In the dark of winter, when it's too cold and the grey slush on the ground too messy for you to enjoy traipsing about the city and enjoying its architecture and landmarks, you can experience the city in full holiday splendor in a unique – and cozy – way. Except at the Chicago Botanic Garden's Wonderland Express exhibition, now in its twelfth year, the buildings aren't made of steel, glass, and terra cotta – they're constructed out of natural, foraged materials like nuts, twigs, barks, mushrooms, and more by the "botanical architecture" firm Applied Imagination. Twelve different trains, including a trolley and Thomas the Tank Engine, run on tracks past the more than 80 Chicago landmarks and light-bedecked conifers, poinsettias, and flowering tropical plants. Best of all, it's indoors – though fake snow consisting of water and vegetable oil does sprinkle the exhibition (the non-melting "snow" on the plants and models is made of recycled plastics.)
The exhibition covers three galleries. The first features gingerbread buildings, trees, and even a Grinch, all made by Deerfields Bakery. The second, and largest, features the majority of the trains and landmarks, arranged roughly from the South Side of the city to the north and including the South Shore Cultural Center, the Sears Tower, and Gold Coast townhomes. The final gallery is a tour of the North Shore suburbs where the Botanic Garden is located, including Wilmette's Baha'i Temple, Glencoe's Writers Theatre, and the Garden itself.
All of the individually potted plants are watered every day, while the poinsettias especially are replaced throughout the six-week run of Wonderland Express. The crew in charge of the model trains has to conduct its own maintenance daily, from fixing motors, wheels, couplers, and other parts of the trains as they break down to keeping the tracks clean of "snow" and plant debris, a task aided by a designated cleaning car that has an abrasive pad underneath and a brush out front.
You can also catch caroling, ice sculpture carving, a holiday market, holiday concerts, Santa, and classic movies at the Garden over the season, all while sipping hot chocolate – find the schedule of events here.
Take a look back at the first year of Wonderland Express and see some of the real buildings depicted in the exhibition in this archival video with Geoffrey Baer on Chicago Tonight in 2006.