Like most cities, Chicago can be super expensive. There’s a fantastic restaurant scene, tons of broadway shows, concerts constantly… but as easy as it is to spend a fortune you can also get to know the city on a budget. With plenty of free things to do you’re guaranteed to run into as many locals as tourists while exploring Chicago without spending a dime. The following list is made up of places that I visit regularly, and I’m never disappointed!
1. Free Walking Tours
There are a handful of ways to take advantage of knowledgeable locals through free walking tour. Chicago Greeter offers free guides in many different neighborhoods, depending on what you’re looking for. Most of their tours require registration beforehand, so use their website to choose what works best for your trip!
The Freehand, a super hip new hotel in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, offers pay-what-you-want walking tours every Saturday at 10am. They meet in the hotel lobby and walk south into the loop and then back to the hotel. It takes about two hours, leaving you ready or lunch and with some fun facts about the city. Although payment isn’t required, if you enjoy the tour let your guide know! Café Integral is the hotel’s coffee shop, serving gourmet drinks and yummy bites to eat if you get there early and want to take advantage.
Details: The Freehand is located at 19 East Ohio Street. Chicago Greeter locations vary by tour.
2. The 606 Trail
Both old and new, The 606 is an elevated railway-turned-trail running through Northwest Chicago. It connects four diverse neighborhoods over 2.7 miles, wonderfully maintained with a variety of flowers and shrubs. It’s a great way to see Chicagoans enjoying their beautiful city – you’ll witness people strolling with their dogs and a cup of coffee as well as bikers commuting to work. Because it’s elevated you can also peek into some awesome homes. There are urban gardens and ridiculous patios, and you walk through all sorts of areas. Use The 606 (named for the first three numbers in all Chicago zip codes) to get to a new brunch spot, go for a run, or just take a walk! There are twelve entrances/exits, making it easy to come and go as you please.
Details: The East Trailhead is located at Walsh Park off of Ashland (1800 North and 1600 West). The West Trailhead is located at Ridgeway (1800 North and 3750 West). There are a total of twelve access points, about every quarter mile, including 17 access ramps. To access by public transportation, take the Blue Line to either Western or Damen. There are water fountains and benches along the way, however no restrooms located on the trail.
3. Millennium Park
Millennium Park is 25 acres of green space smack dab in the middle of downtown Chicago. Located at the Southeast corner of Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street, there are a bunch of different areas, art sculptures, and free events. You have Lurie Garden, five acres of meticulously well-maintained flowers and shrubbery. Cloud Gate, also known as The Bean, is a seamless stainless steel sculpture you probably have heard of and definitely should check out just to see the crazy reflections. Below The Bean there’s free ice skating (rentals are $12) on McCormick Tribune Ice Rink in the Winter. In the summer the Jay Pritzker Pavilion (on the other side of The Bean) holds free workouts, movies in the park, and concerts. You can bring goodies and picnic here, and some of my favorite summer nights have been spent drinking wine and playing card games while an orchestra performs in the background. For children there’s plenty of room to run around, and you’re guaranteed to see a lot of splashing and giggling at the Crown Fountain. The Crown Fountain has a reflection pool and cascading waterfall off of two 50-foot projections of Chicago resident faces. You don’t have to be a kid to dip your feet in the water and cool off on a hot day! If you want a more complete tour of Millennium Park, Chicago Greeters offers free guided walks (May – October) where you’ll learn more about the art, history, and architecture of the park. Meet at the Chicago Cultural Center (77 East Randolph Street) any day at 11:30 am or 1:00 pm.
Details: Located at the Northeast corner of Michigan Avenue Randolph Street. The Welcome Center address is 201 East Randolph Street. There are public restrooms and restaurants/concessions (Park Grill is very yummy!). It’s very accessible by train, bus, or car. Refer to this website for information regarding the best routes and parking information.
4. Maggie Daley Park
Maggie Daley Park is located just east of Millennium Park, across the BP bridge, at 337 East Randolph Street. Formerly North Grant Park, this area was transformed into an outdoor recreation area with a bunch of fun activities. What used to be a large parking lot was redesigned in hopes to improve the lives and culture of Chicago’s children. In the winter you can ice skate the never-ending skating ribbon, there’s a climbing wall, tennis courts, play areas, and of course gardens! It’s a great area to stroll through, and especially necessary if you’re with kids that have some extra energy to burn.
Details: Located at 337 East Randolph Street, just to the east of Millennium Park. The fieldhouse has lockers and restrooms, and you can also rent skates here. There is a snack kiosk and a restaurant will be opening later in 2016. Please visit this website for information regarding public transportation and parking.
5. Lincoln Park Zoo
Lincoln Park Zoo is a free zoo in the middle of one of Chicago’s largest parks. Right on the water, you can stop by the zoo if you’re walking along the beach or if you’re exploring Chicago’s North side. You’ll be surprised at the variety of animals- there are lions, tigers, even polar bears! Fun for all ages, there’s a Farm-in-the-Zoo petting section for little ones too. Check their website because they often have events such as Zoo Lights in the Winter and various beer festivals in the Summer.
Details: Located at 2001 North Clark Street. There’s a parking lot at 2400 North Cannon Drive ($20+ for more than 30 minutes), but there are plenty of public transportation options. Take the #151 or #156 bus and get off at Stockton & Webster to enter at the zoo’s West Gate, or Stockton & Armitage for the Farm-in-the-Zoo. For the #22 and #36 bus exit at Clark & Webster for the zoo’s West Gate. If you’re on the el, take the brown or purple line to the Armitage station and walk east on Armitage for about a mile to the Café Brauer Gate.
All of these activities are awesome ways to get to know Chicago on a budget. Whether it’s sunny or there’s a chill in the air, you’ll find Chicago and it’s architecture a pleasure to explore. There’s so much to do and even more to learn, so take advantage of all the city has to offer! In no time you’ll feel right at home and fit in just like a local.