What are the best vacation destinations within driving distance from Chicago?
April 8, 2012 7:28 PM   Subscribe

What are the best vacation destinations within driving distance from Chicago?

My husband and I need a vacation, but forking over the cash for a plane ticket is not in the cards this year. We are exploring our options as far as driving somewhere exciting. We will be departing from Chicago (Schaumburg, really, for those of you who are familiar with the area). We can take up to a week off of work, but are planning on a 4-day vacation, unless something is really worth our while. We have been to most of the usual nearby spots (Galena, Starved Rock, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin Dells, Indianapolis, Springfield, Milwaukee, etc.). We don't mind driving ~10 hours, but too much longer will be pushing it. Most of the exciting places seem to be on the coasts; is there nothing exciting in the Midwest? :)

Our interests include nature (gardens, hiking, wildlife viewing, etc.), culture (museums, religious sites, local landmarks), nerd culture (tech and video games), and quirky sites (i.e. House on the Rock). We're not really beach people, and we're planning this trip for mid-to-late May anyway, so it won't be warm enough for that (for me, at least!).

Does anyone have any suggestions? Right now Niagara Falls is ranking high on our list, but if there is something closer that is comparably cool, we would love to hear about it. Thanks!
posted by Angel de Lune to Travel & Transportation around Chicago, IL (32 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I don't see Madison on your list. If not, Gooooooooo.
posted by sandmanwv at 7:30 PM on April 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

How about the Ozarks? Lots of great hiking and rivers. Probably not quite as on the cultural scale though.

Also, Nashville is an 8 hour drive from Chicago. Definitely worth visiting for the music culture (and plenty of quirky stuff!)
posted by erstwhile at 7:36 PM on April 8, 2012

I was going to suggest Niagara Falls! It was a mere 8 hours from Chicago, and so much fun. You can go romantic and get a nice big room overlooking the falls, or you can go cheesy and get a cheap hotel in the "strip." It's Vegas Lite!
posted by katypickle at 7:43 PM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mammoth Cave and Louisville are about 5-6 hours from you, and really lovely. There's whiskey breweries in the region that you can tour (Woodford Reserve is near Lexington). It's bluegrass country, and quite pretty.
posted by quadrilaterals at 7:44 PM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Most of our family vacations were to the Stratford Festival in SW Ontario. It's one long day's drive from Chicago. There are some okay places for walking in that area, too.

Unfortunately, going to plays is expensive wherever you do it and the exchange rate isn't as favourable as it once was. But it's worth investigating, I suppose.

Oh, and if you drive fast, you can hit the northern tip of Michigan in 10 hours, probably. (We did it in a day once, with maybe a two hour stop in Battle Creek to visit some people.) That was a relaxing vacation. Makinac Island is a mixed bag. The state park part is nice enough, if a little crowded. The shopping area is dreadful. I remember Cheboygan being unremarkable aside from an okay bookshop.

Duluth is at the outer limits of your range, too, I think. I've never been a tourist in Minneapolis, but it's an option.
posted by hoyland at 7:51 PM on April 8, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the replies so far, I'm impressed with how quickly they came in. :) I will have to discuss these ideas with my husband when he gets home. If there are more good suggestions, please keep them coming. It's always good to have ideas for future trips as well!
posted by Angel de Lune at 8:00 PM on April 8, 2012

Didn't see St. Louis on your list either. We've got a bit to do here — the Botanical Garden and Zoo for nature, the Art and other museums for museums, and City Museum and the Arch for quirky sites. Plus if you wanted to forego driving altogether you could take Amtrak (the public transit system here isn't as robust as Chicago's but it'll get you to most of the good places, or you could rent a car).
posted by brentajones at 8:14 PM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

My husband and I drove from the Chicago area to Asheville, NC a few years ago and had a great time there. It's about a 12 hour drive, but we stayed overnight in Louisville each way. You could stop there and do Mammoth Cave.
posted by Joleta at 8:17 PM on April 8, 2012

Response by poster: As far as the Botanic Garden, the zoo, Sears Tower, museums, and so on in Chicago go, we have done them ALL many, many times (and revisit some of them regularly throughout the year). I was born and raised in Chicagoland, so this territory has pretty much been covered.
posted by Angel de Lune at 8:17 PM on April 8, 2012

Response by poster: Haha, I just realized you were talking about these things in St. Louis, not Chicago. Sorry about that. Sounds like our cities have similar attractions! And St. Louis was also on our short-list, so thanks for expanding upon what attractions are there.
posted by Angel de Lune at 8:20 PM on April 8, 2012

Duluth MN is about 8 hour drive, small city, a mecca of Outdoorness lots to hike and explore, decent food (plus you know, Lake Superior), added bonus I've give you a tour gratis, and can hook you up with someone who will give you a tour of local commentaries.
posted by edgeways at 8:30 PM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding Madison, where I live. If you come at the end of May you can go to WisCon, which has got to be nerdy enough for you. We certainly have all the cultural sites you describe, though none of them on the scale of Chicago.
posted by escabeche at 8:30 PM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in the Arrowhead of Minnesota are within driving distance, I made the trip in about nine hours a couple years back.
posted by IvoShandor at 8:33 PM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might check out this previous ask or this one for some other "What is there to do in STL?" info. And I'd be happy to help via message as well.
posted by brentajones at 8:36 PM on April 8, 2012

It's more of a haul, but if you can look past the touristiness, Gatlinburg and the awesome Smoky Mountains National Park are gorgeous and awesome for hiking.
posted by Occula at 8:54 PM on April 8, 2012

Toronto is about 9 hours away. It's a great city. And Canadians are just so nice! May would probably be a perfect time for a visit.
posted by tully_monster at 8:55 PM on April 8, 2012

I live in Toronto, and find Niagara Falls to be "meh" after the first hour, but I have been visiting all my life. However, the two sides are very different and you should plan to visit both. I'm not really into casino stuff, but I do like the big park on the US side. Bring your passports so you can get home!

Very close to Niagara Falls is also Niagara-on-the-Lake, which is a lovely little shopping town with Victorian houses and a good theater festival

The Niagara region also gas good wineries.

Buffalo has a nice art gallery Albright Knox which I like because it's not very big and there's a real emphasis on 20th century art and some Frank Lloyd Wright houses in various stages of restoration.

I know you theater, art & frank Lloyd wright in Buffalo but these are all nice things.

Toronto is also awesome and within your driving range.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 10:08 PM on April 8, 2012

As a displaced STL native I will second (or third) that suggestion. Also not on your list, and a bit more rustic, is Door County -- outdoor activities as well as lots of artists. I also just drove back and forth through Cleveland twice this month -- a 7 hour drive and in the same class of destination as Milwaukee and Indianapolis. It is an easy drive, but apart from saying that you'll need to find your own attractions there.
posted by cgk at 10:50 PM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

What about Memphis? It's around 8ish hours away and there's plenty to do.
posted by SisterHavana at 11:08 PM on April 8, 2012

This former Chicagoan is a big fan of Door County. I especially enjoy the northern tip, Gill's Rock area.
posted by FlamingBore at 12:50 AM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

The Keeweenaw Penisula in the UP is quite beautiful.
posted by eriko at 1:16 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

The timing of this question is remarkable! My husband and I just ran through our options for a vacation within a day's drive of Chicago. (We decided on Kansas City, for an art fair and of course Arthur Bryants!) Here are some random thoughts:

Just west of St. Louis is their wine country, with all that implies including the pastoral rolling hills

Minneapolis/St. Paul is quite nice and is a very outdoorsy area with lots of lakes and parks

Love the UP! Very peaceful and lots of delightful quirkiness

Don't rule out Detroit/Windsor. They are long on culture, and the Eastern Market (and surrounding shops) is awesome

The Corn Palace in Mitchell SD (just about 10 hours away) has to be seen to be believed

I've heard that the Apostle Islands in NW Wisconsin are really nice
posted by DrGail at 5:02 AM on April 9, 2012

Have you considered the Henry Ford Museum?
posted by Thorzdad at 5:14 AM on April 9, 2012

In the last few years, I have taken extremely enjoyable driving trips exploring the little towns on the coast of Michigan and the river towns along the Mississippi River.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:57 AM on April 9, 2012

Please go to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Lake Superior never dissapoints.....
Ashland WI can be your base.
posted by lstanley at 7:17 AM on April 9, 2012

Seconding Minneapolis!

Also, you might want to consider taking the train someplace, if you're not excited about the drive itself. It's generally much cheaper than flying and much more pleasant as well. Chicago is a major hub, so you can get to many of the places mentioned here pretty easily.
posted by dizziest at 7:42 AM on April 9, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the additional suggestions! Keep 'em coming. :)

The train was something we thought about, but for some of the destinations we've considered it was not all that cheap of an option, plus the car allows us to drive around our location once we get there. If we were going somewhere with great public transportation and just wanted to stay in that area train travel might warrant further consideration, but none of what we have researched made it seem like the best choice.
posted by Angel de Lune at 8:53 AM on April 9, 2012

Mackinac Island and for the quirky portion add a visit to the Mystery Spot.
posted by vagabond at 9:50 AM on April 9, 2012

Might you enjoy beer? Scenic bike trails? Swiss-American enclaves? New Glarus, WI is about three hours from Chicago.
posted by Iridic at 1:08 PM on April 9, 2012

Oh, yeah. Someone mentioned wine country in Missouri--check out the Katy Trail, if you like to go bicycling. You can even do a little bike touring, if you're so inclined--ride during the day, visit the wineries, stay in B&Bs in towns along the way at night. Lots of nature and a nice crushed-limestone path. May is a good time for something like this.

And our favorite of the state park lodges in Illinois is Pere Marquette, which I actually prefer to Starved Rock. There's actually quite a lot to do around Alton and the Illinois/Mississippi confluence--lots of parks and wildlife refuges, little towns to explore, museums (like the one at the Melvin Price Locks and Dam).

And this is an incredibly good time to visit Snake Road in the LaRue/Pine Hills area of Southern Illinois. (Also, salamanders, lizards, turtles, and frogs!) We live in central Illinois, and one of our favorite things to do for a mini-vacation is to just rent a cabin somewhere in southern Illinois, cook our own meals, and hang out in the woods for a little while.

Last--this is a little farther, probably about 7 hours for you--no one has mentioned the Land Between the Lakes in far western Kentucky. They have a herd of bison (including adorable babies) who frequently wander into the road en masse and stop traffic, and elk who are a little more elusive, but there. There's a museum and a planetarium. There are also a lot of state parks in the area, including Lake Barkley, which has a really nice lodge.
posted by tully_monster at 2:03 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Okay, lots of great suggestions but we can't do them all, unfortunately. What we're thinking is:

Day 1) Depart from Chicago, stopover in Ann Arbor, overnight there.
Day 2) Arrive at Niagara Falls, see the Falls.
Day 3) Daytrip to Toronto.
Day 4) Depart from Niagara Falls, take the "other" way back to Chicago, stopover in Cleveland on the way. Husband is hoping we'll have time to stop at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Day 5) Return home.

Is this enough time to enjoy the sites, or is this too rushed?

The dates we are considering are between May 7-May 24th. We definitely want to avoid travelling on the Memorial Day weekend. I saw that Victoria Day is on May 21st. Does anyone know if this is a holiday worth making time for, or perhaps AVOIDING due to crowds? Or is it fairly uneventful, like the US' Flag Day? Also, any idea what the weather might be like during this time? And finally, are there any must-sees that are suggested? I have actually been to Niagara Falls and Toronto before as a kid with my family, but my husband has never been to Canada at all and neither one of us has been to Ann Arbor or Cleveland.

Thanks a lot for all the help and advice!
posted by Angel de Lune at 8:57 PM on April 9, 2012

I'm in Milwaukee. For a shorter trip, my vote is for Washington Island at the tip of Door County. You have to take a (car) ferry to get there. There are B&Bs and quaint little shops and nice views of Lake Michigan. Depending on how outdoorsy and athletic you are, you can bring/rent kayaks and kayak to Rock Island. (Or hire a boat.) There are no roads there, so you'll have to hike in and camp and shit in the woods.

If you don't want to drive too far and you have a decent budget, I'd stay at the American Club in Kohler and wrap yourself in luxury. If that's too pricy, stay at the Inn at Woodlake next door and have dinner at the Club. It's seriously romantic and luxurious.
posted by desjardins at 11:54 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

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