Just beyond the Lincoln Park Zoo’s northeast border is a lovely botanical garden housed in a soaring glass-domed structure. Inside are four great halls filled with thousands of plants. If you’re visiting Chicago in the wintertime, this lush haven of greenery provides a welcome respite from the snow and ice outside. Built between 1890 and 1895, this historic house was created to nurture the plants and flowers used in Chicago parks. The Palm House features giant palms and rubber trees (including a 50-foot fiddle-leaf rubber tree dating back to 1891); the Fern House nurtures plants that grow close to the forest floor; and the Orchid House is home to hundreds of colorful orchids, as well as tropical carnivorous plants. The fourth environment is the Show House, where seasonal flower shows take place.
Even better than the plants inside, however, might be what lies outside the front doors. The expansive lawn, with its French garden and lovely fountain on the conservatory’s south side, is one of the best places in town for an informal picnic (especially nice if you’re visiting the zoo and want to avoid the congestion at its food concession venues).
The Lincoln Park Conservatory has a sister facility on the city’s West Side, in Garfield Park, that is even more impressive. The two-acre Garfield Park Conservatory (300 N. Central Park Ave.; www.garfield-conservatory.org; [tel] 312/746-5100), designed by the great landscape architect Jens Jensen in 1907, is one of the largest gardens under glass in the world. Unfortunately, it’s surrounded by a pretty rough neighborhood with a high crime rate, so it’s best to visit if you have a car, rather than using public transportation to get there. It’s open 365 days a year from 9am to 5pm, and on Wednesday until 8pm.
Allow a half hour for the Lincoln Park Conservatory or 1 to 2 hours for Garfield Park.