Chicago is increasingly positioning itself as a leader in sustainable urban design — 99.9% of Chicagoans can walk to a park within 10 minutes and over 20,000 commute by bike each year. With 575 green spaces to explore and a growing number of vegetable-forward menus to sample, it might be more appropriate to call the windy city by its original motto —"City in a garden.”
Whether you’re an eco-conscious traveler, nature-lover, or simply looking for a rejuvenating, guilt-free vacation, these clean and green Chicago experiences make healthy choices for both you and the planet.
Hit the trails
To travel Chicago like a local, hike or bike The 606: a lush 2.7-mile trail constructed on an elevated railroad originally built in 1873. The trail offers access to four of the city’s trendiest neighborhoods — Wicker Park, Bucktown, Logan Square and Humboldt Park — and a relaxing way to take in the unique architectural styles of each.
For a more expansive experience of green Chicago, exit along the western section and head south to Humboldt Park. Aptly named after the German botanist, Alexander von Humboldt, this 207-acre park boasts two lagoons, rose gardens, and striking examples of Medieval architecture, such as the Humboldt Park Fieldhouse — a city recreation center set on a human-made beach.
Stretching 18 miles along the Lake Michigan shoreline, Chicago’s Lakefront Trail is also ripe for exploration. Soccer fields and beach volleyball courts invite budding athletes to make stops for outdoor play while tranquil parks and gardens will appeal to nature enthusiasts. For those seeking an insider’s perspective, Bobby’s Bike Hike takes you off the tourist track and into the North Side’s lakefront neighborhoods.
At the southern end of the Lakefront Trail lies Millennium Park. Built atop two parking garages, the Harris Theater, and a railroad yard, this 24-acre park is the world’s largest green roof. Find a peaceful reprieve from the crowds at the must-see Cloud Gate (also known as “The Bean”) with a stroll through Lurie Garden. Built on a former landfill, the “living art” found here can be enjoyed year-round. For a more active green Chicago experience, head to neighboring Maggie Daley Park for climbing walls that reach up to 40 feet and the Skating Ribbon, sure to keep busy bodies warm during the colder months.
If the winter prevents you from exploring Chicago’s parks, the Garfield Park Conservatory provides a fix for nature cravings. With 10 acres of outdoor gardens (open from May through October), eight green rooms, and 23 hours of free weekly programming, this donation-based conservatory — the largest in the country — is a go-to for locals looking for a green Chicago escape any time of year.
Admire the architecture and wildlife from the water
Home to the world’s first skyscraper and a diverse skyline, Chicago’s rich architectural history is not to be missed. Take it in from the river, aboard a First Lady Cruise led by knowledgeable volunteers from the Chicago Architecture Foundation or a private kayak tour of the river’s tranquil north end with Kayak Chicago. The outfitter also offers kayak and paddleboard rentals at Montrose and North Ave Beaches, for those looking to add some activity to their summer beach lounging.
Bird-watchers will want to linger at Montrose Beach, where more than 300 bird species can be found at the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary and migratory songbirds flock to the 150-foot former fence line known as the “Magic Hedge” in the spring and fall.
Learn from eco-conscious locals
For a taste of the local bounty, head to Lincoln Park for the Green City Market: Chicago’s largest year-round sustainable farmers market with more than 60 vendors offering fresh produce, prepared goods, and knowledge on all things green Chicago.
From November through April, the Saturday market moves indoors to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum a few blocks north. But the museum is worth a visit any time of year as five green roofs and hands-on exhibitions offer lessons on the natural history and conservation of the Chicago region. Don’t miss the daily butterfly hatchings at the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven.
Eat your vegetables
While Italian beef sandwiches and Chicago-style hot dogs are a must for meat-eaters visiting the city once nicknamed “porkopolis,” diners of all types should not overlook Chicago’s vegetable-forward cuisine.
For sophisticated farm-to-table, head to Michelin-starred Sepia, where Andrew Zimmerman applies his French technique to regional products in a former 1890s print shop adorned with smoke-shaded chandeliers and a custom tile Art Nouveau floor. For a brighter, more casual setting, head two blocks west to Bad Hunter — a hyper-seasonal brunch and dinner hotspot for vegetarians and veggie-curious carnivores alike.
Urban hydroponic gardens and Oprah Winfrey’s former property, Blue Door Farm, provide the ingredients for chef Art Smith’s Southern-inspired creations at Blue Door Kitchen and Garden in Chicago’s Gold Coast District. While over in West Town, chef Devon Quinn applies his biology background to produce from the restaurant’s on-site greenhouse to create complex flavor profiles at Eden, best experienced as the 5-course tasting menu.
Related article: Finding feel-good eats in the Windy City
Sleep in eco-boutique style
Relax and recharge with complimentary wine hours and in-room yoga mats at the Kimpton Hotel Monaco Chicago, where leftover soap is recycled in developing countries and guests can participate in volunteer beach cleanup days. Hay straws and coasters made with recycled materials accompany the cocktails at the on-site restaurant, Fisk & Co., which also offers one of the top ranked happy hours in the city.
Leftover amenities are similarly recycled at The Talbott Hotel, where 1920s-inspired rooms are equipped with the latest in green technology and guests are invited to purchase carbon offsets upon check out. As the American city with the most Green Seal certified hotels, Chicago offers plenty of eco-friendly options for you to rest up after an invigorating day of fresh air and fresh eats.