When every penny is precious on your travels, you don’t want to waste a single one if you don’t have to. Chicago is loaded with totally free things to do each summer, from lakefront concerts to outdoor movies. The parks and beaches are next level, and there’s a bucket list of amazing architecture and public art to check out. Basically, it’s a frugal traveler’s summer paradise. Here are 10 things on our radar for some good times — gratis.
1. Swim, sun and build sandcastles along 26 lakefront beaches.
Chicago’s front yard is a lake, bringing surf and sand together against an epic backdrop of soaring skyscrapers. Sun-seekers should head to the free Chicago Park District beaches along Lake Michigan. Squeal with abandon as you rush into the cool blue waters or play it cool as you dip your toes in the sand. No money needed here — just a bathing suit, some SPF and a beach towel to claim your waterside digs for the day.
2. Kick it with cool cats, playful penguins and all their animal kingdom friends.
While it’s open year round, Chicago’s free lakefront zoo is best in the summer and admission comes in at just the right price point: free! Wander around Lincoln Park Zoo and get lost in 49 lush acres filled with wildlife — more than 1,100 animals to be exact. The newest habitats are particularly impressive, like the penguin cove, macaque forest and arctic tundra where huge glass windows let you come nose-to-nose with the animals.
Get a great skyline shot and a mini-lesson in Chicago’s built environment near the Nature Boardwalk, where the bridge over the South Pond has a handy diagram that identifies the notable downtown buildings.
3. Enjoy open-air classical music.
A totally free treat each season is the incredible talents of a world-class orchestra and chorus, on display for 10 weeks during the Grant Park Music Festival. Millennium Park makes for a breathtaking outdoor concert space where you can spread out on the grassy lawn or find a pavilion seat to hear free performances of greats like Gershwin, Mozart and Tchaikovsky.
4. Watch outdoor movies under the stars.
The beautiful park venue trades in the conductor stand for a 40-foot LED screen for the Millennium Park Summer Film Series. Tuesday nights are reserved for movie lovers with a state-of-the-art big screen and sound system that plays favorites films both old and new. Pair the free screenings with a picnic for a perfect night out.
5. Get in an al fresco workout.
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Jay Pritzker Pavilion, the formal name for the Frank Gehry-designed masterpiece of billowing steel, sets the stage — literally — for free Millennium Park Summer Workouts. Sweat it out under the crisscrossing trellis and on the soft grass of the Great Lawn with yoga, pilates, strength training and Zumba® each week.
6. Find fireworks, free concerts and epic views from Navy Pier.
Boat cruises and amusement rides are big draws for visitors to Navy Pier, not to mention major stops like Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Chicago Children’s Museum. For a totally free experience, though, sit in on live music at the Miller Lite Beer Garden (no cover ever), or check the schedule for performances at the Wave Wall and Polk Bros Park stages. Be sure to also catch the fireworks each week along the waterfront on Wednesday and Saturday night (from May to September). It goes without saying that the views alone are worth the walk out to the end of the pier, which is almost a mile long.
7. Find moments of zen in these hidden park escapes.
Over 50 million people visit Chicago each year, and in summer it can sure get crowded. Swarms of kids running around Navy Pier, sweaty festival goers standing shoulder to shoulder, hundreds of people in line to go up Willis Tower…if you need a break and want to find some peace and quiet there are a few free nature sanctuaries hidden in plain sight:
- If you’re at Navy Pier, find Milton Lee Olive Park. This little refuge is tucked in between the pier, a beach, and a massive water purification plant, but still remains remarkably serene. Don’t miss the zen-like concrete paths and the floating deck that makes for a great lookout point.
- In Millennium Park, go to Lurie Garden. It’s the definition of urban oasis hidden behind a verdant hedge steps from “The Bean”.
- From Maggie Daley Park, go to the Cancer Survivors’ Garden. A small pavilion is flanked by granite columns and surrounded by beautiful plantings. Find its location squeezed between the climbing wall, skating ribbon, and kiddie playgrounds of Maggie Daley Park and the rush of traffic from Lake Shore Drive to the east.
- Outside Art Institute of Chicago, the museum’s South Garden is one of several artful outdoor havens off a hectic stretch of Michigan Avenue.
- Near North Avenue Beach, seek out Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool — a landmark that is easy to miss on busy Fullerton Avenue near the entrance to Lake Shore Drive. Silence prevails in this dreamy setting; a vision of tranquility with its gently cascading waterfall, stone council ring, and Prairie-style pavilions.
8. Explore Chicago’s downtown Loop with a free InstaGreeter tour.
Proud of their city and excited to show it off, Chicago Greeters are a group of Chicago-loving local ambassadors that make up a 200-strong volunteer group. Each weekend, Friday to Sunday, they take visitors on free guided walks throughout the Loop. See inside historic hotels, look up at early skyscrapers and find cool public art on every corner with the one-hour InstaGreeter tour. No tickets or advance registration needed, just show up to the meeting spot (Chicago Cultural Center, Randolph Street Lobby) during the hourly time slots.
If you sign up in advance, you can pick the neighborhood of your choice to explore on a personalized 2-4 hour Chicago Greeter walk — also completely complimentary, not even tips are allowed.
9. Stroll the Chicago Riverwalk and make up your own architecture tour.
The next best thing to doing a formal architecture tour is to just walk along the Chicago Riverwalk and see what buildings speak to you. Sure there are pros who can give you full bios on the architects and rattle off dates and addresses from memory, but sometimes it’s just as enjoyable — and cheaper — to admire their beauty on a nice stroll. The waterfront promenade is the best route since it gives you wide open clearance to look up and take unobstructed photos.
Our favorite spots to look up are:
- Standing on the McCormick Bridgehouse stairs west of the double deck Michigan Avenue bridge, looking to the Wrigley Building (400-410 N Michigan Ave) and Tribune Tower (435 N Michigan Ave)
- On the Riverwalk’s grassy steps at the Vietnam Memorial between State and Wabash, seeing the amazing trio of Trump International Hotel & Tower (401 N Wabash Ave), Marina City (300 N State St), and AMA Plaza (330 N Wabash Ave)
10. Set off on a photography expedition with this bucket list of Chicago’s biggest icons.
Speaking of photos, selfies at “The Bean” were made for summertime. Picture all those puffy white clouds, blue skies and rays of sunshine beaming off the reflective stainless steel surface. The 110-ton sculpture, known formally as “Cloud Gate”, has a mirror-like exterior that invites you to come up and capture cool angles from all around. Since thousands of visitors all have the same idea, get there early so there are less people to photobomb your frame.
Rounding out the must-see, only-in-Chicago photo bucket list after you get “The Bean” are: Buckingham Fountain out in Grant Park, the iconic marquee of the Chicago Theater, The Picasso commanding downtown Daley Plaza and the pair of Lion sculptures on guard outside the Art Institute of Chicago.
This is not a full list of every free event in Chicago — because the summer calendar is full of them. Mega festivals and parades like Chicago Blues Festival (June), Chicago Pride Parade (June), and Chicago Air and Water Show (August) are just some of the annual one-day/weekend events that are free. Plus there are weekly neighborhood festivals each weekend — most are technically free, but ask for a $5-10 donation for admission. There’s also many free Chicago museums and galleries open year round. For more summer fun, look to this comprehensive Chicago summer guide on the best things to eat, drink and do.