Despite being home to the Magnificent Mile, one of America’s most budget-blowing shopping streets, Chicago is a city that adheres rather well to budget-conscious travelers, without compromising culture or experience. From eccentric and magnificently historic architecture and an epic stained glass exhibition, to exceptional parks and gardens and the friendliest cultural centre around, Chicago is a city that offers a lot, and won’t cause a rift between you and your wallet.
Neighbourhoods and Architecture
Chicago is a city that inspired its own movement, or ‘school’, of architecture. The city has a love affair with fantastic, innovative architecture, from Frank Lloyd Wright to the modern masters. This is ideal for visitors, since you can marvel at the buildings without spending the money you should really be spending on a night at Bin 36. We spent one morning strolling up to the Gold Coast and Old Town neighbourhoods, drooling over some fantastic residences, and followed up with a riverboat cruise up the Chicago River to get a detailed and fascinating narrated history of the city’s commercial architectural sector. You’re in luck if you get Judith as your tour guide. Downside? It’s $37 per adult. Not so budget-friendly. Instead, you could just download a free podcast or audio guide. Or, you could ask a friend…
Chicago Greeter Program
A few cities in the world offer this type of program – a free tour of the city by a passionate resident / dedicated volunteer who loves their city. All you have to do is sign up ahead of time, pick your day and time (2 hr time frames), specify what areas of the city and themes are of interest to you, and you’ll be matched up with a city dweller who can show you all the intricacies of Chicago that Lonely Planet just can’t do. Our greeter, Michelle, was unbelievable – friendly, knowledgeable, and super excited to show off her city. We ended up spending four hours with her! She took us all over the city, offering insights into politics, socio-economic strife (including the dissolution of the notorious Cabrini-Green housing complex), urban regeneration/gentrification, and how citizens felt about the (subsequently failed) bid for the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games. We loved her. If you have the time, especially if it’s your first time in the city, please please meet up with a Greeter. It’s one of the best ways to make a new friend, while spending no money, in my favourite American city.
Smith Museum of Stained Glass
If you’re considering visiting Navy Pier, be prepared for a disappointment (unless you’ve got children with you). We checked out the Pier and soon realised there was very little of interest for us, with the exception of a high school prom with a pregnant chick and the Smith Museum of Stained Glass. The collection here is just so beautiful, and includes a number of famous Louise Comfort Tiffany pieces. There’s no admission charged to see the permanent exhibition, even though it’s worth at least a $10 fee. This is definitely a good option for rainy, cold, or (surprise) windy Chicago days, and at the free cost, it’s hard to say no.
Signature Lounge – John Hancock Building
Everyone always makes a big fuss over the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower), and visiting the viewing deck there. Unfortunately it costs money, and is super touristy. A slightly less touristy and far less expensive option is to head over to the Signature Lounge on the 96th floor of the John Hancock Building. There’s no cover charge, and cocktails are fairly reasonably priced, so as long as you can get a table, you’ll get the best view in the city for the price of a cocktail (which, let’s be honest, you’d be spending anyway). Secret Tip: the best view is actually from the ladies restroom. Trust me on this one (not you, men!).
Since the World’s Fair of 1893, Chicago has been known for its innovative landscape architecture (thank you Frederick Law Olmsted). Over a hundred years later, Millennium Park illustrates the evolution of the city through its public spaces (the Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion), homage to its citizens (Crown Fountain), and tribute to its architecture (Cloud Gate, aka The Bean, which reflects 80% of the city’s skyline). Completely free to visitors, you can easily spend a few hours roaming the park, fixated to the changing faces of Crown Fountain, photographing every distorted inch and angle of the Bean, and lounging on the grass of the Pavilion. Best thing – it’s next to the Art Institute of Chicago, and across from the Chicago Cultural Centre.
Chicago Cultural Centre
We first noticed the Chicago Cultural Centre because its where our Chicago Greeter tour began, however, not realising what it was all about, we hadn’t banked on any time to explore it. Our greeter, Michelle, told us we must come visit it, we made a point to return on our next trip to Chicago. Free to visitors, the Chicago Cultural Centre, originally the city’s first library, is home to some epic mosaics dedicated to literary greats. It is home to the recently-restored world’s largest Tiffany stained glass dome, and hosts concerts, art exhibits, and other events that are generally free to the public. This space is absolutely stunning, and will really excite lit buffs, photo nerds, and historians.
These six options prove that Chicago can be very budget-friendly, without compromising the cultural experience. In fact, many of these suggestions actually enhance the cultural experience. Chicago is truly a great American city, and after only two visits, I have completely fallen in love with it. Perhaps it’s because in the Windy City I see a strong reflection of my beloved Toronto, but it’s likely also due to the approachability and welcoming nature of the Chicago and its people. Try it – I’m sure you’ll fall in love too. I might just have to share.