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20 Free Things to do in Chicago (and surrounding areas)

September 24th, 2015

Views of the John Hancock building from the Chicago Lakefront Path

Chicago, known for its’ wonderful downtown and lakefront, offers a number of free activities and events to enjoy year round. Even if you are on a limited budget, you can take a budget friendly vacation to the Windy City and enjoy numerous fun & free activities, many of these centered around the beautiful natural landmarks and landscapes found throughout the area. By combining free sightseeing, recreational, and cultural activities, you will have a packed itinerary of frugal attractions and sights to see during your Chicago vacation. Below I have listed 20 free things to do on your next trip to Chicago. Enjoy the list and be sure to add a few suggestions of your own!

1. Bike the Chicago Lakefront Path

The Chicago Lakefront Path

Biking along the 18 mile picturesque paved Lakefront Path will lead you on an incredible journey right past more of the best attractions downtown. However, the real highlight of taking a ride along this trail is the magnificent unending views of the lake and city. This scenic ride is one of the top urban paths in the country. As you walk, run, bike, or rollerblade along, you will be treated to the gorgeous blue waters of Lake Michigan, have easy access to top cultural attractions like The Field Museum and the Lincoln Park Zoo, and be able to enjoy relaxing breaks at famous landmarks like Buckingham Fountain, Millennium Park, and Navy Pier.

2. Stroll around Lincoln Park Zoo

Lincoln Park Zoo Lights

The beautiful, easily walkable Lincoln Park Zoo is one of only 3 remaining free zoos in the US. It’s a wonderful place to stroll around during the mild fall and spring months. The pretty landscaping and nice views of the city make for one enjoyable day out in the city. If visiting during the winter months, you must plan a day to check out the Zoo Lights fest, an annual event consisting of live ice carving shows, 2 million plus holiday lights, synchronized light/music shows, and holiday treats. This colorful light display really is spectacular, and being free, you really have no reason not to enjoy the fun & festivities of this dazzling holiday event.

3. Ice skate at Millennium Park

Millennium Park ice rink in Chicago

Chicago’s beautiful seasonal ice rink at Millennium Park, known as the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink, is one of the few free city rinks. The beautiful setting consisting of holiday lights on the surrounding trees and beautiful city architecture in the background makes for one of the most picturesque city skating experiences you will come across. Although admission is free, there is a $12 charge to rent skates, so be sure to bring your own or borrow some from a friend! Also be sure to take advantage of the free skating lessons offered each weekend, one hour before the rink opens.

4. Take advantage of Free Museum Days (for Illinois residents)

Dinosaur at The Field Museum in Chicago

Each year, Illinois residents get to take advantages of a handful of select free dates at the city’s wonderful museums. Many residents are not aware of this great perk of living in the area. The best deal is at the wonderful Art Institute of Chicago, which offers free admission to residents every Thursday evening from 5-8pm. This highly regarded museum is home to more than 300,000 impressive works of art.

The Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and the Adler Planetarium all offer select free dates which change each year. Visit the links below for free dates for the 2015 season at the top 3 museums.

Field Museum Free Admission dates 2015

Shedd Aquarium Free Admission dates 2015

Adler Planetarium Free Admission dates 2015

Although the free days as expected are very crowded, getting into some of the country’s top museums is well worth it.

Residents and non residents alike can take advantage of Bank of America’s Museums On Us program. Cardholders receive free admission to select museums (including the 4 listed above) on the first full weekend of each month.

Finally, if neither of these options fit you, you can always check Groupon/Living Social type sites for discounts or purchase a discounted Go Chicago card to save on multiple attractions.

5. Take a leisurely stroll around scenic Lake Katherine

Lake Katherine waterfall

Escape the city for an hour or so and head out to quiet Lake Katherine in the Southwest suburbs for a few hours of exercise, relaxation, and fresh air. Near the end of the trail you will come across a small, man-made, nonetheless beautiful waterfall. The trail is only a mile, making it an easy stroll for all fitness levels. If you prefer biking, you can take a ride along a section of the Cal Sag trail. Other activities include exploring the nature center, renting a paddleboat on the lake, and special annual events.

6. Take a reflective picture by the Cloud Gate Sculpture at Millennium Park

Cloud Gate sculpture at Millennium Park in Chicago

This amazing artistic creation by British artist Anish Kapoon is a must see for any one visiting downtown, especially first timers. The reflective nature of the sculpture allows you to get some pretty cool photos of yourself, along with the wonderful background of the city skyline and lake.

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