Budget Chicago: Perfect for travelers on the cheap

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CHICAGO -- Chicago has a reputation as a working-class city for a reason. Sure, there are fancy Gold Coast shops and $500-a-night hotel suites, but it's also possible to see Chicago's famous lakefront, eat its famous food and enjoy distinctive cultures on the cheap.

FIND YOUR WAY: Chicago's network of buses, subways and iconic elevated trains are a steal at about $2 a ride. The Chicago Transit Authority offers unlimited-ride one- to five-day visitor passes that cost between $5 and $18.

For an affordable but fun way to get around, the Chicago Water Taxi travels on the Chicago River between Chinatown and the Magnificent Mile at a cost of $2 a ride, http://www.chicagowatertaxi.com.

ACCOMMODATIONS: Hotel rooms in downtown Chicago can be pricey. There are other options. Hostelling International -- http://www.hichicago.org -- operates an all-ages building in Chicago's Loop with 500 beds. Prices are between $29 and $35 a night.

HOT DOGS AND PIZZA: When it comes to cheap and authentic food, try a Chicago-style hot dog -- pure beef on a poppyseed bun with tomatoes, relish, pickle spear, onions and celery salt.

Hot Doug's "The Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium" is a favorite on the city's Northwest Side. Hot dogs are $1.75 and a Polish sausage $2.50. If you're there on a Friday or a Saturday, don't miss the duck-fat fries for $3.50. More at http://www.hotdougs.com/

Another option is Superdawg -- http://www.superdawg.com -- on Milwaukee Avenue, where you can get a hot dog with fries for $4.95. No worries if you can't make it to one of these recommendations, there are hot dog stands all over Chicago.

Pizza, another Chicago food staple, also can be found on most neighborhood corners.

Other deals: Penny's Noodle Shop -- http://www.pennysnoodleshop.com/ -- has cheap, good Thai food. The most expensive dish is $8.50. During lunch, Ronny's Original Steakhouse in the Loop offers an 8-ounce steak, baked potato, garlic bread and salad for $6.99.

Neighborhoods: Chicago's ethnic neighborhoods offer lots of food deals. If you're in Greektown or Chinatown you can feast for a few dollars on gyros and egg rolls; Indian and Pakistani fare is plentiful on Devon Avenue, on the city's North Side.

GREAT OUTDOORS: Start the day with a stroll down Chicago's lakefront trail. The strip runs from the far South Side to trendy neighborhoods on the North Side, with a great view of Lake Michigan and the skyline. A tourist favorite is Oak Street Beach for its downtown vista.

The crown jewels of Chicago's lakefront are Grant Park and Millennium Park. Grant Park has free concerts, classes, outdoor movies and festivals. Millennium Park is home to Crown Fountain.

Admission to Lincoln Park Zoo -- http://www.lpzoo.org/ -- is free and it's open year-round, even offering ZooLights displays during the holiday season. Plant lovers will want to visit the free Garfield Park or Lincoln Park conservatories.

CATCH THE VIEW FOR LESS: It costs between $15 and $29 for an adult to enjoy the view of Chicago from the John Hancock building's observation deck. But here's the local trick: Take the elevator to the Signature Room restaurant on the 95th floor and for the cost of a drink you can take in the skyline. It's cheaper than the Sears Tower Skydeck, plus you get a drink, http://www.signatureroom.com/.

CULTURE: Chicago's museums can make for a pricey day with entrance fees nearing $30 for some attractions. But most offer free-admission days -- the Chicago Children's Museum offers free Thursday nights and the Art Institute is free on Thursday and Friday nights. Check the museums' Web sites.

Some other Chicago museums are always free, including Navy Pier's stained glass displays and the National Museum of Mexican Art in the largely Hispanic neighborhood of Pilsen.

THEATER: Chicago's burgeoning theater district offers everything from glitzy musicals to independent dramas. Find day-of discounts at http://www.hottix.org/

WALK THE CITY: Chicago is a diverse city teeming with different ethnic groups. Grab a map to discover African-American, Indian, Irish, Italian, Polish, Greek, Chinese, even yuppie, cultures with a self-guided walking tour.

If Chicago Blues is your interest or Millennium Park caught your eye, the city provides free audio tours of both in five languages for download to your iPod or MP3 player at http://www.downloadchicagotours.com/.

VISIT DURING THE WINTER: The city offers a Winter Delights program that features special hotel rates, shopping and dining deals and hospitality packages. The deals run from Thanksgiving through New Years.

OTHER DEALS: Be sure to visit the Chicago Office of Tourism's special values Web site for printable coupons at http://www.chicagoofficeoftourism.org/specialValues/

The Go Chicago discount card -- http://www.gochicagocard.com -- can be a deal if you're planning to hit several of the city's tourist spots.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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