Top Chicago Cultural Attractions
Chicago has a rich culture, and there are several different downtown Chicago attractions that you can check out to learn more about the history of the city or just to have something to do. We’ve put together a list of great places to check out throughout downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods to help you get to know the Windy City. And, the good news is, exploring the culture of Chicago won’t cost you an arm and a leg. Most of these cultural attractions are free or reasonably priced.
The Best Cultural Attractions in Chicago
This park just west of the Loop is a Chicago staple, and if you work downtown, it’s a great place to walk to on your lunch. In Millennium Park you’ll find the famous Cloud Gate sculpture, affectionately known as The Bean, where you can stop and get a selfie, but it’s not the only thing to do in the park. Check out Crown Fountain, Lurie Garden, or the Jay Pritzker Pavilion for great places to relax. Take the BP pedestrian bridge to get to Maggie Daley park, where you can rock climb and rollerblade, and if you’re hungry, you can easily grab a snack at the Plaza at the Park Grill right next to the Bean.
Lincoln Park Zoo
What’s your favorite animal? You’ll probably be able to find them at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Admission to the zoo is free! The Lincoln Park Zoo is one of only three free zoos left in the country, and houses over 200 different species and over a thousand animals in an intimate park setting. The zoo was founded in 1868, which makes It one of the oldest zoos in North America. While you’re here, check out the nature boardwalk for a stunning view of the Chicago skyline. There’s always someone new to see at the zoo, too. Check out the newest arrivals to the zoo here.
There are a ton of museums to visit all over Chicago, but you can find the core of some of the best museums within Chicago’s Museum Campus. Located east of South Loop along Lake Michigan, you’ll find a little corner of Chicago’s culture tucked within this 57-acre park. Stop into the Adler Planetarium and check out the current space exhibits, or take a walk through the Shedd Aquarium and see over 32,000 animals that live underwater and on land. You can also check out the Field Museum of Natural History, which is one of the largest of its kind in the world. Along with the great attractions located here, you can also walk around the paths and promenades within the park.
Art Institute of Chicago
Love getting lost in an art museum? The Art Institute of Chicago is the right place to go. While tickets are $25 for adults, if you have a Chicago Public Library card you can check out a pass for admission, or take advantage of the free admission for Illinois residents on Thursdays from 5 - 8 p.m. You could easily spend your entire day here — that’s how much there is to see! But if you’re short on time, head to the European painting collection, it’s one of the most impressive collections in the world, or the contemporary art rooms, where you can see over 1,000 works from 1945 to present. You can also check out the current exhibitions to see the current collections on display.
Whether you’re going for a game or just to be a part of the party scene that blows up around the 100 bars surrounding the stadium, Wrigley Field is a staple of Chicago’s culture. The stadium was built in 1914 and is the second oldest ballpark in the country. Tickets aren’t as cheap as they once were since the 2016 World Series win, but if you’re struggling to find affordable seats you can still enjoy the game from one of the bars or restaurants near the field. Check out Murphy’s Bleachers, The Cubby Bear, or Casey Moran’s for a lively crowd and ample TV access.
The Green Mill
The Green Mill is a historic jazz club in Uptown Chicago. The cocktail bar opened in 1907 and is known for popular jazz acts and poetry readings. Plus, it has ties to Chicago’s mob history, Prohibition, and several different movies focused in the Chicago area. Go here to see fantastic jazz performances or poetry readings, or just soak in the history with a fancy cocktail. Make sure you check out the booth at the end of the bar along the wall — this is where Al Capone would sit so he could keep an eye on everyone in the bar.
If you’re a fan of the comedy specials on Netflix, go see them in real life at Second City. This world-renowned comedy theatre has a variety of sketch, improv, and stand-up shows every night where you can see some of the best up and coming talent. The theatre is known for launching the careers of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Steve Carell, and many more. Take a look at what shows are coming up this week here.
Willis Tower Skydeck
You’ve probably seen at least one friend’s Instagram post from here. The Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower and still that name to locals, is the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere and the 103rd-floor observation deck offers a spectacular view of downtown Chicago. If you’re brave, you can also walk out onto the Ledge, a 4.5-foot glass box that extends from the Skydeck. Lines can get pretty long, so think about buying the express pass to get up to the top faster, or check out the views from the John Hancock Center’s Signature Room while you sip a martini.
A lot of Chicagoans have a love-hate relationship with Navy Pier because of how many tourists it attracts, but for what it’s worth, it does offer over 50 acres of parks, gardens, restaurants, and attractions. Catch a ride on a cruise ship for dinner on the water or check out a concert on one of the five stages. Hate the crowds? Head to Lincoln Park to enjoy the same landmark feel without the chain restaurants.
Chicago History Museum
While you’re in Lincoln Park, stop by the Chicago History Museum. Here you’ll be able to learn all about how Chicago was founded and how it got to where it is today. Walk through a snapshot of the city and even check out an old L train car. Plan your trip for Tuesdays, the museum is free for Illinois residents from 12:30 to 9 p.m.