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.
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. Parking starts at $20, so take public transportation or hoof it to keep the visit free. To learn more about LPZ, read our story An Insider’s Guide to Lincoln Park Zoo. (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)
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: Northerly Island Park courtesy of Amy Y. via Yelp
4. Pedal through beautiful prairie lands 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. Sometimes mom and dad need a break from Goodnight Moon. Let someone else tap in during free story time at Logan Square toy store Play through Thanksgiving week every Tuesday at 11 a.m. Or, hit them up for free art play on Wednesdays at 11 a.m. and a music jam on Thursdays at 11 a.m. (3109 W. Logan Blvd., Logan Square)
6. 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: Buckingham Fountain Geoff Livingston via flickr
7. Buckingham Fountain is one of the city’s crown jewels for a reason. 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.
8. 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.
9. 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)
10. Uptown’s Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary is one of the city’s best-kept secrets. This 15-acre birders paradise is home to migrant songbirds during fall and spring migration seasons (best times to visit are April through May and August through October). The meadow, beach, dune and path to the Lake Michigan pier are so scenic that it’s a great day out, whether or not the kids want to bust out the binoculars.
11. 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.
12. 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 Aquarium, The 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: courtesy of Shivani P. via Yelp
13. Picnic in Garden of the Phoenix in Jackson Park, a paradise with a lake and its own island, all built in 1893 for the World’s Columbian Exposition. Historic pedigree aside, the footpath-laced grounds (just south of the Museum of Science and Industry) are beautiful and far less expensive than a trip to Japan.
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. 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)
16. The urban jungle could keep you busy all on its own, but escape the hustle and add a bit of fresh air, animal spying and unbelievable scenery to the mix with our list of Hiking Trails That Even Toddlers Will Love.
17. Lincoln Park’s Adams Playground Park has great toddler-friendly equipment and a huge sandbox, but the warm-weather highlight is the water playground, a tricked-out splash pad that delights little ones. For other splashpads to visit for a cool down, read our story Water, Water, Everywhere! Spraygrounds to Drive You Wild. (1919 N. Seminary Ave., Lincoln Park)
18. Read our story Red-Hot Fun! Chicago Firehouses Kids Can Tour and introduce the kids to real-life superheroes.
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 air conditioned ride and views at the top! Navy Pier is free and open to the public if you just want to enjoy a slow walk or enjoy the summer fireworks displays, but to ride the Centennial Wheel, adults are $16 and kids, ages 3-11, are $13. Be sure to check Navy Pier’s promotional page for discounts and freebies. Tip: Keep an eye on Navy Pier’s #WheelWednesday page where they periodically announce complimentary rides.
— Maria Chambers & Wendy Altschuler