This village on the affluent North Shore grew up as a stopover on the way from Chicago to Milwaukee.
In the early 20th century Northbrook, then Shermerville, was known for its five saloons, which had a rowdy reputation in contrast with the leafy suburb that greets you today.
The acclaimed filmmaker John Hughes moved to the village as a teenager, and the fictional town of Shermer in many of his movies is based on Northbrook.
There are some major attractions moments away from Northbrook, like the Chicago Botanic Garden, along with large parcels of prairie, wetland and woodland managed by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.
1. Chicago Botanic Garden
Just on the other side of the Skokie Highway from Northbrook is one the Chicago area’s top attractions.
Over almost 400 acres of water-rich grounds, the Chicago Botanic Garden has no fewer than 25 display gardens and four natural habitats.
The Garden has been open for almost half a century and is visited by more than a million people each year.
It stands out for its unusual layout, scattered on and around nine islands, as well as its groundbreaking architecture and one of the world’s greatest collections of bonsais.
Throughout the year you can wander the grounds, peruse an exhibition or take a class, and if you want to get the most out of a visit you can download a smartphone app that shows you which plants are in bloom when you come.
2. Kohl Children’s Museum
Set up in 1985 by the daughter of the founder of Kohl’s department stores, this pioneering children’s museum has 17 permanent exhibits that engage kids’ creativity and imagination, along with special exhibits designed by early education experts.
Many of the spaces recreate everyday scenarios and occupations, so children can play as a vet, chef, shopper, cashier, stocker, mechanic, nurse or doctor.
Other exhibits deal with scientific concepts, like the properties of water, sound and music, while Adventures in Art allows little ones to express their creativity via open-ended programs.
Outside is the two-acre Habitat Park, with a StoryWalk, interactive sculptures, giant tunnel and Imagination Hut.
3. Skokie Lagoons
You’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to outdoor space, as on the village’s east flank is the stunning Skokie Lagoons nature preserve.
This chain of seven interconnected lagoons is contiguous with the Chicago Botanic Garden and can be discovered on land or water.
In the warmer months you can head for Chicago River Canoe and Kayak for rentals, and spend the day paddling around the beautiful waterways, going ashore for a picnic on one of the islands.
On land there’s a 4.2-mile path around the perimeter of the lagoons, and a 1.6-mile asphalt path down the west side, both of which connect with the North Branch Trail.
Well over 200 bird species have been recorded at the Skokie Lagoons, which are also a habitat for snapping, alligator and painted turtles, as well as crappie, bluegill, northern pike, walleye, channel catfish, bass and bullheads.
4. John Hughes Movie Locations
The screenwriter and director John Hughes (1950-2009) moved with his family to Northbrook in 1963 and went to Glenbrook North High School.
Hughes used the Chicago suburbs for all of his most famous movies in the 80s and 90s.
If you spend any time in Northbrook and the wider North Shore area, you’ll start to notice some familiar places from the likes of The Breakfast Club (1985), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), Pretty in Pink (1986) and Uncle Buck (1989).
A few sights around town include the Northbrook Water Tower (Ferris Bueller), the steps at Glenbrook North High School (Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller), Northbrook Court (Weird Science), the Highlands neighborhood (Uncle Buck) and Sunset Foods (She’s Having a Baby).
5. Downtown Northbrook
The streets around the Northbrook Metra station are a pedestrian-friendly place to spend some time, with shops, restaurants and a picture-perfect village green.
Appropriately for a Chicago suburb there’s a Lou Malnati’s location here for deep dish, as well as an ice cream parlor (Graeter’s) chocolate shop (Leonidas), and a crowd-pleasing selection of cuisines including Italian (Sarpino’s, Trattoria Oliverii), hot dogs (Little Louie’s), Vietnamese (Basu), Japanese (Kamehachi), pub fare (Landmark Inn).
Close to the station is Village Green Park, a lovely spot for a break, and the scene of the Northbrook Days festival in August.
Finally just north of this little district is the Meadow Shopping Plaza, site of the Northbrook Farmers’ Market on Wednesday mornings, mid-June through mid-October.
6. Northbrook Historical Society and Museum
If you’re curious about Northbrook’s past you can check out this local history museum in the southeastern corner of Village Green Park.
The setting is the Northfield Inn (1894), a stop on the Chicago-Milwaukee road and regarded as one of the finest restaurants on the North Shore in the early 20th century.
Part of the museum’s inventory is the Schinleber Collection, made up of photographs from early Shermerville and Northbrook.
You can also browse a home interior from the 1890s, as well as the museum’s temporary exhibit, which focuses on a specific aspect of local life and is updated every few months.
When we wrote this article the exhibit was “What’s the Story”, with an in-depth discussion of selected objects from the collection.
7. Wood Oaks Green Park
Northbrook’s premier park is on the west side, close to the Des Plaines River. Covering more than 55 acres, Wood Oaks Green Park was landscaped in the late 1970s, using clay excavated during the construction of the Northbrook Court mall.
The park encompasses Lake Shermerville, a picturesque spot for catch and release fishing. Elsewhere the park features a sledding hill, lighted pathway, a baseball/softball fountain, eight asphalt tennis courts, pickleball, a soccer field and a bike repair station.
Wood Oaks Green Park is used for the local park district’s youth soccer and baseball programs, and is also a perfect place to take a picnic, especially around the lakeshore.
8. Techny Prairie Park and Fields
This 114-acre tract of open space is partly made up of land donated to the village by the Society of the Divine Word in 1993.
Techny Prairie Park and Fields is on the west fork of the North Branch Chicago River and has a lot of facets that make it a worthwhile visit.
One of these is the unique Trail Through Time, an interpretive natural history walk with a wetland boardwalk, discovery garden and recreated Native American hunting camp.
Also in the park is the nine-hole Anetsberger Golf Course, a par 3 ideal for novice golfers and regular players working on their accuracy.
The paths here are part of an extensive trail system that connects with Meadowhill Park to the north, while there are also amenities for baseball/softball, skating, sledding and picnics.
A new addition is the Techny Prairie Activity Center, with cardio and strength machines, a gymnasium, kids’ corner, indoor track and fitness studios.
9. Nickel City
Crammed with more than 100 new and old school cabinets and redemption games, this arcade and family entertainment center requires a modest entry fee.
But once you’re inside, this attraction’s name will make sense, as almost all the machines run on nickels, while the remainder are free to play.
Among those free machines are classics like Tetris and Pacman, and there are hundreds of prizes available if you’re playing the redemption games. Also on hand is a snack bar for pizza, hot dogs, pretzels, nachos, fries and more.
10. Northbrook Court
This upscale mall opened in 1976 and at the time of writing was anchored by Neiman Marcus and Shoppers Find.
As mentioned above the mall’s exterior and interior were used as shooting locations for Weird Science, most easily recognised as the section of facade now occupied by a California Pizza Kitchen.
Northbrook Court has more than 120 stores, including brands like Apple, Gap, H&M, MaxMara, Sephora and Tiffany & Co..
On the south side is the AMC Dine-in Northbrook 14, a movie theater and restaurant rolled into one, with AMC’s signature luxury recliners.
11. Des Plaines River Trail
On Northbrook’s west flank is a long green buffer, protecting the banks of the Des Plaines River with an unbroken line of Cook County and Lake County forest preserves.
Meandering through this green corridor, next to the river is a long trail extending from Wadsworth in the north down to River Grove.
Northbrook is right by a long, uninterrupted stretch, taking you through lush oak-hickory forest and making it easy to forget you’re in the suburbs.
Also close to Northbrook, the trail takes you past the River Trail Nature Center, which has educational natural history displays, live animal exhibits, a dedicated trail and themed gardens.
12. Somme Preserves
The north side of the village is bounded by a line of Cook County forest preserves with land that has been actively restored since the 1970s.
From east to west the habitats in the Somme Preserves graduate from sheltered woodland to savanna and then to open prairie.
The most wooded is the easternmost Somme Woods where you can walk among huge mature oaks and admire the beautiful wildflowers in spring.
Cross Waukegan Rd from here and you’ll be in the Somme Prairie Grove Nature Savanna, which has a system of narrow paths weaving through the grassland dotted with trees.
Then in the far west is the Somme Prairie Nature Preserve, a treasured example of open prairie with a remarkable diversity of birds and insects.
13. Meadowhill Park
This 30-acre neighborhood park has numerous amenities, including a lighted outdoor rink in winter, a lighted velodrome and spaces for baseball/softball, basketball and soccer.
But the headline is the Meadowhill Aquatic Center, a pool complex open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day.
This offers a lap pool, zero-depth leisure pool with tube and body slides, a children’s water playground and a diving area. And to go with those pools is a spacious sun deck with shade canopies and a full-service concession stand.
14. North Branch Trail
As we mentioned above, the Chicago Botanic Garden and Skokie Lagoons are at the north end of a 20-mile Class I bicycle trail that winds through Cook County between neighboring Glencoe and Gompers Park in Chicago.
This is one of the premier biking routes through the Chicago suburbs, linking woods, prairie and quiet, leafy residential communities.
The trail has a long history, as a sequence of disconnected equestrian trails that were joined up after World War II and then paved starting in the 1970s.
Many of those original equestrian trails still exist, as unpaved gravel paths next to the main route which has been repaved several times over the last half century.
15. Ravinia Festival
The oldest outdoor music festival in the United States takes place throughout the summer at the nearby Ravinia Park in the neighborhood of the same name.
This space goes back to an amusement park opened in 1904 on the Chicago and Milwaukee Electric Railroad, and the festival has been going since that first year.
Since its earliest days the Ravinia Festival has been associated with classical music and opera, and has been the summer seat of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1936.
For decades the music choice has been wide-ranging, and a selection of recent performers includes Diana Ross, Dolly Parton, John Legend, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Cynthia Erivo, Marin Alsop, Gladys Knight, Willie Nelson, Stevie Nicks and Lady Gaga.