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Chicago Shakespeare’s Shakes in the City program will include 22 free pop-up performances and activities in parks across the city starting July 20.

Photo by Ty Optix / Courtesy of Chicago Shakespeare

The best free things to do in Chicago this summer, from backyard Broadway to “Barbie” in the park

With summer in Chicago comes a slew of free events that highlight some of the brightest stars on the city’s cultural scene.

Chicago summer weather is kind and encouraging, so maybe that’s why it’s too easy to go out on an innocent walk and end up spending $50. The good news: This season offers abundant art, concerts and activities for free. Here are 10 great suggestions — all free or for a minimum requested donation — that reflect some of the city’s brightest cultural offerings, from music and theater to dance and books.

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Chicago Shakespeare stages the Shakespeare comedy Twelfth Night in area parks
across the city from July 20 to Aug. 18.

Photo by Ty Optix / Courtesy of Chicago Shakespeare

1. See Shakespeare at a park near you

There are multiple productions originally penned by the Bard to see for free in Chicago this summer. The accessible Shakespeare company Midsommar Flight performs Romeo and Juliet every Friday and Saturday until Aug. 4 at Gross Park, Lincoln Park, Kelvyn Park, Nichols Park and Touhy Park.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater will bring Twelfth Night to a variety of parks across the city, starting at Polk Bros Park near Navy Pier on July 20 and running through Aug. 18, where the final show is at Rogers Park as part of the Glenwood Avenue Arts Fest. Bring a chair or blanket for sitting.

2. Take advantage of the Chicago Public Library’s summer performance series

This summer, the Chicago Public Library’s events all invoke its “Find Your Rhythm” theme; think all things music and performance. There are installments to improve your knowledge: Participate in a discussion on the use of A.I. in music on July 15 at the Archer Heights Branch (5055 S. Archer Ave.) or learn how to access free music on July 14 at Bucktown-Wicker Park branch (1701 N. Milwaukee Ave.).

Or, if you’re eager for an outing with your teen, the library hosts the annual Queer Radical Fair on July 15 at Ping Tom Park (1700 S. Wentworth Ave.) that encourages discovery of personal style. You can also participate in their summer reading challenge, whether you’re a kid or adult.

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Barbie writer and director Greta Gerwig poses for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film in July 2023 in London.

Scott Garfitt/Invision/AP

3. Catch Greta Gerwig’s Barbie at a park

As much a cultural event as a movie, the 2023 film starring Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie will be screened at five parks (Churchill Field Park, Commercial Club Park, Bosley Park, Bartelme Park and River Park) in the coming weeks. Not a Barbie girl? There are dozens of movies screening in parks this summer and there’s something for everyone’s taste. The park district’s website lets you filter by movie or by park, so you can find something near you or track down which park is screening your favorite flick.

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Northerly Island’s 119-acre manmade peninsula offers a nature area that features prairie and savanna habitats, a five-acre pond, and bike paths that bring visitors close to nature.

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

4. Bike to and through Northerly Island

Chicago’s greenery doesn’t stop at parks: did you know that Northerly Island has a trail that’s great for bikes and ADA-friendly? The former airport — bulldozed by former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley – is now a hidden treasure proximate to downtown. Ride to it as an adventure, then follow the trails to the end for fishing, birdwatching or simply enjoying the view.

Want more ideas for outdoor adventures, from skateboarding in an “eco-recreation” center to great day hikes? WBEZ’s guide to Chicago’s wilder side is a great (and cost efficient) way to get outside.

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Henry Guan, who attends Chicago SummerDance every year, dances during a Bhangra class at Taste of Chicago Rogers Park in Touhy Park on June 15, 2024. SummerDance hosts an event July 28 at the Maxwell Street Market.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

5. Swing your way through the city

Chicago’s SummerDance series provides a plethora of opportunities to get on the dance floor. Dance in all sorts of styles (like bachata, steppin’ or swing) at a variety of parks throughout July and August. And no worries if you’re a beginner; they’ll have instructors to teach dancers of all skill levels.

The (also free!) Maxwell Street Market (which will take place on Maxwell Street between South Halsted and South Union) will have a SummerDance event on July 28 with lessons in Bachata, Latin Hustle and West Coast Swing.

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Porchlight’s Broadway in Your Backyard performers Desiree Gonzalez, Lorenzo Rush Jr, Lydia Burke and Adrian Aguilar perform in Portage Park in 2023.

Courtesy of Porchlight Music Theatre

6. See Broadway performances with a picnic

The most iconic park in the city will host some great performances in the coming months. But one of the don’t-miss ones on the list is the Broadway in Chicago’s summer concert on Aug. 12 at Millennium Park with performances from Some Like it Hot, Les Misérables and Mean Girls.

The musical theater storefront company Porchlight is also running its summer Broadway in Your Backyard tour with hour-long mashups of musicals from Funny Girl to Wicked. There are three performances left in the series (all start at 6 p.m.): on July 11 in Hale Park (6258 W. 62nd St.), July 16 in Schreiber Playground Park (1552 W. Schreiber Ave.) and on Aug. 6 in Washington Square Park (901 N. Clark St.)

7. Try opera without the price of admission

If you want to try opera without the price of a ticket, Millennium Park hosts Sunday in the Park with Lyric on Aug. 25 for a variety of songs from the Chicago opera’s 2024/25 season. The night also features the first solo performance of the season by the Lyric Opera’s new artist-in-residence, the celebrated soprano Karen Slack, who performed in the critically acclaimed 2014-2015 production of Porgy and Bess.

8. Tap your toes to Tiny Desk live

NPR’s Tiny Desk series is known for hosting stripped-down concerts by some of the country’s top acts, but the production also steps outside the office every summer to tour with the Tiny Desk Contest winner (this year, it’s musician and multi-instrumentalist The Philharmonik). On July 15, the tour will stop at Millennium Park and will also feature a performance from Afrobeats artist Seun Kuti.

9. Dive into Chicago’s Black dance history

Chicago’s dance history is rich and, until recently, not well understood. There are new efforts underway to archive and preserve all of the city’s contributions to the genre, including its lineage of Black choreographers. See some of the city’s top Black dance artists at work on Aug. 24 at the Millennium Park performance of Divination: The Dancing Souls of Black Folk, which will feature 10 area dance companies from Deeply Rooted Dance Company to Muntu to Chicago Multicultural Dance Company.

10. Discover the next big thing in indie music at Wicker Park Fest

Yes, there’s technically a $10 suggested donation for entrance that goes to the neighborhood, but given the “suggested” part, we decided to keep Wicker Park Fest — a breeding ground for indie music talent (i.e. Snail Mail, ODEZSA) — on the list. Come for the headliners Jamila Woods and Superdrag, stay for the up-and-coming names in the music scene that you’re sure to be hearing more from in the coming years. Kids and pets can also find designated activities at the festival with mini golf, arts and crafts, pet portraits and treat vendors. WBEZ will also host its own stage in celebration of 40 years of house music and feature DJ sets galore from DJ Chip E., Microdot and more. You can also find more neighborhood celebrations with WBEZ’s summer festivals guide.

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis is a digital producer on WBEZ’s Arts & Culture desk.

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