Fittingly known as the ‘City of Gardens’, Rockford in Northern Illinois is home to numerous pretty parks and lovingly landscaped outdoor spaces. While many come to see its arboretum, conservatory and the Anderson Japanese Gardens, it also has a number of excellent museums.
The largest city in the state outside of the Chicago metropolitan area, it straddles both banks of the Rock River with verdant forested hills surrounding it. Due to its strategic setting, it flourished as a manufacturing center before deindustrialization hit hard in the second half of the twentieth century.
Recent rejuvenation projects have, however, had a lot of success with Riverfront Museum Park now boasting top-class cultural institutions and picturesque waterside walks. While there are some amazing historic things to do in Rockford and scintillating shows to see at the charming Coronado Performing Arts Center, the city remains an outdoor destination for a lot of people.
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12. Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum & Gardens
A hugely interesting place to visit, the Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum and its lovely gardens can be found just a short distance south of the center, overlooking Kent Creek. Once the private residence of one of the city’s most influential families, it has lots of exquisite architecture, original furnishings and impressive artworks for visitors to check out.
Perched atop a prominent bluff, the striking Swiss-style house was built between 1865 and 1870 for Robert and Mary Tinker. Wonderfully well-preserved, its 27 rooms are now open for tours with period pieces, family portraits and personal belongings all on show.
Aside from exploring its interior and enjoying the arresting architecture, you can also amble around its gardens and see both a Native American conical mound and the site where the city was founded.
11. Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden
Often described as a living museum, the enormous Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden is home to all kinds of colorful plants, flowers, trees and shrubs. A great place to immerse yourself in nature, its shady trails and landscaped gardens lie just down the Rock River from downtown.
Established in 1910, it now boasts more than 500 local and exotic species with some towering trees reckoned to be over 300 years old. While some parts of the park are left wild and untouched, most are immaculately maintained with gorgeous prehistoric and fountain gardens lying next to Azalea and Rhododendron dells.
Strolling amidst its fantastic floral displays and water features really is a treat with plenty of park benches, picnic areas and public art installations dotted here and there.
10. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Laurent House
On the northeastern outskirts of the city is another of its most beautiful and unique buildings: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Laurent House. The only one he ever designed for a client with a disability, it is full of fine finishing and furniture with intricate details and designs on display wherever you look.
Blending in perfectly with the woods around it, the single-storey structure was built in 1951 for the disabled US Navy veteran Kenneth Laurent and his wife Phyllis. As its design had to be wheelchair-accessible, the house has an unusual hemicycle floor plan with everything seeming to flow and fit together very harmoniously.
On tours, your expert and enthusiastic guide will tell you all about the National Historic Landmark while pointing out some of its terrific little touches and design elements. As it is mostly made out of red tidewater cypress, the house has a very warm, welcoming feel to it with the views over the trees outside only adding to its peaceful ambience.
9. Rockford City Market
In contrast, the Rockford City Market is a very colorful and chaotic affair as farmers and vendors hawk their wares to the hundreds of shoppers milling about. Held each Friday afternoon from mid-May up until the end of September, its delicious street food and excellent live music make it a fun spot to explore.
Now home to over seventy stands and stalls, the vibrant outdoor market’s first season took place in 2010 with it having almost doubled in size over the last decade. Besides fresh fruit and vegetables, vendors sell everything from locally produced meats and cheeses to handmade arts and crafts.
There are also beer stands and coffee stalls scattered about and a wide range of food options for you to sit down and snack on. Very popular with locals and tourists alike, the happening market is well worth stopping by for its laid back atmosphere and outstanding array of things to buy and eat.
8. Sinnissippi Park
Just up the river from the market in downtown is the scenic and serene Sinnissippi Park. Covering a humongous area, its wide-open spaces, well-equipped playgrounds and wonderful gardens offer up a whole host of exciting outdoor activities.
Set atop a bluff overlooking the river, the public park has loads of winding paths to walk, run, jog or cycle along. These take you past verdant woodlands and lush lawns with flower displays, ponds and sculptures dotted amidst pristine nature.
Since the seventies, its magnificent old Music Shell has hosted the loud and lively Music in the Park Summer Concert Series and the calmer and quieter Illinois Snow Sculpting Competition. Other than this, you can make use of its picnic areas and park shelters or play a round at the Sinnissippi Golf Course.
7. Coronado Performing Arts Center
If you want to catch a memorable concert, comedy night or show, then the Coronado Performing Arts Center is certainly the place to go. Located right in the heart of Rockford, the beautiful historic venue has a packed schedule of entertaining events for you to check out.
Very decadently decorated, the atmospheric old theater first welcomed spectators to its shows back in 1927. Adorning the walls of its elegant auditorium are the glittering facades of gilded Italian and Spanish-style buildings with glowing lanterns and Japanese dragons also featuring.
Due to its ornate interior, the center is sometimes referred to as ‘Rockford’s Wonder Theater’ with all its performances making for an unforgettable spectacle. During its heyday, big names such as Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland performed on its hallowed stage which now puts on Broadway musicals, concerts and specialty shows.
6. Rock Cut State Park
Another picture-perfect place to head if you love the great outdoors is Rock Cut State Park. Situated just fifteen minutes drive northeast of the city center, its sprawling confines have some epic hiking, biking and horseback riding for visitors to enjoy.
One of the largest state parks in Illinois, it includes everything from vast woods and flower-filled meadows to lakes, creeks and prairies. A haven for local wildlife, its dense undergrowth is home to not just deer and foxes but muskrats, beavers and raccoons with fishing out on the reflective Pierce Lake being a very popular pastime.
Aside from kayaking and boating about its tranquil waters, you can venture off along its leafy trails and stay overnight at its cozy campgrounds. Sandy volleyball courts and picnic areas are also found along the long, indented lakeshore.
5. Nicholas Conservatory and Gardens
Home to lots of tropical plants and exotic flowers, the colossal Nicholas Conservatory and Gardens lies right next to Sinnissippi Park, alongside the river. With plenty of fetching fountains, patios and sculptures also on show, it makes for a very pleasant and picturesque spot to spend an afternoon.
The third-largest conservatory in the entire state, its giant greenhouses brilliantly bring the tropics to the Midwest. Wandering about its steamy paths really is a delight as colorful plants, lush rainforest and little twinkling water features lie on all sides.
Besides snapping photos of all the pretty petals and foliage, you can amble alongside the attractive Eclipse Lagoon outside and sit and take in the scenery from one of its patios. In summer, there is a magical butterfly exhibit to explore while its on-site bistro and gift shop can be accessed any time.
4. Burpee Museum of Natural History
With four floors of interactive exhibits and hands-on activities to enjoy, it is no wonder the Burpee Museum of Natural History is one of the region’s top cultural attractions. Its light and airy galleries house humongous dinosaur skeletons, amazing Native American artifacts and much, much more.
Part of the city’s Riverfront Museum Park, it was founded in 1941 with its expansive complex now also encompassing several historic mansions. Its enthralling exhibits cover 450 million years of the state’s natural history with life-size dioramas and real fossils on display alongside ancient minerals, insects and indigenous artifacts.
The highlight though is of course seeing the most complete and best-preserved juvenile T. Rex ever discovered and walking through a replica of a prehistoric carboniferous coal forest. The marvelous museum also puts on countless classes, workshops and lab sessions for the community each year.
3. Midway Village Museum
For those more interested in the human history of Rockford, the Midway Village Museum is simply a must. This is because its gorgeous grounds and old historic structures highlight what life was like back in the Midwest during the early 1900s.
Its sprawling site and Victorian-era village lie fifteen minutes’ drive directly east of the center on the outskirts of the Guilford County Forest Preserve. Its 26 historical buildings include a police station, schoolhouse and general store with innumerable artifacts and exhibits lying within all of them.
The museum center and costumed interpreters provide more information on the various cultures and communities that have so shaped the history of the city. A fantastic time to visit is during the annual WWII days or Oregon Trail re-enactments which see all kinds of immersive events take place.
2. Discovery Center Museum
An equally fun and fascinating place to explore is the delightful Discover Center Museum. Set right next to the Rock River in downtown, it has roughly 300 art and science exhibits for younger ones to enjoy with exciting hands-on activities and experiments also on offer.
Widely considered to be one of the best children’s museums in the nation, it was established in 1981 to provide them with a space to learn through touch and play. Kids can dig for dino bones, build and paint whatever they like and clamber about climbing frames or splash about with water wheels.
As it is so interactive, the museum is a firm favorite with families with topics like electricity, flight and motion all covered by its exhibits.
1. Anderson Japanese Gardens
While Rockford is awash with stunning natural sights, the undoubted star of the show has to be the Anderson Japanese Gardens. Often rated the finest garden of its kind in North America, its scenic landscapes and wonderful water features make it an absolute treat to stroll around peacefully.
Inspired by his trips to Japan, John R. Anderson set about designing the idyllic garden alongside the renowned landscape architect Hoichi Kurisu in 1978. Its meandering paths take you past twinkling streams, waterfalls and koi fish ponds with a traditional tea house, stone lanterns and rock features also dotted about.
In addition to taking in all the spellbinding scenery and snapping pics of the plants and pagodas, you can also attend ikebana and calligraphy demonstrations, tea ceremonies and bonsai displays.