From nature parks, historic sites, and specialty museums to shopping and cultural encounters, these destinations within 40 to 90 minutes of downtown are affordable, fun day trips from Chicago.
Day Trips from Chicago
Many of these Chicago day trips have no admission fee and are conveniently accessible via public transportation on Chicago’s elevated trains (called the “L”) or Metra commuter railroad lines.
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The world’s largest concentration of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed buildings and prairie-style homes, 25 in total, is just 10 miles west of Chicago in Oak Park. Start with a docent-led tour at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio to get grounded in the architect’s unique design aesthetic. Then walk the surrounding blocks of the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District to see homes designed by Wright and other prairie-style architects. Allow time to tour the restored Unity Temple, Wright’s first public building and one of the earliest in America to feature exposed concrete. Metra and green line elevated trains commute frequently from the Loop to Oak Park.
Just seven miles south of the Loop, the lakefront Hyde Park neighborhood is one of the easiest and brainiest day trips from Chicago. The neighborhood was part of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition fairgrounds, and the colossal Museum of Science and Industry was originally the fair’s Palace of Fine Arts. On the ivy-clad University of Chicago campus are two free museums (though donations are appreciated): the Smart Museum of Art and the venerable Oriental Institute, with its Near East archeological exhibits. Those passionate about prairie-style architecture can tour the Robie House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s near the soaring Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, hosting concerts and recitals. Also worth a stop is the DuSable Museum of African American History.
Tranquil Cantigny Park in suburban Wheaton, 30 miles west of the Loop, is the former estate of Robert R. McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune. The estate’s name commemorates McCormick’s experience as a U.S. Army colonel in the Battle of Cantigny, the first American victory of World War I. Visit the estate’s free First Division Museum tracing the history of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division; kids love climbing on the real tanks. Docents guide tours through the McCormick mansion, while the manicured gardens can be explored on your own. Visitors attend free concerts, seasonal garden events, lectures, and historic war re-enactments.
Head to Morton Arboretum for fresh air and active fun year-round. A 25-mile drive west of downtown, this 1,700-acre natural oasis in suburban Lisle was established in 1922 by Joy Morton of Morton Salt Company. Guided tours, educational signage, and self-guided excursions using the arboretum’s app showcase some of the 222,000 plants growing in woodlands, wetlands, and prairies. Visitors can bike, walk, snowshoe, or cross-country ski the 16 miles of paths (equipment rentals are available). Families spend hours at the interactive Children’s Garden and Maze Garden. Special events include giant art installations, theater productions, and holiday illumination and model railroad displays.
While the upscale Oakbrook Center 20 miles west of Chicago draws thousands of shoppers year-round, there are plenty of other reasons to take a day trip to Oak Brook. Drury Lane Theatre stages popular Broadway musicals, comedies, and dramas performed by top-notch casts for reasonable ticket prices. Open year-round, the Family Aquatic Center’s pools and splash parks delight kids. Walks in the wooded DuPage County Forest Preserve promise scenic solitude in every season. Also consider touring the 1821 mansions and gardens of Mayslake Peabody Estate, or exploring 1800s farm life and Underground Railroad history at Graue Mill and Museum.
The 32-mile drive to Naper Settlement in Naperville is one of the best day trips from Chicago for history buffs and families. Open year-round, the living history museum recreates a Midwestern settlement of 30 buildings original to the area including a log cabin, blacksmith shop, fort, and one-room schoolhouse. In the warmer months, costumed interpreters explain pioneer life to visitors. Kids can try on period clothing and view antique toys at the visitor center. Seasonal events include summer concerts, Civil War days, Oktoberfest, and All Hallows Eve.
A vibrant college town 14 miles north of the Loop, Evanston is home to Northwestern University and accessible via Lake Shore Drive, the elevated train purple line, or the Metra commuter train. Visit the free Block Museum of Art or rent paddleboards, kayaks, and sailboats at the beachfront Sailing Center. Or just chill on one of Evanston’s five beaches. For a peek into Lake Michigan sailing history, tour the 1873 Grosse Point Lighthouse, surrounded by a leafy beachside park. Down the street in Wilmette is the gleaming Baha’i House of Worship.
Twenty miles north of Chicago one of the world’s most famous gardens grows in Glencoe, the free Chicago Botanic Garden. Visitors wander through four natural Midwestern landscapes and 27 themed gardens including the popular English Walled Garden, Malott Japanese Garden, and Grunsfield Children’s Growing Garden. Year-round programming highlights include tram tours, gardening workshops, flower shows, cooking classes, art festivals, carillon bell concerts, and holiday events. Bike paths wind throughout the acreage and connect Glencoe to neighboring North Shore communities. Metra trains stop near the garden.
Historic Illinois & Michigan Canal Heritage Corridor
Southwest of Chicago is a scenic region linking Lake Michigan to the Illinois River, incorporating sections of famous Route 66 as well as preserved canal towns brimming with museums and historic sites. Hiking, birding, fishing, biking, and horseback riding are offered year-round in Starved Rock State Park. Spot wildlife along the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway, a great place to see bald eagles in winter.
The rambling woods and rolling farmlands of McHenry County, located on the Illinois-Wisconsin state line 63 miles northwest of Chicago, provide one of the most scenic day trips from Chicago. Pedal the 26-mile Prairie Trail connecting eight quaint villages, hugging the shores of the Fox River and winding through 3,300-acre Glacial Park. Chain O’Lakes State Park has sand beaches along 488 miles of shoreline. Fish at Moraine Hills State Park and hike in the Three Oaks Recreation Area. Fun small towns for lunch, specialty store shopping, and seasonal farmers’ markets include Crystal Lake and Woodstock, where the comedy Groundhog Day, starring Chicagoan Bill Murray, was filmed.
More from SmarterTravel:
- Chicago Travel Guide
- 9 Best Hotels in Chicago
- 10 Best Cheap Hotels in Chicago
- 9 Stylish Boutique Hotels in Chicago
- 9 Must-See Chicago Attractions
- Chicago with Kids: 9 Fun Family-Friendly Activities
- 10 Best Cheap Eats in Chicago
- 10 Best Places for Chicago Deep-Dish Pizza
- 10 Best Restaurants in Chicago
- What to Wear in Chicago
- What to Pack for Chicago
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—Original reporting by Kit Bernardi
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