Chicago is full of museums, beaches, zoos, and gardens and a stunning number of them are free. One of the highlights of a visit there is exploring the cultural diversity and historical architectural of the city‘s many neighborhoods. In the summer there are festivals to go to almost every weekend.
1. Lincoln Park Zoo is one of just three zoos in America that are free every day. (The others are in Washington D.C. and St. Louis.) Kids can explore tropical rainforests, reptile houses, exotic birds and mammals right in the heart of Chicago. At certain times guests can observe training and feeding sessions.
2. The Garfield Park Conservatory is a best-kept secret, even among Chicagoans. The conservatory, easily reached from downtown via the Green Line elevated train, is always free and has different educational activities throughout the year. Wild Wednesdays are the last Wednesday of each month and include animal activities and scavenger hunts. The conservatory is open daily from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., and Wednesdays 9 a.m. – 8 p.m.
3. Navy Pier is Chicago’s most popular tourist attraction. The 3,300 foot long pier juts into Lake Michigan. It was built in 1916 for trade ships and passenger steamers, as well as public gathering and entertainment. While it can cost the kids’ college fund to spend a day at the Pier, there also are a few free and family-friendly things to do there. The Chicago Children‘s Museum is free 52 days a year. Free trolleys provide transport to the pier during operating hours and “Dock Street” on the pier offers space for walkers, bicyclists and joggers. The Pier Players, a group of jugglers, mimes, stilt walkers, comedians and musicians, perform free almost every day. Crystal gardens is the Pier’s glass enclosed indoor garden with more than 70 palm trees and seasonal flowers and plants. Fireworks shows are every Wednesday and Saturday evening from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
4. The Chicago Children‘s Museum includes a realistic firehouse kids can play in, artwork by Chicago kids and families, and an urban garden with giant insects and flowers. For those who love dinosaurs, there is a recreation of a 1997 expedition to the Sahara that unearthed a new species of dinosaur. An inventing lab lets your child be a scientist for the day. The museum is free on Thursdays from 5-8 p.m. and the first Sunday of each month from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
5. Millennium Park offers free concerts in the summer and ice skating in the winter. The park was completed in 2004 and is located in Chicago’s Loop, right near the Art institute and Grant Park. The Crown Fountain is a welcome respite for overheated tourists on hot summer days. Free concerts are at the architectural marvel known as the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. The nearby Lurie Garden is a 2.5 acre garden of perennials, bulbs, grasses, shrubs and trees. Don’t forget to stop for a family portrait reflected in The Cloud Gate sculpture, affectionately known by Chicagoans as The Bean.
6. Chicago greeters will help you see the most interesting parts of the city in a free two-hour tour on foot or via public transit. Tours are offered in 25 neighborhoods and 40 popular interests. Register 7 – 10 days before arrival. The service is provided by the Chicago Cultural Museum and there is a no-tipping policy. If you didn’t register, take a tour with an Instagreeter, who will give you a one-hour tour of the city on the spot. The tour highlights history and architecture and is first come, first served. This service is offered Friday through Sunday 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. at the Chicago Cultural Center.
7. The Field Museum home of the T-rex named Sue, is free the second Monday of each month from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Permanent exhibits include the Crown family play lab with artifacts and specimens, dinosaur bones, a pueblo, animals and science activities.
8. Maxwell Street Market, located in Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhood, gives immigrants and locals a place to sell their products. All year round 518 vendors set up stands from 7 a.m. – 3 p.m. and sell clothing, jewelry, produce, CD’s and household goods. There are authentic Mexican food stands and live blues playing within the market. It’s free to wander, but if you want to buy, bring cash.
9. The National Museum of Mexican Art is the largest Latino cultural organization in the country. Located in the Pilsen neighborhood, the museum promotes appreciation and understanding between cultures and contains kid-friendly exhibits. The museum is open 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Tuesday – Sunday. Parking is at a premium in the crowded Mexican immigrant neighborhood. Consider taking public transit.
10. Located on Michigan Avenue, the Art Institute of Chicago has a world famous collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist artwork. Admission is free every Thursday from 5-8 p.m. For kids there are art making activities and games, a family room, and puzzles, blocks, games and a library.