Chicago is the heart of the Midwest and offers everything you can find in any other big city (and more). We love Chicago for its energy, as there’s always something happening. There is a fabulous food scene, world-class museums, and unique architecture, and it’s diverse in every sense of the word. Come to Chicago for the attractions, but we promise the welcoming people will be the best part of your trip. They will make you want to return for more.
Like many big cities, Chicago can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. There are dozens of parks and lakefront walking paths that are completely free, and there are plenty of attractions that are easy on the wallet too.
1. Millennium Park
In the middle of Chicago is a 25-acre green space known as Millennium Park. It is the one place in the city everyone visits (locals included). The main attraction here is Cloud Gate (aka The Bean), the reflective jelly bean-esque sculpture that everyone loves to photograph.
There are several other areas of the park that are worth exploring. Jay Pritzker Pavilion is an outdoor amphitheater that hosts concerts, movies, and performances throughout the year and many of them are free.
Lurie Garden is a perennial garden that is secluded from the rest of the park, so it’s a great spot to relax and admire the city’s skyscrapers.
The Crown Fountain is actually a pair of fountains consisting of two towers that project images of Chicago residents’ faces. Each tower has a water spigot centered in the mouth of the person on the screen. Kids love to splash and play as the water comes pouring out from above.
Speaking of children, Maggie Daley Park sits adjacent to Millennium Park, connected by the Frank Gehry-designed BP Bridge. This is a wonderland for children (and adults) with 20 additional acres for exploring. Here you’ll find a climbing wall, slides, and playgrounds. In the winter, there’s an ice skating ribbon that winds through the park (but there is a fee for reservations and skates).
2. Lincoln Park Zoo
The Lincoln Park Zoo is one of the oldest zoos in the United States and one of the few free zoos remaining. Admission is free, but there is a parking fee. It is open year-round and spans close to 50 acres.
Some of our favorite exhibits include the Kovler Seal Pool, the Regenstein Center for African Apes, and the Walter Family Arctic Tundra (featuring polar bears). If you want to get up close with the animals, head to Farm-in-the-Zoo where you can be hands-on with them. There are goats to brush, chickens to feed, and other farm animals to admire from a distance.
Adjacent to the zoo is the Lincoln Park Conservatory and Gardens, one of the most beautiful public garden spaces in the city. Entrance to the Victorian-era glass house is free, but it is recommended that you reserve tickets to the gardens in advance.
Pro Tip: Use public transportation to visit the zoo. It’s extremely efficient in downtown Chicago and will save you money on parking. Also, there are many picnic areas throughout the park. Visitors are allowed to bring their own food and water, instead of buying food and drinks at the zoo.
3. Chicago’s Ethnic Neighborhoods
Chicago is a city of immigrants, and the downtown area is divided into at least a dozen enclaves. Choose a favorite and plan on exploring for the day.
In the Hispanic neighborhood of Pilsen, you will find the National Museum of Mexican Art. The museum has over 3,000 years of Latino, Chicano, and Mexican art, and it’s free. Afterward, admire the area’s street art, stop into one of the local bakeries for pan dulce, or have an authentic Mexican lunch at one of the area’s restaurants.
The Chicago neighborhood of Chinatown was settled by Chinese workers fleeing the harsh working conditions of the West Coast Gold Rush in the mid-1800s. Today, it is a flourishing hub of parks, museums, shops, and restaurants, mostly owned by the area’s residents. Take a walk through the Chinatown Gate and visit the Pui Tak Center, Nine Dragon Wall, Chicago Public Library – Chinatown Branch, and Ping Tom Memorial Park.
Other great neighborhoods to explore are Little Italy, Greektown, and the Swedish sect of Chicago, Andersonville.
4. The 606
The 606 is a former elevated railroad track that has been converted to a 2.7-mile paved trail. People ride bikes, rollerblade, and walk along the path as it winds through several downtown neighborhoods. Along the way, there are dedicated green spaces, murals, and sculptures to enjoy.
5. Chicago’s Underground
Many people don’t know that there is an underground tunnel system in Chicago. The tunnels connect 40 square blocks of the city’s central business district running between rail stations, hotels, shops, and restaurants.
Pro Tip: The entry points of the Chicago Pedway are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the week, but some access areas may be closed on the weekends. If you want to pay for a guided tour, we would recommend using Chicago Detours for an in-depth look at the tunnels and their role in Chicago’s history.
6. Walking Tours In Chicago
Speaking of tours, Chicago Greeter offers free guided tours of the city! Locals volunteer their time to share the city’s highlights. They ask that you register at least 10 days in advance for a 2-to-4-hour tour, and we think this is one of the best ways to see the city.
7. Garfield Park Conservatory
There are several free gardens located throughout the city, but one of my favorites is the Garfield Park Conservatory. Once you enter the massive greenhouse, you’re immersed in a world of palms and ferns, and the temperature becomes warm and humid. The space is well laid out and there’s even a children’s garden, a koi pond, and a desert house.
Outdoors are 10 additional acres of gardens to explore. Plan on spending a couple of hours here and be sure to book your tickets online in advance.
Pro Tip: Parking at the conservatory is free, but if you’re staying downtown, you can take the Green Line to the Conservatory Stop. It’s easy and efficient.
8. Chicago’s Beaches
Chicago occupies an enviable location on Lake Michigan and has over 26 miles of beachfront. All of these beaches are free to the public and are made for wandering any time of year (although not as fun in the heart of winter).
Some of the best beaches in Chicago are Oak Street Beach, North Avenue Beach, and Montrose Beach.
Pro Tip: Montrose Beach has free parking, but get there early in the day to take advantage.
9. Chicago Riverwalk
The Chicago River runs right through downtown and connects to Lake Michigan. Some of the city’s impressive architecture sits on the river. Thankfully, there is a 1.25-mile paved trail that runs alongside it, starting at Lake Michigan and ending at Lake Street. It’s a wonderful walk on a beautiful Chicago day and there are restaurants, shops, and art installations to enjoy.
Pro Tip: Guided River And Architecture Tours
If you want to take a boat ride along the river, there are several options. Chicago Water Taxi has a route along the river with several stops, but it is seasonal. Urban Kayaks has guided kayak tours on the river during the summer. For a guided tour of Chicago’s architecture, head to the Chicago Architecture Center. They offer year-round river cruises and it’s one of my favorite ways to see the city!
10. Fireworks At Navy Pier
Navy Pier is one of the more popular destinations for tourists visiting downtown, but it has plenty to offer locals as well. There are restaurants and a hotel, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the Centennial Ferris Wheel, and a variety of attractions. While all of these cost money, there are still plenty of free events throughout the year.
One of our favorite free events is the weekly firework show that takes place from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The 15-minute shows are Wednesdays and Saturdays and are sure to delight all ages. There is also a massive fireworks show at Navy Pier on the Fourth of July, and there are free concerts and performances that add to the celebration.
Every August, the Chicago Air and Water Show takes over downtown for a weekend, and some of the best seats are at Navy Pier. The performance is free, but if you want a good seat, be sure to get to Navy Pier early and reserve a spot on one of the restaurant patios. It’s one of the highlights of the summer.
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