Table of Contents[Hide][Show]
- 1. Art on the Mart
- 2. Stroll along the Riverwalk
- 3. SummerDance, Chicago Air & Water Show and other free events
- 4. The Lakefront Trail
- 5. Lincoln Park Zoo
- 6. Millennium Park
- 7. Garfield Park Conservatory
- 8. Tour Chicago Neighborhoods with a Chicago Greeter
- 9. Fireworks at Navy Pier
- 10. Visit Chinatown
- 11. Free Days at Chicago’s World-Class Museums
- 12. See the Public Art in Pilsen
- 13. Walk or Bike ‘The 606’
- Getting Around Chicago
There are pricey things you’ll want to do when visiting Chicago. Cubs tickets will cost you. So will a trip to the American Girl Store. Stretch your vacation budget by adding one or more of these fun and FREE things to do while you’re in town, including the world class Lincoln Park Zoo. A Chicago mom lists her faves.
Sometimes free equals lame. Not these activities in Chicago. Without spending a dime, you can see gorillas at Lincoln Park Zoo, play on a Lake Michigan beach, see world-famous art and architecture at places like Buckingham Fountain and Millennium Park, hear excellent live music and even learn how to dance.
As a Chicago mom who needs to watch her spending, I’ve tested out all of these activities. They’re all things my kids have enjoyed, and things I’d recommend to any parent visiting Chicago.
Read More: 11 Best Kid Friendly Hotels in Chicago
1. Art on the Mart
Art on the Mart is a free, state-of-the-art, 30-minute light show on the side of one of Chicago’s most historic buildings, the Merchandise Mart.
The show is viewable from along the Chicago Riverwalk (or on a boat in the Chicago River). Held nightly at 8:30 and 9 pm, the spring 2022 program runs from April 9 through June 29.
2. Stroll along the Riverwalk
See the artwork (look for the giant deer near the Merchandise Mart), party boats and restaurants as you take a scenic stroll along the Chicago Riverwalk. The path winds along the Chicago River and through the Loop (the nickname for downtown Chicago).
The riverwalk also has some yummy restaurants and is the place to catch a boat ride on the Chicago River. Those things aren’t free, but sitting on the benches along the riverwalk to people watch is always free!
3. SummerDance, Chicago Air & Water Show and other free events
If your kids like to dance, this is a fun way to spend a summer weekend night. In Grant Park’s Spirit of Music Garden (601 S. Michigan Avenue), on a 4,900-square-foot open-air dance floor in the heart of downtown Chicago, professional dancers give free dance lessons, followed by a dance party with live bands or DJs. Learn swing, salsa, Bollywood, waltz, cha-cha, steppin’ and more. Runs from July 6 – September 17, 2022. Here’s the schedule.
Kids also love the annual Chicago Air & Water Show. This spectacular free event will make you oooh and aaaah as fighter jets, Blue Angels and stunt planes fly along Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline, and antique ships float past. The beaches will be crowded, but the kids will be wowed.
TravelingMom Tip: Go to any Lake Michigan beach on the Friday before the show, and you’ll see tons of planes practicing their stunts. It’s an impressive show, without the crowds.
Other free, family-friendly special events with live music in downtown Chicago include:
- Chicago Jazz Festival in Millennium Park
- Grant Park Music Festival – Free classical music concerts all summer and fall in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion
- Chicago Blues Festival
- Caroling at Cloud Gate (The Bean) in Millennium Park – on select dates ever November and December
4. The Lakefront Trail
This is my favorite place to go in Chicago. Walk, jog, bike or rollerblade along the gorgeous 18-mile-long paved paths on the Lakefront Trail, with the Chicago skyline on one side and Lake Michigan on the other.
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Free things to do along the way include watching the beach volleyball players at North Ave., visiting the dog beach at Montrose Avenue and stopping at the free Lincoln Park Zoo at Fullerton Avenue. Plus, as you move along Lake Michigan, you’ll cruise past iconic downtown sites like Buckingham Fountain, Navy Pier, Adler Planetarium, the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium and Soldier Field.
If you’re really ambitious, you can ride south to 53rd Street and see the beautiful Museum of Science and Industry, University of Chicago campus and the Hyde Park neighborhood, where former President Barack Obama still has a home.
Dig your toes in the sand at any number of Lake Michigan beaches – you can go in the water, but it’s coooooold. You might want to just sit on the rocks and soak up the beautiful Chicago skyline views.
TravelingMom Tip: The bike path gets very crowded on the weekends. The best time to ride is early in the morning.
5. Lincoln Park Zoo
Lincoln Park Zoo is on every “Free in Chicago” list you’ll ever read, and for good reason. Admission to this excellent, lakefront zoo is free. Our faves? The gorillas and chimpanzees at the Regenstein Center for African Apes, and the polar bear and penguin exhibits.
In winter, Lincoln Park Zoo hosts a giant animal-themed holiday lights festival called ZooLights. While is not free, it is one of the best places to see Christmas lights in the Midwest.
6. Millennium Park
Millennium Park, downtown Chicago’s premiere park, is very family friendly. Start by taking cool selfies at “The Bean.” The landmark, bean-shaped contemporary art sculpture (it’s official name is “Cloud Gate,” but if you call it that, everyone will know you’re not a local!) is a mirror that reflects not just you, but the Chicago skyline. It’s one of the most Instagrammable spots in Chicago.
Next to The Bean is the Crown Fountain, where two water-spewing towers feature videos of people’s faces (it looks like they’re spitting water out of their mouths, which amuses the kids). The area is surrounded by bench seating, so you get a break while your kids splash around and get ridiculously wet.
Dry off with a walk through the flower-filled Lurie Garden (free guided tours are available on certain days), and then plunk down on the large lawn area at the architecturally-stunning Jay Pritzker Pavilion, which is always hosting some type of free music or theater performance. The Lurie Garden is considered by many locals to be one of Chicago’s hidden gems. If the kids still have energy, go to the adjacent Maggie Daley Park. There are a huge play area and a climbing wall (advanced reservations required).
In the winter, you can ice skate for free in Millennium Park, with the lit-up Chicago skyline and The Bean as your backdrop, but there is a fee for skate rental.
Read More: Fun Things to Do in Wrigleyville with Kids
7. Garfield Park Conservatory
Garfield Park Conservatory is a hidden gem. The West Side neighborhood is not great, but it’s safe to visit and the conservatory is awesome. Garfield Park Conservatory has meandering trails and massive, glass dome greenhouses filled with unique and cool-looking tropical plants, cacti, good-smelling flowers and a children’s play garden that encourages climbing. That the Green Line L just a few stops west of downtown to the Conservatory stop, which is just a few steps from the front door of the Conservatory.
Just down the street is Inspiration Kitchen, a wonderful place to eat a meal – the restaurant provides job training for the homeless, poor, and former prison inmates.
Another beautiful conservatory is the Lincoln Park Conservatory, the large greenhouse with the glass dome next to the Lincoln Park Zoo. Both Lincoln Park Zoo and Lincoln Park Conservatory have free admission.
Read More: Best Indoor Water Parks in Illinois
8. Tour Chicago Neighborhoods with a Chicago Greeter
Learn from a local! Take one of the free neighborhood walking tours from Chicago Greeter, which has 24 different tours in 10 languages. The tours will let you sample ethnic foods in Chinatown, see the party atmosphere around Wrigley Field or just learn about cool stuff in downtown Chicago. You MUST register 10 days in advance for these tours, and you are expected to give the guide a tip.
The free tours most popular with families are Millennium Park and The Loop, the nature preserve in North Park and the Navy Pier and Chicago Children’s Museum tour.
Read More: Chicago’s Best Restaurants for Kids
9. Fireworks at Navy Pier
Navy Pier, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Illinois, puts on free fireworks shows over Lake Michigan twice a week – at 9:30 p.m. Wednesdays and 10:15 p.m. Saturdays, from Memorial Day through Labor Day. It’s synchronized to music, which can be heard all along Navy Pier.
Entry to Navy Pier is free, and it hosts many free special events, including live music performances. So it’s a nice family-friendly place to take a scenic stroll. The pier juts out into Lake Michigan and offers some of the city’s best Chicago skyline views (especially from the Ferris wheel, which is $13-$16 per person).
See my list of fun things to do at Navy Pier here.
10. Visit Chinatown
Chinatown is a fun Chicago neighborhood to visit and a great place for cheap eats. We like the dim sum at MingHin Cuisine, a family-friendly restaurant with a rotating table center. Besides the famous Chinatown entry gate and the Nine Dragon Wall, you can shop in the tiny shops brimming with cheap little trinkets. My kids like to go to the Chinatown Square, with a dozen statues of Chinese zodiac animals. They find the year they were born and read their horoscope.
Walking tours of Chinatown are also offered by Chicago Greeter.
11. Free Days at Chicago’s World-Class Museums
Almost every Chicago museum has free admission days (often free admission is limited to Illinois residents), so check the museum websites.
The Art Institute of Chicago, home to the Thorne Miniature Rooms (a permanent collection that’s very popular with kids), offers free admission to anyone under the age of 14. Illinois residents can visit free up to age 18. Adult admission is between $19-$25. There are lots of fun things to do with kids at the Art Institute of Chicago.
The Chicago History Museum is free on Tuesdays for Illinois residents, and the Chicago Children’s Museum is free the first Sunday of each month for ages 15 and under. Veterans and military families are free every day.
The DuSable Museum of African American History, near the Museum of Science & Industry, has free admission on Tuesdays. It’s an excellent museum with numerous interactive exhibits that will educate visitors about the important racial issues facing our country now, as well as Black history.
A complete list of free museum days is here.
12. See the Public Art in Pilsen
Gorgeous, giant murals, with poignant stories behind them, are painted on dozens of walls in the Pilsen neighborhood. Here’s a good guide to help you find them. Pilsen is not only known for its public art, but for its fantastic, budget-friendly Mexican food. Take a ride share or hop on the Pink Line of the L train to get to Pilsen.
See even more art in Pilsen’s small but impressive National Museum of Mexican Art. Hours are limited (10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tues-Sun.) but admission is free.
13. Walk or Bike ‘The 606’
Just beyond downtown Chicago, you can bike a short (2.7 miles) paved path through a few of the hip North Side neighborhoods like Wicker Park, Logan Square and Bucktown. The path has a few small park spaces, but its best feature is its proximity to great, post-ride restaurants.
Getting Around Chicago
It can be expensive to take a regular taxi around downtown Chicago. A cheaper, more fun and much more scenic way is to travel by water taxi.
One way tickets are $6 and and an all day pass is $10 to sail along the Chicago River, connecting Ogilvie Transportation Center (Metra trains) and Union Station (Amtrak trains) to Michigan Avenue and Chinatown. And the water taxis run about every 15 minutes, so no long waits. They operate from April through December.
During the ride, the taxi winds through a narrow path of skyscrapers and passes under bridges, allowing passengers to see the Chicago Riverwalk restaurant patios and get a glimpse of several iconic buildings, including the corn cob-styled Marina Towers.
My kids and I like to sit on the water taxi’s upper deck. The kids spend most of the time looking over the railing, down at the water, but I like to look up at the city’s incredible architecture. The view is much better than the one you get from the back seat of a regular taxi.
Tickets can be purchased at the stops or on board.