From its lakefront to its neighborhoods, Chicago’s festivals, museums, night spots, parks, concerts and architecture draw more than 40 million visitors a year. The city’s sights and sounds are fun, interesting and add up to a memorable vacation, but trying to take in everything can wear out the shoes and wallet. Parking and taxis can be expensive. A good budget strategy is to take advantage of free attractions, discounts and Chicago’s excellent transportation system. Metra trains have weekend deals and CTA buses go to every part of the city.

(Photo Credit:

(Photo Credit:

Chicago Cultural Center
78 E. Washington St.
Chicago, IL 60602
(312) 744-5000

Free art exhibitions, music events, cultural programs and festivals are always going on at the Chicago Cultural Center. An 1897 city landmark that stretches along Michigan Avenue from Randolph Street to Washington Street, the building is worth a tour or casual drop-in merely to see the world’s largest stained-glass Tiffany dome, a second spectacular dome and stunning mosaics. The Cultural Center is also a smart place to start a Chicago visit. It contains a Visitors Center and is on the eastern edge of the city’s Downtown Shopping and Theater District. It sits across from Millennium Park where visitors and residents photograph their reflections and city skyline against the famed Cloud Gate (Bean) sculpture. Bus stops in front and on the side of the building make it easy to go in every direction. Click here for Transit information.

Shedd Aquarium
1200 S. Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60605
(312) 939-2438

There’s no question that Chicago has world class museums. The problem when on a budget is that admission prices to many of them recently rose as corporations and donors cut their charitable contributions and governments cut subsidies when the economy went south. The good news is that Illinois residents get free admission on different designated days at the museums and that other special offers such as a bank’s free days for its card holders are available. The Shedd, among the city’s most visited museums, has several discount options on its “Special Offers” site. Some deals include the aquatic shows and a “Wild Reef” exhibit to see sharks and stingrays. The aquarium is on Chicago’s Museum Campus on Lake Michigan between the Field Museum (think dinosaurs) and the Adler Planetarium.

National Museum of Mexican Art
1852 W. 19th St.
Chicago, IL 60608
(312) 738-1503

Going to the National Museum of Mexican Art is a two-for-one experience. It’s a free look at one of the largest Mexican Art collections in the country plus interesting special exhibits and programs. The museum’s collection has more than 7,000 textiles, folk art, paintings, sculptures, works on paper and historic objects dating back 3,000 years. And a visit there is a chance to see Pilsen, a colorful Chicago neighborhood that abounds with Hispanic cafes, bakeries, sweet shops and art galleries.

Related: Five Reasons To Visit Chicago In The Fall

Lincoln Park Conservatory & Lincoln Park Zoo
2391 N Stockton Drive
Chicago, IL 60614
(312) 742-7736

2001 N. Clark St.
Chicago, IL 60614
(312) 742-2000

Lincoln Park is another free, two-for-one stop. Think tropical air amidst gorgeous orchids or walking through the Reptile House even though outdoor thermometers have hit the freeze mark. Chicago’s free Lincoln Park Conservatory envelops visitors in coat-shedding temps among fern, palms and colorful blooms and even model trains when the Winter Flower and Train Show takes over the Conservatory’s Show House. The park is miles long but the Lincoln Park Zoo is only about three blocks from the Conservatory. Take an African Journey and visit the Primate and Lion Houses. In addition, the Zoo has free, seasonal programs but the grounds become a holiday wonderland during ZooLights. Click here for ZooLights activities.

Chicago Symphony And Civic Orchestras
Symphony Center Orchestra Hall
220 S. Michigan Ave.
Chicago, IL 60604
(312) 294-3000

Chicago’s Symphony Center is home to the famed Chicago Symphony Orchestra, popularly known as the CSO. Some CSO concert seats can be found for as low as $29. Seniors and students can also obtain day-of tickets for $10. Another choice is to plan the visit to coincide with free Civic Orchestra concerts. They require tickets but only have a $2-per-ticket handling fee. Click here for Civic Orchestra information and tickets.

Related: A Night At Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre

Jodie Jacobs is a veteran journalist who loves writing about Chicago, art, theater, museums and travel. Her work can be found on