Chicago is the third largest city in the United States and is located on the southwestern shores of Lake Michigan. Best known as the “Windy City” because the politicians blow hot air, Chicago is one of my favorite cities, especially in the summer. Its biggest draw today is its green space and architectural beauty, the most famous of which is Grant and Millennium park, home to the famous Chicago Bean. More than that, you’ll find world-class food, fun nightlife, lots of activities, and just a cool atmosphere. Visit in the summer when life on the lake comes alive. There’s not one person I know who doesn’t say, “You can’t get better than Chicago in the summer.”
Hostel prices – Hostel dorms runs between $20-30 per night while private rooms start around $70 for a double. Hostels offer free WiFi, free linens, and free breakfast.
Budget hotel prices – Budget hotels in Chicago start at around $70 per night and move up towards $150 (or more) when you get close to the city center. At the lower end of the price range, you can find free WiFi, private bathrooms, heating and air-conditioning, and parking. Some hotels offer free breakfast. On Airbnb, most shared rooms range between $17-25 and entire homes start around $50 (expect to pay closer to $150, however).
Average cost of food – You can eat in numerous restaurants around the city for less than $20. Chicago developed the deep dish pizza, as well as the stuffed crust pizza, and no trip is complete without trying at least one. The deep dish pizza was invented by Pizzeria Uno, which is now a national restaurant chain. Many Chicagoans swear by Lou Malnati’s. Chicago is also home to many farmers markets for some fresh fruit and veggies, but the prices tend to be a bit higher than the supermarkets. If you cook your own food, expect to pay $60 per week for groceries that will include pasta, vegetables, chicken, and other basic foods. For cheap eats, like burgers, hot dogs, and pizza, expect to pay around $7 for a meal.
Transportation costs – There numerous buses and trains (called the “L”) will get you to where you need to go. On the metro, a single ride is $2.25 per ride and a bus ride is $2 (if you’re a student, the fare is as cheap as $0.75). The CTA uses transit cards, which can be loaded with any amount from $2, or as high as $100. Transit cards are required to ride CTA trains and are available from vending machines located at all train stations. There are also visitor passes that will allow you to have unlimited rides for a specific amount of days. 1-day: $10, 3-day: $20, 7-day: $28.
Suggested daily budget – $60-80 (Note: This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating out a little, cooking most of your meals, not drinking heavily, and using local transportation.)
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Money Saving Tips
- Consider the Chicago City Pass – This pass allows you to over 50% off admission at a number of attractions (and includes a 7-day cable car and Muni bus pass). A pass is $98 per person and gets you entrance into the Shedd Aquarium, the Skydeck, the Field Museum, 360 Chicago, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
- Redeem hotel points – Be sure to sign up for hotel credit cards before you go and use those points when you travel. This is especially helpful in big cities. Be aware that most hotels charge parking fees if you have a car, and adjust your budget accordingly.
- Couchsurf – Couchsurfing started in the United States, and free accommodation offered can make up for the lack of hostels. You’ll find plenty of hosts throughout the city who will show you around their town and let you stay for free.
- Go on a free walking tour – This is a great way to learn the history behind the places you are seeing and to avoid missing any must-see stops. Free Chicago Walking Tours has a number of interesting walking tours that can teach you about the history of the eclectic neighborhoods or show you all the scrumptious food the city has to offer. Tours are offered daily but require advance reservations.
Top Things to See and Do in Chicago
- Be a kid at Navy Pier – My favorite adventure in Chicago was to Navy Pier. Navy Pier is sort of like a carnival in a city. It contains some rides, a Ferris wheel, lots of restaurants, a Shakespeare theater, boat tours, an oddly large number of beer gardens, and even miniature golf.
- Check out the Oriental Institute Museum – Despite its name, the collection has nothing to do with the Orient, but instead is a huge archaeological collection of objects from ancient Egypt. Still informative, though. The museum is open daily (except Mondays) from 10am-5pm, except on Wednesdays when it’s open until 8pm.
- Visit the Chicago Cultural Center – Former site of the Chicago Public Library, this lovely building is known for its exquisite Tiffany mosaics, especially in its performance venue, Preston Bradley Hall. It has changing art exhibits.
- See Robie House – This Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece, completed in 1909, is a premier example of his Prairie School design. Wright helped make Chicago architecture famous and this house is one of his best-known buildings. Admission is $17 and it’s open Thursday-Monday from 10:30am-3pm. Discounts are available for students and seniors.
- Visit the Art Institute of Chicago – Visit the famous Art Institute of Chicago. From photography to architecture to textiles, this museum houses a permanent collection that includes works by Eva Hesse, David Hockney, and Ellsworth Kelly. The museum is open daily from 10:30am-5pm with extended hours on Thursday. Admission is $25.
- Relax in Grant and Millennium Park – Located right downtown, these gigantic parks provide a great place to hang out, have a picnic, or go for a run. You can also find people playing chess out here and during the summer they have a lot of free concerts. This is also where you will find the famous “Chicago Bean” sculpture.
- Stop by the City History Museum – This museum provides a good overview of the history of the city, especially of the Great Chicago Fire that burned down most of the city. Admission is $16 and it’s open daily from 9:30am-4:30pm with extended hours on Tuesdays and abbreviated hours on Sundays.
- See the Cubs play – Locals are fanatical about their baseball team. Get in the spirit and head out to a game. It gets really intense when the Cubs play Chicago’s other team, the White Sox.
- Eat the famous pizza – Chicago developed the deep dish pizza, as well as the stuffed crust pizza, and no trip is complete without trying at least one. The deep dish pizza was invented by Pizzeria Uno, which is now a national restaurant chain. Many Chicagoans swear by Lou Malnati’s.
- Stroll down the Magnificent Mile – This stretch along Michigan Avenue is known for its upscale designer boutiques. Even if you don’t want to blow your budget on some expensive threads, it’s still an experience to stroll down the avenue and take in the sights, the people, and a look at the Chicago River.
- View some war-inspired art – The National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum is a powerful yet seldom visited museum. It features art that was created by Vietnam war veterans and, more recently, veterans from Iraq. It’s a stark reminder of our overly romanticized notion of war. This museum is open daily (except Sundays and Mondays) from 10am-5pm. Admission is free.
- Get acquainted with nature – The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is a beautiful institution with roof-top gardens, and plenty of information about the ecosystems surrounding Chicago. What is most interesting is the “butterfly haven”, an enclosed space with hundreds of butterflies, a waterfall, and garden paths. This museum is open daily from 9am-5pm except on the weekends when it opens at 10am. It costs $9.
- Meet a local – Chicago has a local greeter program, which offers free walking tours of various neighborhoods from a knowledgeable local. This is a great opportunity to see more of the city from a more intimate, ground-level perspective. I highly, highly, highly recommend doing this!! I love greeter programs!
- Catch an improv show – Chicago is the birthplace of improv comedy and a visit to the city wouldn’t be complete without catching a show. There are tons of companies here – many of which have given birth to comedy greats like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Stephen Colbert, Mike Myers, Steve Carell, Eugene Levy, Bill Murray, and a ton of others. Some of the most popular companies are Second City, Improv Olympic, and ComedySportz.
- Experience St. Patrick’s Day – Next to Ireland, Chicago is the best place to be on March 17th. With a large Irish-American population, St. Patrick’s day is a celebration of Ireland’s patron saint Patrick who drove all the snakes out of Ireland. To celebrate, everyone – Irish or not – gets incredibly drunk and wears green. The city even dyes their river green, the streets are filled with tons of people, and there’s a big parade.
- Go to the beach – When most people think of Lake Michigan, they don’t imagine sand, waves, and water as far as the eye can see but it’s there! Downtown Chicago runs right next to the shore and offers a little piece of nature in a city of skyscrapers.