7 Places to Visit in Chicago for Free (That Aren’t the Bean)

Life is getting more expensive by the minute these days. Travel costs and hotel stays alone can eat away at any vacation budget.

people walking along the Chicago riverwalk with skyscrapers in the background
The Riverwalk is just one of many places to visit in Chicago for free. Photo credit: Aveedibya Dey

Thankfully, while Chicago is a bustling city with world-class amenities, it turns out you don’t have to break the bank to have a good time. Here are our recommendations for seven places to visit for in Chicago for free.

Lincoln Park Zoo

Located in the heart of the city, the easy-to-get-to Lincoln Park Zoo has been the default free place to visit in Chicago basically since it opened its gates in 1868, especially for families. With Chicago’s skyline to the south and Lake Michigan to the east in the near distance, a stroll around the grounds makes for a pleasant afternoon.

The Lincoln Park Zoo has all the animals you’d want–lions, monkeys, polar bears, penguins, you name it. We recommend doing a loop around the Nature Boardwalk at the South Pond or popping in to pet some animals at the Farm-in-the-Zoo if you have time.

a tiger walks on a rock
Hang out with tigers at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Photo credit: JanetandPhil

Pilsen Murals

Want to see some stunning, jaw-dropping art for free? Go mural-spotting in the South Side Pilsen neighborhood. Rife with living history–even the manhole covers are modeled after the Aztec calendar–this working class enclave knows how to express itself.

Murals began popping up in the 60’s as a protest to the Vietnam War. A culture of creativity took root, and now every wall in the neighborhood is a prospective canvas. There are murals EVERYWHERE here. For the highest concentration, stroll down 16th Avenue from Halsted St. west to Western Ave, then hit up the bustling 18th St. corridor to spy even more artistic surprises.

a color mural of women dancing wearing Jalisco dresses
Street art like the Pilsen Murals are free for all to enjoy. Photo credit: duncan c

Views from the Signature Lounge

Chicago is a city of tall buildings and big views. Since we invented the skyscraper, it’s only fitting that we measure ourselves by our spectacular skyline. The #1 question anyone visiting asks is, “Where can I get the best view?”

Most folks will tell you it’s the Willis (Don’t Call Me Sears) Tower, but then again most folks would be just a little bit wrong. If you’re looking for a heightened view that doesn’t come at the cost of long lines and big ticket prices, go to the Signature Lounge on the 96th floor for an amazing view of Chicago for free.

Signature Lounge is a chill cocktail bar with the best views of the whole city. You don’t even have to buy a drink, just grab a water and take in the sights. For peak jaw-drop, go right before the dinner rush and bask in the sunset.

Walk the 606

Chicago’s answer to NYC’s High Line, the 606 is a 2.7 mile long elevated park and trail that was built atop an old train line. Running across some of Chicago’s trendiest neighborhoods, the 606 features a rotating roster of public art installations, some of the quaintest parks, and even an observatory for all your stargazing needs.

We say we come for the exercise and the fresh air, but we also like to pretend we’re shopping for one of the ultra new FOMO-factory condos, with their rooftop gardens and urban perfection vibes, that dot the trail. Walking along the 606 is a great way to see Chicago for free.

a person in the distance walks along a concrete-paved path with trees on either side
The 2.7 mile-long 606 trail is a great way to see more of Chicago. Photo credit: Benjamin Rascoe

The Riverwalk

Following a multi-million dollar renovation over the last decade, Chicago’s Riverwalk is one of the best parts of the whole city to enjoy for free. River outposts of local restaurants line the walk from end to end, their patio-table canopies like blooming flowers in the summer sun.

If you’re thirsty, stop by the Northman Beer and Cider Garden or the Beat Kitchen on the Riverwalk for a tasty adult beverage. The Riverwalk features some of the most unique buildings in the city, so give yourself a self-guided architecture tour as you stroll.

small boats and people in canoes float in the Chicago river while people walk along the riverwalk
Walking the famous Chicago Riverwalk is a great way to see the city. Photo credit: Richard Schneider


Art on the Mart

The most unique Riverwalk building of all, the Merchandise Mart, which was once considered so large that it had its own zip code, also houses the coolest evening activity: Art on the Mart.  Each night from 9:00 to 9:30 art is projected onto the outside of the Merch Mart, giving anyone who happens to be walking or floating by on the river an unforgettable art show.

Hit the Beach

Unique among American cities, Chicago has 26 miles of public lakefront property. Thanks to the Burnham Plan launched some time after the World’s Fair, the city’s best assets weren’t privatized to the rich. Instead, the public is able to enjoy the 18-mile long Lakefront Trail and more than two dozen free beaches inside the city limits.

With their close proximity to downtown, North Avenue Beach and Oak Street Beach are by far the most popular. If you like water fun and beach volleyball, those are great options. Montrose Beach is your go-to beach if you have a dog.

But our favorite is 12th Street Beach, which is a small beach on the eastern edge of Northerly Island, a little peninsula along the lakefront. We like it because once you’ve dipped your toes in the water, you can work up a small sweat again with a walk through a 30-acre Prairie Reserve nearby.

people enjoy the beach with the Chicago skylie in the background
Beaches in Chicago? You better believe it! Photo credit: Tom Williamson