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Budget Guide 2013: Chicago
The neighborhoods that makes up the city of Chicago are in constant motion. It is a city of crime, segregation and flourish, a city of constant despair and rebirth. Because of that cycle, there's always a neighborhood on the cusp of development or the brink of disaster, which means new edgy properties opening and closing – and vying for the tourist dollar.
It's that competition that keeps the mainstream market on its toes. New budget hotels and restaurants on the outside neighborhoods have forced downtown spots to rethink the concept of "budget" and position new properties for a thriftier bunch. Find those new properties or visit the outer neighborhoods and you'll find the best budget destinations in this city; then throw in a well-built public transportation infrastructure and one of the busiest national airports and you've got the perfect formula for an inexpensive weekend trip.
That's not to say that all of your choices have to be limited to $2 taco stands and the youth hostel parked 30 miles west of town. "Budget" in Chicago can be experiencing celebrity-chef quality at food truck prices or a new boutique hotel at half the cost of the Waldorf Astoria. It's the second city for a reason: it's cheaper than New York, it's less pretentious, it's easier to access and its people are friendlier. Stick around, and your wallet might beg you to stay.
HotelsHotel Lincoln: Hotel Lincoln opened up in early 2012 after a massive renovation. Managed by Joie de Vivre, the hotel is a perfect mix of boutique and budget. Rooms are smaller, but unique and kitschy, and with its location next to Lincoln Park there is rarely a poor view. J Parker, the roof bar, is a swanky evening hangout that attracts a younger crowd, while Paul Virant's Perennial, downstairs, is among the best restaurants in the city. From $119, based on the season. jdvhotels.com/hotels/chicago/lincoln 1816 N. Clark
Longman and Eagle: Though the restaurant in this Logan Square establishment doesn't fit into the budget category, the inn upstairs certainly does. With only six rooms and a different design in each, Longman and Eagle is the perfect combination of boutique hotel property and high quality food. Appointments in each room include Danish furniture, reclaimed wood and vintage artifacts, and with each reservation comes two wooden nickels good for a whiskey downstairs. Give Will at the front our best. longmanandeagle.com 2657 N. Kedzie
Public: Ian Schrager's Public hotel opened up in late 2011 and quickly gained traction as one of the hottest properties in the city throughout the following year. This is partially due to the F&B properties on the first floor. The Pump Room mixes modern lighting and design with a warm aesthetic and a hip clientele. Like the Ace in New York, young folks come here for the sole purpose of socializing, with naught an elevator taken to the residential floors.
Visitors that do stay overnight are privy to a clean and minimal design, with light tones, simple furniture and basic wall appointments for distractions. It's the chic sort of quality one would expect from a four-star legacy – bundled cleanly inside this north side boutique. From $195. PublicHotelsChicago.com 1301 N. State Parkway
Eat and DrinkThe Burlington: Neighborhood bars in Chicago tend to inherit the traits of their residents, and in Logan Square, the hipsters head to The Burlington. Dark, Spartan and unassuming, The Burlington packs in a wide variety of live shows and DJ sets for those interested in the musical offerings of Chicago, and for those just looking to socialize there's a great budget bar selection separated from the stage as well. Try out the PBR + Jim Beam special for $5. TheBurlingtonBar.com 3245 W. Fullerton
Pork Shoppe: Pork Shoppe recently opened up on the north side of Chicago among a crowded field of barbecue joints in the city, but it's earned a respectable home. Barbecue here is savory and tasty without being over the top, and the dining room is small, simple, casual and friendly – just like it should be. For best results try the fabulous lunch special of 2 Texas Brisket Tacos, Fries and a Soda for $5.95. porkshoppechicago.com 2755 W. Belmont
Xoco: If you've got a celebrity chef palate but don't want to spring for the four-figure dinner tab, look no further than Xoco in the River North neighborhood. The brainchild of Rick Bayless, the same chef who runs Frontera Grill and a spattering of other restaurants, Xoco is a quick fire, Mexican-inspired restaurant that serves up delicious tortas, bowls and salads at exceptionally reasonable prices. The carnita bowl, which has delicious slow-cooked pork and potato-masa dumplings is a winner at $11.50. And if you miss Xoco, try out the Tortas Frontera in O'Hare airport on your way out of town. rickbayless.com/restaurants/xoco.html 449 N. Clark
Lush Wine and Spirits: Wine tastings aren't unique to Chicago, but they certainly are perfected here. Among the best are those held at Lush Wine and Spirits, where every Sunday between 2 and 5 p.m. you can stop by for a free tasting of the newest bottles on the shelves. Stop by one of their three locations in University Village, Roscoe Village or West Town. lushwineandspirits.com Multiple Locations
Budget ActivitiesHeadquarters: If you were born any time after 1975 there's a good chance that video game culture is threaded into your DNA. And while many of us grow (or are forced) out of that phase, there are still fond memories attached to Ms. Pac Man and Street Fighter II. Headquarters, a bar in Lakeview, is the perfect place to journey back in video game time.
Step into this bar under the red line and you'll see a score of vintage games ranging from the '80s up to the 2000s surrounding a dozen high tops and a well stocked bar. But the best part? The games are all 100 percent free. Just stop by the bar and grab a few drinks to get your evening started. Hqbeercade.com 950 W. Wolfram
Maxwell Street Market: Each Saturday morning, a stretch of Chicago's South Loop is transformed into a vibrant and raucous flea market. Vendors range from those selling fruits and vegetables to those selling tractor parts and bulk Mach-3 razors at a deep discount. You can find everything here, and the environment is friendly and busy. cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/dca/supp_info/maxwell_street_market.html 800 S. Des Plaines St, 7 a.m. - 3 p.m.
Brew and View: If you happen to be in the city during a weekday, a few of the venues around the city turn their concert-floors into cheap spots to catch an old movie and drink a few beers. Brew and View up in Lakeview is probably the most popular. You can catch a double or triple feature here for only five bucks and beer is pretty cheap too. Just don't ask for water, that's almost as expensive as the beer. brewview.com 3145 N. Sheffield
Get AroundChicago Transit Authority (CTA) passes work on both the elevated (el) trains and public buses in this city, which for most travelers should take care of all of your travel. You can pick up day passes for $10 or three-day passes for $20 at O'Hare, Midway or almost any train station, then use those cards to swipe as you go.
Google Maps and Transit are the bibles of navigation for most locals; simply plug in your destination and get directions from your current location to find the easiest path home. If you haven't got that functionality, remember that the city is divided into a grid and that State and Madison (downtown) is at 0,0. So Belmont, 32 blocks north of Madison is at "3200 North" while Western, 24 blocks west of State is at "2400 West." Most buses go either straight north-south or straight east-west, and if you want to intersect with a train just ask the driver.
Budget TipIf you're looking to get the skyscraper views of the city from the John Hancock or Willis Towers, check out the Signature room on the 95th floor of the Hancock Building. It's adjacent to the observatory, free, and rarely has a line. You can stick around for a (pricey) drink that's less expensive than the cost of admission to the observatory, or if you're really frugal, take a walk around and head downstairs.
[Photo credits: Kentaro Yamada]