When Chicago first began in the early 1830s it was just a small settlement on the coast of Lake Michigan. Over time it has expanded significantly and is now the biggest city in all of the American Midwest! Today the city's population is made up of unique nationalities, cultures and diverse backgrounds which gives it its own personality and character. Chicago is nicknamed the Windy City because of its windstorms and extra breezy weather no matter the season. Nevertheless, this is a fantastic multicultural town (hold on to your hat) and everyone is welcome to visit.
Did you know that this city is home to a total of 56 museums? If the weather elsewhere prevents you from venturing out, check out this list of the best museums in Chicago as an alternative plan. A trip to Chicago will be filled with exciting attractions and fun activities, but while you are in Illinois, why not venture outside of the city limits to see what else the area has to offer?
Below, we've gathered some ideas for fun day trips from Chicago that can make your vacation even more special. Before you leave town, visit Bounce luggage storage in Chicago to safely stow any bags or extra gear that you don't want to bring with you.
How to get out of Chicago
A big city like Chicago is filled with public transportation networks and is generally easy to navigate. The streets, which follow a grid-like pattern, are not too confusing to get around and the neighborhoods are very walkable. Each area is connected by both above-ground, below-ground and street-level transportation options that make it easy to get from place to place. If you want more details on moving around inside the city, read our guide on how to get around Chicago.
As for moving in and out of the city limits, some trains and buses should be able to get you where you need to go but driving is your best option. In the worst case, taxis or even water-taxis can help you get to where you need to go! An economical and environmentally friendly option other than driving yourself around is to use ride-sharing apps like Uber or Lyft. Keep them in mind when you are planning your day trips from Chicago.
From Chicago to Chicago Botanic Garden
All nature lovers will absolutely adore this Chicago day trip and you won't have to travel far to get here. The Botanic Garden houses unique plants and beautiful flowers from around the globe and there are over 30 distinct areas for you to explore on the grounds. Each section follows a certain theme, like the Japanese Garden, the Bonsai Collection, or the Dwarf Conifer Garden. There are so many nice places that it will be hard to choose a favorite! The gardens are open year-round but look out for seasonal events like the Butterflies & Blooms attraction or the Model Railroad Garden (great for young visitors).
You can easily spend a couple of hours exploring the natural beauty of the gardens. There is a smartphone app that offers self-guided tours for you to follow which will allow you to look around the area at your own pace. The gardens are fun for families since there are areas that are specifically targeted toward kids, like the Children's Growing Garden and the Nature Play Garden. Otherwise, you can navigate your way through bike trails (bike rentals are available on site) or take some birdwatching classes. A tram runs through the gardens and is a nice alternative for those who cannot or don't want to walk around. There is a lovely restaurant called the Garden View Café for when you get hungry plus a gift shop selling souvenirs.
How to get to Chicago Botanic Garden
You will definitely need an entire afternoon to appreciate the whole 385-acre Botanic Garden, but you can spend as long as you want here since it will only take about a half hour to get to! Driving there is the quickest way but methods using public transport are available as well. Hop on the Union Pacific North Line to the Braeside Station and then take a walk along the North Branch Trail until you reach the gardens. The whole train journey will take around an hour.
From Chicago to Indiana Dunes National Park
The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Park is a great destination for a beach day getaway from Chicago. There are more than 15 miles of sand for you to enjoy along Lake Michigan's southern shore plus over 50 miles of walking routes and hiking trails to explore within the park. The national park is open during all four seasons; try out snowshoeing or cross country skiing during the wintertime and horseback riding, hiking, swimming and biking in the spring, fall or summer.
If you want to learn about the park and the wildlife that lives here you can ask questions during a ranger-led walking tour. There are also some historic buildings from the 19th century in the area which history buffs will definitely appreciate, like the Bailly Homestead, the Chellberg Farm, and Camp Good Fellow. Do you have any kids tagging along? They will love the Nature Play Zone and can even become Junior Rangers at the visitor center. If you ever get tired of the park you can go visit some of the attractions inside Michigan city, like the Windmill Island Gardens, the Washington Park Zoo, the Old Lighthouse Museum, or the Tulip Time Festival if you are visiting in early May.
How to get to Indiana Dunes National Park
The distance from Chicago to Indiana Dunes is not too far at all since it is right on the way to Michigan City. You can reach the park in about an hour if you drive on the I-90 E which will be your best bet since the public transport networks can't get you all the way there.
From Chicago to Milwaukee
One of the best places to go on a day trip from Chicago is the beautiful city of Milwaukee. It follows a slower pace than Chicago and is the optimal destination for a calm but exciting day. This Wisconsin town offers a wide selection of attractions like breweries, museums, and festivals! Check out Summerfest if you are visiting during the summertime.
Around 25 theaters and over 75 golf courses can keep you entertained all day. If you have some extra time we suggest going on a stroll down the RiverWalk which is a nice place to relax. Interested in going to some museums? The Milwaukee Art Museum is definitely worth stopping by. Another local icon is Harley-Davidson; try going on some museum tours to see artifacts, motorcycle pieces, or even the world's oldest known Harley. Milwaukee is otherwise known for its brewing heritage which is why you will find over 30 microbreweries and pubs scattered around the entire city. Consider going on a tour to learn more about the city's beer scene!
How to get to Milwaukee
Milwaukee won't be too far of a journey from Chicago which is why it is one of the best day trips. It is about an hour and a half away from the city center and can be reached both by car and by train. The Amtrack can bring you right from the Chicago Union Station straight to the Milwaukee Intermodal Station. If you are driving yourself you will just need to hop on the I-94 W.
From Chicago to Lake Geneva
Lake Geneva is one of the best Chicago day trips and offers a much different experience than the city life around Lake Michigan. This is a resort city where the wealthy decided to build their mansions during the time of the Gilded Age after the Great Chicago Fire. It is a great spot for shopping, eating at fabulous restaurants, or enjoying an active nightlife.
If you are looking for some small town charm you can explore the downtown area or admire all of the big houses along the Lake Geneva Shore Path. Just make sure that you are respectful of the private property. Loads of outdoor activities are available around Lake Geneva as well, including hiking trails, skiing and snowboarding slopes, biking routes, or even places to go ziplining. There is something here for everyone to enjoy!
How to get to Lake Geneva
To visit Lake Geneva and the charming town center beside it, you should opt for driving yourself. You can get there using the train and buses but it can be pretty complicated and will take a very long time. However, the journey by car should only take you an hour and a half if you go by the I-94 W.
From Chicago to Oak Park
There is so much to do in Oak Park, especially if you are a fan of the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The people of this charming small town take pride in its diversity and it is a very welcoming place for everyone, no matter who you are or where you come from! Downtown Oak Park offers a fantastic area with specialty shops as well as an impressive culinary scene. There are more than enough galleries for any art lovers as well!
Of course, no road trip to Oak Park would be worthwhile without stopping by the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Museum where you can see his old house and studio up close and in person. Check out the Ernest Hemingway Birthplace Museum if you are a fan of the writer's work; it is only a few blocks away from the Frank Lloyd Wright attractions.
How to get to Oak Park
Oak Park is one of the closest day trips from Chicago and will only take 15 minutes to get to by car on the I-290 W. You can also take the train from the Ogilvie Transportation Center which will take about the same amount of time.
From Chicago to Starved Rock State Park
One of the best places to go for outdoor activities and spending time in nature around Chicago is the stunning Starved Rock State Park. It is one of the top attractions in Illinois so you won't want to miss any opportunity to see it for yourself! The State Parks is home to more than 15 canyons, tall green trees, lush foliage and lots of wildlife. You should grab your trekking gear and be prepared to spend a day walking along the many hiking trails available in the park.
The Illinois River runs throughout the area and allows for water activities like river cruises, kayaking or rafting. Other attractions include horseback riding and birdwatching, or you can just pack a picnic and eat by one of the beautiful canyon waterfalls! The hikes are not too challenging and people of all ages should be able to participate. You can also check out Matthiessen State Park if you have more time to spend since they are only a few minutes away from each other. The Starved Rock State Park is a beautiful spot to visit any time of year but be aware that it can get busy during peak season, so consider avoiding weekends during that time if you don't want to have to deal with crowds.
How to get to Starved Rock State Park
Ready for an outdoor adventure? This state park can be reached in about an hour and a half but unfortunately, the only way to get there is by car. The drive is easy if you take the via I-55 S and I-80 W.
Planning the Perfect Day Trip
Although downtown Chicago or sights like Soldier Field are very exciting places, it is always fun to go on road trips to see what else there is around. Illinois is dotted with small towns that are home to an intriguing natural history as well as nearby parks and gardens where you can enjoy fresh air in the rolling hills. We've listed some great places to visit but if you are looking for more ideas for day trips from Chicago there is so much more to see!
Rockford is the fourth largest city in Illinois and another great spot to visit; check out the Anderson Japanese Gardens, Prairie Street Brewing Company, Rockford Art Museum and Discovery Center Museum. Grand Rapids is sometimes called Beer City USA and is one of the best weekend getaways for anyone who enjoys touring breweries. It doesn't really matter where you go on your day trip from Chicago since there is something waiting for you in every direction.