The seat of Kane County is a delightful city on the Fox River, featuring a downtown area brimming with beautiful Victorian architecture, and enticing independent stores and restaurants. In the early 20th century Geneva was home to the millionaire textile industrialist, George Fabyan, and his estate, Riverbank, is now encompassed by the Fabyan Forest Preserve.
Geneva has been shaped by the Fox River and railroads, and was settled by a large contingent of Swedish immigrants in the late 19th century. That history is documented at an excellent museum downtown, and celebrated every June during the midsummer Geneva Swedish Days.
I grew up in Illinois and enjoy exploring the many cities and towns the state has to offer. Here is my list of the best things to do in Geneva.
1. Fabyan Villa Museum
The intellectually curious millionaire businessman, George Fabyan (1867-1936) established his country estate, Riverbank, on the Fox River in Geneva at the turn of the 20th century.
George Fabyan lived here with his wife Nelle, and between 1912 and 1922 funded code-breaking research at the Riverbank Laboratories on the site, credited as the birthplace of modern cryptology.
The mid-19th century farmhouse on the estate was completely redesigned by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1907.
Mid-May to mid-October this house is open to the public but I suggest to check the website to make sure. You can savor the architecture, learn about the compelling lives of the Fabyans and see the many artifacts collected by George and Nelle, including zoological specimens, Asian sculpture, a piece from the 1893 Columbian Exposition.
2. Japanese Tea Garden
The Fabyans had a fascination for Japanese culture kindled by Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition, and in 1910 they hired the Japanese landscape architect Taro Otsuka to design a one-acre Japanese garden at Riverbank.
Perfectly backdropped by the river and woods, this took shape gradually throughout the 1910s, and from 1918 was maintained by the Japanese immigrant gardener Susumu Kobayashi. After the Fabyans passed away the garden was allowed to lapse until a restoration effort by the Geneva Garden Club beginning in 1974.
Now more than a century old the Japanese Tea Garden is an essential visit at the Fabyan Forest Preserve, with paths winding by a waterfall, pond, moon bridge, a lantern and teahouse.
3. Downtown Geneva
Geneva has the kind of downtown commercial district that would be the envy of any town. This runs north from the Metra station along Third Street, which abounds with stately Victorian architecture commanded by the massive Kane County Courthouse (1892).
Then at State Street, there are stores and eateries to the west and east, as far as the river, to form a rough T-shape across several blocks.
There are well over 150 independent businesses in this area. Shoppers will find all sorts of charming little gift shops, as well as home design stores, jewelers, cosmetics shops, a slew of fashion boutiques, a book shop, and wine and beer cellars, to list just a few.
The lineup of restaurants and cafes is almost dizzying, and you’re sure to find the right spot for you, whether you’re hankering for Cajun, contemporary American, Italian, Asian fusion, Mexican, brunch food, artisan burgers or pizza. If you’re into Italian food I would recommend going to Villa Verone Ristorante Italiano.
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4. Geneva History Museum
Facing the Kane County Courthouse downtown is an award-winning local history museum. The Geneva Historical Society has been around since 1943, and after years located in Wheeler Park opened a museum in this fine two-story building downtown. I suggest visiting if you’d like to learn more about Geneva’s rich history.
In the Main Gallery is Geneva’s Story, a compelling and neatly presented exhibition detailing Geneva’s rich history, and the vital role of both the Fox River and railroads in the city’s development.
The Geneva History Museum is engaged in the community, and organizes walking tours, bike tours, van tours as well as group programs covering interesting aspects of Geneva’s history and culture, from crimes & criminals, to famous residents, architecture, Swedish immigration and JFK’s visit in 1960.
5. Fox River Trail
A wonderful asset for a dozen riverside communities, mostly in Kane County, is this 40-mile multi-use path from Algonquin to Oswego. Geneva is one, and you can use this waterfront trail to get from downtown to the Fabyan Villa and Windmill, or continue down to Batavia, which also has an attractive downtown area.
Heading north you could organize a Sunday trip to South Elgin, where a historic stretch of riverside track has been preserved for a trolley museum.
Geneva is a cycle-friendly town, with a large store for sales, rentals and repairs (Mill Race Cyclery), right on the Fox River Trail. If you’re visiting in summer I would rent a kayak or canoe for an adventure on the Fox River
6. Kane County Cougars
Geneva has its own professional sports team, the Kane County Cougars, who play in the American Association of Professional Baseball.
The Cougars, previously the Wausau Timbers, have been a part of life in Geneva since 1991. Over the last 30+ years they have been affiliated with several MLB franchises and belonged to the Midwest League (league champions in 2001 and 2014) before joining the 12-team AAPB in 2021.
The Cougars’ home is Northwestern Medicine Field, which holds close to 11,000 following an upgrade in 2015. This is a great, laid-back place to watch a game, with tons of family entertainment between innings to keep kids on board, as well as post-game fireworks.
7. Peck Farm Park
The Geneva Park District manages this calm natural haven, bordering open countryside on the west side of the city. Previously worked by the Peck family, this land is composed of restored prairie, wetlands, nature-oriented attractions and a variety of sports facilities.
The Peck house has become a visitor center with interactive exhibits charting the history of this land and the Peck family, while the adjacent silo has been turned into an observation tower.
Outside are sensory gardens, a splash pad, the sensational Hawks Hollow Nature Playground, baseball diamonds and soccer fields, an amphitheater, a 19-acre wetland and a picnic area with a meeting room. From May you can also visit the Butterfly House, with hundreds of non-native butterflies fluttering all around and landing on you.
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8. Island Park
Within walking distance of downtown Geneva is a charming park on a river island. Island Park is reached via a footbridge on the Fox River Trail, bringing you to a lovely escape, right in the middle of town.
There’s a long line of benches facing the water, and the island is dotted with mature hardwood trees shading the large grassy areas and flowerbeds.
At the south end is a treehouse-themed playground with a climbing wall and a zip line, while about halfway down is a large brick pavilion that can be rented from mid-April to mid-October. Island Park is also an occasional venue for outdoor events, like the Fox Valley Folk Festival in September.
9. Fabyan Windmill
In 1914, George Fabyan had this authentic Dutch windmill relocated from near Elmhurst to the east bank of the Fox River close to his villa.
In working order, the Fabyan Windmill is a five-story, 68-foot smock mill, constructed by German craftsmen in the 1850s.
By the late 20th century the mill had fallen into disrepair, and the Dutch expert windmill maker Lucas Verbij was hired to carry out a thorough restoration, sourcing timber and gearwork from the Netherlands.
He declared the Fabyan Windmill to be the “best example of a Dutch windmill in the United States”. The mill reopened in 2005, and is operated by volunteer millers who give fascinating tours on weekends, mid-May to mid-October. If you’re interested in a tour I would check here for availability.
10. Geneva Commons
The arterial Randall Road runs north to south right through the western Chicago area, a mile or so west of the Fox River.
For much of its length, this is a commercial corridor, lined with a multitude of shopping centers and drive-thru chain restaurants, but also hotels, entertainment amenities and sports facilities.
Locally you’ve got Geneva Commons, which has the feel of a small town, with its sidewalks, trees and a central square with benches, pergolas and lawns.
A few of the brands on hand at this center are Gap, Barnes & Noble, Sephora, Pottery Barn, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Forever 21 and Victoria’s Secret. Food-wise there’s a Five Guys, Red Lobster, Lou Malnati’s and California Pizza Kitchen, and you’re just a short drive from many more.
11. Penrose Brewing Company
At an industrial park a few blocks north of downtown Geneva is a craft brewery attracting beer aficionados from across the Chicago area.
Locally owned, the Penrose Brewing Company has a flair for wild/sour fermentations and hoppy flavors. There’s a rotating selection of small-batch beers at the taproom, with 17 available when we wrote this article with a big contingent of sours and IPAs, my favorite being the Taproom IPA.
A few picks included Hiking Boots (New England IPA), Ryan’s Wit (Witbier), BBA Imperial Stout aged in whiskey acres, FrütPunch (Sour) and Lights Out Lager.
You can take a tour of the brewhouse on weekends, and as this is a production brewery, you’re free to order delivery from one of the great local restaurants in Geneva.
12. Friends of the Viking Ship
At the Good Templar Park, just in from the east bank of the Fox River is a remarkable artifact being preserved for future generations.
This is the Viking, an exact replica of the Gokstad ship, a 9th-century vessel discovered in a burial mound at Gokstad in Norway.
The Viking, measuring some 78 feet long, sailed from Norway to Chicago in 1893 for the World’s Columbian Exposition.
Housed in a temporary shelter, the Viking is undergoing long-term restoration work, but can be visited April to October during monthly open days with fascinating docent-led tours.
13. French Market
Between mid-April and mid-November a European-style market representing local small businesses takes over the Metra station parking lot.
Taking place under canopies on Sundays, 9 am to 2 pm, the French Market is very popular and has a big range of vendors.
On a normal week you can expect to find fresh fruit and vegetables from local farms, meat, cheeses, honey, jams, jellies, baked goods, all kinds of specialty ingredients, fabrics, jewelry, handmade candles, fashion accessories and handicrafts.
There’s usually food to go, and the Bolivian-style empanada vendor here has a great reputation.
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14. Fox Valley Ice Arena
Another major sports complex in Geneva is this enormous public skating facility, opened in 1996.
The Fox Valley Ice Arena has two rinks, one NHL regulation at 200′ x 85′ and the other a 200′ x 100′ international rink, as well as a fitness center and a bar/restaurant.
The arena is the home of the junior team, the Chicago Steel, playing in the United States Hockey League. Among the alumni is a long list of present and former NHL players, including Dennis Gilbert who played for the Blackhawks.
The Fox Valley Ice Arena has a wide array of programs for all ages, including adults, for everything from ‘learn to skate’ to hockey fundamentals and figure skating.
There are also regular public skate sessions, youth and adult hockey leagues, and casual stick and puck sessions for pick-up games.
15. Geneva Swedish Days
In the late 19th century Geneva’s population was swelled by an influx of Swedish immigrants, who made up half of the city’s population by 1900.
That heritage has been celebrated for more than 70 years at this festival in late June, billed as the “granddaddy” of Illinois festivals.
Usually a six-day extravaganza (Tuesday to Sunday), Geneva Swedish Days brings a grand parade, an arts and crafts show, food booths, folk dancing, 5k run (lopp), side-walk sales downtown, carnival rides and games, as well as live music, both inside and outside.
Friday is normally Kids’ Day, with a wealth of free entertainment and activities for wee ones, along with a kids’ parade.