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Anderson Japanese Gardens
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The 13 most unique day trips from Chicago

Break the mold with these under-the-radar, kitschy or otherwise unique trips within a few hours' drive from Chicago

Emma Krupp
Written by
Emma Krupp

Bored of taking the same old day trips from Chicago? While we love Lake Geneva and Saugatuck as much as the next Chicagoan, sometimes it's nice to explore a place that's a little more out of the ordinary for a breezy change of pace (and to escape the worst of summer tourism crowds, too). Whether you're itching to tour stunning mid-century architecture, watch live theater in the open air or go hiking near Chicago to spot herds of wild bison, these Midwest attractions offer a change of pace from the usual day trip suspects—and best of all, they're all easily reachable by car. Plan a miniature adventure when you check out these out-of-the-box day trips from Chicago this summer. 

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The most unique day trips from Chicago

Driving time from Chicago: About three hours

You'll find everything from obscure conjuring tomes to equipment used in Harry Houdini's most famous escape acts at the American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Michigan, home to the biggest collection of magic ephemera in the United States. With more than 350,000 artifacts onsite, there's more than enough magical entertainment to fill an afternoon: Take a self-guided tour through magic history, try to squeeze into a replica of Houdini's Milk Can Escape or book an appointment at the museum's Lund Memorial Library to pore over archival materials. 

Driving time from Chicago: About one hour

Want to get a firsthand look at why Illinois is nicknamed the Prairie State? Take a trip southwest of the city to Will County, where a herd of bison roam the 9,000-acre expanses of the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie as part of an ongoing habitat restoration project (the area once housed the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant and bunkers still remain). Spotting the herd isn't a sure thing—it's a massive park, after all—so you're best off bringing a pair of binoculars and starting at the Iron Bridge Trailhead, which puts you closest to the bison pasture area. From there, a three-mile round trip hike will lead you to an overlook point outfitted with viewing scopes and benches to rest on.


Driving time from Chicago: About three hours

Wander among soda straws, flowstones, helictites and other stunning geological formations inside of Cave of the Mounds, a natural limestone cave near Blue Mounds, Wisconsin. Once home to a limestone quarry, the cave is now open for guided (or self-guided) tours through mineral deposits in shades of white, reddish brown, black, purple and gray. Fun fact: Whether you're visiting on a hot summer day or during the frigid depths of winter, the subterranean expanse is always a cool 50 degrees, so be sure to dress accordingly.

Driving time from Chicago: About an hour and a half

Don't think that you're a car person? A visit to the Volo Auto Museum just might change your mind. Throughout this suburban attraction's 33 exhibits, you can ogle everything from '50s-era Thunderbirds and Oldsmobiles (Vintage Cars), to Britney Spears' 2006 Mercedes-Benz and Elvis Presley's 1974 Cadillac (Cars of the Rich and Famous), to Scooby Doo's Mystery Machine and the Subaru driven by Paul Walker in Fast & Furious 7 (TV and Movie Cars). There's even an entire exhibition dedicated to different iterations of the Batmobile. Plus, if you're really hoping to find some artifacts that aren't car-related, check out the museum's collection of planes, antique card games, animatronics and music machines, or shop for new home decor at the nearby Volo Antique Malls. 


Driving time from Chicago: About four hours

Thanks to a highly successful funding program in the mid-20th century, the small-ish town of Columbus, Indiana is home to some of the Midwest's most stunning examples of Modern buildings, structures and public art, with works by Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei, Richard Meier and other architectural luminaries dotting its downtown thoroughfares. You can pay for a guide to lead you through the highlights, but the town also offers a free audio tour app that leads listeners through 18 of the most prominent buildings in the area.

Driving time from Chicago: About an hour and a half

Located in Plano, Ilinois at the banks of the Fox River, the glass-walled Farnsworth House—designed by Bauhaus architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as a weekend retreat for Dr. Edith Farnsworth—is both a National Historic Landmark and one of the area's foremost examples of Modernist architecture. Though the house has been besieged by floods throughout its 70-year history, ongoing preservation efforts have kept it in tip-top condition. Book a docent-led tour through the building (the summertime moonlight tours, which commence at dusk and loop around a lighted exterior path, are an especially beautiful option) and take some time to soak in the natural beauty of the home's 60-acre wooded grounds.


Driving time from Chicago: About two and a half hours

Escape the bustle of city life among the placid streets of Shipshewana, a teeny town nestled in the center of northern Indiana's Amish Country. Kick off your day with a tour of Menno-Hof—a museum dedicated to Amish and Mennonite history—or book a sight-seeing expedition aboard a horse and buggy, then fuel up with traditional Amish eats at family-style restaurants like A Taste of of Shipshewana (where you'll also find live cooking and quilting demonstrations). In the market for antiques and tchotchkes? Plan a visit on Tuesdays or Thursdays from May through September, when the town hosts the Midwest's largest flea market. 

Driving time from Chicago: About two hours

Back in the late 1920s, Chicago Daily News publisher and owner Walter A. Strong began construction on a Tudor-style manor to serve as his family's summer home. The end result—a 10-bedroom, 8-bathroom behemoth with a couple of secret passages to boot—can be explored in the present day through an hour-long tour, which covers the history of the Strong family, the castle's architecture and a brief history of medieval life. If you're got time after the tour, head to the nearby Castle Rock State Park (unaffiliated with the aforementioned castle, in case you were wondering) to hike among gorgeous sandstone bluffs. 


Driving time from Chicago: About an hour and a half

The country's largest railway museum sits just outside the Chicago metropolitan area in Union, Illinois, where you can check out a massive collection of antique train cars and hop aboard working streetcars, steam and diesel trains that loop around the 100-acre campus. Plan for an entire day of exploration: The museum's buildings house all kinds public transportation artifacts, including an 1859 horse-drawn streetcar, every kind of CTA 'L' car and a display of working railroad signs and signals.

Driving time from Chicago: About 45 minutes

This verdant Wheaton park—formerly the estate of the publishers of the Chicago Tribune—offers 29 acres of gardens and 160,000 plants, complete with two and a half miles of nature paths perfect for a leisurely afternoon stroll among the flowers. Military history buffs will also want to check out the First Division Museum on the park's grounds, which chronicles U.S. military history from World War I to the present.


Driving time from Chicago: About two hours

Once you've thoroughly explored the lovely Garden of the Phoenix in Jackson Park, set your sights on a visit to the Anderson Japanese Gardens in Rockford. Designed by landscape architect Hoichi Kurisu, the 12-acre gardens feature trails, waterfalls, tranquil ponds, gravel gardens and an abundance of Japanese maples, among other plant life. Plan ahead and book the "Frank Lloyd Wright Meets 16th Century Japan Tour" that guides visitors through the garden's 16th century Sukiya-style tea house and the Laurent House, which has the distinction of being the only home Wright designed for a client with a physical disability.

Driving time from Chicago: About three and a half hours

Spring Green, Wisconsin is perhaps best known as the home of Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie style summer estate set amid the limestone outcroppings of Wisconsin's Driftless Area. You should make a stop at the house if you have time—Wright's estate offers a huge variety of guided tours—but the 1,089-seat outdoor ampitheater at American Players Theatre is an equally unbeatable summertime attraction. The company's repetoire is mostly classical (Hamlet and Sense and Sensibility are playing this summer), though you'll find more contemporary works on the lineup as well.


Driving time from Chicago: About an hour

Sure, Six Flags is fun, but there's only one suburban amusement park where you'll run into Santa Claus year-round, and that's Santa's Village Azoosment & Water Park in East Dundee. Despite its wintry theme, the family-friendly park is best visited in summer: Splash around in the Caribbean Christmas-themed Santa Springs water park—featuring two 300-foot, candy cane-colored slides—or take a spin on thrill rides like the Blizzard, which swings riders 40 feet in the air on a spinning pendulum.


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