Rockford in Illinois may not be well known as a tourism destination in the United States in its own right, but that doesn’t mean that there is not a huge amount to do and see for those who make the trip here. The city of Rockford is blessed with an abundance of gorgeous outdoor areas, and if you like nature then you will not be bored here thanks to botanical gardens, nature centers, and hiking trails galore.
As well as the great outdoors, you can also enjoy some time inside by visiting the many museums in this city that will take you back through American history and fill you in on this part of the United States. As well as museums and parks, you will also find fun attractions here such as orchards where you can pick your own Illinois produce, or you can enjoy the gorgeous Rock River, the main waterway of the city, by embarking on a leisurely cruise.
I’m from Illinois and have traveled the state plenty, exploring all it has to offer. I’ve been to Rockford several times, most times with family but I’ve also done a solo trip to the city. Based on that here’s my list on the best things to do in Rockford:
1. Rockford Art Museum
For a little culture in Rockford, why not check out my personal favorite: the Rockford Art Museum, which has been in existence here since 1913. There are over 1,900 items in the collections, which run from ancient to modern art, and include paintings, sculpture, and photography.
The museum has pieces from various artists although the emphasis here is on local Illinois based works and if you make the journey here you can expect three different galleries with both static and rotating exhibits throughout the year.
There is also a museum shop attached which sells works by local artists and this is the perfect place to pick up a souvenir of your time in Rockford.
2. Kegel Harley-Davidson
Come to Kegel Harley-Davidson if you are a fan of motorcycles and want to see the oldest family owned Harley-Davidson dealership in the entire world.
The dealership here has won awards for its presentation of the iconic motorcycles and also has a riding academy and store attached where you can pick up Harley-Davidson related memorabilia, souvenirs, and clothing.
3. Klehm Arboretum and Botanic Garden
Klehm Arboretum and Botanic Garden is best described as a living museum and spans 155 acres of land that is covered in gorgeous gardens and an abundance of lush foliage including rare trees and plants.
There are signature areas within the facility, such as a classic Butterfly Garden and a Children’s Garden. There are trails that cross all over the stunning landscape and you can even go skiing here or snowshoeing in the winter months.
You can either elect to explore the arboretum on your own, or there are also guided tours available if you book in advance.
4. Burpee Museum of Natural History
If you want to know more about the geology of the Illinois area then you must pay a visit to the Burpee Museum of Natural History. Here you can enjoy a range of engaging exhibits such as the Diary of a Dinosaur exhibit that takes you on the life journey of Jane, a T-Rex skeleton that was found in Montana.
You can also see Homer, a triceratops skeleton found in the local area, and in addition to dinosaur skeletons you can also enjoy four different areas of the museum that focus on different themes. These include a rooftop garden, as well as an exhibit dedicated to the flora and fauna of the Rock River Valley.
What I consider one of the most interesting aspects of Burpee is the fact that this is a working museum, and you can even watch staff and researchers as they work on specimens such as newly discovered dinosaur bones.
5. Stockholm Inn
Anyone who likes to try different foods needs to drop by the Stockholm Inn when they are in Rockford to try out some of the Swedish hospitality on offer here. The Stockholm Inn serves, as you would expect from the name, a whole host of Swedish classics such as fluffy pancakes and delicious meatballs with mashed potatoes.
The inn has been in operation since the 1940s, so know that you are witnessing a piece of Rockford history as you dine here, as well as enjoying some famous Scandinavian cooking.
6. Anderson Japanese Gardens
Anderson Japanese Gardens is said to be one of the most beautiful Japanese gardens in the entire United States, so if you like amazing landscaping then make sure that you don’t miss the chance to visit when you are in town.
The gardens span 12 acres of land and you can expect gorgeous features such as ponds that are teeming with graceful koi fish as well as babbling brooks, waterfalls, and manicured gravel gardens.
There are also architectural touches such as gazebos modeled in the traditional 16th century style, and this is a great place to come to find some serenity and peace in the middle of the bustling city.
You can even dine here at the onsite restaurant which has an emphasis on seasonal and organic produce from the region.
Related reading: Most beautiful places in Illinois
7. Discovery Center Museum
For anyone travelling with children the Discovery Center Museum is not to be missed on a visit to Rockford. Here you will find over 250 different exhibits that aim to teach younger visitors all about art and science, and this is an engaging museum that will provide fun for the whole family.
As well as the exhibits themselves, most of which are designed to be interactive to facilitate learning, there is also a planetarium, a television studio, and even a special Tot Spot which is designed with toddlers in mind.
8. Main Street Antique Mall
If you are looking for the perfect souvenir in Rockford then consider a trip to Main Street Antique Mall where you will find over 15 different antique shops filled with amazing historical memorabilia.
Whatever you are looking for, you are sure to find it here, and the mall has stores that sell furniture, jewelry, vintage clothing, and home decor. There are even stores here that are dedicated to quirky items such as Nancy’s Old Fashioned Candy.
9. Atwood Center
Atwood Center is actually located within the wider Historic Seth B. Atwood Park which itself covers 334 acres of gorgeous land and is bisected by the mighty Kishwaukee River.
The Atwood Center that sits in the park is primarily a visitor’s center where you can find out how to take self-guided walks through the park, as well as take part in feeding the Birds of Prey that live in the park.
You can also stay at the center if you want to visit for longer and take in the scenery over several days, and if you do so you will get to enjoy walnut, hickory, and oak forests, as well as a quarry area, a prairie, and a dry creek bed.
10. Ethnic Heritage Museum
The Ethnic Heritage Museum dates back, amazingly, from 1850, and is situated in what used to be an old water power district in the city.
The museum has been divided up into different sections that each contains the history of a different ethnic group that had an impact on the city of Rockford.
These include African America, Italian, Irish, Polish, Hispanic, and Lithuanian, and provide a fascinating view of this melting pot of a city and how it came to grow thanks to the different communities represented here.
11. Curran’s Orchard
For anyone who wants to try the local Rockford produce, a trip to Curran’s Orchard is not to be missed off the itinerary. At this family owned business you can pick your own apples such as Yellow and Red Delicious, or you can enjoy some of the home baked goods sold here such as the toothsome apple pies or signature apple doughnuts.
If you fancy a tipple then you can try some of the apple cider sold here, which is famous in the area for having won a number of awards, and there are other delicious treats available such as maple syrup, apple butter, and fresh pumpkins.
If you come here at the weekend, then you can enjoy fun activities such as hay rides, an apple slingshot, and a petting corral.
12. Forest City Queen Riverboat
As Rockford lies on the banks of the majestic Rock River, it would be a shame to come here and not take in the splendor of the city from the water. One of the best ways to do this is by taking a trip on the powerhouse Forest City Queen Riverboat, which has been in operation since 1979 and can take up to 49 passengers on a trip along this iconic waterway.
As you cruise, you will get to hear all about the history of Rockford as well as plans for future development, and you can take in all the famous sights that sit on the banks of the Rock River. I enjoyed viewing and hearing all about the historic mansions along the route.
13. Indian Hill Manor and Farm Historic District
Indian Hill Manor and Farm Historic District is famous in Rockford for being part of the National Register of Historic Places and looks over the exquisite Kishwaukee and Rock rivers.
The estate dates from the 1900s and you can come here for a tour to see the historic manor house, preserved coach house, and adjacent dairy farm.
The estate is also part of the wider Indian Hill Forest Preserve and is an excellent place to come for a glimpse of how people would have lived in Rockford in the days of old.
14. LZ Peace Memorial
For a moving visit in Rockford, consider a trip to the LZ Peace Memorial which was put in place as a monument to those who have served the United States.
The memorial is made up of a Wall of Honor which is dedicated to those who lost their lives during the Vietnam War, and there is also a Huey helicopter that actually served in Vietnam that also makes up part of the monument.
15. Rockford City Market
Rockford City Market is the place to come if you want o meet with local farmers and vendors who have a huge range of local produce for sale.
Items from the region include delicious treats like fruits, vegetables, eggs, cheese, flowers, and baked goods.
There are also home cooked meals on offer and you can even get local wines to pair with the dishes. The market goes on until the evening when there is live music in a covered pavilion so that you can enjoy the festivities come rain or shine.
Want more on Illinois? Why not read my post on the best hidden gems in the state.