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.
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. On Wednesdays and Fridays, sway along to a joyful jamboree featuring animal songs and dances for wee ones by Mr. Singer. Parking starts at $20, so take public transportation or hoof it to keep the visit free. (2001 N. Clark St., Lincoln Park)
2. See a colorful new world unfold at the free-admission National Museum of Mexican Art. The 10,000-piece permanent collection spans ancient Mexico to the present day, and is one of the largest in the country. (1852 W. 19th St., Pilsen)
3. Chicago Children’s Museum’s program, Play Late Thursdays, lets groups of up to 4 people enter for $20 every Thursday (4 p.m.-8 p.m.). Their new Cloud Buster exhibit celebrates the adventure and risk-taking qualities that are inherent to childhood with a 30-ton, 37-foot-tall steel dreamscape that offers kids a challenging climb. (700 E. Grand Ave., Navy Pier)
4. On our more mild winter 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. (1521 S. Linn White Dr., Near Southside)
5. Be transported to another place and time when you step inside the Lincoln Park Conservatory, where you’ll find tropical palms and ancient ferns right in the heart of Lincoln Park. No matter the time of year, their four display houses are always green and lush. . . and free! (2391 N. Stockton Dr., Lincoln Park)
6. Gallagher Way is decked out with holiday flare bigger and brighter than ever before during this year’s Winterland. Make the most of the cooler temps by taking part in the many Winterland programs, including ice skating, curling and skating lessons, movies and much more. (Nov. 16-Feb. 16; 3635 N. Clark St., Lakeview)
7. Tire them out before nap time at North Park Village Nature Center. At the 155-acre paradise, you can hike through woodland, wetland, prairie and savanna; and interact with hands-on exhibits at the adored nature center. In the Discovery Room little ones are encouraged to touch and feel natural objects. For other cold-weather hiking ideas, read our story Hit the Trails! Best Hikes with Kids No Matter the Season. (5801 N. Pulaski Rd., North Park)
8. Take a spin on the ice with a magnificent view at the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink in Millennium Park. Once again this year, the rink will offer free ice skating lessons Friday-Sunday. (Through Mar. 8; 201 E. Randolph, Loop)
9. Color your world at the free-admission Ed Paschke Art Center. Filled with the large-scale oil paintings by the famed Chicago artist, the galleries are a great place to stimulate the senses, no matter how young or old you are. There is even a replica of the artist’s studio. (5415 W. Higgins Ave., Jefferson Park)
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. and every day for ages 14 & under), Shedd Aquarium (several upcoming dates), The Field Museum (the month of Feb., and other dates), Adler Planetarium (too many dates to list), and The Museum of Science and Industry(check their website for a full list). Keep in mind that free days are good for general admission only, not special exhibits.
11. 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 an indoor hideout when it’s blasting hot 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.
12. Wake up with wndr the fun and engaging West Loop museum that invites you to tap into the curiosity and playfulness that lives within and around all of us! On the last Sunday of each month, wndr invites families for Sunday Morning Cartoons. Tickets come with classic cartoons projected in the food and beverage space plus all-you-can-eat cereal from the cereal bar. (1130 W. Monroe St., West Loop)
13. Read our story Red-Hot Fun! Chicago Firehouses Kids Can Tour and introduce the kids to real-life superheroes.
14. A whopping 13 million people visit Chicago’s 25-acre Millennium Park every year, which makes it the most-visited attraction in the Midwest, surpassing Navy Pier. Read our story Chilly Weather Fun at the Midwest’s Most Visited Attraction to learn about all the free (or cheap) fun to be had in this spacious urban gem.
15. 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 rolled ice cream.
16. 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)
17. With engaging music and dance in a kid-friendly setting, the FREE admission Juicebox programs are geared toward the stroller set and enjoyable for the whole family. Children will experience a diverse range of artistic and educational presentations, with hosts regularly inviting youngsters to move, dance and interact with performers. Held the first and third Friday and Saturdays of the month, Fridays at the Chicago Cultural Center and Saturdays at the Garfield Park Conservatory.
— Maria Chambers & Wendy Altschuler
featured photo: White77 via Pixabay