Go for the Zen in Chicago

Garfield park conservatory, Chicago
Even when you’re in a major urban hub, you can take a break and get away from the air and sound pollution. There are lovely green oases hidden in metroplexes i.e., Los Angeles, Orlando, and San Jose, Costa Rica.   These beautiful, quiet refuges make you feel as if you’re off the beaten path. Even if just a few minutes away. 

In Chicago, in addition to the Lincoln Park conservatory, there’s a small, almost hidden, meditation garden and Lily Pool at the north end of the sprawling Lincoln Park. There are plenty more spots in the Chicago suburbs to appreciate the greenery. Whether it be canoeing down a river, or visiting the Chicago Botanic Gardens (which are not in Chicago, but Glencoe), the Conservatory in Oak Park or the Morton Arboretum. However, one of the best gems is just a few minutes west of downtown. 

The Garfield Park Conservatory is located within the 184-acre Garfield Park. A short walk from one of the elevated rapid transit lines, or a ten-minute drive from downtown. This is a peaceful place within the inner city.  Perhaps, some of that peacefulness is because it doesn’t the same crowds as if it were in the city center. 

For example, Navy Pier receives 9 million visitors yearly. Still not much compared to Millennium Park which attracts 25 million a year. Compare that to the Garfield Park Conservatory. Nearly one-quarter of a million people, from 50 states and 71 countries, strolled through the conservatory in 2018. Of those, a large 25 percent are from Chicago’s west side neighborhoods, versus tourists. 

So, yes, it’s fair to say the conservatory is off the beaten path. It doesn’t pop up on the popular listings of top things to do in Chicago. Nor, is it surrounded by hotels, bistros, and museums.

Make the conservatory, itself, the destination. It’s open every day of the year and has no set admission fee. 

There are two acres of greenhouse space and 10 acres of outdoor gardens. In fact, it’s considered one of the largest conservatories in the country. And, among the oldest. The Garfield Park Conservatory opened in 1908. More recently, there were major redevelopments.

In 2001, Dale Chihuly’s “Chihuly in the Park: A Garden of Glass” filled the entire conservatory with a surreal breathtaking twist on nature. His blown glass flowers, buds, and vines hung, and floated, within the real greenery. The Chihuly gardens then made their way to a dozen other botanical gardens. Today, remnants of that exhibit, “Persian Lilly Pads,” are a permanent fixture at the koi pond. 

Beyond just a place to chill out, there are plenty of interactive areas on the grounds. There’s a labyrinth, an actual cabbage patch where you can harvest your own greens, and consult their recipe book for culinary ideas. What’s more, the family-friendly conservatory has an active education program. The garden features a musical playground, and on Saturdays, there are drop-in “Fiddleheads” sessions for science-based projects and dance and play “Juicebox concerts.”  What’s more, Saturdays are also free compost workshops, where kids can learn how to make their gardens grow from the garbage. And, parents can gain practical know-how to begin their composting. 

For those that head here before the winter chill, you may be able to see the American agave, or Century Plant, that blossomed and shot through the roof. The Jack-and-the-Beanstalk-sized sprouting only happens once every 50 to 100 years before they die. The stalk can shoot up 30 feet in just a few months. In one 24-hour period, alone, this agave grew seven inches.

Take your time here. Enjoy the indoors, and outdoors. Bring your own food, buy snacks and drinks at the gift shop, or grab a meal at Inspiration Kitchen, two blocks away, and eat at the garden.

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