Chicago may be known for its soaring skyscrapers but locals know it has some of the most amazing and serene green spaces. Sure, Millennium Park may be the city’s crown jewel with Cloud Gate, or 'The Bean' as we call it in Chicago, Crown Fountain, two free ice skating rinks (with the opening of Maggie Daley Park) and music concerts throughout the year and Lincoln Park is home to the Lincoln Park Zoo, one of the country’s oldest (and free) zoos. That’s not the only park where you can see animals. Families love Indian Boundary Park on the city’s north side for its mini zoo with farm animals and its castle playground.
Sports lovers perfect their tennis at Indian Boundary Park while golfers can hit the ball on the course or driving range for a song at Marquette Park.
Garden enthusiasts find peace and tranquility at the Garfield Park which houses the Garfield Park Conservatory, a year-round oasis of greenery.
For those who want miles to walk, run or bike along Lake Michigan but away from the hustle and bustle of the lakefront on the northside, head just south of Millennium Park to Burnham Park which also features a model boat pond, skate park and several beaches.
To find Ping Tom Memorial Park, which can be tricky. In fact, most Chicagoans couldn't point it on a map. Take a water taxi since Chinatown is a stop and it lets you out at Ping Tom Memorial Park. If you're driving or walking, cross the railroad tracks at W.19th Street, turn right on S. Wells Street and continue onto China Place (it's behind Chinatown Square). The entrance (and exit) to the park can sometimes get blocked by trains on the railroad tracks that run across the entrance and you may be waiting a good 20 minutes for the trains to pass. Named after Ping Tom, a Chinese American businessman and civic leader who was a driving force behind this park, it's a beautiful, quiet park. A Pagoda serves as the centerpiece and a circular playground makes it easy for parents to keep a watchful eye over their children.
Visitors to this hidden gem will enjoy oak savanna, a forest, wetland and prairie all in one area. There are three trails from which to choose and explore: main loop, wetland and woodland and while you can take as long as you'd like, it's possible to do them all within an hour if you're in a hurry (although hopefully you're not because you want to stop at the lily pond, gaze at the free roaming deer and catch a turtle or finches as you take in the fresh air and scenery). Early Spring, locals from all over the city come by for the annual Maple Tree Tapping Festival where kids can enjoy free activities and see demonstrations on the Maple syrup process. The Center offers great (many of which are free) educational programs on topics such as composting.
There is a mini-zoo with farm animals including chickens, goats and llamas in this park on the city's north side. While it also includes a playground, unlike other parks, this one is a big wooden castle with slides, bridges and tunnels so kids of varying ages can really enjoy running around. Flanked by large apartment buildings which may give off a cool feel to the space, the pond with geese and ducks on the grounds and large willow trees providing shade is a beautiful, peaceful respite that transports you from the busy city. For those who really get into their tennis game, each of the tennis courts here have four enclosed sides so you don't have to worry about your ball making it to your neighbor's court.
Lincoln Park is home to the Lincoln Park Zoo. This free zoo is not only one of the country's oldest zoos housing 1,200 animals representing 230 species, but it also is home to a conservatory and a carousel. Lions, giraffes, rhinos, tigers, camel, penguins, zebras & apes make regular appearances. Children (and parents) will enjoy the children's zoo and farm which teaches the little ones to learn how a farm works. The piglets and goats delight all age groups. Hop on a paddle boat and take a stroll through the scenic pond with the Lake Michigan breeze and Chicago's stunning skyline as a backdrop. Activities throughout the year make this a popular destination for locals and visitors alike.
Located in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago, Marquette Park is the largest park on the southwest side totaling 323 acres. In addition to two gymnasiums, an auditorium, woodshop, Martin Luther King, Jr. kiosk and multi-purpose rooms, it's also home to one of the most affordable 9-hole golf courses in the city. Residents and visitors alike can enjoy a community garden, rose garden, prairie and 500 newly planted trees. Outdoor, other than the golf course and a driving range, the park also offers four multi-purpose fields, an artificial turf field, lagoon, basketball and tennis courts, two playgrounds, baseball fields, spray pool and the Darius Monument.
Burnham Park sits prominently on Chicago's Lakefront, just south of Grant Park. Named for Chicago's famous architect and planner Daniel H. Burnham, the 600 acres begins with Northerly Island and 14th Street Beach. Six miles of walking paths along Lake Michigan make this one of the most beautiful and surprisingly quiet paths. It runs in a narrow strip past Soldier Field and McCormick Place, south to 56th street. It's home to several beaches (located at 12 Street, 31st Street, Oakwood & 57th Street); a 20-square-foot, all-concrete skate park at 34th Street; a model boat pond at 51st Street in Hyde Park, bird sanctuaries and beautiful natural areas.
A serene, tranquil setting is the trademark of one of the world's largest indoor gardens. The conservatory, built in 1908, displays plants in natural settings, and its permanent collections are sheltered in plant houses that recreate appropriate climates from around the world. The Elizabeth Morse Genius Children's Garden provides a fun and comfortable setting for families. A giant, meandering vine with larger-than-life sized roots provides opportunities for children to play while learning about plants. Special events, including kids' activities, are a regular feature. It also boasts outdoor gardens suited for exploring and a gift shop. Recently added is the "Persian Pool", sixteen yellow lily pads surrounding a serene lagoon, which was created by the world acclaimed glass artist Dale Chihuly expressly for the Aroid House. The Desert House holds one of the region's most varied collections of cacti and succulents. It's a gem in Chicago not to be missed.
Millennium Park is Chicago's crown jewel. With the change of seasons, the park attracts thousands every day. Summertime means a stellar line-up of concerts at Jay Pritzker Pavilion (during the day, on most Tuesdays through Fridays, the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus can be heard for free in the Pavilion as musicians rehearse for upcoming concerts). Winter brings out the ice-skating rink and Christmas lights. Get a picture with the Cloud Gate sculpture, or 'The Bean' as we call it in Chicago and at Crown Fountain, two 50-foot glass block towers at each end of a shallow reflecting pool. The towers project video of faces of Chicago citizens on LED screens and having water flow through an outlet in the screen to give the illusion of water spouting from their mouths. At the southern tip is Lurie Garden, a 5-acre urban oasis featuring perennials, bulbs, grasses, shrubs and trees.
Named for President Andrew Jackson, Chicago's Jackson Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who included reflecting pools and perennial gardens in his design when it opened in 1893. Situated on the south side, the stunning 500+ acre park is home to over two dozen species of birds, several lagoons which have become popular fishing spots and the hidden Osaka Garden on the Wooden Isle features a teahouse and several rock gardens. The Park also has a golf course, French statues, beautiful and large trees and foot bridges. It's a beautiful, serene and relaxing park perfect for relaxing, a leisurely drive, a run or to or to bike through.
Located just east of Millennium Park, the new park recently opened the ribbon ice rink this winter. The rest of the 25-acre park, which will feature a playground for kids and many picnic tables and benches, is slated to open in 2015. Unlike it's skating rink neighbor to the west at Millennium Park, the ribbon makes it a bit more interesting to skate since it weaves and turns rather than just skating around in a boring circle. It's free to skate if you bring your own skates (highly recommended since the wait to rent the $12 skates on-site can be anywhere from 30 minutes to over an hour depending on time how busy it is). Locker rentals are available for $1.