Photograph by Melissa Farlow
It's no wonder Frank Sinatra paid tribute to Chicago in his ubiquitous song "My Kind of Town." The city has plenty of what he called razzmatazz, from legendary stories about Al "Scarface" Capone to groundbreaking architecture to a vibrant soul and jazz scene. Here's a list of free, year-round art, music, theater, dance, and walks that will keep you singing Sinatra for days.
From photography and architecture to textiles, the Art Institute of Chicago houses a permanent collection that includes works by Eva Hesse, Ivan Albright, and Ellsworth Kelly. Save time for the "Thorne Miniature Rooms" exhibition, a peek at dozens of painstakingly crafted European and American interiors from the 13th century to the 1930s. The museum is free for Illinois residents on Thursday evenings from 5 to 8 p.m. Kids under 14 always get in free.
For everyone else, the Art Institute and four other major attractions in Chicago can be accessed for about half the price with our partner, CityPASS, which includes Traveler's picks for bars, restaurants, shopping, and neighborhoods.
Bike past giant red- and pink-painted steel horses or stroll by an apple rocket in stainless steel and bronze at the Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park, 40 minutes north of downtown, which combines original contemporary sculpture and two miles (3.2 kilometers) of walkways—all for free.
The City Gallery is an old water tower along the city’s Magnificent Mile, now used as a venue for local photographers and artists to display their work. Past exhibits include "Connecting: Chicago Fashion Photography" and "No Ketchup: Photographs of Chicago Hot Dog Stands." Whatever the content, all works must be about Chicago and are on view for free to the public.
Admission to the lakefront Museum of Contemporary Art, normally $12 for adults, is free on Tuesdays for Illinois residents. Stop in to see rotating exhibits from their permanent collection, including popular works by Alexander Calder.
Admission to exhibitions at the National Museum of Mexican Art in the Pilsen neighborhood is always free. As one of the largest organizations dedicated to Latino arts, the museum has everything from native folk art to existentialist works by Ester Hernández.
The DePaul University Art Museum in Lincoln Park has a diverse permanent collection on view, as well as many special exhibits, all free. Past exhibitions have featured the work of contemporary Iraqi artists—from paintings to sculpture—and showcased photographic works by Eugene Atget and Berenice Abbott.
Peruse the dynamic works of emerging and established artists at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, which is free to the public. Exhibitions have included “Bird Watching” by Paula McCartney and Paul Shambroom's "Evidence of Democracy."
The permanent collection at the University of Chicago's Smart Museum has more than 10,000 objects ranging from ancient Chinese artifacts to works by Francisco Goya and Henri Matisse. Admission is free.
See a free water display every hour at the Buckingham Fountain from mid-April to mid-October. The best time to go is between dusk and 10 p.m., when the fountain's 133 spouting jets are accompanied by a music and light display.
Chicago's Navy Pier is not to be missed. This 50-acre playground offers myriad attractions, including a Ferris wheel, a winter ice-skating rink, and two children's museums. Although most of the indoor attractions charge a fee, some offer free admission, including the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows. Many people enjoy walking around the pier, which doesn't cost a thing. Also, from Memorial Day through Labor Day, visitors can watch a free fireworks display every Wednesday and Saturday night.
At the Lincoln Park Zoo, head to the underwater viewing area to catch a glimpse of sea lions; see King, the first black rhino to be born at the zoo in 25 years; or take a guided tour of the hundreds of species on view. Admission to the zoo is free seven days a week.
Millennium Park incorporates art, music, architecture, and landscape design. This 24.5-acre public space in downtown Chicago boasts the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion for outdoor concerts; the Crown Fountain, an interactive video sculpture made up of 50-foot glass-block towers bookending a shallow reflecting pool; and British artist Anish Kapoor’s elliptical arch, Cloud Gate—or the Bean, as Chicagoans call it—which reflects and distorts the skyline. Free programs, such as Music Without Borders and Made in Chicago: Home Cooked Jazz, are held in the park throughout the year. From May to October, Millennium Park greeters offer free 45-minute tours of the art and architecture within the park, from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily, starting at the Welcome Center.
Get the inside scoop on a Chicago neighborhood with a local expert. The Chicago Greeter Program offers free two- to four-hour walking tours of the city hosted by resident volunteers. From the Ukrainian Village to Lincoln Square, Greeter Program tours are a great way to learn the ins and outs of this dynamic city. Book at least ten days in advance. One-hour InstaGreeter tours of downtown are available on weekends at the last minute.
At the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, roam 27,000 square feet of greenhouses among some thousand colorful butterflies, including some rare varieties. Illinois residents can enter for free on Thursdays, but a donation is appreciated.
Check out the largest T. rex fossil in the world or explore the "Ancient Americas" exhibit to learn about old-world American cultures at the Field Museum. Admission is free for Illinois residents for select programs throughout the year.
The DuSable Museum of African American History offers visitors free entry every Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. The museum hosts revolving exhibitions, like the video installation "Question Bridge," as well as workshops, lectures, and films. Explore the "Freedom Now" mural, a wooden bas-relief depicting 400 years of African-American history.
Learn about the lives of Near Eastern civilizations at Chicago's Oriental Institute Museum, which is free to the public (a donation is suggested, however). Visitors to the galleries—which include artifacts from Egyptian, Persian, and Mesopotamian societies—can take a break by strolling through the courtyard.
Chicago's unique Shedd Aquarium hosts Illinois residents free of charge on discount days, which often coincide with school holidays. Watch a diver feed sharks, rays, and a sea turtle at the "Caribbean Reef" exhibit.
Illinois residents can explore the universe for free on discount days at the Adler Planetarium. Exhibitions like "Black Holes: The Other Side of Infinity" and "Shoot for the Moon" give visitors an out-of-this-world adventure.
Discount days are honored at both the Chicago History Museum, a treasure trove of interesting artifacts and documents about the city's past, and the Museum of Science and Industry, where you can learn the story of the German U-505 submarine captured in World War II or find out about planes on a real Boeing 727 donated by United Airlines.
The Chicago Public Library offers a host of exhibits and ongoing programs at no charge at its more than 50 locations. Share your prose at the annual poetry fest or learn how to manage your personal finances at the annual Money Smart Week.
Check out the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, one of the first settlement houses in the United States. Founded in 1889 by social reformer Jane Addams—the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize—the museum offers photographs, furniture, and a collection of works by artists who lived at Hull House at the turn of the 20th century. Groups of seven or more can call ahead to arrange walking tours. Admission and all programs are free.
Interested in learning more about Chicago's architecture? Visit the Chicago Architecture Foundation, which is free to the public seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free rotating exhibits showcase the latest in modern design and a full-city model. The "Lunch Talks" series (Wednesdays, 12:15 to 1 p.m.) explores topics like the city’s architectural history and current projects. Visitors can pay extra (from $10) for guided architecture tours, which are well worth the splurge.
Every year, the Chicago Cultural Center hosts a variety of free programs and events related to the visual, literary, and performing arts. Completed in 1897, the beaux arts-style building is crowned by the world’s largest stained glass Tiffany dome. Check out some of Chicago's up-and-coming musicians for free through the Myra Hess concert series every Wednesday at 12:15 p.m.
Chicago Public Library cardholders can check out a Kids Museum Passport, which allows free admission to a family of four (with at least one child under the age of 18) at one of the 15 museums, including the Museum of Science and Industry. Available at all library locations on a first-come, first-served basis.
Invent your own flying machine at the "Inventing Lab" exhibit or navigate a boat down a river at the "Waterways" exhibit in the Chicago Children's Museum. Located on the Navy Pier, the museum offers three floors of interactive family fun. Families are admitted free on Thursday evenings from 5 to 8 p.m., and children ages 15 and under enter free on the first Sunday of each month.
Drop by Barnes and Noble on Webster Avenue on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays at 10 a.m. and Saturdays at 11 a.m. for a free story hour for infants and toddlers. If you go on a special event day, you might catch a character from a children's story visiting the shop.
Kids can learn about the immigrants' stories at the interactive Brunk Children's Museum of Immigration, free with general admission to the Swedish American Museum ($4 adults; $3 for kids), where the exhibits are located. Admission to both museums is free the second Tuesday of each month.
Enjoy a break from the city's urban side at the Chicago Botanic Garden and stroll through miles of bucolic landscapes. The garden also boasts more than 200 bird species, a sculpture collection, and plant varieties from across the world. During spring and summer, gardens are open from 8 a.m. until sunset, for free (parking starts at $25 per car).
Enter a world of colossal animal sculptures, beekeeping demonstrations, and a children's garden at the Garfield Park Conservatory. Often referred to as "landscape art under glass," the conservatory grows thousands of plants every year. Admission is free, as are the various programs and exhibits. The conservatory also offers plenty of free, family-fun activities—like scavenger hunts and story readings—almost every weekend during the spring and summer.
In the middle of Lincoln Park lies a free conservatory with four display houses: the Palm House, Fern Room, Orchid House, and Show House.
The Chicago Park District shows free classic and contemporary films outdoors at dusk from June through September in parks citywide. Grab a blanket and unwind while watching The Wizard of Oz in the fresh summer air.
The Shakespeare Project of Chicago offers theatrical readings at four area libraries, such as 50-Minute Macbeth and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, from October to April.
The Free Street Theater group puts on productions in various inner-city communities throughout Chicago. Shows range from political satire to performance puppetry, and admission is by donation.
Chicago's annual SummerDance festival is held for 11 weeks each year. Get a free one-hour dance lesson and follow that by indulging in two hours of live music and dancing. The dance extravaganza—which includes jazz, Latin, funk, and ballroom—is held Thursday through Sunday in the Spirit of Music Garden at Grant Park.
2014 Traveler Photo Contest
See all the winning images from the 2014 Traveler Photo Contest.