The best things in life (and Chicago) are free. From a visit to “The Bean” to a world-renowned zoo, you’ll find plenty of free things to do in Chicago with kids.
1. Capture Your Reflection in Cloud Gate
Visiting Cloud Gate—otherwise known as The Bean—is a can’t-miss experience in Chicago. You can walk up, touch it and admire your group’s reflection amongst the urban backdrop. A selfie with the skyline reflected in The Bean is the perfect free Chicago souvenir.
2. Explore an Urban Oasis at Millennium Park
The almost-25-acre Millennium Park is home to Cloud Gate, as well as the Crown Fountain, which features two towers that project changing faces of Chicagoans. Some even appear to spout water at you. Kids have a blast splashing in the water on warm summer days. Take a walk in the park, admire the serene Lurie Garden, and uncover interesting art exhibits dotted throughout the scenic expanse.
3. Play at Maggie Daley Park
Over the magnificent BP Bridge from Millennium Park, you’ll find one of the best playgrounds a kid could ever imagine. The 3-acre Play Garden at Maggie Daley Park features numerous areas to run, slide, climb and activate imaginations in a colorful, creative setting. There’s also a Skating Ribbon, which is free to enjoy if you bring your own ice skates.
4. Take In a Free Concert or Movie at Jay Pritzker Pavilion
Also in Millennium Park, this expansive outdoor venue serves up 80 free concerts, movies and cultural events in the summer. Listen to local, national and international musicians under the sun or stars at this exquisite amphitheater. Pack a picnic and a Frisbee and zen out on the Great Lawn. Be sure to download the free Millennium Park App to check out what’s happening when you’re in town.
5. Visit the Free-Admission Lincoln Park Zoo
Free and open to the public 365 days a year, the Lincoln Park Zoo expands over 35 acres and features about 200 different species of animals. Stroll through the gates and enjoy live feedings, educational encounters and free family activities. The swinging monkeys, swimming seals and sing alongs are sure to spread a smile across your face. If you visit during the holiday season, don’t miss ZooLights, when the zoo is decorated with twinkling lights.
6. Be Awed at The Art Institute of Chicago
At the Art Institute of Chicago, a world-renowned museum where you can see American Gothic, Water Lilies by Claude Monet, and inspiring, rotating exhibits, admission for kids under the age of 14 is always free. Illinois residents can access the museum for gratis on Thursday evenings, and active-duty military and their families can take advantage of complimentary summer entry. Check the museum’s official website for all free-admission opportunities. Bonus: Many Chicago museums offer numerous free entry days for Illinois residents!
7. Catch a Free Concert at the Chicago Cultural Center
See the largest Tiffany stained-glass dome in the world inside the historic Chicago Cultural Center. Take a free architecture tour around the ornate building, or enjoy a mid-day music fix. Free classical music concerts are offered every Wednesday of the year, and complimentary chamber concerts are played on the fourth Monday of the month.
Toddlers will get a kick out of the “Juicebox” concerts, where music from around the world is performed in a playgroup setting and dancing is definitely encouraged.
8. Feel the Wrigley Field Phenomenon at Gallagher Way
Around the corner from the Wrigley Field marquee, you’ll find this outdoor space that hosts free events to enjoy the ambiance of the Friendly Confines without paying to enter the ballpark. At Gallagher Way, you can enjoy free farmers markets, live music, movie nights, and other seasonal events such as Christkindlmarket. Some events are ticketed, so check the website in advance.
9. Lounge on Lakefront Beaches
Chicago boasts 26 miles of lakefront lined with 25 free beaches. Bring your beach towels and sunscreen and soak in the sun amidst an amazing urban backdrop. North Avenue Beach is probably the most popular and is conveniently located by Lincoln Park Zoo and on the scenic 18-mile Lakefront Trail. North Avenue Beach has a casual bar and grill that’s often buzzing with fun music. Oak Street Beach is another fantastic spot for fun in the sun. It’s within walking distance to the Magnificent Mile.
10. Bike or Walk The 606
An abandoned rail line turned park, The 606 is 2.7 miles of trails to walk, run or bike. This trail system has art interspersed throughout, playgrounds for kids, and hosts events like stargazing with an astronomer.
11. Enjoy Public Art by Picasso and Other Admirable Artists
Chicago has 77 different communities to explore, with interesting art all around. Simply wander around town and soak in the sites. In the Daley Plaza, you’ll find the 50-foot Chicago Picasso. This giant sculpture has become a well-known landmark that kids sometimes climb and slide on. Daley Plaza also hosts the famous and free Christkindlmarket (one of the best Christmas markets in the U.S.!) around the holidays, plus complimentary cultural programs year-round, taking place weekdays at noon under The Picasso.
Other free art on view includes Alexander Colder’s Flamingo, which appeared in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It’s located in Federal Plaza.
12. Be Wowed by Buckingham Fountain
Located in Grant Park, Buckingham Fountain shoots water 150 feet into the air in hourly shows. Typically running from early May to mid-October, the shows start at 9 a.m. and get even grander as the sun starts to set. In the evenings, lights and music accompany the jets, making for a memorable performance.
13. Stroll and Splash on the Riverwalk
This 1.25-mile path along the Chicago River is a fun area to walk and people watch. You’ll find interesting public art to view and a Water Plaza with a free splash pad where the kids can cool off.
14. Go Gaga for the Greenery at Garfield Park Conservatory
One of the largest conservatories in the nation at over 10 acres, Garfield Park Conservatory features lush, tropical gardens both indoors and out, including an interactive children’s garden. Admission is free, but a donation is suggested. Check the calendar for free family events, including Wild Wednesdays, where kids can dig in dirt, interact with animals and conduct experiments.
15. Go Window Shopping on the Magnificent Mile or State Street
Michigan Avenue, aka the Magnificent Mile, and State Street are two wonderful areas to just walk around and soak up the atmosphere. There are numerous flagship stores and fantastic restaurants, but you can just mosey around and see a plethora of historic landmarks and sights. These areas are especially festive at the holidays, when stores offer magical window displays.
16. Peruse the National Museum of Mexican Art
Located in the Pilsen neighborhood, the National Museum of Mexican Art is always free. Learn about Latino culture and be inspired by the over 10,000-piece collection spanning 3,000 years of creativity from both sides of the border.
17. Watch Free Fireworks at Navy Pier
Navy Pier is a top Chicago tourist attraction that features acres of entertainment on Chicago’s shoreline. Free events include Wiggleworms and Stroller Grooves children’s concerts, Water Flicks evening outdoor movies, rotating art displays and summer fireworks. There’s also a free trolley that will take you from Navy Pier to downtown.
18. Get Imaginations Going at Chicago Children’s Museum
This whimsical museum, designed for kids ages 10 and under, is located on Navy Pier and offers First Free Sundays. On the first Sunday of every month, visitors ages 15 and under receive free admission. At the Chicago Children’s Museum, children can climb in rope tunnels, dig for dinosaur fossils, and go grocery shopping in Kid Town.
19. Immerse Yourselves in Chinese Culture in Chicago’s Chinatown
Visit the vibrant Chinatown community to view cultural landmarks and learn about the customs and traditions of the Chinese culture. Enter through the red Chinatown Gate and view the Nine Dragon Wall and Chinatown Pavilion. For a small fee, you can enjoy a bubble tea, some dim sum or purchase small gifts or housewares. Ping Tom Memorial Park is a peaceful place where you’ll often find residents practicing tai chi or yoga. In July, don’t miss the Dragon Boat Race Festival.
20. Catch the Chicago Air & Water Show in August
This huge, free event has been dazzling Chicagoans and visitors alike for over 60 years. Watch airplanes fly in formation, jets perform daring tricks, parachutes drop from the sky, and water skiers jump over boats during this two-day event in August. Gather along the lakefront, from Fullerton to Oak Street Beach, with a stocked cooler, blankets and lawn chairs to get in on the excitement.
Other Free Things to Do in Chicago With Kids: There are many other free festivals and special events hosted by the City of Chicago, including dying the river green for St. Patrick’s Day, a huge Chicago Thanksgiving Parade with giant inflatable balloons, and free architecture tours during Open House Chicago. You can also take advantage of the free Chicago Greeter program for a complimentary, guided tour by a friendly local Chicagoan.
Cortney Fries (pronounced “freeze”) is an award-winning Chicago-based writer and mom to two spunky elementary school-age kids. She loves nothing more than traveling with family, having adventures with friends and exploring the outdoors. Cortney believes that you should definitely do things that scare you just a little bit. Follow her on Instagram, @cortneyfries.