A view of Navy Pier in Chicago, Illinois, on a sunny day
Take a stroll around Navy Pier for endless entertainment options.
Photo Credit: Getty Images

6 Free Ways to Make the Most of Your Time in Chicago

A Guide to Chicago’s Best

I have a slightly shameful admission to make, Travel-Wise readers. Though the world is a wide and wonderful place, if I could pick anywhere to visit right now, I’d probably settle on Chicago. I know it’s not the world’s most exotic destination, but it captured my heart some two decades ago.

“Why?” you may ask. Well, the Windy City has just so much to offer. Gorgeous architecture. World-class cultural offerings. The wonders of Lake Michigan. Great gastronomy, including what I would consider the world’s best pizza.

Unfortunately, as is true of pretty much any great metropolis, a visit to Chicago can get expensive fast. But you don’t have to break the bank to enjoy this jewel of the American Midwest. Read on to discover some of the best free things to do in Chicago.

Visit Navy Pier

The first item on our list is so familiar to both visitors and Chicagoites that it almost doesn’t deserve inclusion. After all, everyone knows about Navy Pier, right?

Perhaps, but it’s still worth including for no other reason than it has some great free things to do in Chicago with kids. The Pier’s skyline-defining Ferris wheel is only one of its offerings (and, sadly, it isn’t free). Indeed, many of the Pier’s attractions charge admission fees — but not all.

Free things you can enjoy on Navy Pier include self-guided walking tours or enjoying evening firework shows. You’ll find plenty of public art, too. Local fitness clubs and yoga studios have offered complimentary classes on the Pier. And there’s nothing quite like cracking open a cold one at the Miller Light Beer Garden while listening to free live music. Even the WiFi in the food court is free!

The Pier also offers easy access to…

A view of Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Illinois, on a cloudless dayAdler Planetarium is one of the many museums in the city that participates in free museum days. Photo Credit: Getty Images

Free Museum Days

Chicago contains world-class museums, planetariums and aquariums, but many people don’t realize they can access them free of charge. The vast majority of museums participate in free museum days, a program that allows in-state residents and children to access the city’s cultural treasures gratis.

For example, the Art Institute of Chicago lets residents in free for three hours every Thursday evening. Chicago-area teens up to the age of 18 can always get in free, as can any children under 14. Finally, the Art Institute maintains free areas such as the North and South Gardens and the Ryan Education Center that the public can always enjoy.

Check out the official schedule for more information on how to get into Adler Planetarium, Museum of Science and Industry, Shedd Aquarium, Chicago Children’s Museum at Navy Pier, and more, free of charge. Additionally, places such as Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago Cultural Center and the City Gallery at the Historic Water Tower are always free.

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A smiling man using a smart phone while walking on a city streetTake a free guided walking tour of the city and take in the architectural marvels.Photo Credit: Getty Images

Take a Walking Architecture Tour

The Windy City has a wealth of buildings, and numerous companies have made a mint offering Chicago architecture cruises. However, those can prove pricey, particularly if you’re visiting with a large group. You’ll find some outfits, though, that are willing to give you a tour of Chicago’s soaring skyscrapers and quirky neighborhoods free of charge.

The city’s tourism arm offers something called the Chicago Greeter program. If you sign up at ChicagoGreeter.com at least 10 business days prior to when you plan to take your tour, the city will pair you with a tour guide who’ll provide penetrating insights into the areas of your choice. What’s more, they offer these tours in 10 different languages.

Additionally, Free Tours By Foot provides walking tours where you can pay your guide whatever you want. If you’re looking for free things do to in Chicago at night, know that they also offer evening tours, including ghost tours. And since you’ve already got your shoes laced up…

Magnificent Mile Street Sign in ChicagoHead to North Michigan Avenue — called the Magnificent Mile — to get your fill of luxury offerings.Photo Credit: Getty Images

Stroll State Street and the Magnificent Mile

Less architectural masterworks than retail hubs, State Street and the Magnificent Mile (a section of North Michigan Avenue) still offer plenty of enjoyment even if you want to keep your wallet closed. Consider Macy’s on State Street, which Chicago’s official tourism service says is the world’s second-largest department store.

It also boasts a fifth-floor ceiling fashioned out of 1.6 million pieces of Tiffany Favrile glass. Retail staples such as FootLocker, Urban Outfitters and T.J. Maxx also line the street.

Meanwhile, the appropriately named Magnificent Mile dazzles with both its beauty and luxury offerings. It contains the Water Tower and Pumping Station (which helped fight the Great Chicago Fire in 1871), as well as the Chicago Tribune Tower and the astonishingly ornate Wrigley building.

Then there’s the shopping, with high-end retailers such as Gucci, Montblanc, Chanel and Louis Vuitton. You don’t have to part with a penny to enjoy some delectable window shopping.

A young man cycling in Chicago, the background blurred by his speedThe pave pathway of the 606 will give you an elevated view of the city.Photo Credit: Getty Images

Hike the 606

If you prefer your exercise without pecuniary temptation, consider hiking the 606, a 2.7-mile strip of paved trail tracing the path of a long-abandoned railway line. When the neighborhood of Logan Square needed nearly 100 additional acres of public space in order to meet city standards, the 606 was born.

Not only can you safely walk, jog and run through four distinct Chicago neighborhoods, the 606 will grant you an elevated view of parts of the Windy City not normally frequented by tourists. There are also permanent art exhibits, as well as temporary works. And the Exelon Observatory, which is located on the trail, features free stargazing once a month with a resident astronomer.

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A crowd at a music festival, arms thrust into the air as revelers stand before a stageChicago has plenty of music festivals to choose from, including gospel, blues and house.Photo Credit: Getty Images

Enjoy World-Class Music

Sadly, you’ll find your ability to enjoy free music in Chicago limited by the seasons. Summer is pretty much the only time to enjoy the city’s manifold music festivals. But what a time it is.

Grant Park Music Festival probably qualifies as the most tony of the bunch, a classical music event that features a Grammy-winning orchestra, numerous guest conductors, and performances of Beethoven and Mozart. But if your tastes skew toward more popular tunes, take heart! You’ll find a festival for you.

There’s the Chicago House Party (which features electronic musicians), Chicago Gospel Music Festival, Chicago Blues Festival, World Music Festival and Chicago Jazz Festival (which has run the longest of any of them). Check out ChooseChicago.com for details on dates and times.

But if you miss out on a particular gathering, don’t worry yourself too much. As you can tell from this list, it’s easy to occupy yourself in Chicago without spending a cent.

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