The mild temps this winter might have you thinking about hiking rather than escaping, for once. But, be sure, the chill will come. It is Chicago, after all. No need to hop on a plane to break from the cold. We searched high and low for spots winter doesn’t seem to exist. From a huge indoor treehouse to conservatories with a tropical feel, these destinations will make you feel like you’re on vacay.

photo: Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

1. Judy Istock Butterfly Haven at Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
Snow, sleet, frigid temps. You won’t care what’s happening outside with the 80-degree temps and 80-percent humidity in the flutter-tastic Butterfly Haven, where 1,000 winged beauties call home and newly emerged butterflies are released every day at 2 p.m.  Watch as these colorful immigrants from Central and South America, Australia, Asia and beyond land on rocks and fly over pools of water. The abundance of flowers and trees make for stunning photo opps.

2430 N. Cannon Dr., Lincoln Park; 773-755-5100; Online:

photo: Garfield Park Conservatory

2. Garfield Park Conservatory
Palm tree fronds graze a domed ceiling in one pleasantly humid showroom of this West Side hideaway. Take the greenery in and then let the kids loose in the Elizabeth Morse Genius Children’s Garden, where they can climb a seven-foot-tall faux seed and slide down a “stem.” Check out the Monday Morning Glories program which gives kids and caregivers the chance to make a creative, nature-inspired craft, Wild Wednesdays invites kids to get their hands dirty in the garden and the twice-monthly Juicebox series gets the kids on their feet and dancing.

300 N. Central Park Ave., Garfield Park; 312-746-5100; Online:

3. Galos Caves

Many people believe that spending time in a space that’s intensively charged with salt particles has a natural anti-infectious effect, stimulating the immune system. Whether you believe in their magical powers or not, the two salt-filled “caves” at Galos Caves make for a relaxing winter escape. Kick back in a chaise with a good book while your kids have a blast digging through the salt with provided sand toys. The setting is serene, with colorful yet soft lighting that highlights the lovely salt crystals.

6501 W. Irving Park Rd., Dunning Square; 773-283-7701; Online:

photo: Goldfish Swim School

4. Goldfish Swim School
The topical-themed water world will make you feel like you’re Bahamas-bound, starting with the individual dressing room “cabanas” and ending with the beach chairs that overlook the pool. The water is always a pleasant 90 degrees — especially tempting on open family swim days when they provide access to super-fun pool toys (canoes, paddle race cars, floaties). Guppies as young as four months can get their feet wet in classes here.

Several Chicagoland locations; click here for details.

photo: The TreeHouse Play Space, Nicole S. via Yelp

5. The TreeHouse Play Space
It’s a treehouse . . . indoors! It’s worth the trip to Lake Zurich to experience this climbers paradise that gives kids a variety of twists, turns and activities to choose from. Parents are welcome to join in (yep, the climbing structures are big enough!). Cruise down the triple slide, shoot hoops on the mini basketball court or look over the “jungle” from the tippy-top.

985 S. Rand Rd., Lake Zurich; 847-438-8887; Online:

6. Midtown Athletic Club
Midtown is known for its tennis lessons, and nothing feels more summer-y than working on that backhand. Good news for kids: The club’s locations in Chicago and the ‘burbs have a tennis program designed specifically for 3 and 4 years olds and their parents. Called Tennis Explorers, it keeps this squirmy age group engaged by focusing on play and imagination.

Chicago location at 2020 W. Fullerton Pkwy., Lincoln Park (773-235-2300). Other locations in Bannockburn, Palatine and Willowbrook; click here for info.

photo: Great Wolf Lodge via Maria Chambers

7. Great Wolf Lodge
There’s no better place to pretend you’re in the Caribbean than an indoor water park. This Gurnee spot is great for family staycations and appeals to a wide range of ages with play areas for the littlest of littles and daring water slides for the big kids (and their parents). 

1700 Nations Dr., Gurnee; 847-623-9653; Online:

8. Yogurt Beach
Fro-yo in winter? Absolutely! Especially when it comes from this warm, sunny spot. Your flip flops won’t look out of place here all year ’round. Grab a cool treat and soak up the beach decor, including surfboard-shaped tables and a toppings bar underneath a thatched hut. The fro-yo flavors go beyond the norm (think watermelon sorbet and berry tart), and fresh fruit is always up for grabs to cap things off.

3027 English Rows, Naperville; 630-778-0182; Online:

photo: Lincoln Park Zoo

9. Regenstein Small Mammal House at Lincoln Park Zoo
Lincoln Park Zoo is open year-round and on cold days, indoors is where it’s at. You’ll come face to trunk with a magnificent baobab tree that measures 25 feet in diameter in this steamy, tropical ecosystem. The tree forms a dark cave where fruit bats lurk. While you’re there, take a peek into the underground burrows of naked mole rats that live inside the termite mounds beneath African dwarf mongoose.

2001 N. Clark St., Lincoln Park; 312-742-2000; Online:

10. Wilder Park Conservatory
This smaller, one-room conservatory is just right for families looking for a short, peaceful escape from the winter. Flowers have been blooming and the sunshine has been streaming in the glass windowpanes of this pretty gem of an indoor garden for more than 83 years. Admission is always free.

225 S. Prospect Ave., Elmhurst; 630-993-8900; Online:

photo: Shedd Aquarium

11. Shedd Aquarium
Explore exhibits that take you from the Great Lakes to the Caribbean Sea and from flooded rainforests to diving deep into coral reefs. You’ll get to see and connect with animals from around the world and learn the secrets of our planet’s waters.

For kids that could benefit from sensory-friendly experiences, their Calm Waters program gives guests with disabilities and veterans the opportunity to explore the exhibits and experiences in a comfortable environment and their low-sensory aquatic presentation dims down the lights and noise of their regular show.

1200 S. Lake Shore Dr., Museum Campus; 312-939-2438; Online:

12. Oak Park Conservatory
Oak Park Conservatory is the green getaway spot you never knew existed, but will now become your new go-to. The comfortably heated Fern, Tropical and Desert rooms are perfect for wandering and learning. Be sure to check out the wide range of family and children’s programming, including a Valentine Market on Feb. 8 where kids can visit a chocolate exploration station and KidsFest on Mar. 1 that’ll leave you giddy for spring’s arrival.

615 Garfield St., Oak Park; 708-386-4700; Online:

— Maria Chambers & Amy Bizzarri


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