Chicago is truly one of the most wonderful places in the entire world to celebrate Christmas. There are twinkling lights everywhere you look, carolers serenade you everywhere, from the L platform to Michigan Avenue…it makes Chicago totally bearable in the winter. At least until February rolls around, then we’ve just about had it. But let’s be positive and stick with Christmas in Chicago. There is so much to do that you are never bored in Chicago during the holidays. Chriskndle Market in Daley Plaza, lunch at The Walnut Room, a trip on the Holiday Express L train….the options are endless. But I’m going to tell you about one of the North Shore’s best kept holiday secrets: The Wonderland Express at the Chicago Botanic Gardens.
While others across Chicagoland are battling one another for parking spaces at Zoo Lights, avoid all of the drama and see some incredible lights (both outside and in warm and toasty greenhouses) at the Chicago Botanic Garden. For $25 a car (or $20 for Northbrook residents; FREE for members), you can drive through a beautiful light display on your way to the parking lot, and enjoy gorgeous light displays throughout the garden. The elaborate decorations on the gorgeous flora truly are stunning—something only a landscape designer for a prominent national garden can do.
But the real star of the show is the Wonderland Express exhibit. Located within the warm and toasty Regenstein Center, it is a series of rooms decked out in all of their holiday glory, with the piece de resistance being the train display. The train that typically spends the Spring and Summer going through beautiful landscaping outside is moved inside to the magical holiday world. What does this stunning exhibit feature? Replicas of Chicago’s most famous monuments—ranging from the old Chicago Stadium to Crate and Barrel—that are totally and completely made out of natural materials. I’m not sure how they do it, but each display is absolutely exquisite for both young and old to fawn over. My kids got a special kick out of the fun water features and the way the trains travel just about everywhere within the rooms—even overhead. But my favorite part is the fact that it will intermittently SNOW within the exhibit. Since we haven’t had anything substantial on the ground in Chicago since December started, a little faux snow is just what my Christmas-loving heart needed. Tickets for the exhibit range from $12 to $8, with members receiving a discount (kids under two are free). And if you scroll down to the bottom of this post, there are some great discounts available!
Since we are members, we like to go to the Wonderland Express exhibit on the special members night, and enjoy the live music, hot chocolate, and delicious cookies. They have also set up an entire room set up for winter and nature based activities for kids (drawing, creating, and more!)…and there is a cafe set up so you can warm up with coffee, hot chocolate, chili and more! And even when it is FREEZING out, we can’t make a trip to the garden without taking a trip outside to enjoy the enormous main Christmas tree. My boys could stare at it for hours, but Mommy is ready to go back inside after about ten minutes.
The Wonderland Exhibit is a great way to avoid huge crowds and see some beautiful hand crafted art, especially if you have a train lover in the family. The exhibit runs through the new year and it is also fun to visit in its original outdoor location from Memorial to Labor Day. And don’t forget to visit the gorgeous green houses all year long!
Hope you can squeeze a trip in to the Botanic Gardens during the holidays…it is well worth it. Even the beautifully decorated houses that neighbor the garden are a sight for your eyes.