Next up in our day trip series: Chicago, a city the legendary Sarah Bernhardt once called “the pulse of America.” From museums to architecture, Chicago is a joy to explore. But while there’s no shortage of pastimes in the city proper, there are plenty of adventures to be discovered outside its borders.
Whether you’re craving a closer look at science, a taste of Europe, or a return to nature, you’ll find what you’re looking for within a 2-hour drive.
1. You’re craving: Cultivated beauty
Try: Geneva, IL
Less than an hour’s drive from the bustle of the city, Geneva is a microcosm apart. In this charming town, you’ll find historical artifacts, beautifully maintained gardens and parks, and celebrations of a diverse heritage.
If you’re a fan of nature and history, visit the patrician grounds of the Fabyan Villa Museum and Japanese Gardens. The villa boasts an impressive collection of historical Asian artifacts, a Dutch windmill, and a famously beautiful Japanese garden that favors wanderers.
You can also (metaphorically) sail back a few centuries for a new view. A full-scale replica of a ninth-century Viking ship, built for the 1893 Columbian Exhibition and sailed across the Atlantic to show the journey was possible, now makes berth in Geneva’s Good Templar Park. Visitors are welcome to take a look until October 15.
All along the Fox River, you’ll find historic buildings from the nineteenth century, peaceful parks, restaurants and treats, and even a historic post-Prohibition distillery. Between the scenery and quiet, Geneva is truly a breath of fresh air.
2. You’re craving: Scientific discovery
If you need a refresher course on the building blocks of the universe, visit Fermilab: historically among the world’s largest particle accelerators and today a great place for a crash course (pun intended) in particle physics.
Sound intimidating? Doesn’t have to be. Get started at Lederman Science Center, where visitors of all ages can try their hand at some of the techniques and put theory into practice with fun and accessible activities. If you have doubts, just watch as some very enthusiastic physicists show off the exhibits. More serious explorers can also check the calendar for guided tours of the more technical areas and Ask-A-Scientist events.
When your brain is taxed, the Fermilab campus has more down-home attractions to keep you busy, like trails, a bison pasture, and believe it or not, folk and barn dancing.
3. You’re craving: Local (and natural) history
Try: Rockford, IL
Step a century — or a few millennia — back in time when you visit the charming town of Rockford, home of renowned museums and living exhibits that celebrate the area’s past. Conveniently enough, Rockford stashes several of its museums in clusters, so you can choose a tour that suits your mood.
Natural history buffs and families with kids might want to start at the Riverfront Museum Park, which houses the Burpee Natural History Museum (don’t miss the dinos!), the Discovery Center Museum (perfect for kids), and the Rockford Art Museum. Visitors can also celebrate fall with wagon rides, a vintage goods sale (in a barn!), and scarecrow-crafting lessons.
Or step into local history in the immersive Midway Village Museum, a campus that showcases tableaux from Rockford’s past, particularly its Victorian and WWII years — we’re talking a blacksmith, print shop, and artifacts from the onetime Rockford Peaches, the town’s all-female baseball league during WWII. Get your timing right and you might even see period costumes or a reenactment.
4. You’re craving: Culture (and kringle)
Try: Racine, WI
Fan of architecture, animals, white sand beaches, or pastries? If you answered “yes” to any and all, a sojourn to Racine might be just the ticket.
Meet a host of critters — many endangered — at the famous Racine Zoo. The more adventurous in your party may want to hand-feed rare birds or Masai giraffes, while everyone will enjoy gazing upon the zoo’s other handsome residents (and, of course, a trip on the Zoo-Choo Express train).
For a more civilized outing, opt for a tour of the SC Johnson campus, where you’ll be swept back a half century by the stunning, signature architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.
When you’re ready for a snack break, don’t miss a taste of the Midwest’s Scandinavian heritage, here taking the form of Danish kringle: a ring-shaped pastry with a variety of fillings. Racine is famous for its take on the traditional sweet.
And if you’re in search of family fun, Racine’s got orchards, pumpkin patches, and (for the brave) a walking ghost tour.
5. You’re craving: A dairy escape
Try: Kilgus Farmstead
Picture this: peaceful rolling green hills, dotted with grazing cattle. Fresh milk. Seasonal ice cream. Cheese that graces the tables of discerning city-dwellers. You can find all this and more at Kilgus Farmstead, which provides many a Chicago restaurant with dairy products (and also sells directly to consumers).
After making the scenic drive, get up close and personal with the stock — which includes goats and pigs as well as Jersey cattle — on a tour of the farm. The tour includes a meet-and-greet with the farm’s many varieties of animals, visits to the milking parlor and creamery, and a helping of fresh soft-serve ice cream.
There’s more where that came from: pack a cooler to take home dairy and meat products sold at the onsite store. Seeing as you’ve just met the cows and seen the operation, after all, you can be sure everything’s farm-fresh.