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pierogi fest
Photograph: Hannah Dominic

8 unique festivals to attend on a day trip from Chicago

Eat piles of pierogi, race rubber duckies and toss cow dung at these quirky events within driving distance of Chicago

Zach Long
Emma Krupp
Written by
Zach Long
&
Emma Krupp
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Is your summer calendar already growing packed to the brim with day trips from Chicago and summer festivals? Are you looking for something a little bit different to switch up your summer adventures? We've found a way to plan even more of your summer for you and give you even more to look forward to with these weird and wonderful Midwest 'fests. Sure, you could catch Dua Lipa or Green Day amid a crowd of tens of thousands of people at Lollapalooza, but you can't see amateur circus performers, observe a precision lawnmower drill team or throw chunks of cow dung in Grant Park (as far as we know). We've tracked down a slate of Midwestern festivals that offer an alternative to the city's usual slate of summer events—and you'll likely be able to sample some intriguing food and spot interesting sights along the way. If you need a break from clutching a plastic cup on the same old streets, take a day trip from Chicago and attend one of these unique festivals.

RECOMMENDED: Unique day trips from Chicago

Unique festivals to attend on a day trip from Chicago

Driving time from Chicago: About three hours

Every year, nearly 200 young people between the ages of 7 and 21 run off to join the Circus City Festival, which showcases amateur performers from across the country. Guests can attend one of 10 performances in the Peru Circus Center Arena, watching classic acts such as clowning, tight-rope walking and trapeze. The festival is accompanied by carnival rides and games on the city’s streets, as well as a circus parade (on July 23) featuring clowns, circus wagons, animals and bands. If you’re going to make the trip to the self-proclaimed “Circus Capital of the World,” you might as well see a show while you’re there.

July 16-23, 154 North Broadway, Peru, IN. $6–$12 per show.

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Zach Long
Editor, Time Out Chicago

Driving time from Chicago: 6 hours

A permanent monument to the Man of Steel stands proudly in Superman Square in the small southern Illinois town of Metropolis, just over the Ohio River from Kentucky. But every June, Metropolis welcomes Superman Super-fans from all over the world in a celebration of the classic comic book hero. The fest includes a comic convention, fan-built replicas of Optimus Prime and the Batmobile—and this year, you can catch special guests Tom Welling and Michael Rosenbaum, aka Superman and Lex Luthor from Smallville

June 10-12, 1 Superman Square, Metropolis, ILFree.

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Driving time from Chicago: 3 hours

What is a Broomcorn, you ask? It's a coarse grass related to sorghum, used for making, well, brooms. Arcola, Illinois, is the Broomcorn Capital of the World, and they want you to know it! In addition to 5K and 10K races, a tractor pull, food vendors and live entertainment, enjoy some more unusual attractions, like the National Broom-Sweeping Contest and an appearance from the Lawn Rangers, a "precision lawnmower drill team." Don't let anyone ever tell you there's nothing going on south of I-80, friends. 

September 9–11, 2022, downtown Arcola, IL. 

Driving time from Chicago: 3 hours

Lender's Bagels celebrates the iconic breakfast (or any-time-of-day) foodstuff in the central Illinois town of Mattoon with a free bagel breakfast on July 23. Lest you think three hours is a long time to travel for free bagels, there's plenty more where that came from, including a carnival, food trucks and live music from the likes of LoCash and Rocketman. 

July 21–23. Peterson Park, 500 Broadway Ave, Mattoon, IL. Free; reserved concert seating $10-30. 

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Driving time from Chicago: About 45 minutes

Drawing pierogi-makers from across the nation (including Chicago’s own Kasia’s Deli and Elk Grove Village-based Tata’s Pierogi), this celebration of Polish cuisine is worth a short jaunt across the Illinois state line to Whiting, Indiana. You can sample traditional and decidedly unconventional takes on the savory and sweet dumplings, walking along four blocks lined with more than 40 vendors. Once you’re full, stick around for live polka music, a pierogi toss competition and the annual Polka Parade, featuring memorable costumed characters like Mr. Pierogi, the Pieroguettes and friendly Buscias sporting shawls and curlers in their hair.

July 29-31, 119th St between Central Ave and Schrage Ave, Whiting, INFree.

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Zach Long
Editor, Time Out Chicago

Driving time from Chicago: About one and a half hours

Ready to get away from the real world and get lost in a fantasy? Attendees at the family-friendly World of Faeries Festival are encouraged to come dressed as a fairy or in Renaissance faire-appropriate garb. Once you arrive at Vasa Park in South Elgin, you can shop for handmade jewelry, crystals and fairy houses being sold by a variety of vendors. The two-day event also features performances from twin harpists and a lute player—exactly what you'd expect to see at a fantastical, Ren faire-esque event.—ZL

August 6 and 7, 35w217 State Rte 31, South Elgin, IL. $15.

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Driving time from Chicago: About five and a half hours

Two thousand rubber duckies are dumped into the Intermediate River in a quarter-mile race to the finish line at this whimsical week-long fest in northern Michigan. Throughout the week, attendees can take part family-friendly activities ranging from sidewalk sales to bouncy houses and outdoor movie screenings. Everything culminates with Saturday’s race, where you can reserve a ticket corresponding to one of the yellow duckies—keep your fingers crossed for some favorable currents guiding your ducky along, because winners can take home a series of cash prizes.—Emma Krupp

August 19th & 20th, 201 N Bridge St, Bellaire, MI. Free.

Drive time from Chicago: 2 1/2 hours

If you've ever felt like you were born in the wrong era, and perhaps you would prefer to live in a time of waistcoats and dirigibles, this celebration of all things steampunk is for you. Don your finest top hat and googles as you explore whimsical vendors, challenge your friends to a duel with tea and biscuits, partake in a murder mystery dinner, and explore fascinating, interactive workshops on Victorian and Gilded Age history.   

June 3 & 4, 2022. McLean County Museum of History (and other venues), 200 N. Main St., Bloomington, IL 

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Driving time from Chicago: About three hours

Every year, teams from LeClaire, Iowa and Port Byron, Illinois face off for what’s (in all likelihood) the most massive tug-of-war game you’ll ever see: A 2,700-foot, 670-pound stretch of rope tugged over the mighty Mississippi River. Participants compete for glory and a glass-encased trophy made of an alabaster eagle, while spectators on both sides of the river can enjoy a weekend of carnival festivities, fireworks and a parade leading up to the main event on August 13.—EK

August 11–13, near the LeClaire riverfront levee, LeClaire, IA. Free on Thursday, $5 Saturday and Sunday.

Driving time from Chicago: About an hour

Sure, you’ve tried garlic pasta and garlic bread—but how about garlic funnel cake? Or garlic candy? You’ll find dozens of creative (and pungent) concoctions at this beloved fest in north suburban Highwood, where vendors honor the titular allium with savory and sweet dishes available for attendees to peruse and sample. Listen to live music and eat your fill before the event culminates in a Taste of Garlic competition, where winning items are crowned with Judges’ and People’s Choice awards. Past winners include delightful creations like garlic-infused grilled cheese on a stick and a sweet cherry balsamic brownie with black garlic.—EK

August 17, Everts Park at 111 N Ave, Highwood IL. Free.

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Driving time from Chicago: About three hours

Back in the pioneer era, settlers used dried discs of buffalo and cow dung—a.k.a. cow chips—as a (surprisingly odorless) fuel source for burning fires. We’ve moved on to more modern means of warming our homes, but the tradition lives on through annual cow chip throwing contests like the one in south central Wisconsin, where hunks of dried dung are skillfully flung through the air, frisbee-style, in a competition to see who can toss crap the farthest. Feel free to spectate, catch live music, grab food and drink or sign up to try your hand in the dirty business. A warning to the faint of heart: Gloves are not allowed.—EK

September 2 & 3, Marion Park at Grand Ave and First St, Prairie du Sac, WI.

Driving time from Chicago: About three hours

On September 5, 1962, a 20-pound fragment of the Russian spacecraft Sputnik IV crashed into the street in front of the Rahr-West Art Museum in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Decades later, the auspicious event is celebrated during this annual festival devoted to space and science fiction. The schedule of events includes a 5K race, appearances by Star Wars cosplayers, an alien costume contest for pets and a ticketed performance of a comedic play about the Sputnik incident presented by a local theater. Unfortunately, you won't be able to view the hunk of space junk—it was returned to Russia many years ago.—ZL

September 10th, Rahr-West Art Museum at 900 Quay St, Manitowoc, WI. Free.

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