In Chicago’s northwest suburbs, Elgin is a historic city filled with delightful architecture from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
At that time the city was a manufacturing hub, and two beautiful Gothic Revival skyscrapers from the pre-Depression heyday command Elgin’s skyline.
Holdovers from those boom days include a sprawling public park, an award-winning library and even an astronomical observatory constructed in 1910 to provide accurate data for the Elgin National Watch Company.
There’s culture aplenty in this elegant spot on the Fox River, with a leading regional orchestra, superb museums and high-quality performance venues.
The riverside is an attraction in its own right, lined with parks and a multi-use trail that runs from Algonquin to Aurora.
1. Elgin History Museum
Elgin Academy, founded in 1839, is the oldest coeducational, non-sectarian college preparatory school west of the Allegheny Mountains.
An original building for this institution is the Greek Revival-style Old Main (1856), which was sold to the city to be restored in the 1870s.
This building now holds the excellent Elgin History Museum, charting the story of the city from a few perspectives.
From River to Rails looks at Elgin’s earliest days through the 1890s and the arrival of the railroads, while Made in Elgin explores the many different products manufactured in the city in its industrial prime.
There’s a detailed introduction to Elgin’s wealth of historic architecture, as well as a whole room dedicated to the Elgin National Watch Company, a market leader in the first decades of the 20th century.
Finally, Elgin: 20th Century looks at the key events up to the 1970s, including prohibition and the Palm Sunday Tornado of 1920.
2. Lords Park
In the 1890s the wealthy Lord family purchased this 108-acre tract of land and gifted it to the City of Elgin to be used as a public park.
Lords Park is as genteel as they come, with beautiful stands of mature oak and hickory on undulating terrain.
There are two picnic shelters here, along with a zoo (more later), two playgrounds and facilities for tennis, little league baseball and basketball.
You’ll also see some fabulous monuments, like the gorgeous two-story park pavilion, raised in 1898 and the purpose-built Neoclassical museum building, which we’ll talk about later.
3. Lords Park Zoo
On the south side, Lords Park has had a zoo since the 1890s and this is a beloved summer attraction in Elgin attracting tens of thousands of visitors each year.
The zoo, in gorgeous grounds, has traditionally focussed on species native to Illinois, but has kept a lion in the past.
Nowadays you can see bison, white-tailed deer and elk in the pasture, and this is bordered by a pond with wild geese and ducks.
At the north end children adore the Farm Zoo, where they can interact with domestic animals like goats, pigs, cows, sheep and a miniature donkey and llama.
4. Fox River Trail
Elgin is one of a string of communities on a 40-mile multi-use trail that tracks the Fox River from Algonquin in the north to Aurora in the south.
Large sections of the route follow the former rights of way of freight and interurban railroads laid down in the 1890s.
This makes for an easy gradient and little interference from road traffic, and on the way are fishing spots, boat launches, picnic areas and endless options for food and drink.
The Fox River Trail may be at its best in Elgin where it stays remarkably close to the water’s edge, passing through a sequence of parks and bordered by cultural amenities and restaurants.
You could make a little detour to Walton Island Park, where a pair of river islands are connected by footbridges and have little lawns, flowerbeds and shelters.
5. Elgin Public Museum
In Lords Park, this museum was established in 1920 and is housed in a fine Neoclassical building completed in 1907.
The Elgin Public Museum is dedicated to natural history and anthropology, and is the only attraction of its kind in the Fox Valley area.
Inside, exhibits cover the La Salle Expeditions of the 17th century, as well as Ice Age mammals, Native American ways of life, Amazon Creek fossils, rocks and minerals and the natural habitats of the Fox River.
There’s always a compelling temporary exhibit to check out, as well as the Discovery Room, an educational space for younger visitors, centered on an interactive T-Rex model.
6. Gail Borden Public Library
Elgin has a public library that would be the envy of most cities. This is named after the inventor of condensed milk, Gail Borden (1801-1871), who set up a factory here in 1866.
The original Gail Borden Library was in the historic Scofield mansion until 2003 when this spectacular new complex opened in picturesque grounds on the east bank of the Fox River.
For Elgin residents this is a wonderful public resource, with a cafe, the day’s newspapers, computers, free Wi-Fi and of course a giant collection of books, DVDs, audiobooks, video games and puzzles.
And that’s before we talk about the library’s programs, which include all sorts of clubs, children’s activities, music performances, exhibitions, talks, presentations and more.
7. Elgin Fire Barn No. 5 Museum
This stately-looking building southeast of downtown is in fact a former fire station, operating from 1903 until as recently as 1991.
Elgin’s fifth engine fire barn is in the Classical Revival style, designed by local architect Smith Hoag who intended the building to resemble a storefront. The building is now a repository for Elgin Fire Department’s most prized artifacts.
Along with uniforms, badges, helmets and photographs are vehicles like a Silsby horse drawn steamer engine from 1869 and an American Lafrance Fire Engine dating to 1929. The former was used to fight the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
8. Elgin Historic District
Enclosed by Villa Street in the south and Park Street in the north is the oldest portion of Elgin, first settled by European Americans in the 1830s.
This sizable historic core, one of five in Elgin, has 697 buildings (429 contributing) and has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1983.
Exploring the historic district you’ll come across a large spectrum of architectural styles as the area was developed across the last decades of the 19th century and up to around 1930.
The oldest structures, like the Gifford-Davidson House (1850), are in a vernacular Cobblestone style, predating the Victorian architecture that came later in the 19th century.
Few vacant lots remained after the 1920s and new construction has been rare, so almost every block in the district is dominated by handsome century-old houses, apartment buildings, former factories, churches and public buildings.
An especially pretty ensemble can be found at Gifford Park, which was first landscaped in 1844 and with a charming gazebo at the center.
9. Festival Park
In a perfect setting right on the river, this beautiful space has a dual role as a neighborhood park loaded with amenities and as a venue for some of Elgin’s biggest annual events.
The Fox River Trail runs through Festival Park, while for families there’s a superb playground and an ever popular splash pad that stays open from 10 am to 8 pm in the summer months.
It’s hard to miss the silhouette of the Grand Victoria Casino just downriver. The casino schedules a season of concerts in summer, while Elgin also organizes events like the Summer Movies in the Park series, as well as get-togethers as diverse as Ribfest in June and the Festival of Lights during the holiday season.
10. The Hemmens Cultural Center
Founded in 1950, the Elgin Symphony Orchestra is held as one of the foremost regional orchestras in the United States.
The list of famous musicians and conductors who have performed with the orchestra is formidable and includes Yo-Yo Ma, Benny Goodman, Rachel Barton Pine, Pepe Romero, Rosen Milanov, Jennifer Koh and Nicola Benedetti.
The orchestra’s seat is the 1,200-seat Hemmens Auditorium, right on the east bank of the Fox River. A typical season brings some 40 performances, in a diverse program that features classics, educational concerts, pops and holiday shows.
Noted for its clear sight lines, the auditorium also has a rich program of plays, dance performances, concerts by famous recording artists and live comedy throughout the year.
11. Elgin Art Showcase
One of the finest pieces of heritage in downtown Elgin is the Professional Building, eight stories tall and built in the Gothic Revival style in 1928.
Although renovations have been mooted, the Professional Building is still mostly used for offices, and at the time of writing a state senator (Cristina Castro) and state representative (Anna Moeller) were based here.
In 2007 the eighth floor was remodeled as a superb multidisciplinary arts space, hosting intimate art exhibitions and a wide array of performances.
There’s a capacity for 100 spectators up here and the view of the city at this height is unparalleled.
12. Kane County Forest Preserve District
One of the special things about Elgin is the sheer quantity of nature all around. For a century now, the Kane County Forest Preserve District has sought to safeguard and restore dozens of natural areas within minutes of Elgin.
These parcels of prairie, forest and wetlands add up to a total 20,000 acres, ready for all sorts of activities.
You could go on a hike or bike ride, take a horseback trip, enjoy a family picnic, go camping, nature spotting, play golf, go fishing or take your dog to an off-leash area.
A few of the spaces within minutes of downtown Elgin include the Poplar Creek, Raymond Street and Kenyon Farm forest preserves on the Fox River’s east bank, or Otter Creek, Eagles, Tyler Creek and Burnidge Forest Preserves close to the west bank.
13. Fisher Nuts
One of the largest employers in Elgin is the Fisher Nuts brand, which moved into a one million square-foot facility in the city in 2007.
Sold at ballparks all over the United States, Fisher Nuts was established in Minnesota in 1920 and is famed for its pioneering honey roast range that was launched in the 1970s.
You can head to their facility in Elgin to visit the enormous factory store, which has an almost overwhelming variety of nuts, chocolate and other tempting candy.
Naturally you’ll find pecans, cashews, peanuts and almonds, in all kinds of different flavors and preparations, from dry roasted to covered in chocolate.
Alongside these is a massive variety of old time candy and chocolate, as well as nut butters of all kinds made fresh to order.
14. U-46 Observatory/Planetarium
From the end of the 19th century to 1968 the local economy was dominated by the Elgin National Watch Company.
For most of this time the company was the largest manufacturer of fine watches in the country.
And to produce a more accurate watch the brand even constructed an observatory to provide more precise data on time, accurate to within tenth of a second.
Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the observatory was completed in 1910 in a Classical Revival style and was later donated to the local school district, with a planetarium added in 1963.
As well as being a fascinating monument, at the corner of Raymond and Watch streets, the facility opens to the public for a series of sky shows during the school year.
15. Grand Victoria Casino
Elgin is home to one of the nine riverboat casinos in the state of Illinois. This is permanently “docked” on the south side of Festival Park, and is also among the city’s top ten employers.
Revenue from the Grand Victoria Casino goes into the city’s coffers, helping to fund programs as varied as film screenings, toy collecting and housing restoration.
When we wrote this article the casino had around 1,100 video poker and slot machines, along with 36 table games.
There’s also full-service sports betting via the bookmaker William Hill on the casino floor, as well as high-profile entertainment and dining choices ranging from a steakhouse/bistro to a deli, buffet and pizzeria.