As the third largest city in the United States, Chicago boasts an eclectic culture and endless things to do. The city is situated on Lake Michigan and is home to lively beaches, gorgeous art and architecture, and a variety of universities and colleges — making it an ideal spot to visit as a student.
Here are a list of my favorite things to do/see in Chicago on a budget.
Where to stay
Chicago is comprised of a number of unique and lively neighborhoods, leaving you with many options to consider. When looking for a place to stay, I would highly recommend comparing the prices of Airbnb’s, hotels and hostels to find the cheapest option. But in terms of where to look, here are some of the best neighborhoods to check out.
The Loop is located in Chicago’s central business district and downtown area. This part of town offers a wide variety of restaurants, bars and shops, and is known as one of the city’s most famous attractions. The Loop is littered with some of Chicago’s most famous architecture, including the massive Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower), as well as a number of parks, art houses and businesses. Staying in the Loop would be a great home-base, since so much of the city is located within this walkable and vibrant area.
Hyde Park has made a name for itself as one of the most prominent and beautiful neighborhoods in Chicago. The neighborhood is located along the south lakefront on the South Side of the city, and is home to the revered University of Chicago. Hyde Park is dotted with beautiful greenery, historical attractions, famous bookstores and a number of interesting museums. Staying in this part of Chicago offers a good glimpse into both university life and the diversity of the city.
Lincoln Park is located on the North Side of the city and is largely comprised of college students and twenty-something city dwellers. This youthful neighborhood is a great spot to find diverse nightlife, dining and entertainment. The park itself is Chicago’s largest park, and the neighborhood is closely situated to Lake Michigan beaches, the Chicago History Museum and many free attractions, including the Lincoln Park Zoo.
Depending on where you decide to stay in the city, you may need to access Chicago’s public transportation system. The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) is the second largest in the country, servicing Chicago’s many neighborhoods by either bus or rail-line. If you’ll be traveling in Chicago for an extended amount of time, it’s a good idea to get an unlimited pass for either one, three, seven or 30 days, so that you can save a little on each ride. Otherwise, you can pay your CTA fare with cash or credit for every ride.
Places to go
Chicago is so massive and beautiful, you can spend an entire weekend simply walking through its diverse streets and glancing at its architecture.
Here are some of the best places to stroll through when visiting this lively city.
Millenium Park is located in the Loop and is known as the number one tourist attraction in the city. Millenium Park consists of 25 acres of beautiful greenery, breathtaking architecture and a wide-ranging collection of public art. Millenium Park is home to the famous Cloud Gate sculpture, also known as “the bean,” a piece of public art commissioned in the early 2000s, as well as a number of other free art installations, outdoor concerts, film screenings and community workshops throughout the year.
The Magnificent Mile, sometimes called the Mag Mile, is an upscale stretch of Michigan Avenue that runs from the Chicago River to the North Side of the city. This area is surrounded by high-end retail, restaurants, and boutiques, and while most things you see are way out of a college student’s budget, it’s a great place to simply walk around and explore in the city.
Chicago’s Navy Pier is a historical landmark, and encompasses 3,000 feet of pier on the shoreline of Lake Michigan. This lively spot consists of over 50 acres of parks, gardens, shops, restaurants and family attractions. Navy Pier consistently offers free programs and activities for the public, including summer fireworks, concerts, movie nights and dance festivals.
Culture and entertainment
Chicago is home to a number of historic and cultural activities — many of which are either cheap or free.
Here are a few of the must-do things in Chicago.
The Second City began in 1959, and has since been regarded as one of the most notorious improvisational comedy enterprises of all time. This Chicago-based entertainment group has been a consistent starting point for renowned comedians, actors and directors, and throughout the years has elevated talents, including Bill Murray, John Candy, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell. The Second City is guaranteed to make you laugh, making it a unique go-to when traveling to Chicago. Tickets typically range from around $30-$50, but the show is always well worth it!
Lincoln Park Zoo
Located within the Lincoln Park neighborhood, the Lincoln Park Zoo is always free and features a range of wildlife attractions, including leopards, lions, monkeys and lizards.
Chicago Cultural Center
The Chicago Cultural Center is a stunning architectural landmark that was completed in 1879 as the city’s first public library. The building takes inspiration from Greek and Roman architecture, and it is famous for its two stained-glass domes. Since it has been converted into the city’s cultural center, the building houses hundreds of free international, national and regional artists, musicians and performers throughout the year.
Garfield Park Conservatory
The Garfield Park Conservatory is one of the nation’s largest and most beautiful conservatories, often referred to as “landscape art under glass.” This lush green space occupies two acres of public greenhouses and 10 acres of gorgeous outdoor gardens, and houses thousands of plant species from around the world. The conservatory is located in Garfield Park on Chicago’s Westside, and offers free admission year-round.
Places to eat
Known for its deep-dish style pizza, Chicago is a major food city. With a large international population, the city is home to a variety of foods and flavors.
Here are some of my favorite budget-friendly spots.
Lou Malnati’s is one of the most renowned deep-dish pizza joints in the city. The restaurant has multiple locations, but each spot serves up a deliciously gooey piece of the famous Chicago style pie. A classic deep-dish pizza ranges from about $10- $15, depending on the size and toppings, but you certainly won’t be disappointed.
Harold’s Chicken Shack
Harold’s Chicken Shack began in 1950 in the South Side of Chicago as a local restaurant for the African American communities in areas that were being neglected by mainstream fast food chains. Harold’s became one of the first examples of a thriving fast food chain that was owned by, and primarily served by, the black community. Eventually, Harold’s huge success and popular demand allowed it to spread throughout the entire city, and today the Chicken Shack can be found in over 60 locations. The chicken itself is cooked in the traditional homestyle way of the South, as it’s partly fried in beef tallow and vegetable oil, and it’s never fried until ordered! This delicious chicken place is an important spot to visit for both its cultural importance and its unique flavors.
Eataly is a massive Italian marketplace that features an array of cafes, counters, restaurants and cooking classes. While Eataly is becoming a popular franchise in numerous big cities, including New York and Los Angeles, Eataly in Chicago is one of the biggest ones, featuring a unique range of Italian goods in a massive, 63,000 square foot retail space. You can find everything from Italian groceries to wine tastings, imported espresso and more at this giant space. Even if you don’t buy anything, checking out Eataly in Chicago is a fun and awe-inspiring afternoon.
Revival Food Hall
If you can’t decide where to eat in this deliciously packed food city, check out Revival Food Hall — an all-local dining concept that spotlights the best of Chicago’s acclaimed restaurants under one roof. Revival Food Hall offers limited menus for 15 of Chicago’s favorite neighborhood restaurants in a casual grab-n-go setting, so you can experiment with multiple food options and traditions from all around the city. Revival Food Hall also offers Happy Hour deals for all of the restaurants they feature, including seafood spots, Mexican food, BBQ, and multiple cafes and bars.
Lake Michigan beaches
When traveling to Chicago, it’s essential to visit one of the lively and beautiful Lake Michigan beaches.
Here are some of the best ones to check out:
North Avenue Beach
North Avenue Beach, located in Lincoln Park, is considered one of Chicago’s most popular beaches. This beach offers swimming, bike rentals, restaurants, outdoor beach yoga and volleyball, and a number of retail shops selling clothes and souvenirs. North Avenue Beach is a great spot to check out for an active day on the lake.
Be sure to check out Castaways Beach Bar & Grill for great food, drinks and live music! They have daily specials on food and drinks every day — serving everything from tacos to margaritas and beer buckets!
Rainbow Beach & Park
Rainbow Beach & Park is located in the South Side of Chicago, and offers a variety of activities, including basketball, tennis, handball, baseball, playgrounds and a community garden. The park totals over 60 acres of beach and outdoor fun, making for a perfect recreational spot when visiting chicago during the summer months.
Oak Street Beach
Oak Street Beach is located on North Lake Shore Drive, near Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood — an affluent, residential neighborhood dotted with high-rise apartments and stately homes. Oak Street Beach is one of the most popular beach destinations in Chicago and offers an incredible view of the city skyline, as well as a large area for sunbathing, swimming and outdoor recreation.
Home to a number of universities/colleges, many places in Chicago offer a student discount. So bring your student ID with you and save on food, entertainment and shopping. Remember to always ask for student discounts!
Here are a few places with student discounts.
- Harold’s Chicken Shack: Students can get a 10% student discount at Harold’s with their student ID.
- Gene Siskel Film Center: Students save $4 with their student ID.
- Art Institute of Chicago: Students save $6 on general admission with student ID.
- Chicago History Museum: Students (ages 19-22) save $2 on general admission with student ID. Anyone who’s 18 and younger get free admission.
- Driehaus Museum: Students save $10 with student ID.
- Banana Republic: Students save 15% on full-price apparel with student ID in store.
In addition, there are a range of free or cheap activities for broke college students.
- Millenium Park: Check out one of Chicago’s most famous tourist attractions and public art spaces for no cost at all!
- Magnificent Mile: Walk along Chicago’s famous Michigan Avenue to window-shop the high-end retail in Chicago and glimpse the city’s more affluent culture.
- Navy Pier: Explore the city’s historic pier and indulge in a number of free activities throughout the year, including movie screenings, dance festivals, and concerts.
- Lincoln Park Zoo: Enjoy free admission year-round to this unique neighborhood zoo that includes wildlife ranging from mammals to reptiles and aquatic creatures.
- Chicago Cultural Center: Enjoy free admission and free art/historic events year-round at the city’s cultural center.
- Garfield Park Conservatory: Peruse this massive green space and learn more about exotic plant species for free year-round!
Chicago is one of the most exciting cities to visit while in college, and with the right planning and budget, it can be a completely affordable experience. The city is home to some really gorgeous architecture and a plethora of free public spaces that range from beaches to parks, and even zoos, allowing you to tour this unique and diverse midwest culture at little to no cost.
Natalie Colarossi is a recent graduate from Ohio University with a B.A. in Journalism from the E.W. Scripps School. She is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She has covered a number of topics including art, culture, politics, music, and travel. Her greatest passion and priority is to travel, and she hopes to experience as many places and cultures as possible.