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A plaza with fountains shooting up towards the sky surrounded by trees. In the distance skyscrapers tower over the the secluded park.
South Garden at the Art Institute
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14 secret parks and gardens in Chicago

Green rooftops, tucked away gardens, beautiful parks

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South Garden at the Art Institute
| Shutterstock

Although Chicago’s outdoor season is limited, our green space is abundant.

Long ago the city adopted the motto “urbs in horto,” Latin for city in a garden and the city’s leaders have taken that phrase seriously. There are over 8,800 acres of parks, nature preserves, and trails—it’s difficult to know every inch of it.

Aside from the small neighborhood parks, our city has sprawling historic parks from Frederick Law Olmsted’s lakefront parks to Jens Jensen’s Prairie-era parks. Landscape architecture continues to be an area of design Chicago represents with projects like Maggie Daley Park, The 606 and the Riverwalk.

We know many of these parks and gardens aren’t exactly secrets anymore, but with 570 parks across the city it’s hard to know them all. What new things could you discover with fresh eyes?

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Graceland Cemetery and Arboretum

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Potter Palmer, Marshall Field, Daniel Burnham, David Adler and Bruce Graham are just a handful of the notable burials at Graceland Cemetery in the Uptown neighborhood. While cemeteries may creep some people out, this one is notable for being a lush, tranquil place for Chicagoans to relax and enjoy the silence. The 2,000 trees and 50 species here are certified by the Morton Arboretum and carefully maintained. Tour the cemetery’s horticulture witnessing White Pine, Crab Apple, Gingko and Silver Maple trees.

Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool

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This is often the first “secret” park newcomers hear about in Chicago. The Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool is simply enchanting. There are Prairie School pavilions and a rocky trail surrounding a serene lily pool. The park wasn’t always a hidden oasis—for a time it was an aviary exhibit at the zoo and then it was closed to the public. A massive restoration lifted the park out of despair and earned it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places and as a National Historic Landmark.

Exelon observatory at The 606

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The 606 is one of Chicago’s most popular east-west trails. In 2015, an old elevated track was converted into a pedestrian and bike path with greenery and art installations. However, at the western end of the trail is an observatory platform perfect for stargazing. Every second Friday of the month in the spring and summer (the third if weather is an issue), The 606’s resident astronomer Joe Guzman hosts public observation sessions with telescopes.

Milton L Olive III Park

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If you’re a wedding photographer then Milton Lee Olive Park is definitely no secret. Off to the side of Navy Pier and Oak Street Beach, this linear waterfront park has perfect, unobstructed views of Lake Michigan and the towers that line Lake Shore Drive. The park was designed by Dan Kiley in 1965 to commemorate Milton Lee Olive who grew up in Chicago, was a Vietnam veteran, and the first African American to receive the Medal of Honor. Tall, scraggly honey locust trees frame a walking peaceful walking path along the lakefront, too.

City Hall

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In 2001, City Hall’s rooftop was turned into a 38,800-square-foot garden to mitigate urban heat island effect. At the time, no one was looking at greenroofing as a solution to this problem. The garden also keeps the building cooler in the summer and absorbs some rainfall before there is runoff into the sewers. Shrubs, vines, flowers and two trees make up 20,000 plants and 150 species that thrive on top of City Hall. While its not open for the public, officials have arranged tours.

A rooftop in the middle of skyscrapers shows a garden of tall grasses, prairie flowers, and other plants that a man inspects.
City Hall rooftop garden.
Getty Images

South Garden at Art Institute of Chicago

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The Art Institute is one of the city’s most remarkable institutions, and there is so much to explore. Hiding along Michigan Avenue is the South Garden featuring a sunken plaza with rows of honey locust trees in a raised bed. There’s also a dramatic pool and sculpture, Fountain of the Great Lakes, by Lorado Taft which sits back against a vine-covered wall. A perfect escape from the chaotic Loop.

Northerly Island

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Once a small airstrip for private jets, the man-made peninsula is a quiet space with walking paths and excellent fishing. During the spring and summer fieldhouse staff will take visitors on a discovery tour of the island’s ecosystem. The 30,000-seat Huntington Bank Pavilion hosts concerts and offers sweeping views of the lakefront and skyline.

Burnham Wildlife Corridor

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The Burnham Wildlife Corridor is a 100-acre area of urban wilderness running through Burnham Park. There is a bird sanctuary, a bioretention basin, nature paths, and a centennial prairie. Native prairie grasses, savanna, and woodland ecosystems create the largest natural area along the lakefront, according to the park district. Those who wander through the corridor will find five communal gathering spaces designed by artists from Chinatown, Bronzeville and Pilsen.

Promontory Point

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Promontory Point offers some of the greatest skyline views in Chicago. The concrete breakwater is popular for sunbathing and biking or running around the area isn’t a bad idea either. In the winter, it becomes an outdoor sculpture garden as the ice forms stunning layers around the shore. While the day here is blissful, if you get here early enough—the sunrises are pure magic.

Garden of the Phoenix

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Located in Jackson Park, the Garden of the Phoenix is actually a remnant of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition that helped put Chicago on the map. The authentic Japanese garden features a moon bridge, Shinto gate, traditional Japanese horticulture, and an art installation from Yoko Ono. The mini waterfall and footbridges across Wooded Island make it a place where you can truly hide out from the city.

Conchi Martinez / Shutterstock.com

South Shore Cultural Center

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The South Shore Cultural Center is a great example of what the South Side has to offer. The sprawling landscape surrounding the center features manicured gardens, a golf course, nature paths, a butterfly garden, and picnic areas. Next to the former country club is a wild, overgrown nature preserve with a fire circle and views of Lake Michigan and the city.

Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary

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Tucked away at the edge of Lincoln Park that juts out into Lake Michigan, the Montrose Bird Sanctuary is a 15-acre wooded respite that features a few peaceful mulch-covered hiking trails to stroll through. What was once a site of Army barracks from the ’50s to the ’70s is now one of the best places in the area to spot a few of the tens of thousands of migratory birds from more than 300 different species that reportedly stop for some green space along their trek along the lake. Within the sanctuary, a 150-yard stretch of honeysuckle bushes has been nicknamed “The Magic Hedge,” because it attracts an especially high number of migratory birds.

Big Marsh Park

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At 280 acres, Big Marsh certainly lives up to its name, but this far southeast side public park—opened in 2016 in the Calumet Area Reserve—is still a relative secret to most locals. The park includes 45 acres of recreation areas designed specifically for mountain and BMX biking and casual trail riding. The rest (234 acres) is a nature preserve great for hiking and bird-watching.

View this post on Instagram

Noice!

A post shared by Friends of Big Marsh (@bigmarshchicago) on

Steelworkers Park

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This slag-filled site at the confluence of Lake Michigan and the Calumet River was once home to the massive South Works U.S. Steel manufacturing plant that employed 20,000 workers at its peak. But the steel giant closed in the early ‘90s and the Chicago Park District acquired the vacant land. In 2014, it re-opened as Steelworkers Park—a 16.5-acre lakeside landscape dotted with pleasant walking paths, artifacts of the old U.S. Steel plant, and one of the concrete ore walls has been retrofitted into a 40-foot-tall recreational climbing wall.

An image of rusted steel sculptures in a grassy park near the lakefront with water and blue sky in the background.
Steelworkers Park
Ryan Smith

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Graceland Cemetery and Arboretum

Potter Palmer, Marshall Field, Daniel Burnham, David Adler and Bruce Graham are just a handful of the notable burials at Graceland Cemetery in the Uptown neighborhood. While cemeteries may creep some people out, this one is notable for being a lush, tranquil place for Chicagoans to relax and enjoy the silence. The 2,000 trees and 50 species here are certified by the Morton Arboretum and carefully maintained. Tour the cemetery’s horticulture witnessing White Pine, Crab Apple, Gingko and Silver Maple trees.

Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool

This is often the first “secret” park newcomers hear about in Chicago. The Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool is simply enchanting. There are Prairie School pavilions and a rocky trail surrounding a serene lily pool. The park wasn’t always a hidden oasis—for a time it was an aviary exhibit at the zoo and then it was closed to the public. A massive restoration lifted the park out of despair and earned it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places and as a National Historic Landmark.

Exelon observatory at The 606

The 606 is one of Chicago’s most popular east-west trails. In 2015, an old elevated track was converted into a pedestrian and bike path with greenery and art installations. However, at the western end of the trail is an observatory platform perfect for stargazing. Every second Friday of the month in the spring and summer (the third if weather is an issue), The 606’s resident astronomer Joe Guzman hosts public observation sessions with telescopes.

Milton L Olive III Park

If you’re a wedding photographer then Milton Lee Olive Park is definitely no secret. Off to the side of Navy Pier and Oak Street Beach, this linear waterfront park has perfect, unobstructed views of Lake Michigan and the towers that line Lake Shore Drive. The park was designed by Dan Kiley in 1965 to commemorate Milton Lee Olive who grew up in Chicago, was a Vietnam veteran, and the first African American to receive the Medal of Honor. Tall, scraggly honey locust trees frame a walking peaceful walking path along the lakefront, too.

City Hall

A rooftop in the middle of skyscrapers shows a garden of tall grasses, prairie flowers, and other plants that a man inspects.
City Hall rooftop garden.
Getty Images

In 2001, City Hall’s rooftop was turned into a 38,800-square-foot garden to mitigate urban heat island effect. At the time, no one was looking at greenroofing as a solution to this problem. The garden also keeps the building cooler in the summer and absorbs some rainfall before there is runoff into the sewers. Shrubs, vines, flowers and two trees make up 20,000 plants and 150 species that thrive on top of City Hall. While its not open for the public, officials have arranged tours.

A rooftop in the middle of skyscrapers shows a garden of tall grasses, prairie flowers, and other plants that a man inspects.
City Hall rooftop garden.
Getty Images

South Garden at Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute is one of the city’s most remarkable institutions, and there is so much to explore. Hiding along Michigan Avenue is the South Garden featuring a sunken plaza with rows of honey locust trees in a raised bed. There’s also a dramatic pool and sculpture, Fountain of the Great Lakes, by Lorado Taft which sits back against a vine-covered wall. A perfect escape from the chaotic Loop.

Northerly Island

Once a small airstrip for private jets, the man-made peninsula is a quiet space with walking paths and excellent fishing. During the spring and summer fieldhouse staff will take visitors on a discovery tour of the island’s ecosystem. The 30,000-seat Huntington Bank Pavilion hosts concerts and offers sweeping views of the lakefront and skyline.

Burnham Wildlife Corridor

The Burnham Wildlife Corridor is a 100-acre area of urban wilderness running through Burnham Park. There is a bird sanctuary, a bioretention basin, nature paths, and a centennial prairie. Native prairie grasses, savanna, and woodland ecosystems create the largest natural area along the lakefront, according to the park district. Those who wander through the corridor will find five communal gathering spaces designed by artists from Chinatown, Bronzeville and Pilsen.

Promontory Point

Promontory Point offers some of the greatest skyline views in Chicago. The concrete breakwater is popular for sunbathing and biking or running around the area isn’t a bad idea either. In the winter, it becomes an outdoor sculpture garden as the ice forms stunning layers around the shore. While the day here is blissful, if you get here early enough—the sunrises are pure magic.

Garden of the Phoenix

Conchi Martinez / Shutterstock.com

Located in Jackson Park, the Garden of the Phoenix is actually a remnant of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition that helped put Chicago on the map. The authentic Japanese garden features a moon bridge, Shinto gate, traditional Japanese horticulture, and an art installation from Yoko Ono. The mini waterfall and footbridges across Wooded Island make it a place where you can truly hide out from the city.

Conchi Martinez / Shutterstock.com

South Shore Cultural Center

The South Shore Cultural Center is a great example of what the South Side has to offer. The sprawling landscape surrounding the center features manicured gardens, a golf course, nature paths, a butterfly garden, and picnic areas. Next to the former country club is a wild, overgrown nature preserve with a fire circle and views of Lake Michigan and the city.

Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary

Tucked away at the edge of Lincoln Park that juts out into Lake Michigan, the Montrose Bird Sanctuary is a 15-acre wooded respite that features a few peaceful mulch-covered hiking trails to stroll through. What was once a site of Army barracks from the ’50s to the ’70s is now one of the best places in the area to spot a few of the tens of thousands of migratory birds from more than 300 different species that reportedly stop for some green space along their trek along the lake. Within the sanctuary, a 150-yard stretch of honeysuckle bushes has been nicknamed “The Magic Hedge,” because it attracts an especially high number of migratory birds.

Big Marsh Park

At 280 acres, Big Marsh certainly lives up to its name, but this far southeast side public park—opened in 2016 in the Calumet Area Reserve—is still a relative secret to most locals. The park includes 45 acres of recreation areas designed specifically for mountain and BMX biking and casual trail riding. The rest (234 acres) is a nature preserve great for hiking and bird-watching.

View this post on Instagram

Noice!

A post shared by Friends of Big Marsh (@bigmarshchicago) on

Steelworkers Park

An image of rusted steel sculptures in a grassy park near the lakefront with water and blue sky in the background.
Steelworkers Park
Ryan Smith

This slag-filled site at the confluence of Lake Michigan and the Calumet River was once home to the massive South Works U.S. Steel manufacturing plant that employed 20,000 workers at its peak. But the steel giant closed in the early ‘90s and the Chicago Park District acquired the vacant land. In 2014, it re-opened as Steelworkers Park—a 16.5-acre lakeside landscape dotted with pleasant walking paths, artifacts of the old U.S. Steel plant, and one of the concrete ore walls has been retrofitted into a 40-foot-tall recreational climbing wall.

An image of rusted steel sculptures in a grassy park near the lakefront with water and blue sky in the background.
Steelworkers Park
Ryan Smith