Chicago Cultural Centre became America’s first free municipal cultural centre and is one of Chicago’s most popular attractions. The cultural centre is also considered one of the most comprehensive art showcases in the country. Opened in 1897, the building was originally used as the city’s central library, but in 1991 the library officially moved just across the Loop into a spacious postmodern building. More than 1,000 programmes and exhibits covering performing, visual and literary arts are showcased.

The building is an architectural marvel and you can spend several hours just walking around the grounds before going inside.  However, inside there are 5 floors with elaborate furnishings and decor to explore and enjoy. In addition to housing different exhibits and hosting events, there are also work spaces and after-school programmes located within the centre to aid the community.

Chicago Cultural Centre in Chicago - one of the highlights of 12 Free Things to Do in Chicago (Read all about Chicago here)

photo by Ken Lund (CC BY-SA 2.0) modified

Highlights of the Chicago Cultural Centre

To get the full effect of the beauty of the original building, enter through the Washington Street lobby, which was once the original entrance for the central library. No expense was spared when welcoming visitors into the library. Extending for three floors, you can see the beautiful mosaics of glass, gold leaf, mother of pearl, and precious stones that are set in the style of the Italian masters. The white Italian Carrara marble, the most expensive in the world, was taken from the same quarries that Michaelangelo used to create his famous masterpieces.

You’ll want to make your way to the south side of the third floor to visit the Preston Bradley Hall. While the ornate white Carrara marble ceiling is stunning and memorable, it’s the centrepiece that makes the trip worth it. In the middle of the ceiling, you will find a 38-foot Tiffany glass dome, the largest of its kind, constructed of over 30,000 individual pieces. Be sure to bring your camera!

History of the Chicago Cultural Centre

Opening in 1897, the building nicknamed the "People’s Palace" originally served two purposes. Its main purpose was to be the Chicago Public Library, with the doors on the Washington Street side. The second purpose was for the headquarters for the Grand Army of the Republic, the Civil War Union Army veterans’ organisation, which was housed on the Randolph Street side. By 1947, the library took over the entire building.

In 1977, the conversion from library to Chicago Cultural Centre began, as some of the library’s collections began to enter into storage. The re-dedication of the building to the Chicago Cultural Centre was completed in 1991 when the library finished the move into their new permanent home across the Loop from their original one.

Good to Know About the Chicago Cultural Centre

The Chicago Cultural Centre is located in the Loop area of Chicago, which is just across from Millennium Park, so there are plenty of activities around that you can take advantage of while you’re in the area. The tour of the Cultural Centre may only take about 2 to 3 hours, but you can find yourself in the same area for an entire day walking through parks, visiting museums, looking at different architecture, shopping, and dining at some great restaurants.

Before heading out, check online for the best route to take and the best places to park. Most of the streets around the Cultural Centre are one-way, so it might not be as direct of a drive as you may think. There are several bus and train stations at, and around, the Cultural Centre, so you may decide that public transport is an easy mode of transport for that day.

Chicago Cultural Centre in Chicago

Location: 78 E Washington St, Chicago, IL 60602, USA

Open: Monday--Friday from 10 am to 7 pm, Saturday--Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm

Phone: +1 312-744-6630