Car-free Chicago visit - lodging recommendations?
July 17, 2010 7:30 PM   Subscribe

Want to have a car-free, lovely, relatively inexpensive few days in Chicago. Where to stay? Is inexpensive an option?

We like museums, interesting walks, activities that involve some kind of new experience (caving was our other idea, or hang-gliding lessons), probably looking at the water, and discovering fascinating new things while walking around safe, attractive streets.

Basically, though, we need to get away from our place near Raleigh-Durham NC for a few days before our schedules lock us down for at least the rest of the year.

I just discovered that Chicago is supposedly very walkable, and has good public transportation. We'd probably love to stay somewhere inexpensive (preferably with a refrigerator and microwave, since we're vegetarian) and explore the city on foot, bike, and train.

Millennium park looks OK, and maybe the Garfield Park Conservatory and aquarium, and that production of "Alice" at Lookingglass Theatre might be good. We'll want to catch some comedy, maybe a classical music concert. I think I should get him out on the water in a boat somehow, or walking along the shore. We would love to explore some cafés, too. But I'd also love some more interesting ideas.

I saw older threads on visiting Chicago on MeFi, but none addressed where to stay for maximum walkability fun (most walkability score systems seem to be focused on living in a place -- pharmacy, grocery -- and that's helpful, but not my main focus here). If there are a lot of options, then I have to mention that we're on a pretty tight budget (I'm a member of CouchSurfing, but he's not).

We're thinking of going next week, too, but I realize that may not be practical.
posted by amtho to Travel & Transportation around Chicago, IL (27 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I realize I need to qualify "inexpensive". I'll start with "anywhere" - just a location where there are places to stay at all. Maybe I can get something via Priceline.
posted by amtho at 7:41 PM on July 17, 2010

Well, any of the downtown (Loop) hotels will put you smack in the middle of things -- pretty much all trains run to (and through) the Loop. But, being the Loop, prices will probably be higher. I don't have specific recommendations other than to look for deals on hotels in the Loop/downtown.

As for the kitchen/microwave thing because you're vegetarian: there are lots of veggie friendly restaurants here. Now, if you want to maybe do some of your own cooking to save money, that's a different story; my experience lately has been that a lot of mid-range hotels have microwaves and mini fridges (think Holiday Inn). You'll want to check the individual hotel websites, though, to make sure.

Neighborhood names to look for in looking for a hotel: Loop, Streeterville, Old Town, River North, South Loop; to a lesser extent River West, Lincoln Park, Wrigleyville, Lakeview. I think you're probably going to be better off in a place that's south of Diversey, north of Roosevelt, and east of Halsted (those boundaries are rough, but if you find something inside those boundaries, you'll be in very walkable territory with very good access to public transit).
posted by devinemissk at 7:49 PM on July 17, 2010

What constitutes inexpensive for you? You could likely stay downtown/Loop for $75-100/night if you book through Kayak or Hotwire. An advantage to staying downtown is that it's incredibly easy to get pretty much anywhere via CTA from downtown, so you wouldn't be stuck in one neighborhood or on one train line. You'll be near the main museums (Field, Aquarium, Art Institute, MCA) and you can see if there's a concert or something in Millenium Park while you're there, and you'll have easy access to whatever bus or train you'll need to get elsewhere. As for where else to go, I recommend the Neofuturists.

Also, I wouldn't worry too much about having a fridge and microwave. Chicago is very vegetarian-friendly. You might want to plan ahead to get to the best restaurants for vegetarians (try m. henry in Andersonville), but unless you refuse to eat in a restaurant that serves meat, you'll be fine nearly anywhere you go.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:58 PM on July 17, 2010

You can start by checking where your hotel is compared to where you want to go using the CTA trip planner. Here is a list of cruises, both on the lake and the river. You might want to kayak the river.

For walkability, downtown is central, but might be too pricey. This site has ideas about places to stay inexpensively. The Chicago Reader has pretty comprehensive listings of activities around town.
posted by readery at 7:59 PM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I stayed in Chicago for a fabulous several days last spring. We stayed smack in the middle of the Loop for ease of public transportation. It being the central business district, there isn't much to do there at night (the hotel pub/bar closes at 10ish!!), but it didn't matter, since it was easy to get back to the hotel from pretty much any neighborhood.

So, the Loop hotels are mostly quite overpriced. But Club Quarters rents out rooms to non-corporate-members really cheap under the name Central Loop Hotel and you can often get a rate for under $100 per night. It's the exact same hotel as Club Quarters, you just can't go in the members-only conference rooms and stuff. The rooms are small but clean and nice.
posted by desuetude at 8:01 PM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Or stay here for about $30-35 per night.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:03 PM on July 17, 2010

Response by poster: It [the Loop] being the central business district, there isn't much to do there at night...

Is there a central area with cafés and/or theaters, i.e. non-bar night life, where we could stay?
posted by amtho at 8:13 PM on July 17, 2010

Response by poster: The Neo-Futurists look awesome - thanks! That kayak trip sounds like it could be perfect for us -- does that mean that the Chicago River is miraculously non-grody?

Thank you for the suggestions so far! This is very encouraging.

The hostel idea had occurred to me, but it looks like we'd have to stay in dorms (not a private or semi-private room), and they're booked next week anyway.

We could probably be happy staying somewhere that's a nice, clean, direct metro ride away from "the middle of everything," if the metro runs eary/late enough to be practical (or I guess we could get a cab ride). We also really enjoy quietude and trees. Staying in a big hotel seems kind of ... not as human as we're used to.

m. henry restaurant has scrambled tofu! Awesome!
posted by amtho at 8:53 PM on July 17, 2010

Just so you know, Metra (with an A) in Chicago is the surface train lines that run out to the suburbs. The in-town "metro" is the "El" or "L" for "elevated trains." Even though sometimes they're subways (about half the total mileage is elevated).

You may end up in very, very odd places if you ask people for the nearest metro line ... they may well stick you on a Metra train to Joliet!

The El is generally a hub-and-spoke system, with the hub being the Loop (that'd be the loop the cablecars used to encircle and the El encircles today!) and the spokes radiating out in all directions. (The Metra, just FYI, is also a hub and spoke, with the hub at Union Station, just west of the Loop across the river, and the spokes running out as far as Kenosha, Wisconsin.) Both systems are easy to navigate and at least parts of the El run 24 hours (check a schedule), but definitely easier to get more places if you're in the hub rather than on the spokes. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:23 PM on July 17, 2010

Staying in a big hotel seems kind of ... not as human as we're used to.

If you feel like spending a bit more, there are some B&Bs and boutique hotels in the city (I haven't stayed in any, but there are several in the various Chicago neighborhoods), but if you want to stick with inexpensive lodging, as far as I'm aware, your options are a hotel, a hostel, or someone's couch. That said, trees and quietude wouldn't be my top choice of descriptors for Chicago.

Oh, but--if you were to find a place to stay in Oak Park, it might be what you're looking for. This place comes up in a quick google search, and might be of interest ($90/night). I haven't stayed there, but the Oak Park neighborhood is the closest to trees and quietude I've experienced in Chicago. Personally, I'd find it too far from the other interesting Chicago attractions, but if a peaceful place to stay is a top priority, Oak Park might be a good bet for you. You'd have CTA and Metra access, but you'd be at least a half-hour train ride away from the Loop, and a longer trip away from the north side neighborhoods.
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:27 PM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

There is a Ramada Inn in Hyde Park. It is very much not the fanciest place, but it's where my family stayed when they came to visit me at school. Because it's very cheap. Hyde Park isn't particularly transit accessible, but the Ramada is a block away from the #6 bus which will take you to the Museum Campus and right downtown in about 20 minutes.
posted by phunniemee at 9:42 PM on July 17, 2010

Not a hotel recommendation, but if you want to get on the water, you should go on the Chicago Architecture Foundation's boat tour. It's a great way to get out on the river and to learn some awesome stuff about Chicago!
posted by coppermoss at 9:54 PM on July 17, 2010

Response by poster: Would this place in Andersonville be a reasonably quick, uh, metra or L ride to the town center? If that awesome restaurant (m. henry) is also in Andersonville, it seems like it might be a good area. "...just a few blocks to the lake, cta, and LSD" -- what does that mean? If that means buses, then maybe it's a little remote -- but I'm used to buses that show up maybe once/hour, so maybe it wouldn't be that bad?

Also, I guess I have to worry about getting to the house from the airport. They have a cat, though, which would be really nice.

We're not that frugal, the house just sounded really nice, and reminded me of staying with that nice Paris-suburban family I found through Craigslist...
posted by amtho at 9:55 PM on July 17, 2010

LSD = Lake Shore Drive. Its the highway that runs up and down the Lake. That place is a block or two from the L and a few blocks from the Lake. You could walk to the beach. Its around an area with a lot of Vietnamese restaurants and shops.

I think Andersonville is a bit farther than I would recommend unless you have a compelling reason to stay that far north. I love Andersonville but if you only have a couple of days I'd stay in the loop, Anywhere from Lincoln Park South to the Loop or Wicker Park.

Andersonville is well connected by L, they're just trying to say its close to the lake

Any hotel in the loop is a 30 minute ride on the blue line (L) whereas with Andersonville you will have to either go into the loop and switch to another line to head north, take a taxi or take an L/bus or L/taxi combination.
posted by Bunglegirl at 10:18 PM on July 17, 2010

does that mean that the Chicago River is miraculously non-grody?

I've not been on a kayak trip, but I've also heard that the Chicago River is among the dirtiest rivers in the country - as in raw, untreated sewage dirty. As in you have to get a tetanus shot if you fall in. Kayaking is a little to close to that water for me. People do do it though.

Lake Michigan is beautiful, however and the architecture tour that goes down the river is fun (or any of the tours through the architecture foundation).

There are tons of great vegetarian restaurants here, so don't miss out on that either.
posted by mike_bling at 10:47 PM on July 17, 2010

Well, if I lived in Chicago I'd totally aim for Andersonville. But it's a bit out of the way as a tourist.
posted by desuetude at 11:01 PM on July 17, 2010

Response by poster: Oh, I see -- according to the CTA schedule I tracked down (yay, I'm learning), it's a 35-40 minute L ride on the red line to the loop, and that of course excludes walking time. Maybe we'll try staying there later, but we still need somewhere closer in to stay most of the time.
posted by amtho at 11:16 PM on July 17, 2010

Be wary that Lollapalooza is Aug 6-8, and will likely screw with hotel availability and downtown transit. I'd avoid that.

Also, kayaking on the river is a tad skeezy, but its one of the cheapest fun things to do in the city (~$5/hr, double kayaks available.) Just shower afterward is all. (These guys have a launch that's nearer downtown, I believe.)
posted by Wulfhere at 12:06 AM on July 18, 2010

ed: a little pricier than $5, but still fun.
posted by Wulfhere at 12:06 AM on July 18, 2010

There is a really nice B&B in Wicker Park called The House Of Tow Urns. A LOT of veggie food down there.

Andersonville is a 30 minute bus ride (through neighborhoods!) to downtown. You could also catch the red line from Bryn Mawr.

The Metra is the train to the burbs. The El is the elevated/subway line (colors denote which line you are on to where). The Metro is a music venue.

If you get to Wicker Park, check out The Handlebar for veggie food. Also in boystown is Chicago Diner, legendary veggie restaurant in the city.

Chicago is very walkable, but depending on where you are it can seem to take forever to get anywhere.

You can also rent bikes! I know On The Route bikes rents, as well as a vendor down at North Street Beach.


If you have any other questions, feel free to memail me. I love giving advice on my city. :D
posted by bibliogrrl at 12:11 AM on July 18, 2010

I love Chicago - used to go every year for work, then every year for pleasure, until VIA stopped running trains directly. The last time we went, I skipped the downtown scene and stayed at the Days Inn in Lincoln Park. It's a nice change from staying downtown, which can be overwhelmingly touristy and hard to find cheap eats. The Inn is about a 10-15 bus ride to the downtown/Loop area with very frequent bus service and walkable to the Brown line. It's a few blocks south of Belmont St and right on N Clark which are my favourite places to shop. The immediate neighborhood has a ton of nice little restaurants and a cinema around the corner. You can walk to the north end of Lincoln Park. And the room rate includes breakfast (with a waffle maker!). Looks like the rate is around $90-100 for weeknights.

That said, you can probably get a better rate for a 4-star hotel on Priceline and you might want to get the full Loop/downtown experience if it's your first trip - check or for tips.

And I pimp this in every travel thread, but if you're interested in checking out museums and hitting a SkyDeck, pick up a Citypass - not only does it save you money, you get to skip the often considerable lines at the Aquarium and Field Museum.
posted by Gortuk at 7:25 AM on July 18, 2010

The Chicago River is not NEARLY as bad as it used to be; however, it still does serve as extra rainwater drainage during big storms, and during REALLY big storms they'll open the gates and let the River drain into the Lake and then nobody can swim for a week. (But man, I remember in the 80s when the River stank to high heaven year 'round and there were constant advisories on the Lake that it was too dirty to swim in, and you couldn't fish the Skokie Lagoons, and now the River mostly only stinks on really hot days in summer, the Lake is safe 99% of the time, and the Lagoons have fishing.) If the River doesn't actively smell, I'd probably kayak in it if I were a kayaker. But the much cooler thing to do on the River is to take the architecture river cruise, which is not cheap, but is extremely awesome.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:26 AM on July 18, 2010

BTW, Chicago IS the most tree-y urban county in the USA and its motto is "urbs in horto," which means "city in a garden." It has a massive forest preserve system (68,000 acres in the county) ringing some of the inn suburbs w/in Cook County and the city itself has a large number of parks (7,300 acres in the city) and beaches and boulevards and even just old streets with old trees.

However. It's a city of about 3 million in a metro area of about 10 million. It's a beautiful city with a lot of natural havens, but it's a CITY, and a big one.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:33 AM on July 18, 2010

... and that production of "Alice" at Lookingglass Theatre might be good.

It is — a lot of spectacle, but surprisingly touching as well.
posted by Johnny Assay at 11:20 AM on July 18, 2010

Really interesting article in today's New York Times about inexpensive (but very nice) alternatives to hotels: Europe without Hotels. Despite the title, at least one of the services it reviews,, is global.
posted by WestCoaster at 5:17 PM on July 18, 2010

Response by poster: Yes! The place in Andersonville I linked is from

Thank you so much for the wonderful info. I'm really looking forward to our visit! Chicago sounds awesome.
posted by amtho at 7:15 PM on July 18, 2010

If you didn't see it on the cta website and have some form of smart phone type thing CTA Bus Tracker will tell you when the next bus is for any route any stop. Also google maps has all the transit info for the CTA and will plan routes for you.

Summer is kind of rough for theatre but this is the greatest city in the world to see live theatre. Hottix is the place for cheap theatre tickets. It's run by the League of Chicago Theatres. If you want to see some smaller productions check out Theatre on the Lake which is a program run by the city to remount some of the best shows from last season. If you do see Alice I'm the crew member with a beard.
posted by Uncle at 11:21 PM on July 18, 2010

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