A Budget Traveler's Guide To Chicago

Buckingham Fountain & Downtown | © Tomošius/Flickr
Buckingham Fountain & Downtown | © Tomošius/Flickr
Chicago is the premier travel destination in the Midwest and one of the greatest cities in the world. But with that comes expenses. However, you can manage a trip to the ‘Windy City’ on a budget if you know where to go. So read on to discover all the best places to visit, eat, drink, and stay if you’re not looking to empty your wallet.

What To Do And See

Visit a museum

Chicago is notorious for its art, museums, and bevy of culture. Some places are free all year-round, such as the Chicago Cultural Center and Lincoln Park Zoo. But every institution offers occasional free days. So as long as you plan accordingly, budget travelers can see it all. Make the rounds at Museum Campus and see priceless works of art at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Art Institute of Chicago © coby/Flickr

Hit up a free event

There’s no shortage of free things to do in Chicago year-round. In the summertime, the city’s calendar is packed with dozens of free festivals and food markets, while the winter brings cozy light shows, parades, and more. Check out the Taste of Chicago and Millennium Park free concert series in the summer and the Christkindlmarket in the winter.

Take a walking tour

Create your own walking tour by reading up on some of Chicago’s lesser-known history and then mapping out the sights. We recommend The Newberry Library, Hull House or simply taking in some good old-fashioned Chicago architecture. If you’d rather have someone else lead the way, the city has a tour for everything. Look into Free Tours by Foot and Free Chicago Walking Tours.

The Newberry Library © TonyTheTiger/Wikicommons

Ride the rails

One of Chicago’s crowning jewels is its transportation system. The CTA operates eight different train lines and dozens of bus routes daily, and fare cards are always budget-friendly. Try getting outside the Loop and exploring a surrounding Chicago neighborhood during your stay. We have guides to riding the Red Line, Brown Line, Blue Line, and Pink Line so that you never run out of things to do.

What To Eat And Drink

Billy Goat Tavern

This little piece of Chicago history is a place you’ll want to visit. Its location beneath Michigan Avenue made the Billy Goat Tavern a favorite late-night hangout for the reporters of nearby journalism meccas the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times during the 20th century. It’s also the origin of the Chicago Cubs’ famous (and now broken) Billy Goat curse. Today, it’s mostly a tourist attraction but still a great spot for cheap, delicious burgers and drinks.

The Wiener’s Circle

There are plenty of places around the city to get a traditional Chicago-style hot dog, but The Wiener’s Circle will be your best friend if you’re in town for a night of partying on the North Side. It’s incredibly cheap and open late (or early, depending on your perspective). They serve seven different types of dogs, as well as burgers, and they come with all the fixings. Just remember: do not ask for ketchup.

Chicago-style hot dog © jeffreyw/WikiCommons

Lou Malnati’s

Chicago is absolutely full to the brim with its famous deep dish pizza, and the prices run nearly the same across the board. But Lou Malnati’s comes out on top for those on a budget. They have plenty of Chicago locations, and a large deep dish cheese pizza to share will run you about $21. It’s a win-win because their restaurants tend to feel a lot fancier than they are. Tourists and locals alike love stopping in to grab a slice.

Deep Dish Pizza © Eric Chan/Flickr

Dive bars

Chicago has a decent dive bar scene, sneaking them into every neighborhood possible. You may think River North is all five-star restaurants and swanky clubs, but low-key places like Rossi’s, Snickers Bar, and Pippin’s keep the Chicago authenticity alive. When locals come to drink downtown, these are the types of cheap and fun places they frequent. Also, check out the stretch of popular watering holes on Division Street on the Near North Side.

Where To Stay

Red Roof Inn

You don’t have to sacrifice Chicago’s world-class downtown location for a low price. You can stay close to the city’s best restaurants and nightlife and never miss a second of the excitement by checking in at the Red Roof Inn, which is steps away from the Magnificent Mile and an economical option for traveling couples and families alike. The inn is within walking distance from Navy Pier, Water Tower Place, Northwestern University, and much more.

Days Inn

For those coming to town to visit the North Side, the Days Inn Chicago on Diversey is your perfect budget destination, as it keeps you close to all the best northern hot spots. It’s also near public transportation, allowing guests to experience everything Chicago has to offer without emptying their wallets.

Travelodge Hotel

Get a taste of the South Loop at the Travelodge Hotel. It’s just steps away from the Red Line and still within walking distance of downtown’s best attractions. Enjoy cheap digs, full-service amenities, and even two on-site restaurants for when you’re tired of heavy pizza and loaded hot dogs.