Chicago is a must for every urban traveler.
Architecture, arts and culture, great food, green spaces, sports, museums, festivals: you'll want to explore and enjoy this city in all its facets.
But, it's expensive.
That is where this post comes in.
First, a bit of Chicago trivia: Frank Sinatra's song “My Kind of Town (Chicago Is)” was nominated for an Academy Award for the Best Original Song of 1964 but lost to “Chim Chim Cher-ee” from Mary Poppins. I ask you, which has stood the test of time? Which remains in the fabric of America?
We all know, it's Chicago!
Now here are our best tips for exploring Chicago on a budget.
Table of Contents
Getting To and Around Chicago on the Cheap
While walking is a great option for solo travelers on a budget, Chicago also has an excellent public transportation system and there are bikes available to rent everywhere.
- Getting into town from the airports. Chicago has O'Hare International Airport and Midway Airport. Both are served by L trains with the former taking about 45 minutes to get to the city and the latter taking about 25 minutes. The cost for the L train from O'Hare is $5.00 and from Midway it's $2.25.
- Exploring the city center. The Loop is Chicago's downtown area. It includes some iconic architecture, Millennium Park, shopping, cultural institutions, and restaurants. You will want to explore this area for sure. I suggest that you do it on foot. There are parts that are great to see by bike.
- Get around on the Chicago transit system. The Chicago Transit Authority operates buses and a train service, known as The L to locals.
- The Ventra card is the Chicago Transit Authority's transit card.
- You can buy one at any L Train station and at many retailers in the city.
- You can add fare and passes to your Ventra card at any station.
- To use your Ventra card, touch the card to one of the Ventra readers that are located on top of train station turnstiles and on buses. You will hear two sounds, one indicating that the card was read and a second sound with a message on the screen that will say either “Go” or “Stop” (should your card not have enough money on it).
- You can transfer twice within a 2-hour window at a cost of 25 cents for each transfer.
- Fares: Using the Ventra card, the train is $2.50 and a bus is $2.25. You can add a 1-day pass for $10 and a 3-day pass for $20 to your Ventra card. They also have 7 and 30-day passes.
- You can pay cash on the bus. The fare is $2.25 per ride but there are no transfers offered, so if you have to take multiple buses you'll pay multiple times.
- You must use the Ventra card on the trains.
- The Ventra card is the Chicago Transit Authority's transit card.
- Rent a bike. The Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 is a plan to build a continuous network of 645 miles of on-street bikeways throughout Chicago, and the city is well on its way with dedicated bike paths, barrier-protected bike lanes, and more. You can order a bike map for Chicago here before your trip. They ask for 4-6 weeks for delivery. Rent a bike in Millennium Park and other locations. They also have a bike share program.
What to Do in Chicago on a Tight Budget
- Chicago greeters. The Chicago Greeter program pairs you with a knowledgeable local for an informal, insider's view of the city. I've used Greeters in many cities, including Chicago, and it's always a wonderful experience. You have to book in advance.
- Chicago Architectural Foundation. This is the organization that runs the cruises where you can view Chicago's architecture. They are located at 111 East Wacker Drive in the Loop. There used to be some free exhibits but, these days, they seem to be trying to make up for lost revenue as are all organizations. They make the list because architecture is so central to a Chicago visit. Keep an eye on their special offers for deals.
- Go to the theater with this low-cost option. Check out the theater and musical performances at Northwestern University. NU has one of the nation's top-rated university theater programs. Tickets are much less than at downtown theaters. The campus is in Evanston, about 12 miles north of the Loop.
- Cultural events. The Chicago Cultural Center holds hundreds of free events annually, including exhibitions, concerts, and lectures.
- Chicago Events. The city has many free events that you can check out here.
- Wander the Lakefront Trail. I did this with a bicycle I rented at Millennium Park. With Lake Michigan in front of you and the Chicago skyline behind, traveling the Lakefront Trail is a wonderful way to spend the day.
- Hyde Park Art Center. This non-profit center has public galleries and events, most of which are free.
- Poetry. The Poetry Foundation houses a public garden, a 30,000-volume library, an exhibition gallery, and an extensive roster of weekly public programs and events.
- Go to Navy Pier. The Pier is one of the most popular attractions in the city. It reaches half a mile into Lake Michigan. Walk out and you have spectacular views of the city. Navy Pier is home to lots of restaurants and attractions, like a Ferris Wheel, Chicago Children's Museum, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the Crystal Gardens, an IMAX Theater, and more. Do note that, while the Pier is free, most attractions are not.
- A bit more expensive than free but so worth doing:
- See the city in the day, at night, and from the river. It’s not often that I might want a two-day Hop-On, Hop-Off tour package but in Chicago, I think it’s a good deal. With it, you can do the usual daytime tour plus a river tour and a night tour.
- Go to Frank Lloyd Wright house. You can take public transit to the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio. The Frank Lloyd Wright Trust has many options.
- If you’re a museum goer you might want to get a CityPASS.
- Get the best views of the city. It's always controversial to say that something is the best but I'm going to suggest that the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) with its Skydeck is the one to choose for spectacular views of Chicago. Tickets are $23.
The Music Scene in Chicago
- Go to an Open Mic. Cheap and cheerful, open mics bring out the up and coming and the wannabes. It's hit and miss in terms of the music but you will definitely be with a room full of friendly, relaxed people. Most open mics attract the friends of the performers. As an alternative, here's a listing of comedy open mics.
- You must listen to some blues. Chicago is known for its blues scene. Kingston Mines seems to be the local favorite and it was certainly mine. It is also number 1 on the TimeOut Chicago blues bar list.
- Free music in the park. Check the Millennium Park schedule for free concerts all summer.
- Check out the festivals. This is a festival city all summer long. Check the list before you plan your visit to make sure you don't miss something very special.
Frugal Chicago: Live Like a Local
- Run with the locals. Are you a runner? Then join a local group for a run. They're great for solo travelers as you will be running with others, plus, you'll likely head out for the traditional coffee or beer afterwards. Here's a list of Chicago's running groups.
- Last minute theater. Great for locals and visitors on a budget in Chicago alike is Hot Tix, a one-stop shop for day-of discounts on current shows. They usually have half-price tickets for theater, dance, improv, and sketch comedy. Buy online at hottix.org or visit their location on Randolph Street across from the Chicago Cultural Center.
- Join a Meetup. It turns out that Chicago has a meetup called the Chicago Meetup! It bills itself as the largest Arts & Culture Meetup Group in Chicago. You can also dig into the Chicago part of Meetup.com to discover a full range of meetups based on different interests.
- Free museum days. Here are Chicago's free museum days.
Cheap Eats Chicago
- Chicago Restaurant Week. Usually held in late winter, Chicago Restaurant Week is an opportunity for you to taste some of the city's best food and try great restaurants at a discount. During this time many restaurants have prix fixe menus.
- Opentable. With their rating system and $$ system to tell you how expensive a restaurant is, OpenTable.com helps guide you through choosing the type of food and setting you want. With photos, reviews, menus and pricing, the system allows you to book a table according to real-time availability. Use OpenTable at home and as you travel and earn dining rewards.
- Picnic in the park. With places to buy food nearby, Millennium Park is the perfect spot for dining in Chicago on a budget. You can enjoy a picnic, people-watching, and, with luck, a free concert. Try the 7th floor of Macy’s on North State St. for Frontera Fresco by award-winning chef-restaurateur, cookbook author, and television personality Rick Bayless. It's just a couple of blocks from the park.
- TimeOut's Cheap Eats Chicago. I always check out TimeOut for just about every city I visit. Amongst their regular content they usually have great articles on food. Here's their cheap eats guide for Chicago.
- Eater Chicago has their list. While the city's Michelin-starred restaurants get a lot of the attention, Eater Chicago has a list of more moderately-priced restaurants that give you your money's worth.
Budget Chicago: Where to Stay
A few suggestions for affordable places to stay.
- Chicago Getaway Hostel. Submitted by a reader. “The Chicago Getaway Hostel has comfortable public areas with pool tables, computers, guitars, and even a hot chocolate vending machine. The rooms are nice with plenty of space. There is a free breakfast and there are also lots of social events. Staff is around 24/7 so you can always get information on anything you want to do in the city.” Located at 616 W Arlington Pl, Chicago
- Hotel Monaco. This is not a budget option but a boutique hotel worth the cost. When I checked, it was less expensive than most 4-star Chicago hotels and had a better rating. The Hotel Monaco is on Wabash Ave so very central. It looked like a typical boutique hotel in the lobby but when I got to my room I couldn’t believe it. It was theatrical, full of reds and golds, with unusual accents. When I opened the drapes to see what kind of view I had, I discovered a huge window seat overlooking the Chicago River.
Have you traveled solo to Chicago on a budget? Please share your tips in the comments section below.