The Best (Free) Summer Activities in Chicago

The Best (Free) Summer Activities in Chicago

Congrats Columbia students, we’re finally in the last few moments of the semester! While most of us probably only associate that fact with the ominous threat of finals, the end of the school year also means that you’re about to have a lot more free time on your hands. Whether you’re staying in Chicago for the entire summer or just a few days, you’re going to want to pass the time doing something more exciting than just sitting in the dark staring at your computer screen (after all, you’ve probably done plenty of that already this year).

Instead of letting everyone else soak up all that summer sun, why not check out some of the most amazing (and most free) attractions that Chicago has to offer? We’ve done all the hard work for you and created a list of the best free Chicago activities, so all you have to do is show up and have a good time.

Grant Park Music Festival

Running from June to August, the Grant Park Music Festival gives attendees an opportunity to experience high-quality music and the famous Chicago skyline in tandem. The festival offers free seating to the public on the Great Lawn at every one of its dozens of outdoor concerts located in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Since outside food and drink are welcome, these concerts are the perfect opportunity for you to pack yourself a picnic and really take advantage of Chicago’s warm summer nights. In terms of free entertainment, you’d be hard pressed to find a more complete experience.

This year’s concert offerings include a screening of The Wizard of Oz with the live soundtrack performed provided by the Grant Park Orchestra, as well as classical mainstays like The Flight of the Bumblebee and Swan Lake. Even if you’ve never considered yourself a classical music fan, the Grant Park Music Festival is poised to change your mind.

Check out the festival’s full schedule here.

The Art Institute of Chicago

Alright, it’s not technically a free attraction, but luckily for all of us, Columbia students get free admission to the AIC when they show a Columbia student ID. That means that all 300,000 pieces in the permanent collection (as well as many of the traveling exhibitions) are just a casual saunter away.

The museum building is an experience in and of itself, with multiple wings playing host to a vast array of collections, all housed inside a building that was originally built for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (a.k.a., the Chicago World’s fair). Today, you can see everything from modern paintings by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, to works you’ve undoubtedly seen in pictures that are even more impressive in person, like American Gothic, Nighthawks, and A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. Just take a look at the ‘Essentials’ page to gawk at the sheer volume of famous paintings the AIC has on display.

Even if you’ve visited the AIC before, there’s still reason to make a return trip this summer: check out the giant metal horse skeleton installed on the museum’s roof titled Gift Horse, or the current exhibition of Rembrandt portraits (but hurry, those leave Chicago on June 9th!). Regardless of what you plan on seeing at the AIC, you’re going to be left wanting to return. And why not? The summer is long, and admission is free!

Lincoln Park Zoo

Sure, it may seem a bit obvious, but that doesn’t make it any less fun! With 16 different animal habitat zones housing over 200 different animal species, the Lincoln Park Zoo never disappoints. Even if you’ve been many times before, there’s still something new for you to get excited about: as of last week, Lincoln Park welcomed four critically endangered red wolf pups into the world! These adorable little creatures will emerge from their den in about a month’s time, so be sure to plan your visit accordingly to catch a glimpse of these rare wolves.

Looking for an animal experience that’s a bit more personal? Then we’d recommend checking out the open air room in the McCormick Bird House, where you can hang out in close proximity with many exotic (and hilarious) birds. With so many curious creatures nearby, you won’t be able to help but feel like David Attenborough. Just be sure to visit on a weekday, as the birds are much more less shy when it’s not crowded.

Garfield Park Conservatory

More interested in flora than fauna? Then we’d recommend checking out the stunning Garfield Park Conservatory. With 2 acres of plants housed inside the greenhouse as well as 10 acres of outdoor gardens, the Garfield Conservatory is a Chicago must-see. It’s hard to believe that such an amazing and tranquil place could exist within the bustling city limits of Chicago, but once you set foot inside 112-year-old greenhouse or feed ducks at one of the outdoor pounds, you’ll understand why this conservatory is one of the nation’s most visited.

Admission is free, and to top it all off, the Garfield Park Conservatory is easily accessible from Columbia’s campus via the Green Line. A day of tropical exploration is only a few minutes away!