A Free Family Vacation in Chicago

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Chicago is a great spot for a family vacation. And it’s easy to spend a bundle. But you don’t have to. There are plenty of free things to do as well to help make a visit there an affordable family vacation.

It’s got all the cool city stuff to do—great (and not-so-great) professional sports teams, world-class dining, cutting-edge architecture, award-wining theater for adults and kids and enough museums to wear out even the most interested kids—all wrapped up in friendly Midwestern charm. And, Chicago also has the lakefront, which city forefathers decreed would be forever open and free. But the 33 beaches and miles of jogging and bike paths aren’t the only thing that’s free along the Chicago lakefront.

There’s also the venerable Buckingham Fountain. One of the city’s treasures, it was built by philanthropist Kate Buckingham to honor her brother, Clarence. The fountain runs from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. April through October. Each hour, the water dances for 20 minutes, shooting a geyser 150 feet into the air. Beginning at dusk, the display includes a spectacular light show.  We make the pilgrimage at least one evening each year. My husband and I set up our folding chairs, uncork a bottle of wine and laugh at the kids as they run around the fountain, trying to dodge the spray as the winds off Lake Michigan scatter the water. Or maybe they’re trying to get wet. I have never been sure.

Just north of Buckingham Fountain is Millennium Park, the city’s newest and one of my family’s favorite spots. It’s always free and during the warmer weather, there often are free concerts on the Jay Pritzker Pavilion stage. Start by posing for a family photo underneath the shiny Anish Kapoor sculpture, Cloud Gate, or “The Bean” as it’s affectionately known around town. Then let the kids run across the winding 925-foot BP Bridge, which connects the park to the lakefront. If it’s warm, end the tour at the towering Crown fountain, where the kids won’t be able to resist splashing through the water.

Once the cold weather sets in, the fountain shuts down and the ice rink opens up. Skating at the 16,000-foot rink also is free, provided you bring your own skates. If not, rent skates for $7.

On the North Side sits the centerpiece of Chicago’s huge Lincoln Park, Lincoln Park Zoo, one of the last free zoos in the country. Start at the southern tip of the zoo and visit the newborn animals housed at the Farm in the Zoo, then meander north to say hello to the polar bears before calling it a day. If you have little ones, don’t miss a stop at the terrific Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo (yes, it’s the same family that paid for the stage at Millennium Park—the family owns the Hyatt Hotels.). But be careful. I’ve found that once the kids get inside and start climbing the Treetop Canopy, a 20-foot-high wood-and fabric tree, it can be tough to get them back outside to look at the animals. End the day with a stroll through the Lincoln Park Conservatory, located just outside the northwest corner of the zoo.

Part II:  Chicago’s Family Museums

There’s free stuff indoors, too, including many of the city’s smaller museums, which are free every day. Garfield Park Conservatory, a fertile mecca of lush vegetation and often the home of temporary art installations, sits west of the Loop, an easy car ride (there’s plenty of free parking as well) or a short ride on the Green Line L ($2 per person each way).

There’s also the funky (and free) National Museum of Mexican Art, just west of the Loop in Pilsen. My kids have always been drawn to the vibrant colors inside the museum (you might want to preview the exhibits, some can be a little racy) but they are just as enamored of the art on the street in this pulsing ethnic community. Many neighborhood buildings sport rich mosaics or beautiful, sometimes religious paintings. Before you head back downtown, stop in at any of the storefront restaurants for a taco and a horchata, a Mexican rice-flavored drink.

Even the city’s world-renowned museums such as the Field Museum, home of Sue, the most intact Tyrannosaurus rex fossil ever discovered, and the Shedd Aquarium, the largest indoor aquarium in the world, offer free admission on certain days of the year. Check the city’s website or the museum website for a list of the free days. (For a better deal on admissions on non-free days, consider buying a CityPass.)

Cindy Richards is editor of TravelingMom.com, the mom of two terrific teens and a lifelong Chicagoan who thinks everyone should visit her city.

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