Chicago is home to spectacular architecture, lovely parks, world-renowned food, and quirky public art displays. The museums are fascinating, the skyline is stunning, and the lakefront can be enjoyed on the beach or from the comfort of your hotel room.
But Chicago isn’t all there is to see in Illinois. In fact, there are several beautiful and intriguing spots located a short train ride, bus ride, or car ride away.
If you want to escape the hustle and bustle of the Windy City for a day or two, give these destinations a look.
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Starved Rock State Park, Oglesby, Illinois
A 2-hour car ride from downtown Chicago is the state’s most popular park, Starved Rock State Park. The towering bluffs in the park offer some unexpected views of the flatlands and farmlands that Illinois is known for.
There are 15 canyons you can explore — all offering stunning views of the Illinois River, sandstone bluffs, and giant trees — and uphill hiking trails and bridges that would make for a healthy, active outing. In the spring and in autumn, you’ll spot wildflowers. You’ll see birds and other wildlife along the trails, roosting near the cabins, or hanging out near the lodge or visitor center.
The stunning waterfalls and canyons are some of the most distinctive features of the park, so be sure to bring your camera in a waterproof case. You’ll likely get splashed as you hike through the water — or slip on the rocks if you’re not careful — so dress accordingly.
You can also kayak, raft, take a cruise, or go horseback riding during your day trip, and when you’ve worked up an appetite, you can dine at the park’s lodge.
Long Grove, Illinois
One of Illinois’s best hidden gems is Long Grove, a small town located about an hour from Chicago. It’s a historic town with a distinctive charm and warmth you won’t find in the big city. The tight-knit community hosts festivals nearly every month of the year — a strawberry festival, an Irish heritage festival, a chocolate festival, an apple festival, and a holiday festival, just to name a few — so there’s always something fun going on.
The town is home to multiple unique shops, including The Irish Boutique and High Tea with Gerri. You’ll find chocolates, art, home goods, and more, and you’ll enjoy more than a few pleasant chats with the townspeople, who welcome visitors with open arms.
Village Of Oak Park, Illinois
About 20 minutes to an hour by car or train from downtown Chicago, Oak Park is a charming yet hip small town. The town is a self-described village of free-thinking rebels and risk-takers. It prides itself on its religious, ethnic, professional, socioeconomic, and cultural diversity, as well as its welcoming environment.
Not only is the vibe of the village interesting and inviting, but the history of the area is fascinating, and the architecture is beautiful. Oak Park was home to Frank Lloyd Wright, the world-famous architect known for his prairie-style homes. As you make your way to the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, you’ll spot several other homes that have the same look — they are also his work. Take a tour, snap some photos, and head out again for some shopping, great eats, or the Saturday farmers market.
Matthiessen State Park, Oglesby, Illinois
Take a car ride from downtown Chicago to Matthiessen State Park, and you’ll feel like you’ve entered a different world. While the city bustles with nightlife, shopping, and street buskers, the state park opens up to beautiful waterfalls, lush greenery, and rock faces that look like phyllo dough. You won’t believe you’re less than 2 hours away from Chicago.
The canyons, forests, prairies, and streams of Matthiessen State Park make the park a paradise for people who love rocks and outdoor recreation. The park offers hiking trails, a variety of wildlife, picnic facilities, and more, and there are fewer crowds than there are at the more well-known Starved Rock State Park a few miles away. Scramble through caves and canyons, hike through the woods, and climb the rocks for great views.
Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, Illinois
A 40-minute drive or an hour-long train ride from downtown is the beautiful Chicago Botanic Garden.
The Botanic Garden consists of more than 30 distinct gardens, including the manicured Crescent and Heritage Gardens, the Lakeside and Native Plants Gardens, the Aquatic Garden, the Bonsai Garden, the Kleinman Family Cove, the English Walled Garden, the Waterfall Garden, Spider Island, and several others that you will want to wander through all day.
The Chicago Botanic Garden hosts a variety of events as well, including the American Craft Exposition in the fall, zen yoga and meditation, and even cooking demonstrations. Check the website to see what will be going on during your visit. Even if there are no activities scheduled, you can enjoy a daylong stroll through gardens filled with wildlife, flowers, and lush greenery.
The garden trails are suitable for walking, biking, and running.
Indiana Dunes National Park, Porter, Indiana
If you’re longing for sand dunes and lakefront strolls, Indiana Dunes National Park, just an hour by car or an hour and 30 minutes by train from Chicago, will deliver. The national park offers 15 miles of beach along Lake Michigan’s southern shore and 50 miles of trails that weave along the lakeshore. Visitors can hike, bike, snowshoe, ride horses, bird-watch, or cross-country ski.
The park is also home to interpretive programs, a children’s outdoor nature play zone, ranger-led walking tours, a 3,500-square-foot pavilion, and four historic buildings from a 19th-century homestead. The park’s terrain includes wetlands, sandy beaches, prairies, rivers, and forests to meet practically every outdoorsy desire you may have.
Since you’re so close to the city, you can hike up the West Beach Succession Trail for awesome views of the Chicago skyline.
Apple River Canyon State Park, Apple River, Illinois
Another delightful Illinois state park is Apple River Canyon State Park, about 3 hours away from downtown Chicago near the Illinois-Wisconsin-Iowa border. The limestone canyon features carvings, deep ravines, bluffs, springs, and wildlife that people of all ages will enjoy.
The park has been around since 1932; it currently consists of 1,907 acres of land that encompass multiple sites, including the Iris and Jack Witkowsky State Wildlife Area, the Tapley Woods State Natural Area, the Hanover Bluff Natural Area, the Apple River Canyon, and the Winston Tunnel State Natural Area. These areas offer a wide variety of hiking trails — including some more rugged trails — and loads of opportunities to see wildlife.
Once you’ve explored all the park has to offer, you can go fishing or grill up some delicious food on the grills provided in the four picnic areas.
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library And Museum, Springfield, Illinois
History lovers should absolutely make time for a visit to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, about 3 hours from Chicago in the state capital of Springfield. At the library and museum, you’ll learn about the life and presidency of one of America’s most beloved leaders. Be sure to explore the wide range of interactive learning activities, full-immersion exhibits, Civil War artifacts, traveling exhibits, and priceless documents on display at the iconic museum.
One of the most popular exhibits is the Under His Hat display, which focuses on primary sources. The sources are presented in thematic groupings to help bring Lincoln and his world to life for visitors. The exhibit draws from the more than 52,000 artifacts and documents of the Lincoln Collection.
Blaum Brothers Distilling Company, Galena, Illinois
For a boozy day trip, venture out to the Blaum Brothers Distilling Company in Galena, about 3 hours from Chicago near the Apple River Canyon State Park and other Tri-State attractions. The distillery was founded by two rivalrous brothers who were able to put aside their differences thanks to their mutual love of whiskey.
At the distillery, you can take a sensory journey through the process of distilling whiskey by tasting, touching, and smelling the various ingredients along with some whiskey handcrafted by the company. After the tour, relax in the cocktail bar with some bourbon, vodka, gin, or moonshine, or enjoy some time in the tasting room.
Six Flags Great America, Gurnee, Illinois
The Six Flags Great America amusement park is located just an hour’s drive north of downtown Chicago. You can get there by train, but the ride will take 3 hours each way.
The park is open from the last weekend of April through the first weekend of November. It features a ton of roller coasters and other thrill rides, family-friendly rides, and even several rides designed especially for little ones. There’s something for everyone at Six Flags, even for those who are afraid of heights or have sensitive stomachs.
You won’t have any trouble finding a place to eat, since the park is home to more than 50 restaurants and food stands.
It’s also a great place to go in the summer, since it offers a giant swimming pool and 20 acres of water rides and attractions like surf simulators, waterslides, river floats, and a children’s water playground. The water park is open from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend each year.
Planning a weekend getaway to Chicago? Here’s how to spend a Saturday and a Sunday in the Windy City. Enjoy some of these eight things you didn’t know you could do there, and be sure to visit at least one of these seven must-try Chicago restaurants.