Explore Chicago

18 Free (or Nearly Free) Things to Do in Chicago

Vacation splurges certainly happen, and we say, "Go for it." After all, it's tough to stick to a budget when there's that pair of shoes that we just can't live without or that once-in-a-lifetime experience that we can't pass up. As visitors to a new city, or even acting as tourist in our own city, it's definitely understandable. In Chicago, there are loads of excellent reasons to spend a little more than expected. The trick is knowing how to balance those out by also finding the many cheap things to do in Chicago: free museums, kids-eat-free restaurants, cheap tours and free attractions. We've rounded up a varied list of free and nearly free things to do in Chicago that make those occasional splurges free, too—of guilt.

National Museum of Mexican Art

Located in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, this is the nation’s largest (and the Midwest’s only) Mexican cultural center. The ongoing "Nuestras Historias" exhibit offers dynamic and diverse stories of Mexican identity. Tu-Su 10 am-5 pm. Free.

Lincoln Park Zoo

This 49-acre zoo in the heart of the city is one of the nation’s oldest, with more than 1,200 animals. 

Chicago Cultural Center

This national historic landmark is a showplace for the performing, literary and visual arts, featuring a huge variety of programs presented by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. Free guided tours offered W-Sa at 1:15 pm. M-F 10 am-7 pm, Sa-Su 10 am-5 pm; closed holidays. Free.

Millennium Park Greeter Service

An extension of Chicago’s Greeter program, this seasonal service invites parties of 10 or fewer to book an hour walk with a guide through the city’s grandest park. Free, May-October. Daily at 11:30 am and 1 pm.

DuSable Museum of African American History

Named for Chicago’s first permanent citizen, Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, the museum displays art, artifacts and documents tracing African-American history. Tu-Sa 10 am-5 pm, Su noon-5 pm. Admission $10; with ID students and seniors $7; children 6-11 $3; under 5 free; discounts for Chicago residents; free for military.


Just west of the Loop, the city’s gregarious Greektown is centered around Halsted Street between Jackson and Washington boulevards. Sizzling platters of flaming saganaki and exuberant shouts of “Opa!” are typical sights and sounds at restaurants here.

The Second City

Second City has launched the careers of superstars like Bill Murray, Tim Meadows, Tina Fey and more. The theater’s three resident stages offer shows seven nights a week, with Saturday and Sunday “Best of The Second City” matinees for the earlybirds.

Maggie Daley Park

Named for the former mayor's wife who was deeply committed to improving the lives of children, Maggie Daley Park provides 28-acres of green space with lake and skyline views in the middle of downtown.

Uncommon Ground

The two locations of this restaurant each feature a full menu, cocktails, local art on the walls and acoustic music in an intimate performance space with music nightly. Each also boasts a front bar/lounge area decked out with couches and two fireplaces, a great place to linger over coffee or cocktails.

Belmont Theater District

The Lakeview neighborhood has so many great local theater companies that they banded together to create this partnership to strengthen each one individually.

River North Art District

Bounded generally by Chicago Avenue to Merchandise Mart, Orleans Street to Dearborn, this vibrant district boasts one of the greatest concentrations of galleries in the country. Within walking distance are dozens covering every era and subject including Vale Craft, Catherine Edelman, Carl Hammer and Gruen galleries.

Art Institute of Chicago

Founded in 1879, the Art Institute of Chicago is one of the world’s major museums, housing an extraordinary collection of objects from across places, cultures, and time.

Chicago Architecture Center

For more than 50 years, Chicago Architecture Center (CAC) has been celebrating Chicago’s magnificent architecture. The foundation offers 85-plus docent-led tours, including Chicago’s most popular river cruise and many downtown walking tours that depart from its current location above the CAC River Cruise dock.

Big Chicks

A relaxed, mostly male crowd fills this eclectic Uptown standby, located adjacent to popular brunch nook Tweet. The small dance floor pulses on F-Sa nights; pop in on Sunday afternoon for $2.50 vodka lemonades and a free buffet spread (starts at 4 pm) with a changing menu (barbecue during summer).

Chicago Sports Museum

This interactive museum commemorates the world of sports using simulated experiences, relics and stats. The museum engages visitors to measure up against players like Blackhawk Patrick Kane and Bulls Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen. Relive the glory of the Cubs' historic win at the 2016 Chicago Cubs World Series exhibit.

Dylan's Candy Bar

First opened in New York City, Chicago's sweet-treat heaven includes endless confections, including chocolate bars galore, nostalgic candies, candy-themed merchandise, an ice cream bar and a 3D gummy printer.  

Lincoln Park Conservatory

Located next to the Lincoln Park Zoo, this Victorian-style conservatory is considered one of the most beautiful in the country. Opened in 1895, the glass and metal structure was designed by famed architect Joseph L. Silsbee.

Smart Museum of Art

Founded in 1974 on the campus of the University of Chicago, this museum’s collection includes some 15,000 objects, ranging from Chinese Neolithic ceramics to contemporary American paintings. Tu-Su 10 am-5 pm (Th open till 8 pm). Free.