You don’t need to reach for your wallet to get your fill of fun things to do in Chicago. Here are 10 of our favorite free events and activities this month, including holiday celebrations, ice skating, outdoor light displays, free museum days, and so much more. Start planning your budget-friendly Chicago adventures now.
1. Go skating at a free ice rink
Nothing says “winter in Chicago” like gliding around on one of the city’s magical ice skating rinks. One favorite spot is the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink, which is now open for its 20th season. This free-admission rink in Millennium Park is nestled in the shadow of “The Bean” and the glimmering lights of Michigan Avenue. Note that online reservations are required this year, skate rentals are available for a fee. Find more free ice rinks throughout Chicago’s neighborhoods.
2. Experience a traditional Christmas market
Christkindlmarket is back! The beloved Chicago tradition turns the downtown Daley Plaza into a bustling holiday market, filling the air with the smell of roasted nuts, hot pretzels, and mulled wine. Admission is free to come in and peruse artisan goods, imported German gifts, and handmade holiday decorations. You can even catch cultural activities and family-friendly events. The market is open through Dec. 24.
3. See the official Chicago Christmas Tree
For more than 100 years, the city of Chicago has celebrated the holiday season with the the official Chicago Christmas Tree in Millennium Park. Watch the lights turn on each evening at sunset, then snap a few photos before exploring the rest of the park. The tree will stay standing through Jan. 9, 2022.
4. Be dazzled by ZooLights
More than one million lights make up the mesmerizing displays at ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo. This year’s family-friendly holiday event, set in the city’s historic lakefront zoo, includes brand new light shows, an 18-foot tree, and live entertainment. Tickets are $5 online, but admission is free every Monday and Tuesday in December. Make sure to reserve your free spot in advance.
5. Explore a museum
There’s no better way to spend an afternoon than by wandering through a new museum exhibit or art gallery. Here are the upcoming free museum days this month (and make sure to reserve your tickets ahead of time):
- Museum of Science and Industry is free for Illinois residents on Dec. 8, 2021
- Art Institute of Chicago is free for Illinois residents on weekdays (Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays) from Nov. 29 – Dec. 17, 2021
- DuSable Museum of African American History is offering free admission every Wednesday
You can also check out one of the city’s always-free museums, like the Museum of Contemporary Photography, the National Museum of Mexican Art, and the Hyde Park Art Center. And check out free museum days throughout the year.
6. See the world’s largest video art show
Art on theMART is a can’t-miss Chicago experience. The free show lights up the Chicago Riverwalk with a stunning light display every evening at 7:30 and 8 p.m. Grab a spot near the water and enjoy vivid projections. This winter, the program has partnered with Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet to bring The Nutcracker to life on a grand scale.
7. Visit the Stony Island Arts Bank
In the South Shore neighborhood, the Stony Island Arts Bank is a former bank building that’s been transformed into a thriving community hub for the arts. The stunning space now offers free events, including live house music, workshop, and exhibits like the current Toward Common Cause. Plus, the library is the perfect spot to curl on up a chilly day.
8. Experience the Chicago Architecture Biennial
It’s last call for the largest architecture and design exhibition in North America. Open through Dec. 18, the show features projects created by contributors from around the globe, presented in neighborhoods all across the city. The Chicago Architecture Biennial is free to all and includes a variety of projects, exhibitions, and programming around the theme “The Available City”. Check out the full programming schedule.
9. See landscape art under glass
Recently named the best garden in North America by Yelp users, Garfield Park Conservatory is a lush wonderland of plant life from all over the world, including massive palm trees, cacti, succulents, flowers, and more. The conservatory is housed inside a historic glass structure designed by the legendary Jens Jensen. This month, you can catch the Winter Flower Show, based on the theme Serenity, on display all December long. The conservatory is free, donations are accepted.
10. Take a free neighborhood tour
Whether you’re a first-time visitor or a long-time resident, there’s always something new to discover in Chicago. Get to know a new neighborhood on a free Chicago Greeter tour, led by a friendly local who will show you each neighborhood’s landmarks, hot spots, and hidden gems.
Looking for more? Check out our guide on free things to do in Chicago all year long.