So you’re in Chicago, the Windy City, to eat world-famous deep dish pizza and see the Willis Tower and Millennium Park, but now you need a break from the hustle and bustle of America’s third-largest city.
Looking for a day trip from Chicago? Where do you go? Good news! There are plenty of excellent day trip options within a few hours.
Whether you want to hike in a state park, enjoy unique shops and cafes in historic towns, cool off at a waterpark, or head over to the sand dunes of neighboring Indiana and Michigan, there’s no shortage of awesome day trips from Chicago. Here’s nine of our favorites.
Hike Waterfalls and Canyons at Starved Rock State Park
Driving time: (1 hour 45 minutes)
Starved Rock State Park has been voted the Number One attraction in Illinois and is a must for nature-lovers looking to take a day trip from Chicago. Once you get there, it’s easy to see why.
This well-maintained park contains 13 miles of trails that wind through sandstone canyons complete with rushing waterfalls. Follow the upper trails to the famous Starved Rock that gave the park its name or over to Lover’s Leap Overlook to catch views of the Illinois River and nesting bald eagles.
Because Starved Rock is so well-known and beautiful, it can get a bit crowded on summer weekends. If you are looking for something quieter, head to the neighboring Matthiessen State Park for its more challenging trails and unique waterfalls. Be prepared to get a bit wet at Matthiessen! Many trails in this park wind through streams and up to waterfalls.
After hiking for a few hours, make sure to stop by the Starved Rock Lodge to grab a bite to eat or drive back into the adorable town of Oglesby to relax in a winery.
Find Suburban Chicago Family Fun at Brookfield Zoo
Driving time: (24 minutes)
Metra BNSF Line: (36 minutes from Union Station)
If you’re visiting Chicago with your family, or if you’re just an animal lover at heart, the Brookfield Zoo is a great place to spend the day.
Kids under 10 will love the Hamill Family Play Zoo where they spend time as a zookeeper and have close-up encounters with reindeer, wallabies, and more. Other must-see attractions include the vibrant butterfly exhibit, an entertaining and educational dolphin show, as well as giraffe feeding.
Just make sure to wear comfortable clothes and shoes! The Brookfield Zoo is a big place, larger than the Magic Kingdom at Disney. You will easily need five hours or more to see all the exhibits. It’s also a good idea to grab some strollers for the little ones and bring a cooler with plenty of water and snacks.
There is a food court in the zoo by the dolphin area and plenty of drink stands throughout for those who don’t want to lug a cooler around all day.
Enjoy Nature and Art at the Morton Arboretum
Driving time: (40 minutes)
The Morton Arboretum is the perfect place for a relaxing stroll in nature.
The arboretum contains 1,700 acres of woodlands, grasslands, lakes, and wetlands to explore. There are plenty of trails to hike. Or you can enjoy the views from a bicycle, tram, or even from the comfort of your car on the park’s nine miles of drivable roads.
If you have more time, get lost in the Maze Garden, learn from an expert on the guided tram tour, and enjoy the massive sculptures at the Human+Nature exhibit.
Before you go, make sure to check if there are any events going on or special classes. The Morton Arboretum is well known for putting on beautifully-fun and educational programs including walking plays, art and wine festivals, cultural festivals, the holiday scarecrow trail, the Food Beverage Cider and Ale Festival, and much more!
Explore the Historic Town of Galena
Driving Time: (3 hours)
Although a bit farther out than some of the other day trips on this list, a visit to Galena, Illinois is worth the trek. A charming historic town filled with quaint old houses and shops, Galena is a great place to spend the day walking around, window shopping, snacking, or hiking through the surrounding hills.
Galena first put itself on the map as a mining community; after drying up, it was restored into the idyllic small town it is today. Situated in the northwestern corner of Illinois, east of the banks of the Mississippi River and Iowa state border, Galena is just south of Wisconsin. History buffs should make sure to check out the home of American general and president Ulysses S. Grant, the Jo Daviess County Historical Society Museum, Grant Park, and the Old Blacksmith Shop.
After you’ve had your fill of history, head out to the hills to take a hike or down to Main Street to explore the unique boutique shops and cafes. Local art galleries like River Bend Gallery and Outside the Lines are both fantastic. If adventure is more your speed, catch a hot air balloon ride with Galena on the Fly to get the best view in town.
Take in Oak Park’s Inspiring Chicago Architecture
Driving time: (20 minutes)
Metra Union Pacific West Line: (30 minutes from Union Station)
As the home of Frank Lloyd Wright and starting place of the Prairie School style, Oak Park is a must-see destination for all architecture enthusiasts. This affluent Chicago suburb contains more of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings than any other place in the world and is by far the best place to see the progression of his work and formation of his unique style.
While you’re there, make sure to spend some time at Ernest Hemingway’s Birthplace Museum. Then, head to the downtown area where you can walk along the tree-lined streets while shopping for pottery and flowers, or stop to relax in a pub or café. Some great restaurants in the area include Hemingway’s Bistro, Delia’s Kitchen, Jerusalem Café, and Peterson’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream.
While Oak Park today is one of Chicago’s most desirable suburbs to live in, it has a surprisingly rich Mafia history and was an important location for smuggling alcohol during the Prohibition era. Check out the Oak Park and River Forest Gangster Tour to learn more about the area’s history of gangster and Mafia ties.
Run Down the Sand Dunes of Indiana and Michigan
Driving Time: (1 – 2 hours)
Giant sand dunes are probably the last thing many would expect to find in the Midwest, but the Midwest is full of surprises as you venture away from Chicago.
Created by the same glacier that formed Lake Michigan, the Indiana and Michigan sand dunes are large areas of rolling dunes that form a vital part of the local lakeshore ecosystem.
There are plenty of state and national parks to see the dunes along the Lake. Indiana Dunes State Park is the closest to Chicago, just a 55-minute drive from downtown. Indiana Dunes State Park visitors will find beautiful beaches and towering dunes. The tallest dune in the park is Mount Tom, which stands at 194 feet. This park also includes over 70 miles of hiking trails and lots of space for other outdoor activities.
For those willing to drive further east, Indiana Dunes National Park is a must-see as it offers hiking trails, beaches, and historic sites. A little further past the national park is the Saugatuck Dunes State Park in Michigan, where the dunes rise 260 feet above the Lake Michigan, offering spectacular sunset views.
Relax and Play at Raging Waves Waterpark
Driving time: (55 minutes)
Planning a visit to Chicago in the hot, humid summer and want to cool down?
Raging Waves Waterpark is the perfect place for adults to relax and kids to have a blast.
Famously known as the largest waterpark in Illinois, Raging waves covers more than 58 acres of land and contains 32 waterslides, a wave pool, a lazy river, private cabanas, three kiddie pools, a racing slide, and much more.
This park is open from June to September 10 am to 6 pm every day, except during times of extreme weather and heavy rain. This is a great place to spend the day as there is plenty of food available inside at its four different food stands scattered throughout the park.
Get your Fill of Cheese and Beer in Madison, Wisconsin
Driving time: (2.5 hours)
For travelers who want to see more of what the Midwest has to offer, there’s no better city to see than Madison, Wisconsin. Full of art, outdoor activities, farmers’ markets, breweries, and cheese, Mad City delivers Midwestern charm and kindness in spades.
History lovers can explore the Wisconsin State Capitol or visit the Museum of Contemporary Art and the University of Wisconsin Geology Museum.
Foodies can take a Madison Eats Food Tour through the city’s most vibrant and unique neighborhoods. Nature lovers will have a blast riding bicycles along the lake or renting a few kayaks to take for a spin on Lake Monona or Mendota.
And don’t forget the breweries! The best breweries in Madison include Ale Asylum, Karben4 Brewing, New Glarus Brewing, and One Barrel Brewing Company.
Hike through the Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve
Driving time: (30 minutes)
Located in Lemont, the Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve is a great Chicago area hidden gem. This park covers 2,500 acres of protected forests, prairies, savannas and, of course, waterfalls. It has something for everyone with trails for hikers, bikers, and horseback riders.
The most popular trail here is the 9.3-mile loop trail, which is not too difficult and takes around 3 hours to complete. If you have time, also check out the Rocky Glen Waterfall and the Sawmill Creek Bluff Overlook.