Labor Day is a bittersweet holiday because for many, it signals the end of summer vacation. And for cities like Chicago, it’s one of the last big holidays to celebrate before the weather becomes chilly and the lake freezes over.

On the bright side, Labor Day isn’t bound by specific traditions, so you can have lots of fun with it.

It’s a national holiday created to honor the contributions of American workers, and it usually falls on the first Monday in September.

Labor Day Weekend in Chicago

For those in Chicago, there are lots of cheap and free things to do this Labor Day weekend. You’ll find plenty of creative ways to celebrate.

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The Windy City is home to 2.7 million people and received a record 57.6 million visitors in 2018, a 4.3 percent increase over the previous year. If you plan to spend Labor Day in Chicago, here are seven fun, budget-friendly ways to enjoy the long weekend.

1. Head to the Beach

Chicago sits alongside Lake Michigan and has over a dozen different beaches. The best part? They’re all free.

While you might not get the ocean experience that you’d have on a California beach, you can still have fun and relax — and in fresh water, too.

If you visit one of the beaches near the downtown area — such as the North Avenue and Oak Street beaches — you’ll get a nice view of the tall buildings that make up the Windy City’s famous skyline. You can pack a lunch or order food and drinks from the concessions area nearby and have a fun day full of swimming, beach volleyball, and sunbathing.

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2. Attend the Annual Jazz Festival

Each year, Chicago hosts a free jazz festival at Millennium Park. This year, the jazz festival takes place Labor Day weekend. Events start every evening from August 23 to September 1.

If you’re a fan of jazz music, you’ll enjoy this outdoor celebration of both contemporary improvisers and legendary musicians. There will even be tributes to icons like Nat King Cole.

3. Visit the Navy Pier

The Navy Pier is one of the best attractions Chicago has to offer, and it’s perfect for family fun. It’s a 3,300-foot-long pier on the Lake Michigan shoreline.

The great thing about the Navy Pier is that it’s free to enter and walk through.

There are several fun activities and restaurants along the way, though not all of them are free. The Navy Pier is home to the Chicago Children’s Museum, Shakespeare Theatre, Centennial Ferris Wheel, Miller Lite Beer Garden, daily lake cruises, and plenty of places to eat.

Plus, there are some free community programs at the pier each week. This Labor Day weekend, there’s a free music festival from September 1–3, free entertainment for kids, and a free fireworks display on August 31 at 10:15 pm.

4. Stop by the Great American Lobster Fest

Navy Pier is also home to the Midwest’s largest lobster and seafood festival this Labor Day weekend.

Lobster is flown in from the East Coast, and there are games, arts and crafts, and beverages.

Tickets are a little on the pricier side at $44 for a day, but they come with a meal included, as well as live music and everything mentioned above.

5. Go on a Cocktail Cruise

Renting boats to cruise the lake can be expensive. That said, the ones from the Navy Pier are much more affordable than most because they’re public cruises. Some of them provide dinner, but the ones that don’t will be cheaper.

This Labor Day, you can board the Anita Dee II Yacht at the Navy Pier for a 2.5-hour sail along Lake Michigan for as little as $19.25. Cocktails, non-alcoholic drinks, and light snacks will be available for purchase once you’re onboard. Plus, there will be a live DJ and a fireworks display at the end of the night.

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6. Lincoln Park Zoo

If you’d rather explore the outdoors on Labor Day this year, the Lincoln Park Zoo is a worthy free way to enjoy the day with friends and family. It’s a free zoo in the North Side area of Chicago that’s home to 1,200 animals, from lions and zebras to apes and flamingos.

Another great thing about the zoo? It hosts special events throughout the year, including outdoor yoga sessions, the Summer Wine Fest, Craft Brews, and kid-friendly sing-alongs.

7. Art Institute of Chicago

If you’re looking for something a little more lowkey, this museum, one of the country’s oldest and largest, is running an exhibition on groundbreaking artist Édouard Manet, a leader in the transition from realism to Impressionism. The exhibition will focus on the transformation of the artist's style in the later years of his career. Tickets start at $14, and children under 13 go free.

No matter what your interests are, there are tons of cheap and free things to do in Chicago during Labor Day weekend.

Additional reporting by Kelly Meehan Brown.