Back when I was a grad student, I couldn’t pay $15 to $20 to see the big-name museums and attractions in Chicago. I did, however, have a flexible schedule. So when I wanted to see a museum, I’d head downtown on days when admission was free.
Many major Chicago museums still offer free admission on selected days. And you can take advantage of this for a nice, inexpensive day out with the family. Dates for 2010 are listed, but the City of Chicago maintains a listing of free admission days on its Explore Chicago web site.
At the Adler Planetarium’s theatre, you’ll find sky shows. There are also related exhibits on telescopes, the moon, our solar system, and other astronomy topics. For the remainder of 2010, the Adler Planetarium is free on September 7, 13-17, 21, 28; October 5, 12, 19, and 26; November 2, 9, 16, 23, 30; and December 7, 14, 21.
The Art Institute of Chicago
At the Art Institute of Chicago, you’ll find tens of thousands of works of art, and quite a few well-known masterpieces. Check out the Chagall stained-glass windows, the 19th-century (impressionist) paintings, Grant Wood’s American Gothic, and the museum’s recently opened modern art wing. The museum is so large it’s easy to spend the whole day here and not see it all. The Art Institute of Chicago is free every Thursday, from 5 PM to 8 PM.
The Brookfield Zoo, located in Suburban Cook County southwest of Chicago, in the town of Brookfield, offers attractions that appeal to kids and families. Favorite animals include the lions, polar bears, brown bears, seals, giraffes, rhinos, and zebras. In 2010, the Brookfield Zoo was free to everyone on Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday in January and February. The Brookfield Zoo offers free admission to all U.S. Armed forces active milatary and reservist personnel at other times.
Chicago Children’s Musem
Currently at Navy Pier but slated to move in the future, the Chicago Children’s Museum offers interactive exhibits aimed mainly at children age 10 and younger. A water play area was particularly popular with my kids. The Children’s Museum offers free admission to everyone on Thursdays from 5 PM to 8 PM. It is free to those aged 15 and younger on the first Sunday of the month.
DuSable Museum of African American History
The Dusable Museum of African American History, the first of its kind in the country, is dedicated to the history of African Americans and African American culture. Free days in 2010 are September 5, 12, 19 and 26; October 3, 10, 17, 24 and 31; November 7, 14, 21 and 28; and December 5, 12, 19 and 26
Yes, you can see the dinosaurs, gems and minerals, mummies, and Pacific Northwest artifacts for free. Visit the Field Museum on the second Monday of the month, thanks to a donation from Target. Additional free days in 2010 are September 13, 15, 16, 21, and 22; October 5, 6, 11, 13, 14, 19, and 20; November 2, 3, 8, 10, 16, 17, 30; and December 1, 7, 8, 13, 15, and 16.
Lincoln Park Zoo
This city zoo, which is smaller than the Brookfield Zoo and located in Lincoln Park, is always free and open to the public. Back in graduate school, walking around the Lincoln Park Zoo was a popular “cheap date.”
The Museum of Contemporary Art
Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, just east of Water Tower Place, is free every Tuesday. At the Museum of Contemporary Art, you’ll see edgy special exhibitions by current artists, as well as works from the regular collection. While you’re there, check out the museum’s interesting gift shop, and (if it’s summer) the farmer’s market in the plaza.
Located in suburban Lisle, IL, the Morton Arboretum offers hiking and biking trails, a maze garden, a children’s garden and other attractions. Admission is free on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Museum of Science and Industry
Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry has a limited number of free days, about 1 per month. Free admission does not include any of the special exhibitions, the Omnimax theater, or certain other attractions. But you can still check out the farm equipment, the robotics, and the coal mine. In the remainder of 2010, the museum is free on September 7-14, 20-21, 27-28; October 4-6; November 11; and December 6.
Peggy Notebart Nature Museum
This museum, in Lincoln Park, was hit with my kids when they visited for a birthday party. They especially liked the walk-through butterfly exhibit. The Peggy Notebart Nature Museum offers “suggested donation” days every Thursday. On these days, visitors can enter for free or pay a reduced rate. On other days, children 3 and under are always free, and older children pay a reduced rate.
On free days at the Shedd Aquarium, basic admission to the museum is free. Visitors must pay for special exhibits, such as the Wild Reef. There is still, however, plenty of interesting sea life to see without visiting the Wild Reef. In 2010, free days will be on September 13-14, 20-21, 27-28; October 4-5, 11-12, 18-19, 25-26; and
November 1-2, 8-9, 15-16, 22-23, 29-30.