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Chicago on a Budget

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Cloud Gate, Millennium Park, Chicago, Illinois
Mirek Weichsel/First Light/Getty Images

Welcome to Chicago:

This is not really a story about what to see and do in Chicago. It is an attempt at getting you around this popular city without destroying your budget. As with most tourist meccas, Chicago offers plenty of easy ways to pay top dollar for things that won't really enhance your experience. Get a PopOut Street Map of Chicago.

When to Visit:

Chicago winters can be brutal, so pack accordingly. The weeks prior to Christmas are popular with Michigan Avenue shoppers. Be aware of the city's many festival and event dates, because fewer hotel rooms and higher prices can result. Book well in advance. Shop for low airfares to Chicago.

Where to Eat:

Sports legends Mike Ditka and the late Harry Caray are also known for excellent restaurants in the Windy City. Neither is exactly a "budget" offering, but they are unique Chicago experiences. Another great tradition is Chicago-style deep-dish pizza. Be warned: one or two pieces of deep-dish can be very filling. Go a size smaller than the conventional pizza you order at home.

Where to Stay:

Michigan Avenue offers fine shopping, dining, world-class museums and free shuttle buses to transport you between attractions. Hotel prices here tend to be high, but priceline.com and other discount Internet services often turn up good deals, albeit a block or two from the main drag. Hotel rooms near O'Hare Airport are often low-priced, but remember commutes to the center of the city can be an hour or longer at times. Four-star hotel for under $150/night: Hotel Felix at 111 W. Huron St.

Getting Around:

Chicago offers one of America's best mass-transit systems, with subways in the "Loop" or downtown area, elevated trains (locals call them "the El") and buses. Lines serve both O'Hare and Midway airports, and are far cheaper than cab fare. It's customary and gracious to tip drivers of free shuttle buses in the Michigan Avenue area. If you'll be traveling in the Chicago suburbs, you'll need to rent a car.

Chicago Attractions and Nightlife:

CityPass offers admission to six Chicago attractions for $49 USD adult, $39 for children 3-11 years old. It's valid for nine days from first use. Rosa's Lounge on the north side is famous for jazz, but there are scores of clubs that offer the same. Check local listings for events during your visit. Chicago has a vibrant theatre community, with several Broadway-quality shows in town at any one time. The Second City troupe was a starting place for some of the nation's greatest comedy acts.

Chicago Parks:

Grant Park on the lakefront was once a dirty railyard, but planners and philanthropists turned it into one of America's finest urban playgrounds. Concerts and festivals abound here, but it's worth a walk around even if nothing is scheduled. Don't miss Buckingham Fountain. The city's park system is one of the most extensive in the world.

More Chicago Tips:

  • Get a GO Chicago Card. This is a card you buy prior to your trip and then activate on first use. You can buy from one- to seven-day cards (cost: $60-136) good for free admission at dozens of local attractions. Design your itinerary before you consider a Go Chicago purchase, to determine if the investment will save you money on admissions. Many times, it will.

  • Best View: Willis Tower or John Hancock? Willis Tower (formerly known as Sears Tower) is taller, and affords a spectacular view of the city and suburbs at night. But many prefer the view for the Hancock ("Big John") because of its proximity to Lake Michigan. Costs are about the same.

  • Park your car and forget it. Each parking stop can cost $10 USD or more, and street space is tough to find. The large Millenium Garage at Columbus and Monroe (Grant Park area) offers day rates under $16. Do not use hotel parking, which will run more than twice that amount per day.

  • Experience Wrigley Field. Tickets are not always easy to get for a Chicago Cubs game, but the experience is worth a little added expense. Get there early to watch batting practice--no extra charge!

  • Check out theatre and musical performances at Northwestern University. NU has one of the nation's top-rated theatre programs. Tickets cost a fraction of the prices downtown The campus is in Evanston, about 12 miles north of the Loop. On the El, change to the purple line at Howard.

  • Discounts for Great America Print tickets or passes for the Six Flags park before you leave home and save money.

  • Ethnic neighborhoods should not be missed. Chicago is cosmopolitan enough to feature just about every nationality on earth. Settlers from many nations made the city great, and it's possible to look around and swear you're in Warsaw, Beijing, Oslo, or some other distant city. Look for the street festivals and sample the foods!

    Step by step tips for visiting any large city on a budget

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