Living in (or even just visiting) Chicago comes with an array of expenses. Thankfully, the city is packed with cheap things to do, which mean that it's easy to enjoy yourself while still saving money for food and rent. It's entirely possible to visit some of Chicago's top attractions and best comedy clubs without spending a fortune. If you're looking for an affordable way to spend your time here, you've got options, including a free zoo, several world-class museums and a delicious hot dog. Save your cash for a meal at a fancy steakhouse and dig into our list of cheap things to do in Chicago.
Cheap things to do in Chicago
Housed under a glass dome and in greenhouse rooms, the Lincoln Park Conservatory contains 40,000 plants representing around 200 species. Attractions include an extensive fern collection, a room full of dozens of orchid varieties and a 100-year-old, 50-foot rubber tree. Check in throughout the season for flower shows and other special botanical events in the space.
Housing of one of the largest collections of modern art in the nation, the Museum of Contemporary Art also hosts major touring exhibits, film screenings and performing artists. When they're not checking out the extensive galleries, visitors can take a stroll through a picturesque sculpture garden and browse a selection of offbeat tchotchkes in the MCA gift shop.
Price: $15, free on Tuesdays for Illinois residents
A ticket to a Mainstage revue at the Second City can be a bit expensive, but there are plenty of other performance spaces inside the sprawling Old Town comedy complex with cheap seats available. If you don't mind watching students and amateur improvisers getting a feel for their talents in front of a live audience, you might just see the next Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Chris Farley or John Belushi before they leave Chicago for Los Angeles or New York!
After purchasing it from the city for $1, local artist and philanthropist Theaster Gates turned this long-vacant bank into a cultural institution. Inside the Stony Island Arts Bank, visitors can browse the archives of Johnson Publishing, take a look at house music legend Frankie Knuckles’s record collection or view art on display in the venue's ground floor gallery. Regular events and exhibitions make this South Side spot a must-visit for lovers of art, music, literature and more.
On any given day at the Chicago Cultural Center, you might find a free classical concert being performed, an art exhibition on display in one of the building’s many galleries or tourists marveling at the world’s largest stained glass Tiffany dome. Don’t worry about paying for admission—nearly everything that happens in this building is free and open to the public.
Founded in 1940, the University of Chicago's single-screen Doc Films theater is on record as the longest continuously running student film society in the country. While it began featuring documentaries, the modern screening schedule showcases classic films from a variety of genres, appealing to film aficionados as well as casual moviegoers.
Red Hot Ranch is standing room only (unless it's warm enough to plop down on a picnic bench outside), but the prices make it worth the trouble. You can score a Depression Dog, served with mustard, onions, relish, sport peppers and a handful of fries for about $4. If you're still hungry, you'll also find fried shrimp (sold by the pound) and hamburgers on the menu. Whatever you choose, you and your wallet will remain full.
Don’t be fooled by its unassuming facade: The Empty Bottle is Chicago’s premier indie-rock club, hosting cutting-edge bands from home and abroad. At the bar, you'll find cheap drinks, yellowed gig posters and tons of strips from the Bottle's old photo booth. Monday night shows at the venue are almost always free, featuring local rockers, rising touring acts and at least a couple affordable drink specials.
Dating back to 1908, Garfield Park Conservatory is one of the largest structures of its kind and boasts rooms full of plants designed by landscape architect Jens Jensen. Make sure to visit the Fern Room and its “prairie waterfall”—a stone and water element within a glass structure. About 120,000 plants representing some 600 species occupy the conservatory’s 1.6 acres, and four times a year flower shows premiere to herald the change in seasons.
West Loop rock climbing facility Brooklyn Boulders offers classes for beginners and advanced climbers, allowing you to crawl up its walls with the assistance of a helpful staff. A selection of classes will help you build your strength, and gear rental makes it possible to climb without investing in a fancy pair of shoes or a personal harness.
Price: $25 daily passes ($20 Monday–Friday from 10am to 3pm)
Chicago comedy institution the Lincoln Lodge takes over Wrigleyville's Under the Gun Theater on Friday and Saturday nights, welcoming a lineup of local stand-ups and occasionally hosting famous comedians such as Jo Firestone and Hannibal Buress.
One of the last remaining free zoos in the country, the Lincoln Park Zoo offers 35 acres of animals from all over the world and a variety of seasonal events and special programming. You'll find mammals (beavers, lions, otters and bears), birds (penguins, eagles and parrots) and reptiles (snakes, crocodiles and turtles) among the park's collection of residents.
There's one name that's synonymous with raucous late-night karaoke in Chicago, and that name is Alice's. Don't come expecting to sing more than one song on a busy night—the regulars rule the mic here, but the majority of them are pretty entertaining to watch. Plus, after a few beers (and a shot or two) you'll be yelling along to most of the lyrics anyways.
Polish-American painter Ed Paschke grew up on the Northwest Side, attended the Art Institute and taught at Northwestern University. The Ed Paschke Art Center makes a collection of his work available to residents of the city he loved, free of charge. His confrontational, brightly colored paintings typically dealt with topics like fame, sex and violence, inspired by the pop art of Warhol. The gallery include a recreation of Paschke’s 2004 studio and works from each period of his artistic career.
Equal parts block party and populist performance art, the Neo-Futurists' signature show The Infinite Wrench packs about 30 two-minute plays into a 60 minute show. Expect plenty of comedy, spectacle, drama and audience participation throughout the course of the madcap barrage of creativity, which offers a selection of new plays every week.
You don't have to look any further than Pilsen to find the National Museum of Mexican Art, which is one of the largest Latino cultural organizations in the United States. In addition to the 6,000-piece permanent collection, a selection of rotating exhibits, performing-arts showcases and educational programming (not to mention an abundance of cheap tacos at nearby restaurants) make this museum worth a visit.
Lincoln Park club Kingston Mines is the ideal place to see plenty of blues music, thanks to its unusual setup, which places two different bands in two different rooms on two different stages. Grab a drink, bounce between the two areas and get a feel for the local blues acts carrying on one of Chicago's most beloved musical traditions.