From zoo visits to festivals and the lakefront, here are free things to do around Milwaukee

The Milwaukee County Zoo has periodic free-admission days throughout the year.
The Milwaukee County Zoo has periodic free-admission days throughout the year.

Milwaukee is a great place to live and a great place to visit, with plenty of things to do. If you're on a budget, though, some of those things can seem expensive. So here are things to do for free around Milwaukee.

Library programs, author talks, storytimes and summer reading programs

Branches of the Milwaukee Public Library offer tons of free programming for both kids and adults. There are book clubs, story times, LEGO clubs, Dungeons & Dragons marathons, movie showings and author tours, just to name a few. Check out its website to see what programs interest you and your family.

During summer vacation and other school breaks, the libraries typically offer additional programs and events. For example, the summer reading program offers kids, teens and adults the chance to win prizes for the number of books read. And many of those prizes will get you more free stuff.

In addition to programming at Milwaukee Public Library branches, there are just some cool places to hang out. There's a secret garden at the Tippecanoe branch. And downtown's Central Library has a spacious children's area with a lighthouse replica to climb, a stage to relax on and a puppet theater.

Milwaukee tours

Milwaukee is known as a city of neighborhoods. Learn more about some of those neighborhoods, and then take a tour. The Historic Milwaukee app offers self-guided walking tours.

Several of downtown Milwaukee's buildings are connected by skywalks, but you don't have to wait until the weather is horrible to stroll through them.

Things to do on the Milwaukee lakefront

Take advantage of Milwaukee's placement on an amazing Great Lake by hanging out at the lakefront. You can picnic, swim and search for shells and rocks for free. At Bradford Beach and Grant Park Beach, you can also watch volleyball matches, or play yourself when the courts aren't being used by the teams.

Check out one of the events at the lakefront — from kite festivals to charity walks to the Milwaukee Air & Water show to the 3rd of July fireworks show to various events going on outside the Milwaukee Art Museum and Discovery World.

There are also paths on the lakefront that are great for walking and rollerblading. Or you can fly a kite at Veterans Park, where lake breezes make a great kite-flying experience.

Free days at the Milwaukee County Zoo and Milwaukee museums

The Milwaukee County Zoo has periodic Family Free Days throughout the year. For the rest of 2023, those are Oct. 7, Nov. 4 and Dec. 2. Also, zoo admission is free during Frosty Free Week, Dec. 26-29.

Admission to the Milwaukee Public Museum is free on Kohl's Thank you Thursdays, the first Thursday of each month.

During Community Access Days — the third Thursday of each month — admission to the Betty Brinn Children's Museum is free from 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Advance tickets are recommended as there are capacity restrictions.

The Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design has two art galleries that are free and open to the public.

Visit Black Cat Alley, an outdoor art gallery, to admire the murals.

Milwaukee County Parks, playgrounds and nature centers

The Milwaukee County Parks system has more than 150 parks, with walking and hiking trails, playgrounds, picnic areas, beaches, historic sites and artifacts, volleyball courts, disc golf courses and just wide open spaces for kids to run around.

Visit a nature center. There are great hiking paths, natural playgrounds and visitor centers. Wehr Nature Center (which does charge a parking fee, but walking in from the adjoining Whitnall Park is free) and Retzer Nature Center are great options.

Milwaukee festivals, farmers markets and beer gardens

Take a walk through a community festival like Bastille Days, the annual Juneteenth Day celebration or the Milwaukee Night Market. Or go to a church festival. These events don't charge admission fees, and even if you don't want to spend money on food or rides, they're great places to people-watch and hang out. An added bonus is that a lot of these events have free kids' activities courtesy of mobile activity trucks and vans, like ones from Betty Brinn Children's Museum and the art museum.

You can do the same thing at a farmers market or beer garden. And a lot of these places are at parks where your kids can play.

Strolling through Milwaukee-area small towns

Stroll through one of those Hallmark movie-worthy downtown areas we have around Milwaukee. Lake Geneva, Greendale and Cedarburg are great starting points.

Speaking of Cedarburg, check out its covered bridge while you're there. And then take a tour of other covered bridges in Wisconsin.

Hiking around Milwaukee

There are several hiking paths in the Milwaukee area that have remnants of abandoned buildings, railroad tracks, even luxury resorts on them.

Holy Hill is known for its beautiful views from the top of its 192-foot tower. But even without a trek up the 178 stairs of the tower, the grounds are gorgeous for hiking.

The Ice Age Trail is truly a Wisconsin treasure — a 1,000-mile footpath completely within the state of Wisconsin that highlights several geological features that were carved out when a glacier melted 12,000 years ago. There are lots of ways to hike the Ice Age Trail, from challenging yourself to conquer the whole thing to focusing on some specific segments whenever the season is most to your liking.

Take a walk on Milwaukee's Riverwalk. In addition to beautiful views, you can greet the Bronze Fonz and the statues of Gertie and her ducklings.

Free outdoor movies and concerts around Milwaukee

During the summer months, lots of parks and communities host free outdoor movies.

The same is true for outdoor concerts.

Contact Amy Schwabe at (262) 875-9488 or Follow her on Twitter at @WisFamilyJS, Instagram at @wisfamilyjs or Facebook at WisconsinFamily.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Things to do for free in Milwaukee, at the lakefront, downtown and more