10 Chicago Suburbs That Don’t Suck

bahai temple wilmetteTravel writers don’t spend much time waxing poetic on the joys of American suburbia – and for good reason. Spending time in the suburbs of most American cities is about as exciting as listening to a filibuster attempt on C-Span. Unless you enjoy the numbing sensation that comes from driving past row upon row of characterless houses, strip malls as far as the eye can see and the identical array of chain stores and restaurants one sees all over American suburbia these days.

But Chicago is different. There are plenty of soulless bedroom communities and quite possibly the lamest historic district in the country, but there are also a number of places that are brimming with character and things to do. Most visitors to Chicago never set foot outside the city center and that’s a shame.

If you stay in the city, you’ll miss out on some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most impressive creations, one of the country’s best independent bookstores, the Bahai Temple, some beautiful beaches and a host of shopping, dining and cultural attractions in very manageable, walkable towns that are accessible via Metra and/or CTA. (But if you prefer a scenic drive, take Sheridan Road up to Chicagoland’s North Shore.)I’ve lived in Evanston and River Forest, so this is a subjective list based upon my experience in the north and west suburban communities that I’ve had an opportunity to explore during my seven years living in the region.

Evanston

evanston illinois lake michiganThis big, diverse community directly north of the city along Lake Michigan belongs on the itinerary of every visitor to Chicago. It’s home to Northwestern University, some 61 structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and six sandy beaches. The pedestrian friendly downtown is filled with nice bookstores, cafés, shopping and restaurants and there are beautiful homes scattered among several historic districts within the town. Evanston also has an amazing library, which allows patrons to take out up to 75 books a time (seriously).

Wilmette

Wilmette is another great lakeside community with a terrific old school cinema, and an endearing little downtown that has a Mayberry-esque charm. Business Week rated Wilmette as one of the top ten places to raise a family in the country and it’s also a great place for visitors to take a long walk or bike ride. Don’t leave town without checking out the stunning Bahai Temple on Linden Avenue.

Winnetka

If you drive through Winnetka with a clunky old car, you might get a few funny looks, as this is one of the poshest communities in the Midwest. Right now, there is a 27,000 square foot home on sale for a cool $27 million in town, and there’s also a modest little, 7 bedroom, 11 bath, 15,000 square foot fixer upper at 319 Sheridan Road that comes in at a just under $16 million.

But it’s still worth a visit despite the pretension. Every town should be fortunate enough to have a great little downtown like this one. It’s filled with interesting, independent shops and restaurants. The town also has three nice beaches and its flagship bookstore, the Book Stall, was voted the best independent bookshop in the country by Publisher’s Weekly this year.

Highland Park

This is another exclusive North Shore community that’s worth a visit thanks to its nice downtown and jaw dropping mansions. Michael Jordan and Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins own homes here and Corgan recently opened up a tea shop in town as well.

Highland Park may have the most expensive home in the region for sale at 2700 Point Lane. In case you’re in the market, it’s a 9 bedroom, 19 bathroom- yes 19 bathrooms, just in case you have a hockey team over and they all have to go at once-32,683 square foot monster priced at $29 million. Oh, and there’s a 15 car garage to boot.

Lake Forest/ Lake Bluff

Lake Forest is another elegant lakefront community oozing with wealth and charm on the North Shore about 30 miles north of Chicago. The downtown has a European flair and boasts some nice restaurants and distinctive retail. Take a drive or a bike ride around the residential neighborhoods surrounding the downtown and you’ll feel like you’re lost in the pages of “The Great Gatsby.” Lake Bluff has a nice beach, a public green and an old time corner store.

In Lake Forest, check out the mansions on North Mayflower Road. At the moment, there’s a 10 bedroom, 16 bath 24,000 square foot home priced to move at $12 million at #405 and a cute little 7 bedroom, 9 bath number at #255 that’s a steal at just under $8 million.

Oak Park & River Forest

river forest homeOak Park is a unique, left leaning community due west of the city, accessible via CTA’s green line or Metra, that prizes its diversity and its Frank Lloyd Wright connection. Wright started his career in Oak Park and you can visit his studio and check out a host of homes he built in the area. Oak Park has the largest concentration of FLW homes in the world.

Oak Park is also the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway, and the Hemingway museum , located right around the corner from the Frank Lloyd Wright Studio. Oak Park also has three distinctive retail districts, but the real attractions here are on the side streets, where you’ll find an array of beautiful homes, many in the Prairie or Victorian style.

Due west of Oak Park, River Forest is another distinguished suburb with more Frank Lloyd Wright houses and dozens of other stately homes on huge lots along wide, tree lined streets that are nothing like most planned community suburbs built today. The residential area between Lake and Augusta and Thatcher to Lathrop is filled with classy, unique homes.

Riverside

Riverside is a splendid little community, just south of Oak Park, with a lost in time downtown, an eye-catching water tower, and some noteworthy architecture. The town itself is a National Historic Landmark that was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted as one of the region’s first planned communities.

Elmhurst

This appealing little community in Chicago’s western suburbs is noteworthy for its appealing, pedestrian friendly downtown that has a cool, 1950s feel to it.

La Grange

La Grange is another western suburb with a terrific, old school downtown and some nice old Victorian homes. Less pretentious than nearby Hinsdale, it boasts an awesome BBQ joint and a classic old cinema. La Grange used to have what was quite possibly the country’s most ludicrous marketing campaign. A few years ago, someone had the bright idea to put up banners all over the town with the words, “Ah, La Grange!” One can only hope they didn’t pay an ad agency too much to come up with that clunker.

Naperville

OK, so Naperville has a lot of sprawl, but it’s also got a killer downtown, with a great riverside bike path and a beautiful, huge man-made beach and pool. The area around North Central College is perfect for a nice stroll.

Other Chicago suburbs that are worth a visit: Forest Park (home to loads of bars and a great St. Patrick’s Day celebration), Glen Ellyn, Glencoe, Woodstock, Hinsdale, Wheaton, St. Charles, Geneva, Frankfort, Western Springs, Highwood and Tinley Park.

[Photo credit: Flickr users Sandeep, rseidel3 and Chicago Geek.]

Help select the next World Heritage Sites in the U.S.

World Heritiage Sites under consideration for U.S.As most travelers know, the UNESCO World Heritage Sites are amongst the most spectacular places in the entire world. The list, which currently consists of more than 900 unique locations across the planet, recognizes those places for their cultural or physical significance. But that list is constantly being evaluated and updated, with some sites being removed when they are threatened or altered, and others being added as their significance becomes more apparent.

The U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, which operates as a Federal Advisory Commission to the Department of State, has just opened a 30-day call for public comments on the current list of places that are being considered for World Heritage status. During this phase, the general public is invited to weigh in on the nominees, and express their opinion on whether or not those sites are worthy of UNESCO’s very esteemed list.

There are a total of 13 sites under consideration, with nine falling under the “cultural” category. Those sites include: Civil Rights Movement Sites, Alabama; Dayton Aviation Sites, Ohio; Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks, Ohio; various Thomas Jefferson Buildings in Virginia; Mount Vernon, Virginia; Poverty Point National Monument and State Historic Site, Louisiana; San Antonio Franciscan Missions, Texas; Serpent Mound, Ohio and various Frank Lloyd Wright Buildings throughout the country. Additionally, there are four sites up for nomination in the “natural” category as well. Those sites include: Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary, American Samoa; Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia; Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona and White Sands National Monument, New Mexico.

The call for comment went out on Tuesday, Dec. 14, so the process has already been set in motion. For more information you can read the official entry into the Federal Registry by clicking here. If you would like to share a comment with the Commission, you’ll find the contact information for doing so, including mailing address, by clicking here.

This is a great opportunity to get some historically and culturally significant sites recognized by UNESCO. If you would like to see one, or more, of these sites added to the World Heritage list, be sure to share your thoughts now.

[Photo credit: National Park Service]

Stay overnight at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater

Architecture buffs and fans of Frank Lloyd Wright have long enjoyed a visit to the architect’s Fallingwater house, near Pittsburgh, and soon, true fanatics can pay a premium to spend two days and two nights on the famous property. The new overnight program will debut on weekends, welcoming up to 8 guests at a time, either this December or in early March of next year.

Guests won’t actually sleep in the house – they’ll retire at night to a newer four-bedroom home built on the grounds. They’ll take an in-depth tour one night and be treated to a dinner party with a special guest and the house curators the next. Days are free to spend at leisure, enjoying Fallingwater as the house’s director says it was meant to be. Guests can stroll the grounds, explore different rooms of the house, or simply relax as though the home was their own.

The going rate to sleep in an architectural masterpiece? $1,195 per person for double occupancy.

Photo of the Day (5.10.09)

As you might have heard, the Gadling team will be getting together in Chicago this coming weekend. It only seems appropriate then for me to pick a Chicago photo like this one from frequent Gadling photo contributor mce323. Chicago is a city of fantastic architecture, with groundbreaking works from masters like Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright. The twin towers at Marina City are yet another iconic Chicago architectural landmark. I love the checkerboard of glowing lights illuminating the various balconies, contrasted nicely with the encroaching black of night.

Do you have any travel photos you’d like to share with Gadling’s readers? Why not add them to the Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

The House On The Rock – a hidden gem in the Midwest

While on a tour of attractions in Wisconsin, one of the places that made my list was “The House On The Rock”.

The House On The Rock is the vision of architect Alex Jordan Jr. Apparently, Mr Jordan had a dream of creating a house for himself, nestled away in the Wyoming Valley in Wisconsin. As the house progressed, people started to visit his house, and while it was never intended to be a tourist attraction, so many people wanted to see the amazing architecture, that Jordan started asking for 50 cent donations.

Before I arrived at the House, I had tried to do some research, checking out their official website, and reading reviews. But nothing I found online prepared me for what I encountered when I arrived. The House On The Rock is an absolutely astounding place, and in my opinion an attraction everyone should visit at least once.

The tour begins in the recently constructed welcome center, which has bits of Frank Lloyd Wright inspiration. In it, you’ll find the ticket desk, a gift shop and a small cafeteria.
Even as we made our way to the first part of the tour, I hadn’t the faintest idea what to expect. As it turns out, part 1 is the house on the rock itself – the residence of Alex Jordan.

The house is insane – carpet on the walls (and ceiling), packed full with Japanese artifacts, art, robotic musical instruments, plants and peculiar heating elements hidden away which were apparently put there to prepare food.

There isn’t a corner in the cramped house left untouched – every single bit of wall has something decorating it.

The final room in the house is the “Infinity Room”. This is where you begin to realize that the house on the rock is something very, very special. The Infinity Room is 300 feet long, 220 feet of which hangs unsupported over the valley. The “room” has over 3000 windows, and once you get to the end, you can look down through a window in the floor. The view is quite simply spectacular.

After the Infinity Room, you are directed through other portions of the house, up over a deck on the roof, to the end of the first portion of the tour. It was a this point where I started chatting with one of the tour guides, who told me “I ain’t seen nothing yet”. Oh how right he was.

The inside of the bathrooms – as I said, every single corner of this place has something decorative.

The second portion of the tour led us through the “streets of yesterday”, a recreation of a 19th century street, complete with fire station, sheriffs office and stores. The amount of antique stuff in this portion is staggering, every single store and office is filled with priceless artifacts from the past.

The next room was the one that impressed me most – the Heritage of the Sea is jawdropping. Inside this massive building is a 200 feet tall whale, and the spiraling walkway takes you around a tour of 100’s of antique boat models.

Face to face with a 200 feet whale – between the size of the whale, and the height of the building, you can’t help feel amazed at the detail put into the exhibit.

On the ground floor of this exhibit is where you’ll find a massive automatronic orchestra playing Octopus’s Garden, and doing quite a good job of it too.

At every single turn there is another collection of something – most of it seemingly completely random, displaying things like a Christmas plate collection and Fabergé eggs.

One of those completely random exhibits – a car with a heart shaped spa tub, towing a pyramid filled with elephants.

One of the final portions of the tour takes you through “the music of yesterday”, featuring multiple rooms with music machines. As with most of the machines on the tour, you’ll need one or two tokens to activate the music. Token machines take $1 and $5 bills and are found at random points throughout the tour.

By now, I was mentally exhausted – there is only so much a person can take in on a single tour, and the amount of exhibits really was beginning to become too much. The final exhibit at the House of the Rock, is the largest carousel in the world. And my, what a massive carousel it is. With over 20,000 lights, 269 carousel animals and 182 chandeliers, this thing is so big, that you can’t really grasp its size. One word of warning though – the carousel is for viewing only, kids (or adults) can not ride it.

Despite the cold temperatures outside, the massive amount of lamps on the carousel made this room uncomfortably warm.

As with all other parts of the tour, every single corner of this attraction is decorated with something – the ceiling and walls all display carousel animals and ornaments and in the corner is a working carousel power plant.

Everything about the House on the Rock is impressive – from the sheer number of different collections, to the wacky and confusing design. One thing that I liked was the way the tour is setup – there are no tour guides, and very few signs telling you what you are looking at. The obvious purpose of all the exhibits is to just relax, and enjoy the sights and sounds instead of trying to cram 1
00’s of years of trivia into a few hours.

The tour I took included portions one and two of the exhibit, parts of portion three were closed, and won’t be open till the summer season begins.

The House on the Rock is located in Spring Green, WI. Spring Green is about 40 miles from Madison, WI and about 200 miles from Chicago. The region is also home to the famous “Cave of the mounds” and Frank Lloyd Wrights “Taliesin”.

Admission to the House on the Rock is $28.50, which includes access to all portions of the tour. Unused tour segments are valid for a year. Children under 3 are free. Opening hours are 9am-6pm during the summer season (May 1st – September 6th) and 9am-5pm during the autumn season (September 7th – November 1st).

If you plan to visit the House on the Rock, and need more than a day, you can spend the night at the House on the Rock resort or inn, each located a couple of miles from the attraction.