Chicago on a Budget: How to Explore the Windy City Affordably

Chicago is one of America’s most iconic cities, with its towering skyscrapers, deep-dish pizza, blues music history, and Lake Michigan shoreline. While it has a reputation for being expensive, the Windy City can be surprisingly affordable for budget travellers who know where to look. Here are five tips for exploring Chicago without breaking the bank: 

Take Public Transportation

Chicago has an extensive network of elevated trains (known as the L) and buses that can get you around affordably. An unlimited daily pass is $5, while a 3-day pass is only $15. This allows you unlimited rides on the CTA trains and buses. Stick to this, and you can avoid costly taxis and Uber/Lyfts. The L trains go to most major sights like Millennium Park, the Art Institute, Willis Tower, Wrigley Field, and more. 

If you are flying from O’Hare in Chicago after your stay, the cheapest way to reach the airport is via the L train.  Shared shuttle vans can be hired for around $30, which, while more expensive, is a faster option. 

Explore Free Museums

Chicago has over 50 free museums spanning art, history, science, and more. Top picks include the Art Institute of Chicago (free entry on Thursdays from 5-8pm), the Museum of Contemporary Art (free entry on Tuesdays), the National Museum of Mexican Art (always free), and the Chicago History Museum (free on Mondays for Illinois residents). Take advantage of free museum days, and you can soak up plenty of culture without spending a dime. 

Take Free Walking Tours

Chicago has several pay-what-you-want walking tour companies like Free Tours by Foot that offer no upfront cost tours of popular neighbourhoods and sightseeing routes. You just tip your guide what you feel the tour was worth at the end. These free tours are great for getting oriented in the city and learning about architecture, history, and more from enthusiastic local guides. Look for highly rated walking tours covering key districts like The Loop, Gold Coast, Old Town, and Lincoln Park. 

Eat Affordable Ethnic Food

Skip the pricey downtown restaurants and head to Chicago’s diverse neighbourhoods for authentic, affordable ethnic cuisine. Try tacos in Pilsen, pierogies in Ukrainian Village, pho in Argyle, and so much more. Devon Avenue has the best Indian and Pakistani food, while various Chinatowns satisfy cravings for Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese fare. Eat your way through Chicago for under $10 a meal. 

See Free Entertainment

Summertime brings free entertainment options to Chicago’s public parks and plazas. Enjoy free concerts, plays, dance performances, and more at Millennium Park, the Chicago Cultural Center, and other venues. Check Choose Chicago’s calendar for a list of free events. Year-round, improv comedy is big – so catch free shows at The Annoyance Theatre and other small venues. 

Couchsurf or Try Hostels

To keep accommodation costs low, consider couch surfing with a local or staying in one of Chicago’s many hostels. The Loop and Chicago Getaway Hostel offer cheap dorm-style beds starting around $30 a night. Or you can find free housing by creating a profile on Couchsurfing and connecting with locals willing to host travellers.  A mid-range hotel in the city will cost you around $120-$200, so you can save a lot of money by choosing your accommodation wisely. 

Saving money in Chicago comes down to taking advantage of free attractions, utilizing public transportation, eating affordable ethnic food, and finding cheap lodging. Follow these five tips, and you can experience Chicago’s top sights and neighbourhoods on the cheap, all while avoiding sky-high costs. The Windy City is ready to be explored by budget-savvy travellers who want world-class fun without draining their wallets.