Fronting Lake Michigan, Wilmette is an attractive suburban village of around 27,000 on the North Shore.
The lakefront is a big part of Wilmette’s appeal, and there are a few places where you can access the waterfront, like the sandy Gillson Beach or a rare restored dune system.
The village has several shopping districts but the prettiest can be found on the flowery, tree-lined streets around the Wilmette Metra station.
As well as a vintage theater from the 1910s the village center has intriguing specialty shops and an enticing selection of restaurants, cafes, bakeries and ice cream parlors.
Some of the North Shore’s biggest attractions are also a short train ride, cycle or drive away, like Northwestern University, the Skokie Lagoons and the Illinois Holocaust Museum.
1. Bahá’í House of Worship
Wilmette is home to the oldest Baháʼí House of Worship still standing, built between 1912 and 1953 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
Originating in Iran and the Middle East, the Bahá’i Faith has some five million adherents, and emphasizes the unity of people around the world, rejecting racism, nationalism and sectarianism.
Wilmette’s House of Worship has a striking location, rising over Wilmette Harbor, where the North Shore Channel meets Lake Michigan.
The building was designed by French-Canadian architect Louis Bourgeois, incorporating the faith’s doctrine of unity in its geometry and synthesis of Islamic, Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance design elements.
Take a close look at the highly intricate tracery on the building’s nine pillars, incorporating images from major religions, like Star of David, star and crescent and Christian cross.
2. Gillson Park
You can access the lakefront at several places in Wilmette, but the standout has to be Gillson Park. The main attraction here is the long sandy beach, which has lifeguards on duty for most of the summer season.
The sand is soft, and the water stays shallow for some distance, so the beach is ideal for younger swimmers.
A small fee (plus parking) applies for non-residents, and a variety of amenities can be found in Gillson Park’s verdant space behind.
These include an outdoor theater for concerts, tennis courts, picnic areas, a fitness trail, a shelter, tot lot and an ice rink in the winter months.
You’ll also find a sailing center with rentals at the north end of the beach, and a special dog beach at the south end by Wilmette Harbor.
3. Village Center (Downtown Wilmette)
When we wrote this list, Central Avenue and neighboring streets had just come through a long-term improvement plan.
There’s much to love about the Village Center, with its historic architecture and leafy sidewalks lined with cafe and restaurant tables.
In the space of just a few blocks are ample dining and specialty food choices, whether you’re up for steak, pizza, tacos, French patisserie, traditional American grub, fro-yo, BBQ, ramen, the list goes on.
Here and there are cute shops worth your time, for musical instruments, antiques, fashion, jewelry, home design and fabrics.
Also in the Village Center is the French Market, a popular farmers’ market setting up next to the Metra station on Saturday mornings.
4. Skokie Lagoons
Beginning next door in Winnetka is a beautiful, wildlife rich chain of seven interconnected lagoons on the Skokie River.
Historically this was an area of marshland prone to flooding, until a project by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s helped trap the waters.
Linked on land by the North Branch Bicycle Trail, the Skokie Lagoons cover almost 900 acres and are a magnet for recreation, especially in the summer when you can rent a canoe or kayak, taking breaks at the picnic groves on the lagoons’ lush banks.
There’s a 4.2-mile loop encircling the lagoons, while directly to the north is another top attraction, the Chicago Botanic Garden.
5. Wilmette Theatre
Operated by a non-profit organization, downtown Wilmette has a historic theatre dating back to 1913.
This is a multi-arts facility with two intimate auditoriums and programming that includes movies as well as concerts, theatre performances, talks, workshops and much more.
Although much of the original interior has been stripped, the marquee and lobby still have a vintage charm.
For an everyday visitor it’s a lovely place to catch an independent or foreign film, with cheap tickets and delicious, freshly popped popcorn. When we wrote this article the Wilmette Theatre was temporarily closed for renovations.
6. Northwestern University
One of the most prestigious places of higher education sits across the North Shore Channel, just a few minutes southeast of Wilmette.
Northwestern University was founded in 1851, making it the oldest chartered university in the state, and there are plenty of reasons to make the short trip for a visit.
Whether you’re a prospective student, or just want to take a look around, the Segal Visitors Center is open all year and has multimedia exhibits about the institution, and a hall dedicated to important alumni.
The Block Museum of Art at the campus’ Art Circle, holds more than 6,000 works in its collection and stages high-profile exhibitions, often in collaboration with major institutions around the world.
For varsity sports action, Ryan Field (47,000) and the Welsh-Ryan Arena are even closer to downtown Wilmette, and just one Metra stop away at Central Street.
7. Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center
Another high-quality attraction near Wilmette is a museum preserving the legacy of the Holocaust, and helping future generations combat prejudice, hatred and indifference.
Opened at its current site in 2009, this is one of the largest museums dealing with the Holocaust in the world.
The Zev & Shifra Karkomi Holocaust Exhibition displays more than 500 artifacts donated by survivors, leading you through pre-war European life, the rise of Nazism, the ghettos, concentration camps and post-war resettlement.
One poignant exhibit is a German railcar of the kind used in wartime deportations. Temporary exhibitions explore more specific aspects of the atrocity, while lighter exhibits at the Take a Stand Center, help arm young people with the knowledge and tools to counter hatred.
8. Mitchell Museum of the American Indian
Also nearby is a sensational, wide-ranging museum exploring the history, culture and arts of North America’s native peoples.
Established in 1977, the Mitchell Museum has amassed more than 9,000 artifacts spanning many thousands of years from the Paleo-Indians to the present.
The absorbing permanent exhibit is organized by region, with individual galleries covering the peoples of the woodlands east of the Mississippi, the Great Plains, the Southwest and the Northwest Coast and Arctic.
Each gallery features an interactive “touching table” where you can handle artifacts and raw materials like buffalo skin, snakeskin, birch bark, caribou fur and turquoise.
9. Grosse Point Lighthouse
Just south of the Bahá’í House of Worship, this historic lighthouse was completed in 1873 after local residents lobbied the federal government following a series of shipping disasters on the approach to Chicago.
Now a National Historic Landmark, the Grosse Point Lighthouse was automated in 1935 and is still operated by the Lighthouse Park District of Evanston.
The grounds, featuring gorgeous butterfly and wildflower gardens, are open all year, and have interesting interpretive signs recounting the light’s story. For more insight you can take a tour of the building on weekends, June through September.
10. Wilmette Historical Museum
You can learn about Wilmette’s storied past at this museum run by the local historical society. The museum was founded in 1951, and has steadily built up its extensive collections over the last 70+ years
Since 1995 the permanent home has been the former Grosse Point Village Hall, a refined Victorian building raised in 1896.
You can visit in the afternoon on Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday for well-curated temporary exhibits that call on the museum’s wealth of artifacts.
When we wrote this article there were shows on important local women residents, historic photographs from 1850-1950 and hometown favorites like Bill Murray and Jens Jensen.
11. Elmwood Dunes Preserve
Gillson Park is side-by-side with this scenic dune habitat that until 2015 had been fenced off to the public for decades.
With the help of donations and the efforts of local volunteers, Elmwood Dunes Preserve was restored to its original habitat, which involved removing tons of invasive trees and shrubs.
Now, with its 50+ native plant species, the preserve is yet another place where you can admire the lakeshore, but also get a sense of what the Lake Michigan waterfront was like centuries ago.
12. Keay Nature Learning Center
This unfrequented nature park sits just behind the Christensen Animal Hospital on the west side of Wilmette.
The Kay Learning Center is on 4.6 wooded acres and opened to the public in the early 1980s as part of a drive to preserve open natural space in the village.
A half-mile trail twists through the park, and leads you past several interpretive stations and across a pond with an artificial waterfall.
On a summer walk you’ll have plenty of opportunities for nature spotting, with frogs, turtles, water birds and several fish species all common.
13. Green Bay Bike Trail
A rails with trails (RWT) bike path begins in Wilmette and runs north, parallel to the lakeshore for almost ten miles to Highland Park.
Beginning in front of the Village Hall, the Green Bay Bike Trail uses the same right of way as the Metra line and will deliver you to several cute little parks like Shorewood Park, Yorkwood Park, Townley Field and Indian Hill Park, all reachable in a matter of minutes.
At certain points, like the Glencoe Trailhead, you can see the work of famed landscape architect Jens Jensen (1860-1951).
14. Plaza del Lago
For the curious there’s an interesting piece of heritage near the waterfront at 1515 Sheridan Road.
Dating to 1928, Plaza del Lago is thought to be the country’s second-oldest shopping center designed for automobile drivers.
Laid out in the fashionable Spanish Revival style, the center was innovative in the way it positioned shops, a movie theater and apartments around a parking lot.
In their youths the stars, Rock Hudson and Ann-Margret worked at the theater, which was pulled down in the 1960s.
As well as a Starbucks and Jewel-Osco supermarket, Plaza del Lago has an independent fishmonger and long-standing lingerie store, and also hosts events like concerts and car shows in summer.
15. Walker Bros. The Original Pancake House
Opened in 1960, Wilmette is home to the first ever location for this Chicagoland favorite, often praised for making the best breakfast in the region.
The chain harks back to a franchised spin-off of The Original Pancake House in Portland, Oregon, founded in 1953.
The Wilmette location is still the busiest in the chain, and is also a stately place to dine, brimming with original decor like stained glass.
All of the breakfast staples are on the menu, but there are a few specialties that need to be sampled, like the oven-baked omelettes, apple cinnamon pancakes and French toast, served with whipped butter.