Your little saver’s piggy bank is getting heavier (thanks, Grandma, for the quarter bribes). Teach the family the value of a dollar by exploring the free – or incredibly cheap – activities that Chicago has to offer. Our Top 20 picks add up to a whole wealth of fun. Plus, it’s easy on your pocketbook. You can thank us later.

photo: Lincoln Park Zoo

1. Lincoln Park Zoo might seem obvious, but Chicagoans shouldn’t take for granted that our city is home to one of the few free zoos in the U.S. Bonus: Almost all wildlife exhibits are stroller accessible and through January 6, you can take advantage of the beautiful holiday lights display that makes the spirit extra festive. Parking starts at $20, so take public transportation or hoof it to keep the visit free. (2001 N. Clark St., Lincoln Park)

2. Free play gets a whole new meaning at Navy Pier’s Chicago Children’s Museum which lets you in for no charge on Thursday nights from 5 p.m.-8 p.m. and on the first Sunday of every month. (700 E. Grand Ave., Navy Pier)

photo: istock

3. Total bonus of a subzero midwest winter? Sled riding is aplenty. Scope out some rad powdery slopes by reading our story Super Slopes! Where to Go Sledding in Chicago & Beyond

4. On snow-free, mild-temp days, pedal your bikes and enjoy views of the skyline, lake and Museum Campus on the Northerly Island trail. The path is just a little more than one mile, a very manageable distance for little bike riders, and without the jostle and crowds of the lakefront path.

5. Five cents doesn’t go far these days, which is why Northbrook’s Nickel City is so refreshing. Games like Skee-Ball and Bozo Buckets take nickels instead of tokens and old-school arcade staples like Pac-Man and Mortal Kombat operate for free. (555 Waukegan Rd., Northbrook)

photo: Navy Pier’s Passage

6. The holiday season in Chicago just got merrier and brighter thanks to Navy Pier’s free, temporary public art installation, Passage. Guests will have the opportunity to experience this bright, colorful and musical art piece along the Pier’s South Dock, near the Wave Wall. Passage is an immersive, interactive and minimalist work of art that explores the connections between light and sound. Guests will be guided through 20 circles of light that form a tunnel of animation and sound. With each step, guests will experience a new configuration of the installation with its own dynamic ambience.

7. Expose tots to music, dance and theater performances in a kid-friendly setting (meaning that sitting on the floor, wandering around, and noshing on Goldfish crackers are all permitted) at the Juicebox Series, hosted by the City of Chicago. Free performances are held every other Friday at the Chicago Cultural Center and every other Saturday at the Garfield Park Conservatory.

photo: Merchandise Mart

8. Merchandise Mart is making things special for Chicagoans this holiday season. As part of their holiday program, they are conducting Art on theMART.  There will be six winter holiday images that will each animate for a minute and a half, running in between the contemporary artworks by Diana Thater, Zheng Chongbin, Jason Salavon and Jan Tichy throughout the 2-hour program.

9. LEGOs are excellent toys that teach spatial relations and have spawned many a budding architect, but cheap they are not. Once a month, LEGO Stores offer a reprieve with a Mini Model Build open to VIP LEGO members ages 6-16 where they’ll learn to build a miniature model and take it home for free. Be sure to sign-up to be a member, if you aren’t already.

10. Head to the weird and wacky Jefferson Park store American Science & Surplus . Browse a mix of scientific, educational and totally oddball novelties (crystal balls, skeleton molds, rubber chickens). Trust us, the kids will love it. (5316 N. Milwaukee Ave., Gladstone Park)

photo: Pixabay via

11. Strap on your skates and take a spin on the ice using our story 9 Awesome Outdoor Ice Skating Rinks to get you started.

12. The Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio (951 Chicago Ave., Oak Park, 312-994-4000) offers a paid walking tour of the historic district in Oak Park, but families who are willing to do a little research can take their own free self-guided tour. Find the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission’s guidebook to the district, available at local bookstores or for free at the Oak Park Public Library.

13. Visiting museums as a family of four or more can break the bank, so take advantage of free days at The Art Institute (always free Thursdays, 5 p.m.-8 p.m.), Shedd AquariumThe Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, and The Museum of Science and Industry. Keep in mind that free days are good for general admission only, not special exhibits. Check out our story Free & Discount Museum Days to Jot Down for a comprehensive list.

photo: Pixabay via

14. The philosophy behind Merry Music Makers is that the best way for kids to learn music is for parents to model musical behaviors through fundamentals like tapping out a beat or singing a tune. Try it out with a free demo class in Lakeview, Andersonville or Edgewater. Another money saving tip? Once a child is registered for a paid class, siblings attend free.

15. You go to the library to check out books. But you can spend just as much time checking out the scene. At certain extra-special libraries in Chicago and the suburbs there are educational toys, engaging activities and interactive atmospheres that entice kids to hang out for hours. Whether you need a snowy day getaway or want to make the case that reading is cool, these spots in our story Beyond Books: Local Libraries with a Twist are great places to start.

16. Bucktown’s Cat & Mouse game store hosts a free game night the first Friday of every month. where kids and parents can tinker around with any game in the store’s library or bring their own to play in a more social setting than the family room. (2212 W. Armitage Ave., 773-384-4454)

photo: courtesy of Maria Chambers

17. The urban jungle could keep you busy all on its own, but escape the hustle and add a bit of crisp air, winter animal spying and unbelievable scenery to the mix with our list of Hiking Trails That Even Toddlers Will Love.

18. Read our story Red-Hot Fun! Chicago Firehouses Kids Can Tour and introduce the kids to real-life superheroes.

photo: Legend Tasty House via Maria Chambers

19. Expose kids to another culture in their own city with a walk through Chinatown. Visit Chinatown Gate, Nine Dragon Wall and Ping Tom Memorial Park, and end the trip with a stop at Legend Tasty House for Thai rolled ice cream.

20. Navy Pier opened the new Centennial Wheel two years ago, and it’s pretty sweet. Two-sided cars now allow for swift loading and unloading and the shape and design is sleeker — more importantly, the whole family will love the temperature-controlled ride and views at the top!

— Maria Chambers & Wendy Altschuler


Red-Hot Fun! Chicago Firehouses Kids Can Tour

Beyond Books: Local Libraries with a Twist