It’s hard to believe Garfield Park Conservatory, in Chicago’s Garfield Park neighborhood, is actually located within a large city. As you step through the expansive entrance, which looks more like you’re entering a school than a conservatory, the sterile lobby isn’t exactly inviting. To the left is a tiny gift shop and to the right is an event meeting space. Then, walk through the next set of doors, into the main room, and you’ve finally arrived.
A lush landscape of large plants, ferns and flowers overwhelm you. Within the grounds are meandering trails for little ones to walk through and feel like they’re traveling through a rainforest. The space is calm and serene and yet the giggles of children enjoying themselves is unmistakable. This is the kind of place I love bringing my 9 and 8 year old children. Free of electronics, free of mindless distractions and full of nature and all its glory.
Markers by each plant give visitors some history. The St. Bernard’s Lily is from Sierra Leone, a Red Edge Peperomia is from South America, a marker shares how the leaves of one of the palms is the source of carnauba wax which is used on phonograph records and is how records got the nickname “wax”.
Magical Children’s Garden
One of the real beauties of the conservatory, built in 1908, is that it displays plants in natural settings, and its five permanent collections are sheltered in plant houses that recreate appropriate climates from around the world. It’s also a space where both adults and children can receive immense joy from visiting, even in the Elizabeth Morse Genius Children’s Garden, which is open during normal hours.
As kids enter the garden they are greeted by a giant, meandering vine with larger-than-life sized roots.
A 7-foot-tall seed begs to be climbed (climbing is encouraged) and kids love to touch the Sensitive Plant which is so shy it cringes when touched. Another favorite is the Balsa Tree which emits a hollow sound when its trunk is tapped. The youngest set have their own place to explore colors and textures of soft-form blocks and play rings in the special permanent Crawling Area.
If you happen to visit on a Wednesday, or Wild Wednesday as the Conservatory calls it, kids can get up close and personal with some fascinating critters.
Where to Eat at Garfield Park Conservatory
Eat before you visit or pack a lunch ~ you’re welcome to eat on the grounds. The options at the Conservatory and in the surrounding neighborhood are very limited but if you do choose to venture beyond the Conservatory, be mindful of your surroundings. This area has seen its share of problems, so don’t wander too far. But feel safe when you’re there. There’s a free parking lot right next door and the Green Line stop is just up the stairs. If you do decide to walk around the corner for a bite at Inspiration Kitchen, keep your eyes open, purse secure and have a plan for dealing with the panhandlers who are likely to hit you up for a buck along the way.
If you do decide to try it, Inspiration Kitchen is another city gem. Order some fried green tomatoes, spicy crawfish bisque and a sandwich. A small kids menu includes grilled cheese sandwich with fruit and chicken strips. Leave room for dessert because options like a root beer mousse float, pecan pop tart, caramelhoneycomb brittle, sweet potato pot de crème and torched house-made marshmallow all sound delicious and must be tried.
Garfield Park Conservatory is free to visit and there is free parking adjacent to the grounds. There are so many free things to do in and around Chicago. While this one isn’t located in the heart of downtown Chicago, it’s definitely worth the trek if you consider a 20 minute drive west of the Loop a trek.