View of the Cloud Gate sculpture in Millennium Park, one of the best cheap things to do when doing Chicago on a budget

Chicago on a Budget, By a Local (Stay, Eat & Do It Cheaply)

Wanting to visit Chicago on a budget? Chicago is an amazing city, but it’s notoriously expensive. But never fear! I’ve lived in Windy City for five years, and I’m here to tell you all about the best things to do in Chicago on a budget.

There are so many things to do and see in Chicago, many of them either surprisingly cheap or free! You can definitely plan an amazing trip to Chicago without breaking the bank if you take advantage of all the budget-friendly events the city has to offer.

Here’s what this Chicago budget guide covers: 

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9 Tips to Do Chicago on a Budget

Consider Visiting Chicago in the Off Season

People ice skating during winter night in Chicago downtown.
To save money, consider visiting Chicago in the winter months!

Strictly financially speaking, January and February would be the best months to visit Chicago on a budget

Flights, hotels, activities, and food are at their cheapest. About half the city’s hotel rooms are generally left unoccupied in the off season, meaning significant discounts! Summer presents the opposite situation, with heavy crowds and the highest prices.

However, keep in mind that in the winter months, you’ll be dealing with the most extreme cold weather Chicago has to offer.

Use Public Transportation (And Your Feet) to Get Around Chicago

Public train on a track transporting passengers around Chicago.
Save money by using public transit instead of renting a car!

Taking public transportation can save you a lot in transportation costs here. The L train goes to both the O’Hare and Midway Airport, and it’s much cheaper than almost any other ride. Considering Chicago’s heavy traffic, using trains and the bus system is also often quicker.

Driving in the downtown area can be time-consuming and pricey, with the traffic and high parking costs. Taking public transit and walking when you can is smart here.

See our full guide to getting around Chicago for more details.

Bring Some Basics to Chicago

As is true in any major city, things in Chicago are bound to be more expensive than in most places. This includes food and other day-to-day necessities.

While you may want to try Chicago’s amazing restaurants, it would also be a good idea to bring some snacks and buy some food at cheap grocery stores during your stay. You can plan trips to restaurants as they fit your budget.

For more packing tips, see Lea Rose’s guide to what to bring to Chicago.

Bring Your Student ID

If you have one, a student ID can be a fantastic tool to help you experience Chicago on a budget. There are many Chicago restaurants that will give discounts to students, as well as happy hour deals.

Your ID will get you discounted admission at the Field Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, and many more museums. You can also get discounts to Broadway in Chicago, Blue Man Group, and some Chicago Cubs games. 

Stay at a Chicago Hostel

Our Pick
Hostels in Chicago

Hostelworld is the global leader in hostels & budget stays. Search Hostelworld for some of the cheapest places to stay in Chicago.

If you’re trying to do Chicago on a budget, you’ll have to forego the luxury hotel room for now. Looking for a budget hotel room in Chicago and making reservations far in advance can save you a lot of money.

One good budget place to stay is Hostelling International, located downtown, for particularly cheap hostel accommodations with free Wi-Fi.

Take Advantage of the Free Attractions & Events

The author looking at the Chicago River

There are many great activities you can enjoy in Chicago without paying! Walk along the Lakefront Trail to take in the turquoise waters of Lake Michigan or along the Chicago Riverwalk to experience downtown Chicago and see the Chicago River.

Millennium Park is also a must-visit area, with the iconic Cloud Gate and the many free performances. There are hundreds of public parks, as well as many free beaches, including the North Avenue Beach.

Schedule a Greeter Visit

One of Chicago’s best-kept secrets is the local Chicago greeter program. If you sign up at least 10 business days in advance, you can schedule free walking tours of your neighborhoods of choice from a knowledgeable local. 

The Chicago greeter tour will last two to four hours, and the volunteer will likely be able to answer any questions you have.

A free walking tour is a great way to see Chicago on a tight budget!

Get a Tourist Pass

Our Pick
Citypass

With a Chicago CityPASS you can save up to 50% at as many as 5 Chicago attractions. It’s a great deal!

Try a tourist pass to save money! With a Chicago CityPASS, experience the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and Skydeck Chicago at 50% off. You also get admissions to two of the following: Art Institute of Chicago, 360 Chicago Observation Deck, Museum of Science and Industry, and Adler Planetarium.

Attend Chicago’s Free Museum Days 

Exterior view of Museum of Science and Industry across the water in Chicago.
The Museum of Science and Industry has days with no admission fee!

Many fascinating Chicago museums, including the Museum of Science and Industry, have free admission days (some weekly, some select dates throughout the year). These usually only benefit Illinois residents, although the DuSable Museum of African American History offers no-charge admission to anyone every Wednesday.

The Museum of Contemporary Photography, National Museum of Mexican Art, Chicago Money Museum, and Chicago Cultural Center offer no-charge admission to all at all times!

9 Cheap & Free Things to Do in Chicago

There are many fun things to do in Chicago, but here are 9 that are particularly good if you’re doing Chicago on the cheap:

Navy Pier

Revel in the magic of the Windy City lakefront!

View of the beautiful lakefront with the Ferris wheel ride and other offered activities in Navy Pier.
Navy Pier offers many great activities for low or no cost! (photo: Noel Powell / Shutterstock)

📍 Google Maps | Phone: (312) 595-7437 | Navy Pier Website | Hours: 11 am – 8 pm Sunday-Thursday, 11 am – 9 pm Friday-Saturday | Entrance: free

Stroll along the 3,300-foot-long Navy Pier and experience this lakefront destination for free! Run through the fountain at Polk Bros Park or check out the fireworks in the summer. However, you will need money if you want to ride the Ferris wheel, grab a bite, or buy a souvenir.

See my full guide to visiting Navy Pier for more.

Grant Park Music Festival

Spend summer nights listening to classical music!

Groups of people in front of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion during Grant Park Music Festival
Jay Pritzker Pavilion, home of the Grant Park Music Festival (photo: Nick Fox / Shutterstock)

📍 Google Maps | Phone: (312) 742-7638 | Grant Park Music Festival Website | Hours: events are scheduled between June and September each year | Entrance: free

A summer visit to Chicago can be expensive, but this festival in iconic Grant Park provides great free entertainment! It includes 10 weeks of free classical music concerts, radio broadcasts, community programs, and more. Watch the Grant Park Orchestra play in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, with the Chicago skyline as a backdrop!

📚 Related Reading: Want to learn more about free festivals and free concerts in Chicago? Check out my guide on the best festivals in Chicago for more options!

The Second City

Watch future stars showcase creativity in improv!

Façade and banner of The Second City Comedy & Improv Theater
Exterior of this popular improv theater on Wells Street. (photo: Mary at T-Comms / Shutterstock)

📍 Google Maps | Phone: (312) 337-3992 | The Second City Website | Hours: 9 am – 9 pm Monday-Friday, 8 am – 1 pm Saturday, 11 am – 9 pm Sunday | Entrance: $10 for Ten Dollar Comedy, prices vary for other shows.

Located in Old Town, this is the oldest improvisational theater enterprise in Chicago. For a mere $10, you can see amazing standup, improv, and sketch comedy. Likely, you will see some future celebrities perform, as Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, and Bill Murray all performed here early in their careers!

Millennium Park

Experience iconic landmarks in the heart of Chicago!

View of The Bean infront of tall buildings with a clear blue sky in Millennium Park in Downtown Chicago.
Millennium Park, the location of many low or no cost Chicago events (photo: STLJB / Shutterstock)

📍 Google Maps | Millennium Park Website | Hours: 6 am – 11 pm daily | Entrance: free

No Chicago trip is complete without Millennium Park! Cloud Gate, otherwise known as “The Bean,” is basically a giant distorted bean-shaped mirror and the best selfie backdrop around. You can also enjoy the serene beauty of Lurie Garden or take part in a variety of free events at Millennium Park.

Chicago Cultural Center

Enjoy free cultural events in a breathtaking work of architecture!

Exterior view of the architectural landmark Chicago Cultural Center.
The exterior of the Chicago Cultural Center. (photo: STLJB / Shutterstock)

📍 Google Maps | Phone: (312) 744-5000 | Chicago Cultural Center Website | Hours: 10 am – 5 pm daily | Entrance: free

The Chicago Cultural Center is home to many free events, exhibitions and performances for all to enjoy. You can take a tour of this incredible landmark building, experience an interactive studio in the Learning Lab, see the artwork of local artists in the Public Media Institute’s shop, and much more!

Magnificent Mile

Enjoy the most vibrant, popular shopping area of the city!

View of the colorful flowers along the shops at the Magnificent Mile in Chicago
Shops along the Magnificent Mile. (photo: EQRoy / Shutterstock)

📍 Google Maps | Phone: (312) 642-3570 | Magnificent Mile Website | Hours: vary with each business | Entrance: free, although purchases at shops and restaurants will not be

A fantastic place to explore Chicago on a budget is the Magnificent Mile. This is the premier commercial district in the city, full of glamorous and lively shops and restaurants. Even without spending money, enjoy gazing upon famous Chicago landmarks such as the Tribune Tower, John Hancock Center, and Chicago Water Tower.

Skydeck Chicago

Take in a bird’s eye view of the entire city of Chicago and beyond!

A tourist taking a picture of the Chicago skyline from Willis Tower Skydeck Ledge.
An amazing view from Skydeck Chicago. (photo: Salvador Maniquiz / Shutterstock)

📍 Google Maps | Phone: (312) 875-9447 | Skydeck Chicago Website | Hours: 9 am – 8 pm Monday-Thursday, 9 am – 10 pm Saturday-Sunday | Entrance: $30-$44 for ages 12 and up, $22-$36 for ages 3 to 11, free for children under 3 (or can be included with the Chicago CityPASS).

Located on the 103rd floor of Willis Tower, formerly known as Sears Tower, Skydeck Chicago is a popular observation deck. Experience spectacular views of not only Chicago itself but landscapes of areas in four other states. The Ledge is a glass balcony that protrudes four feet outside of the deck!

Lincoln Park Zoo

See a vast assortment of animals in one place!

Trees lit up at night with Christmas holiday lights at Lincoln Park Zoo
The Lincoln Park Zoo during the holiday season. (photo: ChicagoPhotographer / Shutterstock)

📍 Google Maps | Phone: (312) 742-2000 | Lincoln Park Zoo Website | Hours: 8 am – 5 pm daily | Entrance: free

The Lincoln Park Zoo is great free fun for the entire family. Spanning 35 acres allows you to see monkeys, big cats, gorillas, reptiles, and about 200 more species. Experience all sorts of popular exhibits, including the Kovler Seal Pool, Regenstein Small Mammal-Reptile House, and Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo.

Chicago Public Beaches

Enjoy the beach with a stunning city skyline view!

People having fun on a budget in North Avenue public beach in summer.
North Avenue Beach, one of Chicago’s many public beaches. 

📍 Google Maps | Phone: (312) 747-2001 | Chicago Beaches Website | Hours: vary by the beach | Entrance: free

Spending time on Chicago public beaches is one of the best ways to enjoy Chicago on a budget (if you happen to come in the summer, not so much in the off season or winter months!). Extending from north to south along Lake Michigan, the beaches offer several recreational activities. 

Where to Stay in Chicago on a Budget

Our Pick
Hostels in Chicago

Hostelworld is the global leader in hostels & budget stays. Search Hostelworld for some of the cheapest places to stay in Chicago.

Any of the 77 neighborhoods Chicago contains many options in terms of affordable places to stay while visiting Chicago, but some are better than others. You can see the complete breakdown in my guide on where to stay in Chicago, but here is a quick summary for budget travelers:

The Loop

Beautiful night view of Chicago Theater's exterior and neon sign.
The Chicago Theater, located in The Loop. (photo: f11photo / Shutterstock)

👉 Best Area For First Time Visitors | ✨ Best Budget Hotel: Hotel Felix

The Loop is great for anyone who is interested in exploring Chicago, particularly people visiting the city for the first time. It is the neighborhood that includes Central Downtown Chicago, right in the middle of the action of the city. For example, if you’re here on Saint Patrick’s Day, you may be able to see the green-dyed Chicago River from your hotel room!

There are plenty of things that you can do without spending a ton of money. This area is home to Millennium Park. There are also many fun, no-charge events and festivals open to everyone in Grant Park, which is just a walk away.

The Art Institute is here, and you can visit with no admission fee with a Chicago CityPASS. Also, if you are coming from elsewhere in Illinois, there are certain days throughout the year when you can get free admission to this amazing art museum!

West Loop

People dining outdoors in downtown Chicago.
Outdoor dining in Chicago’s West Loop. (photo: Antwon McMullen / Shutterstock)

👉 Best Area For Foodies | ✨ Best Budget Hotel: Hotel Chicago West Loop

Located west of The Loop, this is a great place to stay for anyone who doesn’t want to spend a ton of money. The hotel prices tend to be a little bit cheaper than in The Loop proper, and you would still be very close to the action of downtown Chicago.

This is a fantastic choice if you were planning on trying a bunch of different foods in the city. The French Market is home to high-quality produce, in addition to all sorts of pastries from different types of cuisine around the world. Restaurant Row will give you a chance to try all sorts of amazing international cuisine as well.

There is a plethora of activities that you can enjoy in this area, including many pubs that you can visit and live music venues. Also, sports fans won’t have to travel far to see a Blackhawks or Bulls game.

South Loop

View of the Museum Campus of South loop across the water
South Loop Museum Campus, across the water.

👉 Best Area For Museum Enthusiasts | ✨ Best Budget Hotel: Congress Plaza Hotel

If you’re coming to this city for its amazing museums, the South Loop may be a great place to stay. This is home to the lakefront Museum Campus, the site of multiple popular museums in Chicago. These include the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and Adler Planetarium. All three of these attractions can be included when you purchase a Chicago CityPASS!

The Motor Row District is home to a theater, a brewery, and multiple international restaurants. There are also many other great attractions that you can enjoy without having to spend more money than you have.

If you are visiting Chicago on a budget and staying in the South Loop neighborhood, take a walk down Millionaire’s Row. This is a street full of breathtaking mansions that were home to many members of elite Chicago society when the city was first established. This way, you can experience luxury without spending a dime!

Wicker Park 

A street of artsy shops and a view of the typical traffic scene in Wicker Park, Chicago.
A street of shops in this unique, eclectic neighborhood. (photo: Page Light Studios / Shutterstock)

👉 Best Area For Hipsters | ✨ Best Budget Hotel: Chicago Quick Stay

Wicker Park is a great place to stay for anyone who wants a unique, artsy area with a bit of a hipster vibe. If you think of yourself as somewhat eclectic and into the arts, you’ll likely enjoy all of the galleries you can explore, as well as the indie music venues and speakeasies.

For those looking for great deals on souvenirs from your trip to the city, there are many great bookstores and thrift stores in this area. If you want to see all of this neighborhood from a bird’s eye view, it’s definitely worth it to take a walk on the 606, a rail line that was repurposed for pedestrians.

There are also some great places to get cheap eats in this area, including trendy coffee houses and noodle places. The Wicker Park neighborhood has its own unique culture, and it’s just a short train ride away from downtown!

See our full guide to what to do in Wicker Park for more.

Cheap Eats in Chicago

Chicago has one of the biggest selections you can think of when it comes to restaurants. There are many cheap options when it comes to getting great food here. 

Navy Pier

Many tasty and affordable options!

View of the Navy Pier Beer entrance with The Beer Gardens sign in Chicago.
The Beer Gardens of the Pier (photo: Steve Cukrov / Shutterstock)

📍 Google Maps | Navy Pier Dining Website | Price Range: $-$$$$

Though entrance to Navy Pier itself won’t cost anything, there are many ways you can spend lots of money. Navy Pier restaurants vary in pricing, but there are a few budget-friendly gems for you to enjoy, such as the following:

  • America’s Dog & Burger – hamburgers and hot dogs for $10 or less
  • Frankie’s – pizza slices for $6
  • Beat Kitchen – tacos for $6
  • Garibay Tamales – tamales for $6
  • Big City Chicken – chicken entrees for $11
  • Navy Pier Beer Garden – food for $4-$6, drinks for $3-$7 during happy hour

Redhot Ranch

Hot dog stand

📍 Google Maps | Website | Price Range: $

Located in Bucktown, this is a great place to go for cheap Chicago-style hot dogs, burgers, and fries. These hot dogs contain sausages with natural casing, giving them a texture that sets them apart. Keep in mind that this hot dog stand only accepts cash.

Pequod’s Pizza

Pizzeria

📍 Google Maps | Website | Price Range: $$

When you think about Chicago, the process inevitably includes deep dish pizza. Pequod’s pizza is thinner than other versions of Chicago deep dish pizza, but it’s still delicious, not to mention budget-friendly. The trademark caramelization of the pizza crusts here gives it a unique flavor and bite.

FAQs About Doing Chicago on the Cheap

Is Chicago a cheap place to visit?

Chicago is a cheap place to visit, as long as you plan accordingly. Using a mobile pass, such as the Chicago CityPASS, helps. There are many free activities or those with only a small admission fee. You can also choose the cheapest options possible in terms of food and accommodations.

Is Chicago expensive for tourists?

As a major city, Chicago is generally expensive for tourists. It was recently ranked one of the most expensive cities to live in the world in terms of transportation, fuel, food, and other expenses. However, if you plan accordingly, you can experience this big city without spending too much money. 

How can I save money when visiting Chicago?

You can save money by getting a tourist pass (such as a Chicago CityPASS), using public transportation, buying at least some of your food in stores, and choosing affordable accommodations. You can also take advantage of all of the free activities and free or discounted museum admissions (with suggested donations).

What is the cheapest way to travel in Chicago?

The cheapest way to travel in Chicago is to walk. Many attractions are within walking distance of one another. However, this isn’t always feasible, so using Chicago public transportation, including the buses and L train, is often the best option, particularly if you get a one day pass.

***

I hope you found my guide to enjoying Chicago on a budget helpful! If you want to enjoy this city without breaking the bank, you now have the tools to do so!

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