When the weather warms tourists flock to Chicago. Since I get requests for advice about what to see and do in the city, I’ve compiled a budget guide for visiting. Please feel free to leave your own tips.
Choosing What to Visit
Finding the expensive attractions is easy. They are well known. They appear on every website and guide book. Whenever I travel I’m on a limited budget and appreciate finding the cheap stuff. I prefer to blow my money on one big great thing, then supplement the rest of the trip with low cost or free activities.
The first time I go to a new city I spend most of the time simply walking around. If I’ve already been somewhere I prefer a return visit to explore a theme. In a metropolitan area as large as Chicago there is no way to cover all the museums from Millennium Park north to Lincoln Park, let alone the rest of the city. The sheer number of choices is overwhelming.
When friends come to visit I’m left trying to find out clues about what might interest them. If they like architecture, do they want to explore a larger area by walking on our own, or do they want a shorter, but much more informative, professionally guided tour? Do they prefer trolley, subway, bike or walking? (I draw the line at Segways.)
What aspect of architecture is compelling? Do they want skylines and a history if how Chicago developed? Or do they have a specific interest in churches, gothic architecture, hotel lobbies, Frank Lloyd Wright, park district field houses and conservatories, high end retail buildings, famous restaurants, train depots, public markets, or something else?
Pick a Theme
I like to explore a city around a theme. Right now I’m interested in the Edwardian Era of history. In Chicago I would take some architectural tours of buildings and foods (Chicagoans often combine architecture and eating or drinking), check for museum exhibits, and visit some house museums like Glessner.
If you’re looking for something educational you might explore birds, Civil War history, cooking and foods, bridges, or whatever floats your boat. Chicago has a number of museums and cultural centers devoted to specific ethnic heritages, including Swedish, German, Lithuanian, African-American, Ukrainian, Mexican and Puerto Rico.
Chicago has an endless number of tours, concerts and lectures. The universities often have free or low cost theater, music and lectures. Likewise, neighborhoods sponsor inexpensive events.
In my own neighborhood of Hyde Park this summer we’ll have a series of free weekly evening concerts on our main street (53rd), free park concerts and movies, a free 3-day Jazz Festival, gallery openings, inexpensive museums on the University of Chicago campus, 4th of July parade and picnics with fireworks all night, fire pits for cookouts at Promontory Point, lectures, author readings, a new comedy club, and stuff I’m probably forgetting.
We’re near the Museum of Science and Industry, DuSable Museum, Stony Island Arts Bank, Hyde Park Art Center, University of Chicago, Court Theater, Oriental Institute Museum, Smart Museum of Art, Renaissance Society, Rockefeller Chapel, Logan Center for the Arts, Robie House, Doc Films, The Revival Improv Comedy Club, The Promontory music club, Black Cinema House, Arts + Public Life, site of White City, Chicago World’s Fair, Experimental Station, and the Japanese Garden.
I haven’t listed the neighborhood restaurants, architecture, main business district, book stores, public sculptures, the cluster of seminaries, the lakefront, beaches, or the parks. We’re just one small area of the city, yet we have more cultural institutions than some entire small cities.
Pick an Area of Town
I recommend sticking to a particular area of the city rather than trying to cover a large territory. Why waste vacation time stuck sitting in traffic or waiting for the subway? Some of the neighborhoods have easy access on public transit to The Loop, Navy Pier, or the Magnificent Mile, but plenty of neighborhoods don’t. If everything you want to do is near the Navy Pier, paying higher hotel costs is worth the easy access.
Leave the Car at Home
I don’t recommend driving around Chicago. It may seem cheaper, until you have to pay parking. Some hotels offer lower room rates with expensive parking garages. Be sure to find out both. Driving to places like downtown is a nightmare and you’ll have to pay for parking. Other neighborhoods require a long search for a free spot.
You may find an inexpensive AirBnB rental with free parking. Fine, but how are you going to get to tourist attractions? Will you have an hour bus ride each way, including having to transfer? Are you going to drive and pay high parking fees when you arrive at your destination?
You Don’t Have to Visit the Art Museum
I hereby give you permission to skip anything which doesn’t interest you. You might be happier spending $300 on one of the best dinners of your life rather than slogging through days of boring museums.
Since money doesn’t grow on trees, here are some ways to see and do popular attractions without breaking the bank.
· Discount Tickets: There are passes, Groupon, and last minute discounts.
· Skyline: Instead of the Willis or Hancock towers, grab a drink at a rooftop bar.
· River: Take the water taxi from Michigan Ave to Chinatown.
· Meet Up: Check for free public tours.
· Museums: Visit less well known museums.
· Discount Shopping: Chinatown, Clark St in Andersonville, 26th St in Little Village
Links to Low Cost/Free Stuff
Free attractions from Choose Chicago http://www.choosechicago.com/articles/view/FREE-THINGS-TO-DO-IN-CHICAGO/122/
Chicago on the Cheap http://chicagoonthecheap.com/