Best Free Midwest Attractions: Illinois
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Free Chicago tours
Chicago Cultural Center Catch a glimpse of the Chicago art scene on a free tour of the center, an 1897 Beaux Arts-style building (left) that hosts hundreds of programs and exhibits annually. Both audio and group tours are available. The Chicago Office of Tourism also has a visitor information center here, so it's a good place to start your Chicago trip. Chicago Cultural Center
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. Chicago Greeters
Gardens all year long
Chicago Botanic Garden Explore 23 gardens with more than 2 million plants. Family activities for young children are held on weekends. Chicago Botanic Garden
Lincoln Park Conservatory Four greenhouses have ferns, palms, cacti and rotating exhibits. Lincoln Park Conservatory
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. Lurie Garden
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. Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool
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. Millennium Park
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. Grant Park
Free Chicago museums
National Museum of Mexican Art (pictured) The nation's largest Latino museum features art from both sides of the border. National Museum of Mexican Art
Lincoln Park Zoo See more than 1,000 species at one of the country's oldest free zoos. At the new Pritzker Family Children's Zoo, kids can build a beaver dam, explore a forest and watch otters dart through water. Lincoln Park Zoo
Oak Street Beach This stretch of Lake Michigan shore offers a carpet of white sand against a backdrop of skyscrapers. Oak Street Beach
Air and Water Show, Chicago A free show by the awe-inspiring likes of U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds (pictured), 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
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.
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.
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. An interpretive center includes a re-created village and orientation theater to help visitors visualize the city that sprawled here centuries ago.
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. The museum is about 30 miles north of St. Louis and just across the Illinois border.
On Illinois' western border
Deere and Company World Headquarters, Moline See farm equipment and other agricultural exhibits at the John Deere Pavilion (left) or visit the Deere-Wiman and Butterworth mansions and gardens. The homes were built in the late 1800s by Charles Deere, son 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
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-Herndon Law Offices and Old State Capitol
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 Tomb State Historic Site
Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site (left) Tours offer revealing stories about the lives, deaths and burials of Lincoln; his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln; and three of their four children. Lincoln Home National Historic Site
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.)