Chicago on a Budget: A Backpacker’s Guide to Affordable Adventures

Budget-friendly ways to see Chicago are plentiful! And once you’re in the city, there are plenty of free activities to fill your days and evenings with sights, entertainment, and music. You just need to know where to find them!  

From walking along the lakefront, visiting one of the many parks, or exploring the city’s neighborhoods, we’ll help you find some great options from a local Chicagoan. With a little planning, you can easily visit the Windy City without overspending.

Chicago on a budget

Find Affordable Accommodations

One of the key aspects of budget travel is finding inexpensive accommodations. While it may be more desirable to stay downtown where all the action happens, you’ll save hotel expenses with accommodations in other neighborhoods. In addition, numerous hostels provide a comfortable place to stay while keeping costs low.

Some of the most popular neighborhoods in Chicago are Lincoln Park, Wicker Park, and the Magnificent Mile. So if you are looking for more affordable accommodations, start your search for wallet-friendly hostels like Freehand Hostel, Chicago Getaway Hostel, or HI Chicago Hostel.

Staying in a hostel can offer you the opportunity to meet other travelers and exchange stories, as well as save money on expensive hotel rooms. Or, try nearby neighborhoods like Ukrainian Village, Chinatown, or Old Town.  

Eat like a Local

When it comes to dining, you should skip the tourist hotspots and discover the hidden gems frequented by locals. This may not be known to many, but Chicago serves several foods that were invented in Chicago like deep-dish pizza, but Chicagoans don’t dine on deep-dish pizza that often (it’s a tourist thing).

Deep dish pizza

Seek out some delicious tacos in the Pilsen neighborhood. In downtown Chicago, the Oasis Cafe (21 N. Wabash) is literally a hidden gem (it is tucked away in the back of a jewelry store). If you love Mediterranean food, stop there for a mouth-watering chicken shwarma sandwich. It is one of the few food establishments in the Loop with budget prices. Love comfy foods?

Then a Chicago diner is a must. Stop at Palace Grill Restaurant (1408 W Madison) for all-day breakfasts or Jim’s Original (1250 S. Union) hot dog stand for grilled pork sandwiches. Other budget-friendly eateries are Lou Mitchell’s (565 W Jackson Blvd), Stella’s (3042 N. Broadway), and Harold’s Chicken (612 S Wabash).

Eating like a local will save you money and treat your taste buds. If you want to splurge and hit the touristy track for food, restaurants on the Chicago Riverwalk are great options.  

Opt for Public Transportation or Bike Rentals

If there is one most important piece of advice to be given to visitors, this is it…don’t rent a car. Firstly, rental cards are expensive and secondly, the parking fees in Chicago are outrageous.  

Chicago’s public transportation system is efficient, affordable, and accessible to all major attractions and restaurants. All you need is a Ventra card, which costs $5. It is reloadable and will enable you to save money on city ‘L’ trains and buses.

Another option is to use Chicago’s bike share program, Divvy. There are many Divvy bike stations across the city, and you’ll explore the town more freely. Biking is not only an inexpensive way to get around but also a great way to see the sights at your own pace.

Bikes can be locked at the Divvy stations, but if you need to lock at a bike pod, you’ll need your bike lock (and you will still be charged for use so it’s better to lock at a station). Use this resource to learn how to get around Chicago safely.  

Attend Free Attractions

Chicago has free attractions that will keep you entertained during your backpacking journey. Take it from a local, these are ten of the best ways to visit Chicago and truly experience its culture and unique city vibes while on a budget.  

Chicago Riverwalk | Michigan Ave & Wacker Dr.

This is undoubtedly one of the best spots in Chicago to sit and watch the world go by. You can take a walk along the Chicago Riverwalk and enjoy the scenic views of the city skyline. It’s also the perfect place to take photos, enjoy a picnic, or grab a drink at a bar or cafe.

The riverwalk frozen over

On the east end, Adirondack chairs await where you can sit and watch the river cruises sail by. Walking to the west end, you’ll reach Lake Michigan where you can watch the harbor or visit Navy Pier.

Chicago Cultural Center | 78 E. Washington St

The Chicago Cultural Center is a beautiful building that hosts cultural events, exhibitions, and performances. Entry is free, and it’s a great place to learn more about Chicago’s history and culture. There are fascinating features in the center like the world’s largest Tiffany glass dome and an old map of Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871.

Another little-known fact is the embossed ‘Y’ that symbolizes the branches of the Chicago River. It’s also on the famous Chicago Theater marquis (175 N State St) and has been weaved into the city’s architecture on public buildings and bridges.

Millennium Park | 201 E Randolph

Home to the famous “Bean” sculpture, or Cloud Gate, this is one of the most popular and iconic parks in Chicago. Entry is free, and it’s a great spot for a picnic, people-watching, or catching a free outdoor concert at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion.

The famous “bean” sculpture

Chicago hosts free summer music festivals like Summer Dance, Blues Fest, and Jazz Fest. You can also see musical performances from top musicians for free at the annual Taste of Chicago.

This is also a free public park, Maggie Daley Park, located near Millennium Park, with a range of outdoor activities including a climbing wall, mini golf, and an ice-skating rink in the winter. It’s a nice way to spend some time outdoors and blend into the scenery.

The Art Institute of Chicago | 111 S. Michigan

The Art Institute of Chicago is one of the oldest and largest art museums in the US, with a collection of over 300,000 works of art. The museum offers free admission on certain days and qualifying visitors (active-duty military, employees of corporate partners, etc).

Buckingham Fountain | 301 S Columbus Dr

Buckingham Fountain is a famous fountain located in Grant Park. It is often mistaken to have ties with Buckingham Palace, but that is incorrect. It was named after the philanthropist who donated the fountain.

In any event, it is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the city. The fountain erupts a dazzling display of waterworks from spring through mid-Fall. After the sun sets, you can enjoy a light and music show every hour until the park closes. 

Navy Pier is in Chicago’s affluent Streeterville neighborhood. The pier extends on Lake Michigan and while entry is free, you may be tempted to spend a few bucks for the Centennial Wheel.

The skyline from above is an incredible view. There are other cheap entertainment options like mini golf and some free exhibits. The best part is sitting on the Wave Wall (a large staircase on the south side of the pier) and watching the free fireworks display (every Wednesday night). 

Lincoln Park Zoo | 2391 Stockton Dr

Who can resist a zoo? Lincoln Park is a city favorite for locals and visitors. You must reserve tickets in advance through their website and select the time of day you wish to visit, but man what a deal! Of course, you’ll see a wide range of animals, but the beautiful thing is that you won’t have to travel far because the zoo is located just minutes from downtown Chicago.

You can get there on foot if you enjoy walking or catch northbound Bus 151 from downtown to Stockton and Webster. It’s a great spot for animal lovers or families with kids. While you’re in the area, you should head west on Webster St. for a 15-minute walk to Oz Park (2021 N. Burling St) to the Wizard of Oz themed park. 

Garfield Park Conservatory | 300 N Central Park

For a $2.50 fare (with a Ventra card) on Chicago’s Green line, you can take a 30-minute ride through Chicago’s west side to the Conservatory stop. The Garfield Park Conservatory is less than a 5-minute walk north to one of the largest and most stunning botanical conservatories in the US, with a range of indoor and outdoor gardens and exhibits. Admission here is also free. 

The 606 | 1805 N Ridgeway

The Bloomingdale Trail, or 606, is a 2.7-mile elevated trail that runs through four neighborhoods on Chicago’s northwest side. The trail is frequented by pedestrians, inline skaters, runners, and cyclists and has great views of the city. You can also walk, run, or bike ride along the Chicago Lakefront Trail, which stretches for 18 miles along Lake Michigan. You’ll encounter beaches, parks, and some of the city’s most iconic landmarks.

In conclusion, you can also explore neighborhoods like Wicker Park, Logan Square, and Pilsen for unique street art, local cafes, and boutique shops. Keep an eye out for neighborhood festivals (which are mostly free with a suggested donation) to make your visit to Chicago memorable while saving money.

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