Did you resolve to visit more museums this year? Any resolutions about staying on a budget? Good news: You can tackle both at once. We have the skinny on upcoming free or discount museum (and zoo and garden) days right here. (Psst . . . you can also stop at a Chicago Public Library to check out a free admission pass to select Chicago museums.) Click through for the scoop on where and when to get your free culture fix.
The Field Museum
Free & Discount Days: Hurray for free basic admission for Illinois residents October 21, 28 & 31, November 11 & 18 and December 9 & 16! (You can upgrade to see a special exhibition.) Throughout the year, the museum adds discount days for basic museum admission. When you have a day you're itching to get out of the house, check their calendar to see if exploring the Field for free is an optional boredom buster.
What Kids Love: From Sue the T.Rex, newcomer Titanosaur Máximo and mummies to special exhibits, kids get their curiosity fix at this Chicago classic. A kid favorite is Underground Adventures, where they'll get a bug’s-eye view of the world. Your crew will magically shrink to 1/100th of your actual size to explore an immersive environment of worm tunnels and soil chambers.
Located at 1400 S. Lake Shore Dr., Museum Campus; (312-922-9410 or fieldmuseum.org).
Museum Science + Industry
Free Days: There is free general admission for Illinois residents on Jan. 26 & 27; Feb. 1, 5-8, 12-15, 20-22, 26 & 27; Mar. 14; Jun. 4-7, 11 & 12; Sept. 4-6, 10-13, 17-20, 24-27; and Nov. 12. Museum entry does not include parking, special exhibits and events, Omnimax movies, Coal Mine or U-505 on-board tours.
What Kids Love: In a beautiful building built for the World's Columbian Exposition of 1892, this stunner is the end-all, be-all for curious kids. They'll especially love the Science Storms, an exhibit hall that tackles questions like: Why does lightening strike? and Why does a flame burn? Don’t miss the Numbers in Nature: A Mirror Maze exhibit that explores numbers and patterns found in nature and culminate with a mirror maze guaranteed to elicit giggles.
Located at 5700 S. Lake Shore Dr., Hyde Park; (773-684-1414 or msichicago.org).
Museum Contemporary Art
Free Days: Every Tuesday there is no admission for Illinois residents. Because they believe art should be accessible to everyone, no exceptions, the MCA always has a pay-what-you-can policy everyday so no one will be turned away.
What Kids Love: The museum’s permanent collection includes video, visual and audio art leading to a great post-visit conversation about what you saw and what is art. It also offers experiences that redefine the way kids and families explore and create art together. Every second Saturday MCA hosts Family Day, a free monthly program where Chicago artists transform the museum and you can take part in workshops, open studio sessions, gallery tours and performances.
Located at 220 E. Chicago Ave., Streeterville; (312-280-2660 or mcachicago.org).
Discount Days: Several days a year, the Planetarium offers free general admission to Illinois residents. Upcoming dates include Feb. 2, 5-9, 19-22; Jun. 21; Aug. 27-31; Sept. 9-16; Oct. 8, 21, 24 & 25; Nov. 11, 12, 14, 15; Dec. 1, 3-7 & 10. The Adler Planetarium sometimes adds discount days throughout the year, so check their website under Special Offers.
What Kids Love: You'll see stars even on the sunniest day and aspiring astronauts can discover a new planet in the Planet Explorers exhibit, where kids take the helm in a modern-day space adventure and climb, crawl, play and learn what it takes to be a part of a space mission. Scientists are often on hand to answer even the most difficult space questions.
Located at 1300 S. Lake Shore Dr., Museum Campus; (312-922-7827 or adlerplanetarium.org).
Chicago Children's Museum
Free Days: There is discounted admission for everyone for Play Late Thursdays, where up to 4 people can enter the museum for the price of one ticket ($14.95) from 4 p.m.-8 p.m.
What Kids Love: What’s not to love? Little ones can climb, bang, create, splash and dance at the Chicago Children’s Museum. The firefighter obsessed can’t get enough of the Play It Safe exhibit where kids actually slide down a pole and then drive the truck to put out the fire. Artsy kids can paint, sculpt and even sew in spaces throughout the museum.
Located on Navy Pier at 700 E. Grand Ave., Navy Pier; (312-527-1000 or chicagochildrensmuseum.org).
Discount Days: Enjoy Illinois resident discount days on Jan. 22-26; Feb. 2 & 14; Jun. 4, 5, 11, 12, 18 & 19; Sept. 4-30; Oct. 3 & 10. General admission for Chicago residents is $19.95/adults and $14.95/ages 3-11 everyday.
What Kids Love: Welcome to an underwater adventure — without getting wet. From clownfish (aka: Nemo) to penguins (aka: Happy Feet), kids love seeing the familiar and discovering new underwater creatures big and small. Oh, and, the baby otters are cuteness overload and worth a visit.
Located at 1200 S. Lake Shore Dr., Museum Campus; (312-939-2438 or online at sheddaquarium.org).
Art Institute of Chicago
Free Days: As of last year, admission is always free for Chicago teens under the age of 18 and free for all kids under the age 14. For all others, admission is free every Thursday for Illinois residents from 5-8 p.m. and free every weekday through Feb. 15.
What Kids Love: Given the size of the Art Institute, there is definitely something for everyone. Dollhouse lover? Head to the Thorne Miniature Rooms. Ever get the urge to touch things at a museum, but know you can't? Well, here, you can! Head over to The Elizabeth Morse Touch Gallery where visitors have the opportunity to experience how the sense of touch can enrich their appreciation of art.
Located at 111 S. Michigan Ave., The Loop; (312-443-3600 or online at artic.edu).
Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
Discount Days: Thursdays are suggested donation days for Illinois residents, which means they can enjoy free admission. It's always free for children under 3!
What Kids Love: Butterflies — the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven is home to more than 1,000 butterflies (and flowers, ponds and trees) and gives spring-starved Chicagoans a chance to feel like it's not quite so cold outside. If you're in the museum at 2 p.m., you can experience the wonder of the butterfly release. The size of the Peggy Notebart Nature Museum makes it manageable for families with kids of all ages. When the weather is warmer, take your museum experience outside with the Nature Trails exhibit.
Located at 2430 N. Cannon Dr., Lincoln Park.; (773-755-5100 or naturemuseum.org).
Discount Days: Every Wednesday there is discounted $9 adult admission ($14 otherwise), $8 seniors admission ($12 otherwise) and $6 youth admission ($9 otherwise). Children 1 and under are always free. Admission includes free parking.
What Kids Love: This is a spot you'll want to visit more than once to experience how the Morton Arboretum changes with the seasons. For kids, a trip to the Children’s Garden can’t be missed as they'll love exploring, learning and playing right alongside nature.
Located at 4100 Illinois Route 53, Lisle; (630-968-0074 or mortonarb.org).
Free Days: General Zoo admission is free Tuesdays and Thursdays from Oct. 1-Dec. 31, 2018, as well as Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays are free from Jan. 1-Feb. 28, 2019.
What Kids Love: Animals, of course! Everyone has their favorites so we won’t tell you which animals to see. Whether pretending to be a zookeeper or creating an animal-themed craft, kids learn to appreciate animals and nature just a little bit more. Covering just over 3-acres, Brookfield Zoo’s Hamill Family Wild Encounters features unforgettable hands-on experiences that includes opportunities to touch and feed animals.
Located at 8400 E. 31st St., Brookfield; (708-688-8000 or czs.org).
Chicago Botanic Garden
Free Days: Every day! The Garden is always free; parking fees apply ($25 per car + tax).
What Kids Love: This North Shore destination is 26 gardens in one — and each has a different feel and plenty of vibrant color. They include the Japanese Garden, where you can pose and play amidst striking bonsai plants. And don’t miss the English Walled Garden, where you can make like you’re in the Cotswalds. Also make sure you look into their schedule for story time and weekday family class.
Located at 1000 Lake Cook Rd., Glencoe; (847-835-5440 or chicagobotanic.org).
Lincoln Park Zoo
Free Days: Every day! The zoo is always free; parking fees apply.
What Kids Love: We shouldn’t take for granted that our city is home to one of the few free-admission zoos in the U.S. Almost all of its wildlife exhibits are stroller accessible, including the outstanding Regenstein Center for African Apes. Go for a sing-a-long with Mr. Singer every Wednesday and Friday at 9:15 a.m. and 10 a.m. at the Farm-in-the-Zoo.
Located at Fullerton Parkway and Cannon Drive (312-742-2000 or lpzoo.org).
Ed Paschke Art Center
Free Days: Every day! This museum is always free -- and there are even free coloring books for kids.
What Kids Love: One of Chicago’s newest museums, the Ed Paschke Art Center features the artist’s work as well as art inspired by Ed Paschke’s style. Influenced by animation and Chicago, the colorful art connects with kids. We suggest having that post-visit conversation over a plate of ribs at the nearby Gale Street Inn.
Located at 5415 W. Higgins Ave., Jefferson Park; (312-533-4911 or edpaschke.org).
International Museum of Surgical Science
Free Days: Every Tuesday is free for all. Always free for ages 3 and under!
What Kids Love: Budding medical professionals will be fascinated by seeing the evolution of medicine and medical equipment (don’t miss the X-rays). This is definitely a museum for older kids, though, as the museum does not sugarcoat the way medicine was in the past, torture devices and all. Definitely make time for a stop at the gift shop where you will find some of the most unusual take-home items. Common cold plush toy, anyone?
Located at 1542 N. Lake Shore Dr., Downtown; (312-642-6502 or imss.org).
— Maria Chambers and Anli Chen