Illinois Summer Bucket List

It’s peak summer season here in Illinois, and the only thing standing between you and your next dream trip is your own imagination.

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Whether you want to plan around an exciting event, make stops in multiple towns, or immerse yourself in cultural institutions, we have ideas worth considering as soon as this weekend:

The Forge: Lemont Quarries Adventure Park

You have to see it to believe it — a place where you can tackle a challenging obstacle course, compete in a round of a laser tag, enjoy some scenic kayaking, then cap it all off with some waterfront dining under the stars.

We’re talking about The Forge: Lemont Quarries, a one-of-a-kind adventure park about 20 miles southwest of Chicago in suburban Lemont. Its highlights include:

  • A climbing tower with ziplines traversing a lake and incredible views of the Chicago skyline
  • A smaller, less challenging tower for kids
  • An outdoor track for BMX and mountain bikes
  • Escape rooms and children’s scavenger games
  • Hiking and biking trails to explore
 While you’re in the area
  • Check out a forest preserve: Black Partridge Woods sits directly across the Fox River, and Waterfall Glen in nearby Darien offers miles of trails and striking bluffs.
  • Eat and drink: Grab a bite and a milkshake at Corner Stone Tavern, then wash it down with a freshly-brewed beer on the riverfront at Pollyanna Brewing.
  • Get in a round of golf: From Cog Hill to Big Run, there’s no shortage of courses in the immediate vicinity.
  • Stay a night or two: Your best bet is to head down the road a few miles to Naperville, which is home to several hotels and bed and breakfasts.

Arts, Culture and Outdoor Fun in Bloomington-Normal

For those looking to catch a show, this Central Illinois destination provides ample opportunities at its numerous theaters, including the Bloomington Center for the Performance Arts, the Community Players Theatre and the Historic Normal Theater.

It’s also a hub for agrotourism — you can see first-hand how Epiphany Farms perfects its root-to-table journey with a tour of the farm, followed by dinner at one of its restaurants. Ropp Jersey Cheese Farm, which is owned and operated by sixth-generation McLean County dairy farmers, offers facility tours as well.

A special heads up

You can still catch live performances of the Shakespearean classics The Winter’s Tale and Measure for Measure through August 6 as part of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival at the historic outdoor Ewing Theatre. Some days include a free family-friendly production from the Theatre for Young Audiences on the lawn at the Ewing Cultural Center as well.

While you’re in the area
  • Learn about aviation and space exploration: The Prairie Aviation Museum offers interactive displays, static aircraft, education programs, air shows, group tours, and special aviation events.
  • Eat and drink: Destihl Brewery is known for its innovative creations and comprehensive guided tours, while Anju Above dishes out creative international cuisine (like Neapolitan pizzas and Asian dumplings).
  • Stay a night or two: Adjacent to Uptown Station, Hyatt Place and its convenient location make it easy to get around Central Illinois.

Chicago’s Lakefront and Museum Campus

Summertime finds Lake Michigan in all its glory. The sprawling lakefront trail meanders 17 miles along the shoreline, offering breathtaking views and hidden hideaways for a stroll or a picnic. Sandwiched between downtown skyscrapers and the lake, the museum campus houses the famous Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium and Field Museum.  

While you’re in the area
  • Catch a White Sox game: Guaranteed Rate Field is only a few minutes’ drive from the Museum Campus, making it easy to plan a trip to the ballpark.
  • Eat and drink: You can’t go wrong with the elevated pub grub, extensive drink list and relaxing atmosphere at The Gage, but we also highly recommend experiencing the culture and shopping of nearby Chinatown — in addition to its outstanding restaurants.  
  • Stay a night or two: The Hyatt Regency McCormick Place is a great option, or explore accommodations at dozens of fine hotels across the city.

Lusk Creek Canyon

Nestled deep within the Shawnee National Forest, this vast wilderness area is an oasis within an oasis. Known for its exhilarating whitewater, the canyon includes 100-foot cliffs, rugged forest, and thrilling rapids to challenge even advanced rafters.

While you’re in the area
  • Jam to some outdoor live music: The Shawnee Cave Amphitheater recently reopened after a decade in hibernation — and there are plenty of exciting shows on the schedule.
  • Stay a night or two: Outdoorsy types can camp or rent a cabin at William Hill Pass in Harrisburg.
  • Make it a road trip: Leave no stone unturned in Shawnee Country.

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

Visiting historic sites in Springfield during the summer may be the closest you can get to replicating the experience of interacting with the nation’s 16th President — thanks to History Comes Alive. Now through August 7, you can see Abraham and Mary Lincoln go about their daily lives, hear him deliver his most famous speeches, or watch the famous couple visit with friends. New this year, you can also explore the capital city through Walk, Hike and Bike History tours.

While you’re in the area
  • Find refuge in nature: For a quick escape into tranquility, stop by the Washington Park Botanical Garden, a sanctuary of greenery within an urban environment.
  • Stay a night or two: Close to all the downtown destinations, the Wydham City Centre offers quality accommodations.
  • Make it a road trip: Absorb the best of Springfield in three action-packed days.

Metropolis: Home of Superman

There’s no better time of year to find your inner superhero than visiting Superman’s hometown of Metropolis during the city’s annual Superman Celebration from July 30 through August 1. Superman fans have flocked to the Southern Illinois city for more than 40 years to mingle with like-minded enthusiasts, meet their favorite comic artists, participate in panel discussions, and take part in all sorts of entertaining activities.

While you’re in the area
  • Wind your way through wine country: Venture a bit north to take advantage of the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, which is home to myriad wineries, breweries and natural areas.
  • Stay a night or two: Book a suite at the Riverview Mansion, a Victorian bed and breakfast located a block away from Harrah’s Casino.
  • Make it a road trip: Extend your trip into a week-long voyage full of quirky roadside photo ops.

Boating and Fishing on Lake Decatur 

At nearly 3,000 acres, Lake Decatur is Illinois’ largest man-made body of water and an outdoor enthusiast’s dream. From the water, you can sail, jet ski, kayak, canoe and fish; from shore, you can dine outside, partake in a round of mini golf, or stroll through scenic public gardens.

While you’re in the area
  • Seek out live entertainment: There’s something for everyone at the Devon Lakeshore Amphitheater, from standup comedy and concerts to outdoor movie nights.
  • Stay a night or two: The Decatur Conference Center and Hotel has an in-house restaurant, sports bar, indoor pool, sauna, catch & release pond, sand volleyball, basketball, horseshoes, and disc golf.
  • Make it a road trip: Here’s some expert advice to guide you on your romp through the Decatur area.

Final thoughts

For those whose travel itch is not yet satisfied, here are a few more ideas to incorporate into your summer trip planning:

  • Balloons galore! Check out the Great Balloon Race in Galesburg July 23-24 or the Centralia Balloon Fest August 20-22.
  • With its cliffs, rock formations and boulders, Mississippi Palisades State Park doesn’t look as though it belongs in Illinois. Visit for the rock climbing, hiking and sightseeing, then either camp on site or venture into the charming town of Savanna.
  • Old Joliet Prison is a fascinating attraction on a normal day, but on August 7 — when it’s set to host The Bash at the Big House — it will transform into a bustling concert venue, with live music, food trucks, self-guided tours, a kids’ corner and much more.
  • July 28 is National Waterpark Day, so why not make plans to slide, splash and float at one of these Illinois destinations?
  • Stay active on the road by hitting up one of the state’s top bike trails.
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