation, you can find some decent cheap accommodation in Chicago so take a look at these budget hostels and hotels in Chicago:

HI Chicago, The J.Ira & Nicki Harris Family Hostel: This historic hostel offers comfortable and contemporary accommodations in the thriving university district, one block away from Grant Park and the lakefront. >>>CHECK PRICES

Hampton Inn Majestic Chicago Theatre District: Located in the Theater District in downtown Chicago, close to the most popular sights, including Millennium Park and the Skydeck at Willis Tower. Free breakfast makes this hotel a deal in the heart of the city. >>>CHECK PRICES

Hotel Chicago Downtown: This Autograph Collection hotel located in downtown Chicago offers proximity to all the sights and entertainment, like the House of Blues, plus a large work desk and other amenities for digital nomads. >>>CHECK PRICES


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.

More Chicago Travel Tips

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

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