Tips + Trends

5 Things to Do in Chicago That Are Easy on the Wallet

Looking for budget-friendly things to do in Chicago? Take a photo at the “Bean.” (Photo: Tianyue Wang/Alamy)

Just a short shopping jaunt down Michigan Avenue could easily blow your budget on a weekend visit to Chicago. Give your plastic a rest and take advantage of these off-the-beaten-path options that cost next to nothing.

Explore Chicago Parks. Millennium Park comes alive all year long with free concerts, events, art exhibitions, festivals and some of the best views of the city skyline.

Capture your Instagram-worthy reflection in the “Bean” and walk through the serene Lurie Garden before making your way to Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion to catch a (free) show.

Want to get your swing or waltz on? Shake it over to neighboring Grant Park for the free Chicago SummerDance, which takes over a 4,900-square-foot open-air dance floor on Friday and Saturday nights from late June through mid-September.

Up Your Game. Down to just spare change? The good news is that a bevy of old-school arcade bars have opened up around town.

Head to Emporium Arcade Bar (in Wicker Park and Logan Square) for video games like Asteroids and air hockey; Headquarters Beercade (in Lakeview and River North) for BurgerTime and Metallica pinball; and Logan Arcade for more vintage games and $3.50 PBR Tallboys.

You can get into the less-digital competitive spirit at Guthrie’s Tavern, where board games like Scrabble and Sorry are free, and the $7 beer flights offer a taste of four craft beers.

Come Down with Festival Fever. But why hang out in a dark bar when the sun is hopefully shining down on one of the hundreds of free or donation-only street festivals and fairs that take over city blocks all over town.

From the Old Town Art Fair (mid-June) to the Chicago Art & Water Show (mid-August) and the Renegade Craft Fair (late September), there’s a constant parade of art, music, shopping and events to take in — all while you sip a cold frothy one and munch on bites from local restaurants.

Walk on the Wild Side. Locals are still in awe of the fact that our 35-acre Lincoln Park Zoo (one of the oldest in the U.S., founded in 1868) is 100 percent free.

Even without kids in tow, you could easily spend an entire day marveling at the newly arrived pink-faced snow monkeys (the state-of-the-art home to the eight-member tribe was unveiled April 2015) or checking out the other species (from African spoonbills in the Aviary to black bears, chimps and lemurs). When you need a break, chill out at the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool.

Shop Fresh. After longing for fresh berries and sweet corn all winter long, Chicagoans are usually chomping at the bit for the opening of the city’s free farmer’s markets in early May.

Green City Market in Lincoln Park (held every Wednesday and Saturday) is by far the largest, with vendors from all over the Midwest selling fresh flowers, honey, bakery bites and more.

Don’t want to deal with the Green City crowds? Logan Square and Wicker Park host their own smaller farmer’s market scene on Sundays.

Caught in town on a rainy weekend? Walk the enticing stalls of the Chicago French Market, which is filled with more prepared foods than produce, but does offer a mini taste of Chicago with local vendors like Lillie’s Q barbecue, Loop Soup, RAW and Black Dog Gelato.