Driving into the city for a cultural event can be nerve-racking, even for the savviest roadsters. Here's a street-smart guide to help cure your downtown parking blues.

Auditorium Theatre
[50 E. Congress Pkwy.]

[1] Parking recommended in the Grant Park South Garage at Jackson and Michigan (the theatre doles out $2 discount coupons). [2] Avoid stairs and get even closer to the theatre by using the Park 1 valet service at the Congress Plaza Hotel across the street.   Note, though, that it's pricey: $28. TIP:[3] Self-park in the outdoor Loop Auto Park at 524 South Wabash Avenue ($14)-it's faster to get your car, and the stroll around the corner is a perfect time to critique the performance.

Art Institute of Chicago
[111 S. Michigan Ave.]

No museum parking lot or member discounts, but plenty of viable options are available east of Michigan Avenue. [1] The Millennium Park garage about a block northeast of the museum entrance is closest, cleanest, and cheapest ($16 for two to ten hours). Enter at Columbus Drive and Monroe Street. TIP:[2] Try street parking east of the museum on Columbus Drive, but not between 4 and 6 p.m.-you're likely to get towed.

Parking downtown can be even easier with www.chicagoparkingmap.com, Chicago's Parking Industry Labor Management Council's new online interactive map. Enter an address to browse nearby garage options. Click the parking icons and up pop vital stats like hours, contact info (for rates), and payment options.

Museum of
Contemporary Art

[220 E. Chicago Ave.]

[1] A convenient lot is on-site at the MCA-enter off Chicago Avenue before 9 a.m., get on your way by 6 p.m., and it runs $17 on weekdays. Weekends are $23. Members receive a $4 discount. [2] For an even better day rate, use G.O. Parking (200 E. Delaware Place)-in by 10 a.m., out by 7 p.m.: $11.50 plus a buck or two tip for your friendly valet. TIP: [3] The garage at 900 North Michigan offers a $6 rate after 5 p.m. with validation from one of the mall's shops or eateries.

Cadillac Palace and
Oriental Theatres

[151 and 24 W. Randolph St.]

[1] The large Standard Parking Garage at 200 West Randolph is close, offers a competitive evening rate of $11 (after 4:30 p.m.), and provides loaner umbrellas and jump-starts. But when the show is over, the congestion can be unbearable. [2] For a quicker escape, use the $10 outdoor lot at Randolph and Franklin. TIP: If you brave the Standard garage, use a credit or debit card when you enter; after the show you can bypass the pay station lines and go right to the exit.

Lincoln Park Zoo
[2200 N. Cannon Dr.]

[1] The zoo-endorsed lot (at Fullerton and Cannon) costs $12 to $22 when you leave (no charge for parking up to half an hour, but that's hardly enough time to spot an owl or even a giraffe). Zoo members at any level pay a flat rate of $7. [2] The automated parking lot on Stockton Drive just north of the conservatory is also close and charges only $8.   TIP: [3] Plenty of unmetered street parking on Cannon Drive north of Fullerton opens up at 9 a.m.

Steppenwolf and Royal George Theatres
[1650 and 1641 N. Halsted St.]

Street parking near these venues on Halsted is as rare as a John Malkovich appearance. [1] Steppenwolf has its own parking facility, but the limited self-park spaces can fill up on weekends, the narrow ramps are tricky to maneuver, and it closes 90 minutes after curtain. [2] Valet at the Royal George for about the same charge ($9 to $11). TIP:[3] Have a stylish late-night nosh or cocktails at Landmark (1633 N. Halsted) and use its $10 valet for the entire evening.

Photograph: Kim Thornton

You Should Know…
The Loop's landscape has changed subtly in the past year or so with the addition of 100 hi-tech Pay & Display kiosks that have replaced 1,000 traditional parking meters. Take careful note of traffic signs if you suspect you've found a free spot-these curvy, solar-powered sentinels sit in the middle of city blocks and serve the surrounding areas, allowing for more parking spaces while also inviting confusion. Stick in a credit or debit card or cash and they spit out a time-stamped receipt, which you display on your dashboard.