CHICAGO -- It may be known as the Windy City, but cash need not go flying from your pockets when you visit Chicago. From the shores of Lake Michigan to the sidewalks along the Magnificent Mile, you can find outdoor family fun along with history and culture without spending a cent. Here are five free things to do.
• The Mile: A walk along the Magnificent Mile is a great, free way to take in Chicago’s history and architecture. Start at the bridge over the Chicago River on Michigan Avenue and walk 13 blocks north to Oak Street. Check out the historic bridge towers and take in the view of two of Chicago’s most famous skyscrapers, the Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower.
The Chicago Water Tower, near the northern end of the Magnificent Mile, now serves as a city visitor’s center, but is one of the few buildings to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
• The Pier: Chicago’s Navy Pier, nearly a century old, juts into Lake Michigan. It features shopping, dining, theater and is the departure point for boat rides and cruises. The pier is home to the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Chicago Children’s Museum, an IMAX movie theater and a 150-foot tall Ferris wheel.
Navy Pier also has bicycle rentals for lake parks and paths; a carousel and Segway tours; boutiques, carts and stores filled with souvenirs; and dining.
• The parks: Chicagoans consider Grant Park and Millennium Park the city’s front yard. The parks comprise hundreds of acres along southern Michigan Avenue filled with gardens, public art and views of the city and Lake Michigan. Grant Park is home to Buckingham Fountain and hosts summer food and music festivals. It offers easy access to The Art Institute of Chicago, Adler Planetarium, the Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium.
Most afternoons Millennium Park is filled with children splashing at Crown Fountain or tourists snapping pictures of Cloud Gate — the reflective, shiny statue more widely known as “The Bean.” Crowds gather under the crisscrossed canopy at Pritzker Pavilion on summer evenings to hear music and in winter for an ice rink.
• The lakefront: The Chicago Park District maintains 26 miles of waterfront property on Lake Michigan. Beaches are free, open late May to early September. Among the most popular of Chicago’s nearly two dozen beaches are Oak Street Beach and Ohio Street Beach near downtown.
Ten harbors also dot the Lake Michigan coast in Chicago with accommodations for about 6,000 boats. Cyclists, runners and rollerbladers will appreciate the Lakefront Trail, which runs paved for 18 miles and offers parks, beaches, gardens and statues.
• The zoo: Families flock to the 49-acre Lincoln Park Zoo a few miles north of downtown Chicago. It’s one of just a handful of free zoos in America, home to 200 species. There’s also a children’s zoo and an African-themed section with dwarf crocodiles, pygmy hippos, meerkats and warthogs.