Originally written for suite101 and published on 01/03/09, now hosted at Xomba.

Lately Chicago has become a new hot spot for short city break holidaymakers. Less intense than New York, it nevertheless boasts a wide range of cultural and architectural wonders, magnificent views and excellent shopping. With many of its sights neatly collected together in groups, it can be tempting to squeeze in quite a few in one day.

Many of the museums do a variety of deals on entry including annual memberships and post-code based discounts: particularly useful for those visiting the bigger museums with small children. Short-trippers can make use of the various passbooks available, which allow entry to five of the most popular attractions at a reduced rate.

However, for the visitor with the luxury of a bit more time it is possible to see a large selection of Chicago’s attractions and museums without breaking the bank. Simply by doing a little research and being willing to be flexible with plans.

Collected on the Museum Campus Peninsula

After the destruction wrought by the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, the city planners took the opportunity to create a city to rival the great European cities. Along with wide boulevards and public parks, there was now space for the city’s main museums to cluster together in one place. Through a variety of corporate sponsorship programmes many of the city’s museums and art galleries are able to offer free entry days and in some cases weeks.

Those collected on the peninsula are no exception and the Adler Planetarium and Field Museum open free on days scattered throughout the year, with every second Monday free at the latter. The John G Shed Aquarium, which shares the peninsula with them does not run free days, however they do offer a variety of discount packages for groups and family parties.

Adler Planetarium

Adler Planetarium

Water Tower Place

The famous Water Tower Place, has its own selection of attractions, scattered among the high-end shops and five star hotels. From the Water Works, one of the few buildings to survive the Great Chicago Fire, a visitor centre that not only is a historic landmark in its own right, but also houses a theatre and provides discounted tickets to huge variety of productions throughout the Theatre District.

To the ultra-modern Museum of Contemporary Art across the park, with its unusual statues and changing exhibitions, which opens late till 8pm on Tuesdays when admission is free. Towering above both of these stands the John Hancock Tower. Claiming the best view over the city, free days are a rarity but with a bar at the top, the view is certainly worth the price of a cocktail.

Cultural Center and the Arts Institute

The second of the city’s two visitor centres, housed in the former Chicago Public Library building, has a wealth of information on other Chicago landmarks. At the same time playing host to a variety of temporary and permanent exhibitions, classical concerts and considerable architectural beauty all of its own, free of charge.

The Arts Institute has recently reconfigured its collection in the wake of the Modern Wing’s construction. February this year saw free general admission all month, and on Thursday evenings late opening features free entry the rest of the year. Children under 12 years of age get free entry all year round, and passports are available from the Cultural Center for free family entry.

Public Art and Transportation

The commitment to art in public places in the city means that simply by wandering round the streets and parks of downtown Chicago, visitors and locals alike can enjoy a wide variety of art for free. From the bronze cow outside the Washington Street entrance of the Cultural Center to the Picasso statue that stands tall and puzzling in the square outside Cook County Hall.

For travelling between attractions in the downtown area, there is a free trolley service during the tourist season. The Green trolley line service normally runs between Memorial Day and Labour Day, stopping off at most museums between 10am and 6pm. The Blue line service to Navy Pier runs all year from 10am to an hour after pier closing time.

The Bean