Fun on the Cheap: Things to Do in Chicago Today for College Students

It’s easy to spend a fortune in Chicago, but it’s also possible to enjoy the Windy City on just a few bucks — or none at all. This is especially important if you’re a college student with limited funds for meals and entertainment. Whether you’re into the arts, sports, music, or community festivals, here are a few free or cheap things to do in Chicago today.

Locals and tourists admiring Cloud Gate (The Bean), a sculpture in downtown Chicago

Artsy Things to Do

Are you a culture lover looking for free things to do in Chicago today? The city is home to an impressive collection of museums, galleries, and art installations, many of which are free.

Jutting almost a full mile into Lake Michigan, Navy Pier offers public art displays and exhibitions well worth viewing, not to mention loads of restaurants, live entertainment, and shopping. At Millennium Park, don’t forget to check out Cloud Gate, a large, bean-shaped sculpture that sits in AT&T Plaza.

Chicago Cultural Center, the country’s first free municipal cultural venue, offers a full calendar of free exhibits, music and dance performances, film screenings, and lectures. You can find it on Michigan Avenue.

The City Gallery in the Chicago Water Tower showcases works from local photographers and artists, and Hyde Park Art Center offers six galleries — all free — that feature art and events for all ages. Photography, installation art, and murals vie for space in this colorful neighborhood gallery.

When it comes to artsy things to do in Chicago for college students, the Smart Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Photography at the University of Chicago fit the bill. Admission to both of these campus jewels is free.

Chicago River dyed bright green for St. Patrick's Day

Chicago Festivals and Parades

Experience Chicago’s flavors, colors, and cultures through free festivals and parades. On St. Patrick’s Day, enjoy the parade along a dyed-green Chicago River. For just a few dollars, you can dig in to a plate of Irish corned beef and cabbage, take in a variety of parade floats, listen to local bagpipers, and people-watch to your heart’s content.

For 10 weeks during the summer, Millennium Park offers symphony and choral music. Grant Park invites music lovers to kick up their heels on weekend evenings at SummerDance, a festive event featuring 48 different bands and DJs.

In the month of June, spend a day or two at the free Chicago Blues Festival, the largest blues fest in the world. In the past, concert goers have enjoyed performances by greats like Bonnie Raitt, Koko Taylor, Buddy Guy, and the late B.B. King. Additional free popular music fests in Chicago include the Chicago Jazz Festival on Labor Day weekend and the World Music Festival in late September.

Fun Outdoor Activities

Chicago is a big city, but it’s not all sidewalks and buildings. In fact, there’s plenty of green space and year-round outdoor activities. Celebrate spring with a trip to the Chicago Botanic Garden. Stroll through miles of scenic flora and fauna, and admire more than 200 bird species, all for free. Visit the conservatory at Lincoln Park with its four display houses filled with tropical palms, ancient ferns, and colorful flowers.

If you’re craving delicious street food and looking for great buys on local crafts, furniture, clothing, and collectibles, then head to the Maxwell Street Market, an outdoor bazaar open year-round on Sundays.

Looking for more athletic things to do in Chicago today? In the winter, go cross-country skiing or snowshoeing on Northerly Island, a 91-acre peninsula east of Soldier Field. It’s only $5 to rent equipment for up to two hours. All week long in the winter, you can ice skate at the Maggie Daley Park Skating Ribbon and, on the weekends, sled, ski, or snowshoe at the Forest Preserves of Cook County.

When the weather is balmy, you can bike, run, or rollerblade along the Lakefront Trail, an 18.5-mile pathway along the Chicago shoreline. It doesn’t cost a thing to enjoy views of the beaches, harbors, parks, and people while getting in a good workout.

More Ways for Students to Save Money

In addition to shopping at thrift stores, eating in, and sticking to free weekend fun, you can save money and still have a comfortable Chicago apartment. With CORT Furniture Rental’s student packages, you don’t have to buy furniture, hire movers, or rent storage space. Simply choose a student package you love and split the cost with roommates. When the semester or year is over, CORT takes care of pickup.

Are you a budget-conscious college student in Chicago? Let CORT Furniture Rental help you ease the transition to independent living.

Stylish living room with couch, chair, and coffee table