As the third most populous city in the United States, Chicago has over 2.7 million residents. Chicagoland, (the metropolitan area surrounding Chicago) has nearly 10 million people. It is considered the birthplace of the skyscraper and might be the most influential architectural city of the 20th century.
In 1837 Chicago was incorporated. After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which left more than 100,000 homeless, Chicago made a concerted effort to rebuild. Construction accelerated the population growth throughout the following decades. By 1900 Chicago was one of the largest cities in the world. Sprawled along Lake Michigan, today the city is an international hub for commerce, finance, industry, technology, telecommunications, and transportation.
If you find yourself in Chicago this year, here are 10 budget-friendly things to do for $10 or less.
Take a free tour of the city. (Free)
Take advantage of a free walking tour! While walking tours aren’t as popular in the United States as they are in Europe, they are an inexpensive way to get your bearings and learn some interesting facts about a place. Check out a neighborhood or get a general overview of the city from a Chicagoan through Chicago Greeter. You’ll be matched with a local greeter who will take you on a 2-4 hour tour of the city for free! The best part about booking through Chicago Greeter is that your itinerary is completely customized. Your guide can personalize your tour to see and talk primarily about the aspects of Chicago you are most interested in. Advanced reservations are required. If you need something that takes a little less time you can check out instagreeter. The tours are one hour, and reservations are not needed. Another option is to book a walking tour through Free Tours by Foot. The tours are more structured and less personalized. Options through Free Tours by Foot include the Blues and Gangster Tour, the Chicago Ghost Tour, the Architecture Tour, North Loop and Millennium Park tour, and the Riverwalk and History Tour. Most tours last about two hours. These guides work strictly for tips, so be generous.
Attend something at Grant Park (Free)
There are several free things to enjoy at Grant Park. Every year from June to August, Grant Park Music Festival puts on a 10-week classical music series. It features the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with featured guests. It held at the outdoor amphitheater in Grant Park. The event is completely free to the public. Between June and September, the Spirit of Music Garden in Grant Park transforms into an outdoor dance floor. Catch regular performances by a variety of dance groups. You are welcome to dance along! At the south end of Grant Park, is one of the largest fountains in the world. The Buckingham Fountain puts on a water show every hour. After dark shows are synced up with music and lights. The fountain shows runs from April until October from 8a to 11p daily.
Stroll through Lurie Garden in Millennium Park (Free)
On the south end of Millennium Park, you’ll find Lurie Garden, a 2.5-acre garden. Stroll the walking paths through the gardens. This beautiful garden is a serene oasis in the middle of the city. Join a free guided walk offered each Thursday, Friday, and Sunday from May through September. Individual tours can take anywhere from 5 – 25 minutes, depending on the time you have available. All tours are drop-in, first, come/first serve and do not require registration. Larger groups and private tours can be arranged by sending them a message.
Check out photography and art at the Museum of Contemporary Photography (Free)
The Museum of Contemporary Photography (MOCP) is a fascinating museum. Located inside the Columbia College building across from Grant Park and the Buckingham Fountain, the MOCP showcases photography from top photographers from around the world. Despite being the leading photography museum in the Midwest, it rarely sees crowds. It’s a great way to slip out of the bustle on Michigan Avenue and into a quiet space with interesting exhibits.
Wander around Navy Pier (Free)
Jutting out into Lake Michigan, the 3,300-foot long pier is lined with shops, restaurants, and a movie theatre. Events take place daily. You can find everything from cruises to yoga classes. Listen to musicians and artists during the summer beer garden. Navy Pier is always pulsing with energy and activity. While some things cost money, walking around Navy Pier doesn’t.
Experience the Free Street Theatre (Free)
The Free Street Theatre is a place for artists to perform and express themselves. Aspiring performers can take free classes. They are a multigenerational, multiracial, and multilingual theater company, showcasing underrepresented Chicago artists. Click here for a calendar of upcoming events or here to connect with them.
Explore Chicago’s underground pedway system. (Free)
Downtown Chicago has over 40 blocks of underground pedestrian way (pedway) tunnels. They link several subway stops, restaurants, and shops. If you are in Chicago during the winter months, make sure to take advantage of this system to avoid the harsh winter cold. In any weather exploring the underground tunnel system is an adventure.
Got Beer? (Free+)
Take a free brewery tour. Over the last few years, the Chicago’s brewery scene has been growing, and many breweries offer free tours. Lagunitas, a California based brewery, opened a few years ago in the Pilsen neighborhood. Tours are offered every day. However, free samples are only given during the weekday tours. Other Chicago area breweries providing free tours include Revolution, 3 Floyds, and Two Brothers.
Explore Chinatown (Free+)
Enter another world in Chicago’s Chinatown. Did you know Chinatown has a secret ping pong club? Or that you can take a food tour? Take a Chinatown Water Taxi. Starting at the Ping Tom Memorial Park, the taxi is only $8 and drops you off at various Chinatown stops. There are restaurants, markets and even a Buddist Temple to explore. Find yourself some Dim Sum and a cup of tea while you are wandering around Chinatown.
Experience an authentic Chicago dog at Portillo’s. ($6+)
Take a freshly steamed poppyseed bun, add an all-beef Vienna hot dog, top that bad boy with mustard, relish, onions, sliced tomatoes, a pickle slice, celery salt, and peppers. (No true Chicago dog has ketchup, you’ll get the “stink-eye” from any vendor if you ask.) Order a chocolate cake shake on the side, and you’ll be set for the rest of the afternoon. You can always walk it all off on one of the city’s free tours. Portillo’s is an authentic Chicagoan experience. If hot dogs aren’t your thing, try the Italian Beef Sandwich. It is equally famous.
What are your favorite budget-friendly things to do in Chicago? Tell us in the comments below.