Friday, April 29, 2016

How to experience the best of Chicago on a budget

I recently visited Chicago for a girlfriend getaway. The weather was amazing for mid-March. The day I arrived it was 72F! Over an entire week, the temperature did fluctuate a bit and I encountered some rain. However, overall it was very mild, and surprisingly comparable to, if not better than, weather in Portland at this time of year.
With such beautiful days, I wanted to spend as much time outdoors as possible but also have some indoor options for when the weather didn’t cooperate. I was also on a budget, so was looking for activities that cost nothing or very little. As I was doing my research for this trip, I found a few lists of free things to do in Chicago. However, many activities were seasonal and thus only offered during the summer months. Another frustration with online searches is that, like this list from Fodor’s, you must click through each item individually as opposed to seeing the list all on one page. This list from Thrillist is pretty comprehensive, but again you must wade through the seasonal activities and figure out which things are open during your visit.
With that in mind, here are some of the best free things that I discovered and experienced during my week-long stay in March. All are completely free unless otherwise noted.

Millennium Park open daily 6a-11p
Discover a state-of-the-art collection of architecture, landscape design and art that provide the backdrop for hundreds of free cultural programs including concerts, exhibitions, tours, and family activities. In Millennium Park, you’ll find a new kind of town square – a lively, spectacular gathering spot located in the heart of the city and a destination for Chicagoans and visitors alike. Source:
I walked through this park several times during my visit. I love the open spaces, architectural and art features, and great people-watching.

Chicago Cultural Center M–Th 9a–7p; F-Sa 9a–6p; Su 10a–6p
Completed in 1897 as Chicago’s first central public library, the building was designed to impress and to prove that Chicago had grown into a sophisticated metropolis. The country’s top architects and craftsmen used the most sumptuous materials, such as rare imported marbles, polished brass, fine hardwoods, and mosaics of Favrile glass, mother-of-pearl and colored stone, to create an architectural showplace. In 1991, the building was established as the Chicago Cultural Center by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, the nation's first and most comprehensive free municipal cultural venue. Every year, the Chicago Cultural Center presents hundreds of free international, national, regional and local artists, musicians and performers, providing a showcase where the public can enjoy and learn about the arts. Source:
This building is absolutely stunning! It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but inside is an architectural treasure-trove. I could have spent an hour just studying the tilework and admiring the massive Tiffany glass dome. We were also lucky to hear a piano recital by Wayne Weng and to see the amazing Strandbeest exhibit.

Chicago Riverwalk open 24 hours
When completed, the Chicago Riverwalk along the main branch of the Chicago River will provide a continuous walkway and recreational amenity connecting the lakefront to the heart of downtown. The design plans include conceptual ideas for each of the six blocks from State Street west to Lake Street with distinctive identities and purposes. Source: CDOT
Adena and I attempted to walk the entire Riverwalk but many sections are still under construction. We ended up taking the stairs at the DuSable Bridge (N Michigan Ave) and walking all the way to N Lake Shore Drive where the underpass is covered with tile artwork.

Navy Pier open daily at 10a; closing times vary but are generally 8p Su-Th and 10p F-Sa in spring, fall and winter
Celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2016, Navy Pier is currently in the midst of a transformative project that will reimagine it into a bolder, greener and more contemporary urban space for decades to come. Visitors have acclaimed the pedestrian south dock of Navy Pier as one of the best boardwalks in America. At 2,000 feet long, the south dock runs west to east and is connected to the Pier, inviting you to experience the activities and attractions that dot its path. As part of The Centennial Vision for Navy Pier, recent and ongoing improvements made to the south dock have included new paving stones, tree groves and native plantings as well as a green infrastructure for the Pier’s stormwater management system. Access to the lake and lakefront views, big sky and the Chicago skyline are all within your line of sight from the south dock. Source:
We strolled all the way to the end of the pier, admiring the new Ferris wheel while being chased by impending dark clouds that soon shrouded the high rises behind us in rain. We had hoped to check out The Driehaus Museum of stained glass, but after searching the Festival Hall for almost 30 minutes we finally asked a janitor who told us it had closed permanently a few months ago. Ready to get off our feet, we meandered through the newly renovated food court area and settled in for a beer at Harry Caray’s Tavern, which has a nice sports memorabilia collection on display.

Tours, exhibitions, programs and events for all ages. Visit CAF on Michigan Avenue to view the 1,000-building scale model of Chicago, shop in the award-winning store, or participate in a fun LEGO® building event in the ArcelorMittal Design Studio. Choose from 85 tours by boat, walking, bus, or even L train, including the CAF River Cruise aboard Chicago's First Lady Cruises. Tours depart daily and are led by CAF's expert docent guides. Source:
I spent almost 30 minutes studying the large scale model of Chicago. Their gift shop has a lot of interesting items for sale, too.

The Gold Coast Neighborhood is one of Chicago's most treasured residential areas with its quiet, tree-lined streets, stately homes and connections to the city's past. I love looking at old buildings and this is the perfect place to see quite a few close together.

Sculpture/art walk
Chicago's parks are the settings for a world-class collection of nearly 300 fountains, monuments, and sculptures. These range from historic sculptures of famous people including Abraham Lincoln and Alexander von Humboldt, to some of the nation's most exciting new artworks such as Grant Park's Agora. Source:
It’s fun to seek out public art, especially when it transports you to an area you might not have explored otherwise.

Places of worship hours vary
I always enjoy stepping into a few churches when I’m traveling and Chicago has plenty of older ones with beautiful stained glass windows and interesting architectural features. They’re also nice, quiet places to catch your breath and get off your feet for a few minutes.
Water Tower art exhibits daily 10a-6:30p
A resplendent venue showcasing the work of local photographers and artists, the City Gallery in the Historic Water Tower, is centrally located along the city's famed Magnificent Mile. The Chicago Water Tower is the city’s most familiar and treasured landmark. Constructed between 1867 and 1869, it was created for Chicago’s municipal water system, and originally housed a 135 foot iron standpipe used to regulate water pressure. It gained special significance as one of the few buildings to survive the destructive path of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Source:
We got plenty of laughs from the Cards Against Humanity exhibit! Also note the location on the Mile, which is good for window shopping and people watching.

Union Station closed from 1a-5a daily
The main physical attraction of the Great Hall at Union Station is the 219-foot-long barrel-vaulted skylight that soars 115 feet over the room. The skylight ceiling was blacked-out during World War II in order to make the station less of a target for enemy aircraft, since the station served nearly 100,000 daily passengers and more than 300 daily arrivals and departures. Two Henry Hering figural statues tower over the Great Hall on its east wall, one representing day (holding a rooster) and the other representing night (holding an owl), a recognition of the 24-hour nature of passenger railroading. The southernmost entrance into the Great Hall from Canal Street was used in a memorable scene from the motion picture "The Untouchables" and still draws tourists from around the world to take their own pictures of the staircase. Source:
We stopped in here during rush hour and ended up in the commuter train waiting area so it was not as enjoyable as I had hoped but I certainly recommend checking it out when it’s not so busy.

Harold Washington Library M-Th 9a-9p; F-Sa 9a-5p; Su 1p-5p
Opened October 7, 1991, this is Chicago Public Library’s main branch. Besides free restrooms, WiFi, and public computers, the library also hosts author events and has music practice rooms. It is filled with original artwork; the Vietnam War memorial was particularly moving. We also enjoyed the glass-enclosed Winter Garden and historical photo exhibits on the ninth floor.

Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago Money Museum M-F 8:30a-5p
This small museum in the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago is fun for a quick browse. The best exhibits include a giant glass cube stuffed with one million $1 bills (they weigh 2000lb) and a counterfeit display differentiating real bills from fakes. Learn why we call $1000 a ‘grand’, and snap a sweet photo clutching the million-dollar-stuffed briefcase. You’ll also get a free bag of shredded currency to take home. Source:
I breezed through this museum in about 30 minutes (after passing through an airport-type security checkpoint) but could easily have spent a full hour exploring the interactive exhibits.
Hancock Building Signature Lounge Su-Th 11a-12:30a; F-Sa 11:00a-1:30a
The Signature Lounge is one of the highest bars in the world, located on the 96th floor of the John Hancock Center and one story above the posh Signature Room restaurant. Both offer stunning views of downtown, Lake Michigan and visibility up to 60 miles, spanning four states on a clear day. The high-speed elevator takes about 40 seconds to ascend 1,000 feet at a rate of 25 feet per second, making your ears pop. The elevator stops at both restaurant level (95th floor) and lounge level (96th). Source:
Technically this is not free as you are supposed to buy a drink at the bar. However, I am severely afraid of heights and was practically crawling once I got off the elevator on the 96th floor. I tried to regroup in the ladies room but that only made it worse as the wall facing the stalls is floor-to-ceiling windows! Even sitting in the inner part of the lounge away from the windows was too much for me. Theoretically a party of just one or two people could easily ride the elevator, kill some time in the restroom (only the ladies has the views), and return to ground level with little chance of reprimand.

Widely considered to be the premier venue for long-form improvisational performances and classes, the iO Theater (formerly known as the ImprovOlympic Theater) was founded in 1981 by Charna Halpern and the late great improvisational teacher and director, Del Close. The iO theater has free shows every Wednesday night at 8pm featuring three iO ensembles performing iO’s signature form,The Harold. Most nights there is also at least one $5 show. Source:
The free show we attended featured three separate improv acts and was entertaining if a bit ridiculous at times.

Graceland Cemetery spring hours: M-F 8a-6p; Sa-Su 9a-4:30p
The Cemetery is open to all to visit, and its architectural masterpieces, local history and beauty are the magnets that attract people to Graceland. While architects from the traditional to the father of skyscrapers and modern masters take center stage, you’ll find that Graceland also holds fascinating stories of private eyes and public figures, baseball and boxing greats, merchants and inventors and other unique individuals. Source:
It was absolutely pouring the day I chose to stroll through the cemetery and thus I had it all to myself. I even flushed out a coyote that was lurking among the tombstones!

Lincoln Park Zoo November-March 10a-4:30p (gates open 7a-5p); April-May 10a-5p (gates open 7a-6p)
Lincoln Park Zoo is a world of wildlife in the shadow of skyscrapers. Located within a verdant park just minutes north of Chicago, the zoo has been a natural, free oasis for generations of animal lovers, who visit the zoo to hear a lion’s roar echo off nearby apartment buildings, see gorillas climb trees as the Willis Tower looms in the distance, or forget where they are as they immerse themselves in tropical rainforests, dry-thorn forests or spacious savannas. ½ mile long Nature Boardwalk covers 14 acres of restored habitat and wetlands, natural shorelines, and native plantings. Source:
They were doing a lot of renovation work during the time I visited, but the zoo is still a great place to go for a walk and to enjoy watching the wildlife. Some animals were not on view due to the cool weather, but I still saw more than enough exotic creatures to satiate my dreams of another safari.

Designed both to showcase exotic plants and grow the thousands of plants needed for use in the parks, the Conservatory offers visitors a tropical experience within its four display houses: Palm House, Fern Room, Orchid House and Show House, which is home to the annual flower shows. Source:
I love plants and this is great place to enjoy them in an indoor setting.

The 606 6a-11p
The 606 takes Chicago’s legacy of great parks to new heights. The 606 has the elevated Bloomingdale Trail as its centerpiece, connected to six neighborhood parks at ground level, a wheel-friendly event plaza, an observatory, art installations, educational programming, and other amenities. Set above city streets, it’s a new way to explore Chicago on trails for biking, running and strolling. The 606 also connects parks, people, and communities; what once physically separated four neighborhoods now will knit them together and attract visitors from throughout Chicago and beyond. Source:
Photo courtesy of
I didn’t have time to walk or bicycle on the 606 but I did get a look at it when I was riding the L. Similar to New York City’s High Line, this is a great place to spend some time outdoors while exploring the neighborhoods in northeast Chicago.

Ride the L $2.25 for one ride; $10 for a day pass
Chicago’s mass transit rail system consists of train lines spanning the city and neighboring communities, and is known as "The 'L'." The service provided is described as "heavy rail rapid transit," also referred to as a "subway" or "metro" in many parts of the world. Today's 'L' system has eight rapid transit routes and consists of 145 stations over approximately 224.1 miles of track. Parts of the 'L' run above ground, in subway tunnels and tubes, as well as at grade or in expressway medians. Two routes—the Red and Blue Lines—operate 24 hours, every day. Source:
I prefer to ride public transit when I travel, especially in large cities. The L, particularly the above-ground lines, is the perfect way to explore the outer reaches of Chicago with minimal effort.
I was lucky enough to spend the weekend before St Patrick's Day in Chicago, which is when they hold all of the related festivities. The awesome Virgin Hotel where I stayed is just a few short blocks from the river. I got up early to watch the dyeing of the river, then attended a private party on the 51st floor of one of the Marina City towers. Awesome!