A few years ago, a friend and I made a trip to Chicago for a conference. As recent college graduates with limited finances, it had been a major undertaking to even make the trip to Chicago and pay the conference fees.
Even so, we still wanted to enjoy the city of Chicago while we were there on our limited budget. With four days in the Windy City, we made our way through the city in between our conference sessions.
Free Chicago Attractions
Many Chicago attractions are free and within walking distance of each other. Buckingham Fountain and The Cloud are both iconic monuments of Chicago that won’t cost you anything to visit. If you visit in the spring and summer you can enjoy the beautiful gardens in the parks as well.
During the day, we walked along the beach of Lake Michigan and enjoyed some beautiful weather. At night, we explored Navy Pier and enjoyed the nightlife. We visited Chicago during a holiday weekend, so we grabbed drinks from a local restaurant with an outside bar and enjoyed a beautiful firework display. Check Choose Chicago for events that are occurring during your visit.
The Chicago Zoo is one of the oldest animal habitats in the country and is free. It’s open every day of the year and has numerous events. The zoo was too far to walk to from our downtown conference hotel, but the short trip by car was worth it.
While we checked out as many free attractions as we could, there were some things that we wanted to do that required us to pay. The Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) and the John Hancock Observatory are world famous buildings. On our trip, we made the choice to visit the Willis Tower. With a $17.50 admission fee, we traveled 103 stories to the Skydeck. The tower, which at one time was the tallest building in the world, gives impressive views of Chicago, Lake Michigan, and four surrounding states.
The Skydeck also has a glass floor where visitors can step out onto the ledge. I experienced a sense of vertigo looking down at the ground from that high up but don’t let your fear keep you from experiencing this. We saw many a terrified person up there that day, but each one left with a smile of delight after stepping out onto the glass ledge. The museum and video on the history of Willis Tower also make this attraction worth the admission fee.
While Navy Pier is free to pedestrians, there are numerous attractions nearby available for a fee, including several boat tours. We debated between a slow, scenic river tour of Chicago’s architecture and a fast-paced boat ride on Lake Michigan. We went with the fast-paced tour. It was a beautiful day, and the wind felt great in our hair. We both got wet on the ride, but we quickly dried off with the warm sun. The boat also stopped several times and allowed for pictures of the Chicago skyline from the water. We paid $28 for the Seadog Extreme, and it was worth every penny.
Chicago Style Pizza
We couldn’t visit Chicago without trying some Chicago style pizza, so we saved money by snacking throughout the day with items bought at the grocery store and eating out at night. During our trip, we tried two different pizza chains: Uno’s and Lou Malnati’s. After debating about the best pizza for several days, we both decided that we preferred Lou’s toppings and sauce, but we liked Uno’s crust better. Lou’s was eventually voted the winner, and we ended up getting another pizza for the trip home. Lou’s stuffed spinach bread and fried zucchini are also fabulous appetizers. If you can’t make a trip to Chicago, Lou’s ships its pizza nationwide.
Chicago can be an expensive city to visit, but, with some careful planning, you can plan a great trip to the Windy City on a limited budget. If you have any other suggestions for visiting the Windy City, leave them in the comments!