Chicago remains one of my all time favorite cities. Some might say I’m biased because it’s kind of like my third home. My mom is from the Chicago area, so I’ve grown up visiting family there. Nick is also from the Chicago area, so I have even more reasons to visit now. I’m lucky enough to live close enough that I can easily make Chicago a long weekend roadtrip. I really do feel at home in the city. It probably is a combination of having visited as much as I have, and the fact that Chicago is a Midwestern city and I was born and raised a Midwesterner. Here I’m listing out some of my favorite free/cheap things to do and see in Chicago. Most of these things are best during the spring, summer, or fall. Winters in Chicago can get painfully cold, and most of these activities I’ve listed involve being outside. I’m making notes of some alternatives or modifications you can do if it’s bitter cold out. I hope you enjoy Chicago as much as I do!
Experience Navy Pier:
Located on Lake Michigan, Navy Pier is hard to miss. There are rides, restaurants, and shops all along the pier, so there is plenty for you to do. I’ve ridden the Ferris Wheel a few times, and I recommend it a) if you like Ferris Wheels (which i do), and b) if you want an incredible view of the city (which everyone does). Navy Pier also has firework shows over Lake Michigan twice a week from Memorial weekend through Labor Day weekend. I saw the show on 4th of July in 2011 and it was very impressive. Read more about everything happening on the pier here.
During winter: You might wanna pass on the Ferris Wheel, but you can still visit the Pier. Check out some of their indoor shops and restaurants to keep warm.
Price: no admission fee; $6 per person for Ferris Wheel
Millennium is a really cool urban park with a lot to do. You can catch a concert at the Jay Pritzker Pavillion, visit Lurie garden, check out an exhibit (if you time your trip right), watch/play in the Crown Fountain, or take a free guided tour. So many options; you could spend hours here. Click here to read more about events and activities going on at Millennium Park.
During winter: Ice skate at the McCormick Tribune Plaza!
Price: ice skate rental = $10/day; everything else is FREE!
Fall in love with Cloud Gate/The Bean:
Designed by Anish Kapoor, it’s official name is “Cloud Gate” but it is known by everyone just as “The Bean”. And while The Bean is technically part of Millennium Park, I’m giving it its own section because I am so obsessed with it. I can’t really explain to you WHY I’m so obsessed with it. I mean, it’s basically just a giant mirror jelly bean, but I think it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. Every time I go to Chicago (which is at least once or twice a year) I make a point of seeing it. You can see the entire Chicago skyline in it, and if you get close enough, it distorts your image like a fun-house mirror. DO NOT MISS THIS.
During winter: Suck it up and visit in the cold anyway, just half as long as you normally would!
Ride the ‘L’ Train:
Chicago is a very easy city to get around. Public transportation is so available, you do not need a car at all, and you can get by without ever needing to take a cab (depending on where you stay). Learn the routes and connecting lines and you can get just about anywhere you’d want to go in Chicago without having to walk more than a few blocks. You can even take the train to and from both major airports. If you plan on traveling a lot around the city, I recommend you get an unlimited pass for your trip. Check out the routes and schedules here.
During winter: Ride the L train even more so you have to walk outside less
Price: single fare = $2.25, unlimited 1 day pass = $10, unlimited 3 day pass = $20, unlimited 7 day pass = $28 (NOTE: These fares are current as of 2/5/14)
Go to the beach:
Yes, beaches in Chicago. 26 miles of them actually. Since Chicago sits right on Lake Michigan, you can soak up some sun in the sand on your trip. Lake Michigan is so massive you might just think you’re looking out at the ocean in front of you. There are sand volleyball courts along the beach as well if that’s your thing.
During winter: Ummm maybe just pass on this one…
Price: cost of bottled water and snacks we bought to bring at a convenience store
Run/Walk along Chicago Lakefront Trail:
An 18-mile path along Lake Michigan, Lakefront Trail is a great way to burn off some of the cheese you consume eating Chicago style pizza. Run, walk, bike, or skip your way down this path. It’s pretty cool having a massive lake with boats and ships as your view to one side, and the massive skyline as your view to the other side.
During winter: Run faster to help your body warm up. And wear gloves. Orrrr just save this for the warmer months.
See the windows at Macy’s on State Street:
Finally, a purely Winter idea! While there is arguably more to do in Chicago in the warmer months, the city really is magical during the holidays. Marshall Field’s was a Chicago institution for over 150 years. One of it’s most loved traditions was the elaborate Christmas windows displays every year. The windows followed a common theme, and told a story when viewed in order. Macy’s bought Marshall Field’s in 2006, but has continued this tradition. To be honest, I loved Marshall Fields and was so much more impressed with it than I have been since it was bought out. But I do still think they do a great job and it’s worth checking out. It will definitely put you in the holiday spirit!
What are some of your favorite budget friendly things to do in Chicago?