15 Best Things to Do in Evanston (IL)

Written by Bart Meeuwesen
Updated on
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On the leafy North Shore, Evanston is a city famed for its diversity and progressive politics.

This is reflected in many aspects of local life, and for visitors it means ethical and sustainable independent businesses, especially in the shopping areas at Main Street and Dempster Street.

Northwestern University, one of the top institutions of higher learning in the country, is right in Evanston and is central to the city’s character. The main campus merits a visit for its excellent art museum.

In fact this is one of a few museums that deserve a visit in Evanston, devoted to topics as varied as Native American cultures, stained glass and Toby Jugs.

1. Northwestern University

Charles Deering Library, Northwestern UniversitySource: Liz Albro Photography / shutterstock
Charles Deering Library, Northwestern University

Easily the largest employer in Evanston, and something that contributes to the city’s unique culture is Northwestern University, one of the top research universities in the United States.

A few of the items on this list are university institutions, like the excellent Block Museum of Art or the Dearborn Observatory.

The university is also renowned for its performing arts, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Pharell Williams, David Schwimmer and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex are among the alumni.

Be sure to check the calendar for the Wirtz Center for the Performing arts, while sports fans can cheer for the Wildcats on Saturdays during the fall season, when the university’s Big Ten Conference football team plays at Ryan Field.

There’s a pep rally at Wildcat Alley in the hour before kick-off, with local talent and music from the university’s marching band.

2. Block Museum of Art

Block Museum of ArtSource: Madcoverboy (talk) / Wikimedia | CC BY-SA 3.0
Block Museum of Art

Something unmissable at Northwestern University is the institution’s highly-regarded art museum.

The Block Museum of Art has been around since 1980, and in 2000 moved into a glass-clad Modernist by Dirk Lohan, grandson and student of Mies van der Rohe.

The collection is sensational, specializing in Chicago graphic art from the 1930s and 40s, American computer-generated art, South African prints from the early 1990s and Midwestern documentary photography.

A few renowned artists featured in the collection are Barbara Hepworth, Carrie Mae Weems, Joan Miró, Max Beckmann, Jasper Johns and Chuck Close.

Visit for expertly curated solo and collective exhibitions. Recent subjects have been Abstraction in the Arab World, American Art Against Anti-Black Violence, Latin American Pop Art and video art by Isaac Julein.

3. Evanston History Center

Evanston History CenterSource: Teemu008 / Flickr | CC BY-SA
Evanston History Center

The 30th vice president of the United States, Charles G. Dawes (1865-1951) spent the last forty years of his life in Evanston.

He is remembered in particular for the Dawes Plan (1925), which resolved the issue of German WWI reparations, and which earned him a Nobel peace Prize. Dawes’ Chateauesque lakefront mansion, dating back to 1894, is open to the public for docent-led and self-guided tours.

The property is replete with period furnishings and art belonging to the Dawes family. There’s a portrait of Dawes’ ancestor William Dawes (1745-1799), famous for helping to alert about the approach of British troops at the outset of the American Revolution in 1775.

A tour takes in the library, kitchen, dining room and great hall, and there’s a permanent exhibit recording Evanston’s history, from uninhabited wetlands and swampy forest to the present day.

4. Mitchell Museum of the American Indian

Mitchell Museum of the American IndianSource: ocean yamaha / Flickr | CC BY
Mitchell Museum of the American Indian

This fantastic museum in the northwest of Evanston explores the history of Native American from paleo-Indians to the present day.

The Mitchell Museum of the American Indian was founded in 1977 and its main exhibition is the compelling and artifact-rich Regional Tour of American Indian Cultures.

Here you can find out the traditional ways of life, art and story of Native American peoples in the Arctic, Woodlands east of the Mississippi River, on the Northwest Coast, in the Southwest and on the Plains.

As you go you’ll read well-researched accounts and see examples of weaving, beadwork, Katsina dolls, masks, pottery, bandolier bags, gutskin parkas, snow goggles, canoes and totem poles.

There are also temporary exhibits on a diversity of topics, from jewelry to the Native American heritage of modern Illinois.

5. Grosse Point Lighthouse

Grosse Point LighthouseSource: Nejdet Duzen / shutterstock
Grosse Point Lighthouse

Built in 1873 after a series of maritime disasters, the Grosse Point Lighthouse became the lead beacon guiding traffic on the lake into Chicago.

The lighthouse is still active, with a range of 18 nautical miles, and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

You can take a tour of this building, and enjoy the panorama from the top 113 feet above Lake Michigan, while the keeper’s house has interpretive displays.

Close by you’ll find the handsome but long empty Harley Clarke Mansion (1927), in grounds designed by feted landscape architect Jens Jensen.

And down on the lakefront is Lighthouse Beach, one of the best places to spend a warm summer’s day in Evanston.

6. American Toby Jug Museum

American Toby Jug MuseumSource: Ryan Dickey / Flickr | CC BY
American Toby Jug Museum

This sensational museum is devoted to the Toby Jug, a form of pottery jug that emerged in England in the 18th century, as well as the character jugs that derived from them.

The collection is extraordinary, composed of 8,000 pieces, elegantly presented in 97 glass cabinets.

Authentic and characterful 18th-century Toby Jugs are the basis for the collection, and there are 300 in all.

These are displayed along with Royal Doulton character jugs, works of majolica, antique miniatures for dollhouses and a fun display of character jugs spanning the history of pop culture, from Star Wars to Marvel.

7. Shopping

Downtown EvanstonSource: James Andrews1 / shutterstock
Downtown Evanston

Keen to nurture local businesses, Evanston has several low-rise shopping districts. From south to north, the first of these can be found on Howard Street, and then you’ve got Main Street, Dempster Street, Downtown and then Noyes and Central Street in the north.

Each area warrants exploration and is served by Metra or L stops. Arguably the best place for independent stores is Main Street and Dempster, rolled together as the Main-Dempster Mile.

There you can browse for ethical fashion, Belgian chocolate, fabrics, pet products, hemp/CBD products, vintage jewelry, collectible fossils and minerals, grain to glass liquor and so much more.

Food-wise this area is just as diverse, with everything from Argentine cuisine to Korean-American, gourmet pizza, pan-Asian, kombucha, sushi and sustainable coffee shops.

Back in downtown Evanston, the farmers’ market trades on Saturday mornings from the beginning of May to early November.

8. Halim Time & Glass Museum

Halim Time & Glass MuseumSource: victor408 / Flickr | CC BY
Halim Time & Glass Museum

Also in Evanston’s contingent of sensational museums is this attraction with two separate but equally impressive collections.

As the name suggests, the Halim Time & Glass Museum is dedicated to stained glass and timepieces.

When it comes to the former, there are pieces by the masters of the American School, including Tiffany, Lamb, Tillinghast and Sperry.

The Treasures of Louis Comfort Tiffany exhibit tracks the artist’s creative life, through oil paintings, pastels, watercolors, pottery and stained glass.

The Clocks of the World exhibit is no less enthralling, with more than 1,100 timepieces, counting pocket watches, automatons, chronometers, tall case clocks and tower clocks spanning centuries.

9. Evanston SPACE

Evanston SPACESource: spablab / Flickr | CC BY-ND
Evanston SPACE

Often listed among the best live music venues in Chicagoland, Evanston SPACE is an innovative music hall, established on Chicago Ave, close to Dempster’s L station in 2008.

The genre-hopping list of artists and bands to have performed here over the last decade and change is impressive and features Nick Lowe, Brandi Carlile, David Lindley, Robyn Hitchcock and Terrence Blanchard.

There’s room for audiences of 250, seated at candle-lit round tables, and the venue is also used for lectures, discussions, live radio broadcasts and regular podcast tapings.

10. Clark Street Beach

Clark Street BeachSource: James Andrews1 / shutterstock
Clark Street Beach

Just east of downtown there’s a welcoming stretch of waterfront, typically patrolled by lifeguards from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

To access Clark Beach during the summer season you’ll need a season pass or day pass, while on Mondays there’s free access for Evanston residents.

What you’ll find is an enticing and clean sweep of sand with a large designated swimming area, as well as volleyball nets towards the north end.

And although you’ll need to pay a fee, everything is well maintained, including showers and bathrooms.

There’s a beautiful green space behind at Centennial Park, as well as a big choice of restaurants a few steps away downtown.

11. Dawes Park

Dawes ParkSource: James Andrews1 / shutterstock
Dawes Park

Directly south of Clark Street Beach is possibly the prettiest public park in Evanston. Slightly elevated, Dawes Park is especially lovely early on in the day from spring to fall when you can watch the sun come up over Lake Michigan.

The central feature here is the shallow Arrington Lagoon, which has a pair of fountain jets, a little island at the south end and a stage on the north bank for outdoor concerts in summer.

The lagoon, encircled by grassy banks, is a magnet for water birds and a fine place to while away an hour or two with a book in summer.

In the winter the lagoon becomes a skating rink once the water freezes. Next to the lagoon is the Church Street Power Boat Ramp, at the head of Greenwood Beach, also open to the public.

12. Merrick Rose Garden

Merrick Rose GardenSource: James Andrews1 / shutterstock
Merrick Rose Garden

Understandably a popular place for wedding photo sessions, Merrick Rose Garden is in a leafy residential neighborhood just southwest of downtown Evanston.

Perfectly manicured with geometric beds, a small sunken lawn and clipped shrubs and hedges, the garden is planted with upwards of 2,000 roses from more than 200 varieties.

This space was first laid out in 1948, and at the south end is the much older Centennial Fountain, purchased by public donations in 1876.

The current fountain is a replica cast in 1912, and renovated in 1951, 1988 and most recently in 2000.

13. Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park

Skokie Northshore Sculpture ParkSource: Chicago's North Shore Conventions & Visitors Burea / Flickr | CC BY
Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park

This park is right on the North Shores Channel, which marks Evanston’s western boundary.

On the west bank, the linear park continues for two miles, divided into four half-mile sections. It was created in the late 1990s on what was previously disused land, and at the time of writing there were over 60 sculptures on show, among lawns, trees and shrubs.

These works are composed from a variety of materials, including stainless steel, bronze, concrete, salvaged aircraft aluminum, redwood, stoneware or fired clay.

Among the artists involved are prominent sculptors like Rüdiger Seidt, Stacy Latt Savage and Fisher Stolz, but also groups of students of local high schools.

14. Dearborn Observatory

Dearborn ObservatorySource: Monica's Dad / Flickr | CC BY
Dearborn Observatory

Something intriguing on the Northwestern University campus is this astronomical observatory in a Richardson Romanesque built with rusticated limestone in 1888.

The facility dates back earlier, to the 1860s, operating what was then the largest refracting telescope in the world. In 1939 the entire building had to be moved a few hundred feet to the southeast to make way for the university’s Technological Institute.

You can visit the Dearborn Observatory on Friday nights for public viewing sessions inside the dome. This structure has distinctive aluminum cladding, and its hand-crank mechanism was replaced with an electric motor in 1997.

15. Baha’i House of Worship

Baha’i House of Worship, WilmetteSource: Nejdet Duzen / shutterstock
Baha’i House of Worship

Dating back to the 19th century, the Baháʼí Faith is a new religion, the core tenet being the fundamental unity of all the world’s religions.

At the time of writing this article, the faith had established ten houses of worship around the world, in places like Langenhain, Germany, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, Santiago, Chile and Sydney, Australia.

But the oldest of all, completed in 1953, can be found by the entrance to the North Shores Channel in nearby Wilmette.

Open as a devotional space for any faith, the temple is under a majestic dome, rising to 138 feet and surrounded by fountains and gardens.

There’s seating for 1,191 people here, and the architecture is imbued with symbols from all the major religions, notably on the exterior pillars where the profuse mouldings contain the Star of David, the star and crescent, the Christian Cross and swastika motifs for the Hindu and Buddhist faiths.


15 Best Things to Do in Evanston (IL):

  • Northwestern University
  • Block Museum of Art
  • Evanston History Center
  • Mitchell Museum of the American Indian
  • Grosse Point Lighthouse
  • American Toby Jug Museum
  • Shopping
  • Halim Time & Glass Museum
  • Evanston SPACE
  • Clark Street Beach
  • Dawes Park
  • Merrick Rose Garden
  • Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park
  • Dearborn Observatory
  • Baha’i House of Worship