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6 Chicago Parks Families and Active Travelers Should Visit

Join locals playing year-round in their city parks.

U.S. News & World Report

6 Chicago Parks Families and Active Travelers Should Visit

Buckingham fountain and Chicago downtown skyline.

These parks are packed with outdoor entertainment and natural beauty.(Getty Images)

When Chicago incorporated in 1837, the new government adopted the motto "Urbs in Horto," Latin for "City in a Garden." Today, the Chicago Park District's nearly 600 free public parks totaling more than 8,000 acres and encompassing 29 beaches reinforces the city's historic commitment to being green.

"Chicago's parks system has the most facilities of any park district in the country, and is one of the largest providers of outdoor entertainment in the state of Illinois. A lot is free," says Michael Kelly, general superintendent and CEO of the Chicago Park District.

Visitors have so many parks to choose from, so U.S. News asked local experts to recommend green spaces loaded with attractions and natural beauty within 20 minutes or less of the Loop.

Grant Park

Established in 1835, Grant Park is one of Chicago's oldest parks. After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, a landfill of charred rubble shoveled into Lake Michigan expanded the grounds, helping create today's 319-acre park locals affectionately call their front lawn.

One of the newest additions to Chicago's park portfolio is family-focused Maggie Daley Park, the city's $60 million recreational space featuring a "play garden" with various play spaces geared toward different age groups, a climbing wall and the skating ribbon. Visitors pay a fee to play mini-golf, or rent climbing equipment or skates.

On Grant Park's northwest corner is Millennium Park, celebrated worldwide for its spouting fountains, Cloud Gate sculpture (also referred to as The Bean), and Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion and BP Pedestrian Bridge. And on the Grant Park's west side, the venerable Art Institute of Chicago's building dates back to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition (also known as the Chicago World's Fair). The museum's free Ryan Learning Center hosts family drop-in art programs.

The Museum Campus' Adler Planetarium, The Field Museum and Shedd Aquarium anchor Grant Park's south end. Victor Colon, head concierge at The Langham, Chicago, recommends taking a lake water taxi shuttling between the Shedd's dock and Navy Pier to visit the Chicago Children's Museum and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. He says, "The boat ride is an inexpensive, fast and fun way for families to view Chicago's skyline, Buckingham Fountain and Monroe Harbor."

Northerly Island Park

This "peninsula park continues to evolve as a nature preserve being discovered by locals and a premier outdoor concert venue," Kelly says.

Just south of Adler Planetarium, Northerly Island Park's grassy shores offer panoramic skyline views, and attract avid fishers and bird-watchers. Butterflies flit about wildflower-strewn bicycle and walking paths. In winter, the park district hosts sled dog demonstrations, and rents out snowshoe and cross-country ski equipment.

The park was the site of Chicago's second World's Fair, held in 1933, and then an airport. Recently, the city converted it to public parkland as architect Daniel Burnham envisioned in his 1909 Plan of Chicago.

Jackson Park and Washington Park

These adjacent parks, about 10 miles south of the Loop, were designed in the late 1800s by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.

Washington Park surrounds the DuSable Museum of African American History, which is housed in a former Chicago Park District administration building and is rehabbing a nearby historic roundhouse stable. Both structures were designed by famed architect Daniel Burnham. At the park's southeastern edge, visitors encounter Lorado Taft's monolithic "Fountain of Time" sculpture dedicated in 1922.

Lakefront Jackson Park and its beach served as the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition (Chicago World's Fair) fairgrounds. On the south end, you'll find a bronze replica of the fair's "Statue of the Republic" sculpture and an 18-hole golf course, the first public course west of the Allegheny Mountains when it opened in 1899 as a nine-hole course.

Olmsted's original lagoon landscape design for the World's Fair remains intact behind the Museum of Science and Industry, located in what was the fair's Palace of Fine Arts. Discover the recently restored Garden of the Phoenix on the 15-acre Wooded Island, which held Japan's exhibition area during the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Now, Yoko Ono's lotus-shaped "Skylanding" sculpture, her first permanent public installation in the Americas, graces the peaceful oasis. A Japanese moon bridge arches over the lagoon and a tumbling waterfall serenades visitors surrounded by azaleas and Japanese maples. The Chicago Audubon Society hosts free Wooded Island bird walks on Saturdays year-round.

Lincoln Park

One of Chicago's largest and most lively parks started out as a cemetery. In 1860, a 60-acre section was converted into parkland. Today, Lincoln Park spans more than 1,200 acres along Lake Michigan's shoreline traced by the 18-mile pedestrian and bike Lakefront Trail. Lifeguards monitor beach swimming areas, and vendors rent water sports equipment during official beach season, Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day.

Family-friendly attractions fill the park's south side, including North Avenue Beach, Chicago History Museum, Lincoln Park Zoo, Lincoln Park Conservatory and the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

Four Seasons Hotel Chicago head concierge Kristen Klus says, "At the nature museum's tropical butterfly haven, kids love the daily 2 p.m. release of colorful baby butterflies that sometimes land on you!"

Lincoln Park hosts the year-round Green City Market frequented by notable Chicago chefs, including James Beard Award-winning chef Bruce Sherman, whose North Pond restaurant in the park occupies a restored 1912 Arts and Crafts-style warming shelter for ice skaters. Additional park attractions include the under-renovation Theater on the Lake, and the nine-hole Sydney R. Marovitz Golf Course and Diversey Driving Range operating year-round.

North of the Loop, Montrose Beach's designated dog beach welcomes visiting four-legged friends. On 15 acres of woodlands, beach and dunes, a hedge-camouflaged former World War II missile site now serves as the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary for migratory birds winging along the U.S. Central Flyway.

Garfield Park

At this West Side 185-acre park listed on the National Register of Historic Places is the Garfield Park Conservatory, which opened in 1908 and is one of the world's largest conservatories. Prairie Style landscape architect Jens Jensen worked with others to design the conservatory to emulate a giant Midwestern haystack. It displays thousands of plants and has a children's garden. It's open year-round, and admission is free.

For information on year-round arts programming, download the My Chi Parks app.

To experience more of what Chicago has to offer, check out the U.S. News Travel guide.

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