Chicago is one of my favorite weekend travel destinations. Only a two-hour flight from New York City, visit famous historical sights, attend live events, world-class theatrical shows and more. Also, since I’ve visited Chicago solo a few times, it’s one of the cities I recommend to female solo travelers looking for a fun city break. Chicago has good eats, tons of free attractions, and it’s a great place to visit any time of the year (including winter, yes I said winter). Below are some of my favorite free things to do in Chicago especially if you’re on a tight budget. And if you’re wondering how much I spent, here’s how much a weekend trip to Chicago costs.
Although I’m not traveling right now because of the crisis, while reminiscing about my previous trips, Chicago crossed my mind as one of the destinations I’d like to get back to when we can travel again. Stay safe and be well.
Ballin’ On a Budget
Weekend Trip Edition: 8 Free Things to Do in Chicago
Did you know that the Chicago Riverwalk was once a shipping channel?
Today, the river not only turns green on St. Patrick’s Day but it’s one of Chicago’s star attractions. From a romantic stroll to early morning jog, this is a great place to unwind while sightseeing. The waterfront offers gorgeous views of Chicago’s architecture and there are seating areas to help you take it all in.
While you explore, check out the waterfront restaurants, beer gardens, gelato shops, museums, and the outdoor art.
During your visit, learn about the Chicago Riverwalk river system canals and the science behind it. Or go fishing on the pier, but get your fishing license first. And if you are into bird watching, go on a bird walk. There have been some cool bird sightings here.
Last but certainly not least, head out on the water and explore the river on kayak or on a boat cruise.
The Magnificent Mile
Chicago’s Magnificent Mile has 60 hotels, 275 restaurants, over 460 stores and 50 historic landmarks. “The Mag Mile”, as it’s sometimes called, is located in the commercial district. Spanning 13 blocks of North Michigan Avenue, the Magnificent Mile stretches from the banks of the Chicago River (to the south), to Oak Street (to the north).
Explore downtown by bus, trolley, or boat. If you are up for a view, check out the 360 Chicago Observation Deck. For $22 USD you can get a 360 degree view of Chicago from 94 stories up! While you’re there, grab a drink at the bar. With so much to offer visitors, you’re sure to find something that sparks your interest and fits within your budget.
Chicago Lakefront Trail
Bring your workout clothes or casual wear for a leisure stroll on the Chicago Lakefront Trail. This trail, which spans 18 miles, is reserved for pedestrians and bike riders. Pick any day of the week and you’ll see plenty of people commuting to work, training for a marathon, biking or pushing little ones in a stroller.
Flamingo Wall Mural
Get your camera ready because Chicago has dozens of remarkable outdoor murals. Spice up your Instagram feed by heading to the Flamingo Wall Mural. This mural is one of my favorites because it brings a tropical vibe to the big city.
When you visit, you’ll see several large pink birds and tropical plants cover the outdoor wall of the Flamingo Rum Club at 601 North Wells Street. The Flamingo Rum Club is a Caribbean inspired club and cabaret.
The Flamingo Wall Mural is near the downtown area and it’s easy to get to. If you want to go on a full photo tour, check out Chicago’s downtown sculptures like Picasso’s enigmatic creation in Daley Plaza and these 22 other murals.
Murals have become so popular in Chicago that they created a mural registry to catalogue the growing list on public and private property.
Chicago Greeter Tours
If you really want to see what Chicago has to offer, why not see it with a local?
Chicago has over 200 volunteers ready to give you a free 2-4 hour tour of their hometown. All you have to do is sign up 10 days in advance with Chicago Greeter Tours. A greeter will customize your tour based on your interests, language preference, and what neighborhoods you want to see. Oh, and did you catch the part where I mentioned it is free?!
Even if you missed booking a Chicago Greeter Tour, you can still go on a free tour with an InstaGreeter. InstaGreeter offers one hour tours of Downtown Chicago from Friday to Monday including Chicago Riverwalk or Millennium Park. Tour registration is not required.
During my last trip I had a chance to join a last-minute one hour architecture tour which was both fun and informative. If you have a chance to stop by the Chicago Cultural Center, marvel at the free art exhibits and the 38-foot dome made from 30,000 pieces of Tiffany glass. Its located on 78 E. Washington St.
There are also several free tours you can take by foot. After the tour is over, pay what you like. You can also take a free self-guided tour and tip yourself for saving some extra money :).
Millennium Park Campus and The Bean (Cloud Gate)
If you venture all the way to Chicago, don’t miss the Millennium Park Campus. Here you’ll find outdoor sculpture exhibits, an outdoor and indoor theatre, a fun fountain, grass for lounging and more.
The park is located in the heart of Chicago and should not be missed especially if this is your first time visiting the Windy City. Outdoor concerts are free and you can catch a movie screening sometimes too. However, one of the most famous attractions at the park is the Bean, a work of art officially named “Cloud Gate.” The Bean is one of the world’s largest permanent outdoor art installations.
Here are ten things you don’t want to miss on your visit to Millennium Park.
Helpful Tip: Wildberry Pancakes and Cafe is conveniently right across the street from the Millennium Park. If you’re in the mood for delicious breakfast food, head over right after checking out the Bean.
Museum of Contemporary Art
Looking for more free things to do in Chicago?
Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art wants art to be accessible to everyone. Therefore, they do not have an admission fee. Instead they ask visitors to pay what they can. The suggested donations are $15 for adults, $8 for teachers, students, and seniors, and it’s free for visitors 18 years old or younger.
The museum offers several types of tours for beginners, caretakers with strollers, and anyone trying to learn the basics of contemporary art. If you want to challenge your language skills, take a tour in Spanish on the first Sunday of every month.
The Navy Pier offers cultural attractions, food, free programs, and lots of fun. Take a cruise, catch fireworks, enjoy a gigantic ferris wheel or even a show.
The Navy Pier sits on the shoreline of Lake Michigan in the Near North Side part of Chicago. It’s one of the top destinations in the Midwestern United States drawing nearly two million visitors each year.
Easily get to the Navy Pier by foot, public transportation, car, or taxi. It’s free to visit, but some of the attractions charge a fee. Also, although the Pier is open all year round, check the website for the hours of operation. Hours vary depending on the season.
This list of fun free things to do in Chicago might be a bit much for a weekend, so consider extending your trip or planning another visit. I’ve visited Chicago on three separate occasions and there’s still so much I haven’t had a chance to do yet. Make it a girls’ trip or a romantic getaway with your beloved. Plan to have lots of fun and enjoy all of the free Chicago attractions and activities.
Are you planning a trip to Chicago? Which of these free attractions are you adding to your itinerary?
Danielle Desir is a financially savvy traveler, 5x author, and podcaster. She paid off $63,000 of student loan debt in 4 years, bought a house at 27, and has traveled to 27 countries. She refuses to let her financial responsibilities hold her back from living life on her terms. Listen to The Thought Card Podcast here.