Oak Park

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.

Getting There
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.

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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.

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Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio. For the first 20 years of Wright’s career, this remarkable complex served first and foremost as the sanctuary from which the famous architect designed and executed more than 130 of his 430 completed buildings. The home began life as a simple shingled cottage that Wright (1867–1959) built for his bride in 1889 at the age of 22, but it became a work in progress, as Wright remodeled it constantly until 1911 (though he left the house in 1909 after separating from his wife). The home was Wright’s showcase and laboratory for his famous Prairie style, but it also embraces many idiosyncratic features, including a barrel-vaulted children’s playroom and a studio with an octagonal balcony suspended by chains. It has been restored to its 1909 appearance. Time: 1 hr. 951 Chicago Ave. tel. 312/994-4000. www.flwright.org. Admission $18 adults, $15 seniors, students, and military; free for kids 3 and under. Admission to Home & Studio is by guided tour only; tours depart from the Ginkgo Tree Bookshop daily 10am–4pm (every 20 min.); Closed Thanksgiving, Dec 24–25, and Jan 1. Facilities for people with disabilities are limited; call in advance. Not recommended for kids younger than 8. 

Wright Around Oak Park. For superfans, this tour is as in-depth as they come. Limited to small groups of 10 or fewer, the tour starts in Frank Lloyd Wright’s House and peeks into exclusive areas, like the octagonal studio balcony. Then, you’ll walk around Oak Park, passing nearly a dozen FLW homes, before visiting Unity Temple. Over the course of 3 hours, docents have the time to delve deeply into the architect’s life and work, and to answer questions. time. 3 hrs. 951 Chicago Ave. tel. 312/994-4000. www.flwright.org. Admission $60. Noon daily Apr–Oct; 9:30am Tues June–Sept. Closed Thanksgiving, Dec 24–25, and Jan 1. Facilities for people with disabilities are limited; call in advance. Not recommended for kids younger than 8.

Historic Neighborhood Walking Tour. On this detailed but self-guided audio tour, you can go at your own pace and check out the exteriors of the houses designed by Wright, as well as the charming Victorian homes that he hated so intensely. time. 40–50 min. Tours depart from the Ginkgo Tree Bookshop in the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio, 951 Chicago Ave. tel. 312/994-4000. www.flwright.org. Audio tours $15 adults, $12 seniors, students, and military. Daily 9am–4:15pm. Closed Thanksgiving, Dec 24–25, and Jan 1.

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Unity Temple. This National Historic Landmark’s reinforced concrete exterior is as forbidding as a mausoleum. Built between 1905 and 1908 for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, the Cubist-style church is one of Wright’s greatest masterpieces and the only public building from his “Golden” period that still stands. The considerably cheerier interior contains the entire architectural alphabet of the Prairie School of architectural design, from the skylight to the prominent use of wood trim. time. 30 min. 875 Lake St. tel. 312/994-4000. www.flwright.org. Self-guided tours $10 adults; $8 seniors, students, and military. Mon–Thurs 9am–4:15pm; Fri 9am–3:15pm; Sat 9am–11:15am; 30–40 minutes. Guided tours $18 adults; $15 seniors, seniors, and military. Mon–Thurs 10am–4pm; Fri 10am–3pm; Sat 10am–11am; 1 hr. Closed Thanksgiving, Dec 24–25, and Jan 1. Church events can alter schedule; call in advance.

Petersen’s Ice Cream Parlour & Sweet Shoppe has been serving up classic American favorites since 1919. There’s wonderfully rich ice cream (I recommend the Mackinac Island Fudge in a fresh waffle cone), as well as espresso and other hot and iced coffee drinks. 1100 W. Chicago Ave. tel. 708/386-6131.

Historic Pleasant Home. Named for its location at Pleasant and Home streets, this opulent, 30-room mansion is a must-see for fans of architecture and historic homes. It was built in 1897 by prominent Prairie School architect George W. Maher (1864–1926) for investment banker and philanthropist John W. Farson. Of some 300 structures that Maher designed, it’s the only one open to the public and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996. You’ll see colorful art glass, custom furniture and light fixtures, and Maher’s unique use of his “motif-rhythm” theory, where repeated decorative motifs are incorporated into every facet of the home. Time: 1 hr. for a guided tour. 217 Home Ave. tel. 708/383-2654. www.pleasanthome.org. Guided tour is $10 adults; $8 seniors and students; $5 kids 5–18; Thurs, Fri, Sun at noon and 1pm; Sat at 11am, noon, and 1pm.Self-guided tours is $5 per person; Fri–Sun 2–4pm; on Thurs self-guided tour is free.

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Ernest Hemingway Birthplace Museum. This lovely Queen Anne home, with a wraparound porch and turrets, has been restored to replicate its appearance at the end of the 19th century. The home was built in 1890 for Hemingway’s grandfather, Ernest Hall. Hemingway was born here on July 21, 1899, though the author actually spent most of his youth at 600 N. Kenilworth Ave., a few blocks away (that house is privately owned). This is an appealing stop for fans of historic houses, whether you’re a Hemingway fan or not. The docents are wonderful Hemingway buffs, and can fill you in on the author’s life, from his first job out of high school as a young reporter with the Kansas City Star to his work as a war correspondent in Europe during World War II. 339 N. Oak Park Ave. tel. 708/848-2222. www.hemingwaybirthplace.com. Admission $15 adults, $13 seniors, students, and those under 18. Sun–Fri 1–5pm; Sat 10am–5pm.

You hear a lot about Chicago-style pizza and hot dogs, but don’t forget to try the Italian beef! Johnny’s Beef ranks as one of the best, serving up tender, juicy meat on a crusty Italian roll, dipped in au jus (upon request) and topped with sweet or hot peppers. The bare-bones grill is a trek from Chicago, but, if you’re driving, it’s just a quick 3-mile jaunt from Oak Park. 7500 W. North Ave. tel. 708/452-6000.

The North Shore

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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

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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.

Shakespeare Garden. In 1915, the Drama League of America asked its members to come up with ways to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Noted Chicago landscape architect Jens J. Jensen responded with this gem: a National Historic Landmark that features several memorials to the Bard and more than 50 plants that were either mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays or common in Tudor England. Time: 10 min. At Northwestern University, east of Sheridan Rd., entrance off Garrett Place. tel. 847/491-3741. www.northwestern.edu. Free admission.

The Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art. This fine-arts haven offers a top-notch collection of prints, photographs, and drawings, as well as always intriguing temporary exhibitions. Don’t miss the outdoor sculpture garden. Time: 30 min. At Northwestern University, 40 Arts Circle Dr. tel. 847/491-4000. www.blockmuseum.northwestern.edu. Free admission with a suggested $5 donation. Tues, Sat, Sun 10am–5pm; Wed–Fri 10am–8pm.

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Charles Gates Dawes Mansion. Dawes was a wealthy financier who served as vice president under Calvin Coolidge and won the 1925 Nobel Peace Prize for his smooth handling of German reparations after World War I on behalf of the League of Nations. Dawes’s former home—completed in 1896—now houses the Evanston History Center, which offers tours of this restored landmark. The 25-room home was designed in the manner of a French château and features a collection of historic costumes, decorative arts, and antiques. time. 1 hr. 225 Greenwood St. tel. 847/475-3410. www.evanstonhistorycenter.org. Admission $10, kids under 10 are free. Tours Thurs–Sun 1–4pm, starting at 1, 2, and 3pm.

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.

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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.

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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.

Every college town deserves a burger joint as great as Edzo’s Burger Shop. The menu seems basic, with burgers, fries, hot dogs, and shakes. But here’s the Portlandia-style Evanston twist: you can “upgrade” your burger by choosing the farm the meat comes from. 1571 Sherman Ave. tel. 847/864-3396. www.edzos.com

The Western Suburbs

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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.