Chicago’s Best Parks – Lonely Planet
Chicago is known for its incredible architecture and towering skyscrapers, but that doesn’t mean the Windy City lacks green space.
When the city was incorporated in 1837, it adopted the Latin motto “Urbs in Horto”, which means “City in a garden”. With over 8,000 acres of city-run parks, there are plenty of outdoor spaces to explore during your visit.
Here is our list of the best parks in Chicago.
Best Park for Art Sites
Millennium Park, the centerpiece of Chicago, is a treasure trove of free and artistic sights. It includes the Pritzker Pavilion, Frank Gehry’s silver bandshell, which hosts free weekly concerts in the summer; Anish Kapoor’s beloved silver sculpture Cloud Gate, aka “the Bean”, and Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain, a de facto water park that projects video footage of locals spitting water, a la of a gargoyle.
The McCormick Tribune ice rink fills with skaters in the winter (and outdoor diners in the summer). Lurie’s Hidden Garden blooms with meadow flowers and tranquility. The Gehry-designed BP Bridge spans Columbus Drive and offers splendid skyline views, while the Nichols Bridgeway stretches from the park to the small 3rd-floor sculpture terrace of the Art Institute of Chicago, which is free to see.
Free yoga and Pilates classes are held on Saturday mornings in summer on the Great Lawn, while the Family Fun Tent offers daily activities for children in summer.
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Best park for the beach
Lincoln Park gave its name to the neighborhood and the park is the largest in Chicago. Its 1,200 acres stretch six miles from North Avenue to Diversey Parkway, where it narrows along the lake and continues to the end of Lake Shore Drive.
On sunny days, locals come out to play in droves, enjoying the ponds, pools, trails, and playgrounds or visiting Lincoln Park Zoo, Lincoln Park Conservatory, and beaches. It’s a good place to spend a morning or an afternoon (or both).
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Best park for bird watching
Northerly Island, a hilly, grassy park, has a walking and biking trail, an outdoor venue for big-name concerts, and offers great opportunities for birdwatching and fishing. It’s actually a peninsula, not an island, but the view of the Chicago skyline is amazing, whatever you call it.
Stop by the country house, open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, for tour information. Bikes are available at the Divvy bike share station near the Adler Planetarium.
Maggie Daley Park
Best park for families
Families love Maggie Daley Park’s whimsical, free play areas in all their enchanted forest and pirate-themed splendor. There’s also a climbing wall, an 18-hole mini-golf course, a winding in-line skating rink called “the skating ribbon” (used for ice skating in the winter), and tennis courts; check the park’s website for fees. Several picnic tables make the park a great place to relax. It connects to Millennium Park via the BP Pedestrian Bridge.
Garfield Park Conservatory
Best park to admire plants and flowers
Built in 1907, the Garfield Park Conservatory is a lovely place to spend a few hours strolling around two acres of glass-walled halls teeming with flowers, ferns, palms, and orchids.
The 10 acres of outdoor grounds are open between May and October, including the lily pad pool, a bog of carnivorous plants, and Monet’s Garden, which is based on the Impressionist painter’s floral patch in Giverny France.
The demonstration garden shows city dwellers how to grow vegetables, raise bees and make compost in city plots. Children can get dirty with roots and seeds in the indoor kindergarten. The new rooms contain seasonal plant exhibits which are particularly spectacular in the weeks leading up to Easter.
Best park for a walk
The 550-acre lakeside Jackson Park is a gem. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, famed creator of New York’s Central Park, it features bird-rich lagoons, bustling marinas, fragrant meadows, the Phoenix Garden, 63rd Street Beach and a golf course.
This is where the city held the 1893 World’s Fair, when Chicago introduced the world to wonders like the Ferris wheel, moving pictures, and the zipper.
The Museum of Science and Industry is located in the northern part of Jackson Park. If you’re looking for a nice walk, Jackson Park connects to Washington Park via a mile-long boulevard called Midway Plaisance. La Plaisance itself is a park, home to an ice rink and students playing footballs in the grassy expanse.
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Best park for cultural celebrations
The 207-acre Humboldt Park, which lends its name to the surrounding neighborhood, comes out of nowhere and dazzles you with Mother Nature. A lagoon swept by native plants takes up much of the green space, and the chirping of birds shimmers in the air.
The 1907 Prairie School Boathouse is the centerpiece of the park, housing a cafe and free cultural events. The formal flower garden, the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, and Chicago’s only indoor beach are other highlights.
For more in-depth explorations, including the park’s small waterfall, windmill and picnic island, download the free audio tour. Street vendors and food trucks sell fried plantains, Pastelillos de Carne (meatballs), and other Puerto Rican specialties around the park.
Best park for fishing
Once upon a time there was an old limestone quarry. Today, Palmisano Park unfurls an urban prairie landscape with great views of the Chicago skyline. Locals come here in the summer to fish bluegill in the lagoon and in the winter to sled up the hills. The winding walkways, made from recycled construction debris, make for a fun stroll through the city.
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Point of the promontory
Best park for a wedding
Runners, cyclists, swimmers, dog walkers and Hyde Park locals of all stripes rub shoulders on Promontory Point, a 12-acre man-made peninsula that juts out into Lake Michigan.
Stone steps and the castle-like Field House are favorite spots; wedding receptions are often held there because it’s so pretty. Renowned landscape architect Alfred Caldwell designed the green space. The view of the Chicago skyline from here is sublime.
Best park for festivals
Grant Park hosts Chicago’s mega-events, such as Taste of Chicago, Blues Fest, and Lollapalooza. The Buckingham Fountain is the centerpiece of the park. The skateboard park in the southwest corner attracts a crowd of cool cats. Other features include a rose garden and numerous baseball diamonds.
Ping Tom Memorial Park
Best Park for Skyline Views
Ping Tom Memorial Park stretches along the Chicago River and offers spectacular views of the skyline dotted with bridges. Rent a kayak at the boathouse or bring a picnic to eat under the willows. In the summer, the Chicago Water Taxi offers a groovy boat to/from Michigan Avenue. The wharf is on the northwest side of the bridge, near the Wrigley Building.
Best park for a bike ride
Chicago’s 606 is an elevated route with an urban feel along an old rail line. Bike or stroll past factories, smokestacks, clattering L trains, and locals’ backyard business for 2.7 miles between Wicker Park and Logan Square.
It’s a fascinating hike through the bustling neighborhoods of northwest Chicago. The trail runs parallel to Bloomingdale Avenue (the border between Wicker Park and Bucktown), with access points every 400 yards.
The entrance to Churchill Field is a convenient, sculpture-laden place to climb. There is a Divvy bike share station a few blocks from the east end of the trail at the corner of Marshfield Avenue and Cortland Street for those wishing to cycle the trail.
South Shore Cultural Center Park
Best Park for Community Events
Once upon a time, this dynamic cultural center was a private country club. Today, the park’s Mediterranean Revival Field House, located on a scenic stretch of Lake Michigan, houses two dance studios, a theater, a fine arts gallery, music practice rooms, and a visual arts studio.
A golf course, beach, gardens and nature center are open to the public. The former country club stables are now occupied by the Chicago Police Department’s Mounted Unit.
Best park for fitness fanatics
In the heart of the charming North Lincoln Square neighborhood, Welles Park is a center for outdoor cultural events during the summer.
Its wrought iron gazebo is often used as the main stage for plays and concerts. It’s also a year-round sports and fitness venue, with its running track and baseball diamonds, as well as the indoor pool and fitness center at Welles Park Fieldhouse.
The Nature play area invites kids to get dirty by building, digging, and climbing nature’s many playful features, including wide tree trunks, long logs, and splash-worthy puddles in the spring.