8 Gems of Chicago’s Northern Suburbs

Chicago is more than just a windy city with a bustling downtown metropolitan area, it’s also a great place to raise a family and build a home in the suburbs. The suburbs in Chicago are more than just rows and rows of houses, there’s so many great things to do within the community, some areas even have temples, zoos and theme parks! There’s no shortage of fun for the family in this city. Here are eight of the best experiences to enjoy in Chicago’s northern suburbs:

8. Six Flags Great America – Gurnee

Open since 1976, Six Flags Great America is the Chicago metropolitan area’s go-to theme park.  Situated in Gurnee, a town 25 miles to the north of downtown Chicago and only a few miles south of the Wisconsin border, the park features 14 rollercoasters, a handful of carnival games, a water park and more. Six Flags Great America is home to X Flight, one of the world’s first winged coasters that simulates flying through the air, and Raging Bull, a sleek coaster with a near 180 degree drop. There are family rides, live entertainment and dining options, as well as, in what is perhaps its biggest draw, an adjoined water park called Hurricane Harbor. The Chicago climate forces the park to close after the annual Fear Fest-a Halloween theme that runs through all of October-so be sure to visit before then. The Gurnee Mills mall, one of the largest in the country, is right next door, so even if the winds and rain prevent you from enjoying the park, you can spend a day of shopping just down the road.

Six Flags Great America
Photo by: David B. Gleason via Flickr

7. The Grove – Glenview

The area surrounding Lake Michigan, and essentially the entire Midwestern region of the country, is rich indigenous landmarks. All around Chicago, there are nods to the area’s first settlers-streets named after indigenous tribes, city names that derive from indigenous languages. The city of Chicago itself comes from the Potawatomi word for “wild onion.” The Grove, a feature of the Glenview Park District, is perhaps the area’s foremost historical landmark pertaining to its indigenous roots. Located just off Milwaukee road (the namesake of the native Milwaukee tribe), The Grove is 143 acres of prairie that is full of the plant and animal species the native tribes used to subsist off of. Aside from the natural beauty, there are original log cabins, Native American longhouses, and a schoolhouse. Walk one of the nature trails or learn about native species at the Interpretive Center. Whether you’re from the area or just visiting, The Grove is sure bring you closer to the land on which you’re standing.

Photo by: Sue via Incidentally
Photo by: Sue via Incidentally

6. King Spa & Sauna – Niles

Niles, a city just north of Chicago, is home to a sizeable population of Koreans. As a result, there are a number of Korean restaurants, markets, churches, and other small businesses. Located in a strip mall adjacent to H-Mart, a giant Korean and Japanese grocery store and food court is a true gem-King Spa & Sauna. It’s ancient Korean tradition to go to the sauna (or, Jjim-jil Bang), especially in the wintertime. King Spa & Sauna recreates that experience in the suburbs of Chicago, and quite well at that. The largest Asian spa in the United States, King Spa is home to nine saunas, all with different themes and purifying minerals-from the Fire Sudatorium to the Ice Room. You can get an acupuncture massage and eat at the food court as well, which serves traditional Korean cuisine (including an egg that’s cooked in the hottest sauna). There are overnight rooms available, a dance studio sized room with yoga mats to sleep on, and hot baths in the locker rooms. Come during the summer or the winter and enjoy a Korean tradition a few miles out of Chicago.

Photo by: King Spa Sauna
Photo by: King Spa Sauna

5. Baha’i Temple – Wilmette

Just off the shoreline of Lake Michigan sits a towering domed structure that seems like it should be among the most revered houses of worship in the world, and in fact, it is: the Baha’i Temple. It’s the oldest surviving place of worship for the Baha’i faith in the world, and the only one in the United States. It features a beautiful reflection pool and garden, as well as the main attraction: the House of Worship, with its 138-foot high dome. The Baha’i Faith sprung up in the 19th century, in Persia, as a monotheistic belief system that emphasizes the spiritual unity of all of humankind. Only eight temples where the Baha’i Faith is practiced have been constructed throughout the world, and as unlikely as it sounds, the oldest surviving one is here in Wilmette, just south of Evanston and the city of Chicago.

Photo by: Adib Rov via Flickr
Photo by: Adib Rov via Flickr

4. Brookfield Zoo – Brookfield

Many of America’s best zoos are centered in major cities: San Diego, Washington D.C., Bronx. Chicago has two, the better of which is just outside the city in a town called Brookfield. A zoo often ironically can have the claustrophobic feel of caging its human visitors, though Brookfield, being outside the city limits in a leafy suburb, hardly feels that way. There are 22 different areas, with themes such as: Hoofed Animals, Big Cats and Pinniped Point. The zoo hosts a number of interesting events throughout the year, so be sure to check the calendar for when you’ll be visiting. There are interactive events, backstage access to the zoo’s shows, and even options for a sleepover. While the Lincoln Park Zoo, with its central location and proximity to the downtown area might be better known by tourists, it’s Brookfield, with its selection and variety of animals and it’s quieter suburban locale that takes the cake as Chicago’s finest zoo.

alisafarov / Shutterstock.com
alisafarov / Shutterstock.com

3. Gillson Beach – Wilmette

Lake Michigan, one of the five Great Lakes, has borders in Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois. Chicago sits just off the shore, and is thus home to a number of beaches in and around the city. Gilson beach, in Wilmette (where this writer grew up), is undoubtedly one of the best. The beach is apart of the Wilmette Park District, and is nearly 60 acres of sand and surf (good luck catching waves out here). There are tennis courts, volleyball courts, public parks and fields dotted around the area, a dog beach and an ice rink in the winter. It’s a perfect spot to watch fireworks on July fourth, which are launched a few miles north along the shore at Navy Pier, which can be seen, along with a great skyline view of the entire city, from Gillson Beach. It’s a prime location for other nearby activities. The Northwestern campus is right around the corner in Evanston, as is downtown Wilmette and the Baha’I Temple, which also occupies a slot on this list.

Photo by: Chicago Now
Photo by: Chicago Now

2. Ravinia Festival – Highland Park

In this leafy, affluent suburb of Chicago, is one of the area’s-including downtown-most enjoyable concert halls. Ravinia is the oldest outdoor music festival in the entire country, with legendary acts-from Joan Baez to the Beach Boys-have played the venue since its opening in 1906. Throughout the summer season, which runs through Labor Day (there are performances throughout the year as well, though much more sporadically), rock, blues, jazz and pop acts play at one of the festival’s three pavilions. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, one of the best in the world, also appears at least once per season, as well as other symphony orchestras and classical musicians. If you can’t scoop up tickets for the main stage seating, grab some food from one of downtown Highland Park’s tasty eateries and picnic on the lawn.

Photo by: Ravinia Festival
Photo by: Ravinia Festival

1. Chicago Botanic Garden – Glencoe

Aside from its few major metropolises, many people equate the Midwest with rolling cornfields and miles of farmland. In many places, this is accurate. But just a bit north of Chicago, in the northern suburbs, lush forests and gentle streams coalesce around tributaries of the Chicago River. Here at the Chicago Botanic Gardens, over an area that includes a number of the northern suburbs, there is miles of bike trail that leads all the way downtown, as well as forest preserves, and at the main site, greenhouses, herb and flower gardens, a Japanese garden and much more. There’s a butterfly sanctuary and a model train set that is a favorite with the kids, and is one of the more popular attractions, especially in the winter, when the snow coats the trains as they chug along the miniature track. If there was one reason to venture north out of the city of Chicago, and there are many, the Botanic Gardens is number one.

Chicago Botanical Garden

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