This wealthy western suburb sits about 25 miles west of the Chicago Loop in an area replete with nature preserves and sprawling parks.
One such place in Wheaton is Cantigny Park, founded in the 19th-century by the Chicago Tribune publisher, and offering two excellent museums and sublime gardens to explore.
In fact there are a few attractions in and near Wheaton that draw people from across the region, like the research Morton Arboretum and the DuPage County Museum downtown.
You could also give yourself an hour or two to explore the streets downtown, where elegant historic buildings house galleries, independent shops and a cosmopolitan choice of restaurants.
1. Cantigny Park
West of downtown Wheaton, this refined park is the former estate of Chicago Tribune publisher Joseph Medill (1823-1899) and his prominent grandson Robert R. McCormick (1880-1955).
Not long after McCormick’s passing, the park opened to the public and remains a multifaceted attraction.
You can visit the Robert R. McCormick Museum, at the 35-room mansion built by Medill in 1896-97, while there’s a tremendous museum for the 1st Infantry Division, which we’ll cover next in the list.
The park has a public 27-hole golf course, as well as sweeping gardens and ornamental landscapes, a playground, picnic grove, restaurant and hiking paths.
The park is the scene for a wide array of concerts, festivals, workshops and talks, throughout the year but especially in summer.
2. First Division Museum
The other museum at Cantigny Park is devoted to the 1st Infantry Division of the United States Army, in which Robert R. McCormick served as colonel during World War I.
The museum, in a building designed by Andrew Rebori, sits in the “Tank Park”, an open space in which you can view impressive tanks and pieces of artillery from WWI to the present day, displayed beside winding paths.
Inside you can peruse enthralling and immersive exhibits, packed with uniforms, weapons, equipment and more.
These tell the story of the 1st Infantry Division from WWI to Vietnam, and then from the 1970s to the present, and are accompanied by special short-term displays.
A landmark on the calendar is the two-day Revolutionary War reenactment, taking place every September.
3. Downtown Wheaton
Well worth a stroll, downtown Wheaton is along Main Street, Hale Street and their intersecting arteries.
This is a pretty part of town for its turn-of-the-century architecture and sidewalks lined with trees and vintage-style lamps.
Something that will grab you is the profusion of thriving independent businesses. Food-wise the selection could not be more diverse, whether you’re in the mood for Thai, pizza, sandwiches, crêpes, sushi, Vietnamese, Mexican, Latin fusion, contemporary American, deli food or sweet treats from cupcakes to ice cream.
But beyond that there’s an engaging array of local shops, including galleries, artist studios, day spas, a florist, toy/gadget shop, bicycle shop, jeweler and a wine store.
4. DuPage County Historical Museum
Charles Sumner Frost (1856-1931), famed for Chicago’s Navy Pier, designed this palatial Richardsonian Romanesque building in downtown Wheaton.
Completed in 1891, this was Wheaton’s first public library and is composed of rusticated limestone blocks, with imposing gables on each facade.
The DuPage County Historical Museum opened here in 1967 and holds two galleries with permanent exhibits charting the story of the county, and three for temporary exhibits.
One key topic is the role of the railways in local development, and there’s a historic HO gauge model to check out. The museum has a rich variety of events and programs, offering tours, summer camps and an annual fundraising casino night.
5. Cosley Zoo
On the site of a historic train station, this zoo is run by the Wheaton Park District and gives visitors the opportunity to native Illinois species and domestic animals.
Across 20 exhibits in five acres, Cosley Zoo tries to mimic the animals’ natural habitats, and among the species on show are bobcats, a coyote, white-tailed deer, red foxes, raccoons and a variety of snakes and turtles.
Among the many domestic species that you can meet are miniature donkeys, Shetland ponies, Nubian goats, llamas and Montadale sheep.
Check the zoo’s website for details of daily activities, allowing you to feed certain animals and learn interesting details about the resident coyote.
6. French Market
Something that brings real animation to downtown Wheaton in spring and summer is this ever-popular outdoor market.
Setting up on Saturdays (8 am to 2 pm), between April and late November, the French Market offers a choice of fruit and vegetables that changes with the seasons, as well as cheese, baked goods, honey, eggs, herbs, flowers and an enticing array of food to go.
Depending on the week, this might be gumbo, crêpes, hot dogs, fried chicken and more, while there’s a contingent of stalls for artisan jewelry, fashion and gifts.
7. Illinois Prairie Path
Mostly on the railbed of the old Chicago Aurora and Elgin Railroad (1902-1959), the Illinois Prairie Path became the nation’s first rail-to-trail conversion when it opened in the early 1970s.
This helped inspire a rail-to-trail movement across the country, and at the time of writing the Illinois Prairie Path network added up to more than 60 miles, across DuPage County but also portions of Kane and Cook Counties.
Wheaton is at a fork, with three trailheads all close to the Wheaton Train Station. From there you can cycle north into Lincoln Marsh towards Elgin, east through downtown Wheaton towards forest Park or southeast, past the prestigious Chicago Golf Club as far as Aurora or Mooseheart.
8. The Morton Arboretum
Founded close by in Lisle in 1922 by the salt magnate Joy Morton, this much-loved regional attraction is home to some 4,100 types of tree across 1,700 acres.
There are 222,000 plants in total at the Morton Arboretum, and you can discover this natural splendor, as well as jaw-dropping outdoor art exhibitions along 16 miles of trails.
One informative way to encounter the arboretum’s spectacular collections is via the Acorn Express, a road tram trundling through the woodland, wetland and prairie on a gentle, hour-long tour.
The Gateway to Tree Science, meanwhile, is a fascinating living exhibit detailing the arboretum’s vital tree research, while the Visitor Center houses compelling exhibitions from the arboretum’s deep collections.
Other highlights include numerous sub-gardens, like the whimsical Children’s Garden, the living puzzle at the Maze Garden and the tranquil May T. Watts Reading Garden.
9. Billy Graham Center Museum
The Christian evangelist Billy Graham (1918-2018) made an inestimable impact on the culture of the United States, spending six decades on television and serving as spiritual adviser to every president from Truman to Obama.
Graham graduated from the evangelical Wheaton College in 1943, and the museum in his honor opened here in 1981.
The college’s bible and theology classes take place here, but for visitors the museum also offers plenty of insight into Graham’s career and ministry, as well as the broader history of Christian evangelism in the United States.
10. Blackwell Forest Preserve
Off the west side of Cantigny Park is a sprawling expanse of nature, spreading into neighboring Warrenville.
At almost 1,400 acres, the Blackwell Forest Preserve is one of the most popular in the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.
On gently undulating terrain there’s oak and hickory forest, wetland, grassland and prairie. This is a habitat for a host of wild species, from great blue herons to bald eagles and red foxes.
The preserve’s trails can be navigated on foot, by bike, on horseback or on cross-country skis, and you’ll find a chain of ponds for fishing. Boating is available at Blackwell Forest, as well boating, stand-up paddleboarding and camping (May to September).
11. Northside Park
This beloved and spacious park is on the banks of Winfield Creek, which is impounded to form a beautiful pond.
When this freezes in winter it becomes a popular destination for skating, while a sledding hill is close by for fun in the snow.
When summer comes around there’s public swimming at the Northside Family Aquatic Center, which has a large pool for laps and a kiddie pool.
Northside Park also has excellent fitness stations along its trails, as well as a playground packed with imaginative equipment including a zip line.
12. Lincoln Marsh
This natural space is one of several in Wheaton to be connected by the Illinois Prairie Path. Lincoln Marsh is by the DuPage County Fairgrounds, within walking distance west of downtown.
Here you’ll encounter 150 acres of open water marsh areas, woodland, prairie and savanna, bordered on all sides by the city.
There’s a tangle of trails crossing Lincoln Marsh, composed of woodchip, boardwalk or limestone.
There are two elevated overlooks, as well as bird blinds by the water areas, rustic benches hewn from fallen trees, informational kiosks and plenty of interpretive signs.
Something special is the Prairie Patch Play Area, which integrates surrounding vegetation and landscape features into children’s playtime.
13. Dry City Brew Works
Unusual for a craft brewery, Dry City Brew Works is based right on N Main Street downtown, rather than in an industrial park on the outskirts.
This is a boutique operation, and the small scale allows Dry City to experiment constantly with new beers and keep the lineup fresh.
There are always at least half a dozen beers on tap, typically including a Pale Ale, a Porter, an IPA, a Golden Ale, a German-style Weißbier, a Belgian Dark Beer and a Stout.
Weekends bring live music and food pop-ups, while there’s usually a trivia night on Wednesdays.
14. Kline Creek Farm
At the Timber Ridge Forest Preserve, mere minutes from downtown Wheaton, you can get a taste of rural life in Illinois in the late 19th century.
At this bucolic spot you can appreciate a series of restored farmstead structures including a charming old farmhouse and a barn.
You’ll get to meet costumed interpreters showing off historic farming equipment and techniques, and the farm keeps a variety of domestic animals like Percheron workhorses, Southdown sheep and chickens.
As a working farm, the activities here change with the seasons, and include sowing, tending the orchard and kitchen garden, fixing wagons, curing sausages, harvesting and extracting honey at the apiary.
15. DuPage County Fair
As the county seat, Wheaton is home to the fairgrounds, which are on the west side of town near the courthouse.
A five-day event falling in late July, the DuPage County Fair has been a local tradition for more than 180 years and remains a showcase for Illinois rural life and a fun family-friendly celebration attended by upwards of 100,000.
A carnival runs throughout the five days, and is accompanied by tons of entertainment and activities, from animal displays and competitions to art exhibitions, demonstrations, market vendors, pig races, street entertainers, horsemanship, live music, delicious food, monster trucks and much more.