Free and Cheap Festivals To Attend in Chicago in the Fall

Chicago's Lincoln Park Nature Boardwalk in fall.
Chicago's Lincoln Park Nature Boardwalk in fall. | © Alanscottwalker / WikiCommons
Photo of Sarah Ashley
15 October 2018

As autumn creeps into the Windy City, fall festivals give locals and visitors reason to rush out into the cool outdoors before winter settles in. Here are must-try free and cheap fall festivals in Chicago.


No fall festival list would be complete without an Oktoberfest celebration, and there are several opportunities in the city to participate in the traditional German celebration. Dusek’s Blocktoberfest, a free block party in Pilsen hosted by performance venue 16” on Center, and Michelin-star-winner Dusek’s Board & Beer take place every September. Indulge in German pretzels, sausages and beer while listening to live music from local DJs.

For a $5 suggested donation, attendees of Revolution Brewing’s Oktoberfest can expect 10 music acts over the course of two days. German goodies and Revolution’s Oktoberfest lager (along with several other featured brews and cocktails by Chicago Distilling) will be available as well, but cost extra. Proceeds go to Friends of Goethe School, a non-profit that raises money for local schools.

Apple Fest

Market, American, $$$
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A variety of apples | © Kidz Activities / Flickr

During the first weekend of October, Lincoln Avenue becomes everything apple and fall for the annual Apple Fest on Chicago’s North Side. Local restaurants, including neighborhood favorites Luella’s Southern Kitchen and The Northman, serve apple-themed dishes like apple-braised pork belly and cider donuts. Local farmers also set up shop, selling homemade apple ciders, jams and different types of honey, not to mention – of course – apples. Events like storytelling for kids start as early as 10am on both days; crafts and live music also abound. Admission is a $5 suggested donation.

Chicago VeganMania

Market, Vegan, $$$
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fruit, vegetables
Colorful vegetables are the most important part of a good vegan meal. | © USDA / Flickr

As its name suggests, this Chicago festival is an exuberant celebration of vegan food and lifestyles. After a decade, VeganMania is the Midwest’s largest festival dedicated entirely to veganism. Held in Chicago’s Broadway Armory, a 24,000-square-foot (2,229.6-square-meter) space in the Edgewater neighborhood, the event has 20 different food vendors and demonstrations from some of today’s leading vegan chefs. Plus, VeganMania hosts talks from thought leaders in the vegan world, doctors with expertise on healthy veganism and vegan organizations dedicated to bringing Chicago’s vegan community closer together. There’s even a group yoga session in the morning. Admission is free (with a $5 suggested donation).

Open House Chicago

Archaeological site
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The Tiffany Dome at the Chicago Cultural Center | © Ken Lund / Flickr

Chicago is world-famous for its fabulous architecture, but there are gorgeous buildings that are hidden from the public eye. Luckily, for one weekend every year, the Chicago Architecture Center opens up more than 250 private buildings to the public. The CAC, a non-profit cultural organization, started Open House Chicago in 2011 to promote the importance of interior design and to showcase the city’s incredible architectural diversity. Sites in the past have included The Arts Club of Chicago, The Givins Castle, Ling Shen Ching Tze Buddhist Temple, Bahá’í House of Worship and Edgewater Beach Apartments. Watch out for a full printed Event Guide in the Chicago Tribune come mid-October.

Chicago Home Movie Day

Movie Theater
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An RCA camcorder from the 1980s. | © Dhscommtech at English Wikipedia / WikiCommons

The Chicago Film Society and Chicago Film Archives partnered up to bring home videos from everyday people to the big screen. On Saturday, October 27, 2018, viewers can pop into the museum for this celebration of home movies, which is exactly what it sounds like. Visitors are encouraged to bring in old footage (16mm, 8mm and Super 8mm), which experts will handle and project onto a screen for the audience to watch. Because reels of home videos are often passed down over generations, much of this footage is unwatchable on modern devices. The Chicago Film Society and Chicago Film Archives discuss how to better preserve these film reels and have all the equipment necessary for optimal viewing. Admission is free, and no footage is needed to participate. Afterward, several movies from CFA’s enormous collection will be screened.

West Town Art Walk

Art Gallery
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Wicker Park, Chicago
Wicker Park's Historic District is a great place to stay on a trip to Chicago. | © Andrew Jameson / WikiCommons

Now in its eighth year, the West Town Art Walk covers art in a variety of forms, including food. All along Chicago Avenue, from Noble Square and West Town to the Ukrainian Village, shops and restaurants showcase local artists, which means visitors get a double dose of inspiration at each spot. For instance, pop into Epic Spices for a one-of-a-kind small-batch spice blend, and check out photographer Chris Kemp’s gorgeous wedding photography. The list of businesses and artists participating each year is top-notch, and many shops offer excellent deals throughout the weekend.

Free Intelligent Conversation

Pop-up Store
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Two strangers can have a conversation for free on the streets of Chicago. | © 27707 / Pixabay

Every month or so, this movement stations individuals in public spaces around Chicago for a few hours, inviting strangers to engage in meaningful conversation. The goal is to bring people together to celebrate the differences between people living and working in the same city, and to encourage people to talk about anything in any space. FreeIC champions the power of face-to-face interactions over tedious conversations online or via social media. What better way to celebrate the transition between one season into another than by making a new friend or, at the very least, commiserating with a Chicagoan about the long winter ahead? Look for a friendly face holding a sign that says, “Free Intelligent Conversation.”

Lincoln Park Zoo

Zoo, Park
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Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago
The Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago is always free to visit. | © Ron Cogswell / Flickr / Derivative from original

The Lincoln Park Zoo (which is always free to enter) hosts Fall Fest, a month-long celebration of all things autumn. Between the inflatable obstacle course, the corn maze and the petting zoo, this event might even be worth a second trip. Pumpkins are ready for picking, and a Ferris Wheel is available for riding ($3 for a ride ticket). For children interested in showing off a Halloween costume, Spooky Zoo is a kid-friendly, safe trick-or-treating experience.

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