What are cheap things to do between Kansas City and Chicago?
January 31, 2004 11:25 PM   Subscribe

So the boyfriend and I want to go on a trip to Chicago for spring break... [more inside]

We're poor, nerdy students with limited funds and broad interests, starting our trip from Kansas City. We're looking for fun, cheap (free?) things to do over the course of 4-ish days, perhaps some must-see places to stop along the way (I have an invitation to crash at a friend's in St. Louis if needed), and cheap hotel deals. I'm the sort to show up in town and have fun wandering around, while he wants a detailed itinerary planned far in advance. So far, we have a destination, a time frame (March 20-25), and a car. I have never planned a vacation before and don't know where to start. Help!
posted by katieinshoes to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Perfect, Katie! I'm from Kansas City and spent the last 5 years in Chicago. As my family has driven the KC->Chicago route waaay too many times to count, I think the Iowa route is usually a bit faster--we usually leave at 6am and get into Chicago at 3pm, but whatever will maximize your ability to spend the most time in Chicago.

Chicago's a great city, but dress warm--it'll be cold. I'm not sure exactly what you want to do there. There's touristy stuff downtown as well as great shopping, and good food, and good theatre, but it's really up to you. "The Magnificent Mile" is downtown Michigan Avenue, the main big shopping strip. There's the Apple Store, Sony store, a ton of department stores, Virgin Records, clothing, eating, and assorted other shops. Very mainstream.

I'd recommend staying at a place near the El and ditching the car--it's hella expensive to park downtown, and the El can get you anywhere you'd want to go in a 4-5 day span.

There's the "Museum Campus" just south of the "Loop" (main downtown area), which is just south of Michigan Avenue. An Acquarium/Oceanarium (the Shedd) and Field Museum of Natural History. Also the Chicago Art Institute, very great, as well as the MCA (modern art collection)--both are downtown in the Loop area. Again, everything is accessible by El. There's also Navy Pier, very family-oriented shopping area on the lake. There's a Ferris Wheel, but eh, it's full of shops selling random kitschy stuff. IMAX theatre there, I think.

There's good dim sum and Chinese food in Chinatown (duh), but also at the Argyle El stop, which is a bit closer, and has Vietnamese too. And great Indian food up in the Devon neighborhood. And Chicago-style pizza, of course.

For more young shopping and people, try the Belmont and Wicker Park areas. Belmont a very diverse neighborhood--part gay Boystown, part alternative piercing-folk--and has decent shopping (good thrift stores and trendy clothes, and a good arts theatre). Wicker Park is a little more yuppy/trendy/urban hipster, but has good little boutiques for shopping.

Tons to do, and you'll definitely want to come back when you run out of time on the 25th. There's plenty of nightlife too. For that, try metromix.com.
posted by gramcracker at 12:28 AM on February 1, 2004

Lucky you, katieinshoes, I love Chicago.

You have to do the blues. It's essential. Essential!
CenterStage has a page with info and comments from patrons.

Buddy Guy's Legends is perhaps the most famous club - pretty friendly, generally fabulous acts, but a little on the polished side. Up in the North Halstead area there are a few clubs that are somewhat touristy, but a fun musical experience nonetheless - I like B.L.U.E.S. where you can see some of the greatest living blues names - it's crowded, fun, funky. Kingston Mines suffers from a bit too much tourist love, but it can still be fun, I have seen some greats there, and it often gets real between 1 and 4 am after most of the tourists go home. (heh, I'm a tourist, I guess.)

But perhaps the best club in town is the friendly, non-touristy Rosa's Lounge where you can hear Pinetop Perkins, Melvin Taylor, Sugar Blue or Dave Honeyboy Edwards if he is in town. Tony and his Mom Rosa are legends in their own right, the staff are incredibly friendly and knowledgeable. Read what patrons say.

The Art Institute of Chicago is one of the nation's finest museums, a real treasure. Also not to be missed, the Museum of Contemporary Art.

There is great theatre - get half price tix on the day of the show. Also, wonderful comedy clubs including Second City.
posted by madamjujujive at 1:36 AM on February 1, 2004

What kind of nerdy students are you? Perhaps check out the Chicago store of American Science and Surplus.

Like zines and comix? Go to Quimby's.
posted by gluechunk at 2:45 AM on February 1, 2004

Tips from a five-year-consecutive Chicago visitor/lover...
For a cheap but decent hotel right in the middle of downtown, check out the Cass Hotel - about $60 a night as I recall, a bit threadbare but you won't beat the price for a downtown hotel.
CityPass can be a great deal if you want to do all the touristy stuff. More cheaply, the Art Institute has a free day (Tuesdays) and the Aquarium is half-off on Sundays. And the Lincoln Park Zoo and Arboretum are always free.
For cheap food, Penny's Noodle Shops are all over the place - great food, incredibly cheap, and BYOB. I've had great luck finding other restaurants with Chicago.Citysearch.com. If you two want a mix of wandering around and planning, have him use CitySearch and MapQuest to plot out a series of cheap restaurants and interesting shops in different areas, then use those as a guide when wandering around. Maybe that sounds excessively nerdy (guilty) but I did that on my first major vacation there and it helped a lot to not have to wander aimlessly looking for food at the end of a long day.
posted by Gortuk at 9:27 AM on February 1, 2004

if you are down off the mag mile at all, the terra museum is always free, and not too far from the museum of contemporary art. plus, the terra is actually closing in october of this year, i hear.

i work off the mag mile, and jeez it is not cheap, but i do enjoy looking at all the people with their ridiculously expensive clothes wandering around. and you're close to navy pier, as well, so if it's warm you can go over there.

i agree with whoever said ditch the car -- it is EXPENSIVE to park downtown, and you can get most places via the el or buses, anyway. you might consider staying somewhere further north (i remember some friends stayed at a days inn in lincoln park for a reasonable price during my wedding)

anyway, have a great time :) today marks exactly one year since i moved here and i love it.
posted by sugarfish at 9:59 AM on February 1, 2004

History Buff? Definitely make time to visit Graceland Cemetery, easily reached via the Montrose or Irving Park stations of the north bound red line of the L. You'll find George Pullman, Marshall Field, Allan Pinkerton and many others.

If a collection of dead oligarchs is not your style, you could go instead to Forest Home Cemetery, although it's not as easy to get to. There you'll find Emma Goldman and the monument to the Haymarket Martyrs

If avant garde theater is your thing you absulutely MUST check out Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind at the Neo-Futurarium.

Even if it's cold, you should check out the parks along the lakeshore. It's a nice place to people watch, and also dog watch if your a canine enthusiast. I used to visit dog beach (at Belmont and Lake Shore Drive) just to see all the happy dogs running around. If you're going to the Lincoln Park Zoo, you'll be quite close.

If you like the punk rawk more than the blues, check out the Fireside Bowl and the Empty Bottle. Actually, they're a bit more diverse than that, but good places to check out. The Fireside Bowl is definitely an important musical landmark for Chicago.

I really like walking tours. You could pick up Chicago: In and Around the Loop and act as your own tour guide while checking out the historical architecture of downtown.
posted by ursus_comiter at 1:08 PM on February 1, 2004

Definitely make it to the Neo-futorium. I miss them.

For cheap pan-Asian, try Penny's Noodles. There's one at the Sheffield El, and one near Diversey and the El.

Try cinnamon rolls and Swedish pancakes at Ann Sathers right off the Belmont El. You can pop down the street to The Alley on Clark and watch the sub-urbanites look for "cool" items.
posted by answergrape at 5:09 PM on February 1, 2004

Further afield, the Museum of Science and Industry in Hyde Park is a fun afternoon; while you're there, you can walk just a few blocks west to the University of Chicago and take a walking tour (ooh, gargoyles!). To get to the MSI, take one of two buses: the #10 (drops you right at the entrance) or the #6 Jeffery Express (within walking distance--tell the driver where you're going). Do not take the El into Hyde Park. Hyde Park also has many Cool Bookstores (TM), if you're so inclined.

Near the Loop, the Newberry Library, a few minutes west of N. Michigan, has a small gallery that hosts exhibitions related to the main collections.

Chicago is a major theatre town; see the Chicago Reader for listings. The Goodman is in the South Loop, near the Art Institute; you'll need to go further afield for the other biggies, like Steppenwolf. Most of the other Loop theatres are road houses (e.g., the Shubert).

More places to eat: in the Loop, head to Bacino's for outstanding stuffed pizza (spinach, mmm...). My favorite treat as a grad student at the U of C was dinner at one of the Greektown eateries, especially the Pegasus.

Oh, and definitely dress warmly: icky wind chills blowing off the Lake, plus some powerful and sometimes scary wind tunnels in the Loop.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:35 PM on February 1, 2004

You mentioned that you're a student. As a bitter U of C slave with six months to go until I'm legal, I can tell you that if you're under 21 and lack a fake ID, nightlife opportunities--including blues clubs--will be limited as hell. Non-ageist venues include the aforementioned Metro (most of the time), Neo-Futurarium, and Fireside Bowl. Brew & View is also cool--most nights, it shows three second-run movies for five bucks, and they sell beer that you could buy if you were over twenty-one, which you're not. By "you," I mean me. Fucking Chicago.
posted by granted at 11:29 PM on February 1, 2004

The Green Mill, late on any Saturday night. You won't be sorry.
posted by *burp* at 6:56 AM on February 2, 2004

See Gapers' Block (self-link). Also, definitely pick up a Reader.

Buddy Guy's, B.L.U.E.S. and Kingston Mines are all fine, but they're strictly for the tourists and suburbanites (which doesn't necessarily mean you won't have a good time.) Fireside Bowl, by the way, is a punk venue in a (mostly) shut-down bowling alley.

All the museums are free on Tuesdays, so pick your poison passion.
posted by me3dia at 10:22 AM on February 2, 2004

Helpful tip if you're thinking of visiting the Hancock Center: If you're thinking of going up to the 94th floor observation deck, consider going to the 95th floor Signature Room bar instead. Sure, it'll probably end up costing you the same amount of money, but instead of waiting in lines for the elevator and being shuffled around with the rest of the tourists, you can sit and have a drink and take in the view.
posted by aine42 at 4:05 PM on February 2, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks, guys! John and I both are very grateful for all the ideas. Now we just have to narrow them down...
posted by katieinshoes at 10:29 PM on February 2, 2004

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