This community of 26,000 people in Chicago’s northwest suburbs is a retail hub for the area, home to Westfield’s Hawthorn Mall and a clutch of nearby shopping centers.
Vernon Hills was mostly developed in the 1970s and 80s, and before that was dominated by the lavish residence of entrepreneur Samuel Insull.
Now a museum belonging to Loyola University, the mansion was later owned by the Cuneo family who endowed it with the sumptuous decorative arts you can admire today.
The village’s park district maintains a fine sequence of open spaces and recreation facilities, linked by trails, while the Des Plaines River to the east passes through a corridor of Lake County forest preserves.
1. Cuneo Museum & Gardens
In the hands of Loyola University, this opulent Spanish-style mansion was built during WWI for Samuel Insull (1859-1938) a co-founder of General Electric.
After the Great Depression the property was bought by local businessman John Cuneo, who commissioned a series of exquisite frescoes by the muralist John Mallin.
The mansion, in 75 acres of grounds designed by famed landscape architect Jens Jensen, stayed in the Cuneo family until the 2010s.
The mansion has appeared as a backdrop in several movies, most famously, My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) and now opens for self-guided tours.
Inside you can view the Cuneo family’s rich collections, comprising painting, furniture, tapestries and other decorative arts.
2. The Marriott Theatre
With the largest subscription base of any musical theatre in the United States, this acclaimed theatre at the nearby Marriott Lincolnshire Resort sells more than 400,000 tickets a season.
Accompanied by a small orchestra, the Marriott Theatre stages five Broadway-style musicals each year, along with shows aimed at younger audiences.
This venue, seating 838, has long been seen as a regional launchpad for Broadway shows, premiering productions like Cats, Beauty and the Beast and Sunset Boulevard.
A few picks from recent seasons include The Sound of Music, West Side Story, Footloose and Kiss Me, Kate.
3. Vernon Hills Summer Celebration
The largest event on Vernon Hills’ calendar goes down at Century Park in mid-July. Organized by a dedicated committee of volunteers, the Summer Celebration is designed to appeal to all tastes and ages.
So you’ve got a slew of attractions, entertainment and activities, like carnival rides, midway games, live music, tons of food and drink vendors, bingo games, a car and bike show, talent competitions and all sorts of fun for kids.
The event is free to attend, and raises money for important local causes.
4. Des Plaines River Trail
Vernon Hills is on a long, unbroken stretch of this multi-use gravel trail, tracing the river for more than 50 miles from the Wisconsin border down to River Grove in Cook County.
In Lake County there are over 30 uninterrupted miles of trail, beckoning you through 12 forest preserves in a blissful green buffer of riparian habitats, oak-hickory woodlands and prairie.
The river is also safe for paddling, you’ll find six spots in the county where you can launch a canoe, kayak or paddleboard.
The nearest of these can be found at Captain Daniel Wright Woods, not far from Vernon Hills’ shops and leisure amenities.
5. Hawthorn Mall
This Westfield mall is part of a giant commercial district at the intersection of Townline Road and Milwaukee Avenue (IL 60 and 21).
Founded in 1973, Hawthorn Mall was in the middle of a redevelopment when we wrote this article, pulling down the former Sears to create a new outdoor “Main Street” area.
At the time of writing, the anchors were AMC Hawthorn 12, Macy’s, JCPenney and a branch of Dave & Buster’s.
A few of the tenants are Foot Locker, American Eagle, H&M, Sephora, Hot Topic and Victoria’s Secret, complemented by food court favorites like Auntie Anne’s, Sbarro and Charleys.
There are shopping centers close by with tons more stores and chain restaurants, as well as leisure amenities from a Bowlero to an indoor trampoline park.
6. Century Park Arboretum
At 113 acres, Century Park is the largest in the local park district and was landscaped in the late 1970s on the shores of Little and Big Bear Lakes.
This is a lovely place to be in the warmer months when you can walk or ride along the web of trails, adding up to almost three miles.
Fishing is permitted at the lakes, and the park has ample space for picnics, with 10 gazebos, a shelter with a grill and playgrounds for children aged 2-5 and 5-12.
Century Park is a hotspot for active recreation, with exercise stations along the paths, as well as ballfields, basketball courts, a volleyball court, bocce ball and even a cricket pitch.
In the winter you can ski on the trails and there’s a great sledding hill built in the winter, along with an outdoor skating rink.
7. Half Day Forest Preserve
The Des Plaines River Trail weaves through this Lake County forest preserve on the west bank of the river. At Half Day Forest Preserve there’s around 240 acres of oak woodland and prairie on what was once farmland.
The trail crosses the river here into Wright Woods, and the bridge is a great spot for birdwatching in spring.
Migrant songbirds like the northern waterthrush and yellow-rumped warbler use the river corridor on their long journey north.
Meanwhile, ovenbirds, scarlet tanagers and wood ducks nest in the wooded parts of this preserve. There’s a pond for fishing at Half Day as well as a playground, a shelter and public toilets.
8. Glacier Ice Arena
Billed as the state’s premier ice skating facility, Glacier Ice Arena opened in 1999 and is right in the heart of Vernon Hills.
Open year round, the center has two NHL size surfaces and has a weekly schedule crammed with public skate sessions, open hockey, hockey clinics, freestyle skating and hockey league games.
You couldn’t pick a better place to learn how to skate, with classes for children as young as three, right up to adults, conducted by qualified and enthusiastic coaches.
Established in 1995 in honor of all veterans of all wars, the Arbortheater is an outdoor performance venue in a charming park.
The theater itself has a scenic lakeside setting, and is a fitting place to catch Vernon Hills’ busy program of outdoor concerts in summer, normally taking place on Wednesday and Thursday evenings.
Musically, the lineup is diverse, from Beatles tribute acts to Country, 80s nostalgia and up-tempo rock.
The encompassing park has stately formal landscaping and an ornamental waterfall, and can be enjoyed on paths connecting with Deerpath Park as well as the Vernon Hills Athletic Complex, off the southeast corner.
10. Deerpath Park
This large park next to the Arbortheater has a wealth of recreation amenities.
Families are particularly well catered to at Deerpath Park, as there are three different playgrounds, including one for children aged 2-5, one for 5-12s and then there’s the spectacular Kids’ Castle.
The latter was a community project constructed within one week back in 1997, and then given a renovation in 1997.
Elsewhere Deerpath Park has a 1.5 paved and lighted trail connecting with the Arbortheater, as well as three fishing ponds, three barbeque grills and amenities for baseball/softball, tennis, basketball, soccer, lacrosse, pickleball and sand volleyball.
11. Vernon Hills Family Aquatic Center
Close to both Century Park and Deerpath Park is the village’ public outdoor pool complex. This is usually open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day and features two pools, one for laps and one for leisure.
Both pools have zero depth entry, and both have play equipment for smaller children, as well as sprays and jets.
The center also has three long slides (body and inner tube), a 700-foot lazy river, a sand play area, deck chairs, parasols and concessions.
12. Vernon Hills Park District Farmers’ Market
Setting up at the south end of Century Park, the local farmers’ market takes place on Thursday afternoons, mid-June to mid-October, whatever the weather.
The market was established as recently as 2019 and has grown since then, selling local fresh produce as it comes into season, as well as baked goods, meats, dairy products, fish, handicrafts and much more besides.
Keep an eye on the park district website for details of special events like kids days, when there are fun activities for little ones, like a bounce house, face painting and arts and crafts.
13. Lambs Farm
A non-profit organization, Lambs Farm in nearby Libertyville provides vocational and residential services to some 250 adults with developmental disabilities.
The organization harks back to the early 1960s when the couple Corrine Owen and Robert Teese opened a pet store in Gold Coast.
They taught at a school for adults with developmental disabilities, and wanted to employ their students who struggled to find jobs at the time.
A few years later, the organization moved to the current 72-acre campus where it can befound more than half a century later. Lambs Farm is open to the public, mainly as an animal attraction and garden & pet center.
Kids will be delighted with the farmyard’s many animals, including sheep, chickens, horses, parrots, lizards and goats that you can pet and feed. Children can take pony and camel rides, and there’s a carousel and miniature golf course to enjoy.
14. Old School Forest Preserve
Near Vernon Hills the Des Plaines River Trail departs the riverbank to head east for this Lake County forest preserve next to Lambs Farm.
Old School Forest Preserve is one of the most popular in the county, with lofty old oaks and little parcels of prairie, giving you an idea of what the region looked like before it was settled. An ideal time to come is August, right when the prairie has a kaleidoscope of blooms.
As well as native prairie restoration, the preserve also has a range of amenities, like picnic shelters and tables, a playground and that extensive trail system for walking, biking and horseback riding, while there’s cross-country skiing in winter.
15. Vernon Hills Golf Course
If golf is your game, there are two public courses two choose from in Vernon Hills. The village’s namesake course, right next to the Metra station, is rated as one of the best nine-hole courses in Chicagoland.
In an undulating landscape, this opened in 1979, but was given a redesign in the 90s by renowned architect Ted Nugent.
The course is distinguished by its narrow fairways and a creek that meanders through or next to many of the holes.
Elsewhere, the 18-hole White Deer Run Golf Course is on the Cuneo Estate, surrounding Lake Charles, which comes into play on the scenic 18th.