We had grand visions for our visit to Chicago. We talked about visiting Brookfield Zoo, Chicago Children’s Museum, Field Museum of Natural History, Museum of Science and Industry, Navy Pier and The Shedd Aquarium, to name a few.
Then we decided to buy a new house — a house that needs extensive renovations. With our financial plummet on the horizon, we took a look at our Chicago visit with a new perspective. A frugal perspective. We cancelled our expensive hotel, and we booked tickets on the Amtrak train for a day trip — for “free.” This means we paid for nothing outside of food and transportation.
Our Amtrak tickets cost $55 each. Our younger-than-two son was free. We chose the 6:10 a.m. departure from Champaign, and we took the 8:05 p.m. departure from Chicago. Look, this is a loooong day. It’s a fun one, though. You can do anything once. That’s why Disney continues to profit. The train is often late departing from Champaign, so you should download the app for delays and alerts. Sit on the observation deck on your way up. It’s a neat viewing opportunity of the small towns and flat, desolate plains. The Amtrak conductors are beyond amazing. Like storybook-character amazing.
Travel light. Since we didn’t have accommodations, we only took a stroller and a backpack. The stroller will act as your rolling crib, too.
We arrived around 10 a.m. at Union Station. From there we went to the FREE Lincoln Park Zoo. They do have a few attractions you can pay for, and they consistently ask for donations. Nevertheless, admission is $0! Adjacent to the zoo is the really cool Lincoln Park Conservancy. Again, FREE. It had room after room of exotic flowers and ponds. It’s a great way to escape the sun, but you will not escape the heat. It’s HUMID in there.
After those attractions, we visited Cummings Park across the street. It’s a clean, nice, big park. There is zero shade, however. In retrospect, I’d go here before the zoo. The earlier the better.
We went to lunch at R.J. Grunts ($40ish). It’s located right by the park. We had no reservations, and I had low expectations. I didn’t think we’d find a place to eat in the heart of this bustling area. We didn’t see many other option, so we went for it. This restaurant offered to lock up your stroller! Those city folk have them nice strollers, so I risked losing the second-child Graco. Still a nice service.
This restaurant had a crowded foyer, but the wait was only a few minutes. Talk about kid friendly: The extensive menu for kids; the divided plates so applesauce stays with applesauce; the cups with the special kids lids and straws. Their food even tasted good, too. I know because I ate a lot of their macaroni and cheese. It was LOUD, too. You don’t have to worry about any screeches or cries.
After lunch we headed to the downtown area’s Maggie Daley Park. This isn’t an ordinary park. It has water features throughout, and it has the craziest play area I’ve ever seen. Picture a massive suspension bridge, towers and slides with a ton of kids swarming the area. It was a very anxiety-producing scene. I would not leave your child unattended here. Our 5-year-old son found himself stuck on top of the bridge. Be wary. If you blink you might lose them. They do have a tall lighthouse tower to slide down. Bring your swim gear if you want to go to the splash pad areas. Also, bring cash. There are cash-only ice cream vendors all around.
From there we went across Lake Shore Drive to the — you guessed it — lake shore. We watched boats, ate soft serve, and we dipped our toes in the water.
On a nice Saturday in Chicago, there is stuff going on everywhere: food trucks, markets, music and street vendors in every direction. You can’t make a wrong turn. We walked our way west to the Millennium Park area.
There was a lot of action at Millennium Park. You could clearly hear a fenced-off concert. No admission fee! Like it or not, we heard some local DJs spin some sick beats. (I’m so hip.)
There are some interesting and strange art installations at Millennium Park. Everyone knows about “The Bean.” However, it’s actually called “Cloud Gate.” Fun fact. We also ran into the “Crown Fountain.” Hundreds of kids and parents cooled off in the shallow reflecting pool in between two glass towers. The towers project video images of Chicago citizens. The onlookers would wait and wait and wait until suddenly the mouths of the images would open. A stream of water would pour out. It was a little bizarre. And exciting. The artists designed the installation to resemble old gargoyle statues. Again, make sure you have swim gear.
Download the Millennium Park app to see what’s going on during your visit.
At this point, we were wearing down. We stopped for a casual yet delicious dinner at Brown Bag Seafood Co. There are a bunch around Chicago. Ours was at 340 E. Randolph St. It was fast, fresh seafood. I recommend the lobster roll and truffle tater tots. Great fish bites, too, on the menu for littles. ($60ish)
We walked or took an Uber everywhere. However, if you want to be even more cost effective, brave public transport. Add another free idea to your travel list: Check out these museum deals.
We headed to Union Station for our evening departure. The beauty of this day is in the ride home. It’s very quiet. There’s no doubt your little ones will be off to dreamland before the first stop.
Emily Harrington is a Chambana townie. She left her 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. job in communications so that she could be a 24/7 mom to two busy boys. Still interested in writing, Emily uses some of naptime to practice her passion and keep her mind right. Emily is a happy wife with a happy life because she fell for a fellow townie. Emily usually finds herself engulfed in balls, blue and belly laughs.