Chicago, IL

Go Off the Beaten Path in Chicago for a Unique Experience This Summer

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

Try these lesser known Chicago experiences to keep things interesting this summer
Tom Ping Memorial ParkPhoto byartistmac/flickr [CC BY-SA 2/0]

Millennial park, the main beaches, Lincoln Park Zoo, Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium - If you've lived in Chicago or even visited several times for summer vacation, chances are you've seen all of these at least once. Why not try something new this summer that isn't as heavily visited or well known? Have an "off the beaten path" Chicago summer and enjoy a host of new experiences.

The Garden of the Phoenix

The Garden of the Phoenix, formerly known as Osaka Garden, is a Japanese garden located in Jackson Park on the South Side of Chicago, United States. It was originally created in 1893 for the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago. The garden is situated within the larger Jackson Park, which spans a total of 551.52 acres and offers various recreational facilities.

The history of the Garden of the Phoenix dates back to the 1893 Fair when the Japanese government created a garden and a pavilion called Hō-Ō-Den (Phoenix Temple) for the exposition. The pavilion was modeled after the Hō-Ō-Dō (Phoenix Hall) of the Byōdō Temple in Kyoto and symbolized Chicago rising from the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. While most structures from the fair were destroyed, the garden and the Ho-O Den Pavilion remained intact.

In 1933, the Japanese government constructed a traditional tea house and refurbished the Ho-O Den as part of the Century of Progress World's Fair. However, after World War II, the pavilion and tea house were destroyed by fire, and the garden was left abandoned [2]. In the 1990s, efforts were made to revive the Japanese Garden with the assistance of the City of Osaka and the Chicago Park District. In 1993, the garden was named "Osaka Garden" in recognition of the City of Osaka's support and friendship. In 2013, it was renamed the "Garden of the Phoenix".

The Garden of the Phoenix underwent restoration and features elements of traditional Japanese gardening, including serene pathways, bridges, stone lanterns, and carefully selected plantings. It provides visitors with a peaceful retreat and an opportunity to experience Japanese culture and aesthetics within the bustling city of Chicago. The garden's design embodies principles such as harmony, balance, and symbolism, characteristic of Japanese garden traditions.

In recent years, the Chicago Park District has planted over 170 cherry trees in the garden, adding to the beauty of the surroundings. These trees bloom during the cherry blossom season, creating a picturesque spectacle reminiscent of Japan's famous cherry blossom festivals.

South Shore Cultural Center Park

The South Shore Cultural Center, formerly known as the South Shore Country Club, is a cultural facility situated in the South Shore community of Chicago, Illinois. It holds the distinction of being recognized as a Chicago Landmark in 2004 and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975.

The center was originally established in 1905 and underwent reconstruction in 1916. In 1975, it was purchased by the Chicago Park District and restored as a historic landmark following a significant community campaign led by the district and historic preservationists.

Covering an area of 70.84 acres, the South Shore Cultural Center offers various amenities and features. The interior of the facility resembles a country club, boasting a solarium, formal dining hall, and the Paul Robeson Theater.

The park itself encompasses green spaces such as a nature sanctuary and a butterfly garden. Outdoor attractions include a nine-hole golf course, a beach, and open areas for picnics and walks. Many spaces within the center, including the solarium, dining room, and theater, are available for rental purposes.

The South Shore Cultural Center also hosts a wide range of cultural programs and classes catering to all age groups, covering areas such as dance, music, art, health, culinary arts, and fitness. Recently, new adult art classes have been added, including textile art, drawing and painting, mixed media art, and ceramics.

The Secret Mermaid

The Secret Mermaid is a unique and unofficial artwork that adds a touch of whimsy to Chicago's lakefront. It serves as a testament to the creativity and determination of the artists who created it, as well as the efforts of the community to preserve and showcase their work. The sculpture was created in 1986 by four guerrilla artists: Jose Moreno, Román Villareal, Fred Arroyo, and Edfu Kingigna. They spent nine days and nights secretly carving the mermaid into a rocky outcropping in Burnham Park.

During its time in its original location, the sculpture remained a local secret until it was discovered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during a shoreline revetment restoration in 2000. Speculation arose in the local press about its origin, ranging from the remnants of a Gilded Age mansion to the work of a lovelorn sculptor working alone by the water. However, the mermaid's true creator, Villareal, was a laid-off South Side steelworker recuperating in a VA hospital nearby.

The sculpture was initially put into storage by the park district in 2004. However, in 2007, a group of students collaborated with the park district to restore the sculpture and bring it back into the public eye. Since 2010, it has been located in Oakwood Beach.

National Museum of Mexican Art

The purpose of this museum is to promote understanding and admiration for Mexican art and culture from both sides of the border. This is achieved through a notable permanent collection of Mexican art, diverse visual and performing arts programs, excellent arts education initiatives and materials, and the advancement of Mexican artists through professional development opportunities.

The National Museum of Mexican Art, located in Pilsen, Chicago, was founded in 1982 with the goal of representing the Mexican community and fostering accessibility, education, and social justice in the arts. Over the years, the museum has grown and expanded its reach across the United States and beyond, eventually becoming the National Museum of Mexican Art. It strives to stimulate knowledge and appreciation of Mexican art and culture through its significant permanent collection of Mexican art, which spans various historical periods and showcases the cultural influences of Mexico and Latin America across the Americas and worldwide.

This non-profit institution, has been dedicated to collecting and exhibiting art objects that encompass the history of Mexico and broader Latin America for over 40 years. Its permanent collection comprises over 16,000 art objects, representing Pre-Hispanic ancient Americas, the Spanish Colonial Americas period, and modern and contemporary art from Mexico, Latin America, and the United States. The collection serves as a comprehensive and educational resource, highlighting the cultural influences of Mexico and Latin America throughout the Americas and beyond.

Through its permanent collection, visual and performing arts programs, arts education initiatives, and professional development opportunities for Mexican artists, the museum aims to stimulate knowledge and appreciation of Mexican art and culture, fostering a deeper understanding and connection between communities on both sides of the border.

Tom Ping Memorial Park

Tom Ping Memorial Park is a 17.24-acre public urban park located in Chicago's Chinatown neighborhood on the South Side. It is managed by the Chicago Park District and is situated along the south bank of the Chicago River.

The park was named in honor of Ping Tom, a prominent businessman and civic leader in Chinatown. It was designed by Ernest C. Wong of Site Design Group and features a pagoda-style pavilion, bamboo gardens, and a playground. The park is divided into three sections by defunct Santa Fe rail tracks and 18th Street. The pavilion in the park serves as a focal point and often hosts various events. A bronze bust of Ping Tom is installed near the pavilion.

Ping Tom Memorial Park offers a serene and peaceful environment, making it an inviting space for relaxing strolls, biking, roller-skating, and small gatherings along the river. The park provides beautiful water views and opportunities to observe passing boats on the Chicago River. It is also known for its pagoda-style pavilion, which adds to the park's aesthetic appeal and serves as a place for morning prayers and exercises by park visitors.

Smart Museum of Art

The Smart Museum of Art is located on the campus of the University of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois. The museum's mission is to explore the world through art and ideas. It achieves this by fostering strong scholarly and community collaborations, welcoming exhibitions, collections, publications, research and teaching, and public programs. The Smart Museum plays an active role in expanding artistic canons, rethinking received histories, introducing new perspectives, and engaging diverse communities locally, nationally, and internationally. It will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2024.

The museum's permanent collection boasts over 15,000 objects, including modern art, contemporary art, Asian art, European art, and more. The collection is frequently used for exhibitions and courses taught at the University of Chicago.

Admission to the Smart Museum of Art is always free and open to all.

Headquarters Beercade

Headquarters Beercade is an arcade bar located in River North, Chicago. It offers a unique and innovative concept that combines a traditional bar setting with high-energy entertainment. The venue spans across two floors and covers 14,000 square feet, providing ample space for patrons to enjoy their night out. Headquarters Beercade is open every day of the year from 4 PM to 2 AM.

One of the main highlights of Headquarters Beercade is its collection of over 70 vintage arcade games and pinball machines. Guests can indulge in nostalgic gaming experiences with popular titles such as Donkey Kong, NBA Jam, Rampage, Frogger, and Game of Thrones. These arcade games and pinball machines create a nostalgic wonderland for visitors, offering a night full of entertainment.

In addition to the gaming experience, Headquarters Beercade boasts a full menu of modern, fresh American food. Patrons can enjoy classic favorites like Crispy Chicken Tacos, HQ Burger, "Piri Piri" Grilled Chicken Sandwich, HQ Signature Grilled Cheese, and more. The venue also offers Sicilian-style pan pizzas. Alongside the food, Headquarters Beercade features an extensive craft and draft beer selection, specialty beers, and a rotating beer menu. The beverage program is known for its creativity and ambition, offering innovative signature and communal cocktails.

Garfield Park Conservatory

The Garfield Park Conservatory is one of the largest greenhouse conservatories in the United States. Often referred to as "landscape art under glass," it occupies approximately 4.5 acres (18,000 m2) inside and out and showcases a variety of permanent plant exhibits from around the world, including some cycads that are over 200 years old.

Inside the conservatory, visitors can explore eight indoor display gardens that showcase thousands of plant species from around the world. Some notable areas include the Palm House, which houses graceful palms and other tropical plants reaching up to a vaulted ceiling, and the Fern Room, a historic space with lush ferns, rocky outcroppings, and an indoor lagoon that evokes the swampy landscape of prehistoric Chicago.

The conservatory also features the Aroid House, which displays Dale Chihuly's 16 yellow glass lily pads known as the "Persian Pool," and the Desert House, home to a diverse collection of cacti and succulents. The Elizabeth Morse Genius Children's Garden provides an educational and interactive experience for kids.

In addition to the indoor gardens, visitors can also enjoy over 10 acres of outdoor gardens, including a water lily pond and nature play spaces for children. The Garfield Park Conservatory offers a serene and tropical escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in lush flora and experience tropical temperatures.

The Bridgeport Art Center

The Bridgeport Arts Center in Chicago is a multi-disciplinary creative hub that serves as a home for artists, designers, and professionals across various art forms and vocations. It is a historic building that embodies raw urban elegance and offers a range of artistic spaces and venues.

One notable attraction within the Bridgeport Arts Center is the Chicago Maritime Museum. Located on the shores of Bubbly Creek, the museum showcases the maritime traditions and impact of Chicago. Visitors can explore the museum to learn about the city's maritime history and view a collection of boats that played a significant role in shaping Chicago's development.

Another highlight is the Base Cafe, which operates within the Bridgeport Arts Center. The cafe offers artisan coffee and a variety of food options, aiming to be a pillar in the Bridgeport community and beyond. It provides a space for visitors to connect, enjoy quality refreshments, and support local businesses.

Wateriders is a recreational service located at Bubbly Creek, adjacent to the Bridgeport Arts Center. They offer kayaking, paddleboarding, sculling, and other water-based activities on the Chicago River South Branch and the mile-long Bubbly Creek. Visitors can rent kayaks and explore the serene natural surroundings, observing wildlife such as Great Blue Heron and painted turtles.

Gallery Row is an eclectic collection of retail tenants within the Bridgeport Arts Center. It encompasses vintage and designer fashion, fine art, event design, unique jewelry, and accessories. Visitors can explore these diverse offerings, which are available by appointment.

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