Chicago: A Cheaper Way to Experience the City

Between high hotel prices, expensive attraction fees, and the cost of eating out in the city, a visit to Chicago can quickly add up. Fortunately, the city can still be entertaining on a smaller budget. I spent two months in the city one summer as an unemployed college student and still found plenty of affordable activities to keep me busy.  

Navy Pier v. Other Areas to Explore

Arguably the most popular tourist area of Chicago is Navy Pier. While a quick walk along the pier can be fun, I tend to avoid the area because I find it excessively commercial. Rather than try to resist overpriced food, rides, and games, I prefer to walk along the harbor and shore just south of Navy Pier. Grant Park, Millennium Park, and the parks that connect to them are also all great areas to explore on foot. With so many different places to walk around, I see no reason to walk around a place where I’m constantly being prompted to spend money.

Sears Tower v. Other Views of the City

During my summer in Chicago, one of my bigger splurges was the ride to the top of the Sears Tower. (Though it’s now formally called the Willis Tower, Chicagoans refuse to accept the new name.) I went in the evening and enjoyed views of the city lit up at night. I’ll admit, even for the price ($23 for each person 12 and older), I’m glad I experienced this. However, I wouldn’t make it a top priority if my time in Chicago were limited. Chicago has so many free and inexpensive things to do that a visit without a trip up the Sears Tower can still be a wonderful experience. For great free photo opportunities, visit “The Bean” or walk along Lake Michigan towards Adler Planetarium for some great views of the city skyline.

River Architecture Tour v. Creating Your Own Walking Tour

Another popular tourist activity in Chicago is a scenic boat tour that travels on the river and points out architecture along the way. While this sounds lovely, I don’t believe it’s worth the $33 or more for a ticket when the buildings can be seen just as well from the street. Chicago does have some amazing architecture that can be enjoyed while exploring on foot. If you’re especially interested in the architecture and history of the city, you can research specific buildings ahead of time. I, however, preferred to wander through the area without a particular destination in mind.


Expensive Meal v. Portillo’s

Like nearly any large city, Chicago has no shortage of restaurants. Of course, those restaurants vary greatly in both price and quality. One particular place that I found to balance taste, price, and Chicagoan style is Portillo’s. Their Ontario Street location is located within walking distance of many other attractions.  Their menu provides a wide variety of options, and almost all of the choices are less than ten dollars. Of course, other Chicago standard foods include deep dish pizza and Garrett’s Popcorn. While neither of these may be as good of a value as Portillo’s, both are worthwhile options that can remain affordable if enjoyed in moderation.

Theater v. Events in Millennium Park

While many visitors seek out performances that require expensive tickets, I found that Millennium Park frequently offers live music and other events. Not only can this save the price of tickets, but visitors can bring their own food and picnic while enjoying the atmosphere, providing a cheaper alternative to eating out. This is a popular way to spend evenings in Chicago, so plan to arrive early if you want to sit close to the stage.



In addition to these suggestions, be sure to look into events that will be happening during your visit. Events like free dance lessons and orchestra performances filled my time in the city. There is no reason to be bored in Chicago, even if you choose to limit your spending.

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