We just got home from a five day trip to Chicago. It was our first time ever visiting and we immediately fell in love. Having control of your money means having a budget and having a budget sometimes means saying no to spending money. But that doesn't mean you can't have fun! We found the BEST free things to do in Chicago...and a few of them may surprise you!
1 // Free Walking Tours
Okay, bet you didn't know that there are FREE walking tours of Chicago, did ya?! There are- and there are multiple ones offered daily. Free Tours By Foot Chicago offers a ghost tour, a gangster tour, a Millennium Park tour, architecture tours, etc. While this technically could be done 100% free, they do suggest a pay-what-you-can method. So if you only have $5-10 to spare, tip your tour guide and enjoy a two hour walking tour where you get to see all the sights with a local and learn the history.
2 // The River Walk
This is a beautiful, pedestrian walkway along the river that runs right through downtown Chicago. On it, you'll find restaurants, coffee shops, and river cruises-- all of which will cost you money. But do what we did-people watch, walk the length of it, eat a picnic lunch by the water, look at the beautiful arcitecture or...take a free walking tour of the River Walk (see #1)
3 // Millennium Park
Down the street from the River Walk is Millennium Park. Admission to the park is free and it is here that you're going to see free attractions like the "Bean" (its real name is Cloud Gate), Crown Fountain (please look up pictures of this...it's hilarious!), an Instagram-able concert pavilion, Lurie Garden... among other gardens, buildings and attractions. You'll also have access to the BP Pedestrian Bridge, which is going to take you to your next free attraction...
4 // Grant Park
...to Grant Park! Technically, Millennium Park is inside of Grant Park but the rest of Grant Park has so much to offer. If you have kiddos, you'll find Maggie Daley Park, which is an insane playground for the littles. You have to check out Buckingham Fountain which is going to make you feel like you're in London and also give you a great place to take pictures. You're also going to find monuments, gardens, fountains and the Art Institute of Chicago (not free...but you'll see art by Picasso and that famous painting of the farmer and his wife!) If you want to spend money, be sure to check out Museum Campus, which is where you'll find all the amazing museums that Chicago offers (that I hear are well-worth the money)- Adler Planetarium, Field Museum of Natural History and Shedd Aquarium.
Bonus Tip: Check online to see if there are any free events going on! There are some almost every single day!
5 // The Beach
If you've never been to Chicago, you may be like "Hold up...there's a beach?" There sure is, and people legit use this beach for beach days. I'm talking beach chairs, laying out, swimming in the lake. And on a hot summer day, it is GLORIOUS to dip yourself into clear Lake Michigan. This was something we were unprepared for but we totally wish we would have been able to spend a day at the Ohio St. and Oak St. Beaches. The sand was soft, the people were pleasant, the water was warm and clean. YES PLEASE.
6 // Lakefront Trail
Since you're by the beach, you might as well take a stroll along the Lakefront Trail. This is a stretch of biking and pedestrian trails that are along the lakefront and I am telling you now, the views will KILL YOU. It was so magical to be strolling the trail at sunset. I felt like I was in Europe! If you have a few bucks to spare, rent a bike and ride along the trail. It's only $3 for 30 minutes, which was in our budget, so we rented bikes and rode at sunset. MAGICAL.
7 // Hotel Hopping
Okay, this one is for my rebel kids out there but stick with me. If you aren't able to stay in those gorgeous fancy hotels downtown, no worries. Walk inside, hop in the elevator and see how high you can go and what views you can catch. This applies to really any building. While in Chicago, we explored hotels, shopping malls, office buildings and parking garages. Is this a little off the beaten track? Yep. Did we stumble upon some gems? Yep. We wound up exploring The Drake and wandered upon a display case showing all the famous people who had stayed there- like Princess Diana. Everything about this is perfectly legal..unless you trespass where there is a posted sign. I'm not going to say whether we did that or not....my lips are sealed.
8 // Lincoln Park Zoo
Located in Lincoln Park, a huge park north of the downtown area, there is a free zoo! There is a lot to see here like a petting zoo, barn animals, rhinos, giraffes, a bird house, sloths, penguins, polar bears, zebras, fish, etc. Plus, there is a gorgeous view of the skyline from the zoo's bridge!
9 // Maginificent Mile
This is a stretch of Michigan Avenue and is known as an upscale shopping district. It's here you are going to see upscale stores like Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys, Prada, Guicci, Tiffany & Co. ,etc. which are fun to walk around in (even if you can't afford anything in there...) You'll also find some Chicago landmarks like the Drake Hotel, the Water Tower, and the Tribune Tower. Some of the tallest buildings in the WORLD are here on the Mag Mile. There's also shopping malls like Water Tower Place, which has fun stores like the American Girl Doll Store (personal fave, even at 25), the Lego store, an art gallery dedicated to Dr. Seuss, etc. Super fun to walk around and explore- even if you don't buy anything!
10 // Navy Pier
This is one of the more touristy things to do but Navy Pier is a pier that juts out into Lake Michigan. It has rides, arcades, a food hall, stores, a theater and places to sit and relax. To be honest, if you want to DO something on the pier, you have to pay for most of it- for example, the Ferris wheel, swings and carousel, the arcade, the IMAX theater, the restaurants, the theater, the fun house maze, etc. HOWEVER, if you are lucky enough to be in Chicago on a Wednesday or Saturday night throughout the summer, you can catch a FREE firework show...which is exactly what we did and it was awesome! It's set to music and is pretty spectacular. However, people start grabbing seats about an hour before the show on a Saturday night, so get there early!
11 // Signature Lounge
Okay, this one is TECHNICALLY free, but you'll probably want to budget some money for this one. When you go to Chicago, most people are going to tell you that you HAVE To do the Willis Tower Skydeck or the John Hancock Tilt. Those can be pretty pricey and you can honestly get the same views for free. A little known secret is that on the 96th floor of the John Hancock Building (the 8th tallest building in America), there's a bar where you can get a drink and see the amazing skyline of Chicago. You do NOT have to pay to get in. TOTALLY FREE. However, they are going to ask you to get a table to order drinks. Technically, you could just get water but that may be a jerk move to your waiter. I have to be honest, the drinks are pretty pricey. Beers are around $10 and cocktails are $17+. We opted for a cider and a beer and enjoyed the views. I mean, paying $20 for drinks on the 96th floor easily fit into our budget.
BONUS TIP: There is the Signature Room (which is the restaurant on the 95th...pricey but maybe you're into that!) and the Signature Lounge (which is the bar on 96th floor) If you're looking for the cheapest option, go for the Lounge.
BONUS BONUS TIP: They open at 11 AM. Get to the elevator around 10:45 AM to the first ones on the elevator so you can get the best views. It can get pretty crowded around sunset and in the evening. So be mindful of that if your heart is set on getting a table with a view.
12 // Go to a place of worship
Okay, this one may not be everyone's cup of tea, but we always try to go to church when we're on vacation for several reasons. You meet amazing, like-minded locals. You usually get to see a neighborhood you wouldn't normally see. You feel like a local. You get to see some amazing architecture. We went to City Church Chicago, which helped us see a whole new neighborhood, helped us navigate the bus system and meet some super friendly locals. This was one of the highlights of our trip. No matter what you believe, it definitely is worth it to look up the nearest church, synagogue, mosque, etc. to visit while you're in town.
13 // Wrigleyville
Every other item on this list is in no particular order, but this one is last for a reason because this one has the least things to do that are free. In my opinion, it's worth it to budget for a ticket to a game at Wrigley Field, but if that isn't an option, there are a ton of cool bars that fill up on game days and will feel lively while you're watching the game. Budgeting for a beer in a bar is cheaper than budgeting for a ticket to Wrigley. If that still isn't an option and you're a Cubs fan, you can walk around Wrigleyville, pop in some the team store, maybe grab a bite to eat but if you aren't going to the game and you aren't a huge Cubs fan, this wouldn't be on my list of free things to do as the free options are limited and it is out of the way of downtown.