ChTimes are hard. Believe me, I get it. But why on earth does that mean that you can’t take a vacation this year? Yes, you read correctly. Not “staycation.” Not “No-cation.” Vacation. A chance for you to get away and enjoy the sights and experiences of somewhere beside home and work. Take it from a cheapskate: there are all sorts of amazing experiences just begging to be had that don’t cost a dime, even in a cool, classy town like Chicago. So go ahead and pull up your budget to take a second look at those numbers, ’cause it’s totally doable for your family this year with these free activities.
Most people like a good zoo. After all, what’s not to like? Like most zoos, Lincoln Park strives to have a variety of animals for patrons’ viewing pleasure with interactive, educational displays that give interesting facts about that cute and fuzzy (or scaly and ugly) critter on the other side of the glass. And what’s a creature-filled park without a gift shop and restaurant? But Lincoln Park Zoo goes beyond the typical and well into the exceptional, to the point that they made #3 on Fodor’s Top 10 Zoos list in 2015.
Not only do they have over 1,000 animals (representing over 200 species), but they also have 16 exhibits and animal houses containing some of their most exotic creatures. And when you’re tired of looking at the animals, check out one of their daily shows, like “Snow Monkey Science,” which demonstrates some of the latest scientific discoveries on these incredible creatures with hands-on technology that the kiddos will love. To top it all off, they’re open 365 days a year, so whenever you make your trip, you know they’ll be open and have something unforgettable for you to see.
The Chicago Cultural Center’s building alone has a rich history, beginning back in 1897 when it was built as the city’s first public library. Although late 19th century architecture is generally awe-inspiring anyway, this building truly takes the cake with two stained-glass domes and special materials (like rare marble and hardwoods) from all over the world. But what really gives the Chicago Cultural Center character isn’t the architecture, but rather the events held inside. With incredible traveling exhibits, concerts, performances, lectures, dances, and family activities, this place is a hub for local flair and always offers different experiences for visitors. Is it any wonder that this is one of the most visited sites in Chicago?
Picture a whole museum dedicated to money. More specifically, the Federal Reserve System and how it works. Now imagine several displays that teach about inflation, counterfeits, the history of US currency, and what happens to money when it’s no longer in circulation. Then add to that mental picture a display called “The Million Dollar Cube,” which literally holds that amount of money. And then there’s “The Million Dollar Suitcase,” which also contains more hundred dollar bills than most people have seen in a lifetime. Now I want you to picture you and your family standing by that suitcase and getting a picture taken with it. Are you sold on this experience yet?
The Money Museum, located just a few blocks west of the Art Institute (230 South LaSalle Street), has received high ratings from visitors and has the reputation of being a great place to take the kids to help them learn about money.
Visiting a botanical garden is an incredible way to see a wide variety of beautiful plants. They typically sport both indoor and outdoor attractions—plenty to please anyone, even someone who is hesitant to enjoy the outdoors! For those of us who can’t get enough time with nature, especially while visiting the Windy City, there are several around town.
This particular garden spreads over 360 acres (that’s .56 square miles) and contains nearly 2,500,000 plants! There are 27 separate specialty gardens, like the rose garden, the fruits and vegetable garden, the heritage garden, the Japanese garden, and many others that reflect the interests of the surrounding metropolis. Since it’s so large, it is a haven for several varieties of birds, insects, and animals.
Of course, since this is an outdoor garden, you’ll see more of its open air beauty in the spring, summer, or fall. But even in the winter, there are things to do or see. Take the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center, for instance. Although it’s mostly used as facility for those seeking higher education in botany and related fields, there is a viewing gallery and a 16,000 sq. ft. green roof garden that are open to the public. This center strives to have incredible temporary displays that will mesmerize viewers of all ages.
Garfield Park Conservatory has a large indoor campus featuring climate-controlled houses for a different variety of plants, like ferns, palms, and exotic flowers, including an indoor garden specifically designed for children, and another one that simulates a desert climate!
And that’s just the inside. Outside, they have twelve separate gardens, ponds, and exhibits, all ready to enthrall you with the beauties and mysteries of the outdoors. These include a labyrinth, lily pool, a honeybee exhibit, a sensory garden, and even a garden that replicates the garden that the famous French artist Oscar-Claude Monet kept in his back yard. There’s also a “Play and Grow” garden designed for the little ones to enjoy.
Although this museum isn’t free, when I heard about it, I decided it deserved an honorable mention. It was designed to facilitate genuine natural world experiences for those living in extremely urban Chicago. And you know what? It worked. This three story museum has more hands-on science displays than any other museum in the city. And besides its interactive displays, it also has a famous butterfly house, memorials to bison and extinct birds, hiking trails, an indoor greenhouse, and a look-in lab, which shows several animals that the museum’s scientists and volunteers care for on a daily basis. But these are just a few of this museum’s incredible assets. You’ll have to visit it to discover the rest!
Admission prices: $9 for Adults, $7 for Students and Seniors (60+), $6 for Children Ages 3 – 12, and free for Children under 3
Since we’ve been on a roll with parks and such, let’s touch on Millennium Park, one part of Chicago that never ever stays the same. It’s always bustling with activity. Hundreds of visitors pass through every day and there’s always some kind of free concert, exhibit, or family activity going on. Of course, there are park features that never really change, like the incredible displays of architecture such as The Bean, which is a piece of art that is shaped like a ginormous kidney bean and is made completely from mirrors. Or the Jay Pritzer Pavilion, an outdoor amphitheater and concert hall, which is a wonder in sound engineering.
But that’s just the main sections of the park. There is also modern art exhibits, a large fountain, a massive playground that will tempt children of all ages, and beautiful flower gardens. Visiting this park is an absolute must for anyone who is visiting Chicago.
Hike Around Downtown Chicago
Before wandering off to check out more of Chicago’s sites, you really need to walk around downtown Chicago. Although this area of town is equated with expensive shops like Macy’s, there’s so much more to experience! Check out some of the chapels that feature Gothic architecture. Look for monuments and modern art. Definitely keep an eye out for the silver men, who can be found almost any fine day around downtown Chicago. They’re great to take pictures next to, but be careful! Although they look like statues, they’re actually actors who may move in the middle of the shot just to get a reaction.
Don’t forget to look at the buildings! Architecture from every era since the Great Chicago Fire grace the streets and it’s amazing to see so many representatives from ages past. Although it may seem overly simplistic, it’s actually a lot of fun to look at the sights and snap selfies and pictures of friends as a way to commemorate your trip to the Windy City.
This post originally appeared on Daring Penguin Travel Blog, published December 31, 2015.