Photo: Museum of Contemporary Photography

The 11 Best Free Museums in Chicago

Chicago Museums Insider Guides Budget Travel Art + Architecture
by Christine Pundavela Mar 14, 2018

If free means more fun, then Chicago is the place to be. Free museums and galleries, free tours, free parks and beaches, and free festivals and events can easily keep you busy every day of the year. Let’s start with 11 free Chicago museums. Pick one and pair it with one of the budget-friendly meal options listed. Your afternoon itinerary — done. You’re welcome.

1. Busy Beaver Button Museum

The only museum you’ll find dedicated to the colorful world of buttons is located right in Chicago. Think about buttons as a little flashback in time that encapsulates very specific moments in history and culture. The gallery walls are lined with glass-enclosed display cases sporting pinback buttons by category. There’s Chicago-centric buttons: Chicago Bears and Bozo the Clown are both represented. Political buttons that sport flashy slogans and bold graphics: “We Don’t Want Eleanor Either!” and “The Grin Will Win – Jimmy Carter for President” are two. Plus beer and entertainment button categories where Zorro, Big Bird, and a Budweiser Clydesdale all make appearances.

Free admission: Open Monday-Friday 10 AM-4 PM. 3407 W Armitage Avenue.
Website: Busy Beaver Button Museum
Cheap eats nearby: Summer favorites at The Freeze, or $10 PB&J special (pizza, PBR & Jameson shot) at Boiler Room.

2. Chicago Cultural Center

The Chicago Cultural Center may not technically be a museum, but this beautiful Beaux-Arts building is a hub for arts and culture, and an architectural attraction in itself. Music concerts, film screenings, lectures, theater, and dance — all free — fill up the daily schedule, but it’s the constant rotation of smartly-curated art exhibitions that keep the halls fresh with every visit. Big names like Keith Haring, Norman Lewis, and Hebru Brantley have been featured in galleries here, alongside incredible local Chicago and Midwest artists.

Free admission: Open daily Monday-Friday 10 AM-7 PM, Saturday-Sunday, 10 AM-5 PM. 78 East Washington Street.
Website: Chicago Cultural Center
Cheap eats nearby: Diamonds and falafels at Oasis Cafe, or a Chicago dog and fries at Gold Coast Dogs.

3. Chicago Design Museum

Shopping and entertainment center Block 37 takes up a full city block in the downtown Loop. Upping the cultural factor in this mega complex is a museum small in size, but big in creativity. Think about design with an acute lens, but in the broader context of different disciplines and cultures. For example, past exhibits have explored paper as a medium in the digital age; looked at architecture from Ireland; and covered the narrative of Detroit from a socio-economic perspective.

Free admission: Open Tuesday-Saturday 12 PM-7 PM. Block Thirty Seven, 108 N State Street, 3rd Floor.
Website: Chicago Design museum
Cheap eats nearby: hot Asian buns at Wow Bao, or tacos atFrontera Fresco or Latinicity.

4. Clarke House Museum

Stroll up to this quaint house museum, set among pastoral gardens and paths, and with some imagination, you can travel back to the pre-Civil War era. Built when the area was mostly undeveloped prairie and Chicago wasn’t much more than a small frontier town, it is the oldest surviving building in the original city limits. Walk the wide central hallway that forms the heart of the home and wander into the double parlor — prim and proper with its elegant draperies, fine woodwork, and ornate wallpaper — before going up the walnut staircase to the bedrooms. Free tours add to the history and sense of family life for the Clarke household that lived here from 1836 to 1872.

Free admission: Open for public tours Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 1 PM and 2:30 PM. 1827 S Indiana Avenue.
Website: Clarke House Museum
Cheap eats nearby: Harold’s Chicken Shack, or Lawrence’s Fish and Shrimp, both self-explanatory.

5. DePaul Art Museum

A university art museum in the bustling Lincoln Park neighborhood (theatres, music clubs, and the lakefront park, beaches, and zoo are all nearby attractions). Easy to navigate and easy to reach by public transportation, it has a strong focus on international modern and contemporary art. Check out the schedule as four to six temporary exhibitions are on display each year.

Free admission: Open Wednesday-Thursday 11 AM-7 PM, Friday 11 AM-5 PM, Saturday-Sunday 12 PM-5 PM. 935 W Fullerton Avenue.
Website: DePaul Art Museum
Cheap eats nearby: Pad Thai at Noodles in the Pot, or an Italian Beef sandwich at Johnny’s Beef & Gyros.

6. Money Museum

The stately Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago is all business. But for a little fun, try your hand at spotting counterfeit bills at the Fed’s Money Museum. Or take a selfie with a million dollars in cash. Interactive exhibits explore all things money, like its history in America, currency from around the world, and the effects of inflation on the US dollar. Some tips for an easy and informative visit: security can be tight at the entrance so leave time for that process, mind the bank holidays so you don’t visit when the museum is closed, and try to join one of the daily guided tours (also free) to load up on cool factoids.

Free admission: Open Monday-Friday 8:30 AM-5 PM. Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, 230 S LaSalle Street.
Website: Money Museum
Cheap eats nearby: Asian Latin fusion at Saucy Porka, plus happy hour drinks at Revival Food Hall.

7. National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture

Go further beyond downtown to find the only national museum focused on Puerto Rican arts and culture. Three galleries have been carved out of a landmark 1895 building, once a stable that held horses, wagons, and landscaping tools. It’s a fitting home given the history of this culturally-rich area on Chicago’s West Side. Humboldt Park — both the name of the surrounding neighborhood and the park space it encompasses — embraces its Puerto Rican community and offers a lot to visitors. Save time to try authentic dishes along Division Street (including the Chicago original the Jibarito sandwich) and find even more art (the street art kind) along the many outdoor murals.

Free admission: Open Tuesday-Friday 10 AM-5 PM, Saturday 10 AM-2 PM. 3015 W Division Street.
Website: National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture
Cheap eats nearby: Southern comfort food at Feed, or steak sandwiches at Café Colao.

8. Museum of Contemporary Photography

Like the DePaul Art Museum, this is a smaller-scale museum that prides itself on its permanent collection. It has amassed over 14,000 objects including pieces by well-known photographers like Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams. Rotating exhibits are on display across the museum’s three floors. Even though it is situated downtown on Michigan Avenue, it’s not quite the destination as its famous neighbor — the Art Institute of Chicago. The museum is part of Columbia College Chicago and serves as a space for workshops and programming for students, educators, and the broader community, making it a great spot to support with a quick visit.

Free admission: Open Monday-Wednesday 10 AM-5 PM, Thursday 10 AM-8 PM, Friday-Saturday 10 AM-5 PM, Sunday 12 PM-5 PM. 600 S Michigan Avenue.
Website: Museum of Contemporary Photography
Cheap eats nearby: Cuban sandwiches at Cafecito, or cheeseburgers at Shake Shack.

9. National Museum of Mexican Art

It was the first Latino museum in the country to be accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. It has built its permanent collection to 10,000+ objects, making it one of the largest collections in the nation. The museum has remained free to all since originally opening in 1987. Unique exhibits touch on just about every topic you can imagine — family, identity, religion, civil rights, placemaking. The experience of walking around is very personal, with richly colored walls and lower ceilings adding to the feeling of intimacy with the artwork, as opposed to some museum environments that can be sterile with their bright glaring lights and stark white walls.

Free admission: Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 AM-5 PM. 1852 W 19th Street.
Website: National Museum of Mexican Art
Cheap eats nearby: the half-pound pork value meal at Carnitas Uruapan, or tacos at El Milagro Tortilla & Taqueria.

10. National Veterans Art Museum

Well off the beaten path from the downtown Loop, this one-level museum honors veterans from all combats with a showcase for their artistic contributions. Their mission is to collect, preserve and exhibit art inspired by combat and created by veterans, which “inspires greater understanding of the impact of war.” Today the permanent collection features more than 255 veteran artists, with more than 2,500 works of art. What you’ll find on your visit may vary from paintings, photography, sculpture, poetry, or music.

Free admission: Open Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10 AM-5 PM. 4041 N Milwaukee Avenue, 2nd floor.
Website: National Veterans Art Museum
Cheap eats nearby: laid back diner fare at Shilas Restaurant, or breakfast treats at Fannie’s Cafe.

11. Smart Museum of Art

Plan ahead to pack a few stops in the surrounding area of this museum. You could explore the beautiful campus setting (University of Chicago in the leafy Hyde Park neighborhood) as well as other Museum Campus South attractions — like DuSable Museum of African American History — with budget-friendly admission prices. At the Smart Museum, everything is free. The evolving space has been transformed and new installations are all about engaging with visitors. They see themselves as a “pioneering model of what a 21st-century academic art museum can be”. Impressive.

Free admission: Open Tuesday-Wednesday 10 AM-5 PM, Thursday 10 AM-8PM, Friday-Sunday 10 AM-5 PM. 5550 S Greenwood Avenue.
Website: Smart Museum of Art
Cheap eats nearby: cafeteria-style meals at Valois, or lighter fare at Plein Air

Note that these museum picks are free every single day. Most major Chicago museums have select free days throughout the year. Some don’t charge set admission fees and list a suggested donation instead: two examples are Jane Addams Hull-House Museum ($5 suggested donation) and Oriental Institute Museum($10 suggested donation).

Honorable mentions include other free university affiliates like Gallery 400 and LUMA, and free art galleries including Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art.

The Chicago Cultural Alliance is another treasure trove. Members are made up of cultural centers, research libraries, and heritage museums that keep entrance fees to a minimum, such as the Polish Museum of America ($10) and Chinese-American Museum of Chicago ($5 suggested donation) and Pritzker Military Museum & Library

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