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.