Rockford, Illinois is home to way more tourist attractions than you might think. There are many places you can visit, including parks, museums and even some off-the-beaten-path attractions.
I can assure you that you will easily spend a couple of days in Rockford and won’t get bored. Last summer, the local tourism board invited us to test the amazing museums, gardens, and sports events that the city has to offer.
And what can I say? Rockford really has it all!
So if you are still looking for things to do in Rockford, Illinois or on your trip along the Great River Road in Illinois, let me inspire you with this handy list of our top tips!
1. Anderson Japanese Garden
Founded by local businessman John Anderson, this 12 acre garden is a replica of formal Japanese gardens from the 12th century. On his many trips to Japan, the beautiful gardens of Japan inspired Mr. Anderson to recreate the peaceful and relaxing setting of a Japanese garden in his hometown of Rockford.
Today, the public can explore the expansive private grounds, including the ponds, pagodas, and tea houses.
What many visitors don’t realise: The garden is not just a beautiful park which is perfect for a stroll. There are also tons of hidden messages and deep meaning behind the structures and elements of the garden that we Westerners hardly know about.
Therefore, the best way to explore Anderson Japanese Gardens in Rockford is by joining a guided tour with one of the friendly docents. Read here more for details.
2. Laurent House by Star Architect Frank Lloyd Wright
A little bit off the beaten path, in a quiet and leafy Rockford suburb, you will find an unexpected architectonic masterpiece. The Laurent House is a family home built in the 1950s by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed a number of important buildings in the USA, most notably the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
The Laurent house is special, not just because it is a beautiful period house with lots of original features and custom-made furniture. It is also a home that was designed with the owner’s disability in mind (he was a quadriplegic) without appearing like a sanatorium.
We loved the cool vintage vibe of the house with its warm orange colours and organic shapes. The intimate views outside into the garden and the many original features made it appear as if the owners had left it only yesterday. To see the Laurent House in Rockford, visit the website to book a tour.
3. Rockford Rivets Baseball Team
As a European I know very little about baseball, but I still find it utterly fascinating. While in Rockford, we went to a game of the local team Rockford Rivets to see real baseball in action. While I didn’t understand all the rules, I have to say that I was amazed by the wonderfully relaxed and cheerful atmosphere of the crowd.
Rivet Stadium is easily reached and can hold up to 4,000 people. The chants and songs, the cheers and applause under the deep blue sky of a warm summer night is something I will not so easily forget.
Watching a baseball game in Rockford is great fun for the whole family. For tickets, and to check the program, click here.
4. Burpee Museum of Natural History
Kids generally love Natural History Museums, and the one in Rockford has some true gems that they will enjoy. It is particularly interesting because of its unique collection of dinosaur bones which are sourced from the badlands in Montana. The most famous piece is the complete skeleton of a young T. rex named Jane.
Apart from this, the Burpee Natural History Museum on North Main Street has an interesting exhibition on the native tribes of America. Here, we even learned that just a couple of yards away there was a turtle shaped mound by the river which we duly visited afterwards.
There is always something exciting going on at the museum thanks to the changing exhibitions. While we were there, we got to see lots of live animals including turtles, reptiles, and spiders. We were also offered to touch some of the animals but we kindly declined…
5. Rockford Art Gallery
Rockford’s Art Gallery shows a great collection of local art, from contemporary pieces to artwork from the 19th and 20th centuries. ‘Local’ in this case means artists that were born in the area or worked nearby, including Chicago.
Truth be told, we weren’t expecting much when we walked through the glass doors and into the exhibition. But we found a wonderful collection of paintings and sculptures that seemed much bigger than something that you would normally find in a small town in Illinois.
It is quite unfair that a place like Rockford pales next to the great metropolis of Chicago. Art galleries in the big city rarely have to lure visitors in to come and see their artwork. In Rockford, the Art Gallery definitely doesn’t have to hide behind its small town status.
When you are in the area and love seeing fresh, intriguing and historic artwork from American artists, have a look here.
6. Midway Village Museum
Another place to visit is a wonderful history museum in Rockford, the Midway Village consists of two parts. The museum building houses various exhibits relating to the story of the city, including a well-done immigrant exhibition which highlights the different background of real locals.
We also learned about the Rockford Peaches, the successful all-girls baseball team. You may have heard about them through the Tom Hanks movie “A League of Their Own”.
Outside, you will find the second part of the museum, the actual Midway Village. 26 buildings, including a church, an inn, shops, and a school, recreate a Victorian village, just like it may have looked like in the area some hundred plus years ago. Interpreters in costumes take groups of visitors around to explain the different buildings and their purpose.
We found the Midway Village Museum both, romantic and educational. The pretty gardens surrounding some of the buildings and the mature trees made for a relaxing afternoon walk. Highly recommended!
7. Historic Auto Attractions
Our visit to Historic Auto Attraction simply blew us away! This private museum on the outskirts of Rockford is not just a collection of historic cars. It is so much more.
If you like the Wild West, country music, Hollywood, watching TV, anything space related, or the history of American presidents then this museum is a must-do.
The collection consists of a variety of items that have been owned by historic people or were present in a historic situation. Some examples include a signed John Wayne movie contract, a scrap metal of James Dean’s crash car, a Ghostbusters car, space capsules, Lincoln’s rocking chair, and the flag that covered the casket of John F. Kennedy.
For more information, check out this more detailed post which we wrote earlier.
8. Tinker Swiss Cottage and Gardens
Tinker Swiss Cottage is a cute historic house in Rockford which is now a museum. It used to be the house of the Tinker family, hence the name. Visitors can explore the house and the grounds, including the barn, the gardens, and the carriage house. There is even a Native American burial ground on site.
Most of the stuff you can see here is from the Tinker family themselves. As such, Tinker Swiss Cottage and Gardens is a great place to discover some local history. And with so much history all in one place, it is no surprise that paranormal activity is also something one might expect to see here!
The Swiss Cottage Museum is open during very limited hours, and closed in winter. Visit by guided tour only. More info on the official website.
9. Rock Cut State Park
Craving some nature experience while visiting Rockford? Just head to Rock Cut State Park in Winnebago Country. There are two lakes to explore, set within a landscape of rolling hills and lots of history.
Pearce Lake, for example is a great retreat all year round. In summer, you can go fishing here, in winter make sure you pack your ice skates! Other recreational activities in this state park near Rockford include horseback riding, hiking, and cross-country skiing in winter.
You can even stay in Rock Cut State Park: There are a number of cabins and campsites to choose from. For more information and current conditions, it’s best you visit the official website.
10. Discovery Center Museum
Right next to Burpee Museum of Natural History (see above), visit Rockford’s very own Discovery Center Museum. This family-friendly museum is great when you visiting Rockford with kids. There are tons of exhibitions for the inquisitive minds of children plus plenty of activities during the school holidays.
There are many interactive displays and little experiments that kids can try. For example, the can learn about electricity, the stars, the physics of light, and the weather. The Rock River Discovery Park is probably the highlight to any visit: a huge award-winning outdoor playground that all kids will love.
It’s a particularly smart choice for families on rainy days. Check here for more information.
Rockford, Il: A Great Weekend Destination or a Road Trip Stopover from the Great River Road to Chicago
As you can see, there are tons of places to see and many really cool things to do in Rockford, Illinois.
Rockford is an easy drive from bigger cities like Chicago and Milwaukee. It is perfect for a weekend getaway with your partner or the whole family.
If you are looking for accommodation options in the area, I suggest you have a look at Airbnb as most hotels and motels are rather unimaginative and placed along the highways. We stayed in a beautiful modern loft apartment in the city centre with plenty of restaurants in walking distance.
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