Sightseeing in the US doesn’t have to cost you the earth! Here we debunk another expensive city, and bring you some top attractions to see for free in Chicago.

Ahhhh Chicago. The very name conjures up images of prohibition, gale force winds that’ll blow right through your very bones and deep dish pizzas. It might not technically be the “second city” anymore (a title that Los Angeles has surely taken over) but historically it always will be number two for a variety of reasons. And much like its fellow US counterparts, it can often be described as being a tad expensive! NOT SO say we! For here we have racked our brains and plunged into the depths of our knowledge to bring you some of the very best that Chicago has to offer – and all without paying a (giant) bean! Do you see what we did there?! GIANT BEAN! It’ll all become clear in a moment…

Cheap in Chi! Free stuff to see and do in the USA’s second city!

The Cultural Centre

Opening way back in 1897 as a public library, the Chicago Cultural Centre has become a city institution. The architecture is truly amazing, with two beautiful stained glass domes and a commandingly impressive façade. Apart from its visual delights, the centre hosts an abundance of free stuff to do, and you know how much we like free stuff here at Etramping! You can take your pick from free concerts and theatre performances, to lectures and exhibitions, to family events and everything in between! With over a thousand events happening each year, you’ll be sure to find something right up your street!

95th Floor of the John Hancock building

City skylines don’t come that much more impressive than Chicago’s, but seeing the grand spectacle from a great height often comes at a great price. (We’re looking at you – Empire State!) But if you venture to the 95th floor of the John Hancock building, you can gaze out over the stunning city below, right out over the enormous Lake Michigan and beyond. It’s simply breathtaking and it won’t cost you a penny to get up there. It also boasts the fastest lifts in the western hemisphere! However be aware that you’ll be in a bar, so maybe order a tea or something. Either way, the panoramic view is worth a couple of bucks alone. Don’t miss it.

Millennium Park

You can’t get away with doing a feature about Chicago and not mention Millennium Park. Situated right in the heart of the city, this vast outdoor playground comes alive during those late summer nights. It’s buzzing with free music concerts, stunning architecture, unique street art and more. It’s here you’ll find one of Chicago’s most famous and best loved landmarks – the Cloud Gate, which is more affectionately known as “the giant bean”. Visiting it won’t cost you one! Listen to the sounds of some cool jazz at the parks focal point – the Jay Pritzker Pavilion – there’s no better place in the city to chill out at the end of a busy day sightseeing. Don’t miss the free movie showings on the big screen too!

Chicago Botanical Gardens

Taking up 385 acres of Chicago is the botanical gardens – a living, breathing museum of nature. It contains 25 display gardens and habitats housing flora from all over the world, and hosts multiple events year round to entice all the senses. If you’re looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the cosmopolitan city, you can’t go wrong by paying a visit here. It’s also a leader in plant conservation and care and has some great cycle tracks so you can keep fit while traveling.

Navy Pier

The award for Chicago’s most visited attraction goes to the famous Navy Pier, favourite of locals and tourists alike. Here you’ll find a ridiculous amount of things to do for nothing, including concerts, theatre, art exhibitions and more. Stretching right out into the vastness of Lake Michigan, it also offers some of the very best views of the Chicago skyline, so don’t forget your camera for that perfect shot. During the warmer months, you’ll also be able to capture amazing festivals taking place in and around the pier, as all of Chicago comes out to play, so check their website for an up-to-date program of events.

Lincoln Park Zoo

Visit one of the oldest zoos in the States by swinging (like a monkey) by the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. It’s completely free all year round, and you can see all the usual subjects hanging out on branches or chewing leaves 20ft up in the air. The zoo is always a great place to take kids too, if you’ve brought the little darlings with you on your trip – and don’t miss the annual Zoolights festival which takes place every winter. This 20 year tradition illuminates the zoo with over 2 million lights – just as good as going to see the animals themselves!

Museum of Contemporary Photography

Chicago is home to hundreds of amazing museums, and although most of the famous ones have a cover charge, there’s more than one you can enter with free admission. Try exploring the lesser known galleries to find some real diamonds in the rough – like the Museum of Contemporary Photography. As you would expect, the collection consists of a variety of thought-provoking photographs, from some of the Midwest’s finest artists. Make sure you leave enough time too, as with over 1000 pieces on display, you could be here a while. Perfect for when the weather isn’t quite what you hoped it would be – but hey – welcome to Chicago!

Harold Washington Library Centre

You’ll find a book lovers paradise if you visit the Harold Washington Library Centre, as well as regular exhibitions and events that you can attend without paying a dime. The building is equally as impressive too, opening in 1991, and serves as the Chicago Public Library’s flagship branch. Another good choice for those bad weather days, with over 2 million books to choose from, you’ll wish the sun never came out at all! It’s also home to a 385 seat theatre, art collections and stunning internal architecture. Perfect for those book worms among you!

Free walking tours

The best thing about walking is that it’s free. And that it keeps you fit too – which we also like – but being free is awesome. Now you could choose to meander through Chicago’s many famous neighbourhoods and get lost exploring on your own, or you could opt for one of the cities many free walking tours which operate daily through the summer months. For some special care and attention, you must try the wonderful Chicago Greeter program, which matches visitors with a local, knowledgeable guide. You need to register ten days in advance though – as you can imagine this service is pretty popular!

Go to the beach!

Now we wouldn’t recommend this in winter, as Chicago can get colder than the surface of Pluto from November onwards. However, if you’re lucky enough to be visiting in summer – which is when most sensible people should be – then you’re in for a treat. Chicago has got some awesome beaches running the shoreline of Lake Michigan, and there are plenty of activities available, from swimming to cycling, jogging to volleyball. Or you could just simply bury yourself in the sand with a good book.  This season opens on May 26th 2017. Don’t forget your sunscreen!

Chicago has got so much to offer when it comes to free attractions. It’s a great travel destination for cheap holidays and we could be writing this post forever. It’s such an incredible place, full of energy and life, and there’s always something going on – even if the weather threatens to dampen your day! They don’t call it the windy city for nothing!


  1. Agness September 1, 2017 at 11:35 pm

    Now all I’ve been thinking of is a deep dish pizza!! Thanks a lot, Ryan, for having us here. 🙂 Hope you can make it to Poland soon.

    1. Ryan - Site Author November 2, 2017 at 4:49 am

      Always happy to have you around Agness and Cez! Might pass through Poland this year so we’ll need to meet up!


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