click to enlarge Summer in Chicago
photo by Alejandro Reyes courtesy of Choose Chicago
Chicago has 26 miles of shoreline and two dozen beaches along Lake Michigan for summer fun in the sun.

Chicago can be a pricey destination any time of the year, but summer is a swell time to seek some savings. Just concentrate on outdoor fun with the family or friends.

"As families plan their summer outings, Chicago offers a vibrant array of fun and oftentimes free activities," says Rich Gamble, interim president and CEO of Choose Chicago. "Chicago's rich cultural tapestry makes it the perfect summer destination for families looking to enrich their experience without stretching their budgets."

Those experiences can include reveling in nature at a zoo, parks and beaches; relaxing to free outdoor films and music; joining the crowds at a variety of festivals or escaping the sun and heat on a free day in the city's world-class museums. Top it all off with fireworks.

Of course, you will encounter the cost of transportation, hotels and restaurants, but savvy travelers can sample lots of free entertainment in the city 200 miles to our north.

Zoo and parks

Open every day, the Lincoln Park Zoo houses nearly 200 species, from aardvarks to zebras. Gates are open at 8 a.m. and buildings at 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. on weekdays and 7 p.m. on weekends and holidays. Seal training and feeding is a highlight at 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Admission is free but you do have to pay for parking and can opt for a $4 Lionel train ride, a $4 carousel spin or a $4 gorilla trek as well as some pricier experiences such as the $80-per-person penguin encounter. The zoo has been around since 1868 and features beautifully landscaped grounds.

A few miles west of downtown is another place to glory in flowers and plants. The Garfield Park Conservatory has the third-largest garden under glass in the world, a half dozen greenhouses and plenty of outdoor gardens. Make a reservation to enjoy the free 12-acre park, which is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesdays and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday with food and free on-site parking.

Chicago has 600 parks scattered throughout the city so finding a spot to rest or let the kids run off steam is not a problem.

click to enlarge Summer in Chicago
photo by Ranvestel Photographic courtesy of Choose Chicago
Free fireworks explode over Navy Pier in Chicago beginning at 9 p.m. Wednesdays and 10 p.m. Saturdays all summer long.


Along with all those parks, Chicago boasts 26 miles of shoreline and two dozen beaches along Lake Michigan. Beaches open Memorial Day weekend and are free. Some offer rentals on paddleboards, kayaks, jet skis and bicycles for the many miles of trails nearby, and some have free parking.

Popular beaches include North Avenue Beach near Lincoln Park, Oak Street beach close to downtown and Montrose Beach, favored by families for its size and official dog park. In the Hyde Park neighborhood, 57th Street Beach sits across the street from the Museum of Science and Industry and is a good place for picnics and sandcastle building.

Another family-friendly one is Loyola Beach, which tends to be quieter and has a large playground. At 31st Street Beach, beachgoers can rent pontoons along with other watercraft to get out on the lake. Hollywood Beach in the Edgewater neighborhood is popular with LGBTQ+ folks and has a nearby playground and dog park.

Movies and music

Millennium Park in the heart of downtown hosts a variety of free evening activities, including a summer film series on Tuesdays from July 16 to Aug. 20. Things kick off at 6:30 p.m. but arrive early to snag a seat in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, or spread a blanket and picnic on the lawn.

The series begins with ET and Jurassic Park on July 16 and ends with Ferris Bueller's Day Off on Aug. 20. In between are Coco, Barbie, American Fiction and Wonka.

Millennium Park also hosts a free summer series with a variety of music July 1, 11, 15, 22, 29 and Aug. 5 and 8. Preshows are at 5:30 p.m. and concerts at 6:30 p.m. Free major music festivals in the park include the Gospel Music Festival June 1, the House Music Festival June 2, the Blues Festival June 6-9 and the Jazz Festival on Labor Day weekend.

Classical music lovers flock to the Pritzker Pavilion and surrounding lawn for the Grant Park Music Festival, in its 90th season. The free festival runs June 12 through Aug. 17, generally on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, beginning at 6:30 or 7:30 p.m., depending on the night. The festival also offers concerts at other locations on other evenings.

Dvorak's Cello Concerto begins the series on June 12, and Mahler's Symphony No. 8 ends it on Aug. 16.

click to enlarge Summer in Chicago
photo by Abel Ariciega courtesy of Choose Chicago
Millennium Park in Chicago is host to free music and movie nights during the summer.

Big festivals

Chicago hosts several huge festivals in the summer and early fall so, depending on your tastes, you may want to embrace or avoid those weekends. Expect large crowds and pricey hotel rooms during the Lollapalooza music festival Aug. 1-4 in Grant Park (tickets starting at $149 a day), the Chicago Air and Water Show Aug. 10-11 at the lakefront (free) and the Taste of Chicago Sept. 6-8 with the main event in Grant Park (free but you pay for food and drinks).


If you want a break from heat or sun, you can head indoors to the city's major museums, many of which offer free admission on designated days or nights. Adler Planetarium is free from 4-10 p.m. Wednesdays, the Field Museum is free Wednesdays all year and the Art Institute is free from 5-8 p.m. on Thursdays from June 6-Sept. 26 for Illinois residents.

Shedd Aquarium is free for Illinois residents from 5-9 p.m. on May 28 and June 4, 11, 18 and 25. The Chicago History Museum is free May 27 and 29; June 19, 23, 26 and 29; July 4 and 17; and Aug. 28. Many of the city's smaller museums are free any time.


Navy Pier has a free fireworks series beginning May 25 and lasting all summer at 9 p.m. Wednesdays and 10 p.m. Saturdays. Popular soundtracks accompany the shows with themed music on holidays. Officials recommend watching the show from along the lakeshore, at the Navy Pier beer garden or from a rooftop or high balcony.

To help you plan your summer Chicago spree, go to for more details on events and locations.

Mary Bohlen of Springfield writes about travel for IT and other publications. She is a former reporter for United Press International and retired UIS journalism professor.

Mary Bohlen

Mary Bohlen is a retired journalism professor who is a regular contributor to Illinois Times. She specializes in writing about interesting places in Illinois and nearby states worthy of day or weekend trips.

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