24 hours in Chicago isn’t much, but it’s enough to see some of the top spots in the Loop. This 1 day guide to Chicago on a budget is perfect for first time visitors who don’t want to spend a lot of money!
Chicago is a BIG city. There are over 70 distinct neighborhoods to explore, and every neighborhood has something to offer in the way of food and attractions. It’s impossible to really get to know the city in just a short visit, so if you’re visiting Chicago for the first time, you need to know exactly where to go and what to do.
This guide is for first-time visitors who only have 24 hours to see Chicago. Oh, and you’re on a tight budget. Maybe you’ve got a layover, maybe you’re just visiting for the day from a nearby city, or maybe you can only afford to spend one day in Chicago. I get it. This guide is for you!
This is the perfect 24 hour guide to Chicago to show you some of the best sites and attractions, without spending all of your money. Attractions are free, food is cheap, and you can get your first taste of Chicago on a budget. Everything is focused in the Downtown/Loop neighborhood so that it’s easy to walk everywhere and see everything in a short amount of time.
Trust me, you’ll want to see Chicago again in the future anyways, so just get your feet wet with this 24 hour Chicago itinerary.
24 Hours in Chicago Budget Guide
Where to Stay: HI Chicago // $40
I chose to stay at the HI Chicago Hostel in the Loop. The location is perfect for a quick 24 hours in Chicago as it’s right in the heart of the city, within walking distance to everything on this list. The hostel itself is really cool with lots of common areas to hang out, meet people, or even get some work done. Everything is clean and spacious, and they have absolutely everything you need.
Address: 24 East Congress Parkway • Map
*I am in no way sponsored by or affiliated with the hostel. I booked a room and paid for everything out of my pocket. I just genuinely think this is the perfect budget accommodation option for a quick trip to Chicago.
Breakfast // Free
If you’re staying at HI Chicago, free daily breakfast is included with your stay! Breakfast is served between 8-10 am, so just fill up before heading out for the day. If you choose to stay somewhere else, make sure complimentary breakfast is part of the deal. Many hostels and hotels in the area have this option.
If complimentary breakfast isn’t an option, grab a donut (~$3) at Stan’s Donuts. They have a couple of locations in the Loop, donuts are always delicious, and it’s an easy start to the day.
Coffee // $3-5
Since you didn’t spend much (if anything) on breakfast, you can afford a coffee! There are plenty of places in the loop to get a good caffeine fix. I recommend Hero Coffee Bar or Goddess and the Baker.
Here are 7 Downtown Chicago Coffee Shops to choose from
Wabash Arts Corridor // Free
The Wabash Arts Corridor is the best place to see street art in downtown Chicago. It’s a section of Wabash Avenue that runs through the South Loop, between Congress and 16th Street. There are more than 30 large scale murals/ works of art to check out in the area. Take a walk after you grab that coffee and get some awesome photos!
You can download a map and get more info about the art here
Grant Park // Free
Grant Park is at the heart of Chicago’s Loop, home to many iconic monuments and points of interest. The park is comprised of multiple areas, institutions, and smaller parks in one. Here you can get pictures of the Chicago skyline, the “Bean”, and Buckingham Fountain. Then you can pop over to the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, where you might stumble upon a free performance (like the Grant Park Symphony or one of many free festivals that take place here). And don’t forget to walk across the BP Pedestrian Bridge and check out Maggie Daley Park too.
Find out what else you can do and see in Grant Park
Lunch // ~$10
For my fellow vegetarians and vegans, there are plenty of food options downtown! I found myself eating at Native Foods Cafe on more than one occasion. You can definitely get a good meal here for less than $10, and the menu is 100% vegan!
If vegan food isn’t your thing, try Revival Food Hall during the week (it’s closed on weekends). Here you’ll find a collection of local vendors to choose from. (Food halls are basically like upscale food courts, and they’re really awesome).
Some other ideas for quick and cheap eats in the Loop: Shake Shack, Hannah’s Bretzel, and Frontera Fresco.
Chicago Cultural Center // Free
This historic building was formerly the Chicago Public Library, but is now home to exhibitions, art galleries, community spaces, and free performances and cultural programs. The building itself is beautiful, so if you like architecture you’ll enjoy just wandering around. You can tour the center on your own, or you can join a free guided tour (Wednesday-Saturday at 1:15 pm). Entry to the Chicago Cultural Center is completely free.
Address: 78 East Washington Street • Map
Find more information about the Chicago Cultural Center here
Chicago Riverwalk // Free
The Riverwalk is a pedestrian walkway the runs along the Chicago River (which separates the Loop and River North neighborhoods). This is a great place to spend some time. You’ll get great views of the city, plus there are tons of restaurants and bars, and plenty of seating areas where you can pass the time with a coffee, a book, or a friend. You’ll also find the Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum here, which has free admission on Sundays.
Budget-Friendly Museums // Free – $12
If you have some extra time in your day, or a little wiggle room in your budget, consider checking out one of the less expensive museums/galleries in downtown Chicago. These are much smaller and more focused on specific interests, but still just as interesting!
As a writer and avid reader, my personal favorite was the American Writer’s Museum. I also really enjoyed the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s gallery. Admission to each is $12.
Some free options include The Chicago Design Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College.
Dinner // $10-20
You can always choose one of the restaurants listed in the “Lunch” section for a quick dinner in the loop. If you want something a little more fun for dinner, consider heading just outside the Loop neighborhood.
In the River North neighborhood, try True Food Kitchen, LYFE Kitchen, or Mercadito. All are just a couple blocks north of the loop. Over in the West Loop, try Little Goat Diner or Parlor Pizza Bar.
Where to Stay in Chicago on a Budget
If you don’t want to stay at the HI Chicago Hostel, there are plenty of other budget accommodation options. Chicago has a lot of hostels to choose from, plus you can check Airbnb for inexpensive rentals, or find affordable hotels. Another place I recommend staying at is the Freehand Hotel in River North.
Search for Chicago hostels on HostelWorld
Search for short-term rentals on AirBnB
Search for Chicago Hotels on Booking.com
Getting Around Chicago
If you’re following this 24 hour guide to Chicago, then you won’t need to worry much about transportation. Staying within the downtown area, you can easily walk between accommodation, attractions, restaurants and more. Walking is also FREE so it’s the most budget friendly option.
Public transport in Chicago mostly revolves around the L train, which is cheap and easy to use. Ride shares are a relatively inexpensive option as well. Again, if you’re staying in the downtown area, you really won’t need to use public transport. But the L is a great option if you want to explore other neighborhoods.
To get from the airport to the Loop, you can either take the L, or call for an Uber. Public transport is the cheapest option, but I usually opt for ride shares when I’m first arriving in a new city.
Other Free/Cheap Attractions in Chicago
I included my top recommendations above for this budget guide to Chicago based on my personal experience. Those are the things I’d tell someone to do when visiting Chicago because they are all located downtown, so it’s easy to fit all of that into just 1 day in the city.
If you have more time in Chicago, or if you just want to visit some other parts of the city, here are a few more free or cheap things to do in Chicago.
- Lincoln Park (Park, Zoo, and Conservatory)
- Smart Museum of Art
- National Museum of Mexican Art
- Navy Pier
- Chicago Botanic Garden
- The 606
- Garfield Park Conservatory
I hope you enjoy your 24 hours in Chicago. Like I said, you’re definitely going to want to visit again, so don’t worry about seeing the whole city all at once. This 1 day Chicago itinerary is perfect for your first visit, and you can start making your to do list for the next trip!
Read More from Chicago:
- 7 Downtown Chicago Coffee Shops You Must Try
- 1 Week in Chicago Instagram Diary
- American Writer’s Museum
- Staying at the Freehand Chicago Hotel
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