12 easy things to do in Chicago

Looking to round out plans for your visit to Chicago? Discover some easy and affordable things you can add to any itinerary.

Along with New York City and Los Angeles, Chicago is one of the top major metropolitan destinations in the U.S. for travelers and tourists. If you’re planning a trip to the Windy City, you’ll be blown away by everything it has to offer. But what if you find yourself with some spare time in your itinerary?

Whether you’re looking for a morning in the park, a day at a museum or a night on the town, you’ll find plenty of amazing attractions to round out your trip. Many are free and require no reservations, making them easy to add to your plans without too much effort or expense. Read on for your guide to some of the best sights in Chicago.

Start your journey with Capital One Travel

Eligible Capital One cardholders can book the perfect getaway with Capital One Travel, an online booking experience that simplifies your travel planning. The site sorts and compares thousands of options to help you find Capital One’s best prices for hotels, airfare and rental cars.1 Plus, eligible Capital One cardholders can earn enhanced rewards on hotels and rental cars when booking through Capital One Travel.

How to get around in Chicago

With so many places to visit in Chicago, it’s good to know your options for getting around. Each mode of transportation offers a different level of convenience and price. 

Thinking of renting a car? Eligible Venture X and Venture cardholders qualify for complimentary status upgrades in the Hertz Gold Plus Rewards® car-rental loyalty program.2 As a member, you’ll skip the rental counter at pickup and drop-off at selected locations. Membership also unlocks many other special perks to help you travel the world your way.

Prefer to travel by public transit? Chicago has a top-notch train system known as the L. You can even plan your trip on the Chicago Transit Authority’s website. To add some sightseeing, you could ride a water taxi. You could also call a ride-hailing service. Use their apps to get a fare estimate before you request a ride so you can compare it with your transit options.

Before you travel, be sure to check the transportation services’ websites for the latest information on fares and schedules.

12 easy things to do in Chicago

Here are a dozen easy ways to help make your trip to Second City a first-rate experience. You can view this list as a starting point for exploring Chicago or as a supplement to your existing itinerary. You may need to plan some activities in advance. But you can decide on many at the last minute. And several are totally free.

1. Explore the Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago is known for its extensive collections of paintings, fine art, photography, architecture and more. With two stone lions guarding its entrance, it’s home to international works of art spanning 5,000 years. It features the greatest collection of impressionist paintings outside of Paris, with works by Monet, Van Gogh and Renoir. And the Modern Wing houses works by Chagall, Dalí, Matisse, Picasso and Pollock. Kids can enjoy free activities on Fridays and Saturdays. Most adults will need to buy tickets in advance. But admission is free for children under 14, Chicago teens under 18 and Illinois educators.

2. See the sea life at the Shedd Aquarium

Meet over 32,000 types of aquatic life at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium. Get up close to beluga whales, dolphins, sea otters, sea lions and penguins. Experience live animal encounters in Waters of the World, watch sharks swim overhead in Wild Reef and pet the friendly stingrays in the Touch Tank. The Polar Play Zone lets kids explore and discover through hands-on activities, slip into their favorite animal costume or take a make-believe trip in a submarine. There are free admission days for Illinois residents, as well as free and discounted tickets for educators, active and veteran military personnel and first responders.

3. Lose yourself in Lincoln Park

This place is more than a park—it’s a neighborhood filled with gorgeous gardens, green space, bustling nightlife and some of the best restaurants on the planet, which you can book through Capital One Dining. It’s also home to the Lincoln Park Zoo, which has free admission and a wide range of exhibits for all ages. You can hit North Avenue Beach and dig your toes in the sand while gazing out onto Lake Michigan. There’s also great shopping, a lakefront trail, museums, live music and theater. There’s even a tranquil lily pool to catch a moment of Zen between all of the exciting things Lincoln Park has to offer.

4. Take in a Major League Baseball™ game

You can’t get more Chicago than an MLB™ game.* But getting tickets isn’t always easy. If you’re an eligible rewards-earning cardholder, you can book through Capital One Entertainment for cardholder-only access to certain premium seats.3 Sign in to Capital One Entertainment on the Capital One Mobile app or on your desktop or tablet to find your tickets to the action.

5. Walk through time at the Field Museum of Natural History

Marvel at more than 35 world-renowned exhibitions at the Field Museum of Natural History, including Mammals of Asia, Ancient Egypt and a bug’s-eye view of life in Evolving Planet. Of course, you must say hi to Sue—the world’s largest and most complete T. Rex skeleton. Ticket prices are reduced for Illinois residents and further reduced for Chicago residents. Discounts are available for children, students and seniors, and general admission is free for active military personnel and Illinois schoolteachers.

6. Lap up the luxury of the Magnificent Mile

This 13-block stretch of Chicago’s North Michigan Avenue definitely lives up to its name. It features nearly 500 stores, from galleries to boutiques to luxury shops. You also have your pick of hundreds of restaurants, dozens of hotels, and famous attractions such as the John Hancock Center and the Wrigley Building. It’s also known for its theaters that host musicals, comedians and touring plays. Whatever your taste, you’re sure to find it on the Mile.

7. Enjoy the sky-high view at 360 CHICAGO

Standing 1,000 feet above the Magnificent Mile, 360 CHICAGO has a view—make that views—you have to see to believe. From the ground floor museum of the John Hancock Center, the fastest elevators in North America zoom you to the 94th floor in just 40 seconds. From there, the observation deck gives you breathtaking views of Chicago’s skyline, Lake Michigan and three neighboring states. Feeling brave? Check out TILT, which safely leans you over the edge of the building for an exhilarating one-of-a-kind view of the city. General admission tickets for 360 CHICAGO are 50% off for military personnel.

8. Take part in hands-on science fun

Welcome to the largest science museum in the country, the Museum of Science and Industry—located in the last remaining building from the 1893 World’s Fair. You can interact with all kinds of exhibits. Navigate a mirror maze, toy with a 40-foot tornado, run in a human-sized hamster wheel, send your pulse to a beating 13-foot 3-D heart and more. Illinois residents can enter the museum for free on several designated days every month. Admission is free for active and veteran military personnel, Chicago firefighters, Chicago police officers and Illinois schoolteachers.

9. Walk through Millennium Park

Millennium Park has quickly become a prime destination for both travelers and locals. Walk up and touch the immense Cloud Gate sculpture, which gets its own entry next on this list. Another fascinating piece is the giant interactive Crown Fountain, featuring digital images of Chicagoans’ faces spouting real water from their mouths. There are hundreds of free concerts and performances here throughout the year, plus a 5-acre garden open year-round that lives up to Chicago’s official Latin motto: Urbs in Horto (City in a Garden). Millennium Park is close to many of Chicago’s major attractions as well as great shopping—so it’s a good place to get started as you explore the city.

10. Stop by 'The Bean'

The centerpiece of Millennium Park is a 110-ton, 33-foot-high, 66-foot-long sculpture named Cloud Gate. With a reflective surface of stainless steel inspired by liquid mercury, it captures the buildings, the sky and the tourists who surround it. The sculpture’s creator, Anish Kapoor, named it Cloud Gate after he unveiled it in 2004. But while it was under construction, designs were shown to the public—and once Chicagoans saw its curved kidney shape, they started calling it “The Bean.” The nickname stuck, and the sculpture has become somewhat of a social media star, with people posting pictures of themselves being “seen at The Bean.” Yes, it’s shiny, and you’ll want to touch it. Go ahead. It’s OK.

11. Go to the one garden for all seasons

Need a break from the streets and skyscrapers of the city? The Chicago Botanic Garden is a breath of fresh air. It’s one of the world’s greatest living museums and conservation science centers, with more than a million visitors each year. Explore the 27 gardens, four natural areas and more than 15,000 plants and trees across 385 acres, including six miles of lake shoreline. Experience a flurry of fluttering wings at the Butterflies & Blooms Exhibition, bask in the beauty of the Waterfall Garden or take in the renowned Bonsai Collection. The Chicago Botanic Garden is open every day of the year. Pro tip: Get the best price on admission and buy tickets in advance.

12. See what’s under the dome

The Chicago Cultural Center combines history, beauty and culture. The awe-inspiring architecture includes the world’s largest stained-glass Tiffany dome, containing 50,000 pieces of glass. The center hosts dozens of free events year-round, including music, dance and theater performances, films, lectures, art exhibits and family-friendly events. Check out Chamber Mondays with classical and jazz performances, or get down at the Wired Fridays dance parties every other Friday.

Get a little more in the city of big shoulders

When it comes to places to visit and things to explore, there’s never a shortage in Chicago. You can easily add any of these 12 ideas to your itinerary without putting a crimp in your existing plans. So make the most of your time touring the city—and give your trip to Chicago more layers than a deep-dish pizza.

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