Chicago on the cheap

Chicago is home to world-class museums and attractions, acclaimed restaurants and so much more. But its reputation as a city with one of the most expensive costs of living often deters us from getting out and exploring all it has to offer.

The good news is that free or discounted experiences are abundant; you just have to scour for them. From complimentary city tours to $3 games of bowling and everything in between, we’ve rounded up some of the most affordable family fun in the Windy City.

Free cultural performances for the stroller set

Presented by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, the Juicebox Series brings engaging music, dance and theater performances to families in a kid-friendly setting. Running at 11 a.m. on alternating Fridays at the Chicago Cultural Center and Saturdays at the Garfield Park Conservatory, Juicebox lets kids experience a range of artistic and educational performances where hosts regularly invite youngsters to move and groove alongside them. Upcoming performances include Trinity Academy of Irish Dance (March 17-18), Celebration Dances of West Africa (April 7-8), Future Hits (May 5-6), and Golden Horse Ranch Square Dance Band (May 19-20).

Discounted bowling

Whether your child can throw a spare or simply prefers to toss a ball down the gutter, it’s pretty hard to strike out on fun with an outing to a bowling alley. All Chicagoland Pinstripes locations (Downtown, Northbrook, Oak Brook, South Barrington) offer Kids Club Bowling from 10 a.m.-noon every weekday, where kids under 12 can bowl for just $3 per hour with a $3 shoe rental. Parents can bowl alongside them for free.

Worried the sport will be too difficult for your little one? Pinstripes offers light balls that are easy to carry, ramps that kids can use to push the ball down the lane, and bumpers. The bowling lanes include a full-service waitstaff and plush couches.

Discounted theater tickets

If you are spontaneous and don’t mind firming up plans the week or day of, Hot Tix is a great option for half-price tickets to a full range of theater performances across the city. Each week, nearly 250 Chi-Town venues distribute an allotment of tickets with various seating and price levels to Hot Tix. Tickets range from the latest Broadway in Chicago hits to award-winning musicals at The Lyric Opera. Buy tickets online at, or skip the digital convenience fee with a visit to one of two physical locations downtown (Block 37: 108 N. State St., First Floor; and 72 E. Randolph St.).

Free museum days

Seeing the latest and greatest museum exhibits often forces parents to make tough decisions about going to one institution over another. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Did you know that most museums in Chicago are required to offer 52 free days a year to Illinois residents with a valid ID? That’s a perk that no parent should miss out on!

Expose the kiddos to these culturally enriching attractions without breaking the bank. While free day perks vary by location, the majority will grant you free general admission or discounts on upgraded experiences like shows and exhibits. Check out our Free Museum Days list.

Free sing-alongs with Mr. Singer

Catch free live music for the wee ones every Wednesday and Friday at 9:15 and 10 a.m. at the Main Barn in Lincoln Park Zoo’s Farm-in-the-Zoo where the wildly popular Electric Neil, locally famed as “Mr. Singer,” takes sing-alongs to a whole new level. Playing a packed house of mini rockers nearly every week, Mr. Singer’s silly, high-energy performance style, combined with his folksy rock sound, captivates children, making it more fun than ever before to learn about animal sounds, numbers and the alphabet.

Free storytimes with The Storybook Mom

Follow award-winning Nili Yelin, aka “The Storybook Mom,” to various bookstores, children’s stores and establishments throughout Chicagoland as she entertains kids of all ages with her “sit down, stand up style” performances. Through rhyming, singing and just plain acting silly, Nili captivates both kids and parents with interactive and educational storybook performances.

Catch her here on the following days of the week:

Mondays: Little Threads (10:30 a.m.)

Wednesdays: Monica + Andy (4 p.m.)

Thursdays: The Book Market at Hanger One (first Thursday of each month; 10:30 a.m.), 2651 Navy Blvd, Glenview; Froyo Chicago (third Thursday of each month; 11 a.m.)

Fridays: The Book Cellar (11 a.m.)

Free walking tours

Did you know that downtown Chicago is called The Loop because the tracks of the El loop around the central downtown business district? Or that you can see four states (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin) from the top of Willis Tower? Discover more tidbits of Chicago history and architecture through a free walking tour given by a knowledgeable local, otherwise known as an InstaGreeter. Loop tours, covering everything from Millennium Park to the Chicago River Walk, are available year-round (10 a.m.-3 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 11 a.m.-2 p.m Sunday), with walks departing on the half hour from the Chicago Cultural Center. Both fun and informative, these one-hour tours are ideal for spur-of-the-moment family fun. Bring your camera for great selfie ops!

Free kids meals

Parents rejoice! There are an increasing number of restaurants that pair free kids meals with happy hour deals on adult beverages, making it perfectly acceptable to indulge in a cold one (or two) after a long day.

Raise your glass to our favorite spots to enjoy happy hour in Chicago, family-style.

Mondays: Frasca Pizzeria& Wine Bar (4:30-6 p.m.): Half-off bottles of wine

Tuesdays: Dunlay’s on the Square (4:30-6:30 p.m.): $5 glasses of wine

Wednesdays: Hutch American Bistro (5-6 p.m.): $1 champagne, $2 well drinks, $3 drafts, $4 wines and $5 craft cocktails

Thursdays: Barn& Company (5-7 p.m.): Half-off whiskey

Fridays: Southport& Irving (5-6:30 p.m.): $6 signature cocktails

Lori Orlinsky
Lori Orlinsky
Lori Orlinsky is an award-winning journalist and bestselling children's book author. She is the mom of three little ladies who keep her on her toes.
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