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There are many good reasons to spend serious cash in Chicago, but it’s not always necessary, since the city offers a lot of free things to do. Leave your wallet at home and check out these free activities that are all approved by our Forbes Travel Guide editors:
1. Lincoln Park Zoo. The only zoo within city limits is both free and open 365 days a year. Established in 1868, the world-class Lincoln Park Zoo houses everything from African lions to spotted turtles. At only 35 acres, it’s not as big as its suburban Brookfield counterpart, but its park surroundings make it a scenic place to visit. Check out ZooLights in the wintertime, when the zoo puts out Christmas lights in animal shapes and serves warm drinks while kids visit Santa.
2. Lincoln Park Conservatory. Just past the zoo’s north border is the Lincoln Park Conservatory. The free botanical garden offers four houses within its glass-domed structure: the Palm House, Fern Room, Orchid House and Show House, which hosts annual flower shows.
3. Millennium Park. The country’s only free, outdoor classical music series spans Chicago’s warm months. There’s nothing like hearing Beethoven while sitting under the stars in Millennium Park. Tickets aren’t needed for general seating (most concerts are free), and picnics are welcome and part of the fun.
4. SummerDance. Chicagoans can to boogie down in Grant Park either on their own or with the help of professional dance instructors on Thursdays from July to September with this complimentary annual dance series. Chicago SummerDance encourages people of all ages to groove to live music in a 4,900-square-foot open-air space — the same park where the not-free Lollapalooza Music Festival is held.
5. Beach. Take advantage of the city’s 26 miles of open lakefront and hit the beach. There are many options depending on what’s convenient for you, and no admission is needed. North Avenue Beach gets awfully crowded, but for good reason. It’s well located, and you can buy hot dogs and listen to live music in a giant fake boat. Don’t forget to stay hydrated while you’re catching rays in your bikini, as temperatures during Chicago’s summer months are sizzling.
Some of the best attractions in Chicago are surprisingly free, but the best include going to the beach along Lake Michigan, visiting Millennium Park, exploring Navy Pier, learning at the Lincoln Park Zoo, or walking around one of Chicago’s many festivals (The Taste of Chicago, Jazz Fest, Blues Fest, Gospel Fest, Country Music Fest, to name a few).
The biggest concentration of free activities in Chicago is housed in one of the most beautiful buildings: the Chicago Cultural Center. Situated on Michigan Avenue with entrances on both Randolph and Washington Streets, the building was home to the original Chicago Public Library and now hosts art exhibitions, dance performances, live music of all genres, film screenings and lectures—all free.
Across the street in Millennium Park, summertime means free concerts almost every evening. Locals spread blankets and nosh on picnics, or just sit in one of 4,000 chairs toward the front of the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Mondays are usually pop and rock oriented, Fridays are typically classical concerts performed by the Grant Park Orchestra, and there are sometimes other genres booked between.
The Art Institute of Chicago is by far Chicago’s must-visit museum, and it has a crowded but fun free night: Thursdays from 5-8pm. Beyond downtown, there are a ton of free entertainment events sprinkled throughout the neighborhoods. Wrigleyville’s renown iO (formerly Improv Olympic) hosts free comedy shows several times a week, and regular free concerts take place at seminal venues like the Hideout on the Near North Side, and the Empty Bottle in the Ukrainian Village.