Outdoor and drive-in cinemas near Chicago

Both nostalgic and COVID-safe, drive-in theaters have enjoyed a deserved resurgence over the past two years, including throughout the Chicagoland area. For those who don’t like inflated popcorn prices or rushing through crowded indoor venues (thanks, Tom Cruise), outdoor and drive-in movies offer the same cinematic and communal experience, minus the sky-high prices or the risk of catching the latest Omicron variant while catching the latest Marvel games.

In and around Chicago, outdoor movies offer a family-friendly alternative. Though drive-in theaters have dwindled since their Americana heyday, a few holdouts are still strong in the suburbs — and well worth the mini road trip for affordable double features and old-school concessions like candy and hot dogs in cash only. Meanwhile, if you’d rather roll out a picnic blanket and BYO snacks, Chicago offers plenty of outdoor movie-going experiences all summer long across the city. Whether you’re looking for an American blast from the past or a laid-back neighborhood outing to a park, here are the best drive-in and drive-in theaters near Chicago.

Pilsen
In nostalgic lore, drive-ins are characterized as adorably ramshackle relics tucked away in quiet suburbs, surrounded by some sort of forest and/or fields, far from the hustle and bustle of modern city life. While this is certainly true of most drive-ins, a business zigzags against the zag right in the heart of Chicago. ChiTown Movies is a full-fledged drive-in cinema in Pilsen, the mural-covered district on the southwest side. The theater is surprisingly huge for an urban lot, with plenty of room for 10 rows of cars, all angled towards a gigantic screen projecting unique elements like shrek, The Sandlotand the most Chicago movie of all time, Ferris Bueller’s day off. Customers can order dishes, such as pizzas, tacos and wings, which will be delivered directly to their window.
Driving from Chicago: None—it’s in Pilsen.

Flickr/BWChicago

McHenry, Ill.
From neon-clad jukeboxes and vintage arcade games to old-school radios available to rent and listen to movies, McHenry Outdoor Theater feels authentically preserved in time. Open since the 1950s, not much has changed at this colossal drive-in complex north of town, including its affordable dual-features and comfort food, from warm pretzels and hot dogs to the kind of cheese-covered nachos . as neon as the jukebox. Movies begin at sunset and include back-to-back blockbusters like Light year and Thor: Love and Thunder.
Driving from Chicago: About an hour and a half.

Route 34 Cine-Park
Route 34 Cine-Park

Earlville, Ill.
Tucked away on a sprawling grassy lot in the western suburbs, there’s something more peaceful and pastoral about the Route 34 Drive-In Theatre. Unlike many drive-ins, which are typically located on gravel or dirt, the grassy terrain makes it more comfortable to sit outside in a lawn chair or let the kids run around and frolic before sunset. Sun. The cash-only property opens on weekends at 6:30 p.m., with back-to-back movies beginning at dusk. In any given week, features may include DC League of Super Petsfollowed by a whiplash pivot towards Tornado– a film that features a famous scene with a drive-in cinema shattered. The theater also has an indoor pool table, and the no-frills concessions include burgers and popcorn (made with real butter, as the website categorically assures).
Driving from Chicago: About an hour and a half.

Valparaiso, Indiana
Located just across the Indiana border, the 49er Drive-in is a seasonal summertime tradition that delivers the goods with super-cheap double features ($10 for adults, $5 for kids ages 5 and up). to 11, free for ages 4 and under), periodic live music events, and a focus on family movies – think Finding Dory followed by Alice in WonderlandWhere DC League of Super Pets followed by the new Elvis biopic. The concessions menu is surprisingly robust for a drive-in theater, with plenty of options like chili fries, mini corn dogs, refried green beans, funnel cakes, Polish sausages, and Italian beef. You can even get a cappuccino, in case you need an energy boost for the second showing. Everything is cash only, but there is an ATM in the concessions area.
Driving from Chicago: Approximatly one hour.

Chicago Parks District
Chicago Parks District

Various locations
A summer rite of passage in Chicago, with street festivals and rooftop parties, Movies in the Parks is a fun and festive way to enjoy the city’s glory days. Courtesy of the Chicago Park District, the seasonal series screens outdoor movies on pop-up screens in city parks through the end of August. Even cheaper than a drive-in, all movies are free and the perfect setting for a picnic with family and friends (many movies are family-friendly, but some, like King Richard and The gay divorcee, more mature bias). Check the calendar for a comprehensive list of movies and parks, and there’s bound to be something to suit your fancy. Movies start just after sunset, but come early if you want to experience a prime spot.
Driving from Chicago: None—they’re all over town.

millennium park
A popular spot for outdoor concerts, festivals, and selfies by the Bean, Millennium Park is also a particularly beautiful place to watch a movie outdoors. With the stunning skyline as a shimmering backdrop, free outdoor movies are screened Tuesday nights through September 6 at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Much like the concerts at the pavilion, however, the movies are particularly popular and the sprawling lawn is known to fill up quite quickly, so keep that in mind for your picnic strategy. Movies begin at 6:30 p.m., and this year’s list includes dance-inspired movies themed “2022 Year of Chicago Dance.” These include Encanto, In the heights, dirty danceand save the last dance.
Driving from Chicago: None—it’s in the middle of downtown’s biggest tourist attraction.

navy wharf
navy wharf

Rueerville
It makes sense that Navy Pier, an almost infamous tourist attraction for families that juts out into Lake Michigan from Streeterville, hosts an outdoor movie series exclusively dedicated to family-inspired films. Another free option, movies are shown in the grassy Polk Bros park on pop-up screens overlooking the water. Held every Monday evening until August 29, the family rate includes the necessary Encanto, Lease, Clifford the big red dog, minariand Meet the parents. Attendees are encouraged to bring their own groceries or grab something to go from one of Navy Pier’s many fast-casual restaurants, such as I Dream of Falafel, America’s Dog & Burger, Big Bowl Chinese Express, Big City Chicken, and Frankie’s Pizza by La Tranche.
Driving from Chicago: None—it’s right on the lake in downtown.

Gallagher Road in Chicago
Gallagher Road in Chicago

Wrigleyville
Another free alternative for all ages is the ongoing outdoor movie series at Gallagher Way, the meticulously landscaped park space surrounded by restaurants, shops and hotel rooms – oh, and Wrigley Field is from there. across the street. It’s the perfect place to throw in a blanket, bring snacks and watch a movie. Held on Wednesday evenings until September 21, the eclectic films include the must-see Encanto, Fat, Bohemian Rhapsodyand field of dreamswhich is the perfect thing to watch in the shadow of Wrigley Field.
Driving from Chicago: None, it’s across from Wrigley Field.

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Matt Kirouac is a travel writer working on a memoir about the epic highs and lows of life on the road as a gay couple and the lessons learned along the way. Follow him on IG @mattkirouacofficial.

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