Looking for free things to do in Illinois?
Here we have some of the top things to do whether you’re on holiday, on a day trip, or even living in Illinois.
There is a great diversity in activities, indoor and outdoor pursuits, with something to suit every interest, and best of all, they’re all free.
Best free things to do in Illinois
|Explore a State Park||
Whole of Illinois
Rock formations, beautiful forestry and wildlife provide amazing views while exploring state parks.
Whole of Illinois
Exploring areas with multiple waterfalls can be a fun activity for the whole family. Take a picnic and make it a great family outing.
|Visit a garden||
Whole of Illinois
Visiting a garden is a great way to take in all the beauty of nature in a more leisurely way.
Whole of Illinois
Hiking is a great way to stay active when on holiday while also exploring the local area and the beautiful surrounding nature. Hikes in Illinois will take you to richly diverse environments.
Whole of Illinois
Exploring the biking trails is a good way to include the whole family in a low intensity activity in nature.
|Explore one’s of Illinois small towns||
Whole of Illinois
Some of the highlights of small towns include the charming small businesses you can find, interesting historical facts and beautiful well-preserved historical houses.
|Join a free waking tour in Chicago||
Walking tours are a great way to get a unique insight into a new city or area, especially when choosing a tour focused around a specific interest or niche.
|Visit a museum||
Whole of Illinois
Some of the highlights of Illinois’ free museums involve the super-focused aspect, as they are centred around one specific part of history. This means they can go in-depth and provide rarely-mentioned information.
|Lincoln Park Zoo||
Spend time with a range of animals from all over the world while supporting the zoo’s conservation and research efforts.
|Visit a wildlife center||
Several places in Illinois
The highlights of wildlife centers include supporting the native wildlife and natural ecosystems of the area. It is also a great way to learn more about the natural environment you are visiting.
|Admire a historic bridge||
Chester and Rockford
Visiting a historical bridge is a great way to experience history in a relaxing and leisurely way. They are also often close to picnic sites which can enhance the experience even further.
|Stroll along a riverwalk||
Aurora and Rockford
Taking a river walk can be great as it can fit perfectly into any time of day – a morning stroll, a leisurely afternoon walk or a pre-dinner wander. All are relaxing and fun ways to spend time. With river walks being close to downtown, they offer a quick escape into nature.
|Relax on the beach||
Several places in Illinois
Enjoy swimming on the various beaches during summer, either as a family activity, with friends or alone. Soak up the fun beach atmosphere at nearby food stands for something a little extra.
|Learn more about Abraham Lincoln||
Visiting the Lincoln Home and Lincoln Tomb is a great way to incorporate history into your holiday in a fun, interesting and educational way.
|Learn more about John Deere||
Learning more about the innovation of John Deere, along with traditional methods of blacksmithing is a unique and interesting activity.
|Make a scenic drive||
Several places in Illinois
Enjoying the scenery over a large area is one of the main highlights of taking a scenic drive. It is also a great option for families.
|Drive the Shawnee Hills Wine trail||
The main highlights of the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail include the 11 amazing wineries along the way, however, the beautiful foliage of Shawnee National Forest is also a great attraction.
Some of the highlights of Nauvoo include seeing the impressive LDS temple along with the nearby Nauvoo state park or making a wagon and carriage ride.
|Explore the great rivers & route||
Taking a self-guided tour, such as the Great Rivers & Routes experiences, is a great way to learn more about the area while still being able to personalize the experience to suit your times and limitations.
|Visit the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site||
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is an amazing look into prehistoric society and the way in which people live. There are no other sites on the same scale north of Mexico, making this truly unique.
Several places in Ilinois
Seeing wildlife in its natural environment is always great, and in this case, seeing such an iconic bird can make for an interesting experience.
|Watch the colorful light displays||
Several places in Illinois
If you’re struggling to get into the festive spirit while on holiday, light displays are a surefire way to feel the seasonal joy.
Explore a State Park
One of the best parts of visiting Illinois is the multitude of beautiful places to enjoy and bask in nature.
Unsurprisingly, some of the best nature spots are state parks.
State parks are usually named so due to ecological significance and/or amazing views of nature.
They tend to encompass huge areas of land and so are one of the best ways to truly explore nature. In Illinois, the most well-known state park is the beautiful Starved Rock state park, famous for its beautiful waterfalls and great hiking trails.
The largest state park is Pere Marquette state park, which is a great option for exploring the historical formations created by millions of years of glacial movement.
Shawnee National Park is also a good choice for admiring the creations of nature with towering sandstone formations to be found after just a short hike into the forest.
One of the more popular areas in the Shawnee National park is known as the ‘Garden of the Gods’, due to the impressive nature of these sandstone cliffs.
Here is a list of cozy cabins near the Garden of the Gods.
Just as the forest and sandstone of the state parks are beautiful, so are the waterfalls of both state and other parks.
There are many hiking trails in various parks and forests which culminate in views of unique and interesting waterfalls.
Starved Rock state park is perhaps the most well-known, with a variety of waterfall trails to choose from.
The French Canyon fall of Starved Rock is a stunning and easily accessible waterfall surrounded by impressive canyon walls descending to a large basin of water.
This waterfall is accessible by following a short trail, making it great for untrained hikers and the whole family.
The St. Louis Canyon, also in Starved Rock, is one of the highest waterfalls and is spring water, meaning it is almost always visible.
This means in winter there are beautiful icicles while summer provides the relaxing sounds and images of flowing waterfalls. Here is an overview of more great things to do in Starved Rock in winter.
But Starved Rock isn’t the only park providing amazing waterfall views.
Visit a garden
If you prefer a more curated adventure through nature, a walk through the gardens of Illinois may be a better option for you.
Visiting a garden is a great way to take in all the beauty of nature in a more leisurely way.
The design of gardens often allows visitors to experience specific styles of garden, such as the very carefully arranged Japanese style or a rose-filled English garden.
The Garfield Conservatory is a great example of this as they offer both indoor and outdoor gardens.
The indoor garden is housed in a beautiful soaring glass conservatory to maintain the necessary environment for the plants.
This houses the Palm House, a large room containing many beautiful palms and a range of ferns and humidity-loving plants.
Outdoors has a range of themed gardens, from the art-themed Artist Garden to the Demonstration Garden, displaying sustainable composting, space-saving, and community-based gardening techniques.
Other interesting gardens that are worth exploring are the Mabery Gelvin Botanical garden in the Champaign area and the Lincoln Park Conservatory in the Chicago area. Art lovers should check out the Flossmoor sculpture gardens in Flossmoor.
If you prefer more of an out-in-the-wilderness experience, hiking would be a great choice while visiting Illinois.
There are a range of spots for hiking with trails ranging from beginner-friendly through to ideal for experienced hiking enthusiasts.
Hiking in Illinois does have some overlap with exploring state parks in Illinois, but there are many wonderful hiking spots outside of the state parks.
With a range of forests, reserves, parks, and other natural areas, there is no shortage of places to enjoy hiking.
A great example is the Yellow Loop trail located in Deer Grove. This is a moderately challenging hike that meanders through some of the best forestation and natural terrain to be found in Illinois.
The area has been under ecological restoration and so is ideal for enjoying the area as it was meant to be naturally.
For an easier option, the Giant City Nature Trail, found in Giant City state park is a great option.
With an easy-to-navigate trail and mild elevation, this trail is great for families or casual hikers.
The area has beautiful forests with a great variety of local trees. This is especially beautiful during the Autumn season. There are also many interesting rock formations along the route.
Hiking is a great way to spend time during a visit to Illinois and is very customizable to experience level, available time, and interests.
For a different way to explore, you might like to try biking some of the paved biking trails in Illinois.
There are many beautiful biking paths that have amazing views of the scenery.
The Tunnel Hill State Trail
The Tunnel Hill State Trail is a well-known trail in southern Illinois and is a great option for both beginner and experienced bikers alike.
While it is 45 miles long, beginner or casual bikers can start and stop at any point, making it fully customizable.
The trail goes through beautiful forests, a unique abandoned rail tunnel, small towns, and ghost towns.
It is important to plan ahead for this trail, as service is patchy in some areas, but it is a great way to explore the area.
The Lost Bridge Trail
For almost entirely flat terrain, amazing scenery, and an easy biking experience, the Lost Bridge Trail is perfect.
Surrounded by beautiful forestation, it is a great way to experience nature in a relaxing way.
The Sam Vadallabene Bike Trail
The Sam Vadallabene Bike Trail that goes from Alton to the Pere Marquette State Park is another popular trail that is worth mentioning. Here you can find more info about this well-maintained trail.
Explore one’s of Illinois small towns
Part of the charm of Illinois is the abundance of small towns scattered throughout the state.
Small towns often have a quaint appeal and unique features or history which make them interesting to experience.
For movie buffs, the town of Woodstock might make a perfect day out.
Woodstock has been a filming location for many famous films including Groundhog Day and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.
The connection to Hollywood and the film business has made it an interesting town to visit.
Several buildings in Woodstock are also on the National Register of Historic Places, so it is a great town to visit to experience history.
Geneva is a great day trip for those staying in Chicago or nearby, as it is located just outside the city.
Geneva is a perfect example of the quintessential charming small town.
With a well-preserved historic district and Victorian houses, it makes for a great walking spot.
There are also many beautiful parks and the Fox River runs along the town, making nature and the town work beautifully together.
Join a free walking tour in Chicago
Sometimes visiting a new city can be overwhelming and it’s often hard to catch the hidden gems and local history of the area in a short trip.
However, walking tours help to solve these problems by providing a set walking path to help you see and experience some of the best sights of the city while also picking up local knowledge.
These are often themed around certain areas of interest which is a great way to personalize a holiday by incorporating one of your interests.
Some examples in the Chicago area include Chicago Greeters, a service offering 2-4 hour tours around 25 different neighborhoods and 40 different interest areas.
These are informal, friendly tours conducted by locals volunteering their time and knowledge.
They offer free tours in various languages for up to 6 people and are completely free as long as bookings are made in advance.
Visit a museum
Museums are a great way to explore the history and lived experience of an area or time.
While on holiday, visiting a museum can be a fun way to expand your knowledge, learn new information, and come away with a deeper understanding of the place you are visiting.
Illinois is home to many interesting museums, many focused on a very specific time or theme.
Northwest Territory Historic Center
One example of this is the Northwest Territory Historic Center, a historic center located in Dixon, the hometown of Ronald Reagan, former president of the US.
The museum goes into Reagan’s time not only as president but also in his early life. Not only this but it is expanded to cover early American life, prairie life, and presidential history.
This makes it a great option to learn about both political history and the lives of real, normal people during the early period of American colonies.
Address: Northwest Territory Historic Center, 205 W 5th Street in Dixon.
America’s Playable Arcade Museum
For something a bit different, there is also America’s Playable Arcade Museum, a museum documenting the history of gaming in the modern era.
This covers arcade games as well as vintage video games.
Many of the games are able to be played, making it a fun and interactive day out.
Address: 107 S Hamilton St McLean, IL 61754
Visit the Lincoln Park Zoo
A fun activity to take part in while visiting a new place is going to a zoo.
This is especially true for families but applies to visitors of all ages.
Illinois is ideal for this as it is home to the Lincoln Park Zoo, a large zoo housing a range of exhibits with almost 200 unique species.
These come from all around the world and Lincoln Park Zoo provides a unique experience of animals you might otherwise never get to see.
While zoos can be controversial, with the correct checks, you can feel safe in visiting certain zoos.
Lincoln Park Zoo passes these with flying colors as they provide specialized care to all animal types with careful habitat design, socialization, reproduction of native environments, and high-quality healthcare.
They are also committed to helping research projects and conservation efforts for wildlife.
The Lincoln Park Zoo has a range of gardens to enjoy which can be a great way to turn the visit into a day trip or a relaxing way to finish an exciting visit to the animals.
Did you know it is also one of the most haunted places in Illinois? You can read more about it here.
Address: 2001 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60614
Visit a wildlife center
Outside of zoos, another way to interact with animals is through wildlife centers.
Wildlife centers often work towards the protection, rescue, and support of native animals and the native ecosystem as a whole.
Ecodiversity is important in maintaining the careful balance of an area’s ecosystem and wildlife centers do a great job in helping endangered animals and the environment to thrive.
The Treehouse Sanctuary
The Treehouse Sanctuary, just outside of Grafton, Illinois is a great example of this.
They work to preserve the natural environment and protect native animals.
There are many animals on-site, ranging from various birds, including owls and turkey vultures to mammals, including foxes, bobcats, and coyotes.
There are also native reptiles and amphibians. To see more about Treehouse Sanctuary, check out our previous post.
Address: 23956 Green Acres Rd, Dow, IL 62022
Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge
Another great wildlife center is the Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge, which we wrote about here.
The Cypress Creek Refuge supports the native wetlands and various species which rely on the wetlands.
This includes a wide variety of birds, amphibians, and other wetland animals.
The refuge is a great way to experience this unique ecosystem while supporting the organization helping to preserve the environment.
Address: 137 Rustic Campus DrUllin, IL 62992-2228
Admire a historic bridge
Interestingly, Illinois is home to many unique historical bridges.
While it might not seem like an exciting activity at first glance, visiting and admiring historic bridges is an ideal way to explore the area, see the surrounding scenery, and find out about a small part of local history.
Mary’s River Covered Bridge
As in the case of Mary’s River Covered Bridge, many bridges are also located close to parks and picnic areas, making them perfect for lunch picnics or day trips.
The Mary’s River Covered Bridge is the last remaining covered bridge in southern Illinois and so is very historically significant.
Address: 3853 Illinois 150, Chester, IL 62233-3209
Old Chain of Rocks Bridge
Another example is the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, which is also significant to American history.
It signifies early 20th Century innovation, the changing times of the mid 20th Century, and the restoration and renovation of recent times.
Address: Chain of Rocks Rd, Granite City, IL 62040
Stroll along a riverwalk
Many Illinois towns are located next to rivers, meaning there is a large range of riverwalks throughout the state.
Riverwalks are a beautiful, usually convenient way to relax, enjoy the scenery and experience the town in a leisurely way.
The Aurora Riverwalk
The Aurora Riverwalk is a great example of this, as it is home not only to the charming town of Aurora, but also the Aurora Riverfront Park, a lovely park next to the Fox River.
The riverwalk meanders through this park, providing lovely scenery and a number of designated picnic spots.
Address: North Aurora, IL 60542
The Rockford Riverwalk
The Rockford Riverwalk is another great one, with a unique cable-stayed bridge for pedestrians and access to the nearby museum campus.
It also has lovely foliage along the riverbanks and makes a perfect location for a relaxing stroll.
Address: 711 N Main St, Rockford, IL 61103
Relax on the beach
While it is a landlocked state, Illinois actually has a great number of beautiful beaches, largely along the shoreline of Lake Michigan.
Some of the beaches also border other large lakes in the region.
This makes Illinois very convenient as you can enjoy not only forests and mountains but also a beach atmosphere and activities.
57th Street beach
One of the most popular beaches is the 57th Street Beach, which offers amazing views of the Chicago skyline along with great swimming opportunities.
The area for swimming is very large, meaning it doesn’t become too crowded and swimmers are able to spread out.
Address: 5700 South Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Illinois 60611
Illinois Beach State park Resort
Another interesting beach in the region is the Illinois Beach State Park Resort, an area of Lake Michigan with unique sand dunes.
The area is part of a preservation effort and so is a beautiful representation of the natural environment.
The beach is also popular for swimming as well as fishing within designated areas.
Address: 1 Lake Front Dr, Zion, IL 60099
Learn more about Abraham Lincoln
For those more interested in history and significant people throughout history, Illinois is a great location to learn more about Abraham Lincoln, one of the most influential people in American history.
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States and changed the course of American history during his time as President, as well as in the years before and after.
Illinois is a very significant spot in Lincoln’s timeline, as his first and only owned home is located in Illinois.
It now functions as a museum and historic center, offering unique insights into the personal life of Lincoln and his family.
They also cover the political history of the time as well as the chronological timeline.
The home is managed by the National Park Service and guided tours are available at the Lincoln Home for free.
If you are looking for more sites that are operated by the National Parks Service, click here.
Address: 426 S. 7th Street, Springfield, IL 62701
Illinois is also home to the Lincoln Tomb, the final resting place of Abraham Lincoln and most of his family.
This impressive tomb consists of a large obelisk, multiple bronze statues representing parts of Lincoln’s life, a large granite base, and marble and bronze finishings inside.
Address: 1500 Monument Ave, Springfield, IL 62702
Learn more about John Deere
Nowadays, John Deere is most well-known as a brand with a large range of farming equipment, but the history of the brand and the man behind it is an interesting look into the innovation of the past.
John Deere was a successful blacksmith who revolutionized the farming industry when he created the first commercially successful self-scouring steel plow in 1837 after hearing from his customers that traditional cast-iron plows didn’t work well in the Midwest soil and environment.
This created a new landscape for agriculture and forged a way forward for the industry.
The John Deere Historic Center celebrates this and educates with their recreation of the original blacksmith shop where the first plow was forged and by offering live blacksmith demonstrations of how the plow was made.
There are also tours of the Deere family home and a range of historical artifacts to view.
The John Deere Historic Site is a great option when looking for free things to do in northern Illinois.
Make a scenic drive
While some think of driving as merely a Point A to Point B transport method, it can also be a relaxing way to explore a large area and take in the surrounding scenery.
Scenic drives are a great way to enjoy your surroundings and view nature, towns, and more, all while in the comfort of your car.
It can be a good activity for families with young children who maybe can’t handle a full day of walking around a city or those who want to cover a large area in a limited time.
Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway
Illinois has many great scenic drives, such as the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway, a beautiful road with amazing surroundings of prairies, forests, wetlands, and the river.
This drive is particularly stunning in autumn but is a great drive year-round.
Illinois Lincoln Highway
Another good option is the Illinois Lincoln Highway, which focuses more on the small towns and communities which form a charming aspect of the state.
All along the drive, there are unique and historical towns.
This allows you to explore any you find interesting and the drive can be extended or shortened depending on the number of stops you decide to make.
Drive the Shawnee Hills Wine trail
The Shawnee Hills Wine Trail is a great way to combine an interest in wineries with a beautiful scenic drive.
The trail winds through the Shawnee National Forest and features 11 award-winning wineries along its 40 miles.
Many of these wineries have regular events, tastings, and the like, or you can simply use the trail as a scenic drive.
Each of the wineries is unique and has special features or techniques which make it stand out.
Driving the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail is a great option for those who want to enjoy a scenic drive but are also considering visiting some wineries in the area.
Nauvoo is a lovely town located on the edge of Illinois, about 4.5 hrs drive from Chicago.
It is well-known for a number of reasons, including its impressive Mormon Latter Days Saint temple, a complete reconstruction of the original temple from the 1800s.
The temple has an interesting history of being burned, destroyed, and then finally reconstructed.
Nauvoo is also close to Nauvoo state park, a beautiful park with amazing scenery.
Another fun thing to do when visiting with children is a wagon and carriage ride through Nauvoo’s streets.
The town has regular seasonal events and festivals which can be a great way to celebrate the local community, even if you are just visiting.
Explore the great rivers & route with one of the free passes
A great way to experience southwest Illinois is through a Great Rivers & Routes experience.
Great Rivers & Routes offers a range of ‘trails’ that take you on a largely self-guided tour of a specific region or part of history.
These will take you to significant spots and recommend local restaurants and the like.
For example, the Lincoln and Civil War Legacy Tour explores several significant places from the life of Lincoln and his part in the Civil War.
This includes historical centers, monuments, historic houses, and other unique parts of history.
Great Rivers & Routes also offers tours surrounding other parts of history or celebrating the region in general.
You can find more info about the free passes here.
Visit the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
If you are looking to explore further back in history, the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site may be the place for you.
This site is the most complex prehistoric site north of Mexico and dates from 1050-1350CE when it was the site of an original Native American city.
The current historic site has around 80 manmade mounds over a large area, although the original city was much larger. The site displays a unique and sophisticated society, constantly innovating and developing new ways of living.
The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site can be a truly personalized experience, as you can choose to either spend time at the more remote and isolated mounds, the most famous and well-known areas, or a mix of the two.
Among the various free things to do in southern Illinois, this is one of the most interesting and is considered a great day activity.
Interested in historic places in Illinois? Check out this post in which we share an overview of the best historic sites in Il.
Free things to do in Illinois in the winter
If you are visiting Illinois in winter, there are a number of unique seasonal things to do which can truly elevate your trip.
One of these is eagle spotting. Illinois is home to the highest number of bald eagles in any state outside of Alaska.
This makes it ideal for bird-watching and marveling at these magnificent creatures.
There are many bird-watching events throughout winter that can help visitors to get the best views and experiences of seeing eagles. You could also try eagle watching on your own by hiking through some of the state parks.
Watch the colorful light displays
Winter is a great time for taking a trip as everybody is getting into the holiday spirit and beautiful light displays to celebrate the holidays will appear all over the state.
The best light displays often include thousands of differently-colored lights, synchronized music, light shows, and other various features.
They become an entire production and immersive experience, making it an amazing way to spend time while holidaying in Illinois.
Illinois is a beautiful state with a great range of things to do, also for those on a budget.
Holidaying can be expensive, so it’s always good to find hidden gems that are just as enjoyable without the high prices.
Whether you prefer the great outdoors or wandering through a museum, exploring local history, or supporting community businesses, there is something for everyone on our list of the top things to do in Illinois for free.
See the web story that accompanies this post.