Keeping a family entertained can deflate the wallet rather quickly. 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. Note: Parking starts at $20, so take public transportation or hoof it to keep the visit free. (2001 N. Clark St., Lincoln Park)

2. Chicago Children’s Museum’s program, Play Late Thursdays, lets 4 people in for the price of 1 every Thursday (4 p.m.-8 p.m.).

3. 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: istock

4. Buckingham Fountain is one of the city’s crown jewels for a reason. From mid-May to mid-October, go for the beautiful water displays every hour on the hour (they last an entire 20 minutes). Be sure to visit after dusk for accompaniment with lights and music. For other fountains worth a visit, see our story Magic Fountains Worth Your Pennies.

5. 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.

6. Spark the imagination and revive childhood memories with Navy Pier’s The Loop, February 28-May 12. This illuminated musical installation, featuring a distinctive retro-futuristic look, uses cylinders two meters in diameter. Members of the public are invited to sit down inside and activate the mechanism, causing beautiful images inspired by 13 fairy tales to come to life. Loop is sure to spark children’s imagination and revive their parents’ childhood memories.

7. 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

8. Strap on your skates and take a spin on the ice using our story9 Awesome Outdoor Ice Skating Rinks to get you started.

9. 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.

10. 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.

11. Merchandise Mart’s Art on theMart is the world’s largest digital art projection, appearing on the Mart’s nearly three-acre exterior facade from March to December.

photo: Pixabay via

12. 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.

13. 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.

14. 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

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

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

17. 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.

photo: Legend Tasty House via Maria Chambers

18. 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.

19. 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.

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