The Essential Guide to Visiting Chicago's Millennium Park

Millennium Park is much more than green grass and trees: it's a veritable alfresco cultural center, laden with activity.

The gorgeous 25-acre Millennium Park is the most visited tourist attraction in the Midwest and among the top 10 most visited sites in the country—and for good reason. An urban wasteland-turned-park extraordinaire, this park goes way beyond your typical playground setting. It's also not just a fair-weather destination. Head on over any time of the year; there’s always something to do and see.

Cloud Gate sculpture at Chicago's Millennium Park

Cloud Gate

This mirrored sculpture is what everyone thinks of when they hear Millennium Park. Also known affectionately as “The Bean” because of its shape, Cloud Gate is British artist Anish Kapoor’s first public outdoor work in the United States. Inspired by liquid mercury, Kapoor named the sculpture “Cloud Gate” because it acts as a gate to above, with three-quarters of its surface reflecting the sky. Standing at a whopping 33-feet and weighing 110 tons, it’s worth a pretty penny—the sculpture cost $20 million to construct, one of the most expensive in history.

But the real worth of this artwork lies in what it captures—the intricate architecture of the surrounding Loop skyline, including the diamond-roofed Crain Communications Building and the skyscraping Aon Center. Its fluidity stands out against the hard lines of its neighboring structures. How does the sculpture maintain its shape and smooth mirrored surface? It actually is suspended on the inside by two stainless steel rings, allowing it to expand and contract with the city's common and extreme temperature changes. Snap the perfect selfie in the 12-foot center arch—it’s the ultimate funhouse mirror. Or lean against the outer edges to grab a double portrait. Whatever the weather or time of day, Cloud Gate’s reflections make everything seem a little more entertaining. 

Pritzker Pavilion Great Lawn at Chicago's Millennium Park

Pritzker Pavilion

A steel bloom unfurls over Millennium Park's Pritzker Pavilion performance stage, which boasts some of the best outdoor acoustics possible. Designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry (whom the Pritzker family insisted be involved), the alfresco concert hall was inspired by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher” (the same artist who painted “Girl with a Pearl Earring”). The clean, gradually enveloping lines in the painting are reflected in the pavilion’s design, especially the stainless-steel ribbons that reach out over the Great Lawn to enhance the sound. In fact, the pavilion legally is considered a work of art, and rightfully so.

While the 120-foot-high pavilion has 4,000 fixed seats, the Great Lawn can hold an additional 7,000 people, the perfect site for the park’s many free events. Put together a picnic basket or just grab a snack and pull up a spot of grass as you take in the open-air events that might include Mexican folk music, reggae or jazz, or, during the summer, an outdoor movie series. The season also highlights the "Millennium Park Presents" series, a calendar of one-night-only performances from the best cultural institutions in town, including the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Chicago Jazz Philharmonic. Also during the summer, Wednesday and Saturday mornings, the park hosts well-attended outdoor yoga and other workout classes on the lawn. The pavilion also has easy-access restrooms located down the ramps on the sides of the stage. 

 Boardwalk at Lurie Garden in Chicago's Millennium Park

Lurie Garden

Stepping into this botanic haven, you kind of forget you’re in the center of the bustling Windy City. But the 3.5-acre Lurie Garden is actually an homage to Chicago’s motto “Urbs in Horto,” which translates to "City in the Garden," recalling our marshy origins.

This horticulture hot spot is teeming with wildlife throughout the year. The spring boasts cherry blossoms and crocuses, the summer coneflowers and Russian sage, and the fall goldenrod and asters. The winter season is surprisingly beautiful with its ornamental grasses that the Midwest prairies are known for—their resilience is meant to represent Chicago's toughness. Another tribute to the city? The 15-foot “shoulder” hedge, a green representation of the phrase “City of Big Shoulders.” A wooden footbridge crosses over shallow waters that divides two sections of landscaping that the designers labeled the “light” and “dark” plates of the garden—the dark is filled with textured plants reminiscent of the marsh days, the light side is bright and clean with modern touches of today’s metropolis. To make the most of your nature-filled experience, join one of the regularly scheduled tours and learn about the history, design, wildlife and maintenance of the garden. The Lurie Garden has its own website that includes updated events and information: www.luriegarden.org

 One of two towers at Crown Fountain in Chicago's Millennium Park

Crown Fountain

Normally a no-no, this fountain is meant to be played in. On a humid Chicago summer day, the quirkiest way to cool off is at Crown Fountain. Wait patiently as images of Chicagoans’ faces are projected over the two 50-foot towers until one of them opens its mouth, appearing to spout water. Spanish artist Jaume Plensa designed the installation made out of 22,000 10-pound glass bricks as a modern reference to gargoyles, the mythological winged creatures of classic fountain designs. In Plensa’s case, he chose from a cross-section of 1,000 Chicago residents to represent the city’s diversity and illustrate that anyone can bring art to life. The faces are randomly projected by a computer generator—some participants have never even seen their mugs light up the towers since they were unveiled in 2004. 

Kids have the best time splish-splashing around in the black granite pool until the next downpour occurs, but really, the adults get just as much of a kick out of it. The pool has a shallow “water skin” to reflect the surrounding cityscape and sky—just like neighbor Cloud Gate. Because of its unique visual elements, the fountain has become a favorite for city-themed engagement photos—it just might be the right spot to propose to your sweetie! 

Ice skating at McCormick Tribune Plaza in Chicago's Millennium Park

McCormick Tribune Plaza

As much as we complain about it, winter in Chicago can be really beautiful. Even though you might not think to hit the park when there’s snow on the ground, there’s one activity we all can agree is perfect for chilly temps: ice skating. The McCormick Tribune Plaza transforms into a winter-wonder rink from November through March. Be prepared, though: It's such a hit that nice weekends can see a line. If you've got your own skates, bring them, and the skating is free; otherwise, there's a rental fee. After taking a couple loops around the rink, grab a hot cocoa and snacks at the Park Grill Café. Not so great at keeping your balance? The patio holding Cloud Gate above is just right to take in all the action.

When the ground has thawed, this plaza turns into the most idyllic spot to grab a meal and relax. The alfresco dining area is the largest in the city, and is perfect for park views and people watching. The café turns into a summer snack shack with treats like ice cream and quick lunches to go. The award-winning Park Grill restaurant offers high-end contemporary American bites like seared ahi tuna and prime rib sandwiches. Grab a beer or glass of wine at the walk-up bar to cap off your experience.

Sarah Perkins
About the author

Even though she grew up in a small suburb north of Chicago, Sarah knew she was meant for somewhere bigger, more excit...