Big-city suburbs sometimes get a bad rap as bland, cookie-cutter places lacking a center or character. While Chicago’s suburbs do have some stretches that alternate fast-food restaurants and big-box stores, they’re also chock-full of venues that reward planners and attendees with unique architecture, activities, food, arts and accommodations. We’ve listed a dozen of the best places below.
Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe
The advantage of being a bit farther out from Chicago in Glencoe is space—385 acres of it in this case, covered by over 9,000 species of plants, 26 gardens (including a Japanese Garden and an English Walled Garden), nine islands and four other natural areas, all teeming with indoor and outdoor botanic exhibits. Loving care by the Chicago Horticultural Society’s 50,000 members ensures beautiful grounds, a series of halls, pavilions and galleries for meetings and receptions, and a constant stream of classes and lectures detailing how plants and their ecosystems work. December featured a talk on discovering mushrooms, while a January lecture discussed the gardens of Italy, but many of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s 1 million annual visitors spend time just strolling around the gardens and soaking in the beauty.
Rosemont Entertainment District, Rosemont
The city of Rosemont long ago decided it wanted to be Chicagoland’s entertainment capital and has placed its bets accordingly. Anchored by the giant Allstate Arena, whose 2015 events will range from DePaul University basketball to the Who’s 50th anniversary tour, Stars on Ice and Enrique Iglesias, the Rosemont Entertainment District also hosts winter ice-skating, hockey and downhill tubing at “Frozemont,” a.k.a. MB Financial Park, which is Rosemont’s de facto public square; the Rosemont Theatre for smaller shows; the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center, which just finished renovations; a tight cluster of factory outlet stores; and a Hummel Museum that houses the world’s largest public collection of the beloved German figurines. In addition, Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill provides planners with a high-energy food and drink venue that hosts up to 1,000 for corporate events.
Schweikher House, Schaumburg
Young Modernist architect Paul Schweikher returned from a trip to Japan in 1937 determined to design a home for himself and his wife that combined Japan’s wood-frame architectural aesthetics with locally available Midwestern materials. The result was the 1938 Schweikher House, a beautiful structure on 7.5 acres in Schaumburg that was Mid-Century Modern before the term even existed and remains striking over 75 years later. It combines Japanese wood framing, open shelving and floor-to-ceiling windows with brickwork so carefully placed that parts of the house seem to float off the ground despite their obvious weight. Remarkably, the entire structure is made only of glass, wood and common sewer brick. Tours of the Schweikher House, which was remarkably ahead of the times in its use of sunlight, natural ventilation and sustainable materials, are available through the Schweikher House Preservation Trust.
Trickster Art Gallery, Schaumburg
The only Native American-owned and -operated arts center in Illinois is devoted to the Trickster, the figure in many Native American traditions who, in the guise of animals such as a coyote or raven, plays tricks or pranks that inspire education and learning. The gallery is geared less toward dusty artifacts and more toward contemporary art pieces created by local and national Native American artists, and its walls are covered with art in various media. It frequently hosts live performances of Native American storytelling, music and dance. A Wall of Honor pays tribute to Native American veterans, who volunteer in America’s wars at higher rates than any other ethnic group out of a desire to protect the land rather than any political motivation, according to Joe Podlasek, Trickster’s CEO.
Mayslake Peabody Estate, Oak Brook
The Gilded Age wealthy liked to create spectacle even in their choice of vacation venues, and coal magnate Francis S. Peabody was no exception. He tasked the architects at Marshall and Fox with creating a Tudor Revival country retreat for him in then-rural DuPage County, and the Chicago firm delivered plans for an elegant, formal 39-room mansion, Mayslake Hall, that was completed in 1921. Today this National Historic Landmark is gradually being restored to its former splendor and sits astride over 800 acres of grounds and buildings that are carefully watched over by a restoration society. Visitors may want to visit or hold events at the beautiful Portiuncula Chapel, a replica of the church in Assisi, Italy, that was central to the life of Peabody’s namesake, St. Francis, or meet in the solarium or other rooms in Mayslake Hall. Regular tours of the buildings and grounds are also available.
Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art, Elmhurst
Lapidary is the art of carving and polishing stone, and the Lizzadro Museum in Elmhurst contains over 200 painstakingly created pieces that showcase jade, diamond and other hard stones, plus complementary metals such as gold and silver. The collection here, begun by Italian immigrant Joseph Lizzadro as part of his own lapidary work, includes a Ming Dynasty imperial jade altar, a 19th century ivory rendition of the Last Supper, a small section of fossilized tree that weighs in at two tons, Florentine and Roman stone mosaics, the ornate agate, gold and diamond Castle Lizzadro, and 20 dioramas depicting animals and people carved from various minerals. The museum’s permanent Rock & Mineral Experience exhibit serves as its lecture hall and classroom, and contains 26 additional exhibits. Next door is the Mies van der Rohe-designed Elmhurst Art Museum, the famed architect’s steel-and-glass temple to contemporary art. It is one of just three U.S. houses designed by the architect, and its light-filled spaces remain breathtakingly modern since over 60 years after it was designed.