Exploring Chicago like a local

Chicago, City Travel — By on May 23, 2011 at 12:00 pm

By Katie Hammel
Special to The Lost Girls

As with any major city, Chicago rums the gamut from free and cheap to outrageously expensive. You could go all out, dining at only the best restaurants and spending hundreds on the city’s great attractions—or, with a little extra planning and effort, you can experience the highlights of this amazing city on a surprisingly small budget. Here are some tips for saving money on a trip to Chicago.

Check out free museum days

Chicago is home to some of the greatest museums in the country. There’s the Adler Planetarium, the western hemisphere’s first planetarium, and The Field Museum, home to the world’s most complete—and largest—T-rex dinosaur skeleton. The Shedd Aquarium houses more than 32,000 marine animals, and the Art Museum’s new modern wing is reputed to be one of the best in the world. And this just begins to scratch the surface, as there are more than 40 museums in Chicago, including lesser-known ones like the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Chicago History Museum.

But exploring these museums doesn’t come cheap. Admission prices range from a few bucks on up to $20 or more per adult, making this is a potentially pricey activity for families. One of the best ways to save is to go on days when Chicago’s museums are free. The big five—Field Museum, Science and Industry, Adler, Shedd, and Art Museum—offer free days throughout the year, with more concentrated in winter months. The Field Museum is free on the second Tuesday of every month and the Art Institute offers free admission from 5 to 8 p.m. every Thursday; other museums offer certain free days each month.

Save with a City Pass

If you can’t plan your trip around free museum days, check out a Chicago City Pass to save money on museums and other attractions. There are two different passes with range from about $64 to $135, depending on how many days they’re valid. The Chicago City Pass is good for nine days and covers five attractions for $69; if you know you want to go to these five attractions, which include the major museums and the Hancock Observatory or Willis Tower, it’s an excellent deal.

The other pass is the Go Chicago card, which ranges in price depending on number of days, from one to seven. Prices start at $64.99 and keep going up, so it’s expensive, but well worth it if you plan on going to many of the 30 attractions it covers. The best way to determine the right discount pass is to add up the cost of all the attractions you plan to visit and compare that with the cost of the pass—just be realistic about how much you can do in your timeframe.

Take public transport

It’s easy to get caught in taking cabs everywhere in Chicago. They are easy to hail and will whisk you from door to door (especially handy if you visit in winter). Public transport can be confusing for a first-timer, and cabs seem like less of a hassle. But cab fare in Chicago will quickly add up. Most short jaunts around the Loop and Magnificent Mile will be under $5; a trip to O’Hare or Midway can run $20 to $40 depending on traffic, and a ride to the north side, Chinatown, Greektown, or west side of the city can be anywhere from 10 to 20 bucks.

If you’re on a budget, there’s no excuse for not taking the extra time to use public transport. The Blue Line runs directly from O’Hare to downtown in about 40 minutes (quicker than a cab in rush hour!), and the Orange Line will get you into the city from Midway in about 25; both cost just $2.25. The el will take you from downtown to the north, south, and west sides of the city, and the areas that it doesn’t reach are serviced by bus (which is also the best way to get up and down Michigan Avenue). A seven-day CTA pass is just $23—a bargain compared to what you could spend on cabs in that amount of time.


BYOB (or “bring your own beverage”) dining is quite popular in Chicago—and not just at dive-y restaurants that don’t want to spring for a liquor license or ethnic restaurants that don’t want to provide alcohol. There are a few BYOBs that are perfect for a special occasion or fancy night on the town.  Check out Tango Sur, an Argentine steakhouse on the north side; Bonsoiree, an upscale BYO offering five- and eight-course tasting menus in Bucktown; HB, a more casually romantic BYO in Boystown; or Schwa, another west side establishment known for its avant-garde cuisine.

There’s a Chicago BYOB for every type of cuisine, including Mexican, Indian, Thai, Moroccan, Sushi, Chinese, and more. Just grab your favorite bottle of wine (or a sixer of beer; some places also allow liquor, which they will mix into cocktails) and go. Most BYOBS don’t charge a corkage fee; others may charge $2 to $3 per bottle.

Get out of downtown

Visiting Chicago and only seeing the Loop and Magnificent Mile is like going to New York and not exploring beyond Times Square and Central Park. Thousands, if not millions, of people do it every year, and no doubt they have a great time. But they are missing out on the more lived-in, affordable areas of the city.

In Chicago, the Loop virtually shuts down after 6p p.m. and on weekends. The Magnificent Mile is always full of tourists, but most (though not all) of the shops and restaurants there are thoroughly geared towards visitors. In my opinion, some of the best (and better value) parts of the city lie in other neighborhoods such as River North, Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Bucktown, Pilsen, and Andersonville.

These ‘hoods can give you a much better sense of life in Chicago, beyond the glitz of downtown. Vintage resale shops and independent boutiques line the streets along with corner bars and cozy bistros (plus the majority of the best BYOB restaurants). In summer, festivals pop up on streets all over the city, and farmer’s markets take over parks and parking lots. Though there’s no denying that Chicago’s biggest attractions are located downtown, it’d be a shame to limit your visit to the most touristy areas and miss out these more low-key experiences, which also happen to be a low cheaper.

See the city your way

It’s easy to get caught up in the “must-see” attractions of a city like Chicago, but don’t feel compelled to head to every pricey attraction just because it’s in the guidebook. If museums aren’t your thing, check out the free farmers markets or the lively neighborhood festivals held each summer. The Chicago Architecture River Cruise manages to be both thoroughly informative and entertaining, and I highly recommended it, but if it holds no appeal for you, there are other, cheaper ways to get out on the water—rent a kayak or just hop on the water taxi, which will drop you off in Chinatown (a great place for cheap eats!).

Likewise, when it comes to choosing which tower—Willis or the Hancock—from which to take in the Chicago skyline, why not skip the observations decks—and their pricey admission fees—altogether and go up in the 96th floor lounge at the Hancock. For what you’d pay in admission, you can enjoy a cocktail or a cheaper soda with your view. And if the idea of seeing the city from the top of a big red bus is not for you, rent a bike for as little as $20 and see the city for less.

Katie Hammel writes BootsnAll’s Chicago travel guide, offering more money-saving tips on Chicago, including advice on the best cheap eats and the lowdown on free and cheap things to do in Chicago.


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  • Heidi says:

    I saw in NatGeo (if I remember correctly) that Chicago’s building an underground “city”. Not sure if it’s still a plan or they’ve started developing it though.