The Run Down

This is part of our “Known / Unknown” series. For each guide in this series, we pair a classic, essential landmark with an overlooked place nearby. Today we’re going to take the Metra train to the North Shore where you'll a relaxing morning having a picnic and stroll through a 385 acre garden. That's followed by a live theatre performance in a nationally recognized venue nearby. Here are the highlights.

1. Walk @ Chicago Botanic Garden

2. Show @ The Writer's Theatre

1. Chicago Botanic Garden (Known)

The Chicago Botanic Gardens is a nationally recognized public garden and definitely falls into the “Known” bucket. You can get to the Botanic Gardens by car, bike or Metra train. For this guide, we’re going by train.  From downtown, you can hop on the Union Pacific North (UP-N) train from the Ogilvie train station and it will take you most of the way there.

Here’s some other helpful notes for your journey.

– It’s about a 35 -40 min train ride

– An unlimited weekend Metra pass is $10

– You can get off at the “Braeside” stop and walk along a trail to get to the Botanic Garden

– Alternatively, get off earlier at the “Glencoe” stop and take a trolley or bus the rest of the way

– While it use to be free, entry fees now start at $9.95. Details here.

While you can’t picnic directly inside the Chicago Botanic Garden, there is a designated space in the “Picnic Glen” right outside the gardens by the parking lot if you’re inclined to pack lunch.  For those not looking to bring food, they also have a café and a few food stalls on the grounds.

There are lakes and streams that intersect its way across the gardens.  As a result, the 385 acre preserve is broken up into nine different islands connected by bridges and 27 different gardens spread throughout.  Here are some of our favorites.

Japanese Garden

The Japanese Garden spans three smaller islands showcasing Japanese culture, architecture, and plant life.

One interesting factoid we learned about the garden is that many of the plants are actually native plants that thrive in the midwest, but are placed and pruned in a Japanese manner. Many plants that are native to Japan are not able to survive Chicago’s harsh winters and summers.

Plant Conservation Science Center

This building is home to labs and teaching facilities for over 200 plant researches and workers. Some of the labs are behind a glass partition which allow you to peek in on work being done.

Two other interesting notes.  First, the center has a seed bank of over 30,000,000 seeds kept for research and conservation purposes — their main goal is to prevent mass extinction.  That seems like a pretty good deal to us.

Second, they have a working green roof available to the public where you can learn about all the environmental benefits of this movement.

English Walled Garden

Within these walls are six smaller gardens each paying homage to a different English style.

Fruit and Vegetable Garden

This part of the grounds is basically a small farm with a variety of fruits and vegetables. I don’t know if it’s allowed, but there were plenty of people snagging an apple or picking some berries here and there.  This garden also has a live demonstration area where chefs will periodically come in and do a cooking show.

2. Writer’s Theatre (Unknown)

Just south of the Botanic Gardens and right across from the Glencoe train station is the Writer’s Theatre. It’s a live performance space that has been putting on productions for over 25 years. It’s been billed as one of the top regional theatres in the country, so not sure whether we’d call this “Unknown,” but an unscientific survey asking a few other locals makes us think that it’s definitely an overlooked destination.

For architecture aficionados, Chicago’s famed Studio Gang designed the theatre, which opened up in 2016.  It’s a beautifully modern and open design, and the space alone make’s it worth visiting.  Here’s a few more helpful notes.

-Tickets usually start at $50, but get more expensive as you get closer to the performance date.

– They have a lot of promotions and discounts for frontline workers, students, veterans, and theatre industry folks which you can find here.

– They will actually pay for your Metra ticket.  Details here.

The lobby features a large open space surrounded by glass walls from top to bottom. Here you’ll find a bar to purchase some pre-show drinks and snacks. There’s also an upstairs lounge and outdoor terrace to hang out before the show begins.

The theatre itself is an intimate 108 seat venue with the first few rows basically on the stage. In some instances, the actors are standing right next to audience members. The show was as good as any you’d find in downtown Chicago.