A weekend’s journey is closer than you might think. Check out these fun destinations that are close to home but still feel so far away.
Monroe, Wis.: A Historical Haven of Charm and Adventure
By Steven Bonifazi, assistant editor
Escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life to Monroe, Wis., where small-town charm and big-time fun converge. Whether you’re a history buff, a foodie, a shopaholic or an outdoor adventurer, there’s something special waiting for you here.
“Monroe is both a relaxed and bustling city,” says Jordan Nordby, executive director of Main Street Monroe. “You can come for the weekend and bring your kids or have a girls or guys weekend. For a town of 11,000, there is a real vibrancy and energy to it.”
Monroe’s rich history beckons those with a fascination for the past. The town’s historic square showcases an 1891 courthouse and Victorian-style buildings dating back to the mid-1800s. Stroll through the square, marvel at the well-preserved architecture and immerse yourself in the stories of yesteryear.
One of the main attractions that sets Monroe apart is its thriving retail scene, says Nordby.
“All of our shops are locally owned, so we don’t have franchises,” he adds.
JoAnne’s Dress Shop has been locally owned for more than four decades, and it offers the latest in women’s clothing trends. The shop’s services include custom alterations, personal shopping and after-hours shopping with drinks and appetizers.
Another gem is 213 Mercantile, a shop run by a husband and wife who specialize in handcrafted home decor. Each piece is handmade in Monroe and can be customized to suit patrons’ desired preferences.
Main Street Monroe’s popular public art installation makes it worth a trip all on its own. A collection of 23 intriguing public displays is scattered throughout downtown. This year’s theme, Level Up on Main, brings together public art that celebrates the world of video games with interactive experiences, trivia, scavenger hunts and art pieces.
Scheduled from June to August, the free Concerts on the Square series showcases local talent in a lively atmosphere, with various local food vendors on sight and a variety of live musicians and bands.
Another local favorite is the producer-only farmers market, with its abundance of fresh and seasonal produce, baked goods, meats and cheeses in addition to hand-made crafts, arts and pottery. The market happens on the square every Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Wednesdays from noon to 3 p.m. through Oct. 28.
When it comes to culinary delights, Monroe doesn’t disappoint. Start your day at Mad Charlie’s Cafe, a farm-to-table establishment that serves organic and locally sourced dishes. Indulge in the freshly made pizza slices, homemade soups and quiches accompanied by a steaming cup of coffee.
Be sure to also visit Baumgartner’s Cheese Store & Tavern, where you can savor some famous cheese sandwiches and experience a slice of culinary history with a menu that hasn’t much changed since 1931.
Monroe is conveniently located near the Badger State Trail, making it an ideal destination for cyclists. Embark on a scenic bike ride along the trail, which stretches from Monroe to Madison, Wis., and passes through picturesque countryside landscapes. If you prefer off-road adventures, explore the ATV trails and parking areas near the downtown area.
There’s plenty to discover all on your own, but Nordby recommends talking with locals to discover the best hidden secrets.
“Not that you want to wear a sign, but let people know you’re from out of town,” he says. “There’s enough local pride that locals will be excited to share what’s happening.”
Start planning your escape today at mainstreetmonroe.org.
Starved Rock Lodge: Say Yes to Summer Fun in the Woods
By Kathy Casstevens, marketing director, Starved Rock Lodge
Get ready for a summer of fun at Starved Rock Lodge, near Oglesby, Ill. Live music fills the air every Friday and on select Saturdays through Labor Day, providing the soundtrack for the sun-filled days ahead.
Head to the veranda to celebrate the stars and stripes on Fourth of July weekend, starting with Brews with a View & Food Too on June 29. This event includes hot and cold appetizers, brick oven pizza, beer and wine tastings from Destihl Brewery, Lagunitas Brewing Co. and Starved Rock Wines.
Historic Trolley Tours are the best way to see the beauty of Starved Rock Country. Learn about the rich history of this unique part of Illinois as you travel to the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center to see the lock and dam and tour the Starved Rock State Park Visitor Center. Tours run Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, with two tours on Sunday.
The Land & Water Cruise runs from June to September on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. This tour begins with lunch in the Lodge’s restaurant followed by a narrated trolley tour. Learn about Starved Rock’s history and legends of the area. The trolley takes passengers to Starved Rock Lodge’s boat, Eagle 1, to see the east end of Starved Rock State Park by water.
To explore the park on foot, the Take a Hike & A Lunch guided hikes are offered each Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Hikers discover Starved Rock’s canyons, bluffs and seasonal waterfalls on this 3-mile round-trip guided hike. Listen as the guide tells stories of how Starved Rock got its name along with other legends of the area. Hikers break for lunch at the halfway point, enjoying a choice of turkey, ham or veggie wrap, snacks and bottled water.
The most popular combination of a river cruise and hike is the Visit a Canyon & A Boat Ride experience, which runs from June to September on Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Guests board the trolley with a guide and head to the entrance of one of Starved Rock’s most scenic canyons. Following the hike, relax on the picturesque Illinois River. A snack, bottle of water and souvenir drawstring backpack are included with this experience.
Up for a water adventure? The Waterfowl Cruise, running June to October on Saturdays and Sundays, takes you to Lone Point Shelter to enjoy an hour-long boat ride where you will see the waterfowl of the Illinois River.
New this season is the Sunset Cruise, aboard the Sainte Genevieve sternwheeler on select Thursdays from June to September. Enjoy a relaxing late-day cruise down the beautiful Illinois River.
If you’d like to do something special with the kids before they go back to school, treat them to the Lodge’s Summer Sendoff on Aug. 13. This fun-filled event includes games, crafts, face painting and a balloon artist. A sack lunch of either a peanut butter and jelly or a ham and cheese sandwich is included.
For more information or to book a getaway, visit starvedrocklodge.com.
Stevenson County: It Might Be Your New Favorite Getaway
By Pat Szpekowski
Summer is for exploring and discovering your next favorite place and event.
Freeport, Ill., and Stephenson County, located just west of Rockford, host a variety of entertaining events that are sure to lift your spirits under the sun or stars.
“During the summer months, Downtown Freeport is filled with the long-held traditions of outdoor music, camaraderie among family and friends, delicious aromas of food and brews, and plenty of fun,” says Nicole Haas, brand director for Greater Freeport Partnership. “We welcome everyone to visit our treasures and experience the best of our region.”
Music plays a big role in Freeport summer fun. Music on Chicago, located at Downtown Freeport’s new Arts Plaza, brings the celebrations of sound to a casual Friday night. Catch Blue Steel on July 7 and step up the beat with Boogie & the Yo-Yoz on Aug. 4. Cost is $5 per person, with children 5 and under free. Proceeds benefit the Greater Freeport Partnership’s placemaking efforts in Downtown Freeport.
That’s not the only music in town. The Freeport Concert Band performs at 7 p.m. on Sundays through July 24 at the Koenig Amphitheater in Krape Park. It’s a stunning place to see and hear local and regional musicians. Plenty of bench seating is available and admission is free.
For a decades-long community tradition, join the celebration of Freeport’s founder, William “Tutty” Baker, during Tutty Baker Fest on July 7-9. This three-day festival includes a carnival, car show, live entertainment, bike ride, 5K race, vendor booths and plenty of fun.
The Stephenson County Fair, July 25-29, is a celebration of food, family, carnival rides, agriculture, music and grandstand entertainment for all ages to enjoy.
For more than 40 years, Freeport Cruise Night has attracted nearly 10,000 autos and their enthusiasts to Downtown Freeport. Prepare to see an amazing display of muscle cars, antiques, motorcycles, trucks and performance vehicles on Aug. 12.
Eats and Beats, on Aug. 25-26 at the Freeport Arts Plaza, brings live music to the stage. An added bonus: local nonprofits compete for your tasting tickets with a chance to sample a variety of foods. Proceeds benefit participating nonprofits and social service agencies in Freeport and Stephenson County.
How about a good old-fashioned family-friendly street paint party to unleash your creative side? Paint the Port creates an amazing space where you can paint your masterpiece – right on the sidewalk. The event supports the completion of the Freeport Arts Plaza with additional artwork.
Stretching the summer into the fall, the Pretzel City Brewfest in downtown Freeport is the place to be on Sept. 23. This event is so popular it was awarded the Best Event in Illinois from Illinois Excellence in Travel & Tourism.
“This amazing event brings you the best selection of craft breweries, interactive games and food trucks in the state,” says Haas. “More than 30 breweries will be on hand to talk and provide samples for beer enthusiasts to enjoy.”
There’s always more to explore in Freeport. Visit greaterfreeport.com to learn more.
Elkhorn, Wis.: Small-Town Charm Meets Summer Fun
By Steven Bonifazi, assistant editor
Looking for a summer getaway that offers outdoor activities and a small-town vibe? Look no further than Elkhorn, Wis. Known for its hospitality, quaint downtown, farm connections and unfettered access to nature, Elkhorn is a day tripper’s dream.
Many a weekend adventure begins at Apple Barn Orchard & Winery, one of the area’s top attractions. Visitors can pick fresh strawberries in the summer and apples in the fall while also shopping for souvenirs and enjoying a wine tasting.
For beer lovers, Duesterbeck’s Brewing Co. is a must-see experience. The brewery and tap room, located in a rebuilt model of a barn from the late 1800s, offers refreshing brews and live music. The outdoor pavilion is an ideal spot to take in a beautiful sunset, says Kate Abbe, marketing director for the Elkhorn Chamber of Commerce and an Elkhorn resident for more than three decades.
For all things shopping, check out the latest trends or get a custom fit at J. Roberts Menswear, located a stone’s throw from Veterans Park in downtown Elkhorn. For a dining experience with a topiary twist, Planthropology offers fresh-brewed coffees and lunch items while doubling as a plant store where you can find and pot a new house plant.
Just north of Elkhorn, Alpine Valley Resort offers more than 8 miles of unique mountain biking trails that wind through lush forests and meadows. The resort also has a robust golf course, disc golf and plenty of summer events for the family to enjoy. Next door, the Alpine Valley Music Theatre hosts big-name performers in an outdoor amphitheater. This year’s lineup includes the likes of Willie Nelson and Robert Plant.
For those who want to bask in the beauty of the natural world, Kettle Moraine State Forest features more than 22,000 acres of forested hills, lakes and prairies. The White River Trail is also a hiking haven, Abbe says.
“The White River State Trail has a 12-mile section between Elkhorn and Burlington where you can walk, bike or ride a horse,” she says.
Meanwhile, Elkhorn hosts a variety of summer events. Elkhorn Ribfest, which runs July 12-16, is a celebration of good music, food and fun. Elkhorn Truck and Shuck, on July 29, brings people together to roast locally sourced sweet corn and enjoy food truck fun. DAS Fest USA is a German festival that runs Aug. 4-6 and offers great beer, German bands and Dachshund races.
Finally, be sure to check out Saturdays on the Square, a farmers market that runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day. It offers a variety of fresh produce and local artisan crafts.
Whatever you decide to do, a visit to Elkhorn will prove the “Christmas Card Town” has plenty to do in the summer.
“We still have that small, hometown feel but with the ability to have a lot of big-fun experiences, be it outdoor fun or events,” says Abbe. “Being in Elkhorn gives you access to all that Walworth County has to offer. It puts everything at your fingertips, from eating all of the food and shopping all of the shops to hiking, biking, fishing and everything in between.”
Chart your adventure by heading over to visitelkhorn.com.
Rock Falls, Ill.: Summer’s Hidden Gem is Just Downstream
By Steven Bonifazi, assistant editor
It may not have the glitz, glamour and towering skyscrapers of a big city, but that’s one of many reasons people love their summer getaways to Rock Falls, Ill., and its slice of the Rock River Valley. Family-owned eateries, natural settings, family attractions and a multitude of events are only part of what make this a city worth visiting.
“It’s truly a hidden treasure in the middle of nowhere between the Quad Cities and Rockford,” says Melinda Jones, director of tourism and events in Rock Falls. “There’s lots of lodging, food and all kinds of events all summer.”
For those looking for a destination with summer entertainment, Rock Falls doesn’t disappoint.
Festivities kick off with Eats ‘N’ Beats at the RB&W District Park, a food truck festival featuring live bands and plenty of eclectic eats on June 30, July 29 and Aug. 11.
“It’s similar to a Food Truck Friday, but we changed the name because we have one on a Saturday,” says Jones. “June 30 is the Independence Day celebration, so there will be a lot of fireworks that night.”
For a deeper sampling of the local cuisine, Jones recommends fine dining at The Industrial, near the banks of the Rock River. The upscale menu features delicious delicacies like bruschetta with prosciutto, locally raised wagyu and nut-crusted halibut. A few blocks over, Touch of Thai 2 offers a more relaxed dining experience with authentic Thai dishes that combine Old World recipes with fresh ingredients. Menu offerings include crispy tofu, pho beef noodle soup and spicy basil fried rice.
Overnight lodging in Rock Falls is a breeze, with options located right next to RB&W District Park. For a more casual stay, Jones suggests Crystal Lake RV Park, where campers can remain comfy inside their RVs and take a dip in the nearby Crystal Lake. The neighboring town of Sterling, Ill., also offers camping along the Rock River at various locations such as Ruffit Park and Crow Valley campgrounds.
While you’re down by the river, be sure to check out the sculptures on display at RB&W District Park. Some of these intriguing masses of metal depart on Sept. 2 to make room for eight new, temporary statues.
About that same time, the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall pays a visit to Rock Falls. This monument to our nation’s heroes is a touring, 3/5 scale replica of the memorial in Washington, D.C. Its visit from Aug. 31 to Sept. 4 includes an escort and opening ceremony with a closing ceremony on Sept. 3.
Recreation is never far from mind in Rock Falls. The historic Hennepin Feeder Canal features kayaking, fishing, hiking and biking along its waters, and starting this year visitors will also find kayak rentals.
“It comes with everything: the kayak, the life jacket, the paddles and the dolly to take the kayak from the cages down to the launch,” Jones says. “You can also rent a bike at RB&W District Park and ride down the Hennepin, so if you come to Rock Falls and you don’t have a bike or kayak, we’ve got you covered.”
To start planning your weekend escape, check out visitrockfalls.com.
Ottawa, Ill.: Yours to Discover
By Jim Taylor, managing editor
In the heart of LaSalle County, nestled along the banks of the Illinois River, Ottawa, Ill., is a day tripper’s paradise just waiting to be explored.
“Ottawa is a great place to visit all year round,” says Donna Reynolds, tourism operation manager at the Ottawa Visitors Center. “But it’s really special to visit us in the summer, where there is so much to do, both indoors and outdoors,” says Reynolds.
For outdoor fun, Ottawa should be on every hiker’s, biker’s and nature lover’s list. Located just minutes from four state parks and a beautiful forest preserve, Ottawa truly is nature’s playground located “in the middle of everywhere.”
Dayton Bluffs Forest Preserve, located less than 4 miles from Ottawa, is a captivating retreat for exploration and natural beauty filled with stunning landscapes, diverse wildlife and plenty of opportunities for fun.
“Dayton Bluffs is a beautiful hike no matter what time of year,” says Reynolds. “The preserve is a labor of love by the wonderful volunteers who work diligently to thin out vegetation and make the area truly preserved for all to enjoy.”
Spanning 253 acres of virtually untouched land, Dayton Bluffs offers a breathtaking cornucopia of woodlands, prairies and bluffs that overlook the Fox River. As visitors explore the nature trails, they can lose themselves without getting lost. Dayton Bluffs’ diverse topography is suitable for hikers of many abilities, and it’s enticing to photographers trying to capture a memory of the beauty. Picnic areas dot the landscape, so families can commune with nature while refueling for the day. Reynolds also points out that there are several new amenities at Dayton Bluffs, including a newly built observation deck.
Outdoor explorers may also want to head to the Ottawa Riverwalk, which meanders its way along the Fox and Illinois rivers, through a few of Ottawa’s 21 parks and along the I&M Canal. A 15-mile walking path along the canal reveals stunning scenery of sandstone bluffs and shimmering lakes.
“If hiking is your thing, you’ll love Ottawa,” says Reynolds. “A walk along the I&M Canal, which turns 175 years old this year, or the riverwalk is good for the soul.”
All of this exploring is sure to work up an appetite. Luckily, downtown Ottawa is bursting with locally owned eateries that serve delicious cuisine from around the world.
Reynolds counts Inigia Pizzeria Napoletana and Woody’s Steakhouse as two of her favorites.
“From the house-made burrata to the Mais or Mexican Corn pizza, to the deconstructed lemon olive oil cake, I’m in heaven,” she says of Inigia Pizzeria Napoletana. “A steak Diane and a chocolate martini from Woody’s Steakhouse also make me happy.”
Start planning your escape now at pickusottawail.com.