Holiday greenhouse at the Chicago Botanic Garden Credit: Deanna Isaacs

If you’ve never been to the Chicago Botanic Garden, stop reading now and make a note on your 2019 calendar to get there this spring when everything bursts into fantastic, full-color bloom. Because, although the Garden offers year-round pleasures, that’s how it should be seen first.

Otherwise, the next week or so isn’t a bad time to drop in. The pre-Christmas hoopla’s over, but the indoor holiday exhibit, the Wonderland Express, stays up through January 6, as does the garden’s judicious and stunning outdoor lighting.

Chicago Botanic Garden
Chicago Botanic GardenCredit: Deanna Isaacs

The Wonderland Express, housed in Nichols Hall, consists of a dozen garden-scale trains running through a miniature landscape studded with more than 80 Chicago-area landmarks, all surrounded by tiny fir trees, relatively giant poinsettias, and numerous other plants.  President Obama’s home is here, as is the former Sears Tower and Millennium Park. If you’re a railroad fan, garden enthusiast, architecture buff, or tyke, there’s something to interest you.

Chicago's Ferris wheel and skyscrapers, amid flowers at the Chicago Botanic Garden's  Wonderland Express
Chicago’s Ferris wheel and skyscrapers, amid flowers at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Wonderland ExpressCredit: Deanna Isaacs

Like the buildings in the Garden’s outdoor railroad exhibit (which is closed for the winter), the landmark buildings here are entirely constructed of natural materials. This is ingenious crafting—by designer Paul Busse—but it makes for a monotone built environment.  Under deliberately subdued lighting, it’s a sepia world that might strike you as either cozy or gloomy.

Waud felt figures at Lenhardt Library, Chicago Botanic Garden
Waud felt figures at Lenhardt Library, Chicago Botanic GardenCredit: Deanna Isaacs

The adjacent Lenhardt Library has a small, charming display of handmade felt storybook characters.  And there’s a fanciful gingerbread village in an anteroom to the railroad exhibit that left me imagining a merry, bright, architecturally accurate, and totally edible Chicago.

The Wonderland Express is open 10 AM to 7 PM through January 6; tickets for this exhibit are $13; $10 for seniors and kids ages 3 to 12; free for children 2 years old and under.  Two-for-one coupons may be available online.  Entrance to the garden is free but parking fees of $25 per car and $30 per van, apply.  Chicago Botanic Garden, 1000 Lake Cook Rd., Glencoe;; 847-835-5440.