Chicago on a budget

The challenge: Six kids, one mom, six hours in Chicago and $60 to spend.

Chicago’s offerings are thrilling, but they also can be expensive, especially with a van load of kids. So we wondered, can you do Chicago without breaking the bank?

The answer is probably, but you need three things: Pre-planning, patience and, as always, a sense of humor.

Knowing parking costs would quickly eat up our cash, the first stop has to be Garfield Park Conservatory, 300 North Central Park Ave., for a little back-to-nature fun plus exposure to the more than 30 huge and brilliant sculptures of Niki in the Garden exhibition. The sculptures, some as high as 18 feet and as long as 25 feet, are covered in ceramic mosaics, semi-precious stones, mirrors and glass and will be up through Oct. 31.

Pack little crackers from home to dampen hunger pangs and make sure each kid has their own water bottle to refill often.

Time: Two hours. Cost: Free, including free parking.

With tummies growling, a quick trip in the van to the heart of downtown leads us to Portillo’s, 100 W. Ontario St., for beef hot dogs, small fries and small soda that just hit the spot. Time: One hour. Cost: $36.

While you could walk off lunch taking in the atmosphere and people watching, that goes only so far with kids.

So, next stop—Lincoln Park Zoo, 2220 N. Cannon Drive, because the zoo is beautiful and small enough to allow us to see a lot without much whining about tired feet and because parking is relatively cheap by Chicago standards.

Time: Two hours. Cost: $16 for parking, $12 for the endangered species carousel (you know how hard it is to say no).

At six hours and counting and $4 over our spending limit, Lake Michigan’s chilly blue water beckons. So, with an hour to spare before parking costs another $4, leave the van behind and head to the lake to put your toes in the sand and feel the wind in your hair. Time: 45 minutes. Cost: Priceless.

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