Chicago is not a shy city. It shoves Millennium Park right in your face. And why not? The park is a magnificent public space, meant to be used. It’s Boston Common, 350 years later…as then, the best place in the city to gather–but now, with a modern, glitzy appeal and something for everyone. The architecture critic Michael J. Lewis called it “America’s most dazzling urban park.”
Don’t miss these spots in Millennium Park!
Give yourself plenty of time to walk around Millennium Park. Here’s a map to help you locate these favorite sites:
Cloud Gate: A Chicago icon
- Cloud Gate: World-famous, everyone comes to this shiny sculpture for a photo-op. Chicagoans simply call it “The Bean,” for obvious reasons. It reflects the sky, the city, and the people passing by. There is no bad photograph when it comes to this piece of art.
Be sure to go all the way under The Bean and get a photo or selfie looking straight up. It’s like looking into a kaleidoscope!
Located right off Michigan Avenue, Cloud Gate welcomes you into Millennium Park. One of the largest sculptures of its kind in the world, it’s made of 168 polished steel plates and weighs 110 tons. It was British artist Anish Kapoor’s first outdoor public piece and a smashing success. Unveiled in 2005, it quickly became a Chicago icon.
Crown Fountain: 1,000 Chicagoans “spouting” fun
Crown Fountain: Open May-October, this might be the best fountain in the world. With faces of real 1,000 Chicagoans, who intermittently spout water from their mouths, it’s fun to splash through the shallow reflecting pools, no matter your age.
Designed to be interactive–just jump in and join!–it’s a delightful piece of public art. The two 50-foot tall towers made of glass bricks are the work of Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, who playfully makes the faces into fountains, like the gargoyles of olden-day architecture. The photos are projected onto LED screens all year long. Plensa wanted to show the happy relationship between people and water.
Oddly, Crown Fountain was controversial when selected to be part of Millennium Park. Critics felt that 50 feet was too tall and would spoil the ambiance of the setting. Of course, it’s dearly loved now. On a hot summer day, you can’t resist taking off your shoes and walking through the puddles. It’s also fun to sit on the nearby benches and just listen to the many languages being spoken while children wait for the fountain to splash water on them.
Pritzker Pavilion: Open-air entertainment at its best
Pritzker Pavilion: The pavilion is the centerpiece of Millennium Park. No ordinary bandshell, its architect is Frank Gehry, who wanted the space to feel “exuberant,” with its arching lines and shiny stainless steel “streamers.” Construction started in 1999 in order to be ready for the 2004 opening of Millennium Park. Seats near the stage can accommodate 4,000 people; the Great Lawn holds 7,000–with excellent acoustics, no one misses out. Nearly all events at Pritzker Pavilion are free. It’s the home to the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and the Grant Park Music Festival that began in 1935….the only remaining free outdoor classical movies series in the country.
You’ll hear the name Pritzker a lot in Chicago; J.B. Pritzker, one of the billionaire family members, was elected Illinois governor in 2018. The Pritzkers make up one of the wealthiest families in the United States–they own the Hyatt Hotels and lots of other things–and they’re based in Chicago. Their generosity is seen everywhere. The pavilion may be everyone’s favorite Pritzker contribution…at least it’s mine.
Lurie Garden: A real prairie in Millennium Park
Lurie Garden: Designed as a “prairie in the city,” this lovely garden is an award-winner. Planted with native perennials and bulbs–and using no pesticides–it attracts birds, butterflies…and humans looking for a bit of nature. During the summer, dangle your feet in the cool water of the “creek” that runs through Lurie Garden.
Take a moment to consider how Lurie Garden tells the story of Chicago. The “creek” represents the Chicago River–and so does the purple “Salvia River” that runs through the garden in the summer. The prairie itself reminds us of the city’s start, long before skyscrapers were twinkles in the architects’ eyes. It’s also meant to be green, colorful, and innovative–“Urbs in Horto” (city in a garden), Chicago’s slogan when it was founded in 1837.
The garden is planned down to the timing of each bloom; it has ten sections designed with season, plant type, native status, and color in mind. If you’re a botanist, avid gardener, or just a plant nerd, you can download the list of plants in each section for easy identification.
Boeing Galleries: Public art on display
On the north and south ends of Millennium Park, stroll the shaded pathways and enjoy the current contemporary art installations. There is plenty of seating on this level, so pick a spot to rest a spell during your visit to “the perfect public space.”
If you’re into incomprehensible lingo, here’s the description of the type of art chosen for the Boeing Galleries: “Set in an ideal urban setting for socially contextualized art and architectural exhibitions, the Galleries provide a high-quality narrative and cultural context of the art and architecture in our day and age.” Translation: Really cool art that can hold up to Chicago weather.
On display until spring of 2023: Works by Edra Soto (“Screenhouse”) in the North Gallery and Christine Tarkowski (“When We Call”) in the South Gallery. Both women are are alumnae and faculty of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Privately funded, the exhibits are commissioned by the Millennium Park Foundation.
McCormick Tribune Plaza: Seasonal fun in the park
Smack-dab on Michigan Avenue, right in front of Cloud Gate, you’ll find McCormick Tribune Plaza. During the winter (mid-November through mid-March, but weather can change that) the plaza becomes one of Chicago’s largest outdoor ice rinks, complete with a Stromboli to maintain it. It’s free, except to rent skates. Over 100,000 skaters take to the ice–pretty scenic, with the skyline and The Bean surrounding you.
In the summer, voila! The plaza flips to the Park Grill, an outdoor restaurant. It’s Chicago’s largest al fresco dining spot–300 seats–right at the entrance to Millennium Park. Colorful umbrellas shade the tables, so you’ll be comfortable as you eat and watch the world go by.
McCormick Tribune Plaza was the first attraction of Millennium Park to open, on December 20, 2001. It was originally going to be a reflecting pool that doubled as an ice rink, but then feeding hungry park visitors seemed more practical.
Fun facts about Millennium Park
- The idea of the park started in the 1970s, but the logistics seemed overwhelming. Chicago lore says that (then) Mayor Daley was sitting in his dentist’s office, on Michigan Avenue, which overlooked the rail yard. He declared: “Let’s cover it with a park.”
- It’s completely built over the Metra/Illinois Central Railroad commuter train tracks. The Millennium Train Station handles 40,000 commuters a day. Something like ultra-super-dooper-extra-heavy-duty styrofoam was used to create the base of the park. It had to be lightweight enough not to collapse onto the rail yard, but sturdy enough to plant trees and support all the structures–and thousands of people–that would be the end result of the plan.
- Frank Gehry wasn’t keen on being part of the project–he thought the design was too restrictive. Then he heard that Cindy Pritzker (there’s that name again) was involved. He reconsidered, and his modernistic pavilion is spectacular! (He also designed the BP Bridge that connects Millennium Park to Maggie Daley Park.)
- Millennium Park covers 24.5 acres of the larger 319-acre Grant Park, Chicago’s “front yard” situated near Lake Michigan.
- Critics have applauded the park’s accessibility; it is 100% ADA compliant–all slopes are less than 5%. It has been described as “one of the most accessible parks–not just in the United States, but possibly the world.”
- In 2017, it became the #1 attraction in the Midwest, putting Navy Pier in second place.
- Oops! It was supposed to open in mid-2000–hence the name, Millennium Park–but things got complicated, and it didn’t open until July 16, 2004.
This blog post was originally published on February 17, 2017. Completely updated July 16, 2021. NOTE: As Chicago re-opens following the COVID-19 pandemic, check before you go. Most attractions are opening up, but be a smart traveler and know before you go.
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