There is no shortage of activities in Chicago. Even if you’re not interested in spending a lot of money, you can find great things to do. While many of the city’s most popular family attractions can be pricey, if you take the time to look, there are also tons of free activities and entertainment options all year round.
In this article, we’ll cover some of the best free activities in the city. Whether you’re looking for something indoors or outdoors, something to do weekly, or something really out of the ordinary, we’ve got you covered. Here are seven free activities for parents with young kids in Chicago:
Enjoy Nature at the Garfield Park Conservatory
Need some fresh air and green space? There’s no better reprieve from city life than a visit to the Garfield Park Conservatory. This park takes up a whopping 184 acres and is absolutely stuffed with some of the most beautiful plant life in the country. Earning the description “landscape art under glass,” it’s one of the largest conservatories in the nation.
But there’s more than just the enormous and beautiful glass conservatory to see. Take a stroll to look at the plants, hop in the swimming pool, fish in the lagoon, or play a casual game at one of the athletic fields. You can spend the entire day at this park, so pack some snacks or a full picnic.
Cool Off in the Crown Fountain
Summers in Chicago can reach sweltering temperatures. Sure, there are water parks and public pools, but those fill up quickly and they cost money. Instead of trying to squeeze into a packed public pool, take advantage of the Crown Fountain. It’s located in Millennium Park, and it’s completely free for people to splash around in and cool off.
Crown Fountain is first and foremost an art installation, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. The two columns on this fountain display giant faces that are sometimes smiling and sometimes making a face as if they are spitting water out of the fountain. Water sprays down the sides of the columns and out the front, where visitors can play. It’s the perfect blend of art and fun and a great place to cool off on a hot day.
Chicago Air and Water Show
For one weekend every August, Chicago hosts an Air and Water Show over Lake Michigan. Not only is it free, but it’s the largest free show of its kind in the world. The show runs from 10 am to 3 pm. Attendees can see incredible stunts from the military and other professional pilots.
This annual show started in 1959 and gathers millions of viewers each year. If you want the best view, try and stake out a spot early at North Avenue Beach. You can also view from anywhere along the lakefront between Fullerton and Oak Street if the beach gets too full.
Every Wednesday and Saturday from mid-May to early September, Navy Pier has a free fireworks show. The show starts at 9:30 on Wednesdays and 10:15 on Saturdays. Synchronized to music, it’s a fun visual and audio experience for people of all ages. The show only lasts about 15 minutes, so make sure to find a spot early so you don’t miss anything once it starts.
Walk down to the end of the pier for the best view of the glittering fireworks over Lake Michigan. From there, you’ll also have a great view of the city skyline at night. It’s a great photo opportunity.
Lincoln Park Zoo
Lincoln Park Zoo is a popular attraction in Chicago because it’s free and centrally located along the lakefront. At 35-acres, the Zoo homes over 1,100 animals of 200 unique species. One of the few remaining free zoos of its size, exhibits include a primate house, aquatic bird house, lion house, swan pond, and more.
In 2018, Lincoln Park Zoo celebrated its 150th anniversary, making it one of the oldest zoos in the country. A great source of pride for the city, it is also known for its conservation efforts to support endangered species and study how wildlife use cities, and now offers a free nature boardwalk surrounding its large lagoon and bordering the farm-in-the-zoo.
The zoo is open year round, so you can visit on a nice sunny summer day, or bundle up in the winter and get some fresh air when cabin fever sets in.
Chicago’s farmer’s markets are phenomenal. Of course, it’s easy to start spending cash, and we want to focus on free activities. Instead of going to the farmer’s market to shop for seasonal produce and delicious baked goods, scout out the free activities and shows.
Many farmer’s markets feature local artists to play music, dance, or entertain in some capacity. There may even be free classes for dance or yoga. Since you don’t have to pay to enter the farmer’s market, you can simply find these activities and spend the morning enjoying the free entertainment! These shows are typically family-friendly and performers switch out regularly. Check the website of your favorite farmer’s market to find their schedule.
Look for Free Days at the Museums
Chicago has a long list of great museums, and they often appear on lists of the best museums in the United States — especially the Art Institute of Chicago. Museums can be educational, fun, and interactive. They can awaken the mind of your child and get them interested in something new.
While admission can be costly, each museum has reduced price days and free days, often weekly, and many coordinate their free days. Visit the website of the museum you want to visit or Google “Free Days at Chicago Museums.”
The museums can get pretty packed on these kinds of days, so be prepared for crowds, wear comfortable shoes, and get started early in the day.
Chicago has many free activities available if you take the time to seek them out. The next time you want to plan a family day on a budget, try out one of the great free activities from this list. You won’t believe how much fun you can have without spending a dime.
Sandra Chiu works as Director at LadyBug & Friends Daycare and Preschool, with facilities serving families at multiple locations in the Chicagoland area.