Whether you live in Chicago or you're in town for a visit, you know that spending time in the city can take a serious toll on your wallet. Thankfully, cheap things to do in Chicago aren't difficult to find—as long as you know where to look. You can find great deals on tickets to Chicago's best museums, track down free concerts at some of the best music venues in Chicago or see a classic movie for less than the price of a fancy cocktail. Between the free zoo, a cheap bike-share system and affordable comedy shows, you may save enough money to splurge on a meal at a Chicago steakhouse. Stop worrying about your wallet and focus on having fun by searching out the best cheap things to do in Chicago.
Cheap things to do in Chicago
There are few better ways to see large swaths of the city up close than atop a bicycle. Chicago's bike-share system makes it easy to rent a bike for anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours and then return it at a dock. You can ride a Divvy along the Lakefront Trail, speed across the 606 or cruise through the city's boulevard system. Just don't forget to bring your own helmet and make sure there's a Divvy dock nearby your destination.
Price: Single 30-minute ride $3, 24 hours of 3-hour rides $15
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 current screening schedule showcases classic films from a variety of genres, appealing to film aficionados as well as casual moviegoers. Tickets go on sale a half hour before each showing in Ida Noyes Hall and all screenings are open to the public.
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 50-foot rubber tree that's been around for more than a century. Check in throughout the season for flower shows and other special botanical events in the space.
A ticket to a Mainstage revue at the Second City can be a bit expensive, but there are many other performance spaces inside the sprawling Old Town comedy complex where you'll find cheaper seats. If you don't mind watching Second City Training Center students and amateur improvisers getting a feel for their talents in front of a live audience, you might witness the work of a future Saturday Night Live writer or actor before they flee Chicago for the more lucrative entertainment industries of Los Angeles or New York!
Don’t be fooled by its unassuming facade: The Empty Bottle is one of Chicago’s best rock clubs, hosting cutting-edge bands from home and abroad. Monday nights at the Bottle are typically free, hosting bills stacked with local acts (and the occasional out-of-towner) that range from noisy punk rockers to meditative electronic ensembles. Use the money you save on a cover fee to order a few drinks from the bar—don't worry, there's plenty of cheap beer to choose from.
After purchasing the building 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 (the company behind Jet and Ebony magazine), 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.
If you're looking for a great place to climb, West Loop climbing gym Brooklyn Boulders offers an affordable way to scale a few walls. With $20–$25 day passes available, you won't have to spend a fortune to pursue a new hobby or continue building your skills. Climbing for the first time? A $36 introductory class (which includes gear rental) will teach you the basics while showing you everything the facility has to offer.
Price: $25 daily passes ($20 Monday–Friday from 10am to 3pm)
You could pay thousands of dollars to go to brewing school, or you could cough up a very reasonable sum of money to learn about making beer from some experts on this brewery tour. You'll explore all corners of Dovetail's Ravenswood brewing facility, learning about the importance of water quality and checking out the brewery's custom European-inspired coolship tank, where beer spontaneous fermentation takes place. You'll also get 0.9 liters of beer to enjoy along the way.
Want to feel majestic for an hour or two? Head to the Humboldt Park Boathouse and find the nearby Wheel Fun Rental dock, where you can exchange some cash for the privilege of piloting a boat that looks like a giant swan. The pedal-powered watercraft accommodates two people and allows you to explore the waters of the Humboldt Park Lagoon—keep an eye out for stray gators!
Price: $11 per hour, kids 17 and younger $7 per hour
This cozy Avondale bar boasts 56 beer and cider drafts, but it's weekly dollar beer night is all about the Hamm's cans. Snag your drink at the bar and head back to Sleeping Village's music room, where you can pay a $5 and see a bill stacked with a selection of rising local bands. If you'd rather get some fresh air, you can take your beer outside and enjoy it on the venue's spacious patio.
Price: $1 beers, $5 concert
You don't have to hop on a boat tour to enjoy the sensations and sights of cruising across the Chicago River. The Chicago Water Taxi runs from Michigan Avenue to Ogilvie Station for most of the year, and from spring through fall the service also takes passengers to Goose Island and Chinatown. A one-way ticket is $6, but if you plan on riding more than once you should spring for the $10 day pass and spend a few hours sailing up and down the river.
Price: One-way ticket $6, day pass $10
A destination for movie lovers who prefer art-house films, foreign cinema and documentaries to traditional Hollywood blockbusters, the Music Box Theatre is also a great place for the thrifty. Stop by on Saturday or Sunday mornings for an $8 matinee or attend the first screening on any day of the week and you'll pay just $9 for your ticket. You'll probably have some money leftover to spend on popcorn, which comes topped with real butter.
Housing of one of the largest collections of contemporary art in the nation, the MCA also hosts major touring exhibits, film screenings and performing artists. When they're not strolling through the galleries, guest can visit the picturesque sculpture garden in the museum's backyard, get a bite to eat at in-house restaurant Marisol or browse a selection of interesting tchotchkes in the MCA's gift shop.
Price: $15; students, teachers and seniors $8; free for anyone 18-years-old or younger; free on Tuesdays for Illinois residents
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. Stop by Wednesday through Saturday night, and don't forget to tip your bartenders!
Polish-American painter Ed Paschke grew up on the Northwest Side, graduating from the Art Institute and becoming one of the city's most respected painters as well as beloved professor 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 Andy Warhol. The gallery includes 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 stages a selection of new plays every week. Even the admission process if creative—you'll roll a six-sided die to determine how much you'll pay.
Lincoln Park club Kingston Mines is the ideal place to see a lot of blues music being performed 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.