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.
One of the only institutions devoted to Mexican art in the country, this Pilsen museum has been free for everyone since it opened in 1997. In addition to permanent and rotating exhibits, it hosts the annual Sor Juana Festival in the fall, highlighting women in the arts from both Mexico and the U.S.
With zoo admission free, it's easier to pay for extras like a ride around the carousel and a souvenir stuffie in the gift shop—choose one whose purchase helps support conservation efforts. Make time for free zookeeper talks in the ape house. Parking is extra, so we highly recommend locals become members for the great parking benefits.
Originally built as Chicago's public library in 1897, this stunning Michigan Avenue structure has been preserved as a hub of free cultural activities for all ages, including Juicebox, a dance party for little kids every first and third Friday, a classical concert series every Wednesday at 12:15 and an ongoing variety of art exhibits.
Sure, Millennium Park is free for the enjoying, but the Greeter Service takes it one step further and offers free tours. The hour-long tours for up to 10 people leave from the Chicago Cultural Center throughout the summer every day (except Memorial Day, July 4 and Labor Day), 11:30 and 1 pm on a first-come-first-served, drop-in basis.
Free every Sunday, this Hyde Park museum highlights African-American culture, art and history. Take special note of the Freedom Mural, a 9-by-8-foot wooden bas relief that illustrates 400 years of African-American history. Every fourth Saturday, visitors can learn how to archive and preserve their own historic papers, photos and more.
Besides being an historic enclave of Greek culture in Chicago, and the home to the National Hellenic Museum, Greektown boasts a bevy of amazing Greek restaurants, including Greek Islands, the Parthenon, Artopolis and Santorini. The free part? The valet parking for all the Greektown restaurants. Nice touch.
Though tickets to the Mainstage shows of this legendary skit comedy theater start at more than $20 each, shows at the new state-of-the-art Training Center can be as low as $8. See the students of comedy and you might be seeing the next comedic stars.
Not everything here is free—the climbing wall and mini golf carry a fee. But the 3-acre Play Garden is free for the running, jumping, climbing and exploring. One of our favorite spots there is the Enchanted Forest, a subdued break from the other busy areas. Another free offering is walkup tennis (reserving requires payment). So play away.
Doing sustainable and farm-to-table before it was a thing, this longtime Lakeview favorite (there's a second location in Edgewater) offers parents a break when kids eat free Monday through Friday 5 pm to 6:30 pm. Maybe a vegetarian risotto or a grass-fed burger, while Mom and Dad enjoy organic beer made right on site.
With big-stage theater costing big bucks, it's no wonder some people balk. Thank goodness for this tight-knit theater district that offers loads of ticket deals for under $15 and often totally free. Like the freebie improv jam at ComedySportz, Fridays at 11:30 pm, or $6 sketch and improv Wednesdays 10 pm at the Annoyance Theatre.
Amid dining and nightlife destinations in River North is an impressive concentration of art galleries of all types. Every Saturday from 11 am to 12:30 pm, a gallery representative leads free tours and discussions of four of the area's galleries. Meet at 750 N. Franklin Ave., inside the Starbucks.
This top-rated museum is a must-see when in Chicago. Whether it's the classic Impressionist pieces by Cassatt, Seurat, Monet and more, ancient armor or works in the Modern Wing, the Art Institute has something to interest everyone. Illinois residents get in free every Thursday 5-8 pm and children under 14 are free all the time.
With more than 80 tours available by foot, bus, boat, bike, El and Segway, visitors can see the city from east to west, north to south and even some distinctive suburbs. The least expensive of these tours are $15 and include an in-depth look at the Chicago Board of Trade and a bike ride through Humboldt Park and The 606 trail.
At this fun-loving Uptown gay bar, Monday is Buck Burger Night from 5 pm to midnight; veggie hot dogs are also available, and both come with fries. But the freebie most famous at Big Chicks is the Sunday early evening buffet from 4 to 6 pm. One important tip: It's cash only here.
Water Tower Place is known as a shopping mecca, with various sales, deals and discounts throughout the year. What visitors may not know is that up on the 7th floor is the fittingly named 7th Inning Stretch Restaurant and Sports Bar. Dine there and receive free admission to the interactive Chicago Sports Museum across the hall.
There are plenty of sweet reasons to check out this emporium of all things sugary, but one of the best is upstairs at the fudge bar, where friendly staff slice off tastes of any of the dozens of flavors. We're not saying you won't end up spending some money, but at least you can sneak in a freebie while you're deciding your fave.
Don't be shy about asking the volunteer and staff about the flowers and plants at this garden under glass. Admission and information are always free. Stop by before or after a visit to its adjacent neighbor, the free Lincoln Park Zoo, and you've got a doubly budget-minded day.
A free art museum? Yes, and, although intimate, it's not dinky. In fact, it's a very sophisticated and thoughtfully curated museum on the campus of the University of Chicago. Its main collections are grouped into four categories: Asian art, European art, modern art and design, and contemporary art.