The Chicago Park District maintains more than 600 facilities throughout the city, ranging from wee neighborhood playlots to the vast lakeside grounds of Grant Park, Lincoln Park and Jackson Park. The city’s parks offer fitness classes, culinary training, art and music instruction, summer day camps for kids and rec leagues for adults, cultural programming including free concerts and outdoor movie screenings—and sometimes just a simple respite from the stress of the city. Where to start? Leaving aside Chicago’s beaches (unfair advantage, honestly), these are some of our favorite city parks.
Chicago’s best parks
An instant hit since it was completed in 2004, this 24.5-acre park has become the top attraction in the Midwest and one of the 10 most-visited tourist sites in the country. Among its many draws are Frank Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion and serpentine bridge; sculptor Anish Kapoor's 110-ton Cloud Gate (a.k.a. “The Bean”); and Jaume Plensa's Crown Fountain, with its ever-changing array of locals' faces spewing water every five minutes in the summer months. The Lurie Garden wows with year-round flower displays and monthly garden walks.
Spanning 319 acres of lakefront property, Chicago's “front yard” actually encompasses several smaller parks and attractions, including Millennium Park, Maggie Daley Park, Buckingham Fountain and the Museum Campus. It was the site where Barack Obama and thousands of supporters celebrated his victory on election night 2008, and every summer it draws thousands more to the Taste of Chicago and Lollapalooza.
A formerly abandoned stretch of elevated railway track that runs through Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Wicker Park and Bucktown has found new life as the 606, completed in 2015. Named after the first three digits in every Chicago zip code, the 2.7-mile path provides a quick way to travel east and west on the North Side, connecting several parks and public art installations; redevelopment plans for the North Branch Industrial Corridor over the next several years are likely to include extending the 606 east past the Kennedy Expressway and the river toward Lincoln Park. Prepare to dodge strollers, bicycles and residents out for a very slow jog on this popular throughway.
Lincoln Park was named for Illinois’s favorite son shortly after his assassination in 1865. The park stretches six and a half miles along the lakeshore from Ohio Street Beach to Hollywood Beach, and counts the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Lincoln Park Conservatory and the Lincoln Park Cultural Center among its attractions. The park itself offers golf courses, baseball fields, a skate park and paths for walking, jogging or biking.
One of Chicago's more prominent parks, Garfield Park offers facilities for baseball, boxing, basketball, tennis and swimming and also has a playground, fitness center, lagoon and paths for jogging, walking and biking. And the Garfield Park Conservatory is a major draw in itself, with about 120,000 plants representing some 600 species occupying 1.6 indoor acres, and 12 acres of outdoor gardens in the summer.
Designed by famous landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, Jackson Park became the chosen site for the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. Today, the 600-acre park along the lake shore on the South Side offers golf, baseball, a fitness center, basketball, a playground, tennis courts and paths for walking, jogging or biking; soon, it will also be the home of the Obama Presidential Library.
Visitors can take a spin on the park's quarter-mile skating ribbon, which wraps around a 40-foot climbing wall on the northern end of the 20-acre plot. The Play Garden, featuring enormous slides and whimsical climbing structures, is also open. The play structure is like none other with a giant pirate ship play structure, kaleidescope and mirrored maze. In the summer, enjoy the climbing wall or revisit the skating ribbon as it's converted into a path for walkers, joggers and rollerskaters.
Originally an early-20th-century country club, this gorgeous property was acquired by the Chicago Park District in 1975 and lovingly restored. These days, the main building hums with classes in the arts, culinary workshops, day camps and cultural programs; the grounds include a nature sanctuary, golf course, butterfly garden and plenty of beautifully maintained open spaces.
Designed by William Le Baron Jenney in the mid-1800s and enhanced several years later by Jens Jensen, Humboldt Park was once the nation’s greatest public park, boasting acres of prairie-style gardens, grazing animals and a meandering river scene. Though the animals are long gone, the park still offers extensive rose beds as well as tennis courts, an inland beach, baseball fields and bike paths.
This expansive North Lawndale park features gymnasiums, tennis courts, a football stadium, outdoor pool, basketball courts, an artificial turf soccer field, baseball fields and a small golf putting range. Designed at the same time as Humboldt and Garfield parks, the outdoor facility is named for Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, who famously lost the 1860 presidential election to some guy named Abraham Lincoln. It’s also been home since 2015 to the punk, metal, indie and ’90s rock acts of Riot Fest every September.
This beautiful neighborhood space in Rogers Park offers a spray park, playground and tennis courts. The playground has an “old school” vibe: The structure is completely made of wood and the grounds are filled with wood chips. There are swings, tunnels, bridges, slides and more. No plastic here. The park was recently updated with an outdoor nature play center.
This park offers a swimming pool, auditorium, fitness center, tennis and basketball courts, baseball fields and a spray pool. It’s also the site of not one but two of the city’s biggest music festivals, with Pitchfork anointing rock and hip-hop royalty in July and North Coast bringing EDM and jam bands to the park in September.
Originally a railroad yard, this quiet, contemplative spot is named for the Chinatown resident who was the leading force behind the creation of this community space. Thanks to its location directly next to the Chicago River, the park is a popular spot for kayaking. The most recent addition to the park is a state of the art fieldhouse, which houses a gymnasium, fitness center and an indoor pool.
This sprawling, 323-acre site in Chicago Lawn, named for 17th-century Jesuit missionary Father Marquette, offers auditoriums, baseball fields, a nine-hole golf course, gymnasium, outdoor basketball courts, paths for running, jogging or biking, a spray pool and tennis courts. The significant green space includes a community garden, a rose garden, a lagoon and a rescued prairie remnant that was transplanted to the park from 87th Street in the 1990s.
These two adjacent Park District facilities, occupying a Northwest Side parcel of land that was once home to a sanitarium, offer a range of amenities. The 46-acre North Park Village nature preserve and education center has plenty for kids and adults with hands-on discovery tables and interactive displays. They also offer workshops and camps throughout the year. Peterson Park offers several sports fields, walking trails and an in-demand gymnastics center.