Chicago Botanic Garden
Robin Carlson © Chicago Botanic Garden.
It may not surprise you to learn that Chicago’s motto is “Urbs in Horto,” meaning “City in a Garden.” It will only take a short stroll through the city to see that greenery and gardens have almost effortlessly been integrated with busy city streets and monstrous skyscrapers. Even downtown neighborhoods are all gussied up with flowers, including colorful displays along Michigan Avenue. But if you want a little greenery sans the sound of honking horns, there’s a beautiful respite from city life that definitely deserves a visit.
The Chicago Botanic Garden was established in 1963 by the Chicago Horticultural Society as a way to maintain the city’s motto. The 385-acre sanctuary holds 24 display gardens sprawling over nine islands surrounded by lakes. This creates a serene and colorful oasis just a few miles from the chaos of the city.
My favorite gardens are the Japanese Garden (situated over three small islands), the English Garden, and the Water Garden. What can I say, I’m a sucker for lotus plants and waterlillies. If you’re gonna make the trek out there, it’s really worth staying the day and visiting every garden. Among significant plant collections held at the facility is the world’s best public collection of bonsai, boasting 185 bonsai. Other specialized plant collections include willow trees, ginkgo trees and a sprawling rose garden.
Though the industrialization and expansion of the city of Chicago has resulted in the decline of surrounding nature reserves, one-third of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s land is comprised of pre-existing natural areas. As part of the Chicago Horticultural Society’s pledge to uphold the city motto, the Garden grounds include three native midwest habitats: the Skokie River, the Dixon Prairie and the McDonald Woods.
If you’re into birds you’ll find excellent birding here, so bring your binoculars! Among species that can be seen, depending on the season, are the Great Blue Heron, the Blackburnian Warbler, and the Downy Woodpecker. I have no idea what any of those look like, but if you do, then I hope that excites you!
I personally enjoy a calm stroll through the gardens. The staff at the Garden has set up several “Garden Walks,” each of which has a different vista. Whether you’re looking to take a nice hour-long fitness walk, or a meandering stroll along the water, there are plenty of trails to keep anyone happy.
Tours are also available for those who want to know a little bit more about what exactly they’re looking at. Both the Bright Encounters Tram and the Grand Tram are 40-minute narrated tours, though the first offers an up-close look at the Garden on the main island, while the latter offers are more panoramic view. In the off-season, winter-themed trolley tours are available upon request for groups.
If you plan to spend the whole day at the Garden (which I highly recommend you do), you’re probably going to have to eat at some point. Feel free to bring a picnic lunch to enjoy in the Picnic Glen, though no campfires or outdoor cooking are allowed. There’s also a café that serves breakfast, lunch and snacks throughout the day. Get a made-to-order omelette to start your day, or stop by later for a flatbread pizza or fresh soup and sandwich. Mmmm! Best of all, the Garden Café uses only organic, locally-grown produce.
The Chicago Botanic Garden is also a beautiful place for private events, including everything from children’s birthday parties to weddings to corporate events.
To plan your trip or see what’s in bloom, visit the Chicago Botanic Garden website.
Location: 1000 Lake Cook Road, Glencoe, IL
Metra: Union Pacific North Line to Braeside Station in Highland Park. Leaving the station, walk west approximately one mile along Lake Cook Road (also known as County Line Road) to the Garden entrance.
Driving (from downtown Chicago): Follow the Kennedy Expressway (I-90/94) west to Edens Expressway (I-94) and U.S. Route 41. Exit at Lake Cook Road and travel 1/2 mile east to the Garden.
For more information and directions, click here.
Admission Hours & Prices
Open every day (except Dec. 25) from 8:00am – Sunset
Garden Cafe: Weekdays 8:00am – 4:00pm, Weekends 8:00am – 4:30pm
Admission is free! Parking is not.
$20 per car
All photos courtesy of Robin Carlson © Chicago Botanic Garden.