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Chicago on the cheap
Chicago on the cheap

It may be known as the Windy City, but cash need not go flying from your pockets when you visit Chicago. From the shores of Lake Michigan to the footpaths along the Magnificent Mile, you can find outdoor family fun along with history and culture without spending a cent. Here are five free things to do.

THE MILE

A walk along the Magnificent Mile is a great, free way to take in Chicago's history and architecture. Start at the bridge over the Chicago River on Michigan Avenue and walk 13 blocks north to Oak Street. Check out the historic bridge towers and take in the view of two of Chicago's most famous skyscrapers, the Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower. Dozens of stones from around the world are embedded in the Tribune Tower, from places ranging from the Alamo to Egypt's Great Pyramid to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

The Chicago Water Tower, near the northern end of the Magnificent Mile, now serves as a city visitor's centre, but it's also a historic landmark as one of the few buildings to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

The mile is also home to 460 shops (some of the ritziest in the country), 275 restaurants, 23,000 hotel rooms in 60 hotels and five museums.

THE PIER

Chicago's nearly century-old Navy Pier has transformed from a military training facility to a destination for 8.6 million visitors a year. The stretch of pier that juts into Lake Michigan features shopping, dining, theatre and is the departure point for boat rides and cruises. The pier is home to the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Chicago Children's Museum, an IMAX movie theatre and a 150-foot tall Ferris wheel.

Navy Pier is also tourist central for Chicago, with bicycle rentals for lake parks and paths; a carousel and Segway tours; boutiques, carts and stores filled with souvenirs; and dining at popular chain restaurants as well as local favourites.

THE PARKS

Chicagoans consider Grant Park and Millennium Park the city's front yard. The parks comprise hundreds of acres along southern Michigan Avenue filled with gardens, public art and views of the city and Lake Michigan. Grant Park is home to the iconic Buckingham Fountain and hosts summer food and music festivals. It offers easy access to The Art Institute of Chicago, Adler Planetarium, the Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium.

Most afternoons Millennium Park is filled with children splashing at Crown Fountain or tourists snapping pictures of "Cloud Gate" - the reflective, shiny statue more widely known as "The Bean." Crowds gather under the crisscrossed canopy at Pritzker Pavilion on summer evenings to hear music and in winter for an ice rink.

THE LAKEFRONT

Looking to swim, bicycle, run, rollerblade, play volleyball or go sailing? Head to Chicago's Lake Michigan shoreline.

The Chicago Park District maintains 26 miles (42 kilometres) of lakefront property. Beaches are free, open late May to early September, with lifeguards on duty 11am to 7pm. Among the most popular of Chicago's nearly two dozen beaches are Oak Street Beach and Ohio Street Beach near downtown.

Ten harbours also dot the Lake Michigan coast in Chicago with accommodations for about 6000 boats. Cyclists, runners and rollerbladers will appreciate the Lakefront Trail, which runs paved for 18 miles from Hollywood Avenue on the North Side to 71st Street on the South Side. The trail offers parks, beaches, gardens and statues.

THE ZOO

Families flock to the 49-acre (20-hectare) Lincoln Park Zoo a few miles (kilometres) north of downtown Chicago. It's one of just a handful of free zoos in America, home to 200 species, from outdoor exhibits of tigers, monkeys and sea lions, to indoor pavilions for birds, penguins and reptiles. There's also a children's zoo and an African-themed section with dwarf crocodiles, pygmy hippos, meerkats and warthogs.