Visiting the Windy City doesn’t mean you have to break the bank. Luckily, there are a ton of free things to do in Chicago – especially in the summer! We’ve called Chicago home for a few years now and I am here to confirm that summers in Chicago are legendary. The best feeling in the world is feeling the sun on your face after a long winter because it means summer is on its way! From concerts and festivals to movies on the lawn, there are so many fun free things to do in Chicago in the summer. Here are some of the best free things to do if you’re in Chicago for the summer. So next time you head out to explore the Windy City, make sure you have a few of these absolutely free activities on your list of things to do in Chicago!
1. Lincoln Park Zoo
In a city known for its skyscrapers, the juxtaposition of seeing giraffes on morning runs is something Tim always loved. If you have kids or just want to see one of the first zoos in the country, the Lincoln Park Zoo should be on your list of things to see in Chicago. You’ll spot lions, tigers, and gorillas in immersive settings like savannahs and rainforests.
2. Lincoln Park Conservatory
For a big city, you’d be surprised at how many green spaces Chicago has. Right next to the zoo, you’ll find the Lincoln Park Conservatory, one of my favorite things to explore in the city. The outer gardens are perfect for a picnic and inside the conservatory, you’ll find a botanical green house garden filled with ferns, tropical flowers, orchids, and palms.
3. Millennium Park
The lead character at Millennium Park is Cloud Gate, that sculpture that everyone calls “The Bean.” But Millennium Park is also home to the famous Crown Fountain – a beautiful and interactive fountain that features two towers with digital faces – as well as the lovely Lurie Garden. During the summer months, at Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion and Great Lawn, you will find a number of free music concerts and film screenings.
4. Seasonal Festivals and Events
When you’re searching for free things to do in Chicago, festivals are always a great option. And there are so many throughout the summer that you shouldn’t have a hard time finding one. All over the city, you can find free concerts, performances, movie screenings, and festivals that celebrate everything from holidays to neighborhood culture. Chicago loves to throw a party or a parade!
5. Grant Park Music Festival
Speaking of free events in the city, the Grant Park Music Festival is a ten-week classical music concert series held annually in Chicago. The festival is free and features the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra and Grant Park Chorus as well as guest performers and conductors. It is the only free outdoor classical-music concert series in the US!
6. Chicago Cultural Center
Another one of my favorite free things to do in Chicago is visit the Chicago Cultural Center. The building was constructed over 100 years ago to serve as the Chicago Public Library, designed to show the world that Chicago had grown to be a sophisticated metropolis.
Visitors can take advantage of free art exhibits, music, and dance performances every single day of the week. The Center also offers free weekly building tours that cover the architecture and history of the building. The crowned jewel of the Cultural Center can be seen in Preston Bradley Hall where you can see the world’s largest Tiffany stained-glass dome.
7. Garfield Park Conservatory
Garfield Park Conservatory is one of the most stunning conservatories in the nation and it is free to visit. The grounds allow you to enjoy over 2 acres of beautiful and historic indoor gardens as well as 12 acres of outdoor seasonally in-bloom gardens.
8. Museum of Contemporary Photography
The Museum of Contemporary Photography is a free museum that presents projects and exhibitions focusing on contemporary image-making through both camera and digital forms.
9. Smart Museum of Art
Another one of the free museums in Chicago is the Smart Museum of Art. This University of Chicago Art Museum is home to over 15,000 objects.
10. Museum of Contemporary Art
If you’re an Illinois resident visiting the Windy City, you can visit the Museum of Contemporary Art for free on Tuesdays. This museum’s collection houses post-World War II paintings, sculptures, photos, and videos.
11. Chicago Botanic Garden
The garden-themed free things to do in Chicago continue at the Chicago Botanic Garden. The garden is home to over 27 gardens spread out over 385 acres across nine islands. If you’re looking to get outside and enjoy nature’s beauty, this is a must while you’re in Chicago.
12. DePaul University Art Museum
If you’re like me and love museums, you’re starting to see why Chicago is such a great place to visit! You’ll find another free museum to explore at DePaul University. The DePaul University Art Museum is home to a diverse permanent collection, with works ranging from photography, sculpture, paintings, and more. Bonus – it’s located right next to the Red Line Fullerton stop making it very easy to get to!
13. Chicago Greeter Program
Chicago is a city full of history and rich neighborhood culture. Want to get to know the history of a neighborhood? Join one of the walking tours led by the Chicago Greeter Program! Tours are available all throughout the city and the guides are locals, giving you the inside scoop on the history and culture of the city.
14. Navy Pier
This iconic Chicago attraction is full of restaurants and attractions. And while lunch won’t be free, believe it or not, though, there are free things to do at Navy Pier. You can tour the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows or enjoy the 50-acre playground. Navy Pier also hosts free fireworks shows from Memorial Day through Labor Day every Wednesday and Saturday night.
15. Chicago Children’s Museum
The free activities at Navy Pier also include the interactive Children’s Museum. Families are admitted free on Thursday from 5 to 8 p.m. and kids ages 15 and under are free the first Sunday of every month!
16. Lakefront Trail
For beautiful Lake Michigan views walk or bike along the 18-mile Lakefront Trail. The trail stretches from Ardmore Street (5800 N. Sheridan Road) on the North Side to 71st Street (7100 S. South Shore Drive) on the South Side and is popular with locals. Along the trail, you will find public Lake Michigan beaches, volleyball courts, and plenty of space to enjoy the view. I love going to the lakefront trail for a picnic! So, if that sounds like your cup of tea, bring your snacks.
17. Buckingham Fountain
If you’re visiting Chicago anytime from mid-April to mid-October, you can catch the Buckingham Fountain water show. The show, which features spouting jets that dance to music and a light display, kicks off every hour and we recommend going once the sun is setting so you can enjoy the backdrop of the city with a sunset.
18. Promontory Point
For some of the best views of downtown Chicago, you’ll want to head to one of Chicago’s parks – Promontory Point! Though not free, while you’re in the neighborhood you can stop by the Museum of Science and Industry.
19. Humboldt Park
Speaking of Chicago Parks, don’t forget to explore Humboldt Park! This 219-acre park boasts a historic fieldhouse, island beach, and lagoon.
20. Newberry Library
Book nerds, brace yourselves for Newberry Library. You’ll find rare books and manuscripts at the Newberry Library! The library also offers free exhibitions as well as public programs.
21. National Museum of Mexican Art
In Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, you find killer tacos and can the National Museum of Mexican Art. The museum is dedicated to representing the Mexican community in its own voice. A celebration of Mexican art with a collection featuring everything from folk art to modern works on display, it is the most prominent first-voice institution for Mexican art and culture in the United States.
22. Chicago Architecture Foundation
The Windy City is known for its buildings, attracting architecture buffs time and time again. For an in-depth look at how Chicago became known as an architectural destination and what put it on the map, take a free tour! The Foundation showcases exhibits that cover modern design, the city’s rich architectural history, and notable current Chicago projects.
23. Hancock Center’s Signature Lounge
Sure, you’ll get amazing views from the Sears Tower (now renamed Willis Tower), but you’ll have to pay admission and most likely wait in line. If you want to get an epic view of the skyline without the price tag, head over to the Signature Lounge located perfectly above Chicago on the 95th floor.
24. Milton Lee Olive Park/Ohio Street Beach
Nothing says summer like a day at the lake! If you’re looking to enjoy Lake Michigan without leaving the city, this beach/park combo is the place to cool off! And if sand isn’t your thing, that’s okay too! The beach is one of my favorite places for views of the city skyline.
25. Revolution Brewery
We love a good brewery tour at CircaWanderlust! And if you do too, Wednesday through Friday, you can take in a free brewery tour at Revolution. Just remember that tours are on a first-come, first-served basis.
26. First United Methodist Church
I absolutely fell in love with this church when we first moved to Chicago. And touring the neo-gothic church which is known as “The Chapel in the Sky”, is certainly unique! The church one of the tallest in the world and has gorgeous stained glass windows that make me swoon.
27. Maxwell Street Market
Strolling the Maxwell Street Market every Sunday is free but be warned you will be tempted to buy something!
28. DuSable Museum of African American History
DuSable has made his mark on Chicago and the museum, which features the “Freedom Now” mural which depicts over 400 years of African-American history is free to visit on Sunday.
29. Oriental Institute Museum
Plan a visit to the Oriental Institute to learn about eastern cultures! The museum’s galleries focus on varying aspects of Egyptian, Persian, and Mesopotamian societies.
30. Magnificent Mile
With so many flagship stores and brands lining Michigan Ave. it is easy to see why it is a shopping hub in the city for locals and tourists alike. Even if you aren’t planning to spend money, it’s worth walking to just window shop.
31. Hull House
If you’re looking for free things to do in Chicago with a historic perspective, plan a visit to Hull House. Once a settlement house, it is now a memorial to the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, Jane Addams. She created innovative programs for immigrants allowing them to improve their lives and start an initiative that is still thriving today.
32. City Gallery in the Historic Water Tower
Specializing in photography, the City Gallery presents a unique way to learn about Chicago… from the inside a 19th-century Gothic limestone landmark!