6 Best Road Trips From Chicago
Editor's Note: Travel might be complicated right now, but use our inspirational trip ideas to plan ahead for your next bucket list adventure.
Cities can sometimes feel like endless stretches of concrete — especially in the hot summer months — and Chicago is no exception.
Fortunately, there's a whole world out there beyond the city limits. While it doesn't always feel like it, there are so, so, so many worthy escapes within a few hours' drive of Chi-town: storybook towns studded with ice cream parlors, lakeside cities with entirely different cultures, and even places where you can connect with nature among waterfalls and lush trees. Waterfalls! Outside Chicago!
The Windy City's location, in this case, is your ally. Pack your car with some picnic accoutrements, and maybe some hiking gear just in case, and head off. You're within driving distance of some truly great, out-of-the-ordinary places that make for wonderful road trips. Here are six of them.
Imagine a state already known for its beer and cheese having to cater to over 30,000 college students, and you've got some idea of the earthly delights that await in Madison, Wisconsin. This state capital could have been a destination in its own right for its unique geography — located on a narrow isthmus surrounded by two large lakes, it's beautiful even during cold Wisconsin winters — or its remarkable breadth of shopping, cultural events and festivals, and architecture, but its food scene is virtually unrivaled for a city of its size.
The streets are filled with an eclectic mix of professors, politicians, businesspeople, street performers, and health nuts, and if you ask any of them for their favorite spot, you'll likely get a range of answers as large as the city's 250,000-plus population: American small bites at the new and renowned Mint Mark, tacos and margaritas at Canteen, Lao-Thai noodles from Vientiane Palace, and the list goes on and on.
Most students, however, will drive you toward craft-beer watering holes like The Malt House or Dotty Dumpling's Dowry, which purportedly serves one of the best burgers anywhere. Wash it down with some Wisconsin beer from New Glarus as well as some fried cheese curds, and you'll have yourself a real Madison, Wisconsin, night.
Madison is about two and a half hours from Chicago.
Starved Rock State Park, Illinois
Yes, Illinois isn't known for its natural beauty like some other states. Yes, its highest natural point is Charles Mound, a diminutive 1,235-foot hill. But that doesn't mean that hidden gems don't exist here. For a true escape from Chicago's steel-and-stone skyscrapers that's still within the state limits, drive to the area around Starved Rock State Park.
Visitors expecting more flat Illinois farmland will be surprised to find an incredible valley around the Illinois River, with lush trees, striking bluffs, and 14 gorgeous waterfalls feeding into the roaring waters. Starved Rock is a choice destination for camping, hiking, kayaking, and white-water rafting, and after you're exhausted from a day of physical exertion, it's also got a place to hang your hat: the Starved Rock Lodge.
However, if you feel like experiencing a bit more of the local flavor, the towns around the river valley provide it in buckets. Tiny, charming Utica is home to the August Hill Winery and some wonderful antique stores, while the historic towns of Oglesby and Ottawa are chock-full of Americana: small museums, galleries, and great food, particularly at the Red Dog Grill in Ottawa and The Rootbeer Stand in Oglesby.
Starved Rock State Park is about an hour and a half from Chicago.
Allegan County, Michigan
Lake Michigan is huge. And in the summertime, when the heat gets a little unbearable, you could easily just jump into the lake in Chicago. But there's something to be said for taking a jaunt out to Michigan to visit a string of lakeside towns that bring some truly unique qualities to the mix.
Douglas, Saugatuck, and Holland — and Fennville, though it's not right on the water — epitomize small-town charm, while still offering some truly city-sized amenities for city-sized appetites. Fennville is known as the fruit basket of Michigan, with apple orchards, vineyards, and berry farms alongside delightful creameries and even corn mazes, while Saugatuck and Douglas consistently take the cake as two of the best lakeside towns in the Midwest, with incredibly charming downtown areas, gorgeous undulating sand dunes, pristine blue water, and more art galleries than you can shake a stick at. In fact, it's here that two School of the Art Institute of Chicago instructors founded their own art school and residence, Ox-Bow, establishing an artists' colony right on the shores of Lake Michigan. Their legacy endures to this day.
Further up the road, you'll find a truly unique destination in Holland, where Dutch colonists established a foothold in the 1800s, bringing with them their culture, architecture, pastries (check out DeBoer Bakkerij), and even fields' worth of tulips, which you can find at Veldheer Tulip Gardens.
Fennville is about two hours from Chicago.
Among the many types of travelers out there — people who crave solitude, people who don't want to leave the 100-foot radius of their resort's pool — there are those who are fascinated by city life, jumping from one urban area to another. If you count yourself among them, a road trip from Chicago to Indianapolis is certainly warranted.
First off, it's the 15th-largest city in America, with a vast population and penchant for festivals, parties, and overall pageantry (it is the Racing Capital of the World, after all, and its famous month of May includes tons of smaller celebrations leading up to the Indy 500). No matter the time of year, though, you'll find Indianapolis in full swing, whether you're in the midst of its rollicking IndyFringe Festival in August and September or its Wine & Food Festival in June. It's also a museum hub, with the world's largest children's museum, several art museums with broad and granular focuses, and small museums focusing on its favorite children, from Vonnegut to President Benjamin Harrison.
But one of the main reasons visitors flock to Indianapolis is its incredible food scene, which has, in recent years, exploded into national prominence. Hot new restaurants like Bluebeard, Milktooth, Crispy Bird, Oca, and more have all contributed to its reputation as a gastronomical powerhouse, while iconic institutions like Workingman's Friend have been, well, working behind the scenes to keep Hoosiers well-fed for decades. It's about time their city gets noticed.
Indianapolis is about three hours from Chicago.
Traverse City, Michigan
If you're craving a real getaway, you can't do much better than northern Michigan — it's still within driving distance of Chicago and not as remote as the state's Upper Peninsula, while still providing a wilderness-tinged escape for city dwellers. The de-facto capital of the region, Traverse City, is a city in name, but its population of around 15,000 means it's got small-town charm and accessibility, making it a perfect gateway to the region's breathtaking sights. Stop in for a glass of beer or wine at one of the many famous wineries and brewpubs, like Mari Vineyards or Mackinaw Brewing Company, before heading into the wilderness.
From Traverse City's quaint streets, you can head north and explore the Leelanau Peninsula, or veer west to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Better yet, take scenic M-22 to tick off both boxes. Sleeping Bear Dunes is one of the country's best stretches of shoreline, with incredible dunes and westerly views that mean it's got some of the best sunsets east of the Mississippi.
From there, mosey up M-22 to continue exploring the Leelanau Peninsula, where wilderness encroaches a bit further and small towns, each with a population under 1,000, dot the roads. Hike through the dense forests, pick apples and berries at the region's many farms, and be sure to grab a heaping sandwich from the Village Cheese Shanty in the county seat of Leland (population 377).
Traverse City is about five hours from Chicago.
In rare cases, a road trip doesn't just mean traveling great distances — it can also mean traveling back in time. That's what's figuratively the case when you drive west from Chicago to Galena, consistently rated as one of the best small towns in America. For decades, Galena has been on a mission to preserve its rich history, meaning it has one of the most unspoiled historic town centers in the country.
The town's good fortune started back in the mid-1800s, when it was the beneficiary of government grants to begin mining precious minerals located under the town. Since then, the town has focused on maintaining the buildings from that boom time, and there are architectural landmarks around every corner. The Galena Historic District is a particular delight, comprising more than 1,000 buildings, including the home of Ulysses S. Grant, a prime example of the Italianate style and now a dedicated memorial to his legacy. The town even has trolley tours that take you to its major historical and architectural benchmarks, contributing to its overall throwback feel.
Galena's best eating institutions don't necessarily date all the way back to 1850, but that doesn't mean they aren't also great — Durty Gurt's Burger Joynt was founded in 2007 and serves gigantic, almost architecturally impressive stacks of meat and cheese. Looks like everyone's concerned with building a legacy here.
Galena is about three hours from Chicago.