The grand city of Aurora, Illinois, is historic, fast-growing, brimming with nature, and steeped in culture.
It’s located on the western edge of the Chicago metropolitan area and belongs to four counties: DuPage, Kane, Kendall, and Will.
After Chicago, it’s the second most populous city in the entire state, with around 180,542 residents based on the 2020 census.
To accommodate the recreational needs of the residents, the city and local investors have maintained various natural and artificial attractions.
Many of them are free for locals and visitors alike!
So if you’re planning a budget-friendly vacation, make this city one of your top choices!
Here are the 15 free things to do in Aurora, Illinois:
Spend an Afternoon at Phillips Park
One of the top local attractions in Aurora is the marvelous Phillips Park, a 325-acre destination located along Ray Moses Drive.
This expansive park contains all you might look for in such a location: wide open spaces, playgrounds, picnic benches, sports facilities, etc.
But the true jewel of this attraction is the Philipps Park Zoo, which doesn’t have an entrance fee!
So come and check out the animals such as wolves, crocodiles, otters, and wild cats.
There’s also a Kids Zone for those bringing children to interact and play with docile animals.
After visiting the zoo, head to Mastodon Lake for some fantastic views and maybe a bit of fishing.
Phillips Park also has a public golfing course, but you’ll need to shell out a few bucks to play a few rounds.
Spot Native Wildlife at DuPage County Big Woods Forest Preserve
The expansive DuPage County Big Woods Forest Preserve is another Aurora jewel that most do not know about.
This is an undeveloped nature preserve, a 459-acre attraction composed of a wetland, prairie, swamps, and other natural features.
There are few modern amenities and lots of undisturbed nature, making this unsuitable for those who find the wilds too wild.
However, DuPage County Big Woods Forest Preserve is the perfect destination for those with adventurous souls.
It has several trails that crisscross through the different habitats, allowing you to see the wildlife that calls this place home.
These animals include garter snakes, deer, cuckoos, beavers, and Northern leopard frogs.
If you want to try fishing, the preserve has a small lake where you can catch largemouth bass and bluegill.
Follow the Gorgeous Trails in Oakhurst Forest Preserve
Like Big Woods, the Oakhurst Forest Preserve is an undisturbed destination that protects the region’s native wildlife.
This one is much smaller, with around 55 acres in total area.
However, that doesn’t make it any less beautiful than Big Woods.
It serves as a flood control and detention system, with the big lake on the western end showing how useful it is at gathering water.
Meanwhile, the more significant chunk of the area is forest, swamps, and wetlands.
You’re more than free to explore these sections and commune with nature.
If you want something fun for all ages, check out the sledding hill on the southern section of Oakhurst Forest Preserve.
It’s one of the beloved free winter sledding sites during the colder months.
Learn Local History at William Tanner House
History buffs who want to know about Aurora’s storied past should check out the William Tanner House.
The house has stood since 1857, built by one of the city’s wealthiest residents, William Tanner.
His descendants lived in the house until the 1930s,, when they donated the property to the Aurora Historical Society.
Today, the house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is open for free tours.
Marvel at the house’s Italianate style, which was all the rage back in the day.
Inside the William Tanner House are furnished rooms filled with antique items, including dinnerware, clothing, tools, and furniture.
If you visit during the holiday season, you’ll see twinkling lights and decor installed on the property annually.
Marvel at the Sri Venkateswara Swami Temple
The majestic Sri Venkateswara Swami Temple rises like a castle in the middle of vast grounds and urban forests.
It’s a spiritual destination for Hindu people, with Venkateswara as the main deity worshipped at the temple.
Of course, everyone is welcome to visit and learn all about the intricate location.
You’ll also enjoy the performances and presentations that showcase the arts and culture of India, giving you insight into its vibrant society.
If you don’t catch any events, you can still tour the public areas of the Sri Venkateswara Swami Temple and marvel at the incredibly detailed architecture.
You can also try the sumptuous Indian foods served there for a small fee.
Bond with the Family at Waubonsie Lake Park
Aurora has no shortage of scenic lakes; one is the grand Waubonsie Lake.
On its southwest end lies Waubonsie Lake Park, a small intimate neighborhood park that welcomes locals and visitors.
This outdoor gem is like a small slice of paradise, with a shelter that overlooks the lake and trails around it.
On one end, you’ll find the Waubonsie Creek crossing, which serves as a bridge-spillway hybrid.
There are also playgrounds, picnic shelters, and other amenities.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you’re welcome to explore the trail beyond Waubonsie Lake Park.
It follows Waubonsie Creek and spans 3.2 miles.
Explore the Fox River Trail
For adventurous spirits, check out the lengthy Fox River Trail, which follows the eponymous body of water.
This route begins in Hudson Crossing Park in the village of Oswego and travels 40 miles before ending at Algonquin.
Along the way, it passes through the Aurora city center and follows the river’s path.
One of the best entry points is at McCullough Park, another attraction.
You can walk, jog, or bike along the Fox River Trail.
But the best way to enjoy the trail is to stroll for a few miles and enjoy the magnificent views of the waters and forested riverbanks.
You’ll also see other points of interest outside Aurora, such as the Red Oak Nature Center and Harold Hall Quarry Beach.
Watch Model Airplanes Fly at Aurora West Forest Preserve
The largest of Aurora’s designated natural areas is the vast Aurora West Forest Preserve, a 715-acre attraction along Hankes Road.
In the past, it was used for growing row crops like sugarcane.
It was part of Kane County’s Sugar Grove village in the past.
This place is a thriving ecological hotspot with forest cover and various habitats, like prairies and wetlands.
Many people come here to escape the city’s noise and enjoy the serenity and views.
Aurora West Forest Preserve is also known for its wildlife viewing opportunities, with native avian species, mammals, and insects calling this place home.
For those who want more everyday activities, you can watch model planes at the model aircraft field, a truly unique sight.
Work up a Sweat on Virgil Gilman Nature Trail
If you still have some energy for outdoor adventures, then check out the picturesque Virgil Gilman Nature Trail.
This path starts from Sugar Grove and spans 22.7 miles before ending at southeast Aurora.
The start and end point depend on where you begin your journey.
Prepare for a hike of around one to two hours.
However, a stroll is best for enjoying the Virgil Gilman Nature Trail.
That way, you can enjoy nature and views all around you.
You’ll pass along the scenic Barnes Forest Preserve, Aurora West Forest Preserve sections, and Bliss Woods Forest Preserve in Sugar Grove.
Pay Respects at the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall
Another free attraction for history buffs is the charming Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall, located in the Stolp Island Historic District.
The Gothic Revival-style cottage and garden make for great photo opportunities when you arrive.
Inside the memorial hall are scrapbooks, medals, photos, and other items you can see on a self-guided tour.
The Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Spend the Day at McCullough Park
One of the scenic attractions that Fox River Trial passes through is the unassuming McCullough Park.
It’s a riverside community park offering uninterrupted views of the body of water, verdant grounds, and plenty of modern amenities.
However, the main reason people visit the park is that it’s where Aurora celebrates the Fourth of July.
You’ll enjoy the free live shows, performances, and a bombastic fireworks display at night.
McCollough Park is also the finish line for the Mid-American Canoe & Kayak Race, which happens every June.
If you want to see the competitions, visit the park during this time.
Other Free Things to Do Nearby
Once you’re done exploring the wonders of Aurora, why not check out these other free destinations and activities just a few minutes away?
Take a Tour of the Naperville Historic District
Drive east to find the vibrant city of Naperville, Illinois, packed with plenty of attractions for the whole family.
Check out the marvelous Naperville Historic District, just 23 minutes from Aurora.
This destination comprises around 610 buildings that showcase the architectural styles of various eras in Illinois history.
On your self-guided walking tour, you’ll find Greek revival homes, Masonic temples, grand mansions, and century-old business establishments.
Exploring the Naperville Historic District feels like being transported into another era with all the modern conveniences.
Make sure to visit if you have an afternoon to spare!
See Marvelous River Views at Red Oak Nature Center
The magnificent Red Oak Nature Center is accessible via the Fox River Trail in North Aurora, Illinois.
From downtown Aurora, it takes around 11 minutes to travel by car.
There’s no admission fee for groups of nine people or fewer, but they highly encourage donations.
You’d gladly do so when you see the rustic and gorgeous attractions at the Red Oak Nature Center.
You’ll find scenic hiking trails, a mysterious cave, animal exhibits, and hands-on indoor activities.
Best of all, you’ll see unspoiled views of Fox River from the riverside shelters.
Take a Stroll along the Naperville Riverwalk
As one of the most popular attractions in Naperville, the Naperville Riverwalk sees hundreds of visitors a day.
You can go there with your whole family!
Check out the riverwalk along the DuPage River.
The 60-acre Naperville Riverwalk is only 19 minutes from Aurora; you can easily add it to your itinerary.
Check out plenty of attractions at the riverwalk, such as memorials, eateries, fishing piers, skate parks, and kids’ playgrounds.
Don’t forget the Centennial Walk, which follows the riverbank, and features gorgeous public art installations.
Spot Birds at Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve
Another popular attraction in Naperville is the pristine Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve, just 22 minutes from downtown Aurora.
It’s even bigger than The Morton Arboretum, with a total area of 1,829 acres.
This destination is a birder’s paradise, with the thick forests serving as homes to species like dickcissels, northern harriers, and short-eared owls.
In addition, you’ll find plenty of winding streams and waterways at the Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve.
These create prairie and wetland habitats that attract many types of wildlife, both native and migratory.
After exploring, check out the Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve’s model craft field, off-leash dog park, and picnic areas!
Vacationing in Illinois’ second most populous city shouldn’t burn a hole in your pocket.
There are plenty of free places to visit for all walks of life: grand museums, expansive forest preserves, religious temples, breweries, etc.
If you want to go on a budget-friendly vacation, use this list of free things to do in Aurora, Illinois, for a handy reference!