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The Century-Old Lawn Party That Still Rocks

What to expect, where to sit, and what to bring to Ravinia, a legendary music venue in the upscale suburb of Highland Park.

Mar 27, 2019 Outdoors & Regional

Crowd at ravinia festival


Most summer nights, as the sun starts to set, thousands of people pull wagons full of food, drinks, chairs and blankets into Ravinia Festival, a lovely, century-old outdoor concert venue 25 miles north of Chicago. They walk along the twisty paths, dotted with art sculptures and trees, until they find the perfect spot on the lawn. There, they unpack and start the party. 

Ravinia Festival stages more than 140 concerts between May and September by top acts from nearly every genre.

For the 2019 season, the lineup includes pop star Kesha, Lionel Richie, Sting, rapper T.I., a cappella group Pentatonix, jazz legend Tony Bennett, opera star Renée Fleming, Grammy Award-winning country band Little Big Town, and violinist Itzhak Perlman. Tickets go on sale May 7.

Friends toasting at ravinia festival
Before the music starts, the party’s already begun at Ravinia as concertgoers unpack their picnic dinners and toast the evening.

What to Expect

Not only is the music diverse, so is the crowd. It’s not unusual to see polo shirt- and sundress-wearing adults enjoy classy picnic spreads with candelabras, fresh flowers in vases, charcuterie boards and real glassware.

Others—the majority of concertgoers, actually—treat Ravinia like a backyard party. Groups of friends meet up on the lawn hours before the show starts, setting up camping chairs, blankets and picnic food. They’ll pile homemade and store-bought treats onto paper plates, and grab drinks (including alcohol) from ice-filled coolers.

Ravinia is also a popular date night spot, with couples canoodling by candlelight as they listen to music and share a bottle of wine.

The stage at ravinia festival
Lawn-goers at Ravinia can sneak a peek at the live show by walking up to the pavilion’s perimeter.

Where to Sit

Serious music fans buy tickets to watch the performances in Ravinia’s open-air 3,350-seat pavilion, an intimate setting for concerts typically performed in giant stadiums or theaters.

The quintessential Ravinia experience, though, is to picnic and watch from the lawn, which can accommodate up to 18,000 additional concertgoers. There’s space for buffet tables, dancing (enhanced by glow sticks, or one of the lighted hats from the gift shop), or just sprawling out on blankets and watching the concert on a giant video screen.

You can’t see the stage from the lawn, but a state-of-the-art sound system guarantees you’ll hear it. You can still walk up to the pavilion’s perimeter and sneak a peek at the live show.

The best lawn seats are immediately around the pavilion, or close to the large video screens.

People with coolers and chairs at ravinia festival
Collapsible wagons, coolers with wheels or backpack coolers make transporting lawn and picnic gear much easier.

What to Bring

While lawn dwellers often bring their own food and furniture, you don’t have to. Reasonably priced chair and table rentals (which you can leave on the lawn after the show), are a convenience worth paying for. Reserve them online to save a few bucks and then pick them up inside the park.

New restaurants line Ravinia’s perimeter, with lots of grab-and-go options like pizza, tacos and sandwiches. Picnic boxes can be ordered in advance. There’s also beer, wine or ice cream stands along the path. A few sit-down, indoor white tablecloth restaurants overlook the park, serving entrees like Faroe Island salmon.

Don’t forget to bring cards or a board game to play while waiting for the show to start.

How to Get There

By train

Metra sells round-trip tickets from downtown Chicago to Ravinia on its Union Pacific North Line. The train stops in front of the park’s entrance making it concert-goers preferred mode of transportation due to its ease of use and quick in and out.

By car

The on-site parking lot fills quickly, so consider parking at the Highland Park Metra station and taking the free shuttle. You can carry your cooler and chairs on the shuttle bus, and it’ll drop you off at the gate.

  • Show up a minimum of two hours before showtime, and even earlier for big shows, because the lawn fills quickly. Latecomers can get stuck in the lawn’s less-than-ideal distant edges.
  • Ravinia has excellent children’s and classical concerts, with lawn tickets priced at just $10 each.
  • Ravinia draws a well-heeled crowd. It’s not unusual to see women in sundresses and nice sandals, or men in pressed khakis and collared shirts. Whatever you would normally wear to an outdoor concert, consider taking it up a notch.
  • Collapsible wagons, coolers with wheels or backpack coolers make transporting lawn and picnic gear much easier.

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