Chicago

11 Completely Free Things to Do in Chicago

Fun doesn't have to cost a thing.

Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago
Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago
Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

Chicago may be the best city in the world, but there’s no denying that experiencing the best of what the city has to offer is, unfortunately, incredibly expensive. Luckily, there are better ways to experience the city than spending your time at an overpriced brunch in the West Loop. From museums to shows to events to parks and beyond, there are tons of wonderful things to do in Chicago, even if you’ve left your wallet at home.

Hike the North Branch Trail

Skip the lakefront and head to the river for one of the most beautiful walks, runs, or bike rides you’ll ever have. The North Branch Trail stretches up past the city limits up through Skokie, winding through some of Chicago’s most beautiful parks. Spend an afternoon walking along the river, and make sure to spot the hidden BMX park in the trees as you go.

The Art Institute of Chicago
The Art Institute of Chicago
The Art Institute of Chicago

Free museum days

Although all of Chicago’s museums are well worth their price of admission, for people looking to save a few bucks, each of them reserves a block of time at which admission is completely free. That day changes for each museum, so for your convenience, we’ll list them here:

alisafarov/Shutterstock
alisafarov/Shutterstock
alisafarov/Shutterstock

Get wild at the Lincoln Park Zoo

There are vanishingly few zoos nationwide that are free to the public, but thanks to the generosity of its donors and a grant from the Chicago Park District, the Lincoln Park Zoo is free to visit, and has been ever since it opened its doors back in 1866. Not only is the zoo home to almost 200 different species, but it also plays host to a variety of free events year-round, from adults-only nights to educational talks to holiday celebrations.

Visit Navy Pier like a local

Yes, Navy Pier is our city’s second-most-hated tourist trap behind The Bean. We also know that it’s seemingly designed to ensure that you get a low balance alert from your bank before you leave. We also also know that the previously-free Crystal Gardens are closed now as they’re going to be replaced by a paid immersive augmented reality experience of some kind. This is all true. It’s also true, however, that admission to the pier is free, and that if you look past the overpriced touristy attractions, there are non-stop free installations and events on the Pier year-round, from free movies and concerts to spectacular holiday installations. Take the day off one Tuesday in December, avoid the crowds, and walk the length of the pier watching the snowfall, giving the holiday lights a picture-perfect powdered-sugar dusting. They can’t charge for that.

Thomas Barrat/Shutterstock
Thomas Barrat/Shutterstock
Thomas Barrat/Shutterstock

Walk/bike/scoot the 606

If the North Branch Trail is a bit far from you, make your way over to the 606. Converted from an abandoned rail line and opened (at least, partially) to the public back in 2015, The 606 has now grown into a bonafide trail-slash-running-route-slash-green-space-slash-art-museum that is a must-visit for tourists and locals alike. The 2.7-mile trail is dotted with greenery and art installations, and plays host to a whole bunch of seasonal events (and, for you runners, races).

Spend an afternoon with Free Street

Looking to experience Chicago’s performing arts scene without paying Theater District prices? Free Street has been around for 51 years, organizing community arts events, educational talks, workshops, and yes, amazing performances. Deeply rooted in the city’s history and branded as “Theater for people who hate theater,” Free Street endeavors to tell all the hard, wonderful, complicated stories Chicago has to offer, while providing workshops and collaborative spaces for artists to hone their craft as well-all on a pay-what-you-can pricing plan.

Free Chicago Walking Tours
Free Chicago Walking Tours
Free Chicago Walking Tours

Take a free walking tour

Sure, taking a tour of a city you already live in might feel a little touristy to some, but those people are missing out. Free Chicago Walking Tours hosts, well, free walking tours of Chicago year-round, led by local guides who really know their stuff. For locals (and especially locals who don’t live downtown), we suggest their tour of Chicago’s “city under the city,” the Chicago Pedway-though their tour of the Chicago Riverwalk is also not to be missed.

Take a class at a community garden

If you have a green thumb, it’s worth looking up whether there’s a community garden in your neighborhood. There are dozens upon dozens of community gardens in Chicago, each with a different focus, from edible gardens to artist gardens and beyond. You can find a community garden location near you here-and applying to be a part of your local garden is completely free! Even if your garden isn’t currently taking applications, however, it’s worth checking to see if the community of gardeners in your area are hosting any upcoming workshops or classes for aspiring gardeners.

Nagel Photography/Shutterstock
Nagel Photography/Shutterstock
Nagel Photography/Shutterstock

Touch grass at one of Chicago’s two free conservatories

Chicago’s slogan “Urbs In Horto” literally translates to “City in a Garden”, and in keeping with the slogan, there is no shortage of public green spaces to visit. If you’re looking for something a bit more horticulturally interesting than your local park, make (free) reservations to visit either the Lincoln Park or Garfield Park conservatories. Both are absolutely stunning, from the meticulously-maintained lily pools in Lincoln Park, to Garfield Park Conservatory’s lush palm house. Stop doomscrolling and touch some grass.

Newberry Library
Newberry Library
Newberry Library

Get lost in the stacks at Newberry Library

Sure, Chicago has plenty of wonderful museums, but for something truly different, stop by the Newberry Library, a non-circulating research library complete with exhibitions, events, and programs-all of which are 100% free to the public. Tour the space, take in a lecture from a visiting researcher, or take part in a map-making or calligraphy workshop, and return home with a new skill.

National Museum of Mexican Art
National Museum of Mexican Art
National Museum of Mexican Art

Visit a museum not on free museum days

Yes, we all know that Chicago’s biggest museums have days when they open their doors to the public-but there are plenty of museums in the city that never charge admission. The City Gallery is located right in the heart of downtown in the Historic Water Tower, and hosts rotating exhibits showcasing local artists and photographers. The National Museum of Mexican Art is one of the premier Latino museums nationwide, not only showcasing wonderful Mexican art, but also providing resources, educational programs, and professional development for Mexican artists. Visit the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum to learn about one of the most important social reformers in the history of the city, with a pay-what-you-can entry fee, or head to the oldest house in Chicago, the Clarke House, for a window into what pre-Civil War Chicagoans lived like. All free, and all more than worth your time. And finally, one of Chicago’s biggest and best museums, the Museum of Contemporary Art, has moved to a pay-what-you-can admission structure, so that everyone can enjoy the art they have to offer.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on¬†Instagram,¬†Twitter,¬†Pinterest,¬†YouTube,¬†TikTok, and¬†Snapchat!

Sam Greszes is a contributor for Thrillist.

Chicago

Robyn DaCultyre Is Doing It for the Culture

"The cool thing about Ohio is that there is literally a place for everyone."

Photo by Kayode Omoyosi
Photo by Kayode Omoyosi
Photo by Kayode Omoyosi

I was introduced to Robyn DaCultyre at an Untitled Queen show at C’mon Everybody in late January, and it was one of the most unique drag shows I’d seen in a while. Afterwards, I tracked down this self-described “drag creature” and video chatted about her drag origin story, the state of drag in her native Ohio, and the dual identities that make up her persona. Thrillist: I want to ask you about how Robyn DaCultyre came about and your point of view behind your performance.

Robyn DaCultyre: I’ve been travelling around the country from a young age in ministry and Christian studies. I moved to Chicago right after high school. Four years later, moved back to Columbus and decided I didn’t really want to do church anymore; that wasn’t where my heart was.

I had a really low point in my life and had a suicide attempt and then really found drag and started doing drag as a coping mechanism and way to let off steam. I started in July of 2019, and it was really a lot of punk and metal music. I created this drag creature of sorts and they were really out of this world and celestial and all of those fun alien type terms.

And then we went into a global pandemic and I had a lot of time to figure out who I wanted to be. Digitally I was still doing a lot of drag creature-esque numbers and all of that, but I had this moment where we’re on the front lines getting hit with pepper spray and rubber bullets and pepper spray-all of those lovely things. And I said, I have this platform and I need to start showcasing what’s happening.

Untitled [Queen] stepped in at the right time and messaged me and said, “I’m doing this show for Independence Day called Untitled in America with 52 different performers and I want you to be a part of it.” It was at that moment I was able to take the footage I had been recording on the front lines and incorporate it into digital content. I did a song called Black Like Me by Mickey Guyton that talks about white picket fences, but if you want to see how America is, then you should try being Black like me. The imagery of what’s literally happening in Columbus in that digital performance really spearheaded me into focusing on people who look like me.

Nina Simone is one of my biggest inspirations, and one of her quotes that resonates with me is that it’s the duty of the artist to resonate with the times. My art is politically charged. I like to entertain, but there will definitely be a time when you come to a show expecting to have your drink and be chill and that might not be the case.

How did the name Robyn DaCultyre come about?

I was smoking with Ursula Major, who was on season one of Dragula, and the first time I introduced myself to her I was Robyn Banks, which is my drag name originally. She said, “Well, do you just not want to be original at all?” [Laughs] And I sat with that for a couple of months, and I got really stoned one day and was listening to Janelle Monae, and she talks about doing it for the culture, and I said “I do it for the culture, too!” And the rest is history.

And you started a series called Melanated.

We started Melanated last February. I told the idea to my show director that there were no shows specifically run by Black people that only featured Black entertainers. I wanted to do this show for a night and she said, Why don’t we do it once a week for the whole month? The first show happens, and it’s a sold out crowd, and [my director] comes back and says we should do this every month. So I sucked it up and here we are a year later.

Melanated is the only fully Black show in all of the state. It’s a horrible marketing tool and not something I want to promote, but it is just a fact. It amazes me that we are the 13th largest city in America and there’s nothing here that’s fully focused on Black entertainers. The name also comes from Janelle Monae; she says she’s highly melanated and I said, that works.

Photos by Chay Creates LLC (left) and Bridget Caswell (right)
Photos by Chay Creates LLC (left) and Bridget Caswell (right)
Photos by Chay Creates LLC (left) and Bridget Caswell (right)

You refer to yourself as a drag creature, as opposed to drag queen or king…

This is actually the first time I’m making this public. I am in this place where I want to separate the alternative creature from who this melanated goddess or whatever is. DaCultyre is definitely the person who runs Melanated and then Robyn is this drag creature that is out of this world and really loves punk and alternative music. And both intertwine to make Robyn DaCultyre.

You also do pageants. Tell me about that.

In 2020 I was appointed by Nina West, who is from Columbus, as the representative from Ohio for National Entertainer of the Year in Louisville, Kentucky. I placed ninth out of 13 contestants and I really fell in love with the system and fell in love with the pageantry and loved the idea of reigning and being different. I want to show that we as alternative performers, as bearded performers, you can come into these systems and shake things up.

Is there a uniquely “Ohio” style of drag?

No, and I think that’s one of the things that makes it so amazing is that everyone has their own unique style, and it’s all pretty much accepted. I started as a performer and a drag creature and there was space that was afforded to me and I transitioned to more glamor and pageantry and that’s afforded to me as well. I’ve been a bearded entertainer for a year now. The cool thing about Ohio is that there is literally a place for everyone.

I think I have everything I need. Is there anything else I didn’t ask you about that you want to bring up, or‚Ķ

I don’t think so. Are there any generic questions you haven’t asked?

Generic questions‚ĶI think I asked all of them already [laughs]. I like to ask what you’d be doing if you weren’t doing drag?

It’s a great question. I have a day job that is very demanding so I need drag to get away. I’m also very creative and artistic. I used to do web design and all these other things to pull into my creativity. Drag is the longest thing I’ve stuck with in all parts of my life, so I don’t think it’s going anywhere anytime soon.

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John deBary¬†is a drinks expert and writer. His first cocktail book,¬†Drink What You Want, is available now, and his next book,¬†Saved by the Bellini, is expected in early 2023. He is also the co-founder and president of the¬†Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the lives of hospitality industry professionals through advocacy, grant making, and impact investing.

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