If you're looking for a fun, affordable Chicago city getaway, the options are endless: you can spend the day shopping your heart out along the Magnificent Mile, cruising the Chicago River, and even go to the beach on beautiful Lake Michigan. It's a great walking city—you'll even see tourism officials around to steer you in the right direction, and if all else fails, the L metro system isn''t hard to navigate. In short, there are enough parks, museums, and family-friendly attractions to keep everyone entertained. Plus, there's great food everywhere—deep dish pizza or Chicago-style hot dogs, anyone? We've got eight ways to soak up the city whether you're in town for the week or the weekend.
Take your picture with Cloud Gate (aka. The Bean)
A great only-in-Chicago photo-op is having your picture taken while your image is reflected in Cloud Gate, or The Bean, an impressive work of public art by British artist Anish Kapoor. It's located in Millennium Park, a popular spot for concerts and festivals in the summer, so keep an eye out and visit this website to learn more about upcoming events. Free.
Face your fear of heights
If you're going to do it, do it in style. Chicago is home to two of the tallest buildings in the country, Willis Tower (aka. The Sears Tower until 2009) at 110-stories (1,729-feet tall) and The John Hancock Observatory, located on the 94th floor of the 1,506-ft tall John Hancock Center. Both are covered by the Chicago CityPASS, giving you beautiful panoramic views of the city around you—the John Hancock Observatory offers great views of Lake Michigan, while Willis Tower is home to the ultimate daredevil photo-op: Skydeck Chicago on the 103rd floor gives you the chance to stand on the Ledge, a series of four glass boxes 1,353-feet up that extend out from the building by 4.3 feet, letting you look out and straight down, if you're brave enough. This is one of those only-in-Chicago experiences you'll want to have, if only for the bragging rights. Both attractions are covered by the Chicago CityPASS. Skydeck Chicago costs $18 for adults ages 12 and up, $12 for children ages 3-11, or save time in line with the express pass for $40 per person. The John Hancock Observatory costs $18 for adults ages 12 and up, and $12 for children ages 3-11.
See the city by boat
For a totally different take on the city, try a 90-minute boat ride along the Chicago River and on Lake Michigan with Wendella Boat Tours, a family owned and operated Chicago business that's been showing visitors around town since 1935. Enjoy smooth sailing and hear all about the amazing architecture and buildings around you—you might even recognize parts of the city that were featured in The Dark Knight Rises and other Hollywood hits. During the last half of the tour, you'll go through the lock and sail into Lake Michigan, giving you spectacular views of the Chicago city skyline and Navy Pier along with views of Museum Campus from the water. The Combined Lake and River Tour is not covered by the Chicago CityPASS; tickets are $28 for adults, $26 for seniors 65 and up, and $14 for children ages 11 and under. Children under the age of three ride for free. Save five percent by booking your tickets online.
Visit Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs
Baseball season may be over right now, but check back in March of 2014 for tours of this 100-year-old classic American ballpark. You'll get the inside scoop on the history of the ballpark and learn little background stories about things that influence the game we know today. (Did you know this was where the tradition of singing the National Anthem originated? During the 1918, it was sung to honor the Veterans of World War I. Wrigley Field is also home to America's first concession stand and the first place that allowed fans to keep homerun baseballs as a souvenir.) You'll hear all about the infamous Goat Curse, a strange phenomenon that started in 1945 when someone was refused entry because they wished to be accompanied by their billy goat mascot and placed a curse on the field so the Cubs would never win a World Series (it's been 68 years and they still haven't won!) and get a chance to get your picture taken in the Cubs dugout. Tours last about an hour and cost about $25 per person; check the website for more details.
Ride the Ferris wheel at Navy Pier
The Windy City is home to one of Budget Travel's favorite boardwalks and one of the most incredible Ferris wheels in the country: The Navy Pier Ferris Wheel at Pier Park. Embrace your inner child and treat yourself to a seven-minute ride that gives you a whole different view of the city and Lake Michigan—take in the festive amusement park atmosphere at night to see the city really sparkle. If you're really feeling the vibe, take a spin on The Wave Swing and enjoy all the inevitable childhood amusement park flashbacks as you swing to the music with all the other big kids. Visit this website for pricing options at Pier Park. Rides on the Ferris wheel or Wave Swing cost $6 each.
Save time and money by investing in a Chicago CityPASS
There are so many things to see and do in the Windy City, and a big chunk of them happen to be covered by the Chicago CityPASS, a package that effectively saves you 49 percent and gives you VIP admission to five major attractions. You'll score VIP entry to Shedd Aquarium, fast pass entry to Skydeck Chicago, an all-access pass to The Field Museum—the last two options are your choice of entry to either the John Hancock Observatory or the Museum of Science and Industry, and entry to either the Adler Planetarium or the Art Institute of Chicago. Chicago CityPASSes for adults over the age of 12 cost $89, while passes for children ages 3-11 cost $79.
Indulge in a little museum hopping
Chicago's is home to world-class museums like the Adler Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium, and The Field Museum, all located in the city's Museum Campus area along Lake Michigan—The Art Institute of Chicago (one of BT's picks for world's most beautiful museums) is located nearby between Millennium Park and Grant Park, so make a day of it! Youngsters will love the Chicago Children's Museum, where they can splash, build, climb, and explore to their heart's content. Admission to the Chicago Children's Museum is not covered by the Chicago CityPASS and costs $14 for children and adults, $13 for seniors. If you're not using the Chicago CityPASS options: admission to the Art Institute of Chicago is $23 for adults and $17 for students and seniors over age 65; basic admission to the Field Museum starts at $15 for adults, $10 for children ages 3-11, and $12 for students and seniors; general admission to the Shedd Aquarium starts at $8 for adults, and $6 for children ages 3-11; admission to Adler Planetarium costs $12 for adults and $8 for children ages 3-11.
Stay in the heart of the city for less
I stayed at Embassy Suites Chicago-Downtown, an affordable family-friendly hotel in the middle of all the action on North State St. between E. Ontario St. and E. Ohio St. Besides being within walking distance of most major Downtown attractions—there's even a free trolley you can take from Navy Pier back to State Street within a block of the hotel—Embassy Suites treats every guest to a complimentary cooked-to-order breakfast every morning and free drinks and refreshments every evening at the Manager's Reception, the perfect pick-me-up after a long day of visiting the sights. Prices vary, but a quick search shows rooms starting from $139 a night in December.