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 ground-breaking 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.
Visit the famous Art Institute of Chicago for no admission charge on Thursday evenings. From photography to architecture to textiles, this museum houses a permanent collection that includes works by Eva Hesse, David Hockney, and Ellsworth Kelly.
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, which combines original contemporary sculpture and two miles (3.2 kilometers) of walkways—all for free.
See major attractions in Chicago at about half the price with our partner, CityPass, which includes Traveler's picks for bars, restaurants, shopping, and neighborhoods.
The City Gallery is an old water tower now used as a venue for local photographers to display their work. Past exhibits include: "Connecting: Chicago Fashion Photography" and "No Ketchup, Photographs of Chicago Hot Dog Stands." Whatever the content, all photographs must be about Chicago and are on view for free to the public.
Admission to the Museum of Contemporary Art is free on Tuesdays. 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 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 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.
The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art charges no admission and displays visionary art and works by self-taught artists.
Peruse the dynamic works of emerging and established artists at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, which is free to the public. Exhibitions have included "The Transportation of Place," by Andrea Robbins & Max Becher, and Paul Shambroom's "Evidence of Democracy."
The permanent collection at the University of Chicago's Smart Museum has over 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 134 spouting jets are accompanied by a music and light display.
As a verifiable entertainment hub, Chicago's Navy Pier is not to be missed. This 3,000-foot-long (914-meter) playground offers myriad attractions—from a Ferris wheel to a winter ice-skating rink to 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.
Head to the underwater viewing area to catch a glimpse of swimming sea lions or take a guided tour of the hundreds of species on view at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Admission to the zoo is free seven days a week.
Millennium Park incorporates art, music, architecture, and landscape design. This 24.5-acre (9.9-hectare) sanctuary, located in downtown Chicago, boasts the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion, the interactive Crown Fountain, and a popular sculpture designed by British artist Anish Kapoor. Free programs—such as Music Without Borders and Home Cooked Jazz—are held in the park throughout the year.
Get the inside scoop on a Chicago neighborhood with a local expert. The Chicago Greeter Program offers free walking tours of the city hosted by resident volunteers. From the Ukrainian Village to Lincoln Square, the Greeter Program is a great way to learn the ins-and-outs of this dynamic city.
At the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum,17,000 square feet (1,579 square meters) of rooftop gardens teach visitors about energy-efficient technology. Large greenhouses also let you walk among colorful butterflies, including some rare varieties. Visitors 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 select programs throughout the year.
The DuSable Museum of African-American History offers visitors free entry every Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Enjoy the museum's 450-seat theater, which hosts lectures, talks, and plays, or explore the expansive exhibit on the civil rights movement.
Learn about the lives of Near Eastern civilizations at Chicago's Oriental Institute Museum, which is free to the public. 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 visitors free of charge on discount days, which sometimes occur for a week at a time throughout the year. Watch a diver feed sharks, rays, and a sea turtle at the "Caribbean Reef" exhibit.
The Chicago Public Library offers a host of exhibits and ongoing programs at no charge. 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, one of the first settlement houses in the United States. Founded by Jane Addams in 1889, the museum offers photographs, furniture, and a collection of pottery. Groups of seven or more can call ahead to arrange walking tours. Admission and all programs are free.
Explore the universe for free on discount days—which sometimes occur for a week at a time—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.
Mondays are free at the Chicago History Museum, a treasure trove of interesting artifacts and documents about the city's past. Other temporary exhibitions, like "Colonia to Community," a look at the Mexican American community in Chicago's Southeast Side, are on view at various times throughout the year.
The Museum of Science and Industry has many free admission days throughout the year. Learn the story of the German U-505 submarine captured in WWII or find out about planes on a real Boeing 727 donated by United Airlines.
Interested in learning more about Chicago's architecture? Visit the Archicenter, which is free to the public seven days a week 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free rotating exhibits showcase the latest in modern design and a full city model. "You are Here" is on permanent display. Visitors can pay extra for guided architecture tours around the city.
Every year, the Chicago Cultural Center hosts a variety of free programs and events related to the visual, literary, and performing arts. Check out some of Chicago's up-and-coming musicians for free through the Myra Hess concert series or join the center's many free literary programs.
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 5-8 p.m., and children ages 15 and under enter free on the first Monday of each month.
Drop by Barnes and Noble on Webster Ave. on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays at 10 a.m. and Saturdays at 11a.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, 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.
In the middle of Grant Park lies the Buckingham Fountain. The fountain opened in 1927 and is one of the largest fountains in the world. Every hour on the hour the fountain produces a water display lasting 20 minutes.
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 city-wide. Grab a blanket and unwind while watching The Wizard of Oz in the fresh summer air.
The Shakespeare Project of Chicago offers Shakespeare performances such as 50 Minute Macbeth and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest throughout the year, bringing high-quality drama to the public for free.
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 summer dance 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.
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