Some 15 miles west of the Chicago Loop, the city of Elmhurst is a well-heeled suburb at the boundary of DuPage and Cook Counties.
Rather than another shapeless suburb, Elmhurst brims with character thanks to a bustling downtown, full of intriguing little shops, major visitor attractions, entertainment amenities and great places to eat and drink.
Much of your time in Elmhurst will be spent around Wilder Park, which has the superb Elmhurst Art Museum and Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art in its boundaries.
On the park’s west flank is Elmhurst University, the entire campus of which is protected as an arboretum, growing 130 different tree species.
1. Elmhurst Art Museum
One of two superb attractions in Wilder Park, Elmhurst Art Museum is dedicated to contemporary art and opened at its current facility in 1997.
In store are world-class exhibitions enriched with work by regional, national and international artists.
Typically you can catch the winter, spring, summer and fall shows by the Elmhurst Artists’ Guild, as well as enthralling themed temporary exhibitions.
Themes shows have addressed topics like Chicago’s architecture, the Chicago Freedom Movement, renewable energy and figurative painting in Chicago.
There have also been solo shows for the likes of David Wallace Haskins, Sandra Jorgensen, Joan Ladendorf and Randi Holt.
Architecture features prominently in the museum’s programing, and on the campus is the McCormick House, one of only three residences designed and built by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in the United States.
2. Elmhurst City Centre
One of Elmhurst’s great assets is its prosperous central business district. Right by the train station, Elmhurst City Centre is on walkable, leafy streets with benches, vintage-style lamps and lots of sidewalk seating or restaurants and cafes.
This is a fabulous place to potter around for an hour or two, with a wonderful assortment of unusual independent shops, induding galleries, boutiques, jewelers, antiques and collectibles dealers, a comic book shop, a toy shop and even a furrier and cigar shop.
Sprinkled throughout Elmhurst City Centre are independent eateries whether you’re in the mood for crêpes, frozen desserts, sushi, noodles, Chinese, BBQ, pizza, tacos, Italian cuisine, a cocktail or elegant glass of wine.
Downtown is also the scene for some major events, including one of Chicagoland’s biggest St. Patrick’s Day parades, and a Memorial Day parade observed since 1918.
3. Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art
Walking distance from Elmhurst Station at beautiful Wilder Park is an excellent museum with multifaceted collections.
The Lizzadro Museum opened in 1962 as a repository for the collections of Joseph Lizzadro (1898-1972), a prominent businessman who worked his way up to Chairman of the Board of Meade Electric Company.
In his spare time, Lizzadro had an eye for lapidary, in particular carved jade, and built up an astonishing collection from the late 1930s onwards.
The museum’s rich inventory includes plenty of jade carvings, as well as mosaics, gemstones, organic gems, cameos, rocks/minerals/fossils, as well as some 20 lovely dioramas furnished with animals carved from gemstones.
A fitting tribute to the museum’s founder is Castle Lizzadro, a model composed of 18K gold, adorned with malachite, azurite, amethyst and vanadium.
4. Elmhurst History Museum
For the background on Elmhurst you can make for the stately Glos Mansion, which has been home to the Elmhurst History Museum since the 1970s.
The property, with rusticated limestone, copper dormers and white oak interiors, is in the Romanesque Revival style and was built in 1892-93.
The museum inside presents a wide variety of exhibits each year, from national touring exhibits to compelling displays curated by the museum’s staff.
Ever-present is By All Accounts: The Story of Elmhurst, covering all facets of the city’s 165+ years of history using multimedia and a whole raft of interesting artifacts.
Recent short-term exhibits have delved into topics as varied as Elmhurst University, the Great Depression, Chicagoland’s railroads, Frank Lloyd Wright and American Political Posters.
5. Wilder Park
Perfectly located between downtown and Elmhurst University is a charming park that is also at the soul of the city’s social life.
Wilder Park has often been hailed as the best park in Chicago’s suburbs and is on the grounds of the namesake mansion, first raised in the 1860s and home to several prominent local families.
The Wilder Mansion, remodeled in the 1930s and 1960s, is rented out as a wedding venue, while you can savor the exquisite formal gardens and the elegant Wilder Park Conservatory, dating to 1923 and famed for its seasonal displays (lilies, chrysanthemums and poinsettias).
Along with the Elmhurst Art Museum and Lizzadro Museum, Wilder Park has a bustling events calendar, with an Easter Egg hunt, Art in the Park in May, summer concerts and movie screenings and a holiday market at the mansion, to name just a handful.
6. Illinois Prairie Path
Elmhurst is on a 61-mile network of trails, much of which is on tube right of way of the Chicago Aurora and Elgin Railroad (1902-1959).
After this line closed down the notion of a regional trail along the route was introduced in 1963 by the naturalist May Theilgaard Watts (1893-1975), and by the early 1970s the Illinois Prairie Path had become the first of many rails-to-trails around the country.
With a light gradient and a mix of asphalt and crushed stone, the trail runs right through the heart of Elmhurst and is suited to hiking, biking, jogging, nature spotting and horseback riding.
There are numerous places to get onto the trail in Elmhurst, and from here you can head east to Maywood. There’s a fork to the west at Wheaton, where you can head northwest towards Elgin, or southwest in the direction of Aurora.
7. Great Western Prairie
By a quirk of land allocation in the 19th century, this six-acre plot in Elmhurst has remained undisturbed the city’s development.
Stretching for a mile, the Great Western Prairie is the oldest living environment in the city, lying between two abandoned railway beds, one of which is used by the Illinois Prairie Path (to the south).
This beautiful tract of nature has been maintained by volunteers since the 1970s and has interpretive signs to help you identify the many plant species thriving here.
8. Classic Cinemas York Theatre
Hard to miss for its glitzy marquee, Elmhurst still has a popular movie theater downtown. The York Theatre dates back to 1924, while the stylish Art Moderne facade and interior have been in place since 1938.
One reason the theater has been able to survive is that since the 1980s several theaters have been created from the original 1,100-seater auditorium.
Remarkably, this conversion was made without losing much of the historic character and ambience of the interior.
Today there are ten screens but with a vintage atmosphere. Free refills are available on drinks and popcorn, and several screens even have heated recliners.
9. Salt Creek Greenway Trail
This 35-mile pedestrian/bike trail runs from Elk Grove Village, north of Elmhurst, to Brookfield Zoo, to the southeast.
Tracing the watercourse from DuPage County into Cook County, the trail was first mooted in the 1960s and finally took shape in the late 1990s.
On the route it might be hard to believe that you’re still in the Chicago suburbs as you pass through a succession of lush riverine forest preserves and marshes.
One compelling sight, south of Elmhurst and approximately ten minutes away by road is the Graue Mill, a preserved water-powered grist mill, built in 1852 and staying in business until the 1910s.
10. Elmhurst College Arboretum
Something that makes the Elmhurst College campus so appealing is its wealth of tree species. In fact the entire 48-acre campus can be described as a living museum, with close to 900 trees representing 130 species.
The arboretum was established in the 1960s when the mature elm trees around the campus were succumbing to disease.
The landscape architect Herbert Licht planted scores of trees and shrubs, many of which he collected and donated personally.
Some sights to check out include the one-off Elmhurst yew, the arboretum’s first oak tree from 1966, a fossilized tree dating back 150 million years and a cross-section of the Memorial Elm that was growing here at the time of Lincoln’s second inauguration.
The university website has an interactive map to help you plan your tour.
11. Art in the Park
Every May Wilder Park is the setting for one of Elmhurst’s great annual events. Free to the public, Art in the Park is a show and juried competition, entered by more than 100 artists each year.
You can peruse and also purchase high-quality work across a broad spectrum of media, from painting to ceramics, photography, jewelry, sculpture, woodcarving, glass and mixed media.
Accompanying these visual delights there’s also live music, lots of fun for kids and a selection of up to 20 food vendors.
12. Elmhurst Farmers’ Market
In the little business district at the corner of York and Vallette Streets, Elmhurst has a wonderful farmers’ market on Wednesday mornings, June to October.
The market is mostly oriented towards local fresh produce, and the selection can change by the week as you move through the season.
Throughout the summer you might find vegetables from asparagus to turnip greens and fruit as diverse as blackberries, cherries, peaches, raspberries and strawberries.
If you’d like to know what’s available in advance you can find annual harvest calendars for the Chicago area online.
13. Explore Elmhurst Express Trolley
During the holiday season a cute trolley makes its way through Elmhurst every Saturday 10 am to 10 pm.
Operating over six weekends, from the end of November to the end of December, this is a way to help residents and visitors discover the many local businesses around the city. The trolley is ticketless and makes six stops around Elmhurst.
While on board you can find out the many special offers available across the city during the holiday season.
Each stop is conveniently located close to a parking lot and there’s even a tracking service online, so you won’t have to wait outside in the cold for the trolley.
14. Sky Zone Trampoline Park
There’s a branch of the international trampoline park chain, Sky Zone, right here in Elmhurst. This is a flexible kind of amenity, offering an exhilarating workout, but also stacks of energetic fun for all ages.
As well as a giant field of trampolines you’ll find attractions as diverse as a bouldering wall, warped wall, a giant inflatable tower, dodgeball court, basketball hoop for slam dunks and a pit for soft landings, filled with thousands of foam cubes.
Sky Zone Trampoline Park is a go-to for children’s birthday parties, and also has the toddler zone, a safe soft area exclusively for under fours..
15. Safari Land
Ideal for winter or a rainy day in summer, this family entertainment center just next door in Villa Park has eight indoor attractions across 62,000 square feet.
Now open for two decades, Safari Land is family owned and will appeal to the littlest members of the family as much as bored teenagers.
For youngsters there’s the Lion’s Den soft play area and a delightful merry go round, while for thrill seekers you’ve got the largest indoor roller coaster in the state along with a genuine Maxflight simulator.
Also on hand is a 12-lane bowling alley, go karts for kids, bumper cars, a tilt-a-whirl and an arcade with more than 100 of the latest releases and redemption games.