Chicago is one of America’s great cities and the third most populous in the country. Known as the “Windy City,” it’s famous for its jazz, blues and improv comedy scenes, and home to the Chicago Cubs, deep-dish pizza, and “The Bean.” The good news is that you can enjoy the best the city has to offer – for free. Check out these ideas for budget-friendly options that will help you make the most of your time in Chicago.
Housed in the Historic Water Tower, one of the few buildings to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the City Gallery is free seven days a week. It’s conveniently located along the city’s “Magnificent Mile,” so a stop here should fit right into a full day’s itinerary. The gallery features photographs of Chicago by Chicago photographers. Exhibitions have ranged from “No Ketchup: Photographs of Chicago Hot Dog Stands” to “New Deal Utopias.” Check out the gallery’s website to see what’s on display during your visit. Location: 800 N. Michigan Ave.
Lincoln Park Zoo
Visitors are surprised that this zoo is free seven days a week. Lincoln Park Zoo is home to over 1,100 animals, with everything from polar bears to big cats to gorillas, and much more. A popular attraction is the Nature Boardwalk, a pond habitat featuring lots of plants and wildlife as well as amazing views of the Chicago skyline. The newest arrivals to the zoo? A pair of red pandas and a baby gorilla. So stop in to say hello. Plan your visit by visiting www.lpzoo.org.
Location: 2001 N. Clark St.
Chicago can get cold and windy, but that doesn’t have to stop you from exploring. The Pedway system is an elaborate network of tunnels, concourses and bridges that connect skyscrapers, stores, hotels and train stations in the city’s central business district. The system is massive, covering more than 40 downtown blocks and containing almost 50 entrances. While a great time to head to the Pedway is during inclement weather, this attraction can be enjoyed year-round, as it houses shops, restaurants, art, and a great look at Chicago’s wide array of architectural styles. Exploration is free and offers a unique city perspective. Check out the city’s website for a map and listing of what can be found along the Pedway.
Chicago Botanic Garden
The Chicago Botanic Garden is a wonderful – and free – way to enjoy nature just north of the hustle and bustle of downtown. You can enjoy the garden at your own pace, whether on foot or by the leisurely garden tram. A popular attraction is the renowned and fragrant Bonsai Collection, which contains bonsai from Japanese master Susumu Nakamura. Also check out the waterfall garden, the esplanade or any of the seasonal displays. You could easily spend a day exploring the grounds of this urban oasis. To see what’s in bloom during your visit and to plan your day, visit www.chicagobotanic.org/visit. Location: 1000 Lake Cook Rd., Glencoe, Illinois
Chicago Greeter Program
Who could turn down a free tour of Chicago led by a local and customized just for you? The Chicago Greeter Program pairs visitors with a guide for two to four hours, and the tour is based on your interests, language and any neighborhoods you might wish to know more about. Be sure to register at least 10 days in advance to reserve a spot with one of the friendly guides. Greeter guides provide a personal insight into the city that surely won’t be found in guidebooks. Visitors can choose to tour any of the 25 neighborhoods and have the guide focus on any of the 40 interest categories. There really is no better way to see the city. Reservations and more information can be found on www.chicagogreeter.com.
When visiting Chicago you can’t miss the Millennium Park, a favorite with both locals and tourists. Take a walk through the 2.5-acre garden or stroll along the impressive and winding “snake bridge” while watching the hustle and bustle of this vibrant public space. During the warmer months you can catch an outdoor concert at Prtizker Pavilion or go for a dip in the Crown Fountain. The park is seen by many as the heart of the city, and enjoying it is free. Don’t forget to stop by AT&T Plaza to take a picture with the giant steel sculpture Cloud Gate. Probably best known by its nickname, “The Bean,” this piece of art reflects and distorts the city’s skyline and makes for a great photo op. Visit the city of Chicago’s web page dedicated to the park to plan your visit. Click here for more information.
Stroll Chicago’s Lakefront Trail
One of the most picturesque parts of the city is its 18-mile Lakefront Trail, which offers spectacular views of Lake Michigan and a panorama of the city skyline. The trail connects nearly all of Chicago’s beaches and is extremely popular among bicycle commuters and rollerbladers. You can use the trail to plan your own urban trek, as you pass through famous neighborhoods such as Hyde Park, South Loop and Lakeview, to name a few. Whether you want to stop off for a game of beach volleyball or take a break to lounge on the beach or walk in the garden, all 18 miles of the trail are packed with gorgeous views. And you won’t have to pay a thing.
Are you a local who has other tips for seeing the city while saving money? Or a visitor who has found some of the city’s other free gems? Share with us in the comments below!