Visit These Popular Chicago Museums for Free
They say the best things in life are free, which makes admission-free opportunities to explore Chicago’s most popular museums—some of which typically come with a price tag that can be inhibitive for those on a budget—a real no-brainer. Don’t miss your chance to check out these six museums in the city without paying a dime; a couple are free to the public year-round while some have designated weekly or yearly discount days for Illinois residents. Then share a ride or split the fare with friends to keep costs down on your next cultural adventure.
Chicago Cultural Center
Constructed more than 100 years ago as the original Chicago Public Library and a Civil War memorial, the beautiful Chicago Cultural Center draws hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world to its free music, dance and theater events, films, lectures, art exhibitions and family events every year. The contemporary arts and culture hub, which became the country’s first free, city-operated cultural center in 1991, is also home to the world’s largest Tiffany stained-glass dome with 30,000 pieces of glass. It’s free to tour the marble-and-mosaic landmark, and also a great spot for complimentary outdoor wifi!
Chicago Design Museum
The Loop’s Chicago Design Museum first started as a pop-up museum with its various exhibitions hosted in different venues around the city in 2012 and 2013. Since 2014, it’s permanent space on the third floor of the Block Thirty Seven building has been open for the public to explore design culture for free through its dynamic exhibitions centered around community and accessible design. The volunteer-run museum closes between exhibitions for installation, so be sure to check its website or call ahead before you go. Tours are $10 per non-member (free for members), but they’re worth looking into for large or small private groups.
The Art Institute of Chicago
While one of the nation’s oldest and largest art museums, The Art Institute of Chicago, is obviously worth the admission fee, why not wander its plethora of unique galleries for free if you can? Children under the age of 14 can always get in free, and several outdoor spaces are open to the public, but Illinois residents can hit up the Grant Park institution’s world-famous permanent collections from 5 to 8 p.m. every Thursday without even pulling out their wallets (well, maybe just to show some ID).
McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum
Even if you know little about Chicago’s history, you’ve likely heard something about the Chicago River’s role in city development. Housed within a landmark five-story bridgehouse, the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum brings the city’s story to life through its river-focused exhibits. Discover the dynamic relationship between Chicago and its waterway for free on Sundays (though the $5 general admission probably won’t set you back too much and children under age five get in free regularly). The museum’s gear room gives visitors a behind-the-scenes peek at the massive Michigan Avenue Bridge’s moving gears at work during spring and fall season bridge lift days.
Museum of Science and Industry
On select days during the year, the Museum of Science and Industry‘s award-winning exhibits open to Illinois residents for free (check here for dates, which are updated each year). Discover your inner engineer at the LEGO brick building exhibit or descend into a “working” coal mine through the museum’s very first exhibit. The more than 400,000-square-foot museum features over 35,000 artifacts, including a prized U-505 submarine from WWII—one of only five U-boats still in existence. The building itself is amazingly one of only two remaining from the 1893 World’s Fair, and the museum is currently the largest science center in the Western Hemisphere.
Sea animal lovers can head to the Shedd Aquarium, one of the city’s most popular attractions with five million gallons of water and 1,500 species. Illinois residents can cross it off their bucket lists for free on select Mondays and Tuesdays during the year to uncover the mysterious underwater world and how the various species thrive through the Waters of the World, Caribbean Reef, and Amazon Rising exhibits. Continue the animal adventures at the Lincoln Park Zoo, which is actually free every day of the week year-round!