Chicago is known for a heckuva namesake musical, deep dish pizza, snapping hot dogs, Da Bears and a little talk show host named Oprah. With so much to do and see, a trip to Chicago could cost a small fortune. However, there are plenty of options for major Oprah-style “favorite things” fun on a Jerry Springer budget. Check out these free entertainment options:

Free Attractions in Chicago, Ill.

Indulge in Cheesecake: We thought about including a reference to the Golden Girls’ favorite desert here. Is that too ‘classic’ for the KCL crowd? Blanche Devereaux…anyone?  Anyway, at Eli's Cheesecake you can learn about the history of the company and enjoy a free nibble or two. Tours start at 1 p.m. daily.  Space is limited, so show up early. More details on the Eli's Cheesecake website.

Go Ape at the Lincoln Park Zoo: Believe it, or not, this place is F.R.E.E. Chill with chimpanzees and polar bears, go all Marlin Perkins with red wolves and jaguars, slap your flippers with gray seals and more! Don’t miss the Farm-in-the-Zoo for an interactive Green Acres experience in the heart of the big city, dahling.

House of, ahem, Pane: Art and light collide with beautiful results at the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows. It may not be a surprise that this is the first museum of its kind in the U.S. But you will be stunned by more than 150 secular and religious themed exhibits. Download the museum's PDF brochure. Make sure to check out other free attractions at the Navy Pier, including a fantastic (and free) fireworks display on select nights.

Nature Escape: Hidden in the urban jungle of Chicago's skyscrapers is a little gem known as Lurie Garden. This five acre oasis is a great place to escape the city hustle and enjoy natural surroundings. The garden is open daily for self-guided tours. Taking kids? Make sure to print a free interactive worksheet before you go. More Lurie Garden details here.

Full Newhart: See the city through a local’s eyes (yes, he’s from Chicago). If you only have a day and dollar to spend, take advantage of Chicago free tours guided by residents. We suggest Chicago Greeter or Instagreeter. Both tours are free to visitor groups of six or fewer and customized. Tours must be scheduled at least 10 days in advance. Chicago Greeter tours run two to four hours and are offered in 12-plus languages. Instagreeter tours are first-come, first-served and last about an hour.

Get Your Culture On: Learn more about Mexican art and culture at the National Museum of Mexican Art. The NMMA is home to more than 7,000 pieces of photography, paintings, sculpture and textiles from ancient times to present (we’re aging ourselves today!) The beautiful displays and permanent exhibits are free every day the museum is open.

Light and Water: More than 14,000 gallons of water are pumped through 134 jets each minute when the Buckingham Fountain bursts out a major display. During Chicago fountain season (April to October), catch this 20-minute light and water display starting at dusk. It repeats every hour until 10:35 p.m. It is one of the world’s largest fountains and best seen at dark.

Scavenger Hunt: Chicago's Tourism Board has created 10 fun and free scavenger hunts for select neighborhoods. Choose one you like, head to the area and find answers with certain clues. Check your answers online or head to a visitor's center. Print off the scavenger hunts here.

Green Again: The Garfield Park Conservatory is home to stunning plant life in large greenhouses and display houses. The conservatory is more than 100 years old and has delighted Chicago denizens and their visitors for years. The landmark was extensively damaged during a catastrophic hailstorm during the summer of 2011. A years-long effort to rebuild is underway now. So this a great time to visit this historic site where you can watch the rebuilding and check out beautiful plant life. Admission is free, but donations are always accepted.

Chicago Five-Oh: The Windy City’s beaches stretch for miles along the banks of Lake Michigan. They’re also free for visitors and residents to enjoy. So slather on some sunscreen, put on your swimsuit and head out for a day in the sand. Find a list of beaches, open hours and other information at Chicago Park's website.

Other Cities

Free tourist sites are available in almost every city across the country. Here are some tips for finding free tourist attractions:

Travel/Tourist Websites: The official tourism site for the city or state you are visiting is a great resource for fun and free things to do. Each site is run by the local tourism department. If you need help finding free activities, call or send an email. These cities want you to come visit and will happily provide you with all the information you need.

Local Visitor's Bureau: Make the local visitor's bureau your first stop. Tell them you are interested in free local activities, and see what they come up with. Best of all, you'll probably receive a few free maps while you're there (which means that you won't have to ask for directions or buy a map of your own when you get lost).

Ask Locals: Who knows better than residents the best of free things to do. Every town has a few hidden gems, and if you don't ask, you might not find them.

Call Before You Go: Before you head out to a tourist site, pick up the phone and ask a few questions. Many places offer reduced prices or free tickets on certain days and times or have free exhibits available. Don't be afraid to ask for discounts and specials. This is a fantastic site with plenty of content and reviews generated by actual tourists. Before visiting an attraction, check out the reviews. Also look for hidden gems and other things to do.

This has been a guest post by Jackie from Ridgecrest, CA
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Free Fun in the Windy City