Free family-friendly attractions abound in Chicago, including a number of prominent art, culture, and children's museums in the city which offer free admission daily or at special days and times throughout the week. To avoid parking fees at free attractions with paid parking lots or metered parking, visitors can opt to explore city landmarks via the city's CTA bus system, L train rapid transit system, or METRA commuter railroad. Some attractions are free only on certain days – please check before you go.
1.The Chicago Air and Water Show
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The Chicago Air and Water Show is an annual Chicago tradition, held over two days each August for more than 60 years. The show was originally held in 1959 as part of the city's Family Day Celebration and has become the United States' largest and oldest free-admission exhibition show of its kind, drawing an annual audience of more than two million visitors. The show is centered at Chicago's North Avenue Beach, which invites attendees to bring lawn chairs and beach blankets to watch a full lineup of aviation and watercraft performers, including military and civilian pilots, boaters, parachuters, and diving teams, present dazzling tricks over Lake Michigan. Visitors can also watch acts from a number of nearby restaurants and public spaces, including the Navy Pier and Belmont and Diversity Harbors. To avoid event parking fees, visitors can reach the beach from multiple stops on Chicago's CTA bus system or L train rapid transit system.
North Avenue Beach, 1600 N. Lake Shore Dr, Chicago, IL 60613
2.The Chicago Children’s Museum
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The Chicago Children’s Museum is a family-friendly interactive educational museum at Chicago's Navy Pier, offering more than 57,000 square feet of science, arts, and civic-focused exhibits. The museum was originally founded in 1982 by the city's Junior League as a response to public school funding cutbacks and became the nation's fourth-largest children's museum after its move to the Navy Pier in 1995. Today, the museum serves more than 650,000 annual visitors, offering exhibits such as the three-story Kovler Family Climbing Schooner, the city's first children's DIY maker lab, and the Story Hub mini-movie maker, which allows children to document their museum experiences in the form of online movies. The museum offers Play Late Thursdays from 4-8pm every Thursday ($14.95 for a family of four).
700 E Grand Ave, Chicago, IL 60611, Phone: 312-527-1000
3.The DuSable Museum of African-American History
© The DuSable Museum of African-American History
The DuSable Museum of African-American History is a Smithsonian-affiliated museum in Chicago's South Side that is dedicated to the preservation and study of African-American culture and history. The museum was originally founded in 1961 as the Ebony Museum of Negro History and Art, intended by founders Margaret Taylor-Burroughs and Charles Burroughs to correct the lack of study of African-American culture by leading educational institutions. Since then, the museum has served as a model for similar African-American museums around the country, showcasing a collection of more than 13,000 artifacts related to 19th and 20th-century African-American culture and luminaries, including Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, and Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, Chicago's first non-indigenous settler. Each Tuesday, the museum is open for free to all visitors. Limited free parking is offered in the museum's lot, with CTA and METRA stops offered nearby.
740 E 56th Pl, Chicago, IL 60637, Phone: 773-947-0600
4.Garfield Park Conservatory
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Garfield Park Conservatory is one of the United States' largest botanical garden and conservatory facilities, originally designed in 1906 and 1907 by landscape architect Jens Jensen. Today, the conservatory spans 4.5 acres throughout Chicago's Garfield Park, showcasing native and exotic plant collections in eight indoor garden displays, including a notable collection of cycads over 200 years old and a palm tree collection with more than seven dozen varieties of palm trees. 10 acres of outdoor gardens are also offered, along with children's play spaces and an outdoor water lily pond. The conservatory has been the recipient of a number of significant national museum awards, including the National Medal for Museum and Library Services, and was selected as one of the AIA's Illinois 200 Great Places. It is free and open to the public daily, offering a wide variety of free public special event programming for visitors of all ages throughout the year.
300 N Central Park Ave, Chicago, IL 60624, Phone: 312-746-5100
5.The McCormick Bridgehouse and Chicago River Museum
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The McCormick Bridgehouse and Chicago River Museum preserves a five-story bridgehouse that was originally designed by architect Edward Bennett as part of the operating system for the city's double-decker DuSable Bridge, which was constructed in 1920 as the Michigan Avenue Bridge. The museum, which is operated by the nonprofit organization Friends of the Chicago River, showcases five stories of visitor exhibits on the city's river system and famed movable bridge system, including exhibits on the construction and operation of the DuSable Bridge system. First-floor exhibits are ADA accessible, including the bridgehouse's gear room, which allows visitors to examine the bridge moving process up close. The museum is open every day to the public between May and October, with free admission days offered each Sunday. Children under five are also free every day of operation.
99 Chicago Riverwalk, Chicago, IL 60601, Phone: 312-977-0227
6.The National Museum of Mexican Art
© The National Museum of Mexican Art
The National Museum of Mexican Art is one of the United States' most prominent museums dedicated to Mexican culture and artworks and is the first Latino-focused museum in the nation to be accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. The museum was originally founded in 1982 by Carlos Tortolero and opened its doors to the public in 1987, moving to a new state-of-the-art 48,000-square-foot facility in 2001. It houses the United States' largest collection of Mexican art, showcasing more than 10,000 pieces within its permanent collection spanning from the ancient Mexican era to the present day. It is dedicated to principles of education and social justice, striving to connect works and cultures from both sides of the United States-Mexico border. Museum admission is free every operating day, with exhibitions open to the public Tuesdays through Sundays during the morning and afternoon hours. Free cultural programming is also offered regularly, including lectures and theatrical and dance performances.
1852 W 19th St, Chicago, IL 60608, Phone: 312-738-1503
7.The Harold Washington Library Center
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The Harold Washington Library Center is Chicago's central public library, originally constructed in 1991 to replace the city's former central library, which was converted into the Chicago Cultural Center in 1977. The library is the world's largest public library building according to the Guinness Book of Records, spanning more than 972,000 square feet over 10 floors and a rooftop garden area. Impressive architecture by regional firm Hammond, Beeby and Babka showcases Beaux Arts and Mannerist-style design elements, with special collections, a children's library, multimedia centers, and a library makerspace offered for free public use. Public special events are also held at the library's Cindy Pritzker Auditorium, located on the building's first floor, while rotating special exhibits related to civic and arts topics are showcased within its exhibit hall.
400 S State St, Chicago, IL 60605, Phone: 312-747-4300
8.Hyde Park Art Center
© Hyde Park Art Center
Hyde Park Art Center is Chicago's oldest alternative exhibition center, originally established in 1939 as the Fifth Ward Art Center of Chicago. Since 2006, it has been located in the city's Kenwood neighborhood north of Hyde Park Boulevard, showcasing a wide variety of exhibits and programming meant to stimulate the city's interest in contemporary visual and multimedia arts. The center presents up to 20 new rotating exhibitions per year, with an emphasis on the works of emerging Chicago and regional Midwestern contemporary and modern artists. More than 200 workshops are also presented annually for artists and community members of all ability levels, along with over 200 free public special events per year, including artist talks and panels and open studio observation times giving community members a chance to see artists create works in real time. The museum is free and open to the public seven days a week, with visitors advised to arrive early during the day to secure parking in the museum's free lot.
5020 S Cornell Ave, Chicago, IL 60615, Phone: 773-324-5520
9.Lincoln Park Conservatory
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Lincoln Park Conservatory is one of Chicago's premiere botanical garden facilities, located within the 1,208-acre Lincoln Park, the city's largest public urban park. The conservatory was originally constructed between 1890 and 1895 to replace a smaller former greenhouse within the park and is housed within a Victorian-era glass conservatory building designed by architects Joseph Lyman Silsbee and Mifflin E. Bell. Today, the conservatory offers four display halls and 15 growing houses within its indoor facility, home to native and exotic plants, including significant collections of rare palm tree species and fruit-producing plants. Outdoor collections surrounding the conservatory include a conifer garden, a noted Shakespeare monument, and the Eli Bates Fountain. The conservatory is free and open to the public seven days a week, including admission for special annual flower and plant shows.
2391 N Stockton Dr, Chicago, IL 60614, Phone: 312-742-7736
10.Lincoln Park Zoo
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Lincoln Park Zoo is one of North America's oldest zoological parks, originally founded in 1868 following significant animal donations to Chicago's Lincoln Park from major urban parks and zoos across the country, including New York City's Central Park and the Philadelphia Zoo. Today, the park is one of the United States' few remaining free-admission zoos, home to more than 1,100 animals across 200 species. The zoo, which is an accredited Association of Zoos and Aquariums member facility, spans 35 acres throughout Lincoln Park and showcases animals across a variety of natural habitat exhibits, including the Kovler Lion House, the McCormick Bird House, and the Helen Branch Primate House. A children's zoo area is also offered, along with rainforest, aviary, and aquatic life exhibits. Parking is free for the first half-hour of zoo lot use, with free street parking offered nearby.
2001 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60614, Phone: 312-742-2000
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Millennium Park is a 24.5-acre public park and civic center near Grant Park and the Lake Michigan shoreline that was originally developed in 1997 and opened to the public in 2004, intended to honor the start of the 21st century and new millennium. Since 2017, the park has become the American Midwest's top tourist attraction, surpassing the city's Navy Pier entertainment complex with a total of more than 25 million annual visitors. Major park features include the Jay Pritzker Pavilion bandshell, the Crown Fountain interactive public art piece, the AT&T Plaza, which is home to the city's famed Cloud Gate reflective sculpture, and the 2.5-acre Lurie Garden. During the winter months, the park is also home to the McCormick Tribune Ice Skating Rink and the city's annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony. Other public special events at the park include a summer outdoor film series, a summer concert series, and public park tours.
201 E Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60602, Phone: 312-742-1168
12.The Museum of Contemporary Photography
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The Museum of Contemporary Photography is the American Midwest's premiere photography museum, originally founded in 1976 as a university museum of Columbia College Chicago. Today, the museum is open to the public seven days a week, with the exception of times that the CCC campus is closed for holidays and breaks, and offers free admission for all museum visitors. The family-friendly facility is known for originally introducing renowned national and international artists to the public, showcasing temporary rotating exhibits by top artists such as Viviane Sassen, Ai Weiwei, Lucas Foglia, and Ralph Arnold. A permanent museum collection preserves more than 14,800 artworks by over 1,500 artists. Educational programming and special events include docent-led tours, lectures and symposiums, and MoCP After Dark parties.
600 S. Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60605, Phone: 312-663-5554
13.The Oriental Institute
© The Oriental Institute
The Oriental Institute is Chicago's premiere research and collection museum for studies of the Near East, originally founded in 1919 by University of Chicago professor James Henry Breasted as a means to house and expand the collections and studies of the university's former Haskell Oriental Museum. Today, the museum showcases extensive collections of artifacts related to ancient civilizations throughout the Middle East, including ancient Egypt, Israel, Persia, Mesopotamia, Nubia, Iraq, and Iran, attempting to make connections about the rise of human civilization in the Near East and its implications on modern society. Significant works within the collection include the world-famous Megiddo Ivories and a collection of tablets detailing everyday life in the former Persian capital of Persepolis. Though daily admission is free, visitors should note that the museum requests suggested donation rates for adult and child visitors who are able to contribute to museum operation funds. Free parking is available all day on weekends and after 4:00pm on weekdays at the nearby Lexington Parking Lot, which is located on the university's campus half a block from the museum.
1155 E 58th St, Chicago, IL 60637, Phone: 773-702-9520
14.Chicago's Navy Pier
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Chicago's Navy Pier is one of the most-visited public attractions in the American Midwest, spanning six city blocks within the city's Streeterville neighborhood along the Lake Michigan shoreline. It was originally opened to the public in July of 1915 as the Municipal Pier and redeveloped into a mixed-use retail and cultural venue in 1995. Today, it attracts over nine million annual visitors to its 50 acres of park space, shopping, retail, and family attractions, including its 200-foot Centennial Wheel, Pier Park amusement park, and Amazing Chicago's Funhouse Maze. Indoor attractions include the Chicago Children's Museum, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and AMC Navy Pier IMAX Theatre, while outdoor spaces include the one-acre Crystal Gardens botanical garden facility and a number of prominent pieces of public art. Though the pier itself offers free admission, visitors should note that many attractions require a ticketed upcharge. The pier is accessible via a free seasonal trolley service and several stops on the city's CTA and METRA public transit services.
600 E Grand Ave, Chicago, IL 60611, Phone: 312-595-7437
15.The Chicago Cultural Center
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The Chicago Cultural Center is a Chicago Landmark that serves as one of the United States' most comprehensive arts and cultural centers, presenting more than 1,000 annual performances, programs, and exhibitions across all styles of the visual, literary, and performing arts. The center was originally opened in 1897 and housed the city's central library branch until 1977. Today, it serves as the city's official reception venue, hosting international political and social luminaries as guests of the Mayor of Chicago. The five-story building showcases gorgeous neoclassical and Renaissance architectural elements and features notable design elements such as the world's largest Tiffany glass dome. Limited slots for free 45-minute tours of the center are offered Wednesdays through Saturdays, along with a variety of free art exhibits showcased in the center's first, second, and fourth floor gallery spaces.
78 E Washington St, Chicago, IL 60602, Phone: 312-744-6630
16.The Clarence Buckingham Memorial Fountain
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The Clarence Buckingham Memorial Fountain is one of Chicago's most prominent landmarks, considered to be the city's unofficial "front door" due to its location at the intersections of Congress Parkway and Columbus Drive in Grant Park. The fountain was constructed in 1927, designed by architect Edward H. Bennett at the behest of Kate Sturges Buckingham, honoring her late brother Clarence. It is one of the largest fountains in the world today, shooting water to heights of 150 feet, and is meant to mimic the Palace of Versailles' famed Latona Fountain. It is designed to allegorically depict Lake Michigan, adorned with statues by French sculptor Marcel F. Loyau that are meant to symbolize the four states that border the lake. Daily fountain shows may be observed on the hour between mid-April and mid-October, running between 8:00am and 11:00pm. During the winter months, the fountain is decorated with Christmas lights as part of the city's holiday festivities.
301 S Columbus Dr, Chicago, IL 60605, Phone: 312-742-3918
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17.Open House Chicago
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Open House Chicago is an annual festival presented by the Chicago Architecture Center that allows participants to explore some of the city's most fabled and elite spaces that are generally off limits to the public. The festival is held over two weekend days in October and offers a behind-the-scenes look at some of the city's most famous sights, including iconic spaces such as the Kemper Building, Tribune Tower, the Rookery, and the city's Federal Reserve Bank. Historic homes and mansions are also showcased, including buildings designed by legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The festival also showcases some of the city's most historic and revered theaters, private clubs, ballrooms, and rooftop sites, along with architectural offices and industrial sites throughout the city. Buildings are staffed by over 2,500 volunteers from the CAC, with itineraries available for visitors to plan their exploration route in advance of the event. Lectures, music performances, and other special events are also held at some sites throughout the weekend.
111 E. Wacker Dr, Chicago, IL 60604, Phone: 312-922-8687
18.The Smart Museum of Art
© The Smart Museum of Art
The Smart Museum of Art is an American Alliance of Museums-accredited facility that has been a part of the University of Chicago art campus since 1967, showcasing works of fine contemporary and modern art from around the world. The museum is named in honor of Esquire publishers and brothers David and Alfred Smart and displays a collection of more than 15,000 works of art, including pieces originally held in David's personal art collection. Four permanent galleries showcase modern and contemporary art from the Americas, Europe, and Asian, with collections on display rotating annually. Significant artists on display include Auguste Rodin, Edgar Degas, Joan Mitchell, Diego Rivera, and Andy Warhol. The museum also holds a large collection of contemporary Chinese photography, Buddhist sculptures, and materials related to the life and career of artist H.C. Westermann, along with the original dining room furniture crafted by Frank Lloyd Wright for his work on the Robie House. Free admission is offered to the public daily, with public special event programming offered periodically.
5550 S Greenwood Ave, Chicago, IL 60637, Phone: 773-702-0200
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City Gallery is housed within Chicago's famed Water Tower, which was originally constructed between 1867 and 1869 to work with the city's municipal water system and is noted as one of the few historic buildings to survive the city's Great Fire in 1871. Since 1999, the tower has served as the city's official regional photography gallery, showcasing exhibitions of significant works by local and regional photographers and artists. Rotating special exhibitions focus on a variety of civic and social topics, with a focus on photography that features the city in notable ways. The tower is operated by the Chicago Office of Tourism, with exhibit curation facilitated by the Chicago Public Art Program. Free admission is offered daily, though visitors should note that limited free street parking is available in the Magnificent Mile area.
806 N. Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611, Phone: 312-742-0808
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20.The Chicago Lakefront Trail
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The Chicago Lakefront Trail, commonly referred to as the LFT, is an 18-mile multi-use trail located along the banks of Lake Michigan, connecting the city's four major lakefront parks—Lincoln, Grant, Burnham, and Jackson Parks—to one another. The trail begins at 5800 North Sheridan Road and passes a number of major city attractions along its route, including the Navy Pier, McCormick Place, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the South Shore Cultural Center. Access to a number of city beaches and harbors is also provided, along with city skate parks at Grant Park, Wilson Avenue, and 31st Street. The pet-friendly trail is open to the public 24 hours a day and may be used by walkers, joggers, and cyclists. A new portion of the trail, dubbed the Navy Pier Flyover and designed to reduce traffic at the heavily-congested portion of the trail near the Pier, is scheduled to open in 2019.
Lakefront Trail, Chicago, IL 60660, Phone: 312-742-7529
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Chicago Greeter is a free year-round tour guide connector service that allows visitors to explore Chicago at their own pace, according to their own unique city itineraries, by connecting them to personal tour guides. Participants must register for custom tours at least 10 business days in advance of desired tour date, with tours available for single participants or groups of up to six visitors. The service pairs tourists and groups with a certified Greeter, who leads them on two to four hour excursions throughout the city's top sights and landmarks. Bus and train transit passes are offered complimentary for all participants for the duration of tours, with tours available in 10 languages. Tours may be customized to themes, including culinary tours, LGBT-friendly tours, and family-friendly tours. Hourlong impromptu InstaGreeter tours are also available year-round Fridays through Sundays, departing from the city's Millennium Park and Chicago Cultural Center.
77 E. Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60603, Phone: 312-945-4231
22.The Chicago St. Patrick's Day Parade
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The Chicago St. Patrick's Day Parade is one of the nation's largest St. Patrick's Day parades, held each March on the closest Saturday to St. Patrick's Day. The parade has been presented each year for more than six decades and is held rain or shine, showcasing Irish-themed floats, dancers, musicians, and civic groups. Its route begins at Columbus Drive at Balbo Drive and spans all the way through Grant Park, ending at Monroe Drive. In all, the parade lasts approximately three hours, depending on vantage point along the route. All public viewing spots along the route may be accessed for free, with a variety of free and paid after-parade celebrations held throughout the city for the rest of the afternoon and evening.
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Chicago SummerDance is a free summer-long dance festival held annually at Grant Park's Spirit of Music Garden, showcasing performances by nearly 50 live musicians and DJs across a variety of world music genres. The festival is presented by Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and encourages participants of all ages and ability levels to come to the park Friday through Sunday evenings for guided dance lessons in a variety of styles. Following dance lessons, two hours of open dance time at the park's 4,900-square-foot open-air dance floor are offered, accompanied by live music performances. Neighborhood SummerDance In The Parks are also offered on select dates in neighborhood locations throughout the city. At the end of the summer, a culminating day-long performance and dance festival is held at Millennium Park.
601 S Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60605, Phone: 312-744-3315
24.The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival
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The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival is one of the United States' largest Christmas celebrations, held each year on the Saturday prior to Thanksgiving. The festival's beginnings can be traced back to the erection of a 50-foot Christmas tree in 1949 in Water Tower Park by the Greater North Michigan Avenue Association, a tradition that gradually expanded throughout other locations in the Magnificent Mile throughout the 20th century. Today, the festival illuminates more than one million lights annually, showcased on more than 200 trees throughout the Magnificent Mile. Popular holiday displays are also showcased at upscale retailers throughout the district, including stores such as Tiffany, Gucci, and Burberry. Official lighting festivities include an annual parade along the Mile, which showcases more than 40 helium balloons of well-known children's media characters, and an annual fireworks display.
625 North Michigan Avenue, Suite 401, Chicago, IL 60611, Phone: 312-409-5560
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25 Best Free & Affordable Things to Do in Chicago
- The Chicago Air and Water Show, Photo: Courtesy of Ian - Fotolia.com
- The Chicago Children’s Museum, Photo: Courtesy of Foap.com - Fotolia.com
- The DuSable Museum of African-American History, Photo: The DuSable Museum of African-American History
- Garfield Park Conservatory, Photo: Courtesy of rich - Fotolia.com
- The McCormick Bridgehouse and Chicago River Museum, Photo: Courtesy of pikappa51 - Fotolia.com
- The National Museum of Mexican Art, Photo: The National Museum of Mexican Art
- The Harold Washington Library Center, Photo: Courtesy of EleSi - Fotolia.com
- Hyde Park Art Center, Photo: Hyde Park Art Center
- Lincoln Park Conservatory, Photo: Courtesy of Henryk Sadura - Fotolia.com
- Lincoln Park Zoo, Photo: Courtesy of rabbit75_fot - Fotolia.com
- Millennium Park, Photo: Courtesy of Felix Mizioznikov - Fotolia.com
- The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Photo: Courtesy of anyaberkut - Fotolia.com
- The Oriental Institute, Photo: The Oriental Institute
- Chicago's Navy Pier, Photo: Courtesy of Noel Powell - Fotolia.com
- The Chicago Cultural Center, Photo: Courtesy of jbyard - Fotolia.com
- The Clarence Buckingham Memorial Fountain, Photo: Courtesy of starmaro - Fotolia.com
- Open House Chicago, Photo: Courtesy of magmarcz - Fotolia.com
- The Smart Museum of Art, Photo: The Smart Museum of Art
- City Gallery, Photo: Courtesy of Henryk Sadura - Fotolia.com
- The Chicago Lakefront Trail, Photo: Courtesy of MaciejBledowski - Fotolia.com
- Chicago Greeter, Photo: Courtesy of karamysh - Fotolia.com
- The Chicago St. Patrick's Day Parade, Photo: Courtesy of Jan - Fotolia.com
- Chicago SummerDance, Photo: Courtesy of leszekglasner - Fotolia.com
- The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival, Photo: Courtesy of Ganeshkumar - Fotolia.com
- Cover Photo: Courtesy of Yves - Fotolia.com