1. Millennium Park:
In the more temperate months, you can splash in the Crown Fountain as those huge spitting faces stare back at you. Then you can find a respite from the bustle of downtown among the flowers of the Lurie Garden and the trees of the Chase Promenade.
And you can stick around for seats on the lawn for concert at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, where you’ll find everything from symphonic performances to mainstream rock acts, all for free (although in fairness, the Pritzker Pavilion has required patrons to buy tickets for some of their shows.)
But Millennium Park isn’t only for fair-weather activities. In the winter, the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink is free to the public from November through March. And you can get your picture taken in front of the sculpture “Cloud Gate,” better known as “The Bean,” any time of year.
2. Lincoln Park Zoo and Conservatory:
What fascinating animals do you think you can see for free? You may be thinking it’s more or less limited to your dog or cat, the squirrels in your backyard, and the bats in your attic.
Hardly. Look at this list – Lions, tigers and bears – black, Andean and polar. Howler monkeys and great apes. Rhinos, zebras and giraffes. Penguins and puffins. Snakes, caimans and crocodiles. These are just a few of the creatures with which you can come face to face for free at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Everything from the sea lion pool to the Farm in the Zoo, and the magnificent African Safari exhibit – complete with Madagascar hissing cockroaches – is free.
Just to the north of the zoo at Stockton Drive and Fullerton Parkway is the Lincoln Park Conservatory. Walk in on a cold January day and you’ll be sure to forget it’s winter within seconds.
The nearly 120-year-old building features four sections – the Palm House with its circular path and soaring tropical trees; the warm, misty Fern Room with its re-creation of the prehistoric forest floor; the cooler Orchid Room; and the Display House with its rotation of lovely flower exhibits. And you’ll only spend money if you choose to throw a coin in one of the limestone pools.
3. Chicago Cultural Center:
Bored on a rainy day? Just walk into the Cultural Center directly across Michigan Avenue from Millennium Park, and you can see an assortment of contemporary art or photography exhibits, learn about architectural history, see a concert that could be anything from baroque harpsichord to avant-garde jazz, and just admire the beautiful stained glass in Preston Bradley Hall and the G.A.R. Rotunda. And it won’t cost you a single cent.
The Cultural Center also features a variety of lectures and discussions, film screenings, and live performances. You can also see artists busy letting their creative juices flow at the studios for Project Onward, a visual arts program for people with mental and developmental disabilities.
4. Buckingham Fountain:
It’s one of the largest fountains in the world, and one of the city’s most amazing sights. The center jet shoots 150 feet into the air every hour on the hour, and in the evening, the waters of the fountain are illuminated by a brilliant light show.
Located in Grant Park downtown, the fountain is open from May 1, or earlier if weather permits, until mid-October.
5. Garfield Park Conservatory:
This West Side gem is a little off the typical tourist itinerary compared with its Lincoln Park counterpart, but it’s only a little farther away from downtown, and it has more space.
The Palm Room has more than 84 different varieties of palm trees on display, the Fern Room emulates what Illinois might have looked like millions of years ago, the Aroid Room features beautiful flowering plants that you may have in pots in your living room, and the Desert House has one of the most varied collections of cacti and succulent plants in the Midwest. There’s even an exhibit that gives kids a hands-on lesson on photosynthesis, called, “Sugar from the Sun.”
The Garfield Park Conservatory also hosts rotating flower shows, and even the occasional photo exhibit.
6. National Museum of Mexican Art:
At 1852 W. 19th St. in the Pilsen neighborhood, more than 100 exhibitions are at your fingertips, from ancient Mesoamerican artifacts to contemporary paintings. The museum’s Web site says it is the largest individual Latino arts organization in the country.
The works of revered artists such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo have been displayed at the museum, and 15 of the exhibitions have traveled across the U.S. and Mexico. And it’s all on display for free.
7. Oriental Institute, Smart Museum and Renaissance Society
When you think of the University of Chicago campus, what springs to mind? Nobel Prize winners? Nuclear chain reactions? Milton Friedman’s economic theory? How about not one, but three free museums on campus?
The Oriental Institute, at 1155 E. 58th St., features a variety of artifacts from the Near East, including a 17-foot statue of King Tut and a stone inscribed with Hammurabi’s famous code of laws. There are permanent galleries devoted to ancient culture and artifacts from Egypt, Nubia, Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria, Anatolia, and the ancient site of Megiddo in present-day Northern Israel. The museum also features rotating special exhibits, lectures, and a free film on the Middle East every Sunday at 2 p.m.
The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, at 5550 S. Greenwood Ave., showcases fine art exhibits that span 5,000 years. They focus in particular on 20th-century paintings and sculptures, local postwar art, central European expressionism, small-scale bronze sculpture and works on paper since the Renaissance, and a wide assortment of East Asian art. In other words, you’ll get some of almost everything.
And don’t let the name confuse you. The Renaissance Society, on the fourth floor of Cobb Hall, 5811 S. Ellis Ave., is a contemporary art museum. It features thought-provoking, avant-garde exhibits showcasing the work of artists from around the world, as well as readings, lectures and performances.
8. Museum of Contemporary Photography:
Located on the campus of Columbia College at 600 S. Michigan Ave., this is the only museum in the entire Midwest that focuses exclusively on photography. Photos displaying every technology and taste are showcased in the museum’s temporary exhibitions, from landscapes and architecture to Polaroids of perishable food.
The museum also holds lectures and panel discussions.
9. Elks Memorial:
Located at the corner of Diversey Parkway and Lake View Avenue about half a mile north of the Lincoln Park Zoo, the oft-overlooked Elks Veterans Memorial honors members of the Elks fraternal organization who gave their lives in battle. Completed in 1926, the opulent neoclassical building features a grand rotunda with marble floors and columns, colored murals and stained glass.
Volunteer tour guides are available to tell you about the history of the building.
10. North Park Village Nature Center:
How far away do you think you need to drive to find a leafy, pristine forest where deer roam around freely?
Actually, you’ll find it right within the city limits. The North Park Village Nature Center is located off Pulaski Road between Peterson and Bryn Mawr avenues, and includes a 46-acre nature preserve with woodland, wetland and prairie areas – and yes, wild deer roaming the grounds.
The Nature Center also includes an educational facility with a hands-on table of natural objects and a discovery room. There are a variety of programs available at the Nature Center for all ages – yoga and birdwatching for the adults, storytelling and adventures for kids, and ecology lessons on the nature path for all ages.