Just beyond the affluent suburbs that make up Chicago’s North Shore, Waukegan is a lakefront city that has come through a lot of regeneration since the year 2000.
At the heart of this is the renovation of the wonderful Genesee Theatre, a downtown mainstay since 1927 and a key performing arts venue for the region after reopening in 2004.
Waukegan has an artistic flavor, underlined by ArtWauk, a monthly event in rude health, with lots of participating artists and local businesses.
In summer Lake Michigan becomes a huge attraction, and there are miles of sandy shorefront both in Waukegan and next door at the massive Illinois Beach State Park.
All the while Six Flags Great America, the largest theme park in the Midwest, is ten minutes door-to-door to the west.
1. Genesee Theatre
Still a magnificent landmark for downtown Waukegan almost a century after it opened, the Genesee Theatre (1927) has held onto its historic character both inside and out.
The venue was conceived as a moviehouse and vaudeville stage, but also incorporated retail space and 40 apartments.
No expense was spared in the construction, be it a state-of-the-art heating and cooling system, fireproof materials, seven tons of marble or 1,200 yards of opulent tapestries.
You can glimpse much of that finery in the auditorium, which can hold 2,403 people and has marvelous, restored plaster moldings and a gigantic chandelier.
This is a stage for a wide variety of entertainment, from touring Broadway shows to movies, concerts by major artists, ballet, big-name live comedy, tribute shows and all kinds of fun for kids.
2. Six Flags Great America
One of the 20 most popular theme parks in the entire country is little more than ten minutes west of Waukegan.
First opened in 1976 as Marriott’s Great America, the park has 15 pulsating roller coasters among its 50+ attractions.
A few standouts for thrillseekers are Raging Bull, which has a drop of 208 feet, Batman: The Ride, with five inversions, and Vertical Velocity, hitting 70 mph in under four seconds.
Right next door to Six Flags is Hurricane Harbor Chicago, which became a separate admission park in 2021.
Set around the spacious wave pool, Hurricane Bay, this has a tangle of slides, along with the child-friendly Buccaneer Bay. One record-breaker at Hurricane Harbor is Tsunami Surge, the tallest water coaster in the world, at 86 feet.
3. Bowen Park
This gorgeous park in the north of Waukegan has an interesting past and was first laid out in 1843.
In those times this was a residential property, used as a summer residence by a succession of important people, including one-time Chicago mayor John Charles Haines (1818-1896).
The park, serving as a country club for much of the 20th century, was sold to the Waukegan Park District in 1963 and is now an urban park with some wonderful features.
These include stands of old growth forest and a natural ravine, as well as a slew of amenities like the Waukegan History Museum, Jack Benny Center for the Arts, creatively designed environmental learning stations, a formal garden, fitness stations, a skate park, modern playground equipment and a splash pad.
Given the abundance of mature deciduous woodland, fall is a magical time at Bowen Park.
4. Waukegan History Museum
The beautiful Haines House (c. 1843) in Bowen Park is home to the Waukegan Historical Society, which maintains an excellent museum here.
The property is one of the oldest in Lake County, and offers an insight into local life in Waukegan in the 1870s with the help of furniture and fittings like drapes, wallpaper, carpets and light fixtures that once belonged to important local families.
The museum brims with interesting objects recalling famous local personalities, like a trunk that belonged to Jack Benny in his vaudeville days.
You can also find a bed used by Abraham Lincoln when he came to Waukegan in 1860 and a clock damaged when the Lake County courthouse was destroyed by fire in 1875.
5. Illinois Beach State Park
There’s almost seven miles of beautiful Lake Michigan shoreline on Waukegan’s northeast outskirts.
This 4,160-acre park is set on two neighboring units, and comprises a delicate dune system in which more than 650 different plant species have been recorded.
On the sandy ridges grow aromatic pines and stands of black oaks, loosely dispersed in a savanna-like habitat.
In summer the big attraction is of course the beach, which has designated swimming areas, complemented by picnic tables, a campground, park store and the 96-room Illinois Beach Resort and Conference Center.
6. Waukegan Municipal Beach
Just north of the harbor in Waukegan is a lovely place to spend a sunny day by Lake Michigan. Waukegan Municipal Beach is a mile of natural sand fringed by some of the last remaining dunes in the area.
The water at the beach is claimed to be the cleanest and clearest in Lake County. The surrounding park covers more than 400 acres, and facilities for swimming, sunbathing, kiteboarding, sand volleyball and sand soccer.
The Stiner Pavilion, just in from the beach, schedules concerts and festivals all through the summer.
Mobile food vendors line the beach on summer weekends, and if you’d like a sweet treat, look no further than Dockside Ice Cream in a cute clapboard cottage near the harbor.
7. Downtown Waukegan
With a slew of independent businesses, a percolating arts scene, historic architecture and tree-lined streets, downtown Waukegan merits a little exploration.
Food-wise you’re in good hands, with great options for hearty pub fare, tacos, steaks and Caribbean food, while in summer there are great little spots for hot dogs and ice cream just across the tracks at the marina.
As we’ll see, the third Saturday of the month is ArtWauk, a thriving community event, while there’s a steady flow of world-class live entertainment at the Genesee Theatre and the more intimate Three Brothers Theatre.
On the third Saturday of every month downtown Waukegan becomes the cultural hub on the North Shore with a multidisciplinary art extravaganza that has now been going for more than a decade.
ArtWauk is steeped in arts and crafts of course, with a cluster of studios and galleries downtown opening their doors to visitors to view and purchase painting, sculpture and decorative pieces.
But there’s also a big helping of comedy, live music, film and street theater, along with great food and drink from local eateries and bars.
9. Zümbier Brewery
Even in these days when there’s a craft brewery in every town, the Chicago area leads the way.
Chicago counts more breweries than any other city, in an industry that employs upwards of 50,000 people. One local establishment in rude health is Waukegan’s Zümbier, founded and owned by a husband and wife team, one half of which is German.
There’s a German accent when it comes to the brewery’s lineup of “biers”, produced in small batches and including 22 year-round brews and a handful of season/special releases.
A few picks are Talea (Düsseldorf Altbier), Kölsch Diddy, Hanseatic (Belgian Dark Beer), Comrade (Imperial Stout), Liberty Call (IPA) and a choice of juicy sours.
The trendy taproom is open Wednesday to Sunday, and puts on live music and trivia nights, and serves some delicious homemade popcorn.
10. Fishing Charters
With a harbor and 1,000-slip marina loaded with facilities, Waukegan is a natural choice for fishing trips on Lake Michigan.
The harbor has an extended season, from the start of April to the start of November, and there’s world-class salmon and trout fishing throughout this time.
You don’t need to bring anything with you, or have any fishing experience, because you’ve got a host of fishing charter companies based in Waukegan ready to take you onto the lake for a perfect day.
A few to check out are Captain Don’s Charter Fishing, Lake Michigan Charter Fishing, Waukegan Charter Boat Fishing, Kristy Lynn Charters, Bear King Fishing and Windy City Salmon.
11. Robert McClory Bike Path
A 26.5-mile path passes through Waukegan close to the lakeshore, from Highland Park in the south to the Wisconsin state line.
This follows some of the right of way of the Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad, an interurban line that operated from 1916 to 1963.
The route is lovely, leading mostly through peaceful and leafy suburban communities, with parks and natural spaces on the route, including Waukegan’s Lyons Woods Forest Preserve.
And if you get tired the trail is always close to the Metra line, so you can always catch a train back to Waukegan.
You can also continue your trip to Wilmette at the south end via the connecting Green Bay Trail, and Kenosha, WI, at the northern terminus on the 3.5-mile Kenosha County Bike Trail.
12. Lyons Woods Forest Preserve
Lake County Forest Preserves manages almost 31,000 acres of public land, all within easy reach of Waukegan.
These are spread across dozens of parcels, within indoor and outdoor attractions, more than 200 miles of trails and amenities for activities like golf, fishing, swimming, winter sports, dog walking, horseback riding and more.
One space on Waukegan’s doorstep is the 345-acre Lyons Woods Forest Preserve, which has a mosaic of habitats from mature oak woodland to prairie, wetlands and pine groves.
The preserve is on high ground atop the bluff lands bordering Lake Michigan and has 2.5 miles of trails for hiking, biking and cross-country skiing in winter.
13. Jack Benny Center
In Bowen Park, this multidisciplinary arts center is the seat of the Waukegan Symphony Orchestra and Concert Chorus, and the Bowen Park Theatre and Opera Company.
Both companies schedule numerous performances each year, while the center also offers private music lessons and classes in theatre, dance and more for youth and adults.
The venue is named for the much-loved entertainer Jack Benny (1894-1974) who grew up in Waukegan and returned to star in the Waukegan Symphony Orchestra’s debut performance in 1974.
Two dates to mark on the calendar are Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine Fine Arts Festival in early June and the Joseph A. Favero Memorial Do It Yourself Messiah, normally on the third Saturday in December.
14. Ray Bradbury Experience Museum
The hugely influential writer Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) was born in Waukegan and spent his early childhood here. He returned on and off until the age of 14 when his family moved to Los Angeles.
Waukegan stayed with Bradbury, and was referred to as Green Town in many of his classics. It follows then that there should be a museum for Bradbury in Waukegan, and this was some years in the planning, finally opening in 2020 on the author’s centennial when visitor attractions were subject to restrictions.
When we wrote this article the museum was not yet a full fledged attraction, but before long this space on Genesee Street will be filled with interactive experiences studying Bradbury’s roots in Waukegan, his vast impact on 20th-century culture and his unique vision for the future.
15. National Museum of the American Sailor
A brief trip down to the navy station at Great Lakes will bring you to one of the country’s 10 navy museums managed by the Naval History and Heritage Command.
With more than 40,000 artifacts in its collections, the National Museum of the American Sailor gives an in-depth account of the U.S. Navy from colonial America to the present day.
You can peruse uniforms, accessories, weapons and a wealth of imedia, including the largest archive of boot camp photography in the country.
When we wrote this article the main permanent exhibit was Sails Unfurled: The Dawn of the United States Navy, 1775-1865, filled with interactive features like a knot-tying station. There was also a superb temporary exhibit showing the changing designs of navy tattoos.