Group-friendly treasures and pleasures provide travel planners with a cornucopia of tour ideas
From the shores of Lake Michigan in America’s third-largest city to surrounding suburbs and rural realms beyond, northeastern Illinois is jam-packed with things to see and do for touring groups. This populous quadrant of the state, a tourism region called Chicago & Beyond, abounds with itinerary-enhancing attractions, from museums, historic sites and state parks to theaters, casinos and sports arenas.
The iconic sights of Chicago could easily fill a week or two or three—if one had the luxury of time. Chances are, your time frame is limited, so you have to pick and choose wisely. One sure-fire choice is the downtown lakefront’s Museum Campus, which harbors a triumvirate of top-notch institutions. Halls of dinosaurs captivate visitors to the Field Museum, while dolphins and other aquatic creatures inhabit the Shedd Aquarium, the country’s largest indoor aquarium. The Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum presents dazzling sky shows.
Navy Pier, another Chicago lakefront magnet, offers a variety of diversions, including shops, restaurants, live music at the Miller Lite Beer Garden and amusements like the sky-high Centennial Wheel. Lake Michigan cruises, some with meals served, afford panoramic views of the impressive skyline.
Several boat tour operators showcase sterling examples of architectural artistry on docent-narrated cruises along the Chicago River. Exhibits at the riverfront Chicago Architecture Center, overlooking the Michigan Avenue Bridge, spotlight famous skyscrapers in Chicago and around the world. It conducts architecture tours by foot, bus and boat.
Two of the city’s lofty landmarks have observation decks. Skydeck Chicago, on the 103rd-floor of Willis Tower, challenges brave souls with The Ledge, a glass-enclosed balcony jutting four feet out from the facade of America’s second-tallest building. On the 94th floor of 875 North Michigan Avenue (formerly the John Hancock Center), thrill seekers can experience the dizzying downward-facing views offered by the TILT, a tilted bay window at 360 CHICAGO.
Millennium Park is the center of tourist activity in Chicago’s Loop. At the park’s Cloud Gate sculpture, better known as the “Bean,” a tourist must-do is catching your reflection in its shiny aluminum skin. Other park pleasures: frolicking in the multimedia Crown Fountain, strolling through colorful gardens and enjoying summertime concerts. Across from Millennium Park is the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the largest art museums in the world.
More cultural immersion awaits a few miles south of the Loop. Highlights include the DuSable Museum of African American History and the massive Museum of Science & Industry, with its hands-on exhibits and artifacts like the World War II German submarine and walk-through body of a United Airlines jet.
National touring shows pack the house at majestic Loop theaters built as movie palaces or vaudeville venues in the early 20th century. Broadway in Chicago’s schedule for 2020-2021 includes Dear Evan Hansen (July 7-September 27), Six (July 8-October 25), Disney’s Frozen (October 21, 2020-January 3, 2021) and Moulin Rouge! The Musical (December 17, 2020-February 21, 2021). Dozens of off-Loop theaters, such as the Steppenwolf, Royal George, Porchlight and Briar Street (home of long-running Blue Man Group), provide other crowd-pleasing options.
Critically acclaimed musicals are staged at the Drury Lane Theatre, close to Oak Brook Center shopping mall, west of Chicago via Interstate 88. Groups can take advantage of packages that combine a show and meal in one of the elegant on-site restaurants. On the upcoming playlist are Steel Magnolias (July 2-August 23), Forever Plaid (September 4-October 25), Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn (November 6, 2020-January 3, 2021) and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I (January 15-March 15, 2021). Group itineraries also can incorporate Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art, a captivating collection of jade carvings and other gemstone treasures in a new state-of-the-art Oak Brook location.
Take I-88 farther west to Lisle’s Morton Arboretum, a 1,700-acre oasis of woodlands, wetlands, prairie, lakes and meadows. Challenge yourself in The Maze and stroll through the groves and gardens representing tree and plant species from around the world. Lisle also claims the North American Pizza & Culinary Academy, where groups can learn pizza-making techniques in a demonstration class and then dine on the results.
Aurora, the state’s second-largest city, attracts groups with first-rate musicals and other productions at the Paramount Theatre, a jewel dating from 1931. Hollywood Casino Aurora lies two blocks away. Another Aurora draw, Chicago Premium Outlets shopping mall, lures bargain-hunters from far and wide.
In the city of Joliet, an hour southwest of Chicago via Interstate 55, live shows and behind-the-scenes tours bring groups to downtown’s Rialto Square Theatre, an architectural beauty from the vaudeville era. History also comes alive on tours of the Old Joliet Prison, a castle-like former penitentiary where scenes from The Blues Brothers movie were filmed. For a chance to strike it rich, consider an outing to Empress Joliet Casino or Harrah’s Joliet Casino. Summertime visitors can catch a Joliet Slammers minor league baseball game.
The Kane County Cougars, a Class A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks, offers many amenities for groups at Northwestern Field in Geneva. Nestled on the scenic Fox River, picturesque Geneva is renowned for its beautiful parks, historic homes, fine restaurants and downtown specialty shops like The Little Traveler, with its 36 rooms of surprises.
Chicago Southland, an area representing 63 municipalities south of the big city, abounds with attractions perfectly suited for group tours. Rail fans find one of the most densely packed railroad regions in the U.S., with viewing locations like Homewood Railroad Platform & Park, where live switchyard audio, vintage equipment and murals enhance the visit. To plunge into some track action yourself, head to the new Accelerate Indoor Speedway & Events in Mokena, where electric Italian go-karts reach speeds up to 50 mph.
At Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park, another Southland gem, masterpieces by famed sculptors grace 100 acres of rolling prairie landscape on the campus of Governor’s State University. On tours of Lotton Art Glass Gallery & Studio in Crete, see magnificent works being created from hot glass. A peek into the manufacturing of professional-grade baseball bats is available at Homewood Bat Company. The Windy City Thunderbolts play baseball at Ozinga Field in Crestwood.
The northwest suburb of Schaumburg offers professional baseball and serious shopping as well. It is home to the Schaumburg Boomers team and Woodfield Mall, one of the largest shopping destinations in the U.S., with nearly 300 stores and restaurants under one roof. Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament is another Schaumburg attraction with group appeal.
Supreme among hidden gems on the outer fringe of northwest suburbia is Sanfilippo Estate, also known as Place de la Musique. This Barrington Hills estate is exclusively open to group tours, public concerts and charity events. Your private tour will view the collection of antique music machines and other mechanical marvels acquired over the years by Jasper Sanfilippo of the Fisher Nut Company family. Many of the ornately crafted machines are demonstrated during the three-hour tour through opulent exhibit rooms.
Bordering Chicago along Lake Michigan to the north, Chicago’s North Shore is rich with attractions. Visit the Chicago Botanic Garden, the fifth most visited public garden in the U.S. with over 1 million annual visitors. Groups can explore the 27 gardens and four natural areas, uniquely situated on 385 acres on and around nine islands, with six miles of lake shoreline. The garden also has a renowned Bonsai Collection. Other features include the English Walled Garden, Waterfall Garden and the Fruit and Vegetable Garden. Year-round special events favored by groups include the American Craft Exposition, the Orchid Show and the new Lightscape holiday event.
Nearby on the lakefront, the Baha’i House of Worship’s lacey, white, 135-foot-high dome enchants visitors to the first Baha’i place of worship in the Western Hemisphere (completed in 1953) and one of only seven in the world. A new visitor center welcomes groups with the fascinating story of how the building came to be and the history of all Baha’i temples.
Along the shores of Evanston are beaches, parks, the campus of Northwestern University and the Charles Gates Dawes House, the chateau-like mansion of the U.S. vice president who served under President Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s. The Dawes House, with exhibits on Evanston’s colorful past, is the home of the Evanston History Center, whose docents give not only tours of the home but of historic Evanston neighborhoods. At the impressive Illinois Holocaust Museum in neighboring Skokie, groups confront Nazi atrocities committed against the Jews of Europe during World War II. Also in Skokie is Westfield Old Orchard, an expansive outdoor shopping center.
Continuing north along Lake Michigan, Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, offering 17 roller coasters and Caribbean-themed Hurricane Harbor water park, reigns as one of the Midwest’s premier theme parks. For retail revelry, there’s Gurnee Mills, an indoor shopping center with nearly 200 stores. Northwest of Gurnee, groups can catch a classical dressage performance by the famed Tempel Lipizzans stallions and tour the stables of these rare white horses.
The glories of Mother Nature also can be found in northeastern Illinois’ state parks. Starved Rock State Park, located on the Illinois River near Utica, 92 miles southwest of Chicago, is Illinois’ most-visited state park. It is best known for trails that take hikers to canyons, waterfalls and spectacular overlooks. The rustic Starved Rock Lodge, constructed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), has a restaurant and 69 guest rooms, and there are 16 log cabins. Built in the same era, the inn at White Pines Forest State Park, near Mount Morris, is known for its excellent restaurant, cabin accommodations and Pines Playhouse music shows.