Chicago doesn’t vacuum up the contents of your wallet like New York, but the Windy City can still be pricey. Despite the city’s hard-working Midwestern roots, Chi-town's world-class restaurants, museums and theaters don't come cheap. Consider this as you stroll through the glossy shops on the Magnificent Mile, it's called magnificent for a reason and it's not because it's economical. But locals know where to go to snag a deal and score free stuff. Follow my insider tips on Chicago bargains and you'll never have to get spendy in the Windy City again.
Free Art Exhibits, Movies and Concerts
The Art Institute of Chicago boasts a singular collection of works from all over the world. It's easy to spend a day in this exhaustive museum and not see everything. It's also easy to drop lots of dollars at the AIC, with a $20 general admission and a pricey cafeteria and restaurant. So where do locals go when they want art on the cheap? We head across the street to the Chicago Cultural Center, which presents free exhibits, films and concerts all year round. Check out the monthly schedule to discover the myriad of options. Don't miss the world's largest Tiffany Dome, displayed on the third floor. In the summer, Millennium Park is the spot for free concerts, movies and outdoor exhibits.
Even if you don't sample Chicago's top chef restaurants, dining out can be expensive, especially downtown. Chicago-style pizza, hot dogs and ribs may sound like fancy snacks but you'll pay more than a snack-size amount to savor them. It's tricky to grab a meal for under $7 but a few bargains still exist. On Jeweler's Row, in the back of jewelry mall, past glistening rings and watches, the Oasis Cafe serves up hearty meals at bargain prices. Try falafel, lentil soup or baba ganouj for under $5 and enjoy full entrees for a few dollars more. For a taste of classic Chicago eats, the famous Billy Goat Tavern offers its double “cheezborger” for under $5. You can also order ham and egg, corned beef or chicken sandwiches in the same low price range. For the ultimate Chicago snack, line up for Garrett's Popcorn in the essential cheese and caramel, Chicago mix. A small bag, bursting with popcorn cost less than $5 and all the butter, cheese and sugar is guaranteed to keep you happy and satisfied.
Chicago is the “Home of the Blues” and the city also produces standout jazz so various clubs hosting legendary musicians are scattered all over the city. But cover charges, drink minimums and entrance fees can really add up. So local blues lovers avoid the crowds and cover charges at blues master Buddy Guy's Legends club by catching the free acoustic sets. Jazz fans love the summer jazz series, “Tuesdays on The Terrace” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where jazz greats perform free concerts alfresco. Of course, summer music fests like the Blues Fest, Jazz Fest, Gospel Fest and Taste of Chicago all supply free music that rivals the expensive, ticketed festivals like Lollapalooza and Pitchfork.