We know Chicago winters are long, and we know you have to save those paychecks for spring shopping and summer travel, but if you just stay in all winter the season will drag. If you want those calendar pages turning faster, you have to get out and do something exciting even if you have a budget to stick to. And it’s actually quite doable. Here’s our list of the best free or inexpensive things to do in Chicago in the winter.
1. Go ice skating.
Believe it or not, there are a few places in Chicago where you can ice skate outdoors for free. The best and most scenic ones are the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink in Millennium Park and the Skating Ribbon in Maggie Daley Park. Both are downtown, both have incredible art and sculpture looming over the ice, and both have amazing skyline views. The catch is that entry is free but skate rental is $13-$15. If you enjoy skating enough, you can pick up a pair of cheap, used skates and go anytime you like for free all winter long.
2. Get tropical at the Garfield Park Conservatory.
If you want to get as far away from winter as possible without buying a plane ticket or even leaving Chicago, this is the place to go. You can find yourself instantly transported into a steamy tropical jungle or an arid desert just by stepping foot into the Garfield Park Conservatory. This beautiful greenhouse on the Westside has been bringing the tropics to Chicagoans for well over 100 years, and we never get sick of it. The place is stunning. It’s also free, although there is a $5 suggested donation which gets you a whole lot of winter-blues-beating bang for your buck.
3. Go to the Lincoln Park Zoo.
Our world-class zoo is one of the city’s top free attractions year-round, and it’s a great place to escape your cabin fever in the dead of winter. There is a bit of outdoor walking to get between the different animal houses, but you quickly warm back up once inside of each one. The Lincoln Park Zoo gets really busy during the holidays for the famous Zoo Lights, but after early January it quiets down substantially, making it a great time to visit. The surrounding park also stays relatively white and pristine after it snows, which is a nice break from the normal grey slush that seems to be everywhere else in the city.
4. Go drinking.
Yeah, we had to add this one. Chicagoans have been relying on neighborhood taverns to help get through the winter for as long as there’s been a city called Chicago. Luckily for us, we still have loads of cheap bars where you can find a warming drink that won’t lighten your wallet too much. Head to a bar in a more local neighborhood, an area with lots of students, or a hipsterish hood for the best chance of finding cheap drinks. Or better yet, check out the website SmallTabs to find daily bar food and drink specials by neighborhood. Obviously, you should enjoy in moderation, but few things can brighten you up like an occasional trip to the bar to commiserate with others suffering through the same wintry gloom as you.
5. Go to a museum.
Chicago has some of the best museums in the world, unfortunately, they’re not always budget friendly. Most museums do offer a discount for Chicago or Illinois residents, and they can be substantial. The Shedd Aquarium, for example, offers Chicago residents 50% off the $40 general admission. Most museums also have occasional free days, and while some are regularly scheduled, others seem to occur fairly randomly. For example, the Chicago History Museum is free to Illinois residents on Tuesdays, but other museums have free days scattered throughout the calendar, usually a couple per month. The best thing to do is choose the museum you’d like to see and check its website for the schedule of free or discounted days. We recommend the aquarium as the best escape from winter, even if there is a penguin exhibit (which is adorable, by the way).
6. Bundle up and head out.
Being outside in winter in Chicago isn’t just for commuting, it can actually be fun. Sure, you need to layer up and strap on some boots, but if you hope to survive until spring you better have the right gear to do so. In the right time, at the right place, winter in Chicago can be truly magical. If there is fresh snow, or better yet a snowstorm where it’s not so warm that it melts but not so cold that it’s unbearable, take a walk around your neighborhood. We bet you’ll see it in a whole new light. When the snow has turned to grey slush, and it seems like every surface is covered in salt, you need to head out a little further. Try the Lakefront Trail; a city park like Lincoln, Jackson, or Humboldt Park; or one of the Cook County Forest Preserves. Winter is beautiful and entirely comfortable to be out in, so long as you dress the part.