We’re so lucky to have world-class museums and zoos right in our backyard. But visiting these spots — especially with a few kids in tow — can get pricey. So here’s a guide to visiting Chicago and suburban museums and zoos for free!
Many Chicago museums offer community free days or regular days during a month when visitors get in free. Note that these days are often quite popular, so you might be fighting some crowds. And also make sure to check the museum’s website, or give the museum a call, before your visit to make sure nothing has changed since this guide was compiled. You’ll find free or cheap options for visiting suburban museums, zoos and heritage farms at the bottom of this list.
Note: Updated as of July 19, 2016:
* The Adler Planetarium, 1300 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago. 312-922-7827. Free general admission for Illinois residents in 2016: Sept. 12-16; Oct. 10; Nov. 11; Dec. 3-9. Updates posted on the “special offers” page.
* Museum of Science & Industry, 57th Street and Lake Shore Drive. 773-684-1414. Free general admission for Illinois residents in 2016: September 6-9, September 12-16, September 19-23, September 26-30; October 4-6; November 3, November 10; December 1.
* Shedd Aquarium, 1200 South Lake Shore Drive on Chicago’s Museum Campus. 312-399-2438. Free general admission for Illinois residents in 2016 on the following dates: Sept. 5, 6, 12, 13, 19, 20, 26, 27; Oct. 3, 4, 10, 11, 17, 18, 24, 25, 31; Nov. 1, 7, 8, 14, 15, 21, 22, 29, 29.
* The Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. 312-922-9410. Free basic admission for Illinois residents on August 11, 27, 29; September 10, 17, 18, 19; October 2, 16, 30, 31; November 27; December 3, 4, 18.
* Chicago Children’s Museum, 700 East Grand Avenue on Navy Pier in Chicago. 312-527-1000. Free for all visitors every Thursday evening in 2016 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. and free for all children 15 and under on the first Sunday of every month. Here’s a coupon for $1 off each admission, up to four per family. Finally, this museum also offers discounts to teachers, firefighters and police officers, as well as holders of EBT cards, and free admission for veterans and active military. Find exact details here.
* Lincoln Park Zoo, 2001 North Clark Street in Chicago. 312-742-2000. This zoo is open 365 days a year and free every day.
Other Options: Look into checking out a Museum Adventure Pass from your local library. Sometimes it makes the most sense to become a member, especially if it’s a place you’ll visit more than once in a year. And if you plan to visit a couple of museums in a short time span, you’ll want to look into purchasing the CityPass. Bank of America offers free admission to its credit or debit card holders to certain museums; the program is called “Museums on Us.”
SUBURBAN MUSEUMS AND ZOOS:
We can’t forget the ‘burbs! While nearly every major Chicago museum offers “community free days,” that is more rare among suburban institutions, so the list below is a bit less definitive than the Chicago one. Please make sure to check the museum’s website, or give the museum a call, before your visit to make sure nothing has changed since this list was compiled. And if you know of a spot that should be on here, please let us know by writing email@example.com.
* Brookfield Zoo, 8400 31st Street, Brookfield. 708-688-8000. No free days currently posted, although the zoo usually has a generous free day admission policy in the winter. Zoo admission is always free for all active, reservist and retired members of the military who present a valid ID. Parking is $11 per car. Find more info here.
* Red Oak Nature Center, on Route 25, one mile north of Route 56, Batavia. 630-897-1808. Owned by the Fox Valley Park District, this nature center is open year-round and offers free admission every day of the week.
* Primrose Farm, 5N726 Crane Road, St. Charles. 630-513-4370. Admission is always free at this living-history farm located west of Randall Road in northern St. Charles. The grounds are open from dawn to dusk, weather permitting. The farm is owned and operated by the St. Charles Park District, and various programs — many of them kid-friendly — are offered through the park district.
* Kline Creek Farm, 1N600 County Farm Road, West Chicago. 630-876-5900. Admission is always free at this DuPage County Forest Preserve property that seeks to show visitors what life was like on a northern Illinois farm in in the 1890s. It is open Thursday through Monday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The farmstead is closed on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and select holidays.
* Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a nature center operated by the St. Charles Park District, 3795 Campton Hills Road, in James O. Breen Park, St. Charles, 630-513-4399. Admission is always free at this center, which is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. Closed on Monday.
* Creek Bend Nature Center at LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve, 37W700 Dean St., St. Charles. 630-444-3190. There is no admission charge for this center, which features interpretative displays and hands-on exhibits. It is open from Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. The center is operated by the Kane County Forest Preserve District.
* Phillips Park Zoo, 1000 Ray Moses Drive, Aurora. 630-256-3750. Admission is always free at this zoo and visitor center, which is open year-round from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.) Zoo exhibits include approximately 100 animals representing 41 different species. Note that the Visitor’s Center is closed in winter months.
* Lederman Science Center at Fermilab, Kirk Road and Pine Street, Batavia. 630-840-8258. The museum was designed for middle school field trips, but the hands-on exhibits are available to the general public on weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is free. On holidays, call to check if the center is open.
* SciTech, 18 W. Benton St., Aurora, 630-859-3434. It usually offers free admission on the first Friday of every month from 6 to 8 p.m. during First Fridays in Downtown Aurora. The family-friendly museum features three floors of one-of-a-kind, hands-on exhibits in a beautiful historic building.
* Cosley Zoo, 1356 North Gary Avenue, Wheaton. 630-665-5534. Residents of the Wheaton Park District are free if they show their park district “universal ID.” Otherwise, adults pay $5, but children up to age 17 are free.
* Aurora Regional Fire Museum, 53 N. Broadway, Aurora. 630-892-1572. This museum offfers free admission and is open to the public from 1 to 4 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. There is a suggested donation, however, of $5 for adults and $3 for children. It features a variety of interactive exhibits designed to educate and entertain children, families, and firefighters and just opened a “Discovery Room” for young children in the summer of 2016.
* Midwest Museum of Natural History, 425 W. State Street, Sycamore. 815-895-9777. No free days currently posted.
* Jurica-Suchy Nature Museum, 5700 College Road, 2nd floor Birck Hall, Lisle. 630-829-6546. This natural history museum is located in the Birck Hall of Science on campus at Benedictine University in Lisle, Illinois. Admission is always free. Open seven days a week September – May. (Check the website for seasonal hours during the university’s winter and summer breaks). All of the museum’s education and outreach services are offered for free, including scout programs and guided group tours for all ages. The “Discovery Box Loan Program” allows educators and parents to borrow life science education kits which include DVDs, books, museum specimens and lesson plans.
* Cantigny Park, 1S151 Winfield Road, Wheaton. 630-668-5161. There is no admission charge to walk the grounds or tour the museums at Cantigny. But there is a parking fee that depends on what days you visit – it is $5 on weekdays, $10 on weekends. Note that Cantigny is closed in January and has limited hours in February.
* Illinois Railway Museum, 7000 Olson Road, Union. 815-923-4000. The museum offered free admission to the museum grounds on weekends from Sept. 6 through Sept. 30. Buildings may not be open on these days. Trains do not operate on these days other than by special charter. You can find more info about halfway down this page.
* Lake County Discovery Museum, Lakewood Forest Preserve in southwest Lake County. Entrance located on Route 176 west of Fairfield Road. On “Discount Tuesdays,” adults pay $3 (instead of the regular $6 admission), but children through age 17 are free. (Up to five children per adult; extra children are $1.25 per child.)
* Air Classics Museum of Aviation, 44W546 US Route 30, Sugar Grove. 630-466-0888. It is only open for general admission on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. It does not have any free days, kids under 6 are free when accommodated by their parent. Adults are $8 and children 6 and older are $5. In past years, this museum has closed in the winter. That doesn’t appear to be the case in 2016, but wise to call ahead first: 630-466-0888.
* Spring Valley Nature Center and Heritage Farm, 1111 E. Schaumburg Road, Schaumburg. 847-985-2100. Admission is free at this spot, which features 135 acres of fields, forests, marshes and streams, as well as more than three miles of handicapped-accessible hiking trails, a nature center and an 1880s living history farm. The site is open daily, but hours vary depending on the season, and Heritage Farm is closed from Dec. 1 to March 1. Check the website for exact details.
* Fischer Farm, 16W680 Grand Avenue, Bensenville. 630-834-3152. Fischer Farm is believed to be one of the oldest remaining homesteads in DuPage County. The five acres of land at Fischer Farm is a Bensenville Park District park. The park district, in partnership with the DuPage County Forest Preserve, has been working to restore the property and land. It is open on Wednesdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Thursdays from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is free, although donations are accepted. Learn more on the website and Facebook page.
* Garfield Farm and Inn Museum, Located on Garfield Road north of Illinois Route 38 in Campton Hills, just west of Geneva. 630-584-8485. This spot is a historically intact former 1840s prairie homestead and inn preserved now as an 1840s living history museum. From June through September, the Garfield Farm Museum is open for drop in tours from 1-4 p.m. on Sundays and Wednesday. All other times by appointment, year round. Basic tour donation is $3 per adult and $2 per child under 13 years of age.