Here’s an obvious statement: exploring Chicago can be expensive. And while there certainly are restaurants charging hundreds of dollars per person for dinner and hotels at thousands of dollars a night, there’s still plenty that’s a bit more, shall we say, reasonable.
There are many, many cheap things to do in Chicago on a budget. There are free and inexpensive museums and you can get discounted tickets. You can find tons of free things to do outdoors, especially during the summer.
Chicago’s theater scene is legendary, and while downtown shows can be pricey, you can also get half-price tickets and support one of the many, many neighborhood theaters.
You can even spend less on food and drink, find cheaper places to stay, and save on parking in Chicago.
To help you get the most out of this amazing city, I’ve listed tons of things to do in Chicago on a budget and ways to help you save money when you explore the Windy City.
How much do I love Chicago? Not only have I lived in the city and its suburbs for 21 years and covered it for nearly that long, I also wrote a book about it.
Things to do in Chicago on a Budget
Want to save even more? Check out this list of free things to do in Chicago.
This post contains affiliate links, which means when you save money, we make (a little) money, which helps us keep the lights on. Thanks for that!
- Get discounted tickets to Chicago museums
- Save on more attractions with GoChicagoCard
- Illinois resident? Check out Chicago free museum days.
- Visit a free Chicago museum
- Visit the People’s Palace at the Chicago Cultural Center
- Save on attractions with Get Your Guide
- Also save with TripAdvisor Attractions
- Commune with the arts in Millennium Park
- Feel like a kid at Maggie Daley Park
- Play in Grant Park, Chicago’s front yard.
- Explore Lincoln Park, Chicago’s playground.
- Head to Humboldt Park for Little Cubs Field and Puerto Rican Culture
- Discover landscape art in Garfield Park
- Visit the site of a World’s Fair in Jackson Park
- Follow the Chicago Riverwalk
- Walk (or run, or bike) the Lakefront Trail
- Stroll the People’s Pier
- Spend a day at the beach
- Take advantage of Chicago Happy Hour and Food and Drink Specials
- Get discounted certificates at Restaurant.com
- Get hot tickets with HotTix
- Go for the gold with Goldstar
- Priceline Express Deals
- TripAdvisor Hotels
- Use a discounted parking service
Chicago’s known for its world-class museums, and while they’re absolutely worth visiting, those ticket prices can add up. When you’re looking for things to do in Chicago on a budget, a museum may not be on your radar.
However, there are several free Chicago museums and other ways you can save money on tickets.
Get discounted tickets to Chicago museums
Admission to Chicago’s museums can add up. With a Chicago CityPASS, you get tickets to five of the city’s biggest attractions for one price:
- Shedd Aquarium
- Skydeck Chicago
- Field Museum
- Your choice of admission to any two of these attractions: Adler Planetarium, Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Science and Industry, 360 CHICAGO Observation Deck
You can get your CityPass any time, and it’s valid for nine days from the date of your first use, which gives you plenty of time to see all the included attractions.
Illinois and Chicago residents also get discounted admission at several attractions, including Museum Campus museums Adler Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum, and the Museum of Science and Industry.
Save on more attractions with GoChicagoCard
With the Go Chicago Card, you pay one price and receive free admission to more than 25 Chicago attractions. When you’re visiting Chicago on a budget, this is definitely a great way to save money. There are two options, so you can find one to fit your interests and your budget:
- All-inclusive pass. Choose to use it in 1, 2, 3, or 5 days
- Explorer Pass. A build-your-own pass that lets you choose 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7 attractions.
That last one is particularly helpful if you’ve got limited time and money, because you can be specific about the attractions you know you want to see.
Learn more and get your GoChicagoCard here.
Illinois resident? Check out Chicago free museum days.
If you live in Illinois, you’re in luck. Many of Chicago’s museums that charge admission schedule many free Chicago museum days for Illinois residents.
Visit a free Chicago museum
You’ll be amazed by the number of free museums there are in Chicago. Some of the things you can do are visit the home of the woman the FBI labeled the “most dangerous woman in America,” Chicago’s oldest house, and see 10,000 years of humanity.
A short list includes:
- Jane Addams Hull House Museum
- Clarke House Museum (Chicago’s oldest house)
- Loyala University Museum of Art (LUMA); available by appointment
- Block Museum of Art
- Museum of Contemporary Photography
- National Museum of Mexican Art
- Oriental Institute
Visit the People’s Palace at the Chicago Cultural Center
Originally built as the Chicago Public Library, the Chicago Cultural Center was the country’s first free municipal cultural venue.
A must-see are its two stained glass domes, including the largest Tiffany glass dome in the world located in Preston Bradley Hall.
The other dome is even larger.
It’s worth it to take some time in the Chicago Cultural Center. In addition to the domes, there’s gorgeous marble throughout the building. They also have a free art gallery.
Did you know Chicago had a library in a water tower? Learn that and more quirky stories in Living Landmarks of Chicago.
Save on attractions with Get Your Guide
Get Your Guide is known the world over as a place to buy tickets for attractions, tours, and all sorts of sightseeing fun.
While the ticket prices aren’t necessarily discounted, you can see many of your options in one place and how they’ve been rated by verified users.
Also save with TripAdvisor Attractions
Another way to find multiple things to do in Chicago on a budget is to use TripAdvisor.
They own Viator, so when you book directly through TripAdvisor, you’re booking through Viator. We tested it out on a visit to San Diego and it was easy-peasy.
Free outdoor things to do in Chicago
Chicago’s got several incredible parks, providing plenty of green space.
Commune with the arts in Millennium Park
One of Chicago’s most popular tourist destinations is Millennium Park. This absolute gem includes the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, which is the site of many free concerts and events. It’s also where you’ll find Cloud Gate, affectionally known as “The Bean.”
During winter in Chicago, there’s an ice skating rink in the park.
Lurie Gardens showcases local plants, and free tours are offered in the summer.
Feel like a kid at Maggie Daley Park
Maggie Daley Park, which is right next door to Millennium Park, has one of the coolest playgrounds you’ll ever see.
There’s also a skating ribbon, and in the center are climbing towers.
Play in Grant Park, Chicago’s front yard.
Grant Park is a sprawling park that’s got baseball fields, an amphitheater, a rose garden, and that indelible Chicago symbol, Buckingham Fountain.
It’s the site of Lollapalooza and other big festivals.
Grant Park also has quite the history: Montgomery Ward fought for years and spent more than a million dollars in today’s money to keep the space open, free and clear.
Want to learn more about Grant Park’s incredible story? Get Living Landmarks of Chicago.
Explore Lincoln Park, Chicago’s playground.
Lincoln Park sprawls along the north side of Chicago, extending seven miles up the city’s lakefront.
There are nature reserves, beaches, harbors, and fields for just about every sport imaginable. There’s even a skate park and a driving range.
Lincoln Park is also where you can find the Chicago History Museum, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool, and Lincoln Park Zoo.
Head to Humboldt Park for Little Cubs Field and Puerto Rican Culture
To the west, Humboldt Park is a popular summer spot for families, with an historic boat house, lagoons, and a replica of Wrigley Field,
The surrounding community has a large Puerto Rican population. Inside the park is the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, the only museum in the nation completely dedicated to the subject.
And guess what: the museum is also free!
Discover landscape art in Garfield Park
Another flower in the cap of the Chicago park system is Garfield Park. William Le Baron Jenney, the father of the skyscraper, was also a landscape designer.
Originally called Central Park, Garfield Park opened in 1874 with just forty acres and later expanded.
Garfield Park’s most well-known feature is the Garfield Park Conservatory. Designed by Jens Jensen, it’s one of the largest conservatories in the United States.
Visit the site of a World’s Fair in Jackson Park
One of the most defining events in Chicago’s history was the 1893 World’s Fair, which took place in Jackson Park.
Little remains of the fair, but you can get a glimpse of its grandeur. The Museum of Science and Industry, at the north edge of the park, is inside the only remaining building. During the fair, it was the Palace of Fine Arts.
Today the park is known for its Japanese gardens, an 18-hole golf course, and the 63rd Street Bathing Pavilion, which is a Chicago Landmark.
Follow the Chicago Riverwalk
The Chicago Riverwalk is a 1.25 mile path that runs from Lake Street to Lake Michigan. Along the way you’ll find gardens, public art, an outpost of City Winery and other Chicago restaurants, shopping, and more.
You can also rent a boat or a kayak, and the river walk is where you’ll board the Chicago Architecture Center’s First Lady for their famous architecture cruise.
Walk (or run, or bike) the Lakefront Trail
Chicago’s shoreline is open to the public, which is why the city is able to have a glorious trail that’s nearly twenty miles.
The Chicago Lakefront Trail is a multi-use trail that runs from 71st Street on the south to Ardmore Avenue on the north. Along the way you’ll pass multiple beaches, the Museum of Science and Industry, Museum Campus, Navy Pier, Lincoln Park, and more.
You’ll also get some of the best views available of the Chicago skyline.
Stroll the People’s Pier
Navy Pier is one of Chicago’s most popular things to do for good reason. There are so many things to do on Navy Pier, including riding the Centennial Wheel and carnival rides, watching a show, taking a cruise, and more.
Check out our whole big post on Navy Pier Chicago attractions to see everything you can do.
Spend a day at the beach
Chicago has several sandy beaches along its lakefront. The most popular beaches near downtown are 12th Street Beach, next to Adler Planetarium; Ohio Street Beach at the foot of Navy Pier; and North Avenue Beach.
That beach has volleyball courts and an onsite restaurant and bar in the shape of a boat. North Avenue Beach is also front and center to view the free Chicago Air & Water Show.
There are several small beaches, but changing lake levels and storms mean the shore is an ever-changing landscape. Check the Chicago Park District’s website for current (ba-dum-bum) information.
Sure, you could spend $100 and up – per person – at Chicago’s best restaurants, but when you’re on a budget, that’s not really an option. However, you’re not stuck with fast food or hot dogs – although a Chicago-style hot dog is definitely worth trying.
Take advantage of Chicago Happy Hour and Food and Drink Specials
Several Chicago bars and restaurants offer great food and drink specials. You can get $1 tacos on Tuesday, half-price bottles of wine, $5 pizzas, and 50-cent wings.
Some specials are all day, and some are just during Happy Hour. Taking advantage of these means you can get some pretty tasty food and some drinks to go with it for a lot less than you think.
Get discounted certificates at Restaurant.com
Another way to save at Chicago bars and restaurants is to buy certificates through Restaurant.com.
These certificates are sold at a discounted rate. For example, you can get a $10 certificate at La Taberna for just $4.
There are restrictions, of course. There’s almost always a minimum purchase required ($20 at La Taberna) and they’re usually for dine-in only. They’re often restricted on the weekends, too, so make sure you read the fine print.
There are over 200 participating restaurants within 25 miles of Chicago, meaning there are plenty to choose from. Like using TripAdvisor and Viator to save money, Restaurant.com is another good resource for travel outside of Chicago, too.
There are more than 240 theaters in Chicago, These range from tiny storefronts scattered throughout the city’s neighborhoods to the gorgeous venues in the downtown Chicago Theatre District.
There are theaters that consistently produce critically acclaimed plays, like Steppenwolf and Goodman.
There are short runs of a week, and long-running shows including the vibrant Blue Man Group and the fun Tommy Gun’s Garage.
With so many theaters, and so many performances, you could see a show every day of the year, but that would get pretty pricey, pretty quickly.
Fortunately, there are two services that offer discounted tickets to Chicago theater.
Get hot tickets with HotTix
HotTix is run by the League of Chicago Theaters and offers half-price tickets.
Similar to the TKTS Discount Booths in New York City, HotTix operates booths that you can visit to pick up day-of tickets. However, you can also purchase tickets online.
While most of them are for the same day or the next day’s performances, you can also find half-price tickets for future dates. Click here to see what’s on sale at HotTix
Go for the gold with Goldstar
Goldstar is another service that offers discounted tickets to Chicago theater and events.
Not only do they have discounts for theater, you can also find cheap tickets to cruises on Lake Michigan, walking tours, and special events like the One of a Kind Show, or the International Gem and Jewelry Show.
Places like City Winery frequently offer discounted tickets through the platform.
All-in-all, signing up with Goldstar is a great way to save money on tickets.
Whether you’re visiting Chicago as a tourist, or you’re a local taking a staycation, one of the biggest expenses will be where you stay. You can make it less expensive, though, by trying these resources:
If your dates for visiting Chicago are flexible, check TravelZoo first. They find deals all over the world, and there are usually some great discounts in Chicago.
You just plug in where you want to go and the number of people and search for their current deals. You can keep the dates open, or you can choose specific days.
Some deals are discounted rates, and others are included add-ons, like parking or room service.
While you’re on the site, you can also find deals on attractions, shows, restaurants, and more.
Priceline Express Deals
If you’re really flexible and price is a big consideration, check Priceline Express Deals. This is a great option to search for where to stay in Chicago on a budget.
You plug in where you’re going and when, and Priceline searches for deals up to 60% off.
The only catch is, you won’t know which hotel it is until you book it. However, you will see how many stars a hotel has, what brands of hotels are included in that category, how other travelers have rated it, and what kinds of amenities you can expect.
We’ve used this service a lot, and have had good experiences. It’s always exciting to see where we end up!
When you’re looking for where to stay in Chicago on a budget, Expedia is another site that offers discounts on hotels. You can also find savings on flights, rental cars, and things to do.
For more certainty in your hotel planning, use TripAdvisor. They search more than 200 booking sites to find the best deal.
You can plug in your dates, and also narrow your search by type of property (B&B, hotel, etc.), the specific neighborhood, and amenities like free parking, wifi, or breakfast.
This one’s a biggie. It’s such a pain, and can be so expensive, we’ve written a whole guide on parking in Chicago. While the easiest thing to do, especially if you’re staying downtown, is just to park at the hotel, it’s also the most costly (by far).
Use a discounted parking service
Instead of paying full price or trying to find street parking, sign up with a discounted parking service.
There you have it! Our top free and cheap things to do in Chicago on a budget, and tips to save even more!