Chicagoans like to joke that once you leave the city there’s nothing but cornfields. There’s a bit of truth to that, but there are also some pretty cool places within an hour or two of the city that are definitely worth visiting. Some are reachable by public transportation but for most, you’ll need a car. Here are our favorites.
Chicago Botanic Garden — The North Shore suburb of Glencoe has one of the country’s most stunningly beautiful gardens. The best thing to do is just stroll through the different landscapes that have been created here, taking in the stunning plant and animal life. That said, there are also some great workshops and other events. Admission is completely free, although parking is expensive.
You’ll find plenty of places for lunch in Glencoe, from Guildhall to the Prairie Grass Cafe. From downtown you can catch a Metra train that will get you close, then either take the free shuttle or walk just under a mile to the gardens along a beautiful trail.
Oak Park — The western suburb of Oak Park is as old as Chicago itself, so it doesn’t have the cookie-cutter feel of newer suburbs. There is a downtown with a small-town feel and some nice shops and restaurants. Ernest Hemingway was also born here and you can visit his childhood home. But the Oak Parkian whose presence is most felt is the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who developed the Prairie School style of architecture. Wright designed and remodeled so many buildings in Oak Park that there is an entire historic district around them today. You can visit the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio to see his home and the workspace where he created genius works.
Pair a tour of the home with a walking tour of his other works around Oak Park. Oak Park can be easily reached from downtown on either the CTA Green Line or the Metra West Line. Opt for lunch in the Little Gem Cafe. If it’s warm out, stay for an early dinner on the outdoor patio of Maya Del Sol.
Indiana Dunes National Park — The Indiana Dunes have been long-protected, and in early 2019 they became the country’s newest national park. The park is an hour’s drive from Chicago and located at the southern tip of Lake Michigan. It’s a great place to camp or just vist for a day. There are some great beaches with lifeguards and 50 miles of hiking trails that cross over dunes, forests, streams, and wetlands. It’s a really beautiful area, and best of all, it’s accessible from downtown Chicago by train on the South Shore Line.
On the way to the park, you can stop in Miller Beach and grab an early lunch at the Miller Bakery Cafe. You’ll also find plenty of lunch options just south of the park in Chesterville. Alternatively, you can stop at a grocery store for picnic items to enjoy in the park.
Starved Rock State Park — Most of the area around Chicago is prairie that was graded flat by glaciers during past ice ages, which is why Starved Rock is such a striking landscape in the middle of it all. A sandstone butte juts up and has nice views down toward the nearby Illinois River. The most beautiful features are the 18 canyons carved by streams and melted glaciers that have some stunning waterfalls. You can bring picnic items to enjoy in the park, but you can also work your way over to the Starved Rock Lodge, which has both casual and more upscale dining options, as well as a cafe to pick up snacks. The park is totally free to visit, and camping is available for a small fee. It’s located around 100 miles southwest of the city, so you’ll need a car to get there.
Anderson Japanese Gardens — Rockford, Illinois, is a small city 90 miles west of Chicago, and it’s actually a pretty happening place. By far the best reason to go is to visit the Anderson Japanese Gardens. It began in the late 1970s in a local businessman’s backyard when he brought in the master craftsman and designer Hoichi Kurisu to create a Japanese garden. Today, the garden is open to the public and managed by a nonprofit, and it’s incredibly well-maintained and extraordinarily beautiful.
If you want to see even more gardens, there are also the Klehm Arboretum and Botanic Garden and the Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens. If it’s autumn, after visiting the gardens you could check out some nearby orchards, like Edwards Apple Orchard West. Alternatively, you could explore Rock Cut State Park or kayak on the Rock River. The garden alone is worth the trip, but with all the other options in Rockford, it’s a great day trip from the city.