How to Have Fun For Free in Chicago: A Broke College Student’s Guide to Free Days in Chicago’s Culture Spots

Gisselle Lopez

September 13th, 2017

A black-tip shark swimming at the Shedd Aquarium. Photo Credit: Shedd Aquarium

Let’s face it, everyone. As college students, when we see the word “free” in an advertisement that features either a product or an event that we would like to obtain or attend, we tend to leap at the opportunity to take advantage of it. Whether it’s free samples, free admission to a sports game, free gym use, free anything, we are there. The more chances we get to spend less money, or no money at all, the better.

Now that summer has come to an end and the school year is well underway, it would be a good time now to investigate possible escapes from the impending stress of the homework load and separate work obligations. Going downtown would be an excellent way to achieve this; taking the time to spend a mental-health day within the city and all that it offers would certainly help in relaxing us from the constant, daily worries that plague us throughout the year. However, the point from before still stands: we are college students and that in itself means we don’t have a lot of money to spare. There needs to be something “free” or at least “cost friendly” for students to be able to enjoy in the city. Not everyone wants to limit themselves to staying on campus all the time. Fortunately, it looks as though the city of Chicago is providing the hook-up for the average college student to be able to enjoy a fun, free time at one of their more popular attractions, and it’s for practically the whole month of September!

Museum of Science and Industry’s model train exhibit. Photo Credit: Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/TNS

The Shedd Aquarium announced that starting September 6 and lasting until September 30, the facility will be opening its doors, free of charge, to Illinois residents with a valid ID card. You heard that right, folks. For 25 consecutive days in the month of September, the Shedd Aquarium will be allowing free access for any and all Illinois residents, just as long as you provide a valid ID card when receiving your tickets. If the fact that admission is now free – until the end of September, at least – doesn’t make you want to ditch your wallet in favor of stingrays, perhaps the fact that a ticket for Chicago residents costs $19.95 on a normal day will.

Come on, everyone. To a college student, twenty dollars is an outstanding amount of money to have saved in favor of a free event. Why not take advantage of this while we still can? The free admission perk in the Shedd Aquarium also allows free access to any and all exhibits in the aquarium, including Stingray Touch and the Amphibians exhibit. The only cost to attendees would be if you were to decide you wanted a 4-D movie experience, then you would have to pay a separate $4.95 charge in order to obtain one of their special 4-D seats. Children that accompany an adult with a valid Illinois ID will also be granted free entrance during this month.

One of the more popular events that the Shedd Aquarium hosts in their facility is Jazzin’ at the Shedd. Jazzin’ at the Shedd is an event that occurs every Wednesday evening at the Shedd Aquarium from 5 P.M. to 10 P.M.  It features musicians playing live jazz music for the aquarium attendees as they relax around the aquarium in the evening, all the while having the option of sipping on cool drinks. The last Jazzin’ at the Shedd event that is occurring for this summer is today, September 13! If you wish to attend, now is your chance. This event is included in the free access month of September, and once again, on a normal day, tickets would typically be another $20 in order to attend. The free month of September at the Shedd Aquarium is one great way to spend some time downtown while saving money. It includes a huge chunk of change that you don’t have

to spend time scouring underneath your car seats or in the cushions of your couch for in order to attend, and you would be entertained by fantastic exhibits!

But wait, there’s more! Say you are not really big on going to the aquarium. That’s definitely okay! Besides the Shedd Aquarium, the city of Chicago has an abundance of opportunities for college students to visit museums, aquariums, planetariums, and their leisure time while spending little to no money.

Sue the T-Rex. May 16, 2000. Photo Credit: Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune/MCT

The Adler Planetarium offers free days for Illinois residents with a valid ID on certain days. For the following two months, the Adler has their free days set as September 11-17 and October 9, 25-27 if you want to plan ahead. Just a heads up, there are currently renovations being done in the Definiti Space Theater, so shows like One World One Sky, Skywatch Live, and Cosmic Wonder will not be shown to patrons, but there are plenty more exhibits to behold in the Adler Planetarium.


The Art Institute of Chicago has free admission for Illinois residents with a valid ID card on Thursday evenings from 5 P.M. to 8 P.M. This museum is also open for current Illinois educators to attend for free. Children under the age of fourteen can attend for free at all times, and as of January 2, this offer extended to all teenagers under the age of eighteen.

In September, the Museum of Science and Industry has a cluster of several different free days for Illinois residents. They are listed as September 11-15, 18-22, and 25-29. On these free days, Illinois residents can also enjoy entrance to certain listed exhibits for a discounted price of $12 each, such as Coal Mine, U-505 Submarine: Optional On-board Tour, and the Giant Dome Theater.

Brookfield Zoo, Bronzeville Children’s Museum, DuSable Museum of African American History, and the Museum of Contemporary Art are examples of learning institutions that provide free admission for military personnel and veterans.


The Field Museum’s next free days in September will occur on September 23 and September 24. This offer is only for basic admission into the museum. The Field Museum also offers complimentary free admission to active military personnel and Illinois teachers.

National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago Gift Shop. Photo Credit: Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Since Hispanic Heritage Month is right around the corner, it would be a great idea to head over to the National Museum of Mexican Art during your cultural splurge in the city. This museum offers free admission to interested individuals at all times, and it provides amazing displays of rich Mexican art so that attendees can immerse themselves in the beauty of their culture. All in all, there is a surplus of free events to partake in within the city of Chicago for the money-saving college student looking for something fun and free to do.

There may be the issue of finding time or perhaps finding transportation, but when those issues are resolved, at least you will have your destination in mind! Finding fun in the city of Chicago is surprisingly easy; it is all a matter of knowing what you might like to visit in terms of museums, aquariums, and the like, and researching to uncover when these free days are! So for this semester, try to unwind a little more. Enjoy the last of the summer’s museum’s exhibits before they are gone. Keep your money in your wallets and spend some time in your favorite museums, aquariums, and zoos to leave behind the stress of school, at least for a little while. This way, you’d still be learning something and it would be at little to no cost to you too!

Gisselle Lopez

Features Editor

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