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Chicago skyline
Photograph: Shutterstock

14 cheap things to do in Chicago

Enjoy the city without spending a ton of cash by searching out cheap things to do in Chicago

By Zach Long and Emma Krupp

Chicago, we love you, but you can be pretty damn expensive (hello, $15 cocktails and pricey cover fees). Even so, you don't have to blow the bank to have a good time in the city—as long as you know where to look. While some of our favorite low-cost pastimes are on hold due to COVID-19 restrictions, there are still tons of ways to ball out on a budget, from supporting the best music venues in Chicago with livestreamed concert tickets to exploring exhibits at newly-reopened Chicago museums. We're all pining for the days where we can cram into dive bars for no-cover karaoke or catch late night drink deals, but in the meantime, here are all the best cheap things to do in Chicago right now.

RECOMMENDED: The best things to do in Chicago this weekend

Cheap things to do in Chicago

Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

1. Explore the city on a Divvy bike

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—if you're feeling adventurous, you could even try testing out one of Divvy's new (and extra-fast) e-bikes. 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

Photograph: Max Herman

2. Curl up on the couch with a streaming movie

Movie theaters Independent Wrigleyville

In addition to reduced capacity in-person screenings, the Music Box Theatre has started offering very affordable at-home screening options. Head to their website to browse art-house films, foreign cinema and documentaries available to watch on-demand. For the full Music Box experience, make some popcorn and top it with real butter.

Price: $12

Photograph: Callie Lipkin Photography, Inc.

3. See groundbreaking works at the Museum of Contemporary Art

Museums Art and design Streeterville

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, guests can visit the picturesque sculpture garden in the museum's backyard or browse a selection of interesting tchotchkes in the MCA's gift shop. Note that due to COVID-related capacity restrictions, it's recommended that guests reserve a timed ticket online in advance of their visit.

Price: $15; students, teachers and seniors $8; free for anyone 18 years old or younger; free on Tuesdays for Illinois residents 

Zoo animals
Photograph: Nicola Dreyer on Unsplash

4. Hang out with animals at Lincoln Park Zoo

Things to do Lincoln Park

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. Reservations are now required to the zoo, so don't forget to make one before you show up to gawk at critters.

Price: Free

Lime scooter
Photograph: Courtesy Lime

5. Go for a joy ride on an e-scooter

News Transport & Travel

The city's second e-scooter pilot is in full swing, and while the scooters—which can reach speeds of 15mph—sometimes draw controversy, they're also an undeniably fast (and fun) way to zip around the city. Download the Lime, Spin or Bird apps to find and unlock scooters around Chicago and take one for an inexpensive cruise to check out a new neighborhood or park. Pro tip: For Lime, rides that start or end in neighborhoods on the South and West Sides are half off the per-minute price.

Price: $1 to unlock plus an additional per-minute fee

Drive-in movie theater
Photograph: Shutterstock

6. Grab a few friends and see a drive-in movie

Things to do

OK, so drive-in movie tickets can run on the pricey side when you take them at face value (they're often priced per car in the range of $30–$50), but split the cost between a few close friend or family members and suddenly the evening becomes a whole lot more affordable. Choose from tons of drive-in theaters within the city and surrounding suburbs to catch screenings of classic flicks and recent blockbusters—and if you're bringing multiple guests, make sure they're family members or from your social pod. 

Price: See theater websites for details

The Second City etc.
Photograph: Todd Rosenberg

7. Have a laugh with the help of virtual Second City shows

Comedy Comedy clubs Lincoln Park

Second City's in-person shows are on hold for now, but you can still get your dose of weekly laughs via the comedy club's roster of livestreamed acts, like the weekly Second City Happy Hour (which features both notable alums and up-and-coming comics). Who knows? 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!

Price: $15

Pullman National Monument, Chicago
Photograph: Shutterstock

8. Take a tour of the Pullman Historic District

Things to do Literary events Pullman

Explore labor history and more in Pullman, the Far South Side neighborhood that was once home to the infamous Pullman Company planned community. The Historic Pullman Foundation offers guided tours (featuring attractions like the Pullman National Monument) on the first Sunday of every month from May to October, but visitors are always welcome to take a free, self-guided look around the neighborhood with the help of a walking tour brochure.

Price: $10 adults, $7 students and seniors; self-guided tour is free

Tasha onstage at Hideout
Photograph: Sarah Larson

9. Stream a virtual show at the Hideout

Bars Dive bars River West/West Town

No one can predict when live music might be able to resume at local venues, so for the time being, going to a show at the Hideout will mean logging onto NoonChorus and tuning into a stream. Tickets for individual shows—Hideout bartender Lawrence Peters' weekly happy hour or live performance from local acts—will typically run you anywhere from $5 to $15, but diehard fans can also opt for a monthly $25 subscription to save some dough.

Price: $5–$15

Morton Arboretum
Photograph: Shutterstock

10. Wander among forests at the Morton Arboretum

Things to do Suburbs

Want to spend an affordable day appreciating nature? Head out to suburban Lisle to soak in the 1,700-acre expanses of the Morton Arboretum, home to more than 222,000 live plants from around the world. Explore winding trails and forests or check out the Arboretum's calendar of events, where you'll find tons of nature-related activities and other outdoor programming.

Price: Adults $15 ($10 on Wednesdays), seniors $13 ($9 on Wednesdays), children $10 ($7 on Wednesdays)

Glenn Jones at Consetllation
Photograph: Zach Long

11. See an experimental jazz concert at Constellation

News Music

The Roscoe Village venue—which hosts jazz, experimental and contemporary classical acts—is welcoming back audiences and has invested in a new camera system to live stream shows. For less than 20 bucks, you can grab tickets to see an in-person concert with fewer than 50 audience members to ensure social distancing. Prefer to stay in? The shows are also streamed on YouTube; just be sure to toss in a donation. 

Price: $15 per ticket

Maggie Daley Park
Photograph: Neal O'Bryan

12. Play a round of mini golf at Maggie Daley Park

Attractions Parks and gardens Millennium Park

Head to the south end of the twisting BP Bridge in Maggie Daley Park and you'll find an 18-hole mini golf course, complete with tricky obstacles and kitschy replicas of Chicago attractions like a six-foot Willis Tower. The course is open through October; once winter rolls around, you can always check out the park's ice skating ribbon for cold weather fun.

Price: $11 general admission; seniors, teachers and active duty military $9

Photograph: Hyde Park Art Center

13. View unique exhibitions at the Hyde Park Art Center

Art Arts centers Kenwood

This artists' space and community center, located in the neighborhood of the same name, hosts a plethora of studio classes and showcases distinctive exhibitions (with an emphasis on up-and-coming Chicago artists). Right now, you can check out "Artists Run Chicago," which features the work of 50 artist-run spaces challenging traditional ways of displaying art throughout the city. The center is free to visit, but online reservations are advised.

Price: Free

Photograph: Marc Monaghan for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

14. Tune into online performances from the Neo Futurists

Theater Interactive Uptown

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—and now, you can stream weekly performances straight to your house with The Infinite Wrench Goes Viral. Sign up on Patreon for one of five weekly subscription tiers (ranging from the $3 Elbow Bump to the $100 Extended, Almost Uncomfortable Hug) to receive a link to each week's show; the pricier versions will net you more perks and bonus content, but even a manageable $3–$5 a week gives you access to the troupe's colorful array of performances.

Price: $3–$100 a week.

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