Aug 23, 2023 - Things to Do

A day tripper's guide to Rockford

Man with guitar, man in pink suit, man sitting behind drums, man with guitar.

Rockford's most famous export, Cheap Trick, in 1980. Photo by David Tan/Shinko Music/Getty Images

If you're looking for a day trip outside of Chicago, consider my hometown!

Why it matters: Rockford was once the second-largest city in Illinois but now ranks at No. 5. Its nickname is "The Forest City" for its woods and numerous parks; there's also a lovely riverfront.

The big picture: If anyone's talking about Rockford, it's most likely because of classic rockers Cheap Trick, who still live there and still rock. They're currently on tour and played at Metro last month.

Getting there

🚘 A straight shot northwest on I-90 by car.

🚍 Van Galder bus departs from downtown and O'Hare.

  • ETA: See above.

The intrigue: Gov. JB Pritzker recently announced that Metra will have a train from Chicago to Rockford, beginning in 2027.

What's happening: Here are some things to do, see and eat, all inspired by some of the Rockford I knew, and what it's like now.

  • Bear with me, this is (whispers) 40 years' worth of recs.

Key: Picks with an emoji have a little extra space in my heart.

Large pond with trees behind under blue sky.
Anderson Japanese Gardens. Photo courtesy of Liz Wolf

Nature

Building with triangular roof.
Starlight Theatre. Photo courtesy of Liz Wolf

Theater

Exterior looking inside long narrow house.
The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Laurent House. Photo: Laurent House/Andrew Pielage

Museums

  • Rockford Art Museum is free with a great gift shop that features local artists.
  • Burpee Museum of Natural History has Jane, the world's most complete and best preserved juvenile T. rex.
  • 🏠 Laurent House was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright to accommodate the owner's unique needs as a paraplegic. I got to interview Kenneth Laurent right before he died, and he was so lovely.
Group sitting around long wood table looking and smiling at camera.
Carrie and her friends around Christmas last year at The Norwegian. Photo: Carrie Shepherd/Axios

Where to eat/drink

  • The Norwegian has Nordic cuisines, great drinks and live music.
  • ☕ Rockford Roasting Co. brews fantastic coffee, and all its pastries are vegan.
  • Beef-a-Roo is a classic and, despite the name, has multiple vegetarian options.
  • Lino's is traditional Italian with red-vinyl booths and scenes of Italy painted on the walls.
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