Chicago is one of the most beautiful cities in the United States, but it’s not the only place to visit in the Midwest. If you want to get out of the city and explore, there are many day trips from Chicago that will entertain all ages.
After exploring the Art Institute, Navy Pier, and Millennium Park, (some of the top attractions in Chicago), be sure to head out of the city. There are four different states to explore within driving distance: Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and each one offers a different experience. These Chicago day trips do not disappoint.
Chicago Day Trips You Are Sure to Love
After a hectic week, or maybe just because, nothing beats a day trip to one of the nearby cities in the Chicago area. With easy access to communities in Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, as well as in Illinois, you have a virtual menu of places to choose from. Depending on your interests, you can be exploring another city in as little as an hour. Here are a few great places to spend the day without spending a lot of time in the car.
Michigan day trips from Chicago
1. St. Joseph
An hour and a half from Chicago, St. Joseph is a charming town meant for a beach weekend getaway. Stroll along the beautiful streets of this quaint little city, admire the lighthouses, eat ice cream, or hunt for souvenirs.
For a day at the beach, head to Silver Beach County Park where families can build sand castles or play in the splash park. Take a ride on the Silver Beach Carousel with some of the most beautiful, hand carved wooden horses, dating to 1910.
If you visit St. Joseph in late April, be sure to check out the annual Blossomtime Festival. This is Michigan’s oldest and largest multi-community event celebrating southwestern Michigan’s agricultural industry. Summer visitors shouldn’t miss the Krasl Art Fair in July, or a chance to celebrate the winter season at the Magical Ice Fest in February.
Wisconsin day trips from Chicago
Just an hour and a half from Chicago, Delavan is known for its extraordinary ties to the circus. In the mid 19th century, the US Olympic Circus (then the largest traveling show in America), decided to make Delavan its winter home. A quarter century later, PT Barnum moved his circus to Delavan as well.
Visitors to Delavan can take a selfie with life-sized statues of giraffes and elephants (at Tower Park), learn about the town’s circus history at the Delavan Historical Society, and even visit the graves of over 250 circus performers who are buried in town.
The circus isn’t the only thing drawing visitors to Delavan. Be sure to spend time fishing or boating on Delavan Lake, tour some of the local historical homes (we recommend the AH Allyn House), or visit the Dancing Horses theater. We promise a weekend to Delavan is full of fun!
3. Kettle Moraine State Park – Eagle
Nature lovers will want to make this 2 hour road trip from Chicago to one of the most beautiful state parks in the region. Formed from years of glacial evolution, this park is home to 22,000 acres of forest, rolling hills, and flower-dotted prairies.
Kettle Moraine South is the closest to Chicago, and there are a lot of fun activities that you can do here, including hiking, swimming, and boating. Kettle Moraine North offers three beaches, biking and hiking trails, and over 30,000 acres to explore. There are several campgrounds throughout the park, so it’s perfect for a long weekend.
If you enjoy fishing, don’t forget to bring your gear along. Kettle Moraine North has eight lakes ranging from 7 to 417 acres. There are four lakes in the Southern portion, covering 860 acres. That’s a lot of fish!
Just a little more than an hour’s drive north of the city, Kenosha comes across to some as a “little Chicago,” home to great food and interesting attractions.
Hugging the shores of Lake Michigan, Kenosha offers something for everyone. From the Jelly Belly candy warehouse tour to climbing an old lighthouse tower, you can explore the city in a day.
The Civil War Museum may be one of the best Smithsonian-quality attractions outside of Washington, DC. The museum’s exhibits tell an accurate history of the war that split the nation in the 1860s. It may give you a new perspective on the affects of war.
Other museums of interest include the Public Museum, which includes a look at the area’s history, including major dinosaur and mammoth discoveries. The Dinosaur Discovery Museum showcases fossils of major dinosaur findings.
The Jelly Belly visitors center tour in nearby Pleasant Prairie satisfies your sweet tooth. Taking a miniature train ride around the warehouse, you watch short video clips on the history of the candy, as well as how the candy is processed. At the end of the tour, you’ll have an opportunity to buy some treats for the trip home.
If cheese is your thing, then a stop at the Mars Cheese Castle will make the drive worth it. Inside the medieval-looking castle, tons of cheese, cheese curds and fresh sausage await.
Cap your visit to Kenosha with a stop at the Kenosha History Center, where you can learn more about the area and see some special exhibits, like antique vehicles.
Outside, visitors can climb the steep steps to the top of the Southport Lighthouse, which served as one of the southernmost lighthouses along Lake Michigan.
5. Lake Geneva
Lake Geneva is one of the most beautiful places in the USA and is only 1.5 hours north of Chicago. The town is known for its lakefront mansions, some of which were relocated here from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. You can take a stroll on the Geneva Lake Shore Path, rent a paddleboat, or take a boat ride for a bird’s eye view of the properties on the lake.
Depending on how old your kids are, Lake Geneva Canopy tours is awesome (zip lining). Bigfoot Beach State Park is a public beach that is walking distance from town. There’s also an amazing restaurant for breakfast or lunch called Simple Cafe (farm to table) with a bakery attached.
Other fun things to do in Lake Geneva include horseback riding, touring Black Point Estate (a 19th century mansion) or eating at a traditional Wisconsin Supper Club.
Staying in Wisconsin, a drive to the state’s largest city is about only 90 minutes from Chicago. Home to major attractions like the Milwaukee Art Museum, you’ll enjoy the views as much as the substance. The art museum, located along Lake Michigan, resembles the sails of a sailboat.
The neat thing about Milwaukee is that the city’s attractions can be divided in two by the lake and the Milwaukee River. Lakefront attractions include parks, as well as museums.
Attractions along the river include a Riverwalk that shows off art and older historic buildings, such as the Pfister Hotel. Visit the hotel for some amazing views of the city and lake. Be sure not to miss the Milwaukee Public Market, kayaking on the river, or a trip to the Milwaukee County Zoo. During the summer, Milwaukee hosts Summer Fest, with endless opportunities to listen to live music.
You don’t have to be a beer fan to enjoy a tour of the Miller Brewery. Taking a look at Miller’s history, the tour includes a view of the brewing process, original storage space in an old cave and brewery tours.
If you’re visiting Milwaukee with kids, head to Sprecher Brewery where they can sample craft soda while parents sample the beer.
You can also catch a professional game while in town, with the Major League Baseball’s Brewers and the Bucks of the National Basketball Association calling Milwaukee home.
Don’t miss the Harley-Davidson museum with its interactive exhibits and historic motorcycles.
7. New Glarus
New Glarus is a small town in Wisconsin, just 2.5 hours north of Chicago. This town’s architecture is Swiss-chalet inspired and guaranteed to transport you to another place and time. One of the main attractions is the city’s Swiss Historical Village showcasing the history of the area’s settlers. It’s a great starting point for a visit.
Craft beer lovers have to visit the New Glarus Brewing Co. and try their best-selling beer, Spotted Cow. They brew close to 20 beers every year, which are only available in Wisconsin. Don’t miss a chance for a sample or tour of this famous brewery.
And no visit to Wisconsin would be complete without a stop at the local cheese shop. Make sure to stop at Edelweiss Cheese Shop or Maple Leaf Cheese and Chocolate Haus. We guarantee you will love Wisconsin cheese!
Those looking for outdoor adventures shouldn’t miss New Glarus Woods State Park with over 435 acres for camping, hiking, and picnics. From here there is access to Sugar River State Trail, an abandoned railroad line which locals love for hiking, cycling, and snowshoeing in winter.
Chicago day trips in Illinois
8. Anderson Japanese Gardens -Rockford
If you enjoy botanical gardens, then a visit to Anderson Japanese Gardens in Rockford, Illinois, shouldn’t be missed. Just an hour and a half from Chicago, visitors can spend hours strolling through the gardens enjoying waterfalls, koi ponds, trees, and flowers with a Japanese touch.
After exploring the gardens, head to the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Laurent House. It is the only house he designed for a person with a disability and the tour is fascinating.
Other highlights in Rockford include: the Discovery Center Museum for kids, the Midway Village Museum (a look at the area’s history), and Tinker Swiss Cottage (a historic house and museum). Hurricane Harbor, a Six Flags water park, is also in Rockford and has endless water slides and splash pads for kids.
If you prefer a day trip close to Chicago, head over to the Aurora for a day of activities. The area – about an hour’s drive – consists of several smaller communities centered around Aurora.
One of the most popular spots to visit is the Farnsworth House in Plano. Built for a local physician, the house was designed to resembled a shoebox with a twist, the walls are all made from glass.
Dr. Edith Farnsworth used the house, along the Fox River, as a weekend retreat from her city life. The house was occupied by her and another family for about five decades before being donated to the National Trust, who operates tours.
Aurora’s Phillips Park is a unique place to visit. With a small zoo featuring animals such as wolves, mountain lions and an iguana, the park offers a variety of attractions. A sunken botanical garden has beautiful flowers and plants among its interesting statues. Phillips Park also has a playground, picnic areas and a golf course.
Take a walk along the downtown area and you’ll see history along The Lincoln Highway, which was the first transcontinental highway in the United States. Sculptures, including one recognizing firefighters, and older buildings highlight the walk. Visit a former train roundhouse, which is now Two Brothers. Enjoy a meal, drink or coffee here.
History lovers shouldn’t miss the town of Galesburg. Home to a number of poets, presidents, and professors, this town offers a unique experience to its visitors just 3.25 hours away from Chicago.
Take a stroll through the town, starting at the famous Knox College campus. The campus’ Old Main hosted one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858. Famous alums include Edgar Lee Masters (author of Spoon River Anthology), Ellen Browning Scripps (founder of the Scripps Research Institute in California), game show host Gene Rayburn, and numerous authors and politicians.
Don’t miss a visit to the childhood home of Carl Sandburg, now a historical site. Make time to walk through the three room cottage and take a stroll in the park behind the home. This is where you will find Quotation Walk, celebrating the poet’s works and words.
The longest of the recommended day trips at about three hours, the state capitol provides a walk through history. Home to the President Lincoln’s house, which is a national park, you can trace the 16th president’s life here through guided or self-guided walking tours.
Visit the Old State Capitol, where Lincoln delivered a famous speech. The current Illinois state capitol is a fun place to learn about Illinois history.
The Lincoln Museum and Library are located in Springfield. The museum offers a high-quality exhibit on the president’s life, from a young boy in Kentucky to life with his family, as well as his tragic death.
Outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy a hike at Adams Wildlife Sanctuary. An urban nature center, the 40-acre park is open during daylight hours. The lifelong home to Miss Margery Adams, the homestead was founded by her grandfather in 1869. Her estate donated the home and land to the Illinois Audubon Society in 1983.
The park is home to trails with beautiful views of nature. As you enjoy your walk, you may see wildlife, as well as well as insects like majestically-colored butterflies.
12. Wildlife Prairie Park – Peoria
This wildlife park is home to an extraordinary number of animals, including bison, elk, otters, and wolves. And is just 1.5 hours from Chicago.
In this eighteen hundred acre park, there are 60 species and over 150 native animals. Explore the park aboard the Prairie Zephyr train powered by a small faux steam engine or on the open air safari bus. In addition to animal encounters, there are miles of trails for hiking and biking, a disc golf course, and lakes for fishing and kayaking.
If you want to stay the weekend at Wildlife Prairie Park, you can rent a rustic cabin on-site or sleep in one of their authentic train cabooses. It’s a thrill to listen to the wildlife at night!
Woodstock is an hour and a half from Chicago, and is known to movie buffs as the filming location of Groundhog Day. True to its fame, it is indeed a very cinematic experience to explore this city.
As you walk around, keep an eye out for plaques on the ground that tell you about the scenes in Groundhog Day that were filmed in town. Visit just before Groundhog’s Day (February 2) for the city’s Groundhog Days where locals and visitors alike share their love for this classic film.
Chicago day trips in Indiana
14. Indiana Dunes National Park
Just fifty minutes away from Chicago, Indiana Dunes National Park is an easy day trip from downtown Chicago offering 15,000 acres to explore. (Formerly known as Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore). You can sunbathe on the gorgeous beaches along the shore of Lake Michigan, hike through the infamous sand dunes, and even try birdwatching.
If you prefer indoor experiences head to Michigan City where you can visit the Century of Progress Homes, five houses that were relocated to the area from Chicago’s 1933 World’s Fair. The Old Lighthouse Museum and Barker Mansion (built by one of the founders of the rail industry, John H. Barker) are other great options for those who want to learn more about the area.
Consider a stay at Beachwalk Vacation Rentals. This rental home community offers easy access to the beach, a swimming pool, and a club house.
15. South Bend
A little more than a 90-minute drive southeast, South Bend is known as the home of “Touchdown Jesus,” a sculpture of Jesus with his arms extended upward that can be seen from the Notre Dame Fighting Irish’s football stadium.
More than Notre Dame, South Bend is home to some very interesting attractions, including the Studebaker National Museum. Home to the Studebaker manufacturing plant for more than 100 years, the company originally built wagons and carriages before changing to automobiles.
Comic book fans will love visiting the Hall of Heroes Superhero Museum. With a design resembling DC Comic’s Hall of Justice, the museum seeks to preserve and honor the more than 75-year history of comic books, superhero movies and television shows through displays highlighting the action.
Outdoor adventure enthusiasts will enjoy bringing their kayak to South Bend and riding the downtown white water rapids. East Race Waterway became the first in the nation to offer urban white water rafting in 1984. The rapids are open June-August annually.
No matter your interests, the Chicago area is home to outstanding day trip opportunities. From history and food to outdoor activities, your day trip is as easy as deciding where to go. But, make sure you do this before you hop in the vehicle; otherwise, you may spend the day in the driveway trying to find a place on which everyone can agree. Enjoy your safe travels.
About the author: Nikki Ortan is a travel and camping enthusiast currently based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She loves exploring beautiful attractions across America which led her to found Attractions of America, a travel site featuring best places to visit in every US state. Be sure to follow along with Nikki’s journeys on Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter!