Chicago, IL

Six of the Most Breathtaking, Little-Known Gardens in Chicago to Visit for Creating Special Summer Memories

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

With all the big time tourist attractions in Chicago, many people are unaware of some of the beautiful hidden gardens that the state has to offer.
There are many beautiful gardens to explore in Chicago.Wikipedia

Even though the end of the pandemic may feel like it’s in sight, it may still feel safer to a lot of people to enjoy outside activities and Illinois is just where to do it. From one side of the state to the other, Chicago has some of the most beautiful gardens and natural green spaces anywhere. Yet few people are aware of just how many lovely gardens that exist in the state, which can be easily visited and enjoyed as part of a road trip or as a destination in their own right. No trip to the city is complete without visiting to some of these botanic gardens, public parks, Japanese gardens, and conservatories. There’s something for everyone.

Garden of the Phoenix 6401 S. Stony Island Ave. Chicago, IL
Garden of the PhoenixDavid Ohmer/flickr

Also known as the Japanese Gardens or Osaka garden, these stunning gardens can be found inside of Jackson (Andrew) Park. This authentic Japanese garden with pavilion, moon bridge, Shinto gate and traditional Japanese horticulture was a gift from Japan to Chicago on the occasion of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

One of the garden's most beloved feature is the spring time blossoming of its cherry trees. Since they are so popular, the trees have been planted beyond the garden so more people can enjoy them. They typically come into bloom in late April to early May but the blossoms are very delicate and only last for about 6 - 10 days. The Japanese tradition of enjoying the transient beauty of flowers is known as hanami and this is an ideal place to do just that.

Lurie Garden, Southeast End of Millennium Park Chicago, IL
Lurie Gardensbgwashburn/flickr

The Lurie Garden is a 3-acre botanical garden which is notable for several reasons. It is located in the heart of downtown in Chicago’s Millennium Park. The entire garden was created over the roof deck of the Lakefront Millennium Parking Garage.

The garden is part of historic Grant Park, situated between a bandshell designed by Frank O. Gehry & Associates and a renovation of the Chicago Art Institute designed by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop.

The city of Chicago was originally built on marshland, and has since risen ambitiously skyward. Similarly, the site of the Lurie Garden has been built up from a marshy shoreline, to the rail yard, to the level of the parking garage, and now to roof garden. This history is revealed in the design, which references the contrasts in Chicago’s historic landscapes with two contrasting areas. The dark area is shady, thick, and moist. The light area is a sunny, dry prairie.

The different areas showcase the perennial selections of renowned plantsman Piet Oudolf. The light and dark areas are divided by the Seam, a water feature and boardwalk that represent the place where Chicago’s past and present meet. There is a shoulder hedge that exists on the garden’s perimeter that encloses and protects the inner garden.

South Garden at the Art Institute of Chicago 111 South Michigan Ave., Chicago, Illinois
South GardenWikipedia

Just steps away from the craziness crowds and traffic of Michigan Avenue is the peaceful South Garden which is located on the side of the Art Institute. This beautiful space was commissioned by the museum in the 1960s from the well known landscape architect Dan Kiley. Honey locust trees drape overhead to create a beautiful, canopy overhead. In the middle of the garden, a rectangular pool leads up to the towering and sculpture-bedecked Fountain of the Great Lakes, originally built in 1913.

Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool Lincoln Park Conservancy, Chicago, Illinois
Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool GardensWikipedia

Discover Caldwell’s hidden garden, which is part of the Lincoln Park Conservatory. It’s amazing how many resident Chicagoans aren’t aware of this stunning garden that exists right in their midst. Enter the Prairie-style Fullerton gate and find yourself in a secret garden of unmatched beauty and calm. Restore your inner sense of peace as you relax to bird songs and the sound of a gentle waterfall in the background. This garden is the perfect place to take a break from other exciting summer activities, to write in a journal or read a bit of the book you never seem to have time for. Follow the stone walk encircling the lily pool and find a pavilion, council ring, and diverse native plantings. This is the vision of famed landscape architect Alfred Caldwell. It’s his hidden garden for the people of Chicago and Illinois designed to resemble a river meandering through a great Midwestern prairie.

South Shore Cultural Center Park 7079 South Shore Drive Chicago, Illinois
Southside Cultural Center ParkWikimedia

This 70-acre area was first built as a country club in the early 20th century and later bought by the Chicago Park District in the 1970’s. These acres are filled with all kinds of plant life and include a butterfly garden nature sanctuary and lots of other flowering plants and greenery. Formal gardens begin near the Center’s historic Mediterranean-style clubhouse. The park alsooffers a nine-hole golf coursebeach, and open spaces for picnics and walks.

Garfield Park Conservatory 300 N Central Park Ave., Chicago, Illinois
Garfield Park Conservatory GreenhouseWikipedia

The spectacular indoor greenhouses at Garfield Park Conservatory are amazing to visit all year long. Described as "landscape art under glass" when it first opened at the turn of the 20th century, it was also one of the world’s largest conservatories. Additionally, it was famous for its revolutionary architecture. Landscape architect Jens Jensen believed the Fern room with its “prairie waterfall”—a stone and water element within a glass structure—to be one of his greatest achievements. The building houses over 120,000 plants representing more than 600 species and four times a year flower shows premiere at the conservatory to mark the change in seasons.

However, once the weather starts warming up, the 10 acres of outdoor garden area, are equally gorgeous to tour. They include a kid-friendly sensory garden, onyx-colored lily pools and an artist's garden complete with the favorite flowers of various famous painters. You can easily spend an entire afternoon here.


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