Top Free Things To Do In Illinois | Midwest Living

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Top Free Things To Do In Illinois

Find free things to do including museums, gardens, zoos and historic sites in Chicago, Springfield and other locations around Illinois.
  • Free Chicago museums

    National Museum of Mexican Art (pictured) As the nation’s largest accredited Latino art museum, it showcases works by Mexican, Latino and Chicano artists and traces their influence on the city’s identity. In the Pilsen neighborhood.

    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.

    The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago Browse artifacts from the ancient Near East, including Egypt, Persia, Syria and Nubia. Exhibits range from towering statues of King Tut to tiny fragments of the Qur'an and a child's pull toy from 2350 BC.

  • 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? 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, but check the website before you go for hours and days.



  • Garfield Park Conservatory
    Courtesy of Choose Chicago

    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 (pictured) The 1908 conservator shelters 10,000 plant varieties beneath a 2.8-acre glass dome.

    Lincoln Park Conservatory Four greenhouses show off 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 Just east of the Lincoln Park Conservatory lies the 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 Reflecting the skyline, the Cloud Gate sculpture also reflects the elevated mood in this center for cultural activities, such as free concerts at Jay Pritzker Pavilion.

    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.



  • 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.



  • Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site

    Springfield: Abraham Lincoln sites

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

    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 (pictured) On self-guided tours, docents can answer questions about the lives, deaths and burials of Lincoln and his family (all but son Robert were laid to rest here). Pay tribute at Lincoln’s final resting place, a 117-foot brick tomb sheathed with Quincy granite.

    Lincoln Home National Historic Site Tour the only home Abraham Lincoln ever owned. Lincoln and his wife, Mary, lived in this Greek Revival-style house from 1844 to 1861; the decor captures 1860s style. Tickets are required; pick them up for free at the nearby Lincoln Home Visitor Center.

    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.)

  • Garden of the Gods

    Free Illinois parks

    Garden of the Gods (pictured) In southern Illinois, fields give way to forested hills and rugged bluffs in Shawnee National Forest;  inside the forest, a 1/4-mile trail leads to views of the Garden of the Gods' towering sandstone rock formations.

    Most of Illinois’s 73 state parks are free. (The state charges only for sites with beaches—$1 a day.) Some of our favorites:

    Starved Rock State Park A Native American legend gave the park its name. Walk where those events took place on trails through 18 sandstone canyons formed by glacier melt and streams. Though almost 2½ million people visited in 2015, weekdays and off-season visits provide solitude.

    Mississippi Palisades State Park About 30 miles southeast of Galena, the 2,500-acre park caters to picnickers, campers and hikers. Fifteen miles of trails lead to overlooks with bird’s-eye views of the Mississippi, rock formations and wooded ravines.

    Pere Marquette State Park Twelve miles of easy trails lead to Illinois River views in the 8,000-acre park, 5 miles north of Grafton. The park’s 1930s wood-and-stone lodge serves specialties like fried chicken and catfish; stay in one of the remodeled rooms.


  • On Illinois' western border

    John Deere sites, Moline Farm equipment and history displays fill the Eero Saarinen-designed John Deere World Headquarters. The John Deere Pavilion (pictured) 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.

  • Courtesy of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

    Near St. Louis, Missouri

    Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Collinsville The earthen mounds (pictured) visitors see today barely hint at the thriving city that used to be here: 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.


  • On Route 66

    Litchfield Museum & Route 66 Welcome Center, Litchfield Learn about Litchfield's history and Route 66 through personal guided tours, as well as get information to plan a Route 66 trip. Then hit the road!

    Route 66 Association Hall of Fame and Museum, Pontiac Examine thousands of artifacts and memorabilia relating to The Mother Road in this old fire station. After exploring the museum, take a photo by the Route 66 mural painted on the back of the building (pictured).

    International Route 66 Mother Road Festival More than a thousand hot rods and vintage motorcycles roar into downtown Springfield for this annual festival. Join the 80,000 spectators celebrating the golden age of Route 66 with live music and entertainment.

    Livingston County War Museum, Pontiac Started by two WWII veterans, this hands-on museum features weaponry and stories of wartime. Artifacts from every U.S. war from WWI to Iraq reveal the struggles and triumphs of the soldiers who protect our freedom.

    Pontiac-Oakland Museum and Resource Center, Pontiac Delve into the history of Pontiac and Oakland automobiles at the museum. Pontiac’s 24 outdoor murals showcase the local cultural scene, and three swinging bridges cross the Vermilion River to connect Chautauqua Park and Play Park.

    J.W. Hawes Grain Elevator, Atlanta This grain elevator, listed on National Register of Historic Places, holds artifiacts detailing Illinois' rich grain producing, storing and shipping history.



  • University of Illinois arboretum

    More in Illinois

    University of Illinois, Champaign The university's arboretum (pictured) maintains 57 acres of flowerbeds blooming in geometric patterns; you'll also find a sheltering pergola in the Noel Welcome Garden and traditional tea gardens surrounding Japan House. Krannert Art Museum houses nearly 10,000 works, including ancient Egyptian sculptures and modern Alfred Stieglitz sculptures (note: The museum is currently closed for renovation and will reopen in August 2016)

    Carl Sandburg State Historic Site, Galesburg Tour this Pulitzer-Prize winner's birthplace, walk in the garden surrounding the house and view the final resting place of Carl and his wife, Lillian. 

    Naperville Riverwalk, Naperville Thirty miles west of Chicago, Naperville’s beautifully landscaped 1.7-mile Riverwalk hugs the DuPage River. The paved trail passes bubbling fountains, covered bridges, outdoor sculptures and a carillon tower.

    Casper Bluffs, Galena Self-guided tours of the 85 acres reveal burial mounds, a 1,000-year-old Thunderbird effigy mound and migrating birds, making it an ideal early-morning spot for history-lovers and nature fans.

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