Everyone loves a good day trip from Chicago, but when excursions to hot destinations like Lake Geneva and Galena begin to feel somewhat tired, it’s time to start thinking outside the box: less quaint vacation town and hiking near Chicago, more out-of-the-way curios and attractions. Whether you’re in the mood to get schooled on the evolution of CTA railcar design, soak in some of the region’s most memorable architecture, or clear your mind amid babbling waterfalls, these Midwestern attractions offer a change of pace from the usual day trip suspects (and, in many cases, fewer crowds). Grab your planners and get ready for a little adventure: Here are some of the most unique day trips from Chicago.
The most unique day trips from Chicago
Driving time from Chicago: About one hour
Want to get a firsthand look at why Illinois is nicknamed the Prairie State? Take a trip southwest of the city to Will County, where a herd of bison roam the 9,000-acre expanses of the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie as part of an ongoing habitat restoration project (the area once housed the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant and bunkers still remain). Spotting the herd isn’t a sure thing—it’s a massive park, after all—so you’re best off bringing a pair of binoculars and starting at the Iron Bridge Trailhead, which puts you closest to the bison pasture area. From there, a three-mile round trip hike will lead you to an overlook point outfitted with viewing scopes and benches to rest on
Driving time from Chicago: About four hours
Thanks to a highly successful funding program in the mid-20th century, the small-ish town of Columbus, Indiana is home to some of the Midwest’s most stunning examples of Modern buildings, structures and public art, with works by Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei, Richard Meier and other architectural luminaries dotting its downtown thoroughfares. You can pay for a guide to lead you through the highlights, but the town also offers a free audio tour app that leads listeners through 18 of the most prominent buildings in the area
Driving time from Chicago: About an hour
Sure, Six Flags is fun, but there’s only one suburban amusement park where you’ll run into Santa Claus year-round, and that’s Santa’s Village Azoosment & Water Park in East Dundee. Despite its wintry theme, the family-friendly park is best visited in summer: Splash around in the Caribbean Christmas-themed Santa Springs water park—featuring two 300-foot, candy cane-colored slides—or take a spin on thrill rides like the Blizzard, which swings riders 40 feet in the air on a spinning pendulum.
Driving time from Chicago: About three and a half hours
Spring Green, Wisconsin is perhaps best known as the home of Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie style summer estate set amid the limestone outcroppings of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area. You should make a stop at the house if you have time—Wright’s estate offers a huge variety of guided tours—but the 1,089-seat outdoor ampitheater at American Players Theatre is an equally unbeatable summertime attraction. The company’s repetoire is mostly classical (Oedipus and The Taming of the Shrew are playing this summer), though you’ll find more contemporary works on the lineup as well.Read :
Driving time from Chicago: About an hour and a half
Located in Plano, Ilinois at the banks of the Fox River, the glass-walled Farnsworth House—designed by Bauhaus architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as a weekend retreat for Dr. Edith Farnsworth—is both a National Historic Landmark and one of the area’s foremost examples of Modernist architecture. Though the house has been besieged by floods throughout its 70-year history, ongoing preservation efforts have kept it in tip-top condition. Book a docent-led tour through the building (the summertime moonlight tours, which commence at dusk and loop around a lighted exterior path, are an especially beautiful option) and take some time to soak in the natural beauty of the home’s 60-acre wooded grounds
Driving time from Chicago: About an hour and a half
The country’s largest railway museum sits just outside the Chicago metropolitan area in Union, Illinois, where you can check out a massive collection of antique train cars and hop aboard working streetcars, steam and diesel trains that loop around the 100-acre campus. Plan for an entire day of exploration: The museum’s buildings house all kinds public transportation artifacts, including an 1859 horse-drawn streetcar, every kind of CTA ‘L’ car and a display of working railroad signs and signals.
Driving time from Chicago: About two hours
Once you’ve thoroughly explored the lovely Garden of the Phoenix in Jackson Park, set your sights on a visit to the Anderson Japanese Gardens in Rockford. Designed by landscape architect Hoichi Kurisu, the 12-acre gardens feature trails, waterfalls, tranquil ponds, gravel gardens and an abundance of Japanese maples, among other plant life. Plan ahead and book the “Frank Lloyd Wright Meets 16th Century Japan Tour” that guides visitors through the garden’s 16th century Sukiya-style tea house and the Laurent House, which has the distinction of being the only home Wright designed for a client with a physical disability.Read morePhotograph: Jeff ReiterTake a nature walk through Cantigny Park
Driving time from Chicago: About 45 minutes
This verdant Wheaton park—formerly the estate of the publishers of the Chicago Tribune—offers 29 acres of gardens and 160,000 plants, complete with two and a half miles of nature paths perfect for a leisurely afternoon stroll among the flowers. Military history buffs will also want to check out the First Division Museum on the park’s grounds, which chronicles U.S. military history from World War I to the present.