Many commercials around the holidays give us the idea that a gift has to be expensive to be meaningful. Sparkling earrings? A brand-new car with a giant bow? A bunch of puppies—jingle bells on their collars—gamboling toward a couple of ecstatic kids? Sadly, not all of us have the funds for that. A more wallet-friendly way to go big for special occasions is to gift experiences to your loved ones. And Chicago, thankfully, is bursting with unique things to do. Below, our budget gift guide offers Windy City activities that should make anyone on your list crack a smile.
Gifts Ideas for Kids
Admission to the Field Museum, one of Chicago’s premier museums, is $21 per child. That might be a little steep for families looking for an educational day out. Thankfully, there are options beyond the Museum Campus. The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Lincoln Park costs just $6 per child and offers a large range of exhibits, including a greenhouse home to more than 1,000 butterflies, a creepy taxidermy collection, and the interactive RiverWorks, where kids can splash around while building a dam. And the nearby Lincoln Park Zoo is totally free.
Passes to the Purple Monkey Playroom are as much a gift for parents as they are for kids. Ideal for the colder months, when kids are going stir-crazy cooped up inside, the indoor playground is filled with toys, toddler-sized slides, and areas for imaginative play. Adults can get involved or hang back to enjoy the free coffee and WiFi while their kids befriend other little ones. Check out our tips for a stress-free visit to an indoor playground.
Gift Ideas for Couples
Love unexpected and unusual gift ideas? Take your favorite couple out to Headquarters Beercade for a heady dose of nostalgia. The 21-and-over arcade-bar hybrid has 37 vintage arcade games and pinball machines, including Mortal Kombat, NBA Jam, and Star Trek pinball. Choose a game, and challenge your pals to a friendly—or smack-talking—competition. The games are free to play, so you’ll just be paying for rounds of craft beers and signature cocktails.
One of the best gifts for food lovers is an opportunity for them to expand their culinary chops. At Naveen’s Cuisine, they can do just that for about $75 per person—that includes the cooking class, the ingredients, the recipes, and the meal prepared. Chef Naveen Sachar specializes in teaching Indian and Thai dishes, such as saag chicken and channa masala, that many students are less likely to know how to prepare. Consider adding a bottle of wine to your gift, as classes are BYOB.
Gift Ideas for Tourists
Baseball tickets in this town can be astronomical, but there are more affordable baseball landmarks to visit. The Billy Goat Tavern, for instance. The tavern’s owner, William “Billy Goat” Sianis, brought an actual goat to Game Four of the 1945 World Series. According to legend, when the smelly animal wasn’t allowed into Wrigley Field, a frustrated and insulted Sianis allegedly cursed the Cubs, dooming them to never win another World Series. As of 2015, the drought’s still going. Send tourists to get in touch with the curse at the divey spot, where, contrary to Saturday Night Live, there’s more on offer than cheezborgers and cheeps. (We still recommend the double cheezborger or, for another local flavor, the Chicago-style hot dog.)
Chicago’s improv scene is another big draw for tourists. To the budget-conscious, though, tickets to the famed Second City mainstage show might be a little steep at $36 apiece. For a little something different, check out The Improvised Shakespeare Co. at the iO Theater, and cast aside your stuffy preconceptions. The Bard was a great comedic writer, and these players follow in his footsteps, improvising a whole play from an audience member’s suggestion—and it’s all in iambic pentameter. Admission is $16.
Adventurous Gift Ideas
Your adventurous loved ones probably aren’t too interested in following a tour guide around Chicago’s waterways. Lucky for them, Urban Kayaks rents out single and tandem kayaks to more experienced paddlers who’d prefer to go their own way. We recommend sending them to the Riverwalk location, where they can launch into the Chicago River and glide underneath iconic bridges and between glinting skyscrapers.
Even if they haven’t done it before, rock climbing is probably right up their alley. Give them the gift of a Learn the Ropes class at Brooklyn Boulders. Beginning climbers learn how to fit a harness, tie basic knots, evaluate and manage risks, and take care of the ropes for another climber from the ground. Best of all, after the class is completed, they get a day pass and rental gear to explore the facility and try out their skills. They also get another day pass to use in the future in order to get belay certified.