City guides

Hidden gem day trips from Chicago

Dive into the enchanting world just beyond the borders of the Windy City.

September 19, 2023
 min read
Last updated:
Jan 15
A view of the Chicago skyline, with the Chicago river in the foreground.

Chicago, with its vibrant energy and urban charm, is a destination in its own right. Yet, the surrounding areas hold secrets waiting to be uncovered. Whether you're a nature lover, history buff, or simply someone seeking a brief respite from city life, these day trips promise to whisk you away on adventures you never thought possible so close to home.

Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

A mere 90 miles southwest of Chicago lies Starved Rock State Park, a sanctuary of natural beauty. This park is a testament to nature's artistry with its deep canyons, gushing waterfalls, and panoramic views of the Illinois River. Each season paints the park in a different hue, from the vibrant autumnal colors to the frozen waterfalls in winter. The trails beckon hikers of all levels, and the serene ambiance is perfect for those seeking a moment of reflection amidst nature's wonders. 

Galena, Illinois

Galena is not just a town; it's a journey back in time. As you stroll through its historic streets, you'll be greeted by 19th-century architecture, each building whispering tales of yesteryears. The town's rich history is palpable, from Civil War-era homes to old-fashioned storefronts. But Galena isn't just about the past. Contemporary boutiques, art galleries, and wineries add a modern touch, making it a perfect blend of old and new. A day here feels like a beautiful dance between epochs. 

New Buffalo, Michigan

Imagine a place where the golden sands meet the clear waters of Lake Michigan. New Buffalo is that idyllic escape. Just a short drive from Chicago, this coastal town offers a beach experience reminiscent of the East Coast. The marina bustles with activity, from sailing to fishing, while the town itself is dotted with cozy cafes, artisanal shops, and boutique hotels. As the sun sets, the horizon paints a picture so mesmerizing, you'll be planning your next visit before you even leave. 

Indiana Dunes National Park, Indiana

Stretching over 15 miles along the southern tip of Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes is a marvel of biodiversity. Towering sand dunes rise majestically, offering breathtaking views of the lake. The park is a haven for birdwatchers, with over 350 species calling it home. The diverse habitats, from wetlands to forests, make it a hotspot for various flora and fauna. Whether you're scaling the dunes, picnicking by the beach, or exploring the many trails, Indiana Dunes promises an immersive experience with nature. 

Chain O'Lakes State Park, Illinois

Water, in all its tranquil glory, is the star at Chain O'Lakes State Park. This aquatic wonderland consists of nine main lakes connected by channels, making it a paradise for boaters and anglers. The park's vast expanse offers a plethora of activities, from camping under the stars to horseback riding along scenic trails. Winter transforms the park into a snowy wonderland, perfect for ice fishing and snowmobiling. It's a year-round destination that offers a refreshing change of pace from city life.

Crystal Lake, Illinois

Beyond the shimmering waters that give Crystal Lake its name, this city is a hub of culture and community spirit. The downtown area is a delightful maze of boutique shops, gourmet eateries, and vibrant art galleries. Throughout the year, the city comes alive with events, from summer concerts at the beach to the bustling farmers' markets that showcase the region's bountiful produce. The Raue Center for the Arts stands as a testament to the city's commitment to the arts, hosting performances that range from classical music to contemporary theater. A day in Crystal Lake is a celebration of community, culture, and the simple joys of life. 

Bishop Hill, Illinois

Bishop Hill is more than just a village; it's a living museum of Swedish heritage. Founded by Swedish immigrants in the 1840s, the village has preserved its roots with utmost care. As you wander its streets, you'll encounter traditional wooden buildings, artisan shops selling handcrafted goods, and museums that narrate the tales of the settlers. The annual festivals, like Midsommar and Julmarknad, offer a glimpse into Swedish traditions and customs. But it's not just about the past; the village's vibrant community ensures that Bishop Hill is always buzzing with activity, making it a blend of history and present-day charm. 

Rockford, Illinois

Often overshadowed by its bigger neighbors, Rockford is a city that surprises at every turn. The Anderson Japanese Gardens, a 12-acre landscape of streams, waterfalls, and koi-filled ponds, offers a slice of tranquility amidst the urban setting. For those with a penchant for history, the Midway Village Museum showcases the region's industrial and cultural past. Children and adults alike will be captivated by the Discovery Center Museum, with its interactive exhibits. Rockford's burgeoning arts scene, eclectic dining options, and riverside activities make it a destination that promises something for everyone. 

Kenosha, Wisconsin

A stone's throw away from the Illinois border, Kenosha is a coastal gem that exudes a unique charm. The city's historic streetcars, reminiscent of a bygone era, take you on a nostalgic journey through its streets. The bustling harbor market is a treat for the senses, with stalls selling everything from fresh produce to artisanal crafts. Kenosha's commitment to the arts is evident in its numerous galleries, theaters, and public art installations. The city's beaches offer a serene escape, while the many museums cater to the curious minds. In Kenosha, every moment feels like a discovery. 

Matthiessen State Park, Illinois

While Starved Rock often steals the limelight, Matthiessen State Park is an unspoiled treasure waiting to be explored. The park's landscape is a mesmerizing tapestry of unique geological formations, deep canyons, and lush forests. The streams that meander through the park have carved out fascinating rock structures over millennia. Hikers will find a plethora of trails that offer varying levels of challenge, each providing a unique perspective of the park's beauty. The diverse habitats support a rich variety of wildlife, making it a haven for nature enthusiasts and photographers. Matthiessen is a testament to nature's enduring beauty and resilience.

The world around Chicago is as diverse and enchanting as the city itself. Each destination, with its unique charm and offerings, invites you to step out of your comfort zone and embark on an adventure. Whether it's the serenity of a state park, the historical allure of a village, or the vibrant energy of a neighboring city, these hidden gems promise experiences that will linger in your memories long after the trip. So, here's to the road less traveled and the stories waiting to be written. Unforgettable explorations await!


*Prices fluctuate based on season and day of the week.

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