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5 Easy Day Trips from Chicago
Take a break from the excitement of the Windy City and explore these nearby escapes.
If you're heading to Chicago's North Shore, check out the Baha'i House of Worship in Wilmette.(Jackie Sachs)
Every visit to Chicago promises something fun and engaging. But it’s also really easy to venture just beyond the city’s limits for a new experience and return in time for a night out downtown. These day trip destinations are within 90 minutes of Chicago’s Loop and mostly accessible from the city via public transportation.
Ten miles west of Chicago, Oak Park, Illinois, attracts visitors passionate about Prairie-style architecture. Metra and green line L trains both stop frequently in the quaint downtown shopping district dotted with Divvy bike-share stations.
Meg Stewart, concierge at The Gwen, A Luxury Collection Hotel, says, “Visit the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, and the surrounding neighborhood of architecturally significant residences designed by Wright and notable Prairie-style architects.”
Oak Park has the world’s largest concentration of Wright-designed buildings, including 25 Prairie-style homes and the Unity Temple. Visitors can take docent-led and self-guided tours of the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District, anchored by the 1889 Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio (which is closed until Feb. 3 for annual restoration work). Check the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust's website for more information. In May, on the annual Wright Plus Housewalk, visitors can tour the interiors of private Prairie School homes.
[Read: The Best Chicago Tours.]
The Indiana Dunes
(Christine Livingston/Indiana Dunes Tourism)
Fifty miles southeast of Chicago off I-90 East, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and the adjacent Indiana Dunes State Park encompass 15,000 acres of woodlands, wetlands and some sand dunes rising 200 feet high along 15 miles of beaches on Lake Michigan’s southern shores. Fifty miles of trails crisscross the park, which is located on a migratory bird flight path where Midwest wildlife live and bald eagles roost.
“I like the Indiana Dunes because the natural, open space and dunes to climb are a big contrast to being surrounded by Chicago’s tall buildings. Pack a picnic,” says Judson Corrie, concierge at the Waldorf Astoria Chicago.
Year-round, park rangers stationed at the visitor center on Indiana State Road 49 lead interpretive programs in the dunes and at the 1822 Bailly Homestead and Chellberg Farm. October’s annual Century of Progress Homes Tour (reservations required) invites visitors inside five original 1933 Chicago World’s Fair show homes listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Since the early 1900s, the South Shore Line electric-powered, interurban train has transported Chicagoans to the Indiana Dunes, and still departs from Chicago’s Millennium Park Station.
[Read: The Best Chicago Boat Tours.]
The North Shore
Sheridan Road along the lakeshore connects these well-heeled adjacent towns good for day tripping. Evanston, Illinois, 14 miles north of the Loop, and a stop on Metra and the purple line L train, is home to Northwestern University. On the lakefront campus, visit the free Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art and the Sailing Center, which rents paddleboards and kayaks. Open for tours, the 1873 Grosse Point Lighthouse hosts art shows. In adjacent Wilmette, the gleaming white-domed, garden-encircled Baha’i House of Worship, the only one in the U.S., induces quiet contemplation.
Glencoe’s Chicago Botanic Garden, about 20 miles north of Chicago, has a nearby Metra train stop. The 385-acre outdoor museum features 27 themed gardens amid natural Midwest landscape settings laced by walking and bike paths. Open year-round, the botanic garden hosts guided tours, art shows, culinary programs, flower shows, carillon bell concerts and holiday displays.
Highland Park’s outdoor Ravinia Festival is one of Hotel Lincoln General Manager Onal Kucuk’s favorite summer activities, who says he likes “to gather around a gourmet picnic dinner on the lawn listening to music and socializing.” The Metra train stops at the park entrance.
You can also take Metra to Lake Forest’s 100-year-old Market Square, which offers sophisticated boutique shopping. And eight miles north, near the Wisconsin border, harbor town Waukegan operates popular Lake Michigan charter fishing tours.
Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
“Lake Geneva is Chicago’s version of the Hamptons,” says Steven Grillo, head concierge at The Peninsula Chicago. Roughly 80 miles northwest of Chicago, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, has been a Chicagoan getaway since the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, when wealthy families escaped the charred city to their shoreline mansions. View the palatial homes from the deck of a paddle boat cruise, aboard the mail delivery boat tour or walking the 21-mile shoreline path meandering through the mansions’ lakefront grounds.
[Read: The Best Chicago Segway Tours.]
The tiny historic town of independent shops and restaurants hugs the shore. Area resorts offer championship golf, horseback riding, zip lining and snow skiing. Heading to Lake Geneva on I-94, fun stops are Pleasant Prairie Premium Outlets, Mars Cheese Castle, Apple Holler orchard and River Valley Ranch mushroom farm.
Western Suburbs’ Historic Nature Parks
The 1,700-acre Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois, (25 miles from downtown Chicago) was established in 1922 by Joy Morton of Morton Salt Company. In the sprawling natural oasis open daily, 222,000 live plants from across the globe grow and are identified by signs. With the arboretum’s app, navigate roads and 16 miles of paths winding through woodlands, wetlands and prairies, or take a guided tram tour. Bird watching, biking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are welcome, and the arboretum offers snowshoes and cross-country skiing equipment for rent. Enjoy nature and arts programming and holiday illumination displays. Families love the interactive Children’s Garden and 1-acre Maze Garden.
Less than 10 miles farther west in Wheaton, Illinois, is Cantigny Park on former Chicago Tribune President Robert R. McCormick’s 500-acre estate. Admission is free, and parking is $5 to $10, depending on the time of year.
[Read: The Best Things to Do in Chicago.]
“This is my favorite suburban day trip because there’s something for everyone and it's all free – 29 acres of formal gardens, a golf course complex, year-round cultural events and two history museums,” says Steve Grillo, head concierge at The Peninsula Chicago.
Docents take guests through the McCormick Museum mansion, and self-guided tours of the First Division Museum trace the 1st Infantry Division of the U.S. Army from its founding in 1917. Cultural programming includes concerts, lectures, garden sessions and historical war re-enactments. (The First Division Museum is currently closed for renovations and expects to reopen in summer 2017.)
To experience more of what Chicago has to offer, check out the U.S. News Travel guide.
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