Incorporated in 1895, Grayslake is an endearing village in Chicago’s northwest suburbs, 15 miles from the border with Wisconsin.
Grayslake’s historic downtown and a number of local attractions are contained within the Village Center, with schools, a 40-acre park, an aquatic center and an intriguing local history museum.
This was also one of the first communities in the Chicago area to be planned with pedestrians and cyclists in mind, and you’ll be surprised how easy it is to get around without a car.
Grayslake’s community spirit is reflected by a slew of summer gatherings and celebrations, while the College of Lake County brings wonderful culture at the James Lumber Center for the Performing Arts.
1. Downtown Grayslake
A joy for shoppers, downtown Grayslake has a diversity of stores and eateries, as well as eclectic architecture, antique lighting, a charming pocket park and a welcoming ambience.
Many of the local businesses are concentrated on Central Street where shoulder-to-shoulder you’ll come across a candlemaker, sewing supply shop, used bookshop, hobby store, interior design store, bridal boutique, artist studio, a photographer, fashion boutique and a dog grooming salon.
Central Street is also the setting for Grayslake’s sensational farmers’ market, on Wednesday or Saturday, depending on the season.
When it comes to dining, you can choose from classic diners and a drive-in to a steakhouse, microbrewery, artisan burger joint, contemporary American restaurant and Mexican cantina, to name but a few,
2. Grayslake Heritage Center and Museum
Within walking distance of all the attractions and amenities in the Village Center is an award-winning local history museum run by the Grayslake Historical Society.
As well as extensive town archives, the center has a huge collection of local artifacts, from residents’ personal items to clothing, advertising, farming equipment, military memorabilia, occupational tools, vehicles and household appliances.
The permanent gallery is an enthralling, multisensory summary of Grayslake’s development and the origin of its 19th-century industry, education and public services. In-depth exhibits delve into aspects of Grayslake’s past, like prohibition and the old Grayslake Gelatin Factory.
3. James Lumber Center for the Performing Arts
There’s professional and affordable live entertainment at this state-of-the-art performing arts facility on the College of Lake County campus.
Opened in 1997, the James Lumber Center for the Performing Arts has three theatres, including the 600-seat Mainstage Theatre, the 400-seat C005 Auditorium and the 250-seat Studio Theatre.
Throughout the season, these host major touring ensembles and artists for theatre, comedy, dance and music performances, as well as first-class shows by the college’s music, dance and theatre department.
Keep an eye on the center’s calendar for open house events, featuring open dance and theatre rehearsals, yoga demonstrations and backstage tours.
4. Six Flags Great America
Grayslake is a brief drive from one of the Chicago area’s major attractions. Six Flags Great America is among the top 20 theme parks in the United States by attendance, and has 15 roller coasters, including several record-breakers, among its 50+ attractions.
A few of the most intense include Goliath, X Flight, MaxxForce, Vertical Velocity, Superman: Ultimate Flight, Batman: The Ride, Raging Bull and the Joker Free Fly Coaster.
There are new additions with each new season, many enhanced with VR or interactivity, like the Justice League; Battle for Metropolis, a 4D interactive dark ride.
The park also has the requisite family shows and lots of rides suitable for younger children, the most famous of which is the centerpiece, double-decked, Columbia Carousel.
Previously visitable with the same ticket, the neighboring Hurricane Harbor Waterpark became a separate admission park in 2021.
5. Grayslake Farmers’ Market
The longest-running and largest market of its kind in Lake County, the Grayslake Farmers’ Market is held in the heart of downtown Grayslake on Center Street.
The Summer Market takes place on Wednesdays, 3 pm to 7 pm, June through September. Head here for farm-fresh fruits and vegetables, cheese, eggs, species, honey, maple syrup, baked goods, prepared foods, arts and crafts, kitchen utensils, organic soaps and much more.
There’s live music every week, as well as activities to keep children entertained. The Summer Market is bookended by a Spring Market from mid-April on Saturdays (10 am to 2 pm), and the Fall Market with the same day and time, October to mid-December.
6. Jones Island Park
At the village’s eponymous 80-acre lake there’s a five-acre park at the northern shore, a fine day out in the summer months.
Despite the name, Jones Island is a peninsula and used to be a wetland area before being drained to create a park.
There’s a sandy beach on the water here, open Memorial Day through Labor Day weekend. This is backed by a large grassy space, dotted with willows and featuring a picnic shelter, playground, boat launch and sand volleyball courts.
If you’re here for fishing, Grays Lake has largemouth bass, northern pike, crappie, sunfish, catfish and yellow perch, and is also an outdoor ice-skating rink in winter.
7. Rollins Savanna Forest Preserve
The College of Lake County campus abuts this sweeping, 1,250-acre forest preserve, one of the largest in Lake County.
You don’t even need to drive here, as the 7.75-mile gravel trail at the Rollins Savanna Forest Preserve connects with the Grayslake Bike Path, as well as the regional Millennium Trail.
Awaiting you at this preserve is prairie, wetland, open water and oak savanna, on Mill Creek’s green corridor and uninterrupted by roads.
The extensive wetlands offer rest stops and feeding grounds for waders and waterfowl like great blue herons, egrets, ruddy ducks and blue-winged teal.
Close to the Drury Lane parking area there’s a bird observation area on a raised earthen platform, overlooking grassland and wetland.
8. This Old Book
Deceptively large, this used bookstore in downtown Grayslake has more than 35,000 books, with a computerized inventory to help you find what you’re looking for.
This Old Book has been in business for 20 years now, and has a high turnover, so you’re sure to find something different whenever you visit, be it a current title or a vintage, rare or out-of-print book.
Keep an eye on their socials and website for details of book signings by renowned authors, while the store also runs an exchange program for paperback and hardcover books, if you have limited space on your shelves.
9. Dog n Suds Drive-In
A real mid-century artifact, this drive-in dates back to 1964, and has changed much since that time.
Dog n Suds is part of a chain founded in Champaign in 1952, and counted 650 locations across 38 states at its peak in the 60s.
When he wrote this article, there were just 15 Dog n Suds locations remaining, all in the tri-state area. Car hops will take your order and bring your food to your car, you can grab a seat at one of the picnic tables.
Hot dogs are the specialty here, in particular the Coney Dog, on a steamed bun and smothered with Dog n Suds signature Coney sauce.
That same sauce goes into the popular Texas Burger, with two patties, lettuce, cheese and special sauce in a double-decker. Pair these with Dog n Suds’ famous root beer or a root beer float.
10. Central Park
Next to the library and part of the Village Center is Grayslake’s main community park, with a perfect blend of nature and excellent recreation amenities.
In the summer, Central Park hosts a number of outdoor events, like the successful Taste of Grayslake in June.
Preserving a parcel of woodland, the park is integrated with Grayslake’s 21-mile bike path system, and has its own interpretive trail, as well as a disc golf course, sizable playground for kids, spray park, skate park, a municipal pool complex (more next), several baseball/softball diamonds and soccer and football fields.
11. Grayslake Aquatic Center
In the southeast corner of Central Park is a pool complex that serves as an affordable summer attraction for Grayslake, as well as neighboring communities.
Completed in 2000, the Grayslake Aquatic Center is open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, and centers on an enormous pool.
This incorporates a six-lane lap-swimming area, a curving beach-entry area with children’s play equipment, a sand play area, a climbing wall, basketball hoop and two water slides.
There are more than 300 sun loungers and deck chairs around the pool, in the shade or sun, as well as a concession stand.
12. Almond Marsh Forest Preserve
This 500-acre forest preserve on the east side of Grayslake protects an important marsh and sedge meadow complex.
With no trails or facilities, Almond Marsh isn’t equipped for casual visitors or picnics; rather, it’s a birding paradise as a great blue heron rookery.
Since 2009 12 nesting platforms have been constructed for this species in the preserve, and the marsh now shines as a great place for herons to raise their young.
Other species regularly sighted at Almond Marsh include magnificent raptors like Cooper’s hawks and peregrine falcons.
13. Grayslake Summer Days
In mid-August, downtown Grayslake is transformed for a lively two-day community event. Grayslake Summer Days is planned to offer something for all the family, with carnival games, arts and crafts, stages for live music, local food and drink vendors, a car show, bags tournament and much more.
One unique event is the annual Bike and Pet Parade on the Saturday afternoon, in which kids decorate their bikes and are accompanied by family pets in costume.
Then on Saturday evening there’s the climactic Summer Days Parade, with marching bands, drumlines, classic cars, unicyclists, jugglers, stilt walkers and much more.
14. Taste of Grayslake
Grayslake has no shortage of excellent independent eateries, and these are celebrated at this one-day event in Central Park on the last Saturday in June.
Organized by the village, park district and chamber of commerce, Taste of Grayslake has an amazing diversity of local food and drink vendors, running the gamut from pizza to brats to BBQ, craft beer, burgers and classic fair treats like funnel cake.
This is accompanied by kids’ rides and activities, and live music throughout the day and into the evening. Just after sunset a fun family day out is capped with a dazzling fireworks display.
15. Lake County Fair
There’s plenty going on throughout the year at the Lake County Fairgrounds, from festivals to flea markets.
But the annual highlight is of course the Lake County Fair, usually held in the last week of June.
Put together by a dedicated, volunteer-driven, not-for-profit organization, the fair brings five days of action and entertainment.
All the typical carnival rides, games and food vendors are here, along with an expo, livestock competitions, a flower show and pony rides. There’s live music throughout the event, as well as high-octane thrills at the demolition derby and motocross races.