Summer Fun on the Cheap: 11 Free and Affordable Options

Whether you’re looking for great deals on a “stay-cation” or economical ways to show visitors a good time, there are plenty of cheap-to-free options.

One good general rule is to always ask about discounts for seniors, members of the armed forces, and kids (and group rates if you’ve got a crowd), as well as free or discounted days or performances.

Give it a pass
If you’re hosting visitors who simply must see all the marquee sites downtown, steer them to the Chicago CityPASS, which provides discounted admissions to a combo pack of 5 museums and attractions. (And don’t forget to tell them that they can get a gorgeous view for free—or at least for the price of one spiffy beverage—from the Signature Lounge on the 96th floor of the John Hancock.)

It costs nothing to look
The Art Institute offers “Free Family Wednesdays” the first and second Wednesday of every month—open 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Kids under 14 get in free every day.

The Chicago Cultural Center’s galleries are always free. The “Chicago Landmarks” exhibit of photographs of architectural treasures is on permanent display; other exhibitions are temporary. The Cultural Center also has an array of free music and other performances, particularly around lunchtime, and the visitor information center is a great clearinghouse for all kinds of events and attractions throughout the region.

If you want to take in the fresh air along with your free art, the Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park is just the thing. Guided tours are available one Sunday each month, but you can download a guide and take yourself and your family on a hike through the park’s collection of 60 artworks.

Low on cost, high on smarts
The Kohl Children’s Museum in Glenview offers a range of hands-on exhibitions in art and science for $8.50 apiece ($7.50 seniors, free for infants under one year). It’s cheaper than Six Flags, less likely to cause a sugar-and-vertigo-induced meltdown, and as Bill Cosby used to say on his kids’ show, “If you’re not careful, you might learn something.”

The sounds of summer
From “Downtown Sound” and “Dusk Variations” on Mondays featuring the newest indie rock and cutting-edge classical, to world music and jazz on Thursdays, to daily “Lunchbreak” concerts, Millennium Park offers an eclectic array of free music from homegrown talent all summer long.

And if you want to stay closer to home while exposing the next generation to great music, the Ravinia Festival offers free lawn seating to kids 15 and younger for all classical concerts, as well as the family-friendly and low-priced Kraft Great Kids Concerts on Saturdays at 11 a.m. ($10 reserved/$5 lawn).

Hot tix and free tix
Theater doesn’t have to be pricey to be good. The League of Chicago Theatres offers “Hot Tix” (half-price tickets) to a variety of offerings in the city and suburbs—and you can order online, so no more queueing up at the booth! Most theaters also have cheaper tickets for early previews as well as discounts for students and seniors, and some offer “pay what you can” or other low-cost performances. (You’re more likely to find deals away from the hot Friday and Saturday “date night” slots.)

But if “free” is your price point and you’re feeling adventurous, Oracle Theatre has you covered. The tiny storefront just north of Wrigleyville delivers some mighty mind-bending works—and they never charge a penny. Their summer season includes a production of “Hamlet” (July 6-August 11) and “Radio Goggles,” a trio of vintage radio shows lip-synched live by the actors (June 25-August 6).

Movie stars under the stars
The Chicago Outdoor Movie Festival in Grant Park has sadly fallen victim to budget cuts, but the Chicago Park District continues to offer a wide range of free outdoor screenings all over the city.

Closer to home, check out Northwestern University’s free outdoor screenings, and Winnetka has a family movie night once a month at the park in Hubbard Woods.

See the next David Sedaris
Chicago is exploding with new reading events featuring a diverse array of smart and funny comedians, essayists, actors, singers, journalists, and other all-around raconteurs, but a favorite is the Paper Machete, a free weekly “salon in a saloon” in the heart of picturesque Lincoln Square, hosted by former Time Out Chicago theater editor Christopher Piatt every Saturday at 3 p.m. A recent edition featured “Boardwalk Empire” star and Academy Award nominee (for “Revolutionary Road”) Michael Shannon. The show, which started out at Ricochets tavern, has become popular enough to warrant a move to the larger Horseshoe tavern at 4115 N. Lincoln Ave.

Photo credits:

Lead photo: Cloud Gate, by Patrick Pyszka, courtesy of Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture

Sculpture: “Goat” by Kerry Peart, courtesy of Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park

Carousel: Courtesy of Ravinia Festival