Goodbye, long vacations. Hello, day trips and weekend getaways.
According to a recent survey from the Travel Channel, a majority of Americans (53 percent) now prefer a series of short jaunts over the course of the summer rather than one big expensive sojourn. Thankfully, there are a wealth of Midwestern destinations near Chicago perfect for quick escapes. Whether you’re looking for something beachy in Indiana, cheesy in Wisconsin, beer-filled in Michigan, or a quick retreat right here in Illinois, here’s our guide to getting out of town.
Starved for Nature
Where: Ottawa, Illinois, 80 miles southwest of Chicago
How to get there: 1.5-hour drive
Why: This rustic town at the intersection of the Fox and Illinois Rivers in LaSalle County is best known as the gateway to Starved Rock State Park. During the summer, recreational opportunities abound, from hiking, camping, fishing to boating — all with the backdrop of 18 sandstone canyons and 14 waterfalls formed by glacial meltwater and stream erosion. Starved Rock can be crowded these days (more than 10 million people have visited in the last four years) so you can avoid them by detouring to the nearby 298-acre Buffalo Rock State park. Take a break by visiting a scouting museum honoring the founder of the Boy Scouts, or see the site of the first-ever Lincoln-Douglas debate, or refuel at Zeller Inn — a “living antique” of a downtown bar founded in 1890.
The Resort Town
Where: Lake Geneva/Delavan, Wisconsin, 75 miles northwest
How to get there: 1.5-hour drive
Why: Once the playground of Chicago and Milwaukee’s rich and famous (Hugh Hefner built his first Playboy resort here in 1968), Lake Geneva has a lot to offer, even to those who aren’t millionaires. It’s free to walk the roughly 23-mile Shore Path perimeter of the lake and see some historic mansions (it’s a notch in a hiker’s belt to do the whole thing in a day), or kick back at Riviera Beach or Big Foot Beach State Park. The biggest attractions are water sports and golf resorts but there’s also boutique shopping, spas, fine dining, adventure parks, ziplines, and hot air balloon rides. Other quaint towns along the lake include Fontana, home to the Abbey Resort, and Williams Bay. Delavan, on a separate lake nearby, has lakeside arboretums, great dive bars like Hogan’s Goat, and quirky attractions like a life-size statue of a killer elephant in honor of the town’s longtime circus heritage.
Where: Michigan City, Indiana, 60 miles west
How to get there: 1 hour, 15 minute-drive; 1 hour, 45 minutes by Amtrak; 2 hours by bus
Why: As the old jingle goes, there’s more than corn in Indiana. That’s especially true at this south stretch of Lake Michigan coastline that features 15 miles of stunning beaches and beautiful sand dunes where you can work on your tan, play volleyball, hike and bike, or take a dip in the bright blue Great Lake. At Washington Park, a beachfront and park area, you can visit a 15-acre zoo or stroll to the Lighthouse Museum and tour the oldest remaining lighthouse in Indiana. If you get beached out, go taste locally made wines at Shady Creek Winery, craft beer at Shoreline Brewery, or admire contemporary artwork at the Lubeznik Center for the Arts.
Chicago’s Cool Baby Bro
Where: Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 90 miles north
How to get there: 2-hour drive, 1.5 hours by train, 2.5 hours by bus
Why: The sports rivalries between Milwaukee and Chicago are fierce, but don’t let that stop you from visiting our northern neighbors. Let’s face it, their 11-day Summerfest is better than any Chicago outdoor music festival, and Miller Park rivals Wrigley Field in terms of essential ballpark experiences, especially if you enjoy tailgating. You can also take a trek along Lakeshore State Park, a 22-acre urban oasis on the shoreline, or go hog wild at the Harley-Davidson Museum. Refresh yourself at one of Milwaukee’s many frozen custard shops like Leon’s and Kopp’s and — yes — there’s an endless supply of beer to be had in Brew City.
Where: Madison, Wisconsin area, 150 miles northwest
How to get there: 3.5-hour drive
Why: Wisconsin’s capital city regularly lands on Best Places to Live lists, but it’s also great to visit. Madison is a foodie paradise, no matter if your thing is haute cuisine (the James Beard award-winning restaurant L’Etoile, for instance) or local treats like the delish fried cheese curds at The Tipsy Cow. There’s also a plethora of summer food and drink festivals ranging from Brat Fest on Memorial Day weekend to the Great Taste of the Midwest beer fest in August.
You can also get your fill of museums of art, history and geology, or explore the picturesque University of Wisconsin campus on two wheels in one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the midwest. Get back in the car and you can take a side trip to New Glarus, “America’s Little Switzerland” or the bizarrely fascinating House on the Rock in nearby Iowa Country.
Lakeside Road Trip
Where: Michigan’s southwest shore, 75 to 150 miles east and northeast
How to get there: 1.5- to 3-hour drive
Why: Hug Lake Michigan’s southeast shore while driving in the Great Lakes state and you’ll hit several small towns worth browsing. How far you go is up to you, but each village offers pristine beaches and their own unique brand of charm. Zip up to Saugatuck to hang out at Oval Beach, rated by Traveler Magazine as one of the 25 best shorelines in the world or brew your own beer at Saugutuck Brewing Company. Tour De Zwaan, the only working Dutch windmill in America in Holland or stroll along the white sands of Holland State Park. In the Twin Cities of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph enjoy sandy Silver Beach, which features a vintage 1910 merry-go-round or tour an old amusement park called Eden Springs that was once owned by a cult.
Land of Lincoln
Where: Springfield, Illinois
How to get there: 3.5-hour drive; 3 hour, 15 min by train; 4 hours by bus
Why: Downstate Illinois gets an unfair rap as a boring backwater. History lovers especially will love everything the Land of Lincoln has to offer travelers. You can explore the reconstructed 19th century village where our 16th President spent some of his young adulthood (New Salem), walk into the only home he ever owned in downtown Springfield, tour his tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery, and see artifacts from his life at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Also, you shouldn’t miss the Dana Thomas House, one of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s best-ever “Prairie-style” homes or the Illinois State Fair in late August.
Kankakee County, Illinois
Get some fresh air at the 4,000-acre Kankakee River State Park or catch the Bears warming up at their training camp starting in late July at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais.
Turkey Run State Park, Indiana
The ravines, aged forests, and covered bridges of this scenic state park are worth hiking, biking, or exploring via horseback.
Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin
Perfect for a family weekend this summer, the Dells are a popular playland for kids (it’s the waterpark capital of the world) and for adults seeking outdoor adventures.
Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin
Come for the sun and sand of the lake and the biking and hiking of nearby Kettle Moraine State Forest—stay for the racing fun at Road America race park.
3-hour drive, 5 hours by train
Kick off summer by watching the Indy 500 race in the motor speedway capital of the world on May 26 or see all that Indiana’s capital has to offer.
Fall is ideal for a journey to Michigan’s fruit belt, but in summer you can pick peaches and cherries and taste the state’s locally produced wine.