Over the Easter holiday, I found myself wandering around Chicago in Illinois. Fortunately, the weather cooperated and for the most part, the sun shone. It was my second time visiting the city in a year’s time and my fourth visit overall. For the most part, I’ve been to all the major tourist attractions and tried many of Chicago’s iconic eats. My time in the city was limited to a whole day; so my intent was to explore places and partake in activities locals themselves would try. Most importantly, I wanted to do it on the cheap. And so my 12 hours in Chicago began, as the plane landed on the runway at O’Hare.
12 Hours in Chicago, Illinois: What You Can Do for Free
First Quarter: Chicago O’Hare to Downtown
The majority the first quarter of my 12 hours in Chicago was spent on the commute from the airport to downtown Chicago. Travelers arriving at O’Hare International Airport can take the Blue “L” train from the airport to a number of neighborhoods within the city. On average, it takes approximately an hour from the airport to the Inner Loop and vice versa. Factor in the transfers and small pauses to identify which exits to take may add another 5-10 minutes. The fare is cheap — $5 one way — but if you’re staying longer in downtown, the Chicago Transit Authority also offers one-day and three-day passes for $10 and $20 respectively.
Second Quarter: Millennium Park and State Street
Once I arrived in the city, my first order of business was to eat. I read about a highly popular breakfast place called Wildberry Pancakes and Café so I wanted to try it. Well worth the hour long wait. It’s conveniently located in Prudential Plaza just across from Millennium Park. The park is one of the many free city parks in Chicago is very popular with tourists and locals alike for its convenient location close to museums and other must-see attractions in Chicago. Live music, art exhibits, running and walking trails with views of Lake Michigan, and the infamous Chicago “bean” can all be found here.
Third Quarter: Chicago Cultural Center
After breakfast and a quick stint around Millennium Park, I stumbled upon the Chicago Cultural Center. This beautiful building was once the city library but now serves as the city’s official reception venue. It’s free for the public to explore and contains art exhibits, live music ensembles (on certain days), and a stunning architecture. The city’s visitors’ bureau has a location inside and offers a free 45-minute tour of the building. It’s worth participating in order to appreciate the hidden gems within.
Fourth Quarter: Oak Street and the Lakefront
After my afternoon musings downtown, I decided to head up north of the Loop for the last quarter of my 12 hours in Chicago. Oak Street is well known to Chicagoans as the high-end shopping destination. Window-shopping on Oak is akin to visiting a world-renowned decorative arts museum. Many of the city’s five-star accommodations are unsurprisingly within a few blocks. In addition to the boutique stores, Oak Street also takes visitors towards the lakefront and Oak Street Beach where visitors can walk, cycle or jog alongside Lake Michigan. Beautiful views of the city’s skyscrapers and the lake are simply the best way to end my 12 hours in Chicago.