Chicago has a lot to offer its visitors, from impressive modern art collections in its art museums to buildings by architectural giants such as Frank Gehry and Frank Lloyd Wright. Situated on the shores of Lake Michigan and a short drive from some stunning natural parks, Chicago also has some of Illinois’ best small towns in close proximity. They offer a welcome break from the intensity of this metropolis. Whether you want to take a beach vacation at the Great Lakes or explore the quaint charm of a prairie town, here is our pick of the five best small towns near Chicago.
1. North Utica
This picturesque town on the Illinois River is about a 1.5-hour drive from Chicago on Interstate 80 east. The town is small with an interesting historical museum, but the real draw is its beautiful natural surroundings. The town has direct access to Starved Rock State Park with its magical sandstone rock formations, waterfalls, and lush forests. Just 3 miles from Starved Rock you also have the opportunity to visit Matthiessen State Park, similar in geology and a picnic paradise.
2. Oak Park
Back on the Frank Lloyd Wright trail, this is the town he settled in in 1889, building 25 structures including the Unity Temple. You can even visit the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio where he got his start. Today it has a thriving arts community in the Harrison district and many dance and theater groups are based here. Literary enthusiasts will be delighted to know that Ernest Hemingway was born here and the town has a museum dedicated to his life.
Naperville is a fascinating little town, in the suburbs just 28 miles west of Chicago. It is well worth visiting for its striking Moser Tower and activities along the Naperville Riverwalk. The Moser Tower is a 160-foot-tall concrete bell tower filled with 72 carillon bells that sound together to create a melody. The tower can be seen along the Naperville Riverwalk, where you can also swim, hike and paddleboat, as well as skate in the Centennial Park.
4. St. Joseph
Take I-94 east along the bank of Lake Michigan to reach this charming beach town. Relax by the lake on the white sand Silver Beach, from which you can admire the South Pier with its historic lighthouse. You will also be close to the town’s excellent harborside restaurants and shops. South of here there is also the equally beautiful Lions Park Beach that has playgrounds, picnic areas, and fantastic views. Fishermen will be delighted by the opportunity to take charter boats for salmon fishing in the lake while the town also has wineries and excellent outdoor art at the Krasl Art Center.
Only a short drive from Chicago in its western suburbs, Geneva is a super quick getaway offering tranquil nature and interesting historical sites. Cyclists can take the Fox River Trail and explore the Fabyan Forest Preserve that has a Dutch windmill dating back to the 1850s along with buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright. If you’re traveling with children make a stop at Peck Farm Park for its great playground and butterfly house.