Free Things To Do in Chicago
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Often referred to as "Chicago's front yard," Grant Park is a 319-acre swath of green space that starts at the eastern edge of the Loop and stretches down to the northern fringes of the Near South Side. First-time visitors should plan on spending a fair amount of time in Grant Park: This is where you'll find several of Chicago's most popular things to do, including The Field Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago and Shedd Aquarium. (Millennium Park also rubs elbows with the northwest corner of Grant Park.) Baseball diamonds, flower gardens, walking paths and wide-open grassy terrain are available as well.
At the heart of Grant Park is Buckingham Fountain. One of the largest fountains in the world, this tiered water feature boasts 133 jets that shoot water as high as 150 feet into the air during 20-minute choreographed displays (which take place every hour on the hour between 9 a.m. and 10:35 p.m. from April to October). At night, the fountain's performance is accompanied by lights and music.
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A first-time visit to Chicago isn't complete without a stop at Millennium Park. Situated in the Loop just north of the Art Institute of Chicago, this 24.5-acre space is used to showcase cutting-edge art, architecture and landscaping; it also acts as a backdrop for concerts and festivals. Most visitors come to Millennium Park to see the Crown Fountain and Cloud Gate, better known as "The Bean." Designed by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, the Crown Fountain features two 50-foot towers that face each other at opposite ends of a shallow reflecting pool. The towers' LED screens project the faces of 1,000 different Chicago residents, which are perfectly aligned with spouts so that it appears they are spitting water on passersby. Cloud Gate – created by British artist Anish Kapoor – is a 110-ton bean-shaped sculpture forged from stainless steel. The Bean's elliptical shape reflects the Chicago skyline.
There are plenty of other reasons to visit Millennium Park: You can see a concert at the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion, stroll through the Lurie Garden or the Boeing Galleries (where contemporary sculpture is displayed outdoors), or sign up for a Segway tour at the McDonald's Cycle Center.
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Located 2 miles north of the Loop in the North Side neighborhood of Lincoln Park, the Lincoln Park Zoo is home to dozens of species, such as zebras, sloths and hippos. Visitors can view the zoo's furry (or scaly) friends in their natural habitats: Check out the gorillas in the sprawling Regenstein Center for African Apes, or head to the Kovler Seal Pool to get up close and personal with harbor seals.
Travelers appreciated all of the large mammal species found here, as well as the zoo's lack of an entrance fee. If you have kids in tow, head to the Farm-in-the-Zoo exhibit, where little ones can meet barnyard favorites like cows, pigs and goats. Also, plan on using public transportation or a taxi to get to the zoo since there's limited availability in the zoo's parking lot and parking fees start at $20 per vehicle (or $25 per vehicle on weekends) for 31 minutes to 2 hours of parking.
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If you can feel your credit card burning a hole through your wallet, make your way to The Magnificent Mile. This portion of Michigan Avenue – which stretches between Lake Shore Drive and the Chicago River – beckons to shopaholics with department stores and luxury retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Macy's and Lord & Taylor. Additionally, The Magnificent Mile is home to several top-notch eateries and luxury hotels, including The Drake, a Hilton Hotel the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago and the InterContinental Chicago Magnificent Mile.
Architecture buffs will also appreciate a stroll down this street thanks to its eclectic collection of buildings. While you're walking around, turn your eyes upward for views of the Historic Water Tower, which survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and is the longest standing structure on Michigan Avenue. Other structural highlights include the Wrigley Building (once the headquarters of chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr.) and Tribune Tower (home to the Chicago Tribune daily newspaper).
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Extending out onto Lake Michigan, Navy Pier offers plenty in the way of family-friendly entertainment. The first thing you'll spot once you set foot on the pier is the towering Ferris wheel (which stands 196 feet tall); you'll also find a swing-seat ride and a carousel. Once the kids have had their fill of thrill rides, you can spend some time practicing your putt at the 18-hole miniature golf course or spend a few hours exploring the Chicago Children's Museum, with hands-on exhibits ranging from treehouses to firetrucks.
But you don't have to be a kid to enjoy a visit to Navy Pier. Grown-ups can catch a show at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, flex some credit card muscle at a variety of shops or grab a drink at the Miller Lite Beer Garden. And be sure to check Navy Pier's website for a list of events: Concerts are often held here, and during the summer (and New Year's Eve), impressive fireworks displays are the norm. In fact, many of the city's top Segway tours offer special summer evening tours to the pier to catch the semiweekly fireworks show.
- #10View all Photos#10 in ChicagoParks and Gardens, FreeTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPENDParks and Gardens, FreeTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPENDRead More
When the weather warms up in Chicago, there are few better places to enjoy the outdoors than the Chicago Riverwalk. The 1.25-mile pedestrian walkway on the south bank of the Chicago River is the perfect place to take a walk and observe the city skyline. Plus, there are numerous activity options to enjoy directly on the water, such as a boat tour or kayaking. If you prefer dry land, explore the public gardens and art displays or grab a meal at a popular restaurant or bar overlooking the Chicago River. And if you want to learn more about the river's unique history, check out the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum, which celebrates the city's famous movable bridges. Boat tours, many of which sail the Chicago River, are another way to learn about the city's waterways.
Recent guests said walking the Riverwalk is a nice way to view the city, but they did not recommend visiting during the frigid winter. The urban park is free to access, and it is open daily from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. If you can, visit during St. Patrick's Day weekend, when the entire river is dyed green. Just keep in mind that there are a few ongoing construction projects causing the closure of some parts of the Riverwalk (you can check this website for updates on construction). The public walkway is located downtown, following the south bank of the river from North State Street and stretching east to North Lake Shore Drive; it features several access points. There are a few parking lots and L stations near the attraction.
- #13View all Photos#13 in ChicagoParks and Gardens, Recreation, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDParks and Gardens, Recreation, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDRead More
Maggie Daley Park is an expansive property located just east of Millennium Park in downtown Chicago. The massive green space offers numerous activities for both kids and adults on-site, including a climbing wall, a mini-golf course, a playground, a public garden, an ice skating rink (during the winter) and a tennis facility. Whatever you choose to do, you'll get to enjoy fantastic views of the Chicago skyline. Recent guests loved that the park is free to access, and they noted that the attraction is excellent for family fun.
Though many attractions within the park are free, there are costs associated with the climbing wall, mini-golf course, skating rink and snack kiosk, and some things to do are only seasonal. The park is open 365 days a year from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., but most people enjoy the green space more during the warmer weather. The park is within walking distance of many downtown attractions and hotels, and a few bus routes stop right next to the attraction. The nearest L station is Washington/Wabash. There are parking lots within walking distance of Maggie Daley Park as well, but they can be expensive and crowded. For more information, visit the park's website.
- #18View all Photos#18 in ChicagoBeaches, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDBeaches, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDRead More
Located in Lincoln Park directly on Lake Michigan, North Avenue Beach is one of the most popular swimming spots in Chicago. The sandy beach has volleyball courts, plenty of space for visitors to stretch out and multiple things to do near nearby, plus it offers spectacular views of the city skyline. Beachgoers can also find restaurants, sports rental companies, restrooms and more inside a 22,000-square-foot beach house adjacent to the shore. Recent guests said the beach is a nice spot that is perfect for relaxing, biking and running, but they warned that it can get busy on hot days.
The beach is free to access, and lifeguards are on duty from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. A number of bus routes can take you close to the beach, and the nearest L station is Sedgwick (brown and purple lines). Keep in mind that parking is expensive in this part of this city, and that the beach and water can get very cold during the winter.
- View all PhotosfreeThe 606Parks and Gardens, Recreation, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDParks and Gardens, Recreation, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDRead More
Dividing Chicago's Logan Square and Humboldt Park neighborhoods, The 606 is a former industrial rail line that's been transformed into a nature trail and a public space. In addition to being an excellent place to enjoy the outdoors, the 2.7-mile-long park hosts an assortment of events and shows for visitors to experience.
Recent travelers loved that The 606 has a variety of access points, which means visitors can explore the trendy western Chicago neighborhoods that the park borders. Physically active reviewers also suggest travelers complete a run, walk or bike ride along the length of the trail. (Divvy, Chicago's bike-share program, has a station near the park.)
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