Less than an hour away from Chicago, Aurora makes a perfect day trip for anyone in the Windy City. As the second-largest city in Illinois, Aurora has a lot to offer. Visitors can explore the city’s museums and historical buildings, enjoy beautiful parks along the Fox River, and dine at quaint and quirky restaurants. In a hurry? This curated guide will help you discover the city’s highlights in just 24 hours.
The Aurora Pancake House is a mom-and-pop diner popular with local residents for its hearty breakfast fare, especially its pancakes. Its extensive six-page menu includes classics like eggs, bacon, sausage and omelets. Indulge in one of their specialties, such as a baked apple pancake, Swedish pancakes with imported loganberries, or German pancakes with zing of lemon and a light dusting of powdered sugar. While waiting for your breakfast, check out the historical photos that line the walls and discover how much Aurora has changed since this restaurant opened in 1947.
The William Tanner House Museum gives visitors a peek into the life of an upper middle-class family as Aurora evolved from a prairie settlement into a bustling river city. Land surveyor William Tanner—one of the city’s first residents—built this large Italianate home for his wife and 10 children. Docents lead visitors through the two-story house, pointing out the ornate plaster work, high ceilings and Victorian furniture in the parlor, music room, dining room, library and eight bedrooms. Ask the docent to show you the Victorian predecessor to record and CD players, and the hand-cranked Reginaphone.
The Chicago & Aurora Railroad used this unique round limestone building to repair its locomotives from 1856 until 1974. It was converted to a restaurant and entertainment complex in 1995. Share a small-plate lunch; the menu includes mushroom risotto, smoked brisket, scallops, an Asian salad, and three types of tacos. Enjoy it, along with one of their craft beers, in the outdoor courtyard. If you are here on Saturday, stay for the free 2 p.m. guided tour of the on-site distillery and learn more about the history behind the oldest limestone roundhouse in the United States.
Discover Aurora’s natural wonders at Red Oak Nature Center. Start inside the exhibit building and check out live turtles, frogs, salamanders and fish in the wildlife room. Ask the attendant to play a short DVD about the history of the area and the animals who make their home along the adjacent Fox River. Then head outside to the paved Fox River Trail and walk south until you reach the only known cave in the area. According to local legend, it was dubbed “Devil’s Cave” because phosphorescent fungus once gave it an eerie glow. Follow the quarter mile Big Turtle Trail to the observation deck where you can view Canada geese, mallard ducks and other river wildlife.
Oberweis Dairy began as a dairy farm and milk delivery service in 1927, then opened its first dairy store in 1951. Since that time, more than 41 stores have opened in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Missouri. Although Oberweis stores are not uncommon throughout Chicagoland, take the time to visit the main store in North Aurora. Factory tours offer guests a firsthand look into how ice cream and other dairy products are made. Afterwards, enjoy a scoop of their super-smooth ice cream in a waffle cone.
The Paramount Theatre’s distinctive Art Deco building was owned in the 1930s by the major motion picture company of the same name. The theater’s interior, which features hand-painted murals and Venetian architectural elements, evokes the glamorous movie palaces of the past. Since opening, it has hosted everything from vaudeville acts to circus performances. Today, the 1,888-seat theatre is famous for its locally-produced musicals with their Broadway-quality costuming, sets, choreography, live orchestra and professional actors. Paramount also hosts music concerts, dance events, comedy shows and bargain-priced screenings of classic movies every Monday.
Stroll a half-block west to the 22-story Leland Towers and grab a bite to eat at its ground-floor restaurant –Leland Legends Pub & Grill. They’re known for their extra-large mozzarella sticks served with homemade raspberry chipotle sauce. Popular entrees include the Diablo burger with ghost pepper cheese, the Reuben sandwiches filled with homemade sauerkraut, and the hand-battered fish and chips. As you wait for your meal, read your place mat and check out the posters lining the restaurant’s walls. You’ll learn a bit about the fascinating history of the Leland Tower, which was once the tallest building in Illinois outside Chicago. In the 1930s, RCA/Bluebird Records used its top floor—the Sky Room—to produce records by blues artists such as John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson. The building also housed a swanky hotel whose guests included Al Capone and John Dillinger.
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Start your last few hours in Aurora with an early morning run to Harners Bakery for donuts. This family-owned business, serving the area since 1960, makes pastries and donuts from scratch every night. Their cake donuts with chocolate frosting are so popular that they sometimes sell out within an hour. Bring bills with you; they only accept cash. If you want a more substantial meal, head to their State Street restaurant which serves traditional breakfast fare including eggs, omelets and pancakes.
Finish your Aurora adventure with a bit of retail therapy at the Chicago Premium Outlets. This large outdoor mall has more than 170 stores including Under Armour, Vera Bradley, Adidas, Tommy Hilfiger, True Religion, Versace, Perry Ellis and other top brands. Afterwards, stroll into the courtyard. Relax with a glass of tea or lemonade by the reflecting pool before heading home.