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Summer in the city, Chicago freebies galore

Ten Freebies in the Windy City

Millennium Park was opened 10 years ago on July 14, 2014.
Millennium Park was opened 10 years ago on July 14, 2014.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

With its theater, music and literary scenes, fine dining, sports teams, museums and unmatched lakefront, Chicago is worth visiting any time of year. Well, except maybe for February, though you’ll even find plenty to do inside in the Windy City if you make your way here during the shortest month.

But summer in Chicago is savored and planned, anticipated and filled with so many outdoor events that your calendar is jammed. There’s nothing like summer in Chicago. Where else can you spend a single day walking between stunning beaches, world-class museums and high-end shopping and move on to evening plans where you can walk to a batch of upscale restaurants and bars and choose either innovative theater or a free outdoor symphony to cap the evening.

Chicagoans know how to do summer. And that means spending when it’s worth it and taking advantage of a full lineup of freebies the rest of the time. July 16th marks the 10th anniversary of the opening of Chicago’s famed Millennium Park, 25 acres of interactive open space in the heart of downtown, and many of the worthwhile freebies for tourists as well as locals can be found there.

But there are other great freebies in this city, extending beyond Millennium Park. Here are some that are on my radar in Millennium Park and elsewhere:

1. Free concerts in Millennium Park. The schedule can give you specifics, but events are in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion featuring Downtown Sound—a blend of indie rock and pop and cutting-edge bands—on Mondays, Made in Chicago: World Class Jazz on Thursdays and the Grant Park Music Festival highlighting classical performances, takes the stage mostly on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

2. Free movies in Millennium Park on Tuesday nights at dusk, showing popular films like “20 Feet From Stardom,” “This is Spinal Tap,” and American Graffiti.”

3. The Family Fun Festival, running daily until Aug. 24 at the northeast corner of the park offers activities and performances targeted to the 10-and-under set.

4. Lurie Garden, a five-acre piece of solitude in the midst of Millennium Park’s hubbub, has free guided walks on Fridays and Sundays through the summer.

5. Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate sculpture, known locally as the Bean, has become an iconic image of the city. One of the best freebies in the park is a visit to the Bean for photographs and then a stop at the Jaume Plensa Crown Fountain, where your kids can run through the water on a warm day.

A few freebies outside the park include:

1. Just a few blocks south of Millennium Park, in the Spirit of Music Garden in Grant Park, is another great Chicago freebie. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, Chicago Summerdance has been offering free one-hour dance lessons on an open-air dance floor. This year, 44 different bands perform in all variety of styles.

2. Also a few blocks from the park is the private Union League Club, which has one of the most important private art collections in the Midwest. Many people don’t know that the club gives free tours to the public on the first Monday of every month at 10 a.m. Reservations are required. Call 312.435.5942 or email

3. A new museum far from Millennium Park is the Ed Paschke Art Center, which opened in June in the Jefferson Park neighborhood on the Northwest Side. Open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. at 5415 W. Higgins, it celebrates the work of the acclaimed Chicago painter.

4. Up and down the lakefront are 26 miles of free beaches, each with a different character. Oak Street and North Avenue Beaches are where the hotties hang out. But North Avenue also has volleyball nets and a great beachhouse restaurant with fabulous views and decent food. One of my favorite Chicago beaches is the 12th Street Beach, near the museum campus, where sunrise is special and peaceful and the crowds usually aren't too large on most days.l

5. Neighborhood festivals are mostly free and worth the travel time to give you an insider’s view of the way people live in this most American of American cities. Check out The Chinatown Summer Fair on July 20 or the Taste of Latin America in the Logan Square neighborhood on Aug. 2 and Aug. 3.

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