Chicago Suburbs That You Should Actually Visit

Published On 01/18/2017 Published On 01/18/2017
chicago suburbs you should visit
Oak Park, Illinois | Flickr/David Wilson

Here at Thrillist, it’s no secret we like to make fun of the suburbs. A lot. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find at least a few meaningful excuses to venture into the vast cultural wastelands that wrap their tentacles around the city. So the next time you’re looking to escape Chicago without boarding a plane or taking a long road trip, consider pointing the GPS towards these suburbs and spending the day exploring a new town. The best part? You get to come back to the city when you’re done.

Flickr/Michael Kappel


Kane County
How to get there: Metra UP-W line from Ogilvie Station, 1 hour 7 minutes
Why you should visit: With close proximity to Chicago mixed with its own charming small-town aesthetic that feels a world away, Geneva has a little bit of everything -- from a ridiculously cute Downtown dotted with tree-lined bars and restaurants to a wealth of nature at nearby parks and the Fox River, which runs through town. A leisurely stroll down Third Street's intimate bar and restaurant scene is a near-perfect way to spend an afternoon, as is taking in a minor league baseball game at the Kane County Cougars stadium here in the summer.
While you’re here: A side trip to the equally cool but slightly larger adjacent riverside town of St. Charles is a must, where you can sip drinks at bars along the river or take in a show at the historic Arcada Theatre.

Flickr/Jimmy Emerson, DVM


McHenry County
How to get there: Metra UP-NW line, 1 hour, 31 minutes
Why you should visit: As the town where much of the Bill Murray classic Groundhog Day was filmed, Woodstock is instantly recognized by iconic film locations such as the Woodstock Opera House. (The town even goes as far to host a “Groundhog Days” festival every February with film screenings, beer tastings, and something called “groundhog bowling.”) But scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find a cool little town with a surprisingly decent music scene, yours to enjoy at popular local watering holes like Liquid Blues.
While you’re here: Ten minutes down the road (and also accessible via Metra), the pretty little town of Crystal Lake makes a worthy diversion with a historic downtown and 40+ parks, not to mention its picturesque namesake lake.

Flickr/Bob Simpson

Oak Park

Cook County
How to get there: Just 7 miles west of Downtown and bordering the city’s West Side, Oak Park is accessible via multiple public transit options including the CTA Blue and Green lines, Metra, CTA bus, and Pace bus.
Why you should visit: Arguably Chicago’s coolest suburb, Oak Park is famous as the hometown of Ernest Hemingway as well as the town where Frank Lloyd Wright spent much of his early career. In addition to a Hemingway museum and architecture tours, Oak Park is an artsy bike-friendly town, as well as a culinary hub with 150+ eateries including a Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant (Sen Sushi Bar) and the new location of the ex-con-staffed Felony Franks.
While you’re here: Freddy’s Pizza in nearby Cicero is a local institution. Do yourself a favor. Go there. Now.

Flickr/Esteban Monclova


Cook County
How to get there: 12 miles north of and bordering Chicago, Evanston is accessible by the CTA Purple line, Metra, CTA bus, and Pace bus.
Why you should visit: Evanston may be suburban, but it doesn’t always feel like it, with a wealth of city-quality bars and restaurants including Found Kitchen and Ward Eight. Meanwhile the town’s lakeside location offers plenty of enviable views while brimming with Big 10 college life at Northwestern University’s Ryan Field on a crisp fall Saturday. You can also catch a concert at the excellent but underrated music venue SPACE while diving into some of the finest classic Chicago food in all of Chicagoland at casual eatery joints like Edzo’s and Chicken Shack.
While you’re here: Go just across Evanston’s northern border to the neighboring town of Wilmette to check out the stunning Taj Mahal-style Baha’i Temple, one of only eight such temples in the world and the only one in the US.

Flickr/Eric Allix Rogers


Cook County
How to get there: Metra BNSF line from Union Station, 19 minutes
Why you should visit: With the majority of this sleepy village designated a National Historic Landmark, greenery is king in this town designed by famed architect/Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted in 1869 as one of the oldest planned communities in America. The town is free of traffic lights, with gas lamps lighting the routes along winding streets that follow the Des Plaines River beside ample green space that creates a park-like vibe. There hasn’t historically been a ton to do here outside of high school house parties, but that is starting to change with the opening of a few new bars and restaurants in recent years including La Barra and Mollie’s Public House.
While you’re here: A trip to the world-famous Brookfield Zoo in the neighboring town of Brookfield is a must, followed by a night of inebriation at local dive Brixie’s.

Flickr/Erick Allix Rogers


Cook County
How to get there: Metra ME line from Millennium Station, 45 minutes
Why you should visit: Is it wrong to make a trip to the suburbs strictly to visit a brewery? Not when the suburb is Flossmoor and the brewery is the legendary Flossmoor Station, built into a historic former train station and now serving award-winning brews in one of the finest settings in all of Chicago (they’ve even got a caboose out back, so you know it’s legit). Surrounded by green space, the town is also a haven for golf lovers and is just a short ride from Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre (where you totally saw your first Mötley Crüe concert with your parents... or wanted to).
While you’re here: Hit the Holy Trinity of South Suburban beer with side trips from Flossmoor Station to Blue Island’s Rock Island Public House and Munster, Indiana’s 3 Floyds, both within a 20-minute drive (or, better yet, Uber ride).

Flickr/Shutter Runner

Highland Park

Lake County
How to get there: Metra UP-N line from Ogilvie Station, 51 minutes
Why you should visit: With former resident Michael Jordan and current resident Billy Corgan (who operates a tea shop/art studio in town called Madame ZuZu’s), Highland Park is packed with beautiful lakeside homes and filming locations that have made their way into many classic ‘80s films from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to Sixteen Candles to Risky Business. These days the town offers a lively Downtown scene, two beaches, several golf courses, and plenty of bars in nearby Highwood. But one of the best things to do here is take a leisurely drive down scenic Sheridan Rd (which winds through several posh North Shore suburbs) before stopping off for an outdoor summer concert at iconic venue Ravinia.
While you’re here: Just across the border from Highland Park is the town of Glencoe, home to the utterly beautiful, date-worthy, and, somehow, free) Chicago Botanic Garden.


Elmwood Park

Cook County
How to get there: CTA Green line or Metra UP-W line to Forest Park; 10-25 minutes drive/bus north on Harlem to Elmwood Park
Why you should visit: While it may not be super-pretty to look at from the outside, Elmwood Park is a Chicago food lover’s dream -- home to the original old-school locations of Johnnie’s Beef, Old World Pizza, and Armand’s, not to mention Russell’s Barbecue and Alpine Subs. A trip to Johnnie’s is reason enough for a visit (just ask Anthony Bourdain), but stick around and explore this historically Italian community to discover your new favorite. Either way, you aren’t going home hungry.
While you’re here: A drive past the beautiful homes of neighboring River Forest leads you to the notorious row of Irish bars along Madison St in Forest Park, where you can cap off your night of heavy boozing with even more heavy delights in the form of Chicago hot dog icons Portillo’s and Parky’s.

Flickr/Michael Kappel


DuPage/Will County
How to get there: Amtrak Illinois Zephyr from Union Station, 35 minutes
Why you should visit: OK OK, we know we make fun of Naperville more than pretty much anyone else. But there’s a difference between living in and visiting a place, and there are certainly worse places to visit than Illinois’ fifth-largest city. The highlight would have to be exploring the bars and restaurants along the pretty brick paths and covered bridges of the Naperville Riverwalk, in addition to a booming area craft beer scene led by Solemn Oath Brewery alongside Two Brothers Tap House in nearby Warrenville and Hopvine in neighboring Aurora.
While you’re here: With 16 miles of hiking trails and 4,000+ species of trees, nearby Morton Arboretum is Chicago’s closest thing to a national park. And Naperville Ribfest is quite probably the best Fourth of July party in the suburbs.

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Jay Gentile is a Thrillist contributor and he threw more than his fair share of high school house parties growing up in Riverside. Follow @innerviewmag.

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1. Liquid Blues 126 N Benton St, Woodstock, IL 60098

A flashback to the 60s, Liquid Blues is like a psychedelic haven, filled with kitschy decor like lava lamps, beaded curtains, and tie dye tapestries (and it’s located in Woodstock… Illinois, you know, like where Bill Murray filmed Groundhog Day?). The dive bar is home to live music, over 50 beers -- 14 on tap -- fish fry Fridays, steak Saturdays, and open jam Wednesdays. And Bill Murray has been known to drop by when he’s in the area; if you’re lucky, you might just get to drink a beer with Bill.

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2. Marion Street Market 100 S Marion St, Oak Park, IL 60302

This relaxed fromagerie/charcuterie/bistro offers a wide variety of cheese, wine, craft beer, and sweets. On the menu, you'll find items such as: bacon-wrapped dates, cauliflower melt, duck pb&j, crab-crusted walleye, and hanger steak.

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3. Sen Sushi Bar 814 S Oak Park Ave, Oak Park, IL 60304

Sen Sushi Bar is a casual, 30-seat restaurant serving up fresh-off-the-boat fish from Japan from its small, Oak Park Ave. storefront. At lunch, the space fills up with Bento Box-loving business folk, and at dinner, Sen boasts a wide variety of classic sushi rolls, as well as vegetarian and contemporary rolls, like the Oak Park Maki, with super white tuna, asparagus tempura, cream cheese, pine nuts, tobiko, and sesame. Plenty of sake and martinis are also on offer to pair with your high-quality, low-cost sushi dinner at Sen.

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4. Freddy's Pizza 1600 South 61st Avenue, Cicero, IL 60804

Freddy's is the epitome of a dying breed -- family-owned corner shops serving up pizza made entire in-house and from scratch, using their own collections of house-cured meats, aged cheeses, and doughs. Aside from their square-shaped, deep-dish slices of heaven, Freddy's always has a lineup of saucy, cheesy pasta dishes waiting at the counter alongside its gelato counter, sporting flavors classic flavors like chocolate and lemon.

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5. Found Kitchen & Social House 1621 Chicago Ave, Evanston, IL 60201 (Evanston)

Helmed by Chef Nicole Pederson (Lula Cafe), Found serves a seasonal American menu in a space inspired by 1920s Paris. The kitchen serves a so-called "flexitarian" menu, so expect a mix of meat and vegetable dishes, like fried cauliflower with Indian spices and twice-fried chicken wings with honey, lemon, and smoked chilies.

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6. Ward Eight 629 Howard St, Evanston, IL 60202 (Evanston)

The epitome of a craft cocktail bar, Ward Eight serves inventive twists on beloved classics (like a mezcal Old Fashioned) and elevated bar bites in an intimate saloon-like setting. Regular live music, like smooth jazz and acoustic guitar, creates a relaxed ambience that works well for any night of the week.

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7. Edzo's Burger Shop 1571 Sherman Ave, Evanston, IL 60201 (Lincoln Park)

Edzo isn't the name of a creepy clown but of an awesome burger joint with a serious '70s vibe. The patties are made from house-ground chuck that's pressed, griddled, then topped with extras like fried egg or giardiniera relish. The menu includes elevated French fry options -- order them "Crazy" to get a topping of chili, cheese, and chopped onion or "Angry" with four kinds of spices. Edzo's is also known for its milkshakes, which are made the old-fashioned way -- on a slow-mixing spindle machine -- to yield an extra-smooth and creamy texture.

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8. Evanston Chicken Shack 1925 Ridge Ave, Evanston, IL 60201 (Evanston)

Not to be confused with the popular Chicago mini-chain Harold's Chicken Shack, Evanston Chicken Shack's fried chicken stacks up to the best of the Windy City from its post on the north side. The bare-bones hole-in-the-wall is cash only, but you won't need much: For under $10, you can get two to four pieces of fried chicken (depending on your part preference), with fries and bread, or an entire eight-piece mixed bucket for under $15. There are other options on offer, like fried catfish nuggets and hot links, but you are, without question, here for the fried chicken.

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9. La Barra 3011 Butterfield Rd, Oak Brook, IL 60523

Located in the Oak Brook Promenade, La Barra is the dressy answer to the Chicago neighborhood slice. On top of thin and deep dish pizzas flaunting organic tomato sauce, La Barra ups the ante with a full dinner menu of pastas, fish, and meat dishes alongside a few sharable plates of olives, cheeses, breads, and dips. You won't find any takeout boxes behind the sleek, white-tiled counter -- but you will find an expansive number of imported wines.

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10. Mollie's Public House 31 Forest Ave, Riverside, IL 60546

Mollie’s Public House is an Irish pub in Riverside, but it’s more than just a bar with plenty of beer and whiskey on offer: it’s a family place. It’s owned and operated by a man named Brian Carroll and his family, and it’s named after his grandmother Mollie. It’s an homage to his Irish heritage, to his family, and to those that patronize his bar that he considers family. Stop by Mollie’s for Shepherd’s Pie or bangers and rashers and wash it down with a pint of Guinness; welcome to the family.

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11. Rock Island Public House 13328 Olde Western Ave, Blue Island, IL 60406

Named after the Rock Island Railroad -- its tracks still running through the city -- Rock Island Public House is Blue Island’s craft beer bar with a mission to support small, local businesses. Founded in 2012, Rock Island has 16 rotating taps featuring local brews (including one-offs and rare pours you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere), a spirits list that's chock-full of locally crafted options (Malort included), an in-house art gallery featuring the works of various local artists, and the selection of pinball machines rotates nearly as much as the beer taps to ensure the local patrons have a variety of options to feed their arcade fix.

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12. 3 Floyds Brewpub 9750 Indiana Pkwy, Munster, IN 46321

What do you get when you combine a 15 barrel brewhouse (that's 465 gallons, in case you were wondering) with three bonafide fermentation tanks? If you guessed beer, you're not wrong. If you guessed a whole lot of beer, you're still not wrong. Three Floyds, located in a one-time office-space-turned-craft-beer-refuge in Munster, IN has been brewing up and selling out of its own ales, lagers, seasonal brews, special small batch projects, and the occasional guest beer, since its inception in 1996, and is showing no signs of slowing down.

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13. Flossmoor Station Restaurant & Brewery 1035 Sterling Ave, Flossmoor, IL 60422

Located in what was once Flossmoor’s original train station in a building dating back to the early 20th century, Flossmoor Station is now a restaurant and brewery, serving up upscale pub fare and house-brewed beers to the neighborhood since 1996. The restaurant features an extensive selection of charcuterie and cheese for guests to create their own boards, and “Brewhouse Specials” like chicken pot pie and fish ’n chips for an English pub-style inflection. Beers vary in style, with pours like the popular Zephyr Golden Ale and Chessie Fruit Beer, among others on offer year round, and a selection of seasonal releases. Flossmoor Station has character, charm, and enough food and drink to keep you warm during the brutal Midwestern winters.

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14. Armand's Pizzeria 4159 N Western Ave, Chicago, IL 60618 (North Center)

This spot is a part of the Chicago-based Armand's chain, and serves thin-crust, deep-dish, and pasta. It's tried and true since 1956, and keeps things moving with their counter service set up.

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15. Johnnie's Beef 7500 W North Ave, Elmwood Park, IL 60707

In a city known for its hot Italian beef sandwiches (most notably Al’s), Johnnie’s Beef is the only reason you need to head to Elmwood Park. Since 1961, Johnnie’s has been turning out Chicago-style hot dogs and Italian Beef sandwiches that stack up to the area’s best, to the point of drawing people outside of Chicago’s city limits and north to its suburban, cash-only counter. You don’t have to get the beef sandwich, but then what are you doing here? And nothing goes better with a juicy, hot beef sandwich like a cold Italian ice.

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16. Old World Pizza 660 N Independence Blvd, Romeoville, IL 60446 (South Chicago)

Opened by Sicily's Bamini family in the early 1960s, Old World Pizza is a real as Chicago pizza gets. Tart sauces and the gooiest cheese you've ever seen sit atop award-winning think crust pizzas and, of course, dishes deep enough to hold all your hopes and dreams. Slices come to-go if you're hungry in a hurry, or of you're (for some reason) looking to go a different route, hefty Italian sandwiches and salads should do it.

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17. Russell's Barbecue 1621 Thatcher Ave, Elmwood Park, IL 60707

Founded in 1930, Russell’s Barbecue is an Elmwood Park mainstay for barbecue, located in the shadows of Maywood Park’s racetrack. Russell’s is known primarily for its ribs, brisket, and signature sauce (which you can purchase in bottles to take with you), though the menu is expansive, with plenty of smoked meats, chicken sandwiches, and even its own version of a Philly cheesesteak. On any given night, the old school restaurant is full of diners hunched over baskets of baby backs, so while you may have to wait for a seat, trust us when we tell you it’s worth it.

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18. Alpine Food Shop 7538 W North Ave, Elmwood Park, IL 60707

Alpine Food Shop in Elmwood Park may not like like much more than a convenience store, but it’s home to some of Chicagoland’s best subs. Since 1955, Alpine has been serving cold cut subs -- and other deli items like Italian sausages -- to locals and in-the-know Elmwood Park visitors. The subs, offered in 6-inch, 9-inch, and 18-inch increments, are served on soft bread with enough meat, cheese, vegetables, and condiments to last for more than one meal, especially if you order the large. The Alpine is the storied, original sandwich, and is stacked with ham, salami, capicollo, provolone, lettuce, tomato, oil and vinegar. You’re in Chicago, add the Giardiniera.

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19. Portillo's Hot Dogs 100 W Ontario St, Chicago, IL 60654 (River North)

Local favorite Portillo's specializes in classic Chicago-style hot dogs and an otherworldly chocolate cake that keeps fans coming back for more. They know what they're doing when it comes to hot dogs: the first Portillo's hot dog stand opened in 1963. They also know what they're doing when it comes to chocolate cake: they put it in milkshakes. That's right -- their chocolate cake shake comes blended with generous chunks of the lauded dessert. It's truly a masterpiece.

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20. Parky's Hot Dogs 329 Harlem Ave, Forest Park, IL 60130

Parky’s Hot Dogs has been turning out thousands of Chicago’s beloved handhelds since the 40s, likely because it has a sausage up its sleeve that’s made specially for them by a local butcher. The Forest Park-based fast food hot dog stand is great for all things Italian sausages and sandwiches, but the Chicago dog is the true standout. The Windy City is chock full of options for the dog, and the vast majority of them are anchored by Vienna all-beef sausages. Parky’s is not: it’s a mixture of pork and beef and it’s the stand’s custom, made to order sausage that you can’t find anywhere but here. For a unique twist on the Chicago dog, head to the corner of Harlem and Madison, and while the sausage itself is different, the same rule still applies: never put ketchup on a Chicago hot dog.

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21. Solemn Oath Brewery 1661 Quincy Ave, Naperville, IL 60540

Solemn Oath Brewery is a west suburban powerhouse that specializes in the production of Belgian-inspired, West Coast-style, barrel-aged beers. The Naperville brewery has a taproom that’s open -- and at capacity -- seven days a week, featuring tap staples like the Butterfly Flashmob Belgian IPA and Nourri au Fourrage American Milk Stout, and seasonal or experimental one-offs you likely won’t be able to find anywhere else. The feverishly changing taproom menu is divided by style and process: barrel-aged, Belgian-style, hop-driven, yeast-driven, malt-driven, high-gravity. The earlier you go, the better -- when your favorite keg is kicked, it’s on to the next one.

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22. Two Brothers Tap House 30W315 Calumet Ave W, Warrenville, IL 60555

Two Brothers Tap House is a family owned and operated brewery in Warrenville offering quality craft beers, elevated pub fare, and good cheer. Two Brother's line-up includes (but is not limited to) IPAs, French-inspired amber beers, seasonal specials, and a varied selection of limited edition beers (holiday Porter, Double IPA, Hefeweizein wine). Taste your way through the tap house's rotating roster of signature brews at the the on-site tap house, and check out the website for a calendar of brewery tour dates and community events.

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23. Hopvine Brewing Company 4030 Fox Valley Center Dr, Aurora, IL 60504

Beer geeks: hop on down to Aurora’s Hopvine Brewing Company, and check out the bustling bar and restaurant, and its vast collection of staple and seasonal house ales and lagers. Signature beers are offered in 14oz and 23oz pours, flights, “small fills,” and “big fills,” and are food-friendly, as they’re listed alongside menu items as suggested pours (go for the pretzel sticks with beer cheese and cinnamon butter, paired with the popular Aurora Amber, or the cheeseburger with a big fill of All Growed Up Rootbeer). Located outside of Chicago’s city limits, Hopvine is a great place to stop for signature suburban suds.



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