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How to Have an Under $100 Family Day-Trip in Chicago IL

brave the free things to do in Chicago IL with your friends, family

June 25, 2018
Danny Brown

No big bucks are required if you’re in for a fun weekend with your family or friends. It is possible to stretch your budget with simple things in life with pursuits that either free or discounted. If you watch what you spend on, you can make the biggest bang for the buck at festivals, museums, tours and events held throughout the year in Chicago, IL, and all that is required is a little bit of vigilance to take things off the rails in The Windy City.

Scattered throughout the city are parks with gratis admissions, music venues where entertainers pump up the crowd, and museums that let you jive with like-minded people at their art venues for a minimal fee. So, if you want to make the best of your time here in Chicago without breaking the bank, here is the lowdown. Remember, there are only rules of thumb and nothing written in stone for things like this. As long as you keep yourself informed, call the venues or attractions ahead of time (or at least check their latest social media postings for updates or changes), Chicago is an elixir for a busy week’s escapade.

Get Out and About at Free Hiking Trails

All you need is the shirt on your back, hiking boots, water, a snack, a few good friends and you’re good to go. Most hiking trails around Chicago, IL, are absolutely free.
  • North Park Village Nature Center
    5801 N Pulaski Rd, Chicago, IL 60646
    (312) 744-5472
    Hours : Daly 10am - 4pm
  • The 606 - Bloomingdale Line
    Chicago, IL 60647
    (312) 742-4622,
    Hours: Daily 6am - 11pm
    An abandoned former rail line it has now turned that into a 2.7-mile multi-use recreational park with space for sports, fitness activities, works of art and green space for all to enjoy
  • Sauganash Trail
    4400 Bryn Mawr To 4400 Devon, Chicago, IL 60646
    With motorized vehicles not permitted into Evanston to East Forest Glen, the trail is a gem to the local community and a staple for those who are looking for a place to hike, jog, walk their dogs or kids, or just get their morning sunrise shots. The 30-mile worth of trail has its twists and turns but is suitable for seniors, moms with their strollers, young children and rollerbladers too.
  • Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve
    Intersection Of Cass And Northgate Roads, Darien, IL 60561
    (630) 933-7200,
    Known for its stunning bluffs, the extensive network of trails, prairies, savannas, woodlands, the large number of native plants which seems to grow naturally in DuPage County, and the waterfall is a nice addition to the plethora of natural wonders in IL. The mapped trails are widely enjoyed by joggers, hikers, bicyclists, horseback riders and cross-country skiers. It’s a bonus that the waterfall is only a short jaunt away from the entrance so if you have kids, you don't need to walk too far to enjoy a quick splash in nature’s best gifts.

Families of all ages and campers of different experience levels participated in our Great American Campout last weekend at Greene Valley Forest Preserve in Naperville. . Seventy-three participants enjoyed archery, making giant bubbles, a scavenger hunt, nature art, roasting hot dogs by campfire, singing silly songs, listening to campfire stories, going on a night hike twinkling with thousands of fireflies, and participating in an egg drop contest. . The Great American Campout is a nationwide event created by the National Wildlife Federation to encourage families to spend time together outside in nature by camping together.

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Chicago Cultural Center

78 E. Washington Street, Chicago, IL 60602
(312) 744-3316
Hours: Daily 10 am - 7 pm
With over 1,000 programs held throughout the year since its inception in 1897, the iconic Chicago landmark has hosted world leaders ranging from Presidents to royalty, diplomats to community leaders. As the first free municipal cultural center in the country, it’s led the pack for innovation in comprehensive showcases.

Since most of the events held at the center are free of charge, thousands of visitors would throng to its stained-glass domed (the 38-feet Tiffany Dome is located at the south side of the building while you can find the intricate Renaissance pattern designed mosaic by Healy & Millet on the north side) venue for free dance, theater, musical, theatre events and lectures, seminars, talks and family events. The Chicago Children’s Choir hold their practices and shows at the venue. Its motto is ‘Come for the Beauty, Stay for the Events’ and it holds true to this day, helping the public across all backgrounds enjoy art in its rawest and inspiring forms.

So, if you need a place to relax with your loved ones, looking for a break after work, or need activities to keep your young ones entertained during a rainy day, the cultural center might have something you can pin down. It’s free too. The diamond in the rough across Millennium Park is so picturesque that the former library serves as a backdrop for wedding photos.

Lincoln Park Zoo

2001 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60614
(312) 742-2000
Hours : Monday to Friday 10am - 5pm, Saturday and Sunday 10am - 6.30pm
Just ask anyone with kids what’s their favorite place to be during weekends and one of their predictable answers would be the Lincoln Park Zoo. The reason is simple: there’s nothing NOT to like about it. It’s open 365 days a year, is a free, consistently growing educational organization, and is home to a historical zoo. The 35-acre zoo is one of the oldest zoos in the country and its free admission is a big draw. There are few free zoos left not just in the United States, but also the world over.

This world-class zoo has an active science and conservation-focused facility and is home to mammals like mice and massive blue whales, and reptiles like Blanding's Turtle, Dwarf Crocodile, Black Tree Monitor, African Rock Python and the Prehensile-Tailed Skink. Saving the planet and the wild of the world tugs at the hearts of its fans, supporters and yearly donors who are a part of their Donors Club keep the zoo from charging visitors a fee.

Garfield Park

300 N Central Park Ave, Chicago, IL 60624
(312) 746-5100
Hours: Daily 9 am - 5 pm, except for Wednesday 9 am - 8 pm
The 184-acre Garfield Park is located less than 10 minutes from West Loop and a short drive from most top attractions around Chicago. With hundreds of years worth of history, the park’s conservatory welcomes solo visitors, tourists, adult and student groups alike.

Its aim is to promote a better understanding of how the everyday food and water we consume relates directly to the plants, air, and earth around us. All in a day’s work, they continue to explore, experiment and examine the world around us and then dispense their findings through their exhibits.

While many of the plants, flowers, and shrubs are common in Chicago’s ordinary backyard, the conservatory creates hybrids, discover new specimens and showcase their evolution at Show House a few times a year. Its exhibits include the 65-foot and 90-feet wide Palm House, Fern Room which dates back to the early 1900s, Sugar from the Sun, Desert House, Aroid House (focus on houseplants), Horticulture Hall, Outdoor Gardens, and the E.M.G. Gardens for the little ones. 

With climate-controlled rooms to walk around in, it may seem like an accelerated walking tour around the world. Contact them at if you wish to visit the attraction in a group of 10 people or more so that the management can cater to your needs more efficiently.

North Avenue Beach

Hours: 11am - 7pm
A trip to the beach makes you feel like you've stepped onto a tropical beachside haven without having to drive too far out of Chicago’s downtown area. The inviting white sandy beach has an astounding view of Chicago’s skyline and remains to be one of the area’s most popular beaches.

With 22,000 square feet of space, a beach house complete with decks and portholes, waterfront trails for beach-goers, runners, walkers, rollerbladers, and bikers, it is a regular stomping ground for families because it has free sand pails and games for young kids and a spot for live entertainment.

For adventure seekers, enjoy a game of volleyball, head out on a kayak, or take a quick dip in the cool waters of Lake Michigan. And when you’re done with beach activities, located a short distance away are restaurants like The J. Parker, Corcoran's Grill and Pub, Elaine's Coffee Call and Nookies for quick bites, lunch or dinner, as well as Lincoln Park Zoo and Chicago History Museum for further tours.

Because the beach can get crowded during summer months, be ready to scout around and stake out a space for yourself (with a towel or blanket) a little earlier than others.

Chicago Botanic Garden

1000 Lake Cook Rd, Glencoe, IL 60022
(847) 835-5440
Hours: Daily 8 am - Sunset

The last, but definitely not least, on the list (we can only fit so many of them here) is the Chicago Botanic Garden. The flower power haven is a getaway for urbanites and suburbanites alike. With countless gardens flanked by beautiful lights, patches of aquatic flowers living amongst locally-grown fruits and vegetables, prairie plants and vegetation you can only find in wooded and forested areas, it is a blessing that the Chicago Botanic Garden remains unequivocally free.

For over 40 years, it is a staple for more than a million visitors and is known as one of the greatest living museums, and a formidable conservation science center, in the country. It’s a far cry from what it started off with.

The nearly 400-acres worth of land has everything from islands to six miles of shoreline, a renowned Bonsai plant selection to summer evening events. They hold free concerts at the garden from Monday to Thursday every summer (June to September) and it provides an assuaging respite. If you plan your visit right, you’ll get to enjoy fun events like the Night of 1,000 Jack-o’-Lanterns, Wonderland Express during winter, visit miniature Chicago landmarks, ice carvings, picnic dinners and one-of-a-kind sales and promotional events.

the flower pics look like stock photos but i swear i took them

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Making The Best of Your Budget

There’s no ‘perfect solution’, ‘one size fits all’, and ‘best summer ever’ for visiting a city. The most important thing is to focus on your preferences and budget. Fitting as many things into your schedule is not always conducive nor is it the most productive way to spend your time. As the saying goes, 'stop and smell the roses’ occasionally and you’ll get a far more enriching experience.

Free activities and events are evergreens. They’re precious and always appreciated by the locals and I think you’ll have a splendid time enjoying it too.

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