Chicago may be the Midwest’s largest city, but enjoying it doesn’t have cost big bucks. Here are our top picks for saving time and money, including free museums, guided tours and outdoor activities.
1) Chicago Cultural Center The world’s largest Louis Comfort Tiffany dome, composed of 30,000 stained-glass pieces, crowns the neoclassical 1897 Chicago Cultural Center (free tours offered). Enjoy free concerts, performances, films and art exhibits. Plus, free Instagreeter tours led by volunteer guides depart from the landmark center (chicagogreeter.com). No reservations are required for the year-round Instagreeter Loop walks (Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays) and seasonal Millennium Park strolls offered through Columbus Day. (312) 744-6630; chicagoculturalcenter.org
2) Garfield Park Conservatory This free conservatory is one of the nation’s largest. It houses nearly 10,000 plant varieties from around the world under a 2.8-acre, crystal glass-roofed greenhouse designed by landscape architect Jens Jensen. Gardens surround the 1908 building, located in the gentrifying West Side. The conservatory hosts programming for all ages year-round. (312) 746-5100; garfieldconservatory.org
3) Cantigny Park The former private estate of Chicago Tribune publisher Colonel Robert R. McCormick is now a 500-acre park that includes a mansion, museum, hiking trails and a golf course. Tour the McCormick mansion museum and 29 acres of gardens as well as two collections of military history: an armored park and the First Division Museum's exhibits tracing our nation’s 1st Infantry Division from the Revolutionary War through Desert Storm. Everything is free except for parking ($5 weekdays, $10 weekends) and golf. Free concerts and family events held year-round. (630) 668-5161; cantigny.org
4) Lincoln Park Zoo Opened in 1868, this free neighborhood zoo is one of the nation’s oldest. More than 1,200 animals live on the 49 acres. Families love the sea lion pool, primate house and Farm-in-the-Zoo exhibit. Naturalists lead tours through the Nature Boardwalk pond ecosystem, where you can look for rare migratory birds. (312) 742-2000; lpzoo.org
5) University of Chicago Museums These two compact museums on the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park are free, though donations are appreciated.
—Oriental Institute Museum Admire archeological treasures unearthed during digs in the ancient Near East civilizations (including modern Egypt, Iraq, Turkey and Syria). Check out the mummies, two-story statue of King Tut and 40-ton, human-headed bull from Assyria’s Khorsabad palace court. (773) 702-9514; oi.uchicago.edu
—Smart Museum of Art See an eclectic mix of global art, including classical Greek sculpture, Japanese scrolls,15th-century European paintings, Frank Lloyd Wright furniture from the nearby Prairie-style Robie House (flwright.org/visit/robiehouse) and Andy Warhol’s acid green Wicked Witch of the West Polaroid portraits. (773) 702-0200; smartmuseum.uchicago.edu
6) Art Institute of Chicago Although adult admission is usually $27 to $30 at this topnotch museum, there's much that is free: admission for kids under age 14; an app for 50 personalized art tours; 80 downloadable, themed mini museum tours; and weekly drop-in family art programs at the free admission Ryan Education Center. Also, general admission is free to Illinois residents every Thursday from 5 to 8 p.m. (312) 443-3600; artic.edu
7) Grant Park Chicagoans love to play year-round in what they call their front yard, the 319 acres of parkland along Lake Michigan that incorporates Millennium Park, Buckingham Fountain and the Museum Campus (chicagoparkdistrict.com/parks/grant-park/). Check the city’s events calendar for free outdoor concerts, festivals, films, art exhibits and ice skating. choosechicago.com
8) National Museum of Mexican Art Discover the nation’s largest accredited Latino art museum in Chicago’s vibrant Pilsen neighborhood. The free-admission museum showcases works created by Mexican, Latino and Chicano artists; traces Mexican people’s historic influence in shaping Chicago’s identity; and hosts cultural events, such as the annual fall Day of the Dead festivities. (312) 738-1503; nationalmuseumofmexicanart.org
9) Hot Tix Score good seats for half price at neighborhood storefront theaters and major houses staging touring Broadway shows. Ticket availability is updated daily for shows at 240 League of Chicago theatres, including the Goodman, Harris Theater, Lookingglass, Royal George, Steppenwolf and Second City. Discounts on the popular, seasonal Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise are also offered. Buy tickets online or in person at two downtown locations. (312) 977-9483; hottix.org
Read more of Kit’s travel adventures at www.KitTravels.com.