By Jessica Mozo
Aurora may lie in the shadow of big brother Chicago, but as its motto states, Aurora is “a city second to none.”
With a fast-growing population nearing 200,000, Aurora is Illinois’ second-largest city and offers endless opportunities for dining, shopping, socializing, museum hopping, gaming, nightlife, and soaking up local history and agricultural flavore. Located 37 miles west of Chicago, Aurora was nicknamed the “City of Lights” in 1908 for being one of the first U.S. cities to install an all-electric street lighting system.
Fun on the Farm
There’s no better time than fall to enjoy a day on the farm, and Aurora’s Blackberry Farm Pioneer Village is a fun day trip for kids and adults alike. The historic farm-turned-living-history museum is sprawled out on 54 picturesque acres, and visitors can watch live demonstrations of blacksmithing, spinning, weaving, sewing and pottery. Blackberry Farm has five museums containing 19th century artifacts, carriages, a Victorian-era music shop, pharmacy, general store and toy store.
Kids love riding the farm’s restored miniature train and old-fashioned hay wagon rides along Blackberry Creek, and they can also ride a carousel and ponies. Picnic spots are sprinkled throughout the grounds, and you can also buy food (sandwiches, salads and snacks) at the farm’s Summer Kitchen. Pick up a souvenir in the general store, which carries handcrafted textiles and pottery made on site.
In nearby Yorkville, Lyon Farm and Village is maintained by the Kendall County Historical Society and has 15 historic buildings depicting local history. The village comes alive in September for its annual Fall Festival, complete with crafters, antique cars and tractors, a flea market and bake sale, children’s games, a petting zoo, hayrides, and live entertainment.
Each October, Lyon Farm hosts Halloween parties with old-fashioned games, a costume parade, prizes, trick-or-treating and hayrides through the farm’s haunted barn.
Phillips Park is another outdoor wonderland with 325 acres of attractions. It is home to the Phillips Park Zoo, which offers free admission and features 100 animals representing 41 different species. Phillips Park also has an 18-hole golf course, a 28-acre fishing lake, a one-mile trail, war memorials, a visitors center, the Mastodon Gallery and the Sunken Garden.
Other area attractions include the Fabyan Dutch Windmill just north of Batavia, and the Red Oak Nature Center on the east bank of the Fox River – also home of one of the few caves in the Chicago area.
Downtown Aurora is a feast for the senses, with eye-catching architecture, beautiful landscaping and the scenic Fox River running through it. Pick up a tour brochure at the Aurora Convention & Visitors Bureau to discover all that downtown has to offer. Aurora’s award-winning Downtown Cell Phone Walking Tour and Heritage Tour are self-guided and give visitors a peek at Aurora’s unusual buildings, modern sculptures and works by world-renowned architects.
While downtown, catch a show at the fabulous Paramount Theatre – you can’t miss the lighted marquee. The 1931 art deco movie palace was Illinois’ first air-conditioned building outside Chicago and entertained crowds for more than 40 years with “talking pictures,” vaudeville, concerts and circus performances.
The theater underwent a $1.5 million restoration in the 1970s, and a 12,000-square-foot lobby was added in 2006. It presents an impressive roster of world-class performers, plays and touring musicals each year.
Hollywood Casino is another jewel in downtown Aurora’s crown. Situated along the Fox River, the casino provides more than 53,000 square feet of gaming space with 1,100 slots, live poker action and two restaurants. Treat yourself to lunch or dinner at Hollywood Casino’s Fairbanks Steakhouse, Epic Buffet or Take Two Deli, and browse the casino’s impressive collection of movie memorabilia.
Downtown Aurora also has a great dining scene, including America’s Historic Roundhouse, a restaurant opened by NFL Hall of Famer Walter Payton.
Crank an old fire engine siren and learn about the firefighting history of the Aurora area at the Aurora Regional Fire Museum. Housed in the old 1894 Central Fire Station, children and adults have been touring the building on Broadway for more than 100 years – first as the city’s Central Fire Station and today as the Aurora Regional Fire Museum.
The museum houses more than 1,000 artifacts, 2,000 photographs and seven pieces of fire apparatus, from an 1850s hand pumper to a 1960s aerial ladder truck. Kids love the museum’s five interactive kiosks on fighting fires.
In nearby Batavia, explore local railroad history at the Batavia Depot Museum, housed in the previously abandoned 1854 Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Depot. Try your hand at sending messages using Morse code on the museum’s live telegraph keys, and check out its collection of railroad artifacts and historic photos. The inside of the depot looks much like it did a century ago when passengers stepped up to the window to buy a train ticket. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
Rounding out Aurora museums is the family-friendly SciTech Hands-On Museum, which teaches kids about weather, electricity and astronomy through interactive exhibits.