Chicago: 10 Free Things to Do

True to its democratic roots, Chicago isn’t a pay-to-play kinda town. Some of its best features — the lakefront, the architecture, the zoo, some museums — are free. Here we round up the best freebies in town.

1. Get Wild
Lions, tigers, and bears, not to mention klipspringers and pygmy hippos, boast one of the city’s best residential addresses, in the heart of lakeside Lincoln Park. They may be a high-maintenance wild bunch, but admission is free. Ditto for the zoo’s adjacent Farm-in-the-Zoo attraction. A working replica of a Midwestern farm, it has domesticated animals, John Deere tractors (kids can climb on the thing), and a classic red-and-white barn. 2200 N. Cannon Drive, 312/742-2000.

2. Cover the Waterfront
Chicago boasts 32 miles of Lake Michigan frontage, paralleled by 18 miles of lakefront recreational path. Make like a local and run it, or at least walk it. For stellar skyline views ahead and sparkling lake to the east, take the stretch from North Avenue south to downtown or north to downtown from the Field Museum.

3. See Free Art (Inside)
Time your visit to Chicago’s top art museums during admission-free hours. Arrive at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 S. Michigan Ave., 312/443-3600) after 5 p.m. on Thursdays (the museum is open until 8 p.m. that night) to see the Monets, Seurats and Hoppers gratis. The Museum of Contemporary Art is free all day Tuesday (220 E. Chicago Ave., 312/280-2660).

4. See Free Art (Outside)
Chicago’s Loop district downtown is packed with public art from some pretty big-name artists. Leading the collection is the untitled work by Pablo Picasso at Daley Center Plaza (Dearborn and Washington Streets). A Jean Miro rests across Washington, and don’t miss the stone mosaic by Marc Chagall at Dearborn and Monroe Streets. The neon orange “Flamingo” by Alexander Calder anchors the plaza at Dearborn and Adams, and the white fiberglass “Monument with Standing Beast,” by Jean Dubuffet, greets passersby at Clark and Randolph.

5. Loop the Loop
Ride the Chicago “el” train as it loops around the Loop in a free 40-minute tour every Saturday at 11 a.m., 11;40 a.m., 12:20 p.m. and 1 p.m. (early May through September 30). Remember that free riders must pick up tickets at the Chicago Cultural Center (77 E. Randolph St.). The train makes the circuit three times, threading around skyscrapers and providing passing views of landmarks including the State of Illinois Building and the Chicago Theater marquee. Tours depart from the Randolph and Wabash elevated station.

6. Go Green
Noted landscape designer Jens Jensen created one of the nation’s largest conservatories in the Garfield Park Conservatory, some four acres under glass on the near west side. Climatized greenhouses range from arid desert to tropical palm room, providing balm in winter. 300 N. Central Park Ave.,773- 638-1766.

7. To Market, To Market
Chicago’s fabled Maxwell Street Market has been downsized and relocated to make way for development. But it still thrives every Sunday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Canal and Roosevelt Streets in the South Loop. Antiques are in short supply, but tools and tube socks are not. The authentic Mexican food stalls that feed the market are perhaps the best reason to visit. They’re not free, but they are cheap.

8. Meet a Local
Want a local to show you around? Arrange for a rendezvous with a Chicago Greeter. The program, sponsored by the Chicago Office of Tourism, links visitors with local residents who will spend two to four hours guiding a walkabout based on your interests.

9. Meet a Local Celebrity
Oprah Winfrey tapes her talk show in Chicago. Tickets to live tapings are free via phone at 312/591-9222. That said, tickets aren’t easy to score. Be prepared to redial and redial and redial. Harpo Studios, 1058 W. Washington St.

10. Hit the Pier
Navy Pier is Chicago’s biggest tourist attraction, drawing 8 million visitors annually. Admission to the Pier is free, but individual attractions such as the Children’s Museum and IMAX Theater charge separately. Fear not; there are loads of free things, including The Smith Museum of Stained Glass and the Beer Garden, where live bands play outdoors in fair weather. 600 E. Grand Ave., 312/595-7437.

Elaine Glusac