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Chicago on a Budget

Last updated on January 23, 2020.

Chicago is the third largest city in the United States and is absolutely full of great things to do. So it is no wonder that it is such a popular destination. But like all big cities, it can get pretty expensive pretty quickly. No worries! I’ve got you covered. Check out this article to find out how you can enjoy Chicago on a budget. You’ll be making plans as soon as you’re done reading!

Driving & Parking in Chicago

If you plan on driving into the city, make sure you have a plan for parking! In my opinion, driving and parking in Chicago is just as bad as (if not worse than) Manhattan. Seriously.

I’ve stayed in hotels at both the center of the city and on the outskirts near the airport. Hotels located in the city are obviously more costly, and then you have to factor in parking on top of it! In the CBD we had to pay $35 per night to park in the garage – and that was with no reentry. We left the car there for four days and didn’t touch it at all while we were there. When we stayed near the airport, there was parking available at the hotel, but even that was super limited.

Pro tip: if you become a member at the Horseshoe Hammond Casino, they offer free shuttles to different locations in the city center. So if you stay at one of their hotels (or a nearby one), that would definitely help out! We didn’t end up taking advantage of the offer, but you can get more information here.

Chicago Water Taxi

Transportation within the City

Uber & Lyft are your best friends in Chicago. Your best bet is to find a place to park where you can leave your car all day for one flat fee. (I’d suggest the northern part of the city – north of the beach.) Then, you can leave your car without worrying about it. Spend the day walking around and taking in your surroundings. One of my favorite walks? The path that connects Shedd Aquarium to Navy Pier. You’ll walk along Lake Michigan, past the famous Buckingham Fountain and numerous parks. PS it’s the best place to view fireworks in Chicago!

For longer distances on a budget, rent a bike, take the L, or order a rideshare to get around the city. You get get information about the CTA’s bus and train schedules and routes here. Use it wisely to maximize your time and your budget. And if you’re feeling adventurous, try the Chicago Water Taxi.

Sky-High Views on a Budget

What’s the first thing everyone wants to do in a major city like Chicago? Go to the top of the highest building of course!

In Chicago you have two popular options for observation decks: Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) and 360 Chicago (formerly the John Hancock Observatory). Why Chicago buildings can’t keep their names is one of life’s greatest mysteries. Regardless, admission to either of those observation floors will cost you at least $20 per person and require you to wait in line for hours. I have a better option for you – visit one of the bars or restaurants in 360 Chicago. You can get the same views – plus food – without waiting in line. The best part? You’ll pay the same price, if not less (it ultimately depends on what you get to eat or drink).

When we went, we visited the Signature Lounge on the 96th floor. We ordered a drink each and split an appetizer. Yes, the drinks were slightly more expensive than I would have liked, BUT it wasn’t overly crowded, we still got to take lots of pictures, and we got to enjoy our drinks. Plus, we didn’t pay much, if any, more than we would have just to visit the observation deck. Since my last visit to Chicago, Architect’s Corner Café and Bar is now open. It is located on the 94th floor and has more reasonably priced snack options.

Love visiting skycrapers? Find out when to visit the Empire State Building in NYC or get help choosing between Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Skytree.

The Chicago Zoo is Free!

Another great thing about Chicago is that their zoo is FREE. Yes, free. I don’t make these things up! Parking, of course, is not free, but we already talked about that… The Lincoln Park Zoo is fantastic, and I’m not exaggerating when I say you could spend an entire day there. We easily spent 4-5 hours walking around and still didn’t see everything we wanted to. Since the zoo doesn’t charge admission, there are several entrances/exits that you can walk right in and out, sometimes without even noticing. The zoo blends right in with the surrounding parks and buildings.

Lincoln Park Zoo Entrance
Lincoln Park Zoo Entrance

Pro tip: In the middle of the zoo, there are some beautiful spots to relax in and enjoy the famous Chicago skyline. There are also some wonderful gardens to explore and get some great photos.

Too Many Great Attractions for Just One Visit!

Chicago Theatre Marquee

If you want to hit some of the city’s bigger attractions, definitely invest in a city pass that bundles several attractions together for a certain amount of days. You can even save 50% on Chicago’s 5 best attractions with CityPASS! I highly recommend the architecture river cruise for a great history of Chicago with spectacular views, any of the incredible museums, or a behind-the-scenes tour at The Chicago Theatre.

Chicago’s World Famous Museums

You could spend weeks in Chicago and still not see everything. The museums alone measure in the dozens, which means there is something for everyone. Can’t decide on which one to visit? Here’s just a few of your choices:

  • The Art Institute of Chicago
  • Shedd Aquarium
  • Adler Planetarium
  • The Oriental Institute Museum
  • Chicago History Museum
  • The Field Museum
  • The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
  • Museum of Science and Industry
  • Chicago Children’s Museum
  • DuSable Museum of African American History
  • Museum of Contemporary Photography
  • Museum of Contemporary Art
  • American Writers’ Museum
  • National Museum of Mexican Art
  • … and so many more!

With so many museums to choose from, you’ll never go bored. While I’ve been to several of these already, I still have many more to see. My favorite? It has to be the Chicago History Museum. You’ll learn about all the notable pieces of the windy city’s history. Did you know that the ferris wheel on Navy Pier was originally built for the world’s fair? Will we ever find out if Mrs. O’Leary’s cow actually started the Great Chicago Fire? What was the inspiration behind the name Chicago? And why is it a Broadway musical? The museum will answer all these questions and more.

Search for Street Art

By now you should know how much I love street art, and Chicago has some great work! Always a free thing to do in any city, walk around and find your favorite murals.

Shopping in Chicago

American Girl Dolls Chicago

One of the most famous areas to visit in Chicago is the Magnificent Mile. This posh shopping district is definitely not budget-friendly if you want to do some shopping. But you know what is? Walking around the shops and admiring everything. Or feeling like a little girl again by visiting the American Girl Shop and Café. Unless you have some money to burn, the Magnificent Mile is best for window shopping.

The Best of Chicago’s Parks

When you’re in Chicago, you have to visit some of the parks! There is so much green space, it’s one of my absolute favorite things about the city. Plus, parks are friendly for any budget since they are free to visit.

The most famous spot is undoubtedly Cloud Gate in Millenium Park, affectionately known as “The Bean.” Yes, you’ll look like a silly tourist when you take lots of pictures with it, but it is worth it and so much fun! Nearby Crown Fountain, which shows peoples faces on digital screens that spit out water, is a fun spot for kids. There is also a music pavilion close by that hosts free concerts in the summer.

The Riverwalk is a must – at both day and night. Walking along the banks of the river reminds me so much of my time living in Melbourne, walking along the Yarra. It’s beautiful and so peaceful, despite being in the heart of a concrete jungle. And the fountains along the riverwalk and throughout the city are all lit up at night. It’s beautiful!

Navy Pier

Lastly, a trip to Chicago isn’t complete without a stroll down Navy Pier and a ride on the Centennial Wheel. If you visited the Chicago History Museum, you’ll know that the ferris wheel was originally built for the World’s Fair in 1893 as a follow-up to France’s wheel in 1889. While the Centennial Wheel is not the original, it is just as grand and iconic to Chicago.

Along the pier you’ll find lots of shops and restaurants for a night on the town. Take a peek out toward the water and you’ll see a lighthouse in the distance. If you’ve got time, check out some of the boat tours that regularly depart from the pier. When your feet need a rest, take the free trolley to get up and down the pier.

At the end of Navy Pier is Ohio Street Beach. While not the nicest beach in Chicago, it is definitely popular due to its amazing skyline views. But if you’re looking for another beach spot, go a little further north.

A Day Trip to Wisconsin

If you are looking for some interesting places outside of the city that are worth driving to, I suggest a trip north to Wisconsin. Chicago is so close to the northern border of Illinois, it’s easy to cross-off another state on your bucket list.

So where should you go in Wisconsin? The Jelly Belly Factory! Yes, we were two late-20-somethings acting like small children when we visited the factory. It was a ton of fun! The warehouse tours are FREE, so it’s also budget-friendly. You get to learn about how the jelly beans are made and try samples. They even have artwork made out of jelly beans! Definitely worth a visit.

If you’re hungry during your time in Wisconsin, stop and visit Lakefront Brewery. The old beer hall style is gorgeous (and a common place for weddings and events); grab a table and make yourself comfortable. The food choices are slim, but great – a fried cheese curd basket is a MUST! You’re in Wisconsin, after all.

You Can Visit Chicago on a Budget Too

Ever since my first visit to the Windy City in 2012, I’ve been in love with Chicago. With an incredible amount of culture and beautiful places, you’re bound to love it too. I’m sure it won’t be long before I go back to visit. Why not? It’s so easy to explore Chicago on a budget!


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