Free for all
At festivals and attractions across the region, fun doesn't cost a thing.
© Beth Gauper
It's always free to visit Madison's Henry Vilas Zoo in Wingra Park.
It's amazing how many things are free around here.
We pay nothing to watch fireworks and water-ski shows, use trails and parks, visit zoos and museums and go to hundreds of outdoor festivals, art fairs and concerts.
Our children fill baskets at free Easter egg hunts and rake in armfuls of candy at summer and fall parades.
Who's behind all this largesse? Foundations, businesses and taxpayers, but mostly thousands of hard-working volunteers. We take them for granted, but you won't find so much non-stop generosity in other regions and especially not other countries. We're lucky folks.
Here are some of the best free things to see and do in the Upper Midwest.
Some are free all the time, and others just for a day or two, so mark your calendars. If you're a mom or a dad, watch for free admissions on Mother's Day in May and Father's Day in June.
And for many almost-free things to do, see our Cheap Trips section.
The most incredible deal, hands-down, is the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, a palace of world-class art, old and new. Its monthly Family Days, which feature music, dance, games and storytelling, also are free.
Just for comparison, the Chicago Art Institute now charges $25.
Sixth-graders get free admission to any Minnesota Historical Society site around the state.
© Beth Gauper
In Chicago, the Lincoln Park Zoo is fabulous and free.
In Racine, Wis., the SC Johnson company offers free tours of Frank Lloyd Wright's stunning 1939 Administration Building and 1950 Research Tower, as well as the 1939 residence Wingspread.
For more, see Wright in Racine.
In Madison, free tours of the magnificent State Capitol are given daily. Madison on the Cheap lists other free museums and attractions, including the Wisconsin Veterans Museum and Museum of Contemporary Art.
If you have a Bank of America credit or debit card, you get free admission the first full weekend of each month to 150 Museums on Us, including Chicago's Shedd Aquarium and Art Institute and the Twin Cities' Fort Snelling and Minnesota History Center.
In St. Paul, the Minnesota History Center is free from 3 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays.
In Milwaukee, the Milwaukee County Zoo offers Family Free Days on the first or second Saturdays of January through March and October through December.
On State Street in Madison, the Overture Center holds fun Kids in the Rotunda concerts on Saturdays during the school year.
In Chicago, the Cultural Center in the Loop draws on the deep well of local talent to offer performances year-round.
In summer, there are way too many fabulous concerts to list; nearly every town offers some.
© Torsten Muller
Concerts in Grant Park, including the Chicago Blues Festival, are free.
Most notable is Chicago's Grant Park Festival, where top-tier classical musicians perform in Millennium Park's Pritzker Pavilion from mid-June to mid-August.
The Minneapolis parks offer outdoor concerts at Minnehaha Falls and Father Hennepin parks and on Lake Harriet, where the Victorian bandshell hosts concerts daily, and two on Sundays.
In Madison, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra performs Concerts on the Square Wednesday evenings from late June through early August.
In Chicago, believe it or not, you can ask for someone to give you a private two- to four-hour tour on the topic of your choice; it's called the Chicago Greeter program.
Reserve seven to 10 days in advance. There's also an Insta-Greeter service available at shorter notice.
© Beth Gauper
Admission is free to the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wis.
On Lake Superior, the port town of Duluth offers free walking tours of Bentleyville, a large and fabulous show of lighted figures, from Thanksgiving through Christmas.
Volunteers even give you free cookies, popcorn, hot chocolate and marshmallows to roast over fire pits.
In summer, nearly every town holds a festival, and they're all good (especially the ones with big parades and fireworks).
If you're a kid, bigger isn't always better: People in small towns tend to throw the most candy during their parades. Our family's favorite is Nordic Fest in Decorah, Iowa.
For a list of the best fests, see our Events Calendar.
In the Twin Cities, Metro Transit offers free bus and train passes to get to major festivals and sports playoffs, and many smaller events, too.
Between Baraboo and Lodi, the Merrimac Car Ferry has crossed the Wisconsin River since 1848 and has been free since 1933.
Michigan holds Free Fishing Weekends the second weekend of June and the third weekend of February.
In 2020, tours are May 16, June 27, July 18, Aug. 22 and Sept. 26. Sign-ups are posted at 7 a.m. the first day of each month, and places fill quickly.
If you're in Traverse City, Mich., at the right time, you might be able to sail on the Madeline, a 92-foot twin-masted wooden replica of an 1840s commercial schooner.
She was built to be authentic to the era, so she doesn't meet Coast Guard requirements to sell tours or cruises.
© Beth Gauper
The views of the Mississippi River Valley from Pikes Peak State Park, those in every Iowa park, is free.
However, if she happens to be in port and tourists call the Maritime Heritage Alliance, they may be able to tour or even sail for free.
In Madison, the Madison School & Community Recreation's drop-in pontoon-boat rides on the city's lakes are only $5, but a limited number of free tickets are available to those for whom price is a barrier.
In Iowa and Illinois, admission to state parks always is free.
The first weekend in June is open house in the Wisconsin state parks, with free admission.
The second Saturday in June is open house in Minnesota state parks. Many parks also offer special events on those days.
There are many Free Entrance Days every year, generally on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January, National Park Week in late April, National Park Service Birthday in late August and National Public Lands Day in late September.
© Beth Gauper
Camping is free along Wisconsin's Namekagon River.
On the Wisconsin River, the town of Spring Green calls itself the Birthday Town. If it's your birthday, you get free admission to House on the Rock, a free tour of the Hillside Studio at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin and a free entree at Spring Green General Store.
Near Taylors Falls, Minn., Wild Mountain offers a free lift ticket or tubing pass and, in summer, a free Superday pass for unlimited rides on the alpine slide and go-carts.
Many festivals, especially food festivals, are generous with treats. Watch for free watermelon, strawberries, ice cream, pancakes, pasties and, especially, sweet corn.
And art-gallery crawls are an excellent source of free wine, cheese, crackers and fruit.
© Beth Gauper
The Aqua-Bats perform a weekly show in Minocqua, Wis.
Lucky us — the Upper Midwest, especially Wisconsin, is the epicenter of water-ski shows. Watching is one of the most fun things you can do on a balmy summer evening.
Nearly all are free, thanks to spangled athletes and powerboat drivers who volunteer their services all summer long, though donations are much appreciated.
© Beth Gauper
At the Jelly Belly Visitor Center in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., tours and samples are free.
In Pleasant Prairie, Wis., near Kenosha, the Jelly Belly Visitor Center gives free 35-minute warehouse tours year-round, with free samples.
In Chicago, Eli's Cheesecake gives a free Tasting & Tradition experience at 1 p.m. daily in its cafe, with samples.
For more on tours, see Braking for jelly beans.
Skiing and snowboarding
Near Iron River, Mich., Ski Brule offers free lift, rental and lesson to first-time skiers on Fridays and snowboarders on Fridays and Wednesdays. Reserve in advance.
In Boone, Iowa, 15 minutes west of Ames, Seven Oaks Recreation offers free ski or snowboard mini-lessons daily for those 7 years and older.
For more deals, see Bargains for beginners.
Last updated on January 10, 2020