And now, for a lighter topic, let’s talk about one of my absolute favorite places to visit in Chicago, the Garfield Park Conservatory. First opened to the public in 1908, the Garfield Park Conservatory is one of the oldest and largest greenhouse conservatories in the U.S. (and probably the world!).
Its gorgeous, must-see campus includes two acres of public greenhouse space and 10 acres of outdoor gardens. Plus, it is free. Even if it were not, I would gladly pay 100 times over because it is so spectacular. Stepping into the warm, earthy air of the Conservatory truly makes you feel like you’ve escaped to another land.
Let me show you what I mean.
The largest room in the Conservatory, the Palm House is home to more than 70 palms (though it feels like hundreds) in addition to many other types of plants. As you may expect, it is very tropical (read: warm). Wear layers if it’s cold outside because you will be a little toasty in your winter attire.
Though it’s hard to choose, this is probably my favorite room in the Conservatory. Jens Jensen, the Conservatory’s designer, designed this room to allow visitors to see what Illinois looked like millions of years ago. In my humble opinion, prehistoric Chicago was stunning. I could spend hours in here (if it were not quite so warm, that is).
A nice resting spot during the day, this room apparently turns into quite the event space at night. Right now it features a chandelier that seems to be channeling Disney’s EPCOT. The futuristic Luftwerk design “is a kinetic chandelier of water and light inspired by the circular geometry of the Flower of Life–the universal symbol of creation. With each illuminated droplet, circular trays catch the water below, magnifying ripple shadows across the floor of the Conservatory’s Horticulture Hall.” With tranquil music to accompany this design, it’s very peaceful.
Sugar from the Sun
This room guides visitors along four botanical environments–water, air, sun, and sugar–to help them learn how plants grow and are sustained. An educational room, it’s great for learners of all ages.
Elizabeth Morse Genius Children’s Garden
This room is the most interactive, which is fitting because it is designed as a space for children. In addition to beautiful plants and ponds, a terrace overlooking the room features a huge slide (pictured below). I expect to Baby Brown Bear will be burning a lot of energy here in the not-too-distant future. For now, there is a little baby area with mats and informative and stimulating seedling artwork.
This room’s bonus is the Golden Snitch display (also pictured below) hanging from the ceiling. Upon further investigation, I discovered that they are actually rosemary and sage-filled “fireflies” as a nod to the Pagan ritual for the Winter Solstice. But a girl can dream.
This room is home to several cacti and succulents. During one recent visit, I learned that all cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. Cacti are succulents that are usually covered with spines instead of leaves. The more you know.
During my first visit, this room was actually undergoing some kind of construction. When I returned, I casually asked someone what they had done. He said, “There was a rampant snake problem they had to deal with.” He must have seen the absolute horror on my face (remember, I am extremely afraid of snakes), because he quickly added, “No, I’m totally kidding. They were just updating the room.” I still kept a close eye out for any slithering movements.
This is a room I typically don’t spend much time in, but it’s a shame because it has a lot to offer. “Aroid” apparently “refers to a specific flower structure that is common to many houseplants,” so there are a lot of things that everyday gardeners may recognize here. My favorite features are the glass sculptures created by Dale Chihuly (as seen below). The “Persian Lily Pads” are a bright pop of color against an already vibrant green background.
Before you enter the Show House, I encourage you to do a little drum roll. This room is breathtaking. Stop to soak up the dazzling array of colors before you. Breathe in the intoxicating fragrances around you. It’s honestly hard to digest so much beauty. Logistically, it’s also a good room for a break because it’s cooler than the rest.
This outdoor garden is supposed to be both an homage to urban gardens in the structure and materials used, as well as a challenge to what we expect an urban garden to be. As you can see below, it feels like an extension of the dreamland you enter when you go to the Conservatory. It’s hard to believe you’re still in Chicago.
This space, which is also quite beautiful, is inspired by Monet’s gardens in Giverney, France. From all my visits, it seems to be a less explored part of the Conservatory, so make sure you actually take the time to find it.
Plan Your Visit
Location and hours
The Garfield Park Conservatory is located at 300 N. Central Park Avenue, Chicago, IL 60624. It is open 365 days a year from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. every day except Wednesdays, when it stays open until 8:00 p.m.
Parking and transportation
It is easily accessible by car and even has a free parking lot next to the main entrance. I’ve never had a problem finding a spot, though I’ve never visited on a weekend. It’s also right next to the Conservatory-Central Park Drive Green Line ‘L’ stop.
Food and drink
I plan to bring a packed lunch and picnic in the gardens this summer, but in case you forget food, there’s also a gift shop that sells snacks and beverages.
Stroller or carrier?
While most of the Conservatory is handicap and stroller-friendly, the Fern Room does not have a ramp to my knowledge. Therefore I’d suggest either wearing baby or packing your carrier in your stroller so you can explore to the fullest.
What are you waiting for? Seriously. If you have lived here all your life, you need to visit. If you only have one hour to spare, you need to visit. Stop reading this and go!