Chicago teems with interesting art, culture, buildings and people. But as with any major city, it can be a lot to take in. Fortunately, those seeking an escape from all the stimuli don’t have to go far to enjoy a meditative moment in nature.
Bearing the motto 'Urbs in horto' (Latin for 'City in a garden'), Chicago has long prioritized green space, from late–19th century beautification efforts by Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape architect for the 1893 World’s Fair, to the establishment of the Chicago Park District in 1934.
First-time visitors to the city will be keen to see Lincoln Park, offering a conservatory, free zoo, lily pond and more; the Lakefront Trail, stretching 18 scenic miles along Lake Michigan; and Millennium Park, home to gardens, a Frank Gehry–designed band shell and the world-famous Cloud Gate. That said, these spots are fairly bustling. For those seeking calmer retreats, here are some lesser known parks, trails and preserves worth a visit.
Nature fix on the Northwest Side
Wildlife lovers don't have to travel far to spot deer or rare birds – they’re viewable at the North Park Village Nature Center (chicagoparkdistrict.com). Tucked away on the Northwest Side, this verdant, 46-acre preserve is an unsung treasure. It features modest trails winding through prairie, woodlands, wetlands and savanna, as well as an educational facility that frequently hosts student groups. Occasionally, you’ll run into kids bursting with field-trip energy along the path, but mostly this place just makes you feel miles away from urban environs—even though you never left.
Winged migration along the Lake
Speaking of rare birds, they flock to the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary (lakecookaudobon.org/birding-sites), a grassy haven jutting out into Lake Michigan from Montrose Beach. Here, more than 300 bird species rest and feed: wrens, terns, sparrows, egrets, owls, gulls, doves and other fine-feathered friends. In spring and fall, venture to the “Magic Hedge,” a stretch of low bushes, assorted saplings and thicket on the sanctuary’s west side, to spot migratory songbirds. Or stroll out to the pier in summer and look back at the Chicago skyline, rising from the lake, blue and majestic. Heading south of downtown? The McCormick Bird Sanctuary at Burnham Park (cityofchicago.org/McCormick_Bird_Sanctuary.pdf), named after renowned urban planner Daniel Burnham (architect of the 1893 World’s Fair), is an unexpected wildflower-strewn prairie atop an underground parking garage.
Riverside trails and pocket parks
Those seeking true peace and quiet should explore the diminutive parks of Ravenswood Manor, a neighborhood on the city's northwest side. It's a quaint, homey experience from the moment you disembark the Brown Line train at Francisco, one of Chicago’s few street-level train stops. Many of the little parks here – Buffalo, Sunken Gardens and so on – are home to only a single bench, but there’s a good chance you’ll have it all to yourself. (Bring your own book.) Across Lawrence Avenue, the unassuming North Shore Channel Trail winds along the North Branch of the Chicago River starting at Ronan Park and continuing to Legion Park and beyond. It’s a great path for walking, biking or a contemplative moment.
A secret Loop lunch spot
The South Garden of the Art Institute of Chicago is a favorite tucked-away lunch destination among Loop employees. Just off Michigan Avenue, the garden features a low canopy of cockspur hawthorn trees in raised planters, as well as a rectangular pool and stunning bronze fountain. Named the Fountain of the Great Lakes, this allegorical sculpture by Lorado Taft was constructed in the early 20th century and depicts five female figures (one for each Great Lake, natch). The park provides welcome shade and quiet in the heart of downtown.
Between two (bajillion) ferns
For many locals, making regular treks to the Garfield Park Conservatory, on Chicago’s West Side, is essential to surviving long winters. This stately institution, designed by Jens Jensen in 1906-7, is free year-round. Step inside, and you’ll be transported to a warm, tropical landscape (the Palm House), whisked away to an arid world of cacti and succulents (the Desert House) and ushered into a leafy green oasis, replete with indoor waterfall (the Fern Room). It's a destination spot in cold-weather months (and, fair warning, one of the neighborhood’s only attractions). Meanwhile, 12 acres of outdoor gardens beckon visitors to amble around in summer.
Slow boat to Chinatown
There are plenty of opportunities to see the city from the vantage point of the Chicago River (a Chicago Architecture Foundation boat tour is particularly recommended), but none are quite so subdued as hopping on the Water Taxi. In the summer months, take a $6 ride from Michigan Avenue to Chinatown (not the quickest route, but it’s the most scenic), and get off at Ping Tom Memorial Park. This rolling green retreat along the South Branch of the Chicago River was built on a former rail yard and boasts a pagoda-style pavilion, bamboo gardens and Instagrammable views of the South Loop.
Chicago offers a range of other nature escapes, among them the less-populated southern portion of the Lakefront Trail; Palmisano Park, built on an old limestone quarry on the Southwest Side; Indian Boundary Park, a peaceful public space in West Ridge; and the 606, an elevated greenway stretching from Logan Square to Bucktown (best in early mornings or at dusk). Wander away from the Loop and you’re bound to discover some on your own, too.