Architecture and literary buffs alike make pilgrimages to Oak Park, a nearby suburb on the western border of the city that is easily accessible by car or train. Bookworms flock here to see the town where Ernest Hemingway was born and grew up, while others come to catch a glimpse of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed homes that line the well-maintained streets.
By Car -- Oak Park is 10 miles due west of downtown Chicago. By car, take the Eisenhower Expressway (I-290) west to Harlem Avenue (Ill. 43) and exit north. Continue on Harlem north to Lake Street. Take a right on Lake Street and continue to Forest Avenue. Turn left here, and immediately on your right you'll see the Oak Park Visitor Center.
By Public Transportation -- Take the Green Line west to the Harlem stop, roughly a 25-minute ride from downtown. Exit the station onto Harlem Avenue, and proceed north to Lake Street. Take a right on Lake Street, follow it to Forest Avenue, and then turn left to the Oak Park Visitor Center.
By Tour -- The Chicago Architecture Center regularly runs guided tours from downtown Chicago to Oak Park.
Visitor Information -- The Oak Park Visitor Center, 158 Forest Ave. (tel. 888/OAK-PARK [625-7275]; www.visitoakpark.com), is open daily from 10am to 5pm April through October, and from 10am to 4pm November through March. Stop here for an orientation, maps, and guidebooks. There's a city-operated parking lot next door. The heart of the historic district and the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio are only a few blocks away. For tours of the home as well as the area, see http://cal.flwright.org/tours/homeandstudio.
The North Shore
Between Chicago and the state border of Wisconsin is one of the nation's most affluent residential areas, a swath of suburbia known as the North Shore. Although towns farther west like to co-opt the name for its prestige, the North Shore proper extends from Evanston, Chicago's nearest neighbor to the north, along the lakefront to tony Lake Forest, originally built as a resort for Chicago's aristocracy. Dotted with idyllic, picture-perfect towns such as Kenilworth, Glencoe, and Winnetka, this area has long attracted filmmakers such as Robert Redford, who filmed Ordinary People in Lake Forest, and the North Shore's own John Hughes, who shot most of his popular coming-of-age comedies (Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Home Alone, and so on) here.
Although a Metra train line extends to Lake Forest and neighboring Lake Bluff, I highly recommend that you rent a car and drive north along Sheridan Road, which winds its leisurely way through many of these communities, past palatial homes and mansions designed in a startling array of architectural styles. Aside from Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, you won't find a more impressive stretch of roadway in the entire metropolitan area.
Exploring Evanston -- Despite being frequented by Chicagoans, Evanston, the city's oldest suburb, retains an identity all its own. A unique hybrid of sensibilities, it manages to combine the tranquillity of suburban life with a highly cultured, urban charm. It's great fun to wander amid the shops and cafes in its downtown area or along funky Dempster Street at its southern end. The beautiful lakefront campus of Northwestern University (tel. 847/491-3741; www.northwestern.edu) is here, and many of its buildings -- such as Alice Millar Chapel, with its sublime stained-glass facade, and the Mary and Leigh Block Gallery, a fine-arts haven that offers a top-notch collection and intriguing temporary exhibitions -- are well worth several hours of exploration.
Evanston was also the home of Frances Willard, founder of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Francis Willard House Museum, 1730 Chicago Ave. (tel. 847/328-7500; www.franceswillardhouse.org) ($10 adults, $5 students, free for children 6 and under). Nine of the 17 rooms in this old Victorian "Rest Cottage" (as Willard called it) have been converted into a museum of period furnishings and temperance memorabilia. Among her personal effects is the bicycle she affectionately called "Gladys" and learned to ride late in life, in the process spurring women across the country to do the same. The headquarters of the WCTU are still on-site. Hours: Sun 1pm-4pm (tours at 1, 2 and 3pm); Thurs (Jun-Oct) 1pm-4pm (tours at 1, 2, and 3pm). Closed major holidays and Jan-Feb.
Tucked away in north Evanston, a few miles from the Northwestern campus, is the unusual and informative Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, 2600 Central Park Ave. (tel. 847/475-1030; www.mitchellmuseum.org). The collection ranges from stoneware tools and weapons to the work of contemporary Native-American artists. See website for hours and prices.
For a bit of serenity, head to Grosse Point Lighthouse and Maritime Museum, 2601 Sheridan Rd. (tel. 847/328-6961; www.grossepointlighthouse.net), a historic lighthouse built in 1873, when Lake Michigan still teemed with cargo-laden ships. Tours of the lighthouse, situated in a nature center, take place seasonally (call for hours). The adjacent Lighthouse Beach is a favorite spot for local families during the summer. If you're here between Memorial Day and Labor Day, you'll have to pay to frolic on the sand ($8 adults, $6 children 1-11), but it's a great place for a (free) stroll on a sunny spring or fall day.
The North & Northwest Suburbs
The North Shore is only one slice of life north of Chicago. To its west lies a sprawling thicket of old and new suburbs, from the bucolic environs of equestrian-minded Barrington and its ring of smaller satellite communities in the far northwest, to near-northwest shopping mecca Schaumburg, home to the gigantic Woodfield Mall. While Woodfield attracts a steady stream of dedicated shoppers -- allowing it to tout its status as one of the top tourist destinations in Illinois -- it's not that distinctive; you'll find most of the same stores at your local megamall back home.
A more pastoral option for visitors with time on their hands might be a day trip to the historic village of Long Grove, about 30 miles northwest of Chicago. Settled in the 1840s by German immigrants and pioneers traveling west from New England, Long Grove has assiduously preserved its old-fashioned character. Set amid 500 acres of oak- and hickory-tree groves, the village maintains nearly 100 specialty stores, galleries, and restaurants, many of which are in former smithies, wheelwright barns, and century-old residences. (Don't skip the Long Grove Confectionery Company, a local institution.) By village ordinance, all new buildings constructed in the shopping district must conform to the architecture of the early 1900s. The village schedules several cultural and entertainment events, festivals, and art fairs throughout the year. The biggest and best is the annual Strawberry Festival, held during the last weekend in June. Call the village's information center or check the town's website (tel. 847/634-0888; see http://longgrove.org for updates on coming events. To get there from the Chicago Loop, take the I-94 tollway (also known as the Kennedy Expwy.) north until it separates at I-90, another tollway that runs northwest. Follow I-90 until you reach Rte. 53, and drive north on 53 until it dead-ends at Lake-Cook Road. Take the west exit off 53, and follow Lake-Cook Road to Hicks Road. Turn right on Hicks Road and then left on Old McHenry Road, which will take you right into the center of town.
The Western Suburbs
So many corporations have taken to locating their offices beyond the city limits that today more people work in the suburbs than commute into Chicago. Much of the suburban sprawl in counties such as DuPage and Kane consists of seas of aluminum-sided houses that seem to sprout from cornfields overnight. But there are also some lovely older towns, such as upscale Hinsdale and, much farther west, the quaint tandem of St. Charles and Geneva, which lie across the Fox River from each other. Perhaps there is no more fitting symbol of this booming area than the city of Naperville. A historic, formerly rural community with a Main Street U.S.A. downtown district worthy of Norman Rockwell, Naperville has exploded from a population of about 30,000 residents in the early 1970s to approximately 145,000 today -- which makes it the third-largest municipality in the state. Naperville maintains a collection of 19th-century buildings in an outdoor setting known as Naper Settlement, and its river walk is the envy of neighboring village councils. But much of its yesteryear charm seems to be disappearing bit by bit as new subdivisions and strip malls ooze forth across the prairie.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.