A western suburb of Chicago, Melrose Park is around ten miles west of The Loop, and you can get to Chicago OTC via the Metra in about half an hour.
Melrose Park has a couple of commercial arteries, along North Avenue, with its big shopping centers and chain restaurants, and the diagonal Lake Street, featuring local independent bakeries and restaurants, some of which have been in business for decades.
Oak Park, where Frank Lloyd Wright honed his Prairie School style, is moments from Melrose Park, and has more buildings by this trailblazing architect than any other place on earth.
Close by are lots of great things that might fly under the radar, like a natural history museum in a Victorian mansion, a planetarium on a community college campus and a trail cutting through Cook County’s leafy forest preserves.
1. North Avenue
On Melrose Park’s north side is a major thoroughfare (Illinois 64/North Avenue) that runs east to west from Old Town Chicago as far as the Mississippi.
Around Melrose Park, North Avenue is a commercial corridor, with standalone big box stores and shopping centers like Winston Plaza, Melrose Place Shopping Center and the Melrose Park Center, home to the likes of Target, Marshalls, Best Buy, Costco and a ton of chain restaurants from Olive Garden to Wendy’s to Starbucks.
Also here is Melrose Park’s local cinema, belonging to the Cinemark brand and much-loved, with perks like reclining seats, free refills, an arcade in the lobby, weekday special offers and regular screening of classic movies and Metropolitan Opera performances.
2. Thatcher Woods
The Des Plaines River forms Melrose Park’s natural eastern boundary and wriggles through the suburbs north to south through a long chain of forest preserves.
Thatcher Woods is 245 acres of hardwood floodplain forest, nothing short of stunning in the fall when the leaves turn.
At dawn and dusk you’ll have a good chance of sighting deer, and rutting season takes place between October and early December.
There’s a cute stone pavilion in the woods and two picnic groves, but what really elevates Thatcher Woods is the Trailside Museum of Natural History to the south.
Set up in 1931, this attraction is in a grand Victorian mansion from the mid-1870s and tells you all you need to know about the local ecology, combined with live animal exhibits and wildflower gardens that are stunning in summer.
3. Scudiero’s Italian Bakery & Deli
When it comes to food, Melrose Park has a few veterans that have been part of the scenery for decades.
This goes for Scudiero’s, which has been around since 1954 and is into its third generation, using traditional recipes and techniques brought over by the founder Umbaldo from Campania.
You’ve got subs, sandwiches and grilled paninis made fresh to order, filled with nothing but the best ingredients.
There’s fresh mozzarella on the pizzas, available whole or by the slice, and a wide range of salads and pastas.
You can’t leave without grabbing some cannoli, made with an authentic Sicilian recipe, using ricotta, whole eggs, big chocolate chips and crushed pistachios.
4. Cernan Earth and Space Center
The leafy, 110-acre campus of Triton College, established in 1964, is north of Melrose Park and merits a visit for its public planetarium.
Founded in 1974 and named for Apollo 10 astronaut and Chicago-native Eugene Cernan (1934-2017), the center has a fulldome planetarium (upgraded in 2015) and absorbing exhibits relating to astronomy and spaceflight.
Visitors are welcome to stop by to check out the Apollo artifacts donated by Cernan, and there’s a lively schedule of public presentations.
Once a month Skywatch shines a light on new discoveries and advances in space science and astronomy, while there are also regular Cosmic Light Shows, thrilling families with lasers, music and special effects.
5. Gouin Park
Melrose Park is served by the Veterans Park District, maintaining facilities here and in neighboring Franklin Park and Northlake.
Gouin Park is special for its public outdoor pool, open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day (postseason, weekends only from mid-August).
A haven for families on hot summer days, the complex has a giant leisure pool with two water slides, as well as a diving pool, kiddie pool and a large pool deck where parents can relax.
Pool passes and walk-in fees are a little pricier for non-Veterans Park District residents, while the surrounding park has a picnic area, lots of grassy space and a walking trail.
6. Dunk Donuts
Another stalwart local business on Lake Street is Dunk Donuts, which has supplied Melrose Park with indulgent and delectable baked treats for years.
This hole in the wall offers a wide selection of donuts by the dozen, half-dozen or as singles. The signatures are blueberry, toasted coconut, long johns and double chocolate, and these tend to sell out fast.
The apple fritters are also some of the best in the Western Suburbs, and among the other baked specialties are apple turnovers, muffins, pecan rolls and cinnamon rolls, as well as bagels, croissants and English muffins.
7. Tom’s Steak House
Chicago has a reputation for its steakhouses, and one of the best is right here in Melrose Park on North Avenue.
With an old school approach, Tom’s Steak House can be found exactly where it opened in 1952, pleasing Chicagoans for 70+ years with its USDA prime steaks, hand-cut in house.
These juicy cuts, including T-bone steak, New York strip and bone-in ribeye, are seared over flaming hickory charcoal, and come with or without Tom’s signature au jus.
For a little extra flourish, these cuts arrive at the table on a special charcoal brazier, continuing the cooking process until the steak is served right in front of you.
8. Des Plaines River Trail
Next to Melrose Place Shopping Center you can leave the city behind on a long walk or bike ride in lush floodplain forest.
You can travel for miles along this stretch of the Des Plaines River Trail and will only once have to cross a road, at Grand Ave in River Grove.
The path is mostly on the east bank of the river, guiding you through a succession of city parks and Cook County Forest Preserves.
On the way are nature centers where you can learn about the river’s natural history, as well as dozens of places to stop for a picnic.
It’s easy to forget that you’re still in the heart of a metropolitan area. The trail continues north for 56 miles, as far as Russell on the Wisconsin state line.
9. Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio
Five minutes away on the opposite bank of the Des Plaines River, Oak Park and its rich architectural heritage is too close to be ignored.
This is where Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) settled at the turn of the century and developed his Prairie School style.
Your first port of call needs to be the house and studio that he built in 1889, living there with his family until 1909.
Wright remodeled the property twice during his time here, and one remarkable space added later is the barrel-vaulted playroom for his children, completed in 1895 and held as one of his greatest early achievements.
Wright designed everything in the home, from its furniture and decorative arts to the lighting systems.
10. Unity Temple
Arguably Wright’s greatest single contribution in his Chicago years is the Unitarian Universalist church, built between 1905 and 1908.
Part of a nationwide UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Unity Temple is held by many as history’s first Modern building, and became a reference point for important Modernist artists like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
On the street you’re confronted by a monolithic reinforced concrete cube, and this gives way to the warmth of the sanctuary, lit from above by clerestory windows and 25 ceiling lights in coffers.
These have amber tinted glass to create the impression of sunlight streaming in, even on dull days.
11. Architecture Walking Tour
Wright’s time in Oak Park was the most prolific period in his career, and today the village has the highest concentration of Prairie School architecture and the most Frank Lloyd Wright buildings of any location in the world.
Beginning at the Frank Lloyd Wright home and studio, the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust the Wright in the Neighborhood guided walking tour.
This takes in career milestones like the Nathan Moore House (1895), Arthur Heurtley House (1902) and Laura Gale House (1909), and it’s a thrill to see and hear how Wright’s style developed.
For a self-guided tour there are plenty of maps to download online, and the closest example to Melrose Park is the Winslow House (1893) by the Trailside Museum in River Forest.
12. Brookfield Zoo
A major Chicagoland attraction easily reached from Melrose Park is this famous zoo that opened in 1934.
Brookfield Zoo has more than 450 different species and is known for its innovative and ethical enclosures, going back to its earliest days when it introduced ditches and moats as barriers rather than cages.
All converging on the majestic Roosevelt Fountain, there are more than 20 exhibits to take in, including transformative habitats recreating the African savannah and forest, North American woods, prairie, desert, rainforest, cypress swamp and more.
If you’re here with little ones, the Hamill Family Wild Encounters exhibit has friendly goats and parakeets to feed.
A convenient way to see the big exhibits and find out about the zoo’s important conservation work is the Motor Safari, a narrated tram tour around the 200+ acres of grounds.
13. Mount Carmel Cemetery
There’s a clutch of historic cemeteries in Hillside a little way southwest of Melrose Park. One that will grab the interest of anyone intrigued by gangland Chicago is the Mount Carmel Cemetery, founded in 1901.
Not only is this a breathtaking place to visit, rich with fine mausoleums and grave monuments, it’s the burial place for some of the most notorious criminals of the 20s and 30s.
Most infamous of all is Alphonse Capone (1899-1947), and he’s joined by several family members, as well as consigliere Antonio Lombardo (1891-1928), henchman Frank Nitti (1886-1943) and rival Dean O’Banion (1892-1924).
Other interments include several archbishops of Chicago and actor Dennis Farina.
14. Illinois Prairie Path
Maywood, just south of Melrose Park, is the eastern trailhead for another long distance path Sixty-one miles in total, the Illinois Prairie Path is mostly on the former right-of-way of the Chicago, Aurora and Elgin Railroad (1902-1959).
The trail was dedicated in 1971 and was the brainchild of writer and naturalist May Theilgaard Watts (1893-1975), inspiring hundreds of similar projects around the country.
Completely unbroken, the route heads due west to Wheaton, where it eventually divides into four spurs, to Elgin, St. Charles, Geneva and Aurora, all on the Fox River.
15. Bulger Park
A block from Winston Plaza on the southwest side is a well-appointed Veterans Park District park on a large square plot, surrounded by a walking trail.
If you just need somewhere to sit, read a book or take a picnic in summer there’s a gazebo on the north side, with tables here and under the trees close by.
Bulger Park has a big spread of grass, with a lighted baseball diamond on opposite corners.
On the south side, next to the parking lot, is an extensive playground, with updated equipment for younger and older children.