The Windy City has a number of iconic sights that bring travelers in from around the world. The Chicago skyline, the shores of Lake Michigan, Millennium Park, the Chicago River being dyed green, Wrigley Field, and many other incredible attractions will make you want to visit this city. There’s so much to experience when you visit Chicago. Chicago’s size allows for cultural offerings similar to New York or Los Angeles, but it’s a considerably less expensive place to visit. But still, a few days in any city can add up, especially if you’re looking to save money.
Planning is key. From finding the best airfares to arranging luggage storage in Chicago, you’ll have to find ways of getting around and things to do that won’t cost an arm and a leg. Luckily, this city is packed with free and cheap things to do, as well as great food and nightlife scenes that are perfectly manageable for a tight budget.
Here are the best travel tips for visiting Chicago on a budget:
Cheap places to stay in Chicago
If you’re going to visit Chicago on a budget, you’ll want to find reasonably priced accommodations.
Youth hostels aren’t a curiosity specific to the capitals of Western Europe; Chicago has a few low-priced lodging options for backpackers and budget travelers. Look into Freehand, Found Hotel, and Selina near downtown, Hi-Chicago near Wrigley Field, or Chicago Getaway Hostel in Lincoln Park. These are all incredible locations near nightlife and cultural activities. The prices are affordable compared with luxury or boutique hotels, and they all have a fun, social vibe for younger travelers.
This bohemian-style hostel in River North is on the higher end of hostel prices, but you simply can't beat the location when you're traveling on a budget. Complete with a lively bar area, air conditioning, and a variety of rooms, you can get a shared quad room here for as little as $70 a night. A two-person king room will only set you back a little over $100 a night, so this slight upgrade for privacy might be worth it.
While the Magnificent Mile and Downtown get all the headlines, Chicago is a city of neighborhoods. Almost all the best cultural offerings are located on the near north, west, and south sides. Places like Wicker Park, Logan Square, Chinatown, and Pilsen boast the best (and most authentic) culinary and nightlife scenes. Check out the ultimate Chicago neighborhood guide to find the area that fits your interests.
While there are certainly nice hotels in these neighborhoods, lodging at hotels or vacation rentals will be considerably less expensive than in downtown Chicago. You’ll certainly want to be within walking distance from an ‘L’ train stop, but these neighborhoods are well-situated for getting around the city.
Cheap things to do in Chicago
Because of the countless cheap and free activities, Chicago is one of the best cities to visit if you want to save money.
If you’re visiting Chicago on a budget, you’ll want to pack in as much fun as possible without spending a penny. While there are plenty of ways to spend money on Chicago’s iconic Navy Pier, just walking around is entirely free. With excellent views of North Avenue Beach, the Chicago skyline, and the Lake Michigan waterfront, Navy Pier is the perfect place to snap some pictures and enjoy the sun if the weather cooperates. There are even free concerts on certain weekends.
Choose the cheaper (but less iconic) baseball stadium…
If you’re visiting Chicago on a budget, you might want to consider skipping that “obligatory” trip to Wrigley Field. While the home of the Chicago Cubs is certainly iconic, tickets to nine innings at Wrigley Field have gotten increasingly expensive, especially since their historic 2016 World Series. A better option would be a Chicago White Sox game at Guaranteed Rate Field (formerly known as Comiskey Park). Tickets to “Sox Park,” as it’s widely regarded in Chicago, are considerably less expensive than Wrigley Field, and the ballpark is only a few train stops away from downtown.
Lincoln Park Zoo
Lincoln Park is a gorgeous near north side neighborhood that’s home to DePaul university, families, and a large contingent of yuppies. It’s also home to more than 200 species of wildlife that reside in the Lincoln Park Zoo. It’s entirely free to visit, which makes it the perfect activity for visiting families.
Hop between Chicago’s hippest neighborhoods
The 606 is an elevated train track that was used to connect Chicago’s various industrial areas. Since these industries have largely left the near northwest side, Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Logan Square have become some of the trendiest neighborhoods in the country. The train track has since been converted into a biking and walking route that connects these neighborhoods. It’s entirely free to use, and the leafy surroundings provide a beautiful backdrop for walking between Logan Square taquerias and the hip nightlife of Wicker Park.
Explore the Chicago Riverwalk
Chicago is a “two waterfront city” with a river snaking its way through the north side and out to the southwest. The Chicago River has a gorgeous waterfront downtown, where you can take a free walking tour, grab lunch, or watch the whole river dyed green for St. Patrick’s Day. Any time of year, the riverwalk is a great place that’s completely free to explore.
Chicago Cultural Center
Housed in a gorgeous historic building, this massive facility is perfect for art enthusiasts visiting Chicago, and it’s entirely free to explore. You’ll find art exhibitions, film screenings, concerts, children's entertainment, and more.
See Millennium Park and The Bean
Tucked away between downtown Chicago and Lake Michigan is a stretch of greenspace that is revered in Chicagoland. Millennium Park, Grant Park, and the Pritzker Pavilion are all cherished places in this city, where free concerts, Lollapalooza music festival, and a number of annual events all take place. It's also home to one of the city’s most famous and peculiar landmarks, and The Bean is one of the most iconic selfie backdrops in America. Known officially as Cloud Gate, it’s a bean-shaped mirror situated in the Lurie Garden in Millennium Park.
Garfield Park Conservatory
If you’re in the mood for a bit of greenery, head to the near west side to Garfield Park Conservatory, a beautiful 19th-century greenhouse that’s home to hundreds of species of plants. It’s steps away from the Green Line train and very affordable to get into. It’s particularly popular in the winter when locals will bask in the greenhouse’s humidity.
Cheap places to eat in Chicago
For most tourists, visiting Chicago means stuffing yourself with deep-dish pizza or hot dogs covered in every topping imaginable (except ketchup). While these are staples, they’re certainly not the only things to eat, especially when you’re trying to do Chicago on a budget.
Chicago-style hot dogs at Red Hot Ranch
There’s a classic hot dog stand in every Chicago neighborhood, and not all of them are local chain Portillo’s locations, either. Look for bright flashing Vienna Beef signs, and you’ll run into a small restaurant churning out delicious Chicago-style hot dogs, burgers, Polish sausage, and Italian beef. Many of these are cash-only, like Logan Square’s Red Hot Ranch, Lakeview’s Byron's Hot Dogs, or Duk’s Red Hots. Even more iconic is the Superdawg Drive-In.
While deep-dish pizza and hot dogs get the headlines, the real Chicago staple is tacos. The Windy City has one of the largest Mexican-American populations in the country, so grabbing one of these delightful Chicago street foods is the best way to eat local and save some money. Carnitas Uruapan is one of the most famous. Pilsen’s Don Pedro, Avondale’s L’Patron, and Taqueria El Asadero in Lincoln Square are other stalwart options.
Chiu Quon or Joong Boo Market
Chicago is home to prominent Chinese and Korean-American populations, which offer several delicious and cheap dining options. The quickest, tastiest, and cheapest options are bao buns. Joong Boo Korean Market in Avondale serves up steamy (and massive) bao filled with kimchi and pork for less than $5. Chiu Quon in Chinatown serves up their pillowy bao filled with sweet pork for only a few dollars.
Cheap bars in Chicago
Chicago’s breweries are some of the best in the country, and there’s a vibrant scene for trendy cocktail lounges and wine bars. And yet, drinking through Chicago on a budget might be the most fun way to explore the city, assuming you’re of age.
Chicago’s dive bars have a certain atmosphere that perfectly fits the local culture. The iconic “Chicago Handshake” consists of a shot of Makort and a can of Old Style and has a dubious reputation but is beloved in local taverns across the city.
The Owl and other Logan Square dive bars
Hipster haven Logan Square has become one of the coolest neighborhoods in Chicago, partly because of the no-frills nightlife scene. While there are a few breweries and some cocktail bars, Logan Square has a ton of charming dive bars where you can get a Miller High Life and a shot for as little as $5. The Owl, The Burlington, and Whirlaway Lounge are all popular destinations for trendy travelers looking to drink with locals on the cheap.
Big Chicks, Nobody’s Darling, and other LBTQ+-friendly bars
The far north side neighborhoods of Boy’s Town and Andersonville have vibrant LBTQ+ communities. These areas are packed with bars and nightclubs that are both inclusive, fun, and affordable. On weeknights, these bars run drink specials, but they are reasonably priced on weekends as well.
Kincade’s and other North Side sports bars
In north-side neighborhoods like Lincoln Park, Wrigleyville, Lake View, Gold Coast, and Old Town, you can’t walk ten feet without stumbling across a sports bar. Almost all of these places run drink specials, whether it’s a bucket of beers or pitchers throughout the week. On game day, especially Big Ten college football, the bars are jam-packed and very fun.
Bonus budget tips for Chicago
If you’re trying to save money, you’ll need a few tips and tricks for getting around and finding the best prices.
Invest in a discount pass
Chicago has one of the best collections of museums of any city in the country, all of which are easily accessible from downtown. The Shedd Aquarium, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Chicago History Museum, and the Willis Tower Skydeck are all amazing places to visit when you travel to Chicago. If you’re trying to squeeze a few stops during your trip, you can save money by investing in a CityPass, which can save you 30% on museum visits, bus tours, boat tours, and more.
While The Art Institute of Chicago isn’t included in the CityPass offer, it’s the city’s best attraction and is located near many of the other activities. If you’re an art enthusiast, this is a must. There are student and other discounted rates, but the full price is well worth it.
Use public transportation
If you have a car, parking can get extremely pricey in certain areas. It can also be very inconvenient in busier parts of the city. Rideshare services between neighborhoods and airports can also really add up to make your trip to Chicago a very expensive vacation. Getting around via public transportation is the absolute best way to cut down on costs.
A bus ride costs $2.25 per ride, and a train ride only costs $2.50. Chicago’s ‘L’ Train network covers large swaths of the city, making it incredibly affordable to get around. The bus network is even more expansive. If you’ll be taking multiple trips daily, look into a day pass, which will provide unlimited rides and save you money on each fare.
Choose your airport wisely
If you’re traveling to Chicago on a budget, one of the largest expenses will be finding airfare. Chicago is blessed with two major airports. O’Hare International, located in the far northwest side, was at one point the busiest airport in the world. It remains a busy hub for domestic and international travel. It is connected to the city via the Blue Line train. Midway Airport is located on the southwest side and is connected via the Orange Line train.
In order to find the best flight deals, check flights to both airports. Regardless of which airport you fly into, make sure to take advantage of the ‘L’ trains that run out to each. At only $2.50 per ride, it’s considerably cheaper than a taxi or rideshare service. Both train lines run directly into downtown and through bustling neighborhoods.
From free concerts in Millennium Park to free walking tours to the Chicago Cultural Center to the beaches on Lake Michigan, there are so many free things to do in Chicago. If you’re visiting Chicago on a budget, you’ll want to find these activities to make your trip as enjoyable as possible. But finding cheap ways to get around and reasonable lodging are important planning items as well. Fortunately, Chicago’s restaurants and nightlife serve up iconic experiences at an affordable price. If you want to travel AND save money, look no further than the Windy City.