The city of Chicago has much to offer locals and tourists; however, getting out of town and seeing what’s nearby is worthwhile. From brewery tours in Milwaukee to Dutch heritage in Holland, Michigan, to hiking in state parks or along rivers and lakes, you’ll find that the surrounding areas of the Windy City offer a plethora of experiences. Pick and choose from these nearby adventures and plan your great escape.
Holland, Michigan: Learn About Dutch Heritage
While Holland is a year-round destination, with lots of Dutch shops, architecture, windmills, restaurants, and museums to explore, spring is really when this city shines. See 4.5 million tulips in bloom around the town, at Veldheer Tulip Gardens and Windmill Island Gardens. In May, the Tulip Time Festival kicks off with Dutch food, music, parades, and Klompen dancing.
No matter when you visit, however, be sure to stop by the DeKlomp Wooden Shoe and Delft Factory as well as the Holland Museum. Also, in November, Dutch Winterfest and Parade of Lights is worth a look-see.
Getting There: Located midway between Chicago and Detroit, Holland is a three-hour drive away. Take I-94 east, exit 34 to I-196, and then exit 44 to Holland.
Travel Tip: Michigan’s most photographed lighthouse is Big Red Lighthouse in Holland. Visit Holland State Park for the best view of the tower—walk the boardwalk to the north pier (wheelchair accessible).
Indiana Dunes National Park: Explore America’s Newest National Park
Our country’s 61st National Park, Indiana Dunes National Park, has much to offer in a tight package. Swim and hike in the summer or snowshoe and cross-country ski in the winter. Play on 15 miles of Lake Michigan’s southern shore, watch for migrating and regular nesting birds—hawks, wetland birds, woodpeckers—and hike on 50 miles of trails that cut through and over dunes, wetlands, prairies, forests, and rivers. Keep your eyes out for threatened Pitcher’s thistle and snap photos of white-tailed deer, the largest herbivore found here. The Great Blue Heron rookery can be found along the national lakeshore as well.
Camp overnight at Dunewood Campground or fish in the Little Calumet River during the warmer months. Get the Geocaching app on your phone and find hidden containers while also enjoying nature and being outside. History buffs will enjoy visiting one of the sixty historic structures—the Bailly Homestead, Camp Good Fellow, Chellberg Farm, and a handful of houses from the 1933 World’s Fair are the most significant.
Getting There: To get to the park, take Interstate 94, exit 26 north; the Indiana Toll Road (I-80/90), exit 31 north; U.S. Highways 12 and 20, or other state roads. The Indiana Dunes Visitors Center is on Indiana State Road 49.
Travel Tip: Kids can become Junior Rangers and visit the park with a Discovery Guide. Also, park rangers can lead tours throughout the park. Stop by the Visitor’s Center to map out your adventure.
Kettle Moraine State Forest: See the Pride of Wisconsin
Home to 30,000 tree-filled acres, with rolling hills, grasslands, lakes, and forests, Kettle Moraine State Forest is the ideal place to enjoy the outdoors. Ride horses and bicycles, hike, cross-country ski, snowshoe, and drive the Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive to explore the kettles (depressions) left by the Ice Age. Only two hours and 40 minutes from Chicago, this destination is ideal for a day trip.
Getting There: To get to this Wisconsin State Park, located between Madison and Milwaukee, take I-90/94 west toward Milwaukee, exit 344 to US-12 west.
Travel Tip: Wade House Stagecoach Inn, Holy Hill Basilica, Cushing Memorial Park, and numerous geological landmarks and small towns can be seen along the drive.
Lake Geneva: Trade One Lake for Another
If you want to see Gilded Age mansions, built by well-heeled Chicagoans, visit the lakeside Shore Path in Lake Geneva. The area also offers shopping, diverse dining, local beaches—including Big Foot Beach State Park—and outdoor fun. Stay overnight at a campground or Bed and Breakfast, ride the U.S. Mailboat and watch jumpers deliver mail while the boat keeps moving, go kayaking, visit a winery or brewery, or hit a round of golf—there’s something to do for every age and ability at Lake Geneva.
Getting There: Take 294 north toward Wisconsin, continue to I-94 west, and exit at 344 onto WI-50 toward Lake Geneva.
Travel Tip: Request a free Visitors Guide at Visit Lake Geneva.
Chicago Botanic Gardens: Walk in English, Japanese and Native Gardens
Just one hour north of Chicago sits Chicago Botanic Garden, a mecca for plants and flowers from around the globe. Plan on spending a few hours here, exploring the grounds, having lunch or a snack at the Garden View Café, and shopping for unique items in the Garden Shop. A cart, as well as a volunteer, is positioned outside of the main entrance to let you know what is currently in bloom so that you can make the most of your visit (or you can visit their website). Admission is free; however, parking is not—parking for cars is $25 during the week and $30 on weekends. The gardens are open every day of the year with seasonal hours.
Home to nearly 30 different display gardens, spread out over almost 400 acres, these gardens give visitors a chance to learn about various plant collections. This living museum is well-known for its Bonsai Collection, Japanese Garden, English Walled Garden, Dwarf Conifer Garden, and multiple greenhouses that nurture rare, edible, seasonal, and flowering plants from around the world.
Getting There: From Chicago, take the Kennedy Expressway (I-90/94) west to Edens Expressway (I-94) and U.S. Route 41. Take the Lake Cook Road exit and drive a half-mile east to the destination.
You can also take the Metra train on the Union Pacific North Line and get off at the Braeside station. From there, walk just under a mile to the gardens on the North Branch Trail, which is quite lovely.
Travel Tip: Kids love the Model Railroad Garden, open half of the year, which features 18 trains chugging along over bridges, through tunnels, and past nearly 50 different American landmarks.
Starved Rock State Park: Hike to a Waterfall
Starved Rock State Park is a family-friendly—and dog-pro—park that features lofty sandstone bluffs that loom large, especially in contrast to the flatlands that the state is known for. See 15 canyons, towering trees, flora and fauna, and waterfalls while you hike along the Illinois River. The most scenic waterfalls—especially after snowmelt or rain—can be found in French, Wildcat, and Kaskaskia canyons.
Getting There: Starved Rock is about 90 miles west of Chicago, south of I-80, near the town of LaSalle.
Travel Tip: Crowds over holidays and weekends in the summer months can be obtrusive—visit during the week if possible or in the off-season.
Six Flags Great America: Thrill Rides for Everyone
Six Flags Great America has a brand new ride to lure in visitors: Maxx Force, a record-breaking roller coaster. Reaching speeds of 78 miles per hour in just under two seconds, this ride features the fastest and tallest inversion of any roller coaster in the world. Also, the park has over 30 different rides and attractions, a 20-acre water park, various shows and themed entertainment, character meet-ups, and four different children’s areas for the younger crowd.
Getting There: From the city, take I-94 or I-294 west, drive for just under an hour, and exit at Grand Avenue (Route 132) in the village of Gurnee. Six Flags will be just off the ramp on the right.
Travel Tip: The entrance to the park is often busy during peak summer months (parking in the overflow parking is a good sign that there’s a long line at the door). Arrive early, before the gates open, to avoid long waiting times. Also, park hours are subject to change and do so seasonally, so be sure to check the website for operating hours.
Milwaukee: Go on a Brewery Tour
From macro to micro, Milwaukee, also known by the moniker Brew City, has pints for everyone’s taste buds. Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz, Miller—all well-known Milwaukee favorites. This beer-happy city’s roots trace back to German immigrants from the 19th century—they brought their brewing know-how with them.
The Bavarian Bierhaus, a German beer hall with a restaurant, beer garden and brewery is a resident favorite. City Lights Brewing Company is another great option, especially for history buffs—the brewery is located in the 115-year-old Gas Light Building. Historic architecture and modern-day brewing techniques are the highlights of the tour, available on Fridays and Saturdays. Milwaukee Brewing Co. offers weekend “Beer in Hand” tours through its craft brewery, where you can sample seasonal delights and use the token for a free beer at bars nearby.
Getting There: Located on the shores of Lake Michigan, 90 minutes from Chicago, Milwaukee is accessible by train or car. From Chicago, by car, take I-294 north to 94 west. Exit at I-794 east (exit 310 C). Or, take the Amtrak from Chicago to Milwaukee, getting off downtown at Milwaukee Intermodal Station.
Travel Tip: Of course, there are lots of breweries to choose from, and you may want to join an organized walking or shuttle tour. Visit Milwaukee is an excellent resource for planning out a beer tour.
Abraham Presidential Library and Museum: Brush Up on History
Learning activities, hands-on exhibits, civil war artifacts, and more bring people from all over the world to this museum and library. You’ll have the chance to immerse yourself into the history and stories of America’s 16th president of the United States.
Getting There: Take I-290 east to I-355 south to I-55 south, exit at 98 B onto IL-97 west.
Travel Tip: Many events and special happenings occur throughout the year. Be sure to check the museum’s website to see if the scheduled activities align with your plans.
Morton Arboretum: Take Your Dog on an Adventure
Special days throughout the year allow dogs inside the Morton Arboretum. For only $5 per dog, leashed animals can hike the trails, receive a bandana, and meet other canines as you explore the arboretum. The Tails on the Trails event is full of vendors, activities, and contests (how fast do you think your dog can lick peanut butter off of a spoon?).
Getting There: The Morton Arboretum, just west of I-355 and north of I-88 on Illinois Route 53, is located 25 miles west of Chicago.
Travel Tip: Make sure your dog is up-to-date on vaccinations and is friendly around humans and other dogs.