Best Free Midwest Attractions: Illinois | Midwest Living

Best Free Midwest Attractions: Illinois

Take a walking tour of Chicago, learn about John Deere's life and visit Abraham Lincoln's home in Springfield -- all free!
  • Chicago Cultural Center

    Free Chicago tours

    Chicago Cultural Center The world’s largest Louis Comfort Tiffany dome, composed of 30,000 stained-glass pieces, crowns the neoclassical 1897 building. Visit on your own or take a free guided tour. Complimentary concerts, performances, films and art exhibits also take place there.

    Chicago Greeters Volunteers lead two- to four-hour neighborhood walking tours. You can choose from more than 25 neighborhoods and 40 interest areas including fashion, film, ethnic Chicago and public art. Make reservations at least 10 business days in advance. More of a free spirit? At the same location, InstaGreeter volunteers tell visitors about the history and future of the Windy City on one-hour tours of the Loop (year-round) or Millennium Park (seasonally). No reservation necessary.



  • Chicago Botanic Garden photos

    Gardens all year long

    Chicago Botanic Garden Twenty-six display gardens fill the 385-acre garden with more than 2 million plants. Family activities for young children are held on weekends.

    Garfield Park Conservatory The 1908 conservator shelters 10,000 plant varieties beneath a 2.8-acre glass dome.

    Lincoln Park Conservatory Four greenhouses have ancient ferns, tropical palms, cacti and rotating exhibits.

    Lurie Garden A living prairiescape framed by landmark Chicago architecture, this garden not only illustrates Illinois' tallgrass prairie plants but also demonstrates beautiful possibilities for Midwest gardens.

    Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool Passing through the gates is like stepping into a Monet painting; you'll wonder how a city of 3 million has a garden this quiet.



  • Chicago Parks

    Millennium Park Don't miss the acclaimed sculpture park and concert venue on the northwest corner of Grand Park. Download a free audio tour or get a detailed brochure to plan your visit.

    Grant Park Chicago's front yard, Grant Park is among the city's loveliest and most prominent parks. Check out the Buckingham Fountain, one of the world's largest fountains, with 20-minute water shows on the hour 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.



  • Photo courtesy of NMMA by Magali Rangel

    Free Chicago museums

    National Museum of Mexican Art (pictured) The nation's largest Latino museum features art from both sides of the border.

    Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago Money Museum See a cube made from $1 million, learn how to identify fake bills and discover the history of U.S. currency. View the museum on your own or take a guided tour.



  • Courtesy of Lincoln Park Zoo

    Family fun

    Lincoln Park Zoo Opened in 1868, this neighborhood zoo is one of the nation’s oldest. More than 1,200 animals live on the 49 acres; favorite stops include the sea lion pool, primate house and Farm-in-the-Zoo.

    Oak Street Beach This stretch of Lake Michigan shore offers a carpet of white sand against a backdrop of skyscrapers. Potted palm trees, a life-size chess set and access to the 18-mile Lakefront Trail make this urban beach a must.



  • Courtesy of the Chicago Air and Water Show


    Air and Water Show, Chicago A free show (pictured) by the awe-inspiring likes of U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, U.S. Army Parachute Team Golden Knights, Chicago Fire Department Air and Sea Rescue Team. Held one weekend in August along Lake Michigan. Air and Water Show

    Seasonal Festivals, Chicago During St. Patrick's day, watch the Chicago River run green and see the downtown parade. In the fall, don't miss the city's Chicagoween celebration. Chicago Seasonal Festivals

    Groundhog Days, Woodstock The annual winter festival includes trivia contests, storytelling, a chili cook-off, free film showings of the movie--and a guided walking tour of 14 plaque-marked film sites. Woodstock Groundhog Days




  • Free parks

    Make sure you see the rock formations at Garden of the Gods and the steep ravines at Starved Rock.

    Garden of the Gods, in southern Illinois, is a 3,300-acre national recreation area in Shawnee National Forest. Towering rock outcroppings (left) remain just south of where great ice sheets smoothed the prairies millions of years ago. An easy flagstone Observation Trail takes you to a spectacular overlook. Shawnee National Forest (Garden of the Gods)

    In northwest Illinois, Starved Rock State Park is home to 18 canyons formed by glacial meltwater and stream erosion. They slice through tree-covered sandstone bluffs for four miles at the park, which is along the south side of the Illinois River. Waterfalls, sandstone overhangs and other rock formations attract hikers and campers. Starved Rock State Park


  • Courtesy of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

    Near St. Louis, Missouri

    Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Collinsville About 15 miles east of St. Louis, you can see 100-foot-tall Monks Mound (left), the largest of the area's 80 surviving ceremonial mounds from the time of the Mississippians. In 1250 A.D., Cahokia had 20,000 residents, housing districts, centers of worship and cultivated fields. Learn about the Mississippian people at the Interpretive Center and on an audio tour.

    National Great Rivers Museum, Alton Steer through locks on an indoor barge simulator, one of 20 interactive exhibits that teach visitors about the Mississippi and other rivers. Then take a 45-minute walking tour of the adjacent Mississippi River locks for a bird’s-eye view of boat traffic. The museum is about 30 miles north of St. Louis and just across the Illinois border.

    Lincoln and Civil War Legacy Trail, Alton Bronze sculptures depict Lincoln and Douglas at the site of their final debate. It’s one of 10 sites on a self-guided history trail; pick up a brochure at the Alton visitors center or download a free trail app for your smartphone.

    Audubon Center at Riverlands, Alton Scope out some of the nearly 300 bird species that have been spotted at this center near the confluence of the Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri rivers. In West Alton, Missouri (just across the border from Alton, Illinois).


  • Photo: Courtesy of John Deere Pavilion

    On Illinois' western border

    Deere and Company World Headquarters, Moline Farm equipment and history displays fill the Eero Saarinen-designed John Deere World Headquarters. The John Deere Pavilion (left) puts visitors behind the wheel of tractors and a bulldozer simulator. Schedule a tour of the Harvester Works factory or the Deere-Wiman House and Butterworth Center, built in the late 1800s by descendants of John Deere.

    Historic Nauvoo Take free wagon and carriage rides, see craft demonstrations and attend seasonal music performances in Nauvoo, a historic Mormon town about halfway between St. Louis and Moline.

  • Springfield: Abraham Lincoln sites

    Sites that put Abraham Lincoln’s life and presidency into perspective are all within a few miles of each other.

    Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices Lincoln practiced here from 1843 to 1852; visitors learn about the beginnings of his successful law career and about the courtrooms where he tried cases.

    Old State Capitol Take a 30-minute guided tour of the building where Lincoln served in the Illinois Legislature, gave his famous "House Divided" speech in 1858 and where his body lay in state following his assassination in 1865.

    Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site (left) On self-guided tours, docents can answer questions about the lives, deaths and burials of Lincoln and his family. Pay tribute at Lincoln’s final resting place, a 117-foot brick tomb sheathed with Quincy granite. On self-guided tours, docents can answer questions about the lives, deaths, and burials of Lincoln and his family.

    Lincoln Home National Historic Site The Lincolns lived in the Greek Revival-style house from 1844 to 1861, when they left for the White House. Costumed interpreters guide your visit.

    Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site Visit a reconstruction of the town Lincoln lived in for six years  (near Petersburg, 20 miles northwest of Springfield). Interpreters chronicle frontier life, and self-guided tours weave through a tavern, store, one-room school and timbered houses.




  • A picnic and a tour in Cantigny Park

    Cantigny Park, Wheaton Tour the home of longtime Chicago Tribune editor and publisher Robert McCormick, picnic at the 500-acre Cantigny Park or see the First Division Museum, which tells the story of the division from the Revolutionary War through Desert Storm. Wheaton is about 25 miles west of Chicago. (Admission to buildings is free; fee charged for parking.)

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