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Seeing Chicago on a budget, from festivals to museums and the zoo

Detroit Free Press

CHICAGO — Vacationing in the Windy City might mean staying at the Four Seasons, scoring front-row seats to the musical "Wicked" and dining at Charlie Trotter's five-star restaurant.

But most of us aren't that rich.

Luckily, the best things in Chicago are cheap or free — the parks, the zoo, the Bean sculpture, the hostel.

The hostel?

"We get travelers from all over the world," says Sherman McBride, a clerk at Hostelling International Chicago, a family-student hostel in the city's Loop area. It's a lodging option most American visitors don't know about, he says, but "we charge $31 a night."

While Chicago, America's third-largest city, isn't a typical budget destination for tourists, it has a surprisingly high number of cheap and free things to do. Among the best:

See the Bean . The 25-acre Millennium Park next to the Art Institute of Chicago on Michigan Avenue is a must-see and absolutely free. The Bean is a stainless-steel, playful sculpture that features the reflection of everyone's favorite subject — themselves. (If you're wondering, its real name is "Cloud Gate," by Anish Kapoor.)

The park also offers a free classical concert series Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings from June to August.

Millennium Park also one of the first attractions to offer a free MP3 audio tour; download it and get park information at www.millenniumpark.org.

See museums on free days. The Art Institute of Chicago (111 S. Michigan Ave.) is free 5-8 p.m. Thursdays, saving you a $12 admission price. The Museum of Contemporary Art (220 E. Chicago Ave.) is free 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesdays. The Chicago History Museum (1601 N. Clark St.) is free 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mondays. Or visit always-free museums such as the Mexican Fine Arts Center (1852 W. 19th St.).

Free Chicago festivals


Chicago Gospel Music Festival: June 1-3, Millennium Park downtown. www.chicagogospelfestival.com

Chicago Blues Festival: June 7-10, Grant Park downtown. www.chicagobluesfestival.org

The Art of Play: Summer in Chicago 2007. Games, toys and play themes throughout the city all summer. www.artofplaychicago.com

Taste of Chicago: June 29-July 8, Grant Park downtown. www.tasteofchicago.us Chicago Air & Water Show: Aug. 18-19, North Avenue Beach. www.cityofchicago.org

Spend a day at the Lincoln Park Zoo . One of the few free zoos left in the country, it's in the city and the right size for a family. Some highlights: the great apes exhibit, an exhibit of thousands of creepy-crawly cockroaches, a children's area with an exhibit of red wolves, meerkats and the classic exhibits of lions and tigers.

Also new is an indoor children's Tree Canopy Climbing Adventure, good for a rainy day. A carousel ride is $2.50 (2001 N. Clark St., www.lpzoo.com).

Simplify your lodgings . Chicago hotel prices can quickly ruin your budget, because in midsummer, even inexpensive chain hotels downtown such as Holiday Inn, Ramada and Red Roof Inn can soar to more than $200 a night for a family of four.

Stay if you can with friends or relatives. Or try the HI-Chicago, just one block from Michigan Avenue. The 500-bed hostel opened in 2000 and was voted best large hostel in the world for 2006 by Hostelworld.com.

Rooms are $31 a night (some 10-bed rooms are only $27). The catch is that sleeping arrangements are dormlike rooms with six or 10 people. A family of four can sometimes snag a six-bed room, with a bath. It's also suitable for groups and college students on a budget.

Clean and with 24-hour security, it has a common kitchen, TV rooms, an Internet lounge and reception area with pool tables. Anyone under 18 must be accompanied by an adult, and the facility is smoke- and alcohol-free (www.hichicago.org, 312-360-0300).

Buy a discount pass . Check out the Chicago City Pass to see if it will save money. At $49.50 for adults and $39 for children, the pass gets you into five attractions: the Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, Museum of Science and Industry, Adler Planetarium and Hancock Observatory. www.citypass.com

Low-priced Chicago fun


• Annoyance Theater comedy club. Shows for $5-$15. www.annoyanceproductions.com

• Steppenwolf Theatre. Last-minute student standby rush tickets are $15. www.steppenwolf.org

• Green Mill Jazz Club, Depending on show, cover is free to $12. www.greenmilljazz.com

• Quimby's Book Store, 1859 W. North Ave., quirky selection. www.quimbys.com

• Wicker Park thrift stores on Milwaukee Avenue. www.wickerpark.com

Economize on meals . Plan to splurge on one meal, but make breakfast and lunch inexpensive by heading for ethnic restaurants, pubs or neighborhood joints. Research restaurants ahead of time by looking at menus and locations; one source is www.chicagorestaurants.com Ask if your hotel includes free breakfast, which saves money.

Window-shop the Magnificent Mile . OK, go ahead and buy something on this downtown shopping and entertainment mecca of North Michigan Avenue. Juse beware the lure of money-eating stores such the American Girl Collection doll store and the multi-tiered Apple store. There are more than 400 stores and boutiques to choose among.

For a different kind of shopping, check out some one-of-a-kind Chicago stores such as the old Central Camera store (230 S. Wabash) or the Prairie Avenue Bookshop, which specializes in architecture and out-of-print design books (418 S. Wabash).

Go to North Avenue Beach : The sandy strip of Lake Michigan beachfront north of the Magnificent Mile is crowded, but what a scene — and it's free. You can rent a bike; one place is Bike Chicago ($9.95 per hour for adults, $7.95 for children); you also can rent child bike seats and tandems (www.bikechicago.com).

Stroll Navy Pier : Hop the free trolley along Grand Avenue to get to the lakefront pier; walk with the crowds among the restaurants, shops, rides, museums and other attractions. The Ferris wheel is $6, but a better deal is to spend $9 and ride it twice. Wednesday and Saturday nights, enjoy the pier's fireworks. www.navypier.com

Walk or take transit : To save money, walk, take the local bus or elevated train. The best public-transit deal is the Visitor Pass for one day ($5), two days ($9) or three days ($12) for unlimited rides. Children ages 6 and younger are free. Order in advance at www.transitchicago.com, 888-968-7282.

Get free info : Get a copy of the new free guide Chicago Spring Summer '07 from the Chicago Convention and Visitors Bureau and sign up for coupons and a free newsletter www.choosechicago.com, 312-567-8500.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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