Chicago on Change

by Amy Groh
Photography by Kim Johnson

On Tuesday, July 8th, Kim Johnson, CIBP’s production assistant, and I took a day trip to the Windy City. In these tight economic times, our goal was to spend as little money as possible, and while that might suggest we had less to do, the opposite was actually true. With some research ahead of time and a bit of creativity, we found an abundance of free or inexpensive activities to occupy our time. Here’s how the day went.

We got in the car and set out from Peoria at 7:15am amid clouds and rain, arriving at Princeton’s Amtrak depot in plenty of time to make the 8:30 train. As the train approached from the south, I felt like I was in a movie. Two conductors in hats and ties hung out the side of the train on either end of the coach car. It seemed the ground below our feet yearned for theirs as well. They stepped down, placed bright yellow footstools below the stairs and welcomed passengers with a hearty “All aboard!” We boarded the train, took our seats and were soon whisked away to Chicago. Change spent: $26

Arriving at Union Station, we made our way into the bright, sunny city. The threatening clouds of downstate did not follow us; instead, we were met by a river and skyscrapers that glistened in the late morning sun. After taking a few pictures of the boats on the Chicago River, we made our way to the nearest Starbucks by 10:45. What’s a trip to Chicago for two coffee drinkers without a stop at the world-famous coffee shop that can be found, almost literally, “on every corner” (recent news notwithstanding)? Sufficiently caffeinated and with coffee in hand, we descended to river level to experience the Chicago Water Taxi, one of the most relaxing—and inexpensive—ways to get around town. Change spent: $7

Captain Nels Lund and Deckhand Justin Kamps took us from Madison Street to the famed Michigan Avenue, where the first stop on our tour awaited us. We scaled the steps, surfacing across from the famed Tribune Tower—the first two floors of which are home to the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum. Although it offers free admission, I quickly discovered that I was not thorough enough in my research—Tuesday is the only day of the week when the museum closes its doors. It’s a definite stop on the list for future visits, though! Our original plan thwarted, we journeyed south along Michigan Avenue, passing a number of interesting public sculptures on the way to Millennium Park. Change we would have spent: $0

As Mayor Daley noted, Millennium Park encompasses several proud Chicago traditions: namely, great art, architecture and landscaping. We stopped briefly at Wrigley Square and Millennium Monument before a swell of sounds drew us to the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Nearing the pavilion, we found several people standing on the outskirts, watching intently as bows slid across strings—we had happened upon an open rehearsal of the Grant Park Orchestra. Taking seats K23 and 24, we got out of the sweltering heat of the sun as midday rolled around and enjoyed the music—and the seats—for a bit.

We moseyed on to “The Bean,” more properly known as Cloud Gate by artist Anish Kapoor, whose piece was quite noticeably inspired by liquid mercury. We walked past a group of children who screamed through lunch at a mass of seagulls aggressively searching for any food they could get their beaks on. On to The Crown Fountain, a world-famous piece of art which reflects the numerous cultures that call Chicago home and has become a watering hole for visitors to Millennium Park. Change spent: $0

We walked on past the grand Art Institute of Chicago and grabbed lunch at Au Bon Pain. We each paid under $10 for generous lunches which included fresh, gourmet sandwiches, chips and drinks. Re-energized by the food (and the air conditioning), we made our way back onto the city streets and headed for Grant Park—Chicago’s “front yard.” Change spent: $17

Buckingham Fountain, though most impressive at night with its light and music displays, was still a sight to see even in the early afternoon. The massive pool represents Lake Michigan and is home to four marble sea horses, representing the four states that touch the lake. Change spent: $0

You might have noticed that the only money we’ve spent in Chicago so far was on coffee, a water taxi and lunch. Our morning in the city cost two adults just $50, including transportation!

We strolled past the Lincoln Memorial and through the art gardens at Grant Park, making our way to Museum Campus. After walking all the way from Chicago Avenue, Kim and I debated taking a cab to our main destination—the Shedd Aquarium. When we saw the Field Museum through the trees, however, we decided we could make it on foot. The building grew larger as we got closer, until we were standing at its base. Once inside the building, we found the lines weren’t too long, and we quickly entered the aquatic realm. Change spent: $56

Dragging our feet a bit as we made our way out of the Shedd, we headed straight for the cab stand to get a ride uptown. We had one more museum to hit on our budget tour of Chicago—The Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). Change spent: $10

A sign outside the MCA proclaimed that it was a Target Free Tuesday, which, as we knew ahead of time, meant Target-sponsored free admission for art enthusiasts every Tuesday this summer. I had done some research!

We spent our limited time in three of the five open galleries—Utopia Station and Peace Salon, Jeff Koons, and Everything’s Here: Jeff Koons and His Experience of Chicago. While the MCA is much smaller than the Art Institute and shows only contemporary exhibits, it’s a good alternative if you’re strapped for cash. There are several other Chicago art galleries which don’t charge for admission and can supplement the MCA experience. The Art Institute does offer Target Free Evenings on Thursdays and Fridays through Labor Day, if you plan to stay in the city longer than we did. Change spent: $0

With the heat and humidity taking a toll on our pace, we decided to head back to Union Station early so we could take our time getting there. After stopping to buy a couple bottles of water and walking for what felt like hours, we hopped on another water taxi for the second half of the trip. Sitting on a boat was definitely better than walking, and the breeze cruising down the river was refreshing. Change spent: $6

We docked at Madison Street and walked the last few blocks to Union Station, arriving with enough time to grab a quick dinner before boarding the train. Change spent: $9

At 5:35, we joined a long line of people who, after a day in the city, seemed just as exhausted as the two of us. We didn’t even make it out of the suburbs before both Kim and I drifted off to sleep. Change spent: $26

Our Princeton stop came sooner than expected. We filed out of the train and walked back to the car as the sun made its way down. After a fun-filled day of exploring Chicago on change, we headed back to the car and home to Peoria. Total change spent: $157. a&s

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