While Chicago gets its fair share of attention, and justifiably so, there are plenty of other Illinois towns worthy of a visit

We totally get it; Chicago is an amazing city with plenty of enduring nicknames that capture its bigger than life spirit. But the small towns in Illinois and surrounding areas often get left out of the conversation. Here we spotlight the not-to-be-missed Illinois activities, from the lush greenery of the Chicago Botanic Garden and incredible Frank Lloyd Wright houses in Oak Park to the 450-plus species of animals who call the Brookfield Zoo home.

4 Unique Experiences:

  • Chicago Botanic Garden
  • Sanfilippo Estate
  • Brookfield Zoo
  • Lotton Art Glass

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

Day 1: A navy museum, high-stepping horses and more things to do in Illinois


Temple Lipizzans

Tempel Lipizzans
Credit: John Borys

Start your day at the National Museum of the American Sailor with a peek into the everyday life of a sailor at the U.S. Navy’s newest museum. Next, visit the Tempel Lipizzans to get up-close and personal with these brilliant horses. See the stables where individual care of the stallions is a high priority. Pet some noses and learn about the history of this rare breed.

Visit Gurnee Mills, home to over 200 stores, including name-brand, discount and anchor retailers. Have lunch in one of the two food courts or the Rainforest Cafe. Later, visit the beautiful Chicago Botanic Garden. Situated on 385 acres and around nine islands, it consists of 27 unique gardens that will stimulate your senses. Don’t miss the renowned bonsai collection.

Enjoy dining at one of the area’s farm-to-table restaurants followed by a performance at a playhouse, such as Northlight Theatre, Writers Theatre or Piven Theater.

Day 2: Magnificent music machines, an Illinois railway museum and a local hotspot

Start the day off right with a private tour of the magnificent Sanfilippo Estate’s “Place de la Musique.” Known for its collection of unique music machines, phonographs, and arcade and gambling machines, plus the world’s largest restored theater pipe organ and other functional mechanical antiques, Place de la Musique resides within a breathtaking French Second Empire setting. The next stop is the Illinois Railway Museum. Originally formed to preserve one important piece of rolling stock, the museum has evolved into an educational and historic preservation organization that created the largest railroad showcase on the North American continent.

For lunch, kick around downtown Woodstock, site of the 1993 comedy Groundhog Day, starring funnyman Bill Murray. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the town square is rich with Victorian architecture.

Try the Arlington Heights Entertainment District. With restaurants, theaters, lounges, live entertainment and events, this vibrant downtown district is a popular nightlife destination for both visitors and locals.

Day 3: Frank Lloyd Wright houses, a zoo like no other and other Illinois activities

Travel to Oak Park, the west suburban community made famous by Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemingway. Marvel at Wright’s architectural prowess on a tour of his home and studio and see samples of his genius in the surrounding neighborhood. Tour Hemingway’s birthplace and explore Wright’s magnificent Unity Temple, a National Historic Landmark built in 1905.

For offbeat fun, take the group to nearby Brookfield Zoo, a 216-acre oasis with more than 450 species of animals. The hop-on, hop-off open-air Motor Safari trams are a great way to take it all in and include live narration. Don’t miss the dolphin show.

Take in a Broadway-style musical and enjoy a scrumptious dinner at the legendary Drury Lane Theatre and adjoining Lucille Restaurant.

Day 4: Glass blowing and award-winning Frankfort restaurants

Watch three generations of glass blowers at Lotton Art Glass in Crete. Lotton is one of the very few studios in the world to start with elements of the earth like sand, soda ash, lime, borax, zinc and metals, resulting in some of the most breathtaking colors that you will ever see. Watch demonstrations of glass blowing techniques at this family-owned and -operated business. Afterwards, browse the fully furnished gallery and pick up one-of-a-kind mementos.

Next, it’s on to downtown Frankfort, a welcoming place since 1855. From award-winning restaurants to upscale, eclectic specialty boutiques, enjoy a relaxing shopping experience in this charming, historic downtown.

End your tour at Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park, a collection of 29 masterworks of large-scale sculpture. Situated on 100 acres of prairie landscape at Governors State University, this “museum-in-theprairie” highlights important landscape-based sculptures by distinguished artists at the height of their creative powers.

For more travel ideas, download our current issue of Leisure Travel Guide.