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City in a Garden: Discover the Natural Beauty of Chicago's Green Spaces

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For more than 175 years, the Latin phrase Urbs in Horto (which translates to "City in a Garden") has been Chicago's official motto put forth on the city seal. With more than 8,100 acres of parkland, 50 natural areas, 26 miles of lakefront and two world-class conservatories, the city truly lives up to this tenet. Let downtown's soaring skyscrapers and the city's colorful neighborhoods be your backdrop as you discover the natural beauty that lies among Chicago's man-made wonders.

Top Park Picks

At the heart of Chicago's downtown Loop, Grant Park covers over 300 acres along Lake Michigan with beautifully landscaped green space. Often referred to as "Chicago's front yard," its many open lawns, fields and gardens offer plenty of room to play and relax. Formal, ornamental beds bloom throughout Grant Park such as the Spirit of Music Garden and Cancer Survivor's Garden while the park's showpiece, Clarence Buckingham Memorial Fountain (301 S. Columbus Drive), provides a monumental focal point with the lakefront on one side and the skyline to the other. Other park treasures include various public art pieces, the Art Institute of Chicago and Museum Campus, Petrillo Music Shell, two boat harbors and of course, Millennium Park, which makes up its northwest corner.

Since its 2004 debut, Millennium Park (201 E. Randolph Street) has become one of the most popular destinations in Chicago. Among the many public art sculptures and the spectacular Jay Pritzker Pavilion sits the Lurie Garden. Designed by Gustafson Guthrie Nichols Ltd., Piet Oudolf and Robert Israel, this 2.5-acre garden was inspired by Chicago's long-ago transformation from its flat, marshy origins to a bold, powerful city. Look up at the striking 15-foot-high "shoulder hedge" which represents poet Carl Sandburg's famous description of the "City of Big Shoulders" and encloses the garden on two sides, protecting the delicate perennial garden. A graceful hardwood footbridge over shallow water divides the garden diagonally between "light" and "dark" plates of perennial plants.

Another urban oasis in Chicago is Lincoln Park (2045 N. Lincoln Pak West), located just north of downtown. Extending nearly 7 miles in length and stretching over 1,200 acres along the lakefront, it is larger than both New York's Central Park and San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, and is the city's largest park. Nature lovers seek tranquility in the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool (2400 N. Cannon Drive), a historic landmark where you can walk the stone surround, listen to the trickle of water falling and watch the butterflies and birds flutter to and fro. And for recreation, the opportunities in Lincoln Park are endless with beaches, boating and the Lakefront Bike Path, which connects to the other parks along the scenic shoreline.

Sanctuaries Dedicated to Mother Nature

Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo is an environmental classroom like no other in the city. Peaceful quiet in some sections and buzzing with life in others, the ecological habitat is a haven for native birds, frogs, fish, turtles, insects and more. Zig and zag along the wooded boardwalk through the 14 acres surrounding the South Pond ecosystem to see this slice of prairie in the big city.

Also in Lincoln Park, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum (2430 N. Cannon Drive) is a family-friendly urban gateway to nature and science. Indoors, visit the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven where over 75 exotic species roam free in the greenhouse or head up to the rooftop Micole Bird Walk for a bird's eye view of what else? Birds! And to see the museum's largest permanent exhibit, you merely have to look around its front yard. No admission is required for Nature Trails, a pathway one-third of a mile long around the Notebaert that opens up into savannahs, woodlands, a butterfly garden and more.

A restored prairie and pond just beyond the nature museum, North Pond Nature Sanctuary (2400 N. Stockton Drive) is another peaceful park spot. Connect with native plant life and wildlife, as its home to turtles, frogs, rabbits, waterfowl and over 200 species of resident and migratory birds.

Chicago boasts two beautiful conservatories, both free and open daily. Breathe in the fragrant air while you meander through the Lincoln Park Conservatory (2391 N. Stockton Drive), a Victorian-era "paradise under glass" whose collections include the lush Fern Room, Palm House, Orchid House and Show House. Or go exploring the century-old Garfield Park Conservatory (300 N. Central Park Avenue) located on the city's West Side. It is one of the largest in the country with six multi-faceted greenhouses and two grand exhibition halls. Each of the sister conservatories bloom year-round, but also check the calendar to catch one of their seasonal flower-garden shows.

Notable Neighborhood Parks & Gardens

In Chicago's Chinatown, a picturesque 12-acre park hugs the south branch of the Chicago River on what was originally an old rail yard. Somewhat hidden in the shadows of highways, freight crossings and El tracks, Ping Tom Memorial Park (300 W. 19th Street) adds the serenity of Chinese-inspired design to an industrial side of the city with a traditional pagoda-style pavilion, ornamental railings and etched columns. Take advantage of the views along the riverbanks to check out the landmark vertical lift bridge in the horizon or hop on a water taxi for a uniquely Chicago experience.

Surround yourself with the waters of Lake Michigan and get lost in wild prairie grasses at Northerly Island (1200 S. Linn White Drive). This 91-acre peninsula dedicated to nature juts out into the water just south of the Loop, offering uninterrupted views of the skyline and a peaceful respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Chicago's South Side has a peninsula of its own within the sprawling 600-acre Burnham Park (5491 S. Shore Drive) along the lakefront. Making up the park's southernmost end is Promontory Point — envisioned by renowned designer Daniel Burnham in his 1909 Plan of Chicago and later designed by great landscape architect Alfred Caldwell. It is another excellent lookout spot to see the skyline from afar while watching the waves hit the shore.

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