This village, 22 miles west of the Chicago Loop owes its memorable name to its founder, Pierce Downer. He was a farmer, who settled these lands as long ago as 1832.
Noted for its livability and its friendly residents, Downers Grove is well connected to the Windy City by road and rail, but has plenty of things to appeal to visitors close by.
There are beautiful pockets of nature all around, tended by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, while a nationally recognized arboretum, historic house museums, a century-old cinema and a thriving craft brewery are all on your doorstep.
1. Tivoli Theatre
Entertaining Downers Grove since 1928, this charming movie theater retains its gorgeous decor but is endowed with the latest technology.
The Tivoli Theatre is part of a historic complex, made up of preserved storefronts, an old-school bowling alley and the Tivoli Hotel.
The theater has a richly adorned facade, profuse with Solomonic columns, urns and garlands, and continues to screen first-run and second-run movies.
The business shut down in the late 70s after years of decline but soon reopened as part of the Chicago-based Classic Cinemas.
As well as movies in an unforgettable environment there’s a program of live music, and the likes of Neko Case and Los Lobos have played this stage. At the time of writing a second, smaller screen had opened, with plush reclining chairs.
2. The Morton Arboretum
One of the region’s great botanical attractions is right on Downers Grove’s northwestern shoulder and is impossible to ignore for a day out in summer.
The Morton Arboretum was founded in 1922 by the salt industrialist Joy Morton (1855-1934) and eventually replaced his state, as surrounding farmland was restored to native prairie and woodland.
Occupying 1,700 acres, there are more than 4,100 types of trees growing at the arboretum, including vital collections of beeches, maples, oaks, elms and more.
You can navigate this wonderful space along 16 miles of trails or on a tram tour, and discover a world of little attractions like a Maze Garden, Ground Cover Garden, Four Seasons Garden and the Container and Display Gardens.
As a key center for research the arboretum hosts the Sterling Morton Library, with 30,000 volumes, and a modern visitor center for indoor exhibitions.
3. Hidden Lake Forest Preserve
A treasured place for outdoor recreation in Downers Grove, Hidden Lake is managed by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.
The “Hidden Lake” here is a glacial pond embedded in mature oak and hickory forest. Over two miles of trails ramble through the preserve, making it perfect for hiking, jogging and birding.
This is also one of the few places in the county where you can hear the spring peeper frog in full voice.
There’s no lack of places to take a picnic at Hidden Lake, while there are two fishing spots, Round Meadow Lake and Eagle Lake, abounding with crappie, bluegill, carp, bass, green sunfish, black bullhead and channel catfish.
4. Downers Grove Museum
The village’s enthralling museum is on a campus in a residential area not far from Downers Grove train station.
This is Wandschneider Park, donated to the village in the 1970s by Pauline Wandscheider, longtime resident and founder of the Downers Grove Historical Society.
There are several buildings on this site: The Pioneer Blodgett House (1846) is one of the oldest properties in the village and particularly compelling because the Blodgett family held abolitionist views and are thought to have helped slaves escape the South through the Underground Railroad.
The Blodgetts’ youngest son built the Victorian Blodgett House (1892), which offers a look at local domestic life in the 1890s.
Temporary exhibits can be found in the Montrew Dunham History Center, a replica barn that also holds a permanent exhibit about the village’s fire department.
5. Alter Brewing Company
Opened in 2015, this dynamic craft brewery has a 20-barrel brewhouse with a stylish modern industrial taproom attached.
There you can sample a range of multi-award winning beers, with a rotating lineup of 12 on tap at any time.
A few of the year round beers are Alterior Motive (IPA), Houplar Kid (Extra Pale Ale), Center Line (Golden Ale), Hell Hazed Over (Hazy 2X IPA) and Heavy Squeeze (Unfiltered Lemon Wheat Ale).
These are accompanied by quirky special releases and seasonal beers like an Oatmeal Stout and a German-style lager. And as well as great beer, Alter Brewing Company has a dynamic calendar of activities, from “Brews & Yoga” to craft classes and trivia.
6. Lyman Woods & William F. Sherman, Jr. Interpretive Center
In the care of the Downers Grove Park District is 150 gorgeous acres of oak woodland, prairie and marshland.
These habitats support some 300 different species of native plants, as well as a rich array of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.
Some species to look out for are great horned owls, Cooper’s hawks, deer, foxes and coyotes. Particularly important is a 19-acre parcel of oak woodland untouched since it was purchased by the Lyman family in 1839.
Your first port of call should be the interpretive center, which has ever-changing exhibits about the woods and their wildlife, as well as a butterfly garden, rain gardens and native landscaping outside.
7. Graue Mill & Museum
One of only two water-powered grist mills still operating in Illinois, the Graue Mill was built in 1852 by the German immigrant Friedrich Graue and is attached to his house.
Remarkably, this mill was in operation for six decades and three generations of the Graue family until made obsolete by advances in milling technology in the 1910s.
The site soon fell into decay but was restored by the CCC during the Depression and opened as a historical attraction in 1951.
The wooden water wheel is powered by a millrace on Salt Creek, and on a tour you can check out the grinding area, gears, a historic buckboard farmer’s workshop, weaving machinery, general store, Victorian parlor and a pioneer kitchen.
8. Mayslake Peabody Estate
In the nearby Mayslake Forest Preserve you can discover the estate of the coal baron Francis S. Peabody (1859-1922).
With a half-timbered Tudor Revival mansion at its heart, the estate was established between 1919 and 1921 and originally encompassed almost 850 acres.
Mayslake Hall, by the renowned Chicago architect Benjamin Marshall, is on the National Register of Historic Places and is going through a long-term restoration.
You can visit for a tour to learn about the ongoing efforts to bring the property back to its former glory.
There are lots of exciting details inside, from hand-carved walnut fittings to a secret staircase leading from Peabody’s study to the basement. A highlight is the Portiuncula Chapel, a faithful reproduction of the Chapel of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy.
9. McCollum Park
The Downers Grove Park District’s flagship park covers 50 acres, on land purchased by the village in the early 1970s.
In summer you can have a fun time at Miner Mike’s Adventure Golf, an 18-hole course with a concession stand, while there’s a skating rink on the north parking lot in the winter.
Other amenities include ten lighted tennis courts, two baseball fields, two softball fields, two lighted basketball courts, four soccer fields and three lighted sand volleyball courts.
There’s a 1.2-mile paved walking loop weaving through the park, installed with fitness stations and fringed by little wooded picnic groves.
10. Patriots Park
This spacious neighborhood park is dominated by Barth Pond. Excavated in 1978 to hold storm water, the pond is very picturesque and inhabited by dozens of geese and ducks.
This has also become a popular fishing location, as well as a place for summer picnics and gentle walks on the paved walkway encircling the water.
On the west side there’s a large, newly improved playground with separate areas for children aged 2-5 and 5-12, while on the east side is a picnic shelter with convenient access to the pond.
11. Fuzzy Logic Escape Room
Downers Plaza Shopping Center is home to a much-loved escape room attraction that opened in 2018.
Fuzzy Logic moves away from the horror themes that you’ll normally find at escape rooms for lighter, more family-friendly experience.
When we wrote this article there were five rooms to choose from, with challenges as varied as discovering an invaluable relic in an Egyptian tomb or searching for the cute animals that have gone missing at a vet office.
If you’re visiting with younger members of the family you can request an “easy mode’ on any of the rooms.
12. Downers Grove Golf Club
The very first 18-hole golf course in the United States was established on this site in 1893.
After a couple of years The Chicago Golf Club relocated to near Wheaton, where it remains today, while several holes at Downers Grove Golf Club (2, 4, 7, 8 and 9) are exactly as they were in the late 19th century.
Another remarkable thing about this public course is that it’s an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary, integrating natural spaces and beautiful mature trees.
The sharp elevation changes and water hazards offer an engaging challenge for all players while there’s a partially sheltered driving range and a putting green to help you find your touch.
13. Yorktown Center
This mall, just past Downers Grove’s northern fringe, opened in 1968. At that time it was the largest shopping center in the country.
Yorktown Center has been remodeled several times over the last half century and today has close to 150 specialty stores, alongside department stores like Von Maur (2nd largest in the country), JCPenney, Carson Pirie Scott and Target.
A few of the brands represented here are H&M, American Eagle, Forever 21, Hot Topic, Victoria’s Secret and Yankee Candle.
Kids will enjoy the indoor Yorktown Express Train and the Treehouse adventure play area, while there’s a choice of 30 dining options, including the likes of Claim Jumper, Sbarro, Panda Express, Sarku Japan, Dunkin and Buca di Beppo.
14. Willowbrook Wildlife Center
A few minutes from Downers Grove is the foremost wildlife rehabilitation and education facility in DuPage County.
Part of the Forest Preserve District of DuPAge County, the Willowbrook Wildlife Center takes in sick, injured and orphaned animals before releasing them back into the wild where possible.
You can drop by the visitor center, where up to 90 different species may be on display as they return to health, while some are permanent residents as they are unable to fend for themselves in the wild.
There’s also an informative outdoor exhibit and a walking trail through the peaceful surrounding forest.
15. Disturbia Haunted House
At University Plaza in the north end of Downers Grove is one of the best haunted houses in Chicagoland.
Disturbia has made a name for its sensational production values, with great animatronics, creative makeup, creepy props and a team of enthusiastic actors.
There’s an unusual level of detail in the house’s various scenarios for a delightfully unnerving experience.
Outside of the Halloween season Disturbia also organizes all kinds of other experiences, including seasonal haunts, creepy trails, zombie laser tag and horror-themed escape rooms.