Tourists at Millennium Park visit the Cloud Gate sculpture, better known as the Bean, despite the cold.
Visitors can skate for free in Millennium Park downtown, surrounded by the Chicago skyline.
A small customer looks at the dreamy wares at the American Girl store in Water Tower Place in Chicago. The balloon pictured is really for sale, for $150.
Winter in Chicago should include a stop at the Ghirardelli chocolate shop near the Water Tower, where you can get hot chocolate for $3.50.
CHICAGO -- It's sleek, shiny and sensational.But let's add two more words to describe Chicago for tourists: darned expensive.On Feb. 1, admission to the Art Institute of Chicago jumped to $23 for out-of-state visitors. In the past month, a host of other price hikes that affect tourists have also taken effect: Museum of Science and Industry ticket prices rose. The Chicago Transit Authority hiked the price of passes to ride the L and city buses. Parking prices downtown jumped. Even the toll on the Chicago Skyway went up.Chicago has the highest tax burden for travelers in the nation, even higher than New York and Boston, the Global Business Travel Association reported last fall, when it compared cities' taxes on hotel rooms, car rental and meals.
Chicago has 2.7 million residents and 43.6 million visitors a year. It doesn't need to offer constant cut-rate attractions. That's the power of a popular city.So how can you visit without going broke?Visit in winter.With more than 33,000 hotel rooms in the downtown district and an occupancy rate of only 50 percent in January and 52 percent in February, Chicago hotel prices in winter are about half of what they are in the summer and fall, when occupancy can hit over 90 percent. For example, the weekend of Jan. 25-27, rates before taxes were $139 for the historic Palmer House Hilton, $135 for the Fairmont Chicago and $92 for Embassy Suites. Even adding the city's steep 16.4 percent per night hotel tax to those prices won't break the bank.I like Chicago in winter for other reasons too. Psychologically, it seems to have more room. It still is breathtakingly beautiful on a sunny day. Skating at Millennium Park is free, and so is clowning around at the Bean (the shiny Cloud Gate sculpture in the park). If you can handle the bracing wind off Lake Michigan, strolling and shopping are relaxing this time of year.In winter, you can still ride the Ferris wheel at Navy Pier for $6, or take in the winter views from the John Hancock Observatory ($17.50) or watch the crowds from a window seat at the nearby Ghirardelli chocolate shop while sipping hot cocoa (a bargain at $3.50).In winter, it's easier to get restaurant reservations.It's also a great time for theater.In winter, you also might score tickets for the hottest show in the country, "The Book of Mormon," if you are flexible with your dates or seeking a single seat on weekends. The musical at the Bank of America Theatre has been extended through Sept. 8.When I arrived in Chicago in late January, I heard grumbling from hotel clerks and even transit workers about all the new price hikes around town. Some affect residents, but most of the increases seem meanly aimed at tourists. For example:The cost of a day pass often used by tourists to ride buses and the L is now $10, a 74 percent hike over the old price of $5.75. You now need to ride at least five times in one day to make the pass worthwhile, because individual trips are $2.25. Prices for seven-day and 30-day passes also went up Jan. 14.
It's now $5 to take public transit from O'Hare airport to downtown, up from $2.25.Art Institute of Chicago tickets for out-of-state visitors are now $23 (they were $18). Museum of Science and Industry tickets for out-of-state visitors are $18 (they were $16). And there are no more free days for out-of-state visitors to any Illinois museum -- those were dropped 18 months ago.It's now $6.50 per hour to park in the Loop, the highest city parking meter rate in the nation. Parking near downtown is now $4 an hour, and neighborhood parking is $2 an hour. Parking prices rose Jan. 1.The toll for the Chicago Skyway is now $4, up 50 cents.So how can a simple visitor from out of state still enjoy Chicago?Come now. If you have two or fewer people, don't bring a car to Chicago -- the parking alone costs more than mass transit or taxis, about $45 to $55 a day, even if you self-park. Take the train or a bus. Stay with a relative or friend. Seek out small neighborhood restaurants.
Save your money for the few things that really matter to you -- the symphony, a play, a museum, a great jazz club, a Chicago pizza, an American Girl doll with her very own hot-air balloon, or just a hot cup of cocoa while looking out at a bustling Magnificent Mile.