To mark the start of 2017, a year full of promise and excitement, here are 17 of our favorite free things to do in Chicago with your kids. You don’t have to spend a lot to have a wonderful time and make some fantastic family memories.
Chicago Cultural Center
77 E. Randolph St., Chicago
Exploring in this grand old building can be a ton of fun on its own (it’s home to the world's largest Tiffany stained glass dome). There are often free art exhibits, dance events and concerts, including the Juicebox series on Fridays that is aimed at little ones. Juicebox performers in 2017 include the Jabberwocky Marionettes, Trinity Academy of Irish Dance and Laura Doherty & the Heartbeats.
Harold Washington Library Center
400 S. State St., Chicago
Neighborhood libraries are great, but the main building downtown is pretty amazing--the Winter Garden on the ninth floor is full of natural light and greenery, and it alone is worth the trip. The humongous gargoyles on the outside corners of the building are pretty fantastic, too. In addition to the floors and floors of books and materials, there’s a Maker Lab with 3D printers. The Thomas Hughes Children’s Library portion of the building is currently being renovated and will reopen, better than ever, early in the summer. While it’s closed, you can find children’s materials in the Popular Library on the first floor.
1521 S. Linn White Dr., Chicago
There are several free events hosted year-round on this 91-acre peninsula, including Polar Adventure Days. Families can tour the Northerly Island Natural Area as well as see Siberian huskies, wolves and birds of prey. In 2017, the events take place on Jan. 21 and Feb. 25, but it’s a fun place to explore any time of year.
Lincoln Park Conservatory and Garfield Park Conservatory
2391 N. Stockton Dr., Chicago and 300 N. Central Park Ave. Chicago
Tropical palms and delicate exotic flowers will make you think that you’re not in Chicago any more, and massive ferns will have you wondering if you’ve time traveled to a prehistoric period. Garfield Park Conservatory also hosts Juicebox series performances for families.
Chicago Botanic Garden
1000 Lake Cook Road, Glencoe
Yes, we know this is outside the city limits, but it’s amazing and so many families say that it is absolutely worth the trip to Glencoe for nature-themed fun. There are many wonderful family events throughout the year, and the Malott Japanese Garden Children’s Festival that takes place May 20-21 is one of our favorites. Admission is free, but parking is not.
Maggie Daley Park
337 E. Randolph St., Chicago
Where else can you find a life-sized ship, 30-foot tall suspension bridge tower, a mini-lighthouse, spiral slides and an enchanted forest of upside down trees, all meant to inspire play and imagination? The Skating Ribbon is also amazing, and free, though there is a charge for skate rental.
201 E. Randolph St., Chicago
The Bean is always an attraction, but leave time for exploring the Lurie Garden also--it hosts family programs. We love that there are free programs here throughout the year, including skating lessons and skate time at McCormick Tribune Ice Rink (there is a charge for skates), and the plethora of activities that happen in the warmer months, such as the Family Fun Festival.
This 2.7 mile elevated park trail is built on what used to be an abandoned rail line. Now it’s green space full of art and a great place to spend a sunny afternoon as a family, whether on bike or on foot.
Lincoln Park Zoo
2001 N. Clark St., Chicago
Lions and tigers and bears, for free! The zoo is open 365 days a year. Check out the Walter Family Arctic Tundra polar bear exhibit or the Pritzker Penguin Cove, two of the newest exhibits. The Farm-in-the-Zoo and the Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo, which black bears, beavers and otters call home, are always hits with littles. There is a charge for parking.
600 E. Grand Ave, Chicago
We love strolling along the pier during the warmer months. With the view of the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel, Lake Michigan and the skyline, it’s an Instagram dream. Check out the free fireworks on Wednesday and Saturday nights between Memorial Day and Labor Day. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have fun when the weather is less hospitable, though. The Crystal Gardens is an indoor botanic garden featuring a 6-story atrium with 80 live palm trees and delightful leapfrog fountains.
National Museum of Mexican Art
1852 W. 19th Street, Chicago
Head to Pilsen to see the 10,000-piece permanent collection showcasing Mexican art and culture. Take a gallery tour and make your own work of art on Family Sundays. It is also home to one of the nation’s largest Day of the Dead celebrations, a community festival that features live performances, face painting and art activities.
National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture
3015 W. Division St., Chicago
Chicago is home to the country’s only museum focused on Puerto Rican arts and culture. See displays of a wide variety of art exhibits throughout the year featuring original works by local, regional and national Puerto Rican artists. Check out the free summer workshops for kids ages 10 and older as well as Barrio Arts Fest in July, which in the past has featured family workshops, live music and a classic car show.
The Oriental Institute Museum
1155 E. 58th St., Chicago
The Oriental Institute Museum on the campus of the University of Chicago is world-renowned showcase for the history, art and archaeology of the ancient Near East, spanning from Egypt to Persia. Artifacts mainly date from between 10,000 BC and 650 AD. Admission is free, and donations are suggested but not required. Family programs that teach kids about hieroglyphics or allow them to participate in a simulated excavation at the Kipper Family Archaeology Discovery Center are offered on Saturdays for a small fee.
Smart Museum of Art
5550 S. Greenwood Ave., Chicago
The Smart Museum of Art, the fine arts museum of the University of Chicago, is always free. Our favorite time to visit is Family Day, held on the first Saturday of each month. In March, the theme is Marble Bonanza! The name alone makes us want to sign up, but the fact that kids will have a chance to carve on real marble block like Ancient Romans is even more fun. The Concrete Family Festival takes place May 6 and gives kids an opportunity to make a mini concrete car and get up close to a real-life concrete mixing truck. Activities are best for kids between ages 4 and 12 and they must be accompanied by an adult. (Don’t forget to check out the Rodin, Matisse, Picasso, Rivera and Ansel Adams pieces while you’re there.)
Art Institute of Chicago
111 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago
The Art Institute has been free for kids ages 13 and under for a while, and starting this year, it will be free for those 17 and under who live in the City of Chicago. If you don’t live in the city, plan to visit during a Thursday evening, when admission is free for Illinois residents between 5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Family Workshops held on the weekends for those with kids ages 6 to 12 are great opportunities to get creative together. There are also programs for younger children and tweens.
North Park Village Nature Center
5801 N. Pulaski Rd., Chicago
You won’t feel like you’re in the city when you explore this 46-acre facility. Outdoor fun can be had year-round on trails that give visitors a look at woodlands, wetlands, the prairie and the savanna. Check out the discovery room where kids can investigate a variety of natural objects found at the center on the hands-on table. Our favorite events are the Maple Syrup Festival in March and the Harvest Festival, typically held in October.
26.2 miles around the city
More than 40,000 runners take to the streets for the 40th anniversary of the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 8. It’s a great event to take your kids to watch and a chance to let them yell and cheer on runners as loudly as they like. Viewing is free, and the inspiration you’ll take away is priceless.
Although she’d like to be taller and have more time to dive into good books, Shannan is awfully happy with her life as a recovering attorney living in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and teen daughter.
See more of Shannan 's stories here.
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