You don’t have to spend big bucks to experience Chicago at its best. The Second City has no shortage of shoestring options, making it a great destination for budget bucket-list travel. There’s a plethora of parks, thriving neighborhoods, world-class museums, not to mention some of the world’s best architecture. Whether you’re looking to spend a little or nothing at all, these are seven suggestions for those looking to travel Chicago on the cheap.
Paste Travel’s Bucket List columnist Lauren Kilberg is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Her travels have found her camping near the Pakistani border of India and conquering volcanoes in the Philippines.
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The 3,300-foot long Navy Pier is often overlooked or even avoided by locals, but it's truly one of Chicago's most unique destinations. It's home to gardens, restaurants, shops and a variety of other attractions. Don't miss the Instagram-worthy view from the top of the newly-reopened Ferris wheel or a walk through the Crystal Gardens, a botanical paradise housed within a gorgeous 6-story glass atrium. Among the pier's venues are the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Pepsi Skyline Stage and an IMAX theater. If you're traveling with kids, the Chicago Children's Museum is located on Navy Pier and a number of boat tours, including the popular Seadog and tall ship Windy depart from here. Summer through fall, Navy Pier puts on twice-weekly firework shows on Wednesdays and Saturdays (only Saturday during fall). Entrance to Navy Pier is free, although many of its attractions have fees.
Photo by Christopher Ramirez, CC BY-NC 2.0
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Chicago Cultural Center is one of the city's best gems. Located in the Loop, the building dates back to 1897 when it opened as Chicago's first central public library. Since 1991, it has served as the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs' showpiece attraction. Along with hundreds of free art, music and performance events from around the world each year, it's worth visiting just to peek inside the historic building. It's home to two stunning stained-glass domes, among them the world's largest Tiffany dome with 30,000 glass pieces.
Photo by Simon King, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Chicago has long been committed to providing ample green escapes for its residents and visitors. The city maintains an impressive list of open spaces with a variety of unique features worth visiting. At Grant Park
you'll find Buckingham Fountain. It's one of the world's largest and dates back to 1927. From April through October the fountain puts on a memorable water and light show every 20 minutes. Grant Park also houses Chicago's Museum Campus and the Art Institute of Chicago. Two additional parks also call Grant Park home, that being Maggie Daley Park and Millennium Park. The latter is home to the famous Cloud Gate (the Bean) by world-renowned sculptor Anish Kapoor, a winter ice skating rink, the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion, among other noteworthy attractions. On the South Side, the nearly 550-acre Jackson Park served as the site of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. The park's Wooded Island features a Japanese-style Osaka garden, officially Garden of the Phoenix, which is all that remains of Japan's World's Fair exhibit.
Photo by Jovan J, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Dubbed Chicago's second lakefront, the Chicago Riverwalk is nearing the end of a multi-phase redevelopment and expansion that started back in the 1990s. Located on the south bank of the Chicago River, the waterfront features a variety of food and drink options with outdoor seating, a giant staircase where pedestrians can sit and take in views of the city and river, kayak rentals, art and performance events, among others. Island Party Hut, an outdoor tiki bar, makes a fun stop. Another noteworthy option is Tiny Hatt, which serves up Memphis-style barbecue and barrel-aged cocktails right on the river's edge.
Photo by BobbbyLight, CC BY 2.0
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From the Loop to Lincoln Park, Chicago is a patchwork of vibrant neighborhoods. Take yourself on a self-guided walking tour through any of the city's 77 official communities, each offering its own distinct culture. Among the noteworthy stops are Chinatown on the near South Side, with its thriving culinary scene. The South Side's Hyde Park is where you'll find the Museum of Science and Industry, Frank Lloyd Wright's renowned Robie House, as well as the picturesque and prestigious University of Chicago campus. The Loop, Chicago's central business district, is teaming with attractions like Millennium Park, the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago Cultural Center, as well as a good concentration of the city's most iconic buildings, including Willis (Sears) Tower, John Hancock Center, Tribune Tower, Marina Towers and more. Further north in Lincoln Park you'll find the Lincoln Park Zoo, North Avenue Beach, Lincoln Park Conservatory and no shortage of shopping and dining options. Nearby Wicker Park (pictured) and Bucktown are where many of Chicago's young, hip or otherwise in-the-known head for some of the city's best shopping, drinking and dining establishments. The two neighboring communities are packed with high-end fashion boutiques and independently-owned retailers, as well as a number of award-winning restaurants. For more on Chicago's other must-visit areas, visit Choose Chicago, which has a great neighborhood guide.
Photo by Robert Martinez, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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When city life starts to feel a bit like a zoo, head to Chicago's actual zoo. Lincoln Park Zoo is a 35-acre oasis in the heart of the city's Lincoln Park neighborhood. It's completely free and open year round. The zoo is home to more than 1,000 animals from 200 species, including lions, gorillas and bears.
The zoo's neighbor, Lincoln Park Conservatory, offers an additional escape from the city's frenzy. The 3-acre conservatory and botanical garden contains a variety of horticultural collections, many of which are housed within the Victorian-era glass greenhouse. There is also a lily pond, formal outdoor garden, as well as a lake and nature sanctuary. Like the zoo, the conservatory is completely free and open year round.
Photo by clarkmaxwell, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Chicago's iconic skyline contains countless world-famous buildings. The city is celebrated for its architecture and features the works of renowned architects like Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Helmut Jahn, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Jeanne Gang and Frank Gehry, to name just a few. Exploring the city's architectural marvels on a self-guided tour is a fairly easy and free feat with a little planning. For starters, check out Paste's Bucket List featuring nine buildings every architecture lover must see.
The Chicago Architecture Foundation has a great Buildings of Chicago database to aid in your research, including key details and maps. Each year in October, CAF also hosts Open House Chicago, an incredible program where hundreds of landmark Chicago buildings are open to the public and completely free to visit. While this year's event has passed, it's not too early to start planning for next year.
Photo by Mariano Mantel, CC BY-NC 2.0