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The Cheapskate's Guide to Chicago
Dana Kaye

The beauty of living in Chicago is that there is always plenty to do. There are abundant neighborhoods to explore, thousands of restaurants at which to eat, and tons of museums in which to soak up culture and history. You may never run out of activities, but you can easily run out of cash. But being on a budget does not mean that you must stay home on weekends or postpone a date until your next paycheck comes through. What it does mean is that you should choose your activities wisely and that planning is, well, everything.

Chicago’s got great museums filled with culture and history, but even the hint of a cover charge has steered us
cheapskates away. Thanks to various sponsors, many of the best museums have free days, which are completely open to the public. If fine art is what you’re into, head down to the Art Institute and the Museum of Contemporary Art on a Tuesday. The Museum of Contemporary Photography, part of Columbia College, is always free and open on Saturdays if weekdays aren’t ideal. The work exhibited is mostly by students and professors, often pushing the limits of conventional photography. If art isn’t your bag or if you need something fun to do with your kids, head down to the Shedd Aquarium. From September through February, there is no admission on Monday and Tuesday, and during the summer, the discount week is in June. The Museum of Science and Industry is also an educational and entertaining outing. Although they do not have weekly free days, their website provides a list of dates when the museum does not charge. Another activity that’s free and unique is the flower show held at both the Garfield Park and Lincoln Park conservatories. These are held year-round and exhibit different flowers each season.

If you are a long time Chicago resident and have been to these museums dozens of times, you may have to head off the beaten path to try something new and free. The Oriental Institute Museum exhibits art and archeology from the Near East, where every day is a free day. If you’re looking for Chicago history, head over to Jane Addams Hull-House, the first social settlement house in Chicago. You can walk around the first floor, get a short tour, and see a slide-show illustrating the impact this house had on the city—all free of charge.

The Great Outdoors
During the summer, Chicago hosts a slew of outdoor festivals. Many neighborhoods, including Hyde Park, Wicker Park, and the Gold Coast, host annual art festivals, where there’s no charge for browsing. Not only will you get to see plenty of interesting work, but it’s also a great way to explore the different Chicago neighborhoods. Another way to discover new parts of the city if you’re tired of being on foot is to grab your bike and check out the many free bike tours hosted in May and June. Last year they included tours of Chicago’s gardens, the north side Buddhist temples, the historic Washington Park area, and many more. These bike tours are family-friendly, but if your children are still on training wheels, take them to the Lincoln Park Zoo. It’s fun, it’s free, and it’s educational. Another benefit to city living is that all of the beaches are completely free. Pack up the beach towels and sunscreen and head down to the lake for fun with the family
or just a group of friends. Each beach has different characteristics; North Avenue has lots of singles whereas Foster has more families, but since the summer’s long and there’s no cost, you can try them all. More of a night owl? In July and August, Mayor Daley sponsors the Outdoor Film Festival where you can pull up a blanket in Grant Park and watch great films under the stars.

Although eating in is your best option if you’re on a budget, there are still numerous restaurants with affordable eats and pleasant atmospheres. If you’re looking to go out for a nice breakfast, Svea is a Swedish diner with a variety of meals under six dollars, including sides. Its charming atmosphere mirrors a grandmother’s kitchen and the wait staff is always pleasant. Or head up the street to Corner Grille for more of a hip, retro atmosphere. It’s a few bucks extra but has more variety when it comes to breakfast for ethnic fare, Nuevo Leon is far from your greasy taqueria. Its colorful dining room and large portions make it a fun dining experience rather than just getting a burrito on the go. It serves excellent flautas and enchiladas, and the chef often offers a small appetizer of the day free of charge. Thai Pastry, voted one of the best Thai restaurants in the city, has a quaint atmosphere and friendly staff. It has a variety of lunch specials, including their celebrated
Pad Thai, for less than five dollars including soup, egg roll, entrée, and pastry.

You don’t have to go to McDonald’s to get an affordable burger. Moody’s Pub offers hamburgers, sandwiches, and salads which you can enjoy in the best beer garden in the city. The drinks are affordable, but even cheap pitchers can add up. To keep the cost down, stick to pop. Or try the famous Billy Goat Tavern and plan on getting a double cheeseburger. This cheap Chicago landmark, featured in a classic Saturday Night Live skit, is always a fun place to head on your lunch break. If you’re more the hot dog type, Wiener’s Circle is the place to get a real Chicago hot dog. The mouthwatering red hots and cheese fries make up for its lack of décor.

There is no doubt that bar hopping is the quickest way to empty your pockets, and unfortunately taverns don’t have free days. But many do have great drink specials that will keep you from blowing your entire paycheck.

Sheffield’s offers $2 drafts every Tuesday. That’s all drafts. This bar prides itself on having the best beer selection in the city so Tuesday is your night to try them all. If you prefer the hard stuff, it has $4 Ketel One Citroen cocktails on Wednesdays and $4 Stoli cocktails on Thursdays. The atmosphere is laid back; most of the clientele are from the neighborhood, but they have lots of events including readings and live music and in the summer they have a beautiful beer garden. Kelsey’s offers $1 domestic bottles on Wednesdays. It also has free pool on Tuesdays, along with $6.50 Miller and Bud pitchers. Although most bars only have drink specials during the week, Kelsey’s offers $4 Skyy cocktails every Saturday night. If you’re getting hungry, head up the block to John Barleycorn for 10-cent wings on Thursdays. Both of these bars have a primarily Lincoln Park crowd and can get pretty packed on the weekends.

You don’t have to be gay to enjoy all the drink specials on Halsted, the strip of bars in the heart of boystown. At Spin on Wednesdays, the $5 cover is worth it to get $1 drinks all night. Yes, that’s beer, wine and well drinks for just a buck each. If you like the sound of that, go to Hydrate on Mondays for the same deal. But get there early; dollar drinks end at 11 pm. While Spin is a little more laid back, dress your best when going to Hydrate. The label queens can spot fake Gucci from a mile away. If you’d rather play pool than dance the night away, head over to Roscoe’s on Wednesdays for free pool and $12 Cuervo margarita pitchers. This enormous bar also has a dance floor and outdoor patio. These places are not ideal on the weekends. Not only do they require a cover charge, but there are always lines out the doors and the places are always packed.

Going out and having fun doesn’t mean emptying your pockets. By planning ahead and going to the right places, you can experience the city and still keep the money in your bank account.

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