Free and Cheap Things to Do in Chicago
One of my favorite things about living in Chicago is that on any given week, you can usually find at least one free thing to do. Sure, you can live like a rock star here, hitting the hottest clubs and dining at the swankiest, splurge-worthy restaurants. But if you’re feeling a bit skint these days, or just like to save a few bucks, you can also take advantage of some of these awesome free things to do in Chicago.
Lincoln Park and the Lincoln Park Zoo
Lincoln Park, on the city’s northeast side, is one of the most beautiful spots in Chicago. The sprawling park fronts the Lake and contains the free Lincoln Park Zoo and the free Lincoln Park Conservatory. During summer months, it holds a free farmer’s market and is the perfect place to stop for a picnic and some people-watching.
Most of Chicago’s beaches, including the Oak Street Beach, Ohio Street Beach, North Avenue Beach and Montrose Beach, are free to the public.
Grant Park and Millennium Park
Grant Park, known as “the city’s front yard”, is a place one can easily wander around for hours, especially if one of the park’s many free events is going on. On quieter days, it’s a great spot for picnicking, snapping shots of the Buckingham Fountain and Cloud Gate sculpture, or strolling through the Lurie Gardens. During summer, it plays host to hundreds of free events, like free musical performances and movies in the park.
During the warmer months from April to October, hundreds of farmers markets pop up all over the city. While there are several offered downtown on different days of the week, the undisputed champ of the markets is the Green City Market held Wednesday and Saturday mornings in Lincoln Park. Dozens of vendors come from all around the tri-state area to sell fresh produce, handmade cheese and honey, organic milk and meat, and fresh-picked herbs and flowers. If you are in from out of town, I still recommend going. This market isn’t just about shopping for your weekly groceries. Most vendors offer free samples (try the grilled cheese) and many also sell meals made with their own fresh ingredients. The crepes, Italian donuts, and fresh-made flatbreads are extremely popular.
Free Museum Days
Throughout the year, most of Chicago’s museums offer several free days. For the full list, click here.
Many of Chicago’s museums are totally free year-round. Check out the list of always-free museums here.
The Signature Lounge at the John Hancock Building
Okay, so this one isn’t really free. If you go up to the Signature Lounge on the 96th floor of the Hancock Building, you are expected to have a drink while you enjoy the views. But, technically you could just check out the view and head back home. Or, if you aren’t in the mood for a $13 cocktail, just have a soda while you gawk at the city.
Exploring the Neighborhoods
Chicago extends far beyond the borders of the Loop and Magnificent Mile, yet only a small percentage of tourists ever explores the many diverse neighborhoods of the city. Browse the funky boutiques of Bucktown and Wicker Park, check out the street murals in Pilsen, wander through Chinatown or stroll the quiet streets of Lincoln Park. The only cost in a day of exploring the other side of Chicago will be the bus or el fare to get there. As a bonus, many of the restaurants in these neighborhoods are much cheaper than those in the downtown area, so if you do get peckish and stop for a snack, it won’t break your budget.
All year round, but particular from May to September, Chicago hosts a number of free festivals. Of course, you’ll have to pay for any food and drinks consumed, but the entertainment portion is usually free. Learn some new moves at SummerDance, browse antiques and art at the Lakeview Arts Festival, check out the latest handmade goods at the Renegade Craft Fair, and dance to live German music at the Lincoln Square Mayfest.
Score your own personal free tour guide, courtesy of the Chicago Greeter Program. Book a greeter online through the Chicago Tourism Department, and you’ll receive one free tour of the Chicago neighborhood of your choosing. There are over 25 neighborhoods to choose from, including the Loop, Chinatown, Greektown, Pilsen, and Hyde Park.
Free Wine Tastings
There are hundreds of wine shops scattered around the city, and most hold free tastings at least once week. Not only are wine tastings a good way to learn about wine and sample before you buy, but they are also fun and, for the more frugal, can help cut down on the amount you might spend on a night out at the bar (not that you’ll get drunk on the small sips at most tastings, but if you sample a few wines it could equal one glass). Check with the wine shops nearest your hotel and inquire if they are offering any free tastings during the week of your visit. You can also find plenty of cheap eats and deeply discounted food and drink specials to keep you full on not much money.
Free (and Cheap) Comedy
Every Sunday night at the Playground Theatre, the Free for All Comedy show takes place at 7:30pm. Billed as “violent improv”, the show is not for the easily offended. It’s a little wild, a little wacky, a little offbeat….and totally free. Even better, it’s BYOB. On Saturday nights, the Neo-Futurists put on their own improv show, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. This one isn’t free, but it’s pretty close. The show costs $9 plus the roll of one six-sided die. So your total cost could end up being anything from $10 to $15, depending on your luck.
Photo by MPBecker