If you’ve lived here a while, you probably know all of this. But if you’re new here, whether visiting or staying, here’s some advice to help you manage #Chiberia. Because here’s the thing: Chicago is the best-kept secret in the country. Although it’s often dismissed as “flyover land”, this city has a spectacular skyline, a diverse population (with a diverse array of restaurants and neighborhoods to match), and fabulous cultural institutions.
BASIC CHEAPSKATE RULES:
- Stay away from Navy Pier. It’s very expensive, with few good restaurants and a lot of kitschy shops. Yes, “everyone” who goes to Chicago goes there, but it’s a mystery why.
- Carry a refillable water bottle. Chicago has some of the best tap water in the world; there’s no need to buy water here.
- If you see a sign that says Parking for Customers Only, they mean it. You can’t step off the lot – not even for a quick dash to get coffee – or your car will be towed. Use the Best Parking app to find the cheapest parking rates downtown.
- Public transit is a great deal. Chicago has extensive systems that connect different parts of the city and the city to the suburbs. The Chicago Transit Authority operates the el and city bus lines; Pace operates suburban buses, and Metra is the commuter railroad system.
- Chicago is a great town for theatre. Budget some time and money to see a show. Some experimental shows are free or very low cost, and discount tickets for all but the very biggest plays can be found on our half-price tickets page.
- The city park district includes one of the longest stretches of public beach in the world, several series of special events and concerts in the summer, ice skating rinks, swimming pools, and workout facilities. Whether you love her or are visiting, check out the full list.
WHERE TO STAY IN CHICAGO FOR CHEAP
Chicago hosts a lot of major conventions, and during those weeks, it can be tough to get a good deal on a hotel room. On the other hand, when there is not a convention in town, even the big downtown hotels can be relatively inexpensive; check our daily deals page to see if there are places listed there.
Bargains are often available at the Palmer House. It is right downtown, but it is also very old (the oldest continually operated hotel in the U.S.). Despite the gorgeous restoration completed a few years back, some of the interior rooms are very small and thus can be booked for less money than you might think.
If you want to go really basic, Chicago has several hostels. Hostelling International Chicago is at a great downtown location. A bed in a dorm room can be had for as little as $30 a night; a private room with a shared bath is $79. If you prefer staying on the North Side, consider Wrigley Hostel – right by the ball park – or Chicago Getaway Hostel in Lincoln Park. These hostels include the use of linens and towels during your stay.
CHEAP EATS IN CHICAGO
Yes, there are a lot of meat and fried potatoes places here. But Chicago also has an astonishing array of ethnic restaurants and some great high-end places. When in doubt, your neighborhood noodle shop/sandwich shop/soul food spot will have good food at good prices. Some other points to consider:
- Farmers markets are all over the place in the summer. Find one near you.
- Check out these great, relatively inexpensive restaurants: Uri Swati, on Devon Avenue in West Rogers Park, has great Indian food. La Pasadita, with several locations on the North Side, is known for good, fast Mexican food. Leona’s, another local chain, serves vast amounts of pizza and Italian food – you’ll have leftovers to take home.
- Because Illinois has complicated liquor laws, many ethnic restaurants are BYOB places – a great way to save some money.
- Your best deal for carry out or delivery is almost always pizza. This city is known for good pizza, for good reason.
- Chicago is a bar town, and many bars have great weeknight specials that include appetizers or pizza.
CHEAP SHOPPING IN CHICAGO
Marshall Field invented the modern department store in Chicago. That store is now part of the Macy’s empire, but there’s a ton of great shopping to be had in this city:
- Urban Outfitters Surplus Store: At 2352 N. Clark in Lincoln Park, you can find Urban Outfitters clothes at sale prices.
- Aldo Sale Store: 1212 N. Ashland, the source of some great shoes at great prices.
- Open Books: 2013 W. Institute Place, this is a huge used bookstore that supports community literacy programs.
- Laurie’s Planet of Sound: 4639 N. Lincoln. This is the spot for used records, CDs, and DVDs, as well as some new rarities.
- Randolph Street Market: 1340 W. Washington. This is a big flea market and craft show that takes place about once a month. You can find things you didn’t know you were looking for.
Chicago also has a lot of thrift stores. The Goodwill even has a frequent shopper card! Other good thrift shops are the Brown Elephant and Village Discount Outlet, which have locations throughout the city.
FREE THINGS TO DO IN CHICAGO
For the rest of your cheapskate trip, try to put yourself on a spending fast. There is so much free stuff to do, and this is by no means a comprehensive list. But it’s a good start.
Chicago has many great free museums, including:
- DePaul University Art Museum: 935 W. Fullerton, next to the el stop in Lincoln Park. This has a small but interesting collection, with an emphasis on global cultures
- Chicago Cultural Center: 78 E. Washington. This is a gorgeous old building – check out the Tiffany dome – that includes city cultural offices, spaces for free performances, and a hodgepodge of collections about different aspects of Chicago life. It’s free, and well worth a walk-through. It also has great spaces on the ground floor for working or reading.
- National Museum of Mexican Art: 1852 W. 19th Street. This museum is dedicated to works by Mexican and Mexican-American artists. It has the largest such collection in the United States
- Oriental Institute: 1155 E. 58th Street: This is where Indiana Jones was based. It’s a small museum on the University of Chicago campus with a world-class collection of Egyptian and Middle Eastern antiquities, including a mummy.
The big Chicago museums – such as the Art Institute, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the Field Museum – have free admission days throughout the year, although they tend to be clustered in the winter months.
The Chicago Park District has parks large and small in almost every neighborhood in the city. The biggest and most exciting parks are:
- Millennium Park: Downtown, right where Washington Street runs into Michigan Avenue. Here you’ll find public sculpture, gorgeous gardens, and regular musical performances during the summer. If it’s hot out, the Crown Fountain turns into a water park. (Apparently, the sculptor didn’t design it as a water park, but he was happy to find out that it became such a major interactive hangout.)
- Lincoln Park Zoo: A free zoo, in Lincoln Park at Fullerton and Cannon Drive. The Lincoln Park Zoo has the world’s largest breeding colony of lowland gorillas, as well as giraffes, river otters, sea lions, and many different bears.
- Garfield Park Conservatory: 300 N. Central Park Avenue. This is a major botanic conservatory, with a large collection of plants from all over the world. It is wonderful and warm inside, too, making it a great place to visit when the weather is cold.
Chicago has one of the longest stretches of public beaches in the world. There is no charge to use the beaches, and the life guards are well-trained in open-water rescue.
The Chicago River is open for kayaking. Chicago River Canoe and Kayak operates three boat launches, where you can rent a kayak, bring your own, or book a tour.
HOW TO SAVE MONEY IF YOU LIVE IN CHICAGO
The cost of living in Chicago is less than in many other big cities, but it’s not cheap here. You can bring the cost down with these tips:
Ditch the car. A car is expensive, and the public transit here is pretty good. You can supplement that with taxis, car sharing (both ZipCar and iGoCar have locations all over), or the Divvy bike sharing system.
- Surviving Chicago means surviving winter. The winters are long here. That’s a given. But people don’t stay home. If you’re going to be in the cold, dress for it. Buy long underwear, fleece jackets, and a good winter coat. Fleece in particular can be found second-hand at most thrift stores, and many outdoor and work-gear companies sell great coats for less than designer prices. When the seasonal clearance sales start, stock up – these things don’t go bad.
- Weatherproof your place. If your apartment is drafty in the winter, go to the drugstore or hardware store for plastic sheeting that you can affix to the windows and shrink with a hair dryer. It works really well. If you don’t have air conditioning, get a fan for the summer.
- Use the library. The Chicago Public Library has more than 50 branches in the city, and you can order books online and have them sent to your local branch. The library also offers access to Internet databases and ebooks. Local branches sponsor special events. And – you can check out passes to area museums.
- You don’t need cable. Chicago is flat, so signals travel far. If you have a digital antenna for your TV, you can receive about 50 free channels. Not all are in English, but that’s okay. Add in a subscription to a movie service, and you are golden. If you need to see a big game that’s not on broadcast TV, you can probably find an establishment showing the game within half a block of where you are now – speaking as someone who once sat in Dairy Queen to watch a baseball playoff with two first-graders.
- Check the alleys. When people want to get rid of bulky stuff, especially furniture, they put it in their alley. You may be able to find some nice furniture this way.
If the weather were better, Chicago would be the largest city in the world – that’s how much fun it is.
**Note: All costs and dates noted in this post are accurate at the time of posting.