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Chicago Tourism and Vacations: Best of Chicago
A soaring "Second City" with culture to rival any metropolis
The Windy City is an eclectic mix of modern art, buzzworthy dining, cutting-edge comedy, and beloved sports teams. Snap a photo of your reflection in the silver Cloud Gate sculpture at Millennium Park before heading to Grant Park to get hit with the refreshing spray of Buckingham Fountain. There are dozens of museums and theater companies in Chicago, so a cultural experience is never hard to find. You’re sure to laugh to the point of tears at the Second City Theater, the launch pad of many famous comedians.
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Yes, You Can Actually Camp Just Outside Chicago
Chicago is a lot of things—a hub of world-class museums and architecture, a hot spot for experiencing some of the country's best theater and cuisine—but “relaxing nature escape” is not one of them. Luckily, there are a few incredible destinations where you can unplug right outside city limits. Here, three favorite places to go camping all within a 1.5-hour’s drive—plus, what to eat, drink, and do near each of them.
Lindsey O., New York City, NY
- Starved Rock State Park1,543 reviewsTLC definitely wasn’t singing about Starved Rock State Park, where chasing waterfalls is highly encouraged. This riverside escape features no less than 18 sandstone canyons, where you can watch as sparkling waterfalls cascade over their vertical walls. After setting up camp on the grounds or at the 1930s-era lodge, head out for a bit of kayaking along the Illinois River or bird-watching (and keep your eyes peeled for bald eagles).
- Starved Rock Lodge & Conference Center450 reviewsThose that don't want to camp inside Starved Rock State Park are in luck: There's a 1930s-era lodge (and accompanying cabins) on site with serious atmosphere. Picture knotty pine wood paneling, quilted beds, and family-friendly amenities including a large indoor pool and hot tub.
- Cajun Connection302 reviewsDon’t judge this restaurant by its humble exterior: This is as authentic as Cajun cuisine gets outside Louisiana. It’s all thanks to owner, chef, and Louisiana native Ron McFarlain, who whips up a long list of favorite family recipes, from alligator and frog legs to boudin, red beans and rice, and crawfish etouffee.
- August Hill Winery & Illinois Sparkling Co. Tasting Room191 reviewsWhen all that hiking and camping works up an appetite, head to August Hill Winery’s tasting room in North Utica—a stylish spot to sample Illinois wines. If the weather’s nice, ask for a seat on the outdoor patio before your tasting, which can (and should) be paired with a hearty snack plate of local cheeses, meats, or chocolates.
- Hegeler Carus Mansion97 reviewsThis 1876 former home of a wealthy zinc manufacturer, now a National Historic Landmark, is like a time capsule to the 19th century. The same architect behind the Illinois State Capitol building was responsible for the mansion’s gorgeous Second Empire architecture. Inside features include meticulously preserved parquet floors, a cupola (which you can visit during a tour), and hand-painted ceilings and walls in no less than 57 rooms. Don’t miss the basement, which houses what some believe to be America’s first private gym.
- Indiana Dunes State Park831 reviewsIndiana Dunes is one of the more unique spots to camp alongside Lake Michigan. Here, you can explore more than 2,000 acres of seemingly endless dunes connected by some 16 miles of hiking trails (which are especially great for cross-country skiing during the winter). On the clearest days, you can even see the city skyline from the park’s shores. Look out for Mount Baldy, a 125-foot-high “living dune” reached via the mile-long Mount Baldy Beach Trail.
- Illinois Beach State Park178 reviewsDon’t mind a bit of sand between your toes? This 4,160-acre park north of Chicago includes a 6.5-mile-long stretch of sand that borders Lake Michigan where visitors can swim, fish, sail, picnic, and camp between hikes though its oak tree forests and dunes. There are 244 campsites featuring electricity, access to public bathrooms, and permit alcohol—a rarity in the Chicago area—but a permit is required to use them (which you can get from the park staff).
- Gurnee Donuts40 reviewsFor Chicago’s best donut, you have to head outside the city, but those camping near Illinois State Beach Park won’t have to travel far. Family-owned Gurnee Donuts specializes in both classic and creative flavors that are incredibly fresh and lovingly baked by hand. Every flavor is lip-smacking good, but traditionalists swear by their blueberry, old fashioned, and apple fritters varieties.
- Lodi Tap House11 reviewsFormerly Duffy's Tavern (a neighborhood institution), Lodi Tap House has become a fast neighborhood favorite thanks to its locally brewed craft beer and award-winning burgers, which diners can customize. Do yourself a favor and order the Smash'd Burger & Curds.
- Don Quijote restaurant232 reviewsIt’s easy to forget you’re in Indiana—or the Midwest, for that matter—at Don Quijote, a Spanish Spanish restaurant run by expat chefs Carlos Rivero and Elena Jambrina. You can taste the love in dishes like Castilian-style roast lamb, paella, and swordfish steak—and that we haven’t even gotten to the lengthy list of tapas. There’s even a small store on site, where customers can purchase imported Spanish products to cook with back home.
- Indiana Dunes National Park393 reviewsWhile it was officially signed in as America’s 61st national park in 2019, Indiana Dunes been drawing 4 million visitors every year, making it one of the most visited attractions in the state. Think of Indiana Dunes National Park as a souped-up version of neighboring Indiana Dunes State Park, with more than six times the amount of acres and far more than just sandy beaches—including tranquil forests, prairies, streams, and wetlands.
- Genesee Theatre267 reviewsFirst built during the Roaring Twenties, Waukegan's gorgeous, historic movie palace sat vacant until 2004, when a much-needed restoration returned to its former glory. Now, it is THE place to watch a concert, stand-up act, movie, or show—though its gorgeous looks alone (picture rows of scarlet-red chairs sitting beneath a massive crystal chandelier) make it worth a drive up from the city.
- Shoreline Brewery582 reviewsShoreline is one of the best stops along Lake Michigan’s South Shore Brewery Trail, well-known (and well-loved) for its relaxed vibes, quality beers on tap (including a smooth Scottish ale and a saison collaboration with nearby Burn ‘Em Brewing), and killer menu of global comfort-food favorites like poutine and Bavarian-style soft pretzels.
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