Chicago: Tips for Affordable Family Fun

Broke? Fear not. You don’t need big bucks to enjoy some of Chicago’s best family attractions.


Nearly every visitor to Chicago ends up at Navy Pier at some point.

It is the No. 1 tourist attraction in the Midwest and it’s worth a look. The former site of a Navy training facility had become a lakefront eyesore before the early 1990s when it was resurrected and turned into a tourist magnet. Today, Navy Pier is home to the wonderful Chicago Children’s Museum, has plenty of terrific restaurants and lots to do, including boat rides, theaters and a towering Ferris wheel.

Do it all and you’ll end up broke. Fear not. Your Chicago visit doesn’t have to end just because you spent your last dime at the Pier. There are plenty of ways to have fun in Chicago for free.

Museum Campus

Start at the Museum Campus, home to the venerable Shedd Aquarium, the Adler Planetarium and my kids' favorite, the Field Museum of Natural History, home to Sue, the giant T-Rex, and several of her dinosaur pals. If it’s a Monday from September through February, or a Tuesday October through February, enjoy the museums for free. If not, take in the view of the harbor and start walking north.

Just ahead you’ll see one of Chicago’s treasures: Buckingham Fountain. This masterpiece, built by philanthropist Kate Buckingham to honor her brother, Clarence, operates from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. from mid-April through mid-October, or longer if the weather cooperates. Each hour, the water dances for 20 minutes, shooting a geyser 150 feet into the air. Beginning at dusk, the display includes a spectacular light show.

This is a favorite of locals, and not just because Kate was forward-thinking enough to give the fountain to the people of Chicago along with a $300,000 trust fund that keeps it operating without burdening taxpayers. We make the pilgrimage at least one evening each year. My husband I set up our folding chairs and uncork a bottle of wine and laugh at the kids as they run around the fountain, trying to dodge the spray as the winds off Lake Michigan scatter the water. Or maybe they’re trying to get wet. I have never been sure.

Millennium Park

After you have had enough dancing water, continue walking north toward Chicago’s newest attraction and the crown jewel of the lakefront: Millennium Park. This park, built over what had been unsightly railroad tracks, caused public consternation for its cost overruns and clout-connected builders, but no one complains any more. It is the best thing that has happened to the city since, well, Navy Pier was reclaimed from its ruins. And this one is even better because it’s all free, from the concerts to the clowning to yet another fountain. 

Let the kids run across the winding 925-foot BP Bridge, which connects the park to the lakefront. Then corral them for a family photo reflected in the shiny Anish Kapoor sculpture, Cloud Gate, or “The Bean” as it’s affectionately known around town. Admire the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion stage. Occasionally, you can catch a free concert there. During the winter, there’s ice skating at the 16,000-foot rink, which also is free, provided you remembered to bring your own skates. The rental will set you back $7.

Free walking tours are available from the Millennium Park Greeters through the end of October at 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Or just wander around and let the kids run free on the expansive lawns or, weather permitting, splash in the Crown Fountain. On a hot day, you’ll want to roll up your pant legs and join them.

Lincoln Park Zoo

One of the last free zoos in the country, Lincoln Park Zoo is set just west of the lake in Chicago’s huge Lincoln Park. My kids can’t leave before they cover both extremes of this small and accessible zoo. That’s because the newborn animals are housed at the Farm in the Zoo at the southern end of the zoo, but we also have to trek to the north end to say hello to the polar bears before calling it a day. The zoo has recently undergone major renovations, including the addition of the terrific Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo. But be careful. I’ve found that once the kids get inside and start climbing the Treetop Canopy, a 20-foot-high wood-and fabric tree, it can be tough to get them back outside to look at the animals.

Beaches and bike paths

Last, but not least, take advantage of the city’s gorgeous lakefront parks and 33 beaches. North Avenue Beach is just steps away from Lincoln Park. Stroll down the paved sidewalks to Oak Street Beach—located at the beginning (or end, depending on your perspective) of the Magnificent Mile shopping corridor—which is famous for its volleyball games and other sponsored events. There’s also a 20-mile continuous bike path along Lake Michigan. But this is not for amateurs. Beware of the serious bikers, bladers and runners who race along the shore, not always on the lookout for youngsters negotiating the path on training wheels.

Destinations: Chicago

Themes: Family Travel, Urban Endeavors

Activities: Museums, Parks and Playgrounds

User Comments

polar bear Great polar bear picture! I can't believe the Lincoln Park Zoo is free, either. Chicago seems like a perfect spot for a fun, inexpensive vacation. Will definitely look into a trip there.

useful info i lived in chicago many years ago - long before children. i had no idea lincoln park zoo was free. will have to visit next time we are in town.

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