There are countless cities in the U.S. and as much as we’d like to explore each and every one of them, our money and time are best reserved for those that truly deserve it. If you really want to have a grand time, there’s no other place to visit than one of the grandest cities in the U.S., Chicago in Illinois. Aside from its towering structures and countless attractions, what makes Chicago so grand is that it’s the third most populous city in the U.S. and it is the most populous in the state. That means not only will you be able to visit amazing places and partake in memorable activities, you’ll also meet countless friendly locals in the city of Chicago.
Chicago is also one of the largest and most advanced cities in the US. What it lacks in beaches it makes up for in historical and man-made attractions. It is the perfect city to visit for solo backpackers, couples, families and more as there are just so many things to do in Chicago.
Without further ado, let’s check and plan out your upcoming trip to this gorgeous city.
- 1 How to Get to Chicago, Illinois
- 2 Getting Around Chicago, Illinois
- 3 Best Time to Visit Chicago, Illinois
- 4 Things to Do in Chicago for Free
- 4.1 Stroll along the Riverwalk
- 4.2 See some good art from Asian and European civilizations
- 4.3 See some Mexican art
- 4.4 Watch movies and other performances
- 4.5 Take photos at the Millennium Park
- 4.6 Take a break at Chicago Lakefront Trail
- 4.7 Visit Lincoln Park Zoo
- 4.8 Go on a Chicago Greeter Tour
- 4.9 Enjoy a concert at Jay Pritzker Pavilion
- 4.10 Enjoy more music
- 4.11 Take the whole family to Adler Planetarium
- 4.12 Be amazed at the Chicago Air and Water Show
- 4.13 See the world from a different perspective at the Museum of Contemporary Photography
- 4.14 Take the kids at the Chicago Children’s Museum
How to Get to Chicago, Illinois
As Chicago is one of the top tourist attractions in the state of Illinois, there are several ways through which you can get to it. There are two airports that are easily accessible from the downtown area. The first is the O’Hare International Airport which is located 17 miles from the downtown area. It is one of the most connected airports in the world and it serves as North America’s major international gateway airport as well. It has flights from US cities such as Dallas, New York, Miami, and more. It also services over 200 destinations worldwide.
The other airport in Chicago is the Midway International Airport located 10 miles from the downtown area as well. It is another convenient travel option for visitors due to its proximity to the city. However, it is limited to servicing US cities so if you are going to land here, you may have to book connecting flights from other airports in the US.
These two airports provide easy access to the city of Chicago and just outside of them are several transportation options that get you to the city. These include cabs, buses, shuttle services, limo services, and more.
Alternatively, you can drive to Chicago as well and this is relatively easy as the state is at the center of the US. The city is accessible via several major interstates and highways which are the I-90 or Kennedy Expressway, the I-94 or the Dan Ryan Expressway, the I-55 or the Stevenson Expressway, the I-290 or the Eisenhower Expressway, and the I-294 or the Tri-State Tollway.
Lastly, you can get to Chicago via public transportation through Greyhound Lines. The service provider has five metro-Chicago locations which include two 24-hour stations and 20 express routes that lead to major US cities.
Getting Around Chicago, Illinois
For starters, it’s worth noting that ride-sharing services like Lyft and Uber are readily available in the city so getting around is easy but make sure that you have the appropriate budget for it. It’s also worth noting that these services are limited within the city so you can’t explore the areas outside of it.
That being said, one of the best options to get around the city is through driving rental cars. Car rental companies in Chicago include Avis Car Rental, Chicago Enterprise Center, Budget Rental Car, and more. These are readily available near the airport. Furthermore, you can book cars ahead of your trip so they can have it waiting upon your arrival.
If you are on a tight budget but still want to explore the city entirely, don’t fret as the city’s public transportation options are flexible and plenty. The Chicago Transit Authority or CTA operates the US’s second-largest public transportation system and it supports the city of Chicago and 40 neighboring communities through trains and busses.
These trains and buses run on a set schedule so be sure to consult with the CTA beforehand. Moreover, if you are on a budget, these options are very viable as they will cost you at least $5-10 dollars per round trip only.
Best Time to Visit Chicago, Illinois
You may want to visit Chicago just after or before the summer or from April through May. One reason is that the crowds are more manageable during these periods so the rates are relatively cheaper in hotels as well. Other than that, the weather is perfect for walking around the city as it will hover between the high 50s and the low 70s as well. Two key events to enjoy during this period is the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo in April and the Chicago Improv Festival from March to April.
Another sweet spot for tourism in Chicago is during autumn or from September through October. Aside from cooler weather, you’ll get to enjoy the city more as there are fewer crowds too. In fact, this is the weakest period for tourism in the city. Do keep in mind that since snow is present during some days at this season, attractions like the Navy Pier and the Lincoln Park Zoo will have limited operating hours. Make sure to visit their respective websites for updates on their hours.
If you want to avoid heavy crowds and high hotels rates, don’t visit Chicago from November to January. The city is flocked by both locals and tourists during the winter season. However, keep in mind that the city is very beautiful when it is a winter wonderland so if you have the budget for it, don’t skip on Chicago in the winter.
Things to Do in Chicago for Free
Money is really required when traveling. You also need to bring some spare cash to fully experience a certain city’s attractions. Even taking photos require some money sometimes. In fact, in the Philippines, there are beaches that require visitors to pay for a certain amount of money so they can take photos with and of sandcastles. It’s not much of an issue, though, as the sandcastles are really nice and you’re also paying for their talent, right? But who wouldn’t want a vacation where you can enjoy it more without breaking the bank?
Fortunately, there are a lot of places that can offer awesome attractions and activities without requiring you to spend even a cent. One of which is Chicago. Yes, while Chicago is listed as one of the most expensive cities (traveling to Chicago can be as expensive as a trip to New York, by the way), you can still enjoy some, if not all, of the things that it has to offer without breaking the bank. In fact, you can enjoy plenty of free things to do in Chicago. In case you’re wondering, here are some of them.
1Stroll along the Riverwalk
Strolling the Riverwalk isn’t one of the best free things to do in Chicago merely because you can get to see some of the nicest views that the city has to offer but it is also a place that’s perfect for when you want to take pictures. This is because it offers a nice backdrop that is very Instagram-worthy. On top of that, it also has routes to some head-turning works of public art like graffiti panels and large-scale installations such as Ellen Lanyon’s Gateway. It will also take you to some of the best restaurants and bars that are also a perfect spot for a date night.
2See some good art from Asian and European civilizations
There’s no shortage of artworks that will amaze you when you’re in Chicago. And seeing some of them is also one of the best free things to do in Chicago. Smart Museum of Art alone has a number of such nice artworks that are worth the drive. Named for brothers Alfred and David Smart, this museum houses collections that include sculptures made by artists Matisse, Degas, and Rodin, some European and Asian artworks, and even sleek pieces of furniture made by Frank Lloyd Wright. There are also sculptures made by Diego Rivera, Mark Rothko, and Henry Moore. All in all, you have more than 15,000 objects to marvel at that span five millennia of both eastern and western civilizations. And again, you can enjoy seeing all of that for free.
3See some Mexican art
Speaking of art, if you want to see more, heading to the National Museum of Mexican Art is what we also recommend and it’s one of the best free things to do in Chicago as well. Here, you can enjoy its most popular exhibit, the Day of the Dead where you can get to see displays that dazzle people of all ages with gleaming altars, vivid art in various media, and whimsical sugar skull sculptures that celebrate the dearly departed in weird but wonderful ways that are rarely grim. On top of that, you can also get to see Latino life and history with the artworks displayed all year long, including folk art, sculptures, ephemera, drawings, and textiles, to name a few. There are also live performances regularly scheduled.
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4Watch movies and other performances
There are a lot of places in Chicago and other cities where you can watch movies, musicals, and other performances and events. However, in the Chicago Cultural Center, you can enjoy it all for free. Yes, you read it right. You can catch dance, music, lectures, and theater performances in this place without paying a cent. Plus, if you’re lucky, you can also watch film screenings and participate in other family-oriented events. What’s even better is that you will get to enjoy these as you marvel at the interiors of the 1897 building that were actually made by the nation’s top interiors using valuable materials like rare imported marble, fine hardwood, mother-of-pearl, and polished brass. You can also go on a guided tour for free but only on Wednesday through Saturday at 1:15 PM. Also, bear in mind that if you want to participate in such a tour, you must go there a little early as there are only 20 slots available for visitors per day.
5Take photos at the Millennium Park
Your trip to Chicago will not be complete if you haven’t been to Millennium Park as it is one of the most popular places in the city. This is because this place boasts of stunning visual and performing arts that pay homage to the vitality of the world-class city. Also because of that, it is known as the most extraordinary public spaces in the world. Take photos with or of the sculptures including the Cloud Gate, also known as The Bean, or even get to listen to free concerts, if you’re lucky enough as you visit the area. Also, you can ice skate for free if you bring your own skates.
6Take a break at Chicago Lakefront Trail
If you need some rest after a long day of exploring the city, heading to the Chicago Lakefront Trail is one of the best free things to do in Chicago too. Here, you’ll enjoy the tranquil surrounding as you take in the beautiful views of the sunset. It is also a place where you want to go for a nice walk, jog, or bike. What people love about this place is that it is also dotted with several attractions that you can easily visit. Some of the notable landmarks are the Museum of Science and Industry, Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum, Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, South Shore Cultural Center, and Lincoln Park Zoo to name a few.
7Visit Lincoln Park Zoo
Yes, even visiting a zoo is one of the free things to do in Chicago. And it’s not just a mere zoo that has more than 1,000 animals on exhibit. Apparently, it also features a picturesque setting with lush lawns plus its habitats for the animals that it houses are award-winning. Some of the highlights in the zoo that makes it all the more special are the ape house, birdhouse, and the five-acre Midwestern farm. It also has pleasant walkways that you will surely love too. While Lincoln Park Zoo is already a bit old, considering it was founded in 1868, you’ll unlikely see its old age as the zoo is constantly being revamped. In fact, in 2014, Regenstein Macaque Forest was recently added. It’s definitely one of the free things in Chicago that’s not to be missed.
8Go on a Chicago Greeter Tour
If you want to learn more about the city’s past and see some of its historic landmarks, going on a Chicago Greeter Tour is one of the free things to do in Chicago that we highly recommend. This is because aside from the fact that it is very educational, you’ll also be guided by local Chicagoans who will take you to more than 25 neighborhoods and 40 interest areas. The best part is that the Greeter visits are offered in 10 languages. Tour the city with a local and feel like a local for free, isn’t it a nice deal? However, if you’re planning to try this out, note that you need to register for the tour at least 10 business days in advance.
9Enjoy a concert at Jay Pritzker Pavilion
Jay Pritzker Pavilion offers an eclectic mix of live music from cutting-edge indie rock to Pacific Afro Colombian; you can even get to see world-renowned acts such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Seeing such performances is one of the best free things to do in Chicago. However, you won’t get to sit near the stage. Even so, lawn seating is not too far from the stage and you can still get to enjoy the live music performance. Aside from the awesome performances, the venue itself is also worth talking about. In fact, it is one of the state-of-the-art outdoor pavilions in the world. So pack a picnic and head to Jay Pritzker Pavilion for some good music and the best views.
10Enjoy more music
If performances at Jay Pritzker Pavilion aren’t enough, Chicago still has more than 200 live music venues for you to enjoy and some of them will not require you to spend even a cent too and seeing them is one of the best free things to do in Chicago as well. One of the notable events that you can witness for free is the Chicago Jazz Festival that happens every mid-July. During this event, you will not just get to enjoy good music but you can also taste good food from the pop-up restaurants, street food trucks, and stands that represent the city’s top eateries. The food doesn’t come for free, though, so you might want to bring some extra cash.
11Take the whole family to Adler Planetarium
Whether you’re traveling with your family or not, visiting the Adler Planetarium is one of the best free things to do in Chicago that we highly recommend as well. The exteriors of this planetarium alone is worth talking about because of how unique it was designed. On top of that, from where it stands, you’ll also be blessed with the best views of the city’s skyline. Inside the planetarium, on the other hand, you have exhibits dealing with topics about the solar system, composition of planets, and moon missions to see. You can also get to know more about the history of telescopy, as well as the origins of the universe.
12Be amazed at the Chicago Air and Water Show
In Chicago, you can also watch a good air and water show for free. See exhibitions of supersonic jets, skydiving, formation flying, and even skywriting by Army and Air Force groups like the Golden Knights parachute tea, and the US Airforce Thunderbirds. However, if you want to witness this jaw-dropping event, you’ll need to visit the city in mid-August. Also, expect a big crowd (approximately more than two million) lining Lake Michigan. While it can get really crowded, it is still worth seeing. It’s one of the best free things to do in Chicago and it is also the largest free show of its kind throughout the United States so don’t miss a chance to add this to your travel itinerary in case you’re traveling to Chicago.
13See the world from a different perspective at the Museum of Contemporary Photography
Whether you are fascinated with photography or not, you need to see what awaits you inside the Museum of Contemporary Photography and it’s one of the best free things to do in Chicago. Here, you can get to see various projects and exhibitions that focus on contemporary image-making using both camera and digital forms that create a deeper understanding of the political, artistic, and cultural roles of photography today. It’s an eye-opening and entertaining tour that you shouldn’t miss, regardless if you’re into photography or not.
14Take the kids at the Chicago Children’s Museum
If you’re traveling with kids, don’t forget to take a chance and visit the Chicago Children’s Museum. They will surely love it. This is because the museum doesn’t just house collections that provide learning opportunities. Rather, Chicago Children’s Museum also has interactive exhibits where kids or maybe even kids at heart can learn as they participate in interactive and hands-on displays and activities and play. However, unlike the attractions and activities we have mentioned, this place isn’t always open for free. Families can only enjoy this place for free on Thursdays from 8 to 8 PM. On the other hand, if you are visiting Chicago Children’s Museum on the first Sunday of the month, note that kids aged 15 years and under are the ones who can be admitted for free. For the rest of the days of the month, you will need to pay for the admission ticket. Still, it’s a nice opportunity so don’t miss out on this one and time your visit.