10 Free Things to do in While Traveling in Chicago

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Chicago is an awesome city with a distinct culture, tasty hometown food, and friendly people who manage to bring a Midwestern hospitality to a busy metropolis. From their famous comedy clubs like Second City, to the legendary sports teams like the Chicago Cubs, all the way to the big city glam of the shops on Michigan Avenue you’ll find something that anyone can enjoy in the Windy City.

Like any travel destination, though, it can be easy to get sucked in to expensive and sometimes unnecessary purchases and attractions. To help you travel in a thrifty way, I’ve assembled this list of things to do for FREE while traveling in Chicago.

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Millennium Park

Yup, this would be the park the infamous “bean” (technically called Cloud Gate) that has become an icon of Chicago in just a little over a decade. That’s not the only free thing to do here, though. Throughout the year, particularly in the warmer months, there are events and music festivals housed under the Jay Pritzker Pavilon from the country’s only free outdoor classical music series of its size  to the Chicago Blues FestivalChicago Gospel Music FestivalJazz FestivalWorld Music Festival, and the Chicago Air and Water Show that are all completely FREE! If it’s the winter time, don’t fret! They also offer a free ice skating rink.

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Chicago Cultural Center

The Chicago Cultural Center, which just so happens to be in walking distance of Millennium Park, can be something of a best kept secret for travelers to Chicago. It’s a large, historic municipal building that is not only beautiful to look at but filled with a number of arts and cultural events that are completely FREE. If you like art exhibits, there are a number of exhibits from many renowned artists at the Center, in addition to free film screenings, kid’s events, and music performances. You can  also catch a free daily tour of the building (great if you are an architecture buff) and check out the world’s largest Tiffany-stained glass dome that is quite the sight to see!

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Lincoln Park Zoo

A trip to the zoo can be a great outing for families (or a group of scrappy 20-somethings!), but what can make it even better is if its free. The Lincoln Park Zoo happens to be free 365 days a year for each and every visitor. There are exhibits that are open in both the warmer months and colder seasons. During the holiday season, make sure to check out ZooLights- a fun Christmas light display.

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Navy Pier

Navy Pier is a famous shopping and entertainment district with beautiful views of Lake Michigan. Now this one comes with a bit of a disclaimer- technically it is free to walk around it but this heavily visited attraction has all of the typical markings of a tourist trap. The parking is expensive, the food and souvenirs are pricey, and if you aren’t careful you can end up spending quite a bit of money on things like boats tours and riding the ferris wheel (which costs $12 a person). I’d recommend taking public transit to Navy Pier rather than parking directly near it and maybe even packing a sack lunch to save money on food. If you walk far enough down the pier you can also normally find some cheaper priced boat tours. Plus twice a week during the summers they do a free fireworks show.

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Get a Free Guided Tour

There are a number of tours in Chicago that charge money but there are still PLENTY of options if you want a free tour run by volunteers. Tours by Foot offers walking tours of Chicago for a range of themes from a movie and television filming location tour (if you want to see places where famous movies were shot) to a ghost tour of allegedly haunted places in Chicago if you want to get your ghostbusting on. In addition you can get an individual tour from Chicago Guide, but make sure to reserve a spot at least 10 business day in advance.

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Free Museums

There a number of free museums in Chicago ranging from the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago, and the Hyde Park Art Center. There’s also the Money Museum, which happens to also be free (go figure!). Plus you can take a free tour of a brewery.

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Check out the Beach!

A great thing about a lakeside city is that there are a number of beaches to visit for free. If it’s the summer, go ahead and pack a swim suit so you can soak up the sun! And if it’s the winter, seeing a snowy beach with a frozen lake makes for a very surreal Instagram-worthy photo-op.

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Watch a Free Improv Show

There are a number of improv theaters to see in Chicago, but most cost money (side note- at Second City you can tickets that have a view “partially obstructed” by a pole at a discount FYI). There is one improv troupe that offers shows completely free of charge, though. The aptly named “Free for All” show is every Sunday at 7:30PM at The Playground Theater.

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Watch Some Free Theater Shows

The Free Street Theater was one of the first racially integrated theater companies in Chicago when it was founded in the 1960’s and aims to create theatrical productions that highlight a diverse range of experiences. True to their name, they offer free shows!

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Take a Stroll Through the Botanic Garden

The Chicago Botanic Garden offers free admission and is open year-round (yes, including winter). Whether you are looking for a pleasant stroll or a tram tour, this can be a great place to check out if you’re looking to unwind and enjoy the scenery in this 385-acre destination. There’s also the Lurie Garden in Millennium Park or  for something indoors, there’s the Lincoln Park Conservatory.

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Traveling Across the U.S. on a Budget: Tips for the Young and Adventurous

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For my YouTube video on this subject, click here!

You might see traveling as an expensive luxury reserved for those with the pocket change to handle first-class plane rides and five star hotels. The reality is, though, that if  you set your mind to it, you can travel on almost any budget. When you’re young, it’s great to get out and explore new areas that you’ve never been before. Whether you are in college and taking a summer trip with friends, or a single, millennial 20-something like me, traveling can be a highly rewarding experience.

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Here are my tips for traveling across the continental United States on a budget!

Consider Your Ground Transportation Options

Planes aren’t the only way to get around, it turns out. You can take an Amtrak train, a Greyhound bus, or, in certain areas, a discount double-decker bus line called Megabus. Megabus is a service that is popular in Europe and has now come to the United States. They are known for EXTREME discounts (they claim as little as $1) if you book ahead of time. Most transportation options offer a rate that varies depending on how early you book, but Megabus takes this to the max.

I was able to take a trip with a couple friends from Kansas City, MO to Chicago for about $10 round-trip because we booked several months in advance. While if you book the day of, the price skyrockets to what is often more than $100 one-way, if you plan ahead this could be a good way to save money. Do be forewarned, though- double-decker buses have a tendency to tip over when sliding and there have been a number of highly publicized accidents on Megabus rides. You get what you pay for, so pursue it with a cautiously adventurous spirit.

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Whichever option you take -plane, bus, or train, you can always save money by booking as early as possible. Or drive it yourself and make a road trip out of it!

Visit the Megabus website

Visit the Greyhound website

Visit the Amtrak website

Try Different Lodging Facilities Besides Hotels

When most Americans hear the word “hostel,” we probably have images conjured in our minds of the horror movie. Rest assured, though, that true hostels have NOTHING to do with this movie. I have had only amazing experiences in hostels and you could, too! Hostels, like the Megabus, are another European import that is picking up steam in the U.S. With a hostel, you have dormitory style lodging- think summer camp as a kid with a room full of bunk beds.

Hostels differ from hotels in that they function as more of a community space. There are often free events for travelers such as walking tours and community meals. It attracts a young, diverse crowd of travel-enthusiasts from all over the world. It can be really fascinating to meet the different array of people and, because you are sharing a room with others and pulling together resources, the fees for hostels are very affordable (think $30-$70 per night, depending on the city and size of room).

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In addition to hostels, consider Airbnb. This functions as a service where people can rent out their homes or apartments to travelers and is often much cheaper than a hotel. This requires a level of caution, though, so make sure you have received a good word about the host you are staying with. Plus, don’t ever feel afraid to ask family and friends if you can crash on their couches for a few days while you’re traveling- nothing beats FREE lodging.

Visit hostels.com for hostel listings

Visit the website for Hosteling International USA

(side note- Hosteling International offers a yearly membership that gives you discounted lodging and other benefits such as discounted car rentals, even tickets, etc. with any of their partnering hostels worldwide)

Visit the website for Airbnb

Eat In, Rather Than Eating Out for Most Meals

Now of course one of the best things about traveling to a new city is trying the food and I’m not saying you should deprive yourself of this experience. Rather, when it’s time for the “filler” meals, or those where you’re just eating because it’s lunch time and you need to grab some quick food, go back to where you’re staying and eat there.

Try to pack as much non-perishable food to take with you such as granola bars and soups, then when you arrive to the place you’re traveling to go grocery shopping and take the food back to your room with you.

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Even if the room you are staying in doesn’t have a kitchen, most hostels and hotels have a communal kitchen area SOMEWHERE, so look around or ask the management!

Food can be the one thing that if you really add up can get super out of hand against your budget, especially if you choose to eat out for every meal. Even if you tell yourself that you’ll just get cheap fast food, the prices at restaurants may be higher than you’re used to in the place you’re traveling to, so be wary.

Find Free Things to Do

Sure, there may be different landmarks and tourist traps in your travel destination that likely charge an arm and a leg to get in (not to mention outlandish prices for parking, food, and souvenirs). The real way to truly soak up the culture of a city, though, is to see where the locals are- walk around, window shop, see the different neighborhoods and soak up the ambience. This is totally free (if you resist the urge to buy things, that is!).

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You can also look up free things to do on Google. EVERY city has free things to do somewhere. You may be surprised at the depth of experiences you can have by just doing free activities.

163 Free Things to do in the U.S.

50 Free Things to do in North America

Your Adventure Awaits

Remember, you only live once! Get out and explore while you can and have fun. Don’t think that you have to be held down by a budget. With the proper planning, you can travel on ANY budget without draining your life savings.

If you liked this blog entry, make sure to check out my YouTube channel for more thrifty living tips, plus follow me on Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter for updates!

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