When E and I first started dating, about eight years ago, we went on a date to a local museum. We had a great time but were appalled by the number of entrance fees there were. Now that we have a little kiddo, we try to get her out and about as much as a toddler will enjoy but don’t want to go broke doing it. We love living right outside Chicago and realize that we don’t use it to its full potential! Here are some things we have done around Chicago (either with B or with the kids I nannied). While some are free, some aren’t but there are still ways to save money. Some of these activities are a bit more touristy (aquarium, zoo, the Art Institute) others are just a great way to get out and enjoy Chicago and do things you maybe wouldn’t always do (go to the arboretum and the nature museum.)
If you live in Chicago, you have most likely at least driven by the Lincoln Park Zoo. It is an amazing facility that is free and open to the public. When we lived in Lincoln Park together we often would walk over to the zoo first thing in the morning and just walk through. It was so much fun to see all the animals in a low key fashion (no hurrying making sure you get your money’s worth!). These days, with B it takes a bit more orchestration, especially since we live 30-40 minutes away and you have to time it with nap schedules; but it still can be done. While the animals are really cool, the LP Farm-in-the-Zoo is a great place for little ones to learn more about domesticated animals and on Wednesday mornings they have a free Singalong Story Time with Mr. Singer (he is a rockstar among the little ones let me tell you!) at 9:15 and 10 am. It is always packed and often has the same regulars there week after week. I used to take the boys I nannied there and they were mesmerized (sometimes a little overwhelmed by the volume of the music and number of people,) but I think it was a great experience and it was free! Parking is free if you can find it on Stockton. You may have to walk a bit but it beats having to pay for the lot, just make sure to bring the stroller!
Another alternative is to go to Brookfield Zoo, in Brookfield, IL. It is about 20 minutes away from us and although we are not members we have friends who have the Family Plus Membership. For a family it is $125 but you get a bunch of perks like free parking and admittance to the children’s center which is great for little ones in the winter! It is much bigger than the LP Zoo and is much more spread out. If you aren’t a member, it costs $12 for each child over 3, $17 for each adult, and $10 for parking, plus extra for any special exhibits. So if you are planning to go more than a couple times in a year, definitely consider membership or finding someone who is a member (you and your girlfriends could each become members at a local museum and take turn going as a free guest)! Other than that, you could look for free days. For this year the following are free days at Brookfield: October-Dec (Tuesdays and Thursdays), and January and February (Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays).
And obviously, saving money by bringing your own food to snack on for the littles is always your best bet and is super easy at the zoo where they have plenty of places to eat!
The Shedd Aquarium is such an amazing institution. Not only is it beautiful but it educates people about our valuable resources and ecosystems. I love going and for the littles it is so stimulating. Still, though, the Shedd can be expensive so it is best to try to go on a discounted or free day. Without discounts, it costs $29 an adult! Here are the following days for Illinois residents (there are 52 days a year they give discounted rates to IL residents including free general admission and discounted special exhibit tickets):
Parking isn’t cheap at about $20 so it may be worthwhile to investigate other options like Spot Hero (which we use all the time when parking downtown).
Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum:
A friend and I took her son and B to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum last Thursday because every Thursday is free for IL residents. It is a great place for little ones and bigger kids alike to run around and learn stuff. B loved walking around the exhibits, playing in their play area on the main floor (it has a slide and stairs so she is a fan!) And we ended by going to the Butterfly Haven which continues to be such a cool experience. All of this was 100% free. You are encouraged to donate, so next time we will make sure to. But even parking is free if you find it on Stockton (pretty easy even for a Suburban if you don’t mind walking a bit!) I used to bring the little boys I nannied here too especially in the winter because it was a free alternative to paid activities and they could get their energy out!
This past weekend, as you may have seen on Instagram, E and I took B to the Morton Arboretum. It is only about a 20 minute drive and while only my second time there I am blown away by how nice it is! For each adult is $12, but under age 2 kids are free (otherwise they are $9) but parking is free. So just off the bat we were $24 out. So we decided to inquire about joining, which for us as a family and our love for outdoors, makes a lot of sense. It was $90 a year for a family of two (B doesn’t count until she is 2 years) and they deduct your entrance costs from the day you join. So if we go back three more times we will have saved money. It will be easy to do that! The grounds were really expansive, so well kept, and walking down the trails you almost forgot you are outside Chicago. Their children’s area totally won me over. There are a bunch of different activities and play sets and B absolutely had a ball. If you aren’t up for joining, there are discounted admission days every Wednesday ($9 for adults and $6 for kids 2+) and parking is always free. A nice perk is that included in your membership is reciprocal admission to 280 other arboretums/ conservatories including Chicago Botanic Gardens (which is where I grew up going to!)
Chicago Botanic Garden has the opposite (parking is $25 but admission is free everyday. Members get free admission as well as I am sure discounts on other activities (the same as every other institution’s policy.) They have a fun holiday train ride that is always a hit, so we may be going up there for a visit this winter. Sometimes there are Groupons for the train ride so it is good to look around! Now, I haven’t been there in twenty years but I am definitely going to make a trip with B!
One of E and my favorite activites when we were childless was going to art museums. One weekend in college (when I was at Connecticut College), we took the train down for a couple days and went to MoMa, our favorite, the Frick, and the Met.) It was such a fun experience, and now every summer when we go visit my extended family in Locust Valley, we always make sure to take a trip into NYC and visit at least one of them. But living in Chicago is such a unique opportunity to regularly see wonderful artists and artwork featured at Art Institute of Chicago. E and I used to be members (I joined in college and got the student membership for $50/ year.) My mother-in-law is a member however, so we go with her (and it isn’t too expensive about $100/yr which gives you access to all the exhibits and free general admission.) Thursday nights after 5pm are free for everyone which is a great (albeit crowded) time to go and see if it interests you. With the modern wing now open, we are hoping to explore their children’s area some more and spend more time down there! B went to her first exhibit this past September and did very well for her age!
Our friends are members of the Modern of Contemporary Art (MCA) and they really enjoy going there. It is not my favorite museum, but I am going to try to go on one of their free days (Tuesdays are free all day for IL residents and children under 12 are always free!)
What about you? Do you think you use your city to its potential? We certainly don’t but we are trying to get better!
P.S. I forgot one last way to save money is to check out from your local library their zoo or museum passes. Chicago Public LIbrary has a program where they will let you borrow museum passes for free!