The Bucket List: Chicago's 7 Best City Parks

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Chicago is a city famous for its architecture. The postcards sold in tourist shops often display the steel and concrete trophies that proudly stand in our skyline. The green spaces that fill the areas between those iconic buildings, however, are just as worthy of praise. Of the nearly 600 designated parks in Chicago, these seven are among the best. They provide residents and visitors alike with a welcome and often needed escape from the crowds and noise of city life, while playing host to music festivals, a free zoo, world-famous works of art and more.

1. Millennium Park


Photo via Flickr / by Dhilung Kirat

Visitors flock here to take their obligatory selfie in front of the Bean (formally, Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate) and locals love it for the concerts at the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion. The 24.5-acre ??Millennium Park?? in Chicago’s Loop is hard to dislike. This year-round attraction is home to free classical performances during the summer ??Grant Park Music Festival??, which is indeed held in Millennium Park despite its name. In winter, the pop-up ice rink makes it worth braving the cold. You can warm up after with a slice of deep-dish pizza? ?at? ?the nearby ??Geno’s East?? or opt for fancier fare at ??Park Grill??, which sits right next to the rink.

2. Northerly Island


Photo via Flickr / by JohnPickenPhoto

This repurposed property was the former site of Chicago’s Meigs Field Airport. Today the peninsula is a 91-acre park with nature trails for walking and biking, as well as some of the city’s best fishing. Northerly Island extends into Lake Michigan from Museum Campus, just a short walk south from the Adler Planetarium. You’ll also find the FirstMerit Bank Pavilion, an outdoor concert venue on the island, which will host the upcoming Farm Aid 30.

3. Grant Park


Photo via Flickr / by Marty Gabel

Adoringly called Chicago’s front yard, Grant Park is one of the city’s best-known spaces. It has been around just about as long as the city itself, though it has changed names and grown. Today it occupies nearly 320 acres directly south of Millennium Park in Chicago’s Loop neighborhood. Its most notable attraction is the impressive and elegant Buckingham Fountain, but many know Grant Park as the location of some of Chicago’s biggest and best festivals, including Lollapalooza, Chicago Blues Festival, Chicago Jazz Festival and the glutinous Taste of Chicago.

4. Lincoln Park


Photo via Flickr / by Kevin Tao

At seven-miles long and occupying more than 1,000 acres, Lincoln Park is Chicago’s biggest and it doesn’t disappoint. The park is home to the free Lincoln Park Zoo, a sprawling conservatory and the ever-popular North Avenue Beach. Two museums, the Chicago History Museum and the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum also call the park home. The standard recreational facilities are also scattered throughout the massive park, including basketball courts, tennis courts, as well as baseball, softball and soccer fields. With so many options, it should be no surprise that Lincoln Park is second only to New York’s Central Park as the most visited city park in the United States.

5. Jackson Park


Photo via Flickr / by David Ohmer

In 1893 Jackson Park served as the site of the World’s Fair. Today this 500-acre South Side park is home to a variety of nature spaces like flower and vegetable gardens, a beach, prairie land, wooded areas, as well as a Japanese-style Osaka garden. You’ll also find a number of recreational spaces including a driving range and basketball and tennis courts.

6. Maggie Daley Park


Photo via Flickr / by Daniel X. O’Neil

This is one of the latest additions to the Chicago park scene and it’s quickly gaining popularity with kids (and kids at heart). Located just east of Millennium Park and north of Grant Park, Maggie Daley Park is home to a 40-foot-tall rock climbing wall that has 19,000 square feet of climbing surface, a children’s play garden, tennis courts and more. One of the coolest features is the winter skating ribbon, which is basically a frozen lazy river you can ice skate.

7. Ping Tom Memorial Park


Photo via Flickr / by David B. Gleason

Ping Tom Memorial Park gives new life to the 12-acre site of a former railroad yard along the South Branch of the Chicago River. Featuring an assortment of amenities, the park is a favorite among South Side residents. You can rent kayaks at the boat house or spend some time in the field house, which has a full-service kitchen and patio incase you forget to pack a picnic lunch.

Top photo: Chris Pelliccione, CC BY

Paste Travel’s Bucket List columnist Lauren Kilberg is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Her travels have found her camping near the Pakistani border of India and conquering volcanoes in the Philippines.