Escape the hustle and bustle for a relaxing weekend in Chicago's eclectic neighbor, Rockford, IL.
Welcome to “Go There,” a Livability.com series about travel and how to maximize your time in some of our favorite cities. Do you have a place in mind that we should visit next? Let us know! Today, we’re weekend-ing in Rockford, IL.
About an hour Northwest of Chicago and scenically located along the Rock River is Rockford, IL, a river city with an industrial past. This river city has a wide range of things to do, friendly residents and easy access to the great outdoors, offering an uncrowded getaway and eclectic weekend experience.
Historically, Rockford’s river contributed to its strategic industrial location, and today the river continues to shape the city with beautiful views and several outdoor recreation opportunities. A variety of historic neighborhoods and homes in Rockford represent architecture from nearly every decade, from stately Queen Anne styles to cute Cape Cod houses and even a Frank Lloyd Wright creation. Neighborhood pride is ubiquitous among residents, and the uniquely preserved character of each is part of Rockford’s unique charm.
Whether you’re looking for a family getaway, time to unplug in nature or a historical weekend, Rockford’s got it. Read on for all the insider tips.
Getting Around Town:
The easiest way to navigate Rockford is by car. Traffic is light, and parking is easy and mostly free, even downtown.
Where to Stay
Once a converted factory headquarters, today, the Embassy Suites Rockford Riverfront offers a cozy stay with character at a reasonable cost. The building housed AmeRock Hardware decades ago and was saved from demolition by the idea of converting it into a full-service waterfront hotel, and in 2011, the National Park Service granted historic status to the Rockford landmark.
This relatively new property, which opened in 2020, seamlessly blends the industrial character of its past with modern decor and amenities. Enjoy gorgeous river views from many rooms, and with onsite local coffee shop Rockford Roasting Company, The Top rooftop bar and ground floor restaurant The Tower, featuring live music, you might find it hard to leave.
Where to Eat
Rockford’s growing food scene has something for every taste. Fresco in the Garden, inside the Anderson Japanese Gardens, offers a simple lunch menu with a gorgeous view overlooking Anderson’s 12 acres of waterfalls, paths and ponds home to several species of koi fish.
Prairie Street Brewing Company is a unique spot in a once abandoned historic-building-turned brewery that now features multiple event spaces, several bars, riverside dining, more than a dozen beers brewed onsite at any given time and charming architecture inside and out. On Thursday nights during the summer, check out Dinner on the Dock and take in a gorgeous sunset over the Rock River. Don’t miss the cheese curds!
Nordic restaurant, The Norwegian, serves daily brunch and dinner a few days a week. With live music in the evening, plenty of space to get work done during the day and an excellent atmosphere for either, this little community hub is worth your time.
Sisters Thai Café, named for its owners’ eight sisters, serves authentic Thai and Laotian food, making everything fresh to order with their own family recipes.
What to Do
Winnebago County — where Rockford is located — boasts 10,000+ acres of protected recreational land, several lakes and 42 individual forest preserves surrounding the city. That means ample opportunity for hiking, camping, fishing, kayaking and more.
West Rock Wake Park offers wakeboarding on Levings Lake thanks to a system of cables; no boat or experience required. Rock Cut State Park’s hiking trails, two lakes and 270 premium campsites are 20 minutes from Rockford’s downtown, with rentable motorboats, bikes and more. Finally, Atwood Park Silent Sports Trail System consists of 20 miles of trails along both sides of the Kishwaukee river for hikers, bikers and cross-country skiers.
Looking to stay on dry land? Rockford is home to UW Health Sports Factory, an old factory building that’s been redeveloped into one of the largest sports facilities in the Midwest. Or, if you’re a history buff, check out the Burpee Museum of Natural History, a large-scale fossil museum. Spend a few hours browsing Burpee’s exhibits, learning about the Earth’s landscape millions of years ago and discovering minerals, rocks, and more. Be sure to visit Jane, the world’s most complete and well-preserved juvenile T.rex. Burpee even hosts fossil excavation trips to Montana and Utah, where participants, including beginners, help collect specimens under the direction of paleontologists.
Nicknamed the City of Gardens, Rockford has several botanical gardens, including Anderson Japanese Gardens, one of North America’s highest quality Japanese gardens; Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden; and Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens. While visiting the Nicholas Conservatory, check out the Secret Life of Butterflies special exhibit if it’s in season, where visitors receive a foam-topped stick soaked in Gatorade to draw butterflies for up-close observation.
Another unexpected Rockford attraction is The Laurent House. Built in 1949 by Frank Lloyd Wright, the design was decades ahead of the Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines and is his only design that was originally designed to be ADA accessible. Visitors can tour the house with a reservation. Another historic home in the area is the Tinker Swiss Cottage, which gives a glimpse of Victorian-era life and is one of the few Swiss-style homes remaining in the U.S.
Rockford City Market, run by local nonprofit Rock River Development Partnership, also operates the Rockford City Market building in a restored 1920s space. The building houses winter markets, a 24/7 state-of-the-art commercial kitchen to help food entrepreneurs launch businesses, permanent restaurants and bakeries and event space for everything from weddings to swing dancing nights. During the summer, the City Market puts on the popular Outdoor City Market on Friday nights from 4 to 8:30 p.m. The Market brings more than 70 local vendors, food trucks, live music and local breweries to the heart of downtown Rockford.
Candy Cloud, a City Market vendor, known for colorful canned drinks, opened its first storefront in March 2022 after seeing success operating out of a vintage camping trailer. At City Market, customers often wait in long lines to get one of Candy Cloud’s signature drinks.