10 Unexpectedly Awesome Things To Do In Chicago

Chicago is everything you’d imagine a major city to be—dazzling shopping districts, world-class cuisine, unique museums and galleries, exciting nightlife—and more! Whether you’re visiting the Windy City for the first time, or you just want to see some touristy sites in your own backyard, you might be overwhelmed by all of the possibilities it has to offer.

To get the most out of your Chicago experience and make sightseeing a little bit easier, follow this guide to the top 10 things to do in Chicago!

1. Attend a Free Event in Millennium Park

Millennium Park
Flickr/ Hernan Seoane

No trip to Chicago is complete without visiting Millennium Park. Situated north of the Art Institute of Chicago, Millennium Park offers visitors 24.5 acres of innovative art and architecture, as well as alluring gardens and landscapes.

While many visitors come to the park to see Cloud Gate and the Crown Fountain, Millennium Park also offers guests the opportunity to attend free events, such as concerts and festivals, at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion.

For a quiet, more contemplative visit to the space, take a stroll through the year-round flower exhibits in Lurie Garden, or catch a breathtaking view of many of the city’s other sites as you walk along the serpentine BP Bridge.

Whatever you decide to do during your visit to Millennium Park, you can do it for free! For more information on upcoming events in the park, visit the City of Chicago website.

2. Take a Selfie in Cloud Gate

Cloud Gate
Flickr/ Mariano Mantel

Better known as “the Bean,” Cloud Gate is a 66-foot long, 33-foot tall, 110-ton reflective bean-shaped sculpture that sits in Millennium Park.

This iconic piece of art was not only designed to reflect the skyline of Chicago in its elliptical arc, but has also become the kind of landmark you’d expect to see on any good travel-related Instagram account.

But the Bean isn’t just a thing of wonder and beauty; it’s fun, too, with a curved surface that reminds viewers of a circus funhouse mirror. Go ahead—stand in front of it and take a selfie with the Bean. You know you want to!

3. Get Encyclopedic at the Art Institute of Chicago

things to do in chicago
Flickr/ Bill Dickinson

It would take years to study the 300,000-plus pieces of art and artifacts owned by the Art Institute of Chicago, but if you’re visiting the Windy City, be sure to carve out some time to visit this extensive facility.

While this art museum is renowned for its collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works, you’ll find artworks and artifacts from every era of history, from antiquity to modern times, and from artists and countries around the world.

Besides its permanent collections, the Art Institute also offers visitors a wide array of traveling exhibits, as well as guided tours and audio tours for those who feel overwhelmed by the expansive list of things to see.

Admission is usually $23 for adults and $17 for students and seniors, but you can explore the museum for free if you attend Thursdays between 5pm and 8pm! More information on the museum’s collections and current traveling exhibitions can be found on the Art Institute’s website.

4. Get to Know Chicago’s Roots at the Museum of Science and Industry

Museum of Science and Industry
Wikimedia Commons/ Daderot

You don’t have to be a history buff to enjoy a day at the Museum of Science and Industry, situated on the city’s South Side in Hyde Park.

The Museum of Science and Industry is housed in what used to be the Palace of Fine Arts, the site of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, otherwise known as the Chicago World’s Fair—and appropriately, too, since the thousands of artifacts on display testify to the city’s innovative origins.

Many of the exhibits in the 14-acre museum offer visitors the chance to engage in some hands-on learning, while live demonstrations and the Omnimax Theater cater to a diversity of interests, from astronomical exploration to genetic curiosities.

General admission is $18 for adults and $11 for children under the age of 11, but if you purchase a Chicago CityPASS or Go Chicago Card, which offer discounted admission to some of the top attractions and things to do in Chicago, your admission is free!

5. Pet a Stingray at the Shedd Aquarium

Shedd Aquarium
Wikimedia Commons/ Sage Ross

One of the largest indoor aquariums in the world, the Shedd Aquarium houses over 32,000 aquatic animals. From the South Pole to the Amazon, visitors can explore a variety of habitats from around the world and learn about the abundant flora and fauna that live there.

But you don’t have to just look at the creatures you’ll find in the aquarium. You have the opportunity to interact with many of the animals as you learn more about them. Pet a stingray, feed a shark, or meet a beluga whale. You can even learn about how to become an animal trainer, and how these professionals take care of all of the animals in the aquarium.

While accessing every part of the aquarium can be expensive—a Shedd Pass ranges from $31 to $41 for adults and $22 to $31 for children—a Chicago CityPASS or Go Chicago Card will help you save on admission.

6. Meet Anana at the Lincoln Park Zoo

things to do in chicago
Flickr/ Matt B

The small, though beloved, Lincoln Park Zoo gets its name from its location in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. From cockroaches to gorillas, lions to puffins, visitors can see dozens of species of animals in their natural habitats—and entirely for free.

Perhaps most popular among visitors and seasoned guests alike is Anana, resident polar bear at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

Its small size makes the Lincoln Park Zoo a fun, free way to spend an afternoon in Chicago.

7. Study Landscape Art at the Garfield Park Conservatory

things to do in chicago
Flickr/ opacity

Originally built in 1908, the Garfield Park Conservatory is one of the largest conservatories in the United States and has something for visitors in all seasons.

Summertime travelers can take a stunning stroll through 12 acres of outdoor flower displays and gardens, while visitors can escape colder temperatures in the lush tropical climate of the 2-acre indoor conservatory. But it doesn’t have to be cold outside for you to enjoy the facility’s eight rooms full of flora and plant life.

The Garfield Park Conservatory is open year-round and admission is free to the public, although a donation is requested at the door.

8. People Watch at Navy Pier

Navy Pier
Flickr/ Mike

With so much to see and do, it’s hard to decide where to begin on your visit to Navy Pier. Families will find plenty of entertainment on some of the pier’s iconic amusement rides, such as the soaring Ferris wheel, classic swing ride, and colorful carousel.

Couples can enjoy a show or play at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, visit the Landshark Beer Garden for a drink, or simply sit and people watch.

There’s no fee to enjoy the pier itself, or its summer and New Year’s Eve fireworks displays, although attractions and events on the pier may charge their own admissions fees.

9. Shop Your Way Down Michigan Avenue

The Michigan Avenue
Wikimedia Commons/ Jeremy A

Shopaholics and architecture buffs alike will love a day out on Michigan Avenue. Also known as The Magnificent Mile, the section of Michigan Avenue that stretches north from the Chicago River features dozens of high-end boutiques, hotels, and restaurants, as well as big brand stores like Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Neiman Marcus.

The eclectic array of buildings found along the Magnificent Mile provides a delightful glimpse into the city’s history, too: the Water Tower, Tribune Tower, and Wrigley Building are all visible from this bustling thoroughfare.

While visitors can enjoy the Magnificent Mile itself at any time, individual facilities have their own opening and closing hours.

You can learn more about the shops, restaurants, and other attractions that this famous street has to offer at the Magnificent Mile website.

10. Take It All in at 360 Chicago

360 Chicago
Flickr/ Christopher

The 360 Chicago Observation Deck offers spectacular views of both the city of Chicago and Lake Michigan from over 1000 feet above Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile. Housed on the 94th floor of the John Hancock Center, 360 Chicago invites visitors to enjoy expansive views of the city and its iconic skyline—up to 55 miles in all directions on a clear day.

360 Chicago boasts a bar and café where visitors can enjoy a coffee or cocktail while taking in the sunset.

TILT, the deck’s latest and most unique attraction, beckons visitors to see the city from a different perspective: a mechanized section of the deck’s windows tilts viewers at a 30 degree angle over Michigan Avenue for an exhilarating observation experience.

Admission to 360 Chicago is $18 for adults and $12 for children under 11, as well as an extra $5 for admission to TILT.

In Summary

With so many things to do in Chicago, it can be tough to decide which attraction to visit first.

Luckily, many of the top attractions on this list can be combined into activity-packed days: Relax at the bar in 360 Chicago after a day of shopping on Michigan Avenue, admire Cloud Gate before exploring the rest of Millennium Park, or learn more about marine and terrestrial life on a day out at the Shedd Aquarium and Garfield Park Conservatory.

However you combine your activities, you’re sure to have a world-class vacation in the Windy City!

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