Architecture tours, stunning state parks and lush botanical gardens await in these Illinois towns

With eight Illinois towns included — Rockford, Rochelle, Dixon, Aurora, Plano, Utica, Joliet and Kankakee — this 4-day itinerary covers a lot of ground. But it’s less about the distance and more about the variety of activities available for groups large and small.

4 Unique Experiences:

  • Anderson Japanese Gardens
  • Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home
  • Starved Rock State Park
  • Kankakee Railroad Museum

Duration: 4 Days
Available: Year-round
Ideal For: All

Day 1: Train watching, a Japanese garden and more things to do in Rockford Illinois

Start your day in Rockford, located on the Rock River. Visit the historic Coronado Performing Arts Center to enjoy backstage tour. The Coronado opened in 1927 as a theater and movie palace, complete with Spanish castles, Italian villas, oriental dragons, starlit skies and a Grande Barton Pipe Organ. Next, tour Klehm Arboretum & Botanical Gardens. Your group will see hundreds of different species of trees and plants, along with many demonstration gardens.


Anderson Japanese Gardens

Anderson Japanese Gardens in Rockford is one of America’s top Japanese gardens.
Credit: Rockford CVB

Visit Anderson Japanese Gardens, rated as one of the most authentic Japanese gardens outside of Japan. This 12-acre oasis includes two gardens, a pond strolling garden and a contemporary Garden of Reflection. Waterfalls, ponds, stone lanterns, coin basins and examples of Japanese carpentry are some of the many treasures awaiting. Have lunch at the Fresco at the Gardens.

After lunch, stop at Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens, which brings the tropics to the Midwest. The facility offers an 11,000-square-foot exhibition area with water features, seating areas and sculptures, all in a tropical plant setting.

Next, travel to nearby Rochelle. Railroad Park is a hot spot for train watching with over 80 locomotives passing through daily. A photo stop at the Lincoln Highway Interpretive Mural depicts the time when Emily Post traveled through Rochelle in 1915.

Enjoy shopping in many interesting local Rochelle shops and check out a variety of restaurants before turning in for the night.

Day 2: A president’s former home, the oldest roadhouse restaurant in the U.S. and other Illinois activities

Travel to Franklin Grove and visit the historic Lincoln Highway Association National Headquarters. Visitors from around the world come here to research information on the first coast-to-coast highway in the USA. The site is a restored 1860 dry goods store built by Abe Lincoln’s cousin. The Lincoln Highway Museum and Store is housed inside. Next, on to the Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home, where you’ll be transported back in time to where the 40th president and his family lived in the early 1920s. The home has been fully restored with furnishings of the period, and knowledgeable tour guides share stories about the house and the family. Stop for photo-ops at the 19-foot Lincoln statue that depicts Abraham Lincoln as a young soldier and the Reagan equestrian statue located along the Rock riverfront.

Travel to Aurora, Illinois’ second-largest city. Enjoy lunch at Two Brothers Roundhouse. Built in 1856, this 70,000-square-foot limestone structure is the oldest roundhouse in the U.S. It’s now been converted into an upscale brewery and restaurant but railroad history abounds. Later, visit Chicago Premium Outlets in Aurora and find hundreds of brands available at outlet prices.

Take in a Broadway musical performance at the historic Paramount Theatre. This playhouse, dating back to 1931, has been restored to its former glory, with rich Art Deco architecture and seating for nearly 1,900 patrons. After the show, stroll along the banks of the Fox River, which runs through downtown Aurora.

Day 3: Mies van der Rohe architecture, an outdoor oasis and more activities in Joliet Illinois


Farnsworth House

Farnsworth House
Credit: Adam Alexander/Illinois Office of Tourism

Depart Aurora for the Farnsworth House, one of the most significant of Mies van der Rohe’s works. Built in 1951, this property in Plano is a fine example of modernist architecture and is considered by architects as one of the crystallizing and pivotal moments of van der Rohe’s long artistic career.

Visit Starved Rock State Park in Utica, considered the top outdoor attraction in Illinois. Waterfalls are active in the spring and after heavy rain, plus 13 miles of trails are waiting to be explored along the Illinois River. Enjoy lunch at Starved Rock Lodge, accompanied by a matinee performance at the Tribute to the Stars Theater.

Travel on to Joliet, where two riverfront casinos will tempt your group. Harrah’s has added over 100 of the newest games to its casino floor, while Hollywood features over 1,100 slots and 25 table games.

Day 4: Handmade quilts, a railroad museum and a Frank Lloyd Wright home

Over 50 decorative barn quilts welcome visitors to explore Kankakee County’s scenic countryside. These 8 x 8-foot quilt patterns share a unique story of both celebration and tradition. Explore them on the guided tour of the area.

Later, enjoy trains and the good old days at the Kankakee Railroad Museum. See large operating model train displays and railroad memorabilia housed in a restored train depot.

The area’s history is directly tied to the many church congregations that began here in the 1800s. Most of these houses of worship are located in downtown Kankakee and represent the spirit of commitment early settlers had in establishing the community. Six of these historic churches are featured on an afternoon walking tour.

Before heading home, stop at the Bradley House. This is the first house designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright in his infamous Prairie Style. Following an extensive renovation, the riverfront house is now adored by architecture fans from around the world.

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