These 11 free offerings make it easy to explore Oak Park on a budget
Conveniently located within a short drive, CTA ride, or Metra train from downtown Chicago, the Oak Park area is a popular getaway for travelers who want a taste of big city amenities without paying big city prices. Alongside a lineup of reasonably priced shops and restaurants, the area is also home to a number of cultural attractions that offer unforgettable experiences without a price tag. From unwinding at colorful conservatories to admiring some of the world’s coolest architecture, here are 11 free things to do in and around Oak Park.
Oak Park Art League | 720 Chicago Avenue, Oak Park
Since 1921, the Oak Park Art League has been dedicated to creating a space that allows local artists of all ages to develop, nurture, and exhibit their work. In addition to studio rentals, art consultations, and informational lectures, the art league hosts a diverse assortment of rotating and permanent exhibits in its historic gallery space. Visits to the gallery and many community events are free, though there is sometimes a small fee for art supplies.
Garfield Park Conservatory | 300 North Central Park Avenue, Chicago
As one of the nation’s leading displays of rare plant species, the Garfield Park Conservatory is an unforgettable destination for flora and fauna lovers. While it’s just a few miles from the hustle and bustle of Chicago’s loop, it’s a hidden oasis and the ideal setting to reconnect with nature. Half a dozen greenhouses cover more than two acres and offer a rich, exotic atmosphere of towering palms, arid desert gardens, orchids, ferns, and more. Visit during the summer and you’ll find seasonal flowers and working community gardens throughout the conservatory’s 12 acres of outdoor gardens. The conservatory is open to the public year-round and entry is free, though donations are always appreciated.
Riverside Historical Museum | 10 Pine Avenue, Riverside
Nestled in the heart of Riverside’s historic downtown is the Riverside Historical Museum, a love letter to the work of world-renowned architects with its unique compilation of artifacts, photographs and archival materials. The museum highlights the designs of Frederick Law Olmsted, regarded by many as the father of American landscape architecture who gained notoriety after his work on New York's Central Park, and Calvert Vaux, who worked with Olmsted to design Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Permanent exhibits also illustrate the impressive architectural legacy of the village’s landmarks, from the famed water tower to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Coonley House.
Oak Park Conservatory | 615 Garfield Street, Oak Park
With its breathtaking assortment of native and exotic plants, the Oak Park Conservatory is a must-see for families, couples, green thumbs, and anyone with an appreciation for lush landscapes. The three indoor botanical showrooms comprise everything from tropical flowers and palms to cacti and carnivorous plants. You’ll also find a rotating collection of begonias and orchids in the fern room, while the Exploration Station, which is open throughout the school year, offers interactive courses on conservation for kids. Donations are appreciated, but there is no charge for visiting the conservatory or participating in activities at the Exploration Station.
Walk-In Wednesdays at the Cheney Mansion | 220 North Euclid Avenue, Oak Park
Another jewel in Oak Park’s architectural crown is the Cheney Mansion. This magnificent mansion may strike you as something you would stumble upon in the English countryside – and that’s exactly what the designers intended. With its expansive lawn and charming greenhouse, the Cheney Mansion is an ideal backdrop for community events like yoga classes, outdoor concerts and cooking courses. On Wednesdays from 11:00am-2:00pm, drop in for a free tour of the home’s grand reception rooms, cozy bedrooms and servants’ quarters. Tours are free, but a non-perishable item for the Oak Park Food Pantry is suggested.
Hal Tyrell Trailside Museum of Natural History | 738 Thatcher Avenue, River Forest
One of Oak Park’s most captivating historic homes was reimagined as an exciting museum that celebrates the region’s diverse wildlife while offering visitors the chance to get back to nature – just a few miles from downtown Oak Park. Housed in a stunning mid-1870s Victorian mansion, the Hal Tyrell Trailside Museum of Natural History features wildflower gardens, colorful displays of native flowers and local wildlife exhibits. Get face-to-face with coyotes and foxes, wander the museum's forests and take a guided hike along the beautiful oak woodlands that dot the Des Plaines River—all without spending a dime.
Riverside Arts Center + Freeark Gallery | 32 East Quincy Street, Riverside
For more than 20 years, the Riverside Arts Center + Freeark Gallery has served as a quirky artistic escape for Riverside and its surrounding suburbs. The center consistently hosts themed exhibitions, special events and offers classes in anything from sculpture to printmaking. Visitors can enjoy the work of the region’s most creative artists at the Freeark Gallery, which is open Tuesday through Saturday. There is no charge to visit the exhibits and gallery space, though many art classes and workshops charge a modest participation fee.
Brookfield Zoo | 8400 31st Street, Brookfield
Feed a giraffe, pet a penguin and tour the largest indoor parakeet aviary in North America for free during Brookfield Zoo’s off season promotion. General admission is free on Tuesdays and Thursdays from Oct. 1 through Dec. 31, and on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays from Jan. 3 through Feb 28. If you can’t take advantage of the wintertime promotional opportunities, this world-renowned zoo - with its exotic assortment of animals from across the globe - is a top destination any time of year.
Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District Walking Tour | Various Locations, Oak Park
Oak Park is proud to be home to the world’s largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed structures. From the Romanesque arch of the Arthur B. Heurtley House to the Tudor-inspired Nathan G. Moore House, the village’s Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District is a treasure trove of 25 Wright structures that demonstrate the evolution of his Prairie style approach. While the area's most notable landmarks, Wright’s Home & Studio and Unity Temple, charge for tours, architecture aficionados will love admiring the famed architect’s work from the street all the same. Simply grab a map at Oak Park Visitors Center and lace up your walking shoes.
Cernan Earth & Space Center | 2000 Fifth Avenue, River Grove
While the laser light shows at Cernan Earth & Space Center cost money, there is no charge to marvel at the impressive items displayed in the center’s lobby. Visitors can see a spacesuit worn during one of the first missions around the moon and admire replicas of the Space Shuttle, Apollo-Soyuz spacecraft and Explorer 1—all for free. There are also several fossils on display, including a collection of Brachiosaurus bones and a full-scale model of a prehistoric dinosaur footprint. Cernan also offers a free monthly skywatch party, in which guests can observe the night sky’s celestial sightings with telescopes on the center’s lawn.
Pleasant Home | 217 South Home Avenue, Oak Park
One of the nation's first examples of Prairie style architecture is the Pleasant Home, designed in 1897 by famed architect George W. Maher. A National Historic Landmark, the mansion is also the only Maher design that's currently open to the public. After passing through the wide, softly lit front porch, you’ll be able to explore its interior graced with elegant woodwork, vibrant art glass windows, decorative motifs, and intricate tilework. Best of all, forgoing a docent-guided tour means saving on admission: there is no cost for self-guided tours of this opulent space, but there is a suggested donation of $5.