FREE. It’s a word that makes any parent’s heart skip a beat. If you’re on a budget or love a bargain, you’re in luck: Chicago and the ‘burbs have a wealth of attractions that don’t cost a dime — you just have to know where to look. We get you started with these 20 picks for fun and totally free things to do around town this spring.
photo: Lincoln Park Zoo
1. Meet animals and go wild at a playspace
Lincoln Park Zoo’s Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo is full of friendly critters. But you already knew that. What you might not know is that it also features a one-of-a-kind indoor playspace. It features a climbing structure that looks like a giant tree and stretches floor to ceiling. This “forest canopy” encourages kids to crawl, climb and scurry about — perfect for rainy days. In the same section of the zoo, you can get nose to nose with river otters, snakes, turtles and other animal pals. Best of all, entrance to the zoo is always free. Located at Fullerton Parkway & Cannon Drive, 312-742-2000; lpzoo.org.
2. Sample the local flavors of Green City Market
Green City Market hosts their indoor market at Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum (2430 N. Cannon Dr., Lincoln Park) April 15 and 29. Starting in May, they set up every Wednesday and Saturday, 7 a.m.-1 p.m., in Lincoln Park (south end of Lincoln Park between Clark and Stockton Dr.) and Saturday, 8 a.m.-1 p.m., in the West Loop (Mary Bartelme Park, 115 S. Sangamon St.). Head to the main tent anytime to join Club Sprouts, which gives your little one the opportunity to taste a different market item — some familiar and some unusual — each visit. With every new taste, kids receive a stamp on their Club Sprouts membership card; once the card is filled with eight tastes, the child takes home a certificate of accomplishment and a special prize.
photo: Pizzeria da Nella via Molly A on Yelp
3. Bite into a Neapolitan-style pizza … and your kiddo eats free
Kids under 8 years old eat free every Tuesday at Pizzeria da Nella, a Lincoln Park restaurant that serves ultra-thin crust, Neapolitan-style pizza. We love the delicious simplicity of the margherita pizza (tomato, mozzarella, basil, olive oil). Sign up online for the Pizzeria da Nella Kids Club and you’ll receive a discount on your kid’s birthday. 1443 W. Fullerton Ave., 773-281-6600; pizzeriadanella.com.
4. Sing, dance and read a new story at City Lit
Logan Square’s book nook is a great spot for bambinos. Head there every Saturday at 10:30 a.m. for a musical story time that will have you singing and dancing. Bonus: Parking is free in the lot behind the store. 2523 N. Kedzie Blvd., 773-235-2523; citylitbooks.com.
photo: Pilsen mural via Natalia Wilson on Flickr
5. Travel to Mexico via Chicago in Pilsen
Take the Pink Line to 18th Street and explore the sights, sounds and tastes of Mexico in Pilsen, one of Chicago’s most vibrant ‘hoods. The National Museum of Mexican Art (1852 W. 19th St., 312-738-1503) is always free, and kids of all ages will appreciate the bright and colorful folk art collection. The museum also offers a wide array of free family programs. Afterwards, explore the beautiful murals of Pilsen, found mainly on the streets bounded by 16th Street, the Chicago River and Western Avenue.
6. Snoop around the Museum of Contemporary Art
Admission is free on Tuesdays, year ’round, and children under 12 are always free. Check out the museum’s extensive family programming, which includes family craft days and stroller tours the first Wednesday of every month, most free with admission. 220 E. Chicago Ave., 312-280-2660; mcachicago.org.
photo: Oriental Institute
7. Walk with the Egyptians in Hyde Park at the Oriental Institute
Meet a mummy, encounter giant stone lions from Babylon and dig into the sands of Ur at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, located on the Hyde Park campus. Focused on the Ancient Near East, this small but engaging museum features interactive exhibits. Each gallery offers free Kid Cards that explain the most precious objects in the collection and bring their importance and history down to a kid’s level. Admission is always free. 55 E. 58th St., 773-702-9514; oi.uchicago.edu.
8. Dig into the history of Chicago
The Chicago History Museum gives you an interactive look into our city’s past. We love the exhibit Sensing Chicago, which re-creates the experiences of riding a high-wheel bicycle down a wood-paved street, hearing the Great Chicago Fire and catching a fly ball at Comiskey Park. Admission is free every Tuesday for Illinois residents and children under 12 are always free. 1601 N. Clark St., 312-642-4600; chicagohistory.org
photo: Chicago Park District
9. Watch a movie in the park
Pop popcorn at home or grab some popsicles along the way. Then spread out a big blanket and sit down for a flick in a Chicago park. The Chicago Park District shows free, family friendly films outdoors at dusk starting in June in parks across the city. Look for updates to the showings by checking chicagoparkdistrict.com.
10. Go deer spotting … in the city
North Park Village Nature Center is a 46-acre nature preserve located just off bustling Pulaski Road. Hike or stroll the short trails that wind through a woodland, wetland, prairie and even savanna and see if you can spot one of the many deer that call the center home. The Discovery Room lets kids touch and feel an array of natural objects, and a cozy reading area invites families to hunker down with a nature-inspired book. 5801 N. Pulaski Rd., 312-744-5472; chicagoparkdistrict.com.
photo: Illinois Office of Tourism
11. Splash and play at the best free waterpark in the city
Millennium Park offers not only awesome public art installations but also a free water play on those warm spring days thanks to the interactive Crown Fountain. It’s closed for a technology upgrade now, but is expected to reopen around April 15. Designed by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, this unforgettable fountain is composed of two glass-brick towers with mixed media and a black granite pool. Kids love when the digital faces on the towers “spit” water from their lips every five minutes or so, followed by a waterfall cascade. Even the tiniest tots will have a blast stomping their feet in the 3-4 inches of water in the granite pool. Michigan Avenue & Randolph Street, 312-742-1168.
12. Use your Chicago Public Library card to stream movies at home
The Chicago Public library offers patrons free access to hoopla, an innovative service that brings you thousands of movies, television, music and audiobook titles for free; all you need is a library card and a web browser, smartphone or tablet. Click here for the scoop on this new service.
photo: Hal Tyrrell Trailside Museum via Yelp
13. Visit with local animals (and hear stories!) at a trailside museum
The Hal Tyrrell Trailside Museum located in suburban River Forest is a free, child-friendly nature museum housed in a Victorian mansion. Take a short hike on the surrounding trails, meet live native animals (including foxes, owls and a wolf), explore the colorful wildflower gardens, or sit down and work on an animal-themed puzzle or coloring page. Animal Afternoons are offered on select days and allows for casual animal encounters with some of the residents of the nature center; click here for the schedule. 738 Thatcher Ave., River Forest, 800-870-3666; fpdcc.com.
14. Bike (or hike) the Fox River Trail
Pedal through quaint towns along the scenic Fox River along the Fox River Trail, a 36-mile long paved trail that travels along the routes of historic railroad lines, crossing six bridges and a large, historic windmill along the way. Rent a bike at Mill Race Cyclery (11 E. State St., Geneva; 630-232-2833; millrace.com), which lies just along the trail in Geneva. Tandems and burleys are available to rent by the hour.
photo: North Shore Convention & Visitors Bureau
15. Spend a day with the sculptures
The Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park, located on theeast side of McCormick Boulevard, between Dempster Street and Touhy Avenue in Skokie, is one of the few permanent, outdoor sculpture exhibits in Illinois. Hoof it while your kid trikes this two-mile stretch featuring contemporary sculptures from artists around the world.
16. Travel back in time at a 1890s working farm
Picturesque Kline Creek Farm is a free living history museum that invites you to see firsthand what life was like on a 19th-century DuPage-area farm. Small kids will enjoy visiting the many animals and chatting with costumed interpreters. House tours start on the hour from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. and present topics on old-fashioned farm chores including baking, canning and quilting. 1N600 County Farm Rd., West Chicago, 630-876-5900; dupageforest.com.
photo: Savannah Lewis via Flickr
17. Stop and smell the flowers in Oak Park
One of the western suburb’s top historic destinations, the Oak Park Conservatory is the green getaway spot you never knew you needed in your life. Its Fern, Tropical and Desert rooms are perfect for wandering and learning. Be sure to check out the wide range of outstanding (and low cost) family and children’s programming, too. 615 Garfield St., Oak Park, 708-386-4700; pdop.org.
18. Meet a mammoth
A bona fide hidden gem, the Fullersburg Nature Center is an engaging, interactive mini nature museum. Kids can get up close with the actual 13,000-year-old skeleton of a wooly mammoth discovered in DuPage County, climb a kid-sized bird’s nest, and make animal tracks with stamps in putty that they can later identify in the mud and snow of the woods. 3609 Spring Rd., Oak Brook, 630-850-8110 dupageforest.com.
19. Sing, dance and shake those sillies out
On the first and third Fridays and Saturdays of the month through May 20, the City of Chicago hosts their Juicebox series, which provides engaging music and dance in a kid-friendly setting. Not only will kids experience a diverse range of musical styles, the artists regularly invite little ones to move, dance and interact with them. Fridays, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St., Loop & Saturdays, Garfield Park Conservatory, 200 N. Central Park Ave.
20. Dust off the hiking boots and . . . well, hike!
Mother Nature has been kind to us this year, so why not take advantage and hit the trails. This might sound like mission impossible with small tots in tow, but we promise one of these nature spots is perfect for an enjoyable day of walking, talking and making sweet memories.
What is your favorite FREE thing to do in Chicago? Let us know in the Comments!
— Maria Chambers & Amy Bizzarri