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.). (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: Buckingham Fountain

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. (301 S. Columbus, South Loop)

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. (1521 S. Linn White Dr., Near Southside)

6. As if you needed a reason to check out Gallagher Way at Wrigley Field, now Old Town School of Folk Music’s acclaimed Wiggleworms program is making it an absolute must-go. Start your Tuesday mornings (through Sept. 24) with the catchy tunes and tons of fun that’s synonymous with Wiggleworms. (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 ideas for taking a peek at fall colors, read our story Walk This Way! 9 Colorful Spots for Fall Family Strolls.

8. 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.

Chicago Merchandise Martphoto: Art on theMart

9. 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. (222 Merchandise Mart Plaza, River North)

10. 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)

11. 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

12. We had a rough start to summer, but now the heat is fully upon us. When a full-on pool day doesn’t fit into the schedule, swing by a splash pad for a quick cool down. Read our story Water, Water, Everywhere! Spraygrounds to Drive You Wild to find Chicago’s best.

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 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.

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: Colleen McMahon via flickr

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.  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.

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 rolled ice cream.

19. 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)

20. 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.

— Maria Chambers & Wendy Altschuler

featured photo: White77 via Pixabay 


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Magic Fountains Worth Your Pennies

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