River Cities

By
May Issue View more

A guide to adventures, sights, and dining along the Fox and DuPage Rivers

LiFe on the river.

It is as great as it sounds. And lucky for us, the watershed of the west suburbs is vast, with rivers carving through canopied forests, marshy lowlands, and bustling historic downtown districts built on their banks.

“River towns are special,” says Gary Swick, president of the Friends of the Fox River. “People settled on the river because it was such a wonderful resource. In the old days, the towns had their backs to the river; that’s where they dumped their waste. And now, every town has turned to face the river because we appreciate the beauty of it now.” 

Even sitting down to a meal on the riverfront can be transportive. “Looking at the river going by, it feels like you can be anywhere,” says Chris Curren, executive chef and owner of the Graceful Ordinary, one of downtown St. Charles’s newest restaurants, perched on the east bank of the Fox River. “It could feel like a European city or a tiny village in a rural part of America.”

A river can fuel the imagination. “Having the water right there allows you to let your mind transport you to wherever you want to go,” Curren says. “That’s the beauty and the magic of it.” 

Feeling inspired to get a taste of river life? Use these daylong itineraries to rediscover seven towns located along two of the area’s most prominent rivers.


FOX RIVER

A tributary of the Illinois River, the Fox River originates in southeastern Wisconsin and flows southward to Ottawa, Illinois, spanning 223 miles.
On its way, it flows through the centers of historic downtown East and West Dundee, Elgin, St. Charles, Geneva, Batavia, and Aurora. 

“Up by West Dundee, it’s faster-moving water,” says Ron Banckaert, a former river fishing guide and owner of Fox Valley Fish Taxidermy. “Further down by St. Charles, there are backwaters off the river where it shallows out and lily-pads up. You can find backwater eddies where the flow of the water is almost spinning around, like a pond-like area.” 

Illustration by Juliette Borda


Take a cruise on the St. Charles Paddlewheel Riverboats to enjoy the Fox River scenery.
Try an open-face lox sandwich (with sun-dried tomato and caper relish) at the Graceful Ordinary.

St. Charles

The Fox River runs right through downtown St. Charles, which has seen a flurry of riverfront development in recent years that’s worthy
of a visit. 

Start your day off with weekend brunch on the riverside terrace at the Graceful Ordinary (3 E. Main St., thegracefulordinary.com), where Chef Curren’s dishes include churro-inspired French toast made with horchata-spiked batter and an open-face lox sandwich with sun-dried tomato and caper relish that has become a fast favorite. “We’ve had people who have actually come in twice in the same day to get it,” Curren says. 

Then walk over to Pottawatomie Park to embark on a scenic riverboat cruise with St. Charles Paddlewheel Riverboats (8 North Ave., stcriverboats.com).
The 45-minute cruises depart thrice daily on weekends starting May 14 and run rain or shine. 

To channel your competitive spirit, get your game on just steps away at River View Miniature Golf Course (riverviewminigolf.org) or challenge a pal to a pinball face-off at Rock ’N Za inside the venerable Arcada Theatre (105 E. Main St., rocknza.com). 

If you have time to spare and a thirst to quench, stroll across the river and while away the evening at Alter Brewing Co. (12 S. First St., alterbrewing.com). Check out the double-decker shipping-container bar with seating up top, or sit under the string lights on the patio and order the Alterado, a Mexican-style lager that goes down easy. 

Photos courtesy of City of St. Charles (riverboat), Reeshema Wood Photography (Fox River), and Matt Reeves (sandwich)



Visit the 68-foot-tall Dutch windmill on the east side of the Fabyan Forest Preserve.
Kayak on the Fox

Settle in for a spa treatment at the Herrington Inn & Spa

Geneva

Bruce Heidlauf, owner of Mill Race Cyclery (11 E. State St., millrace.com) has rented bikes in downtown Geneva for 39 years and added kayaks, canoes, and standup paddleboard rentals about 10 years ago. “Standup paddleboarding is actually my personal favorite,” he says. “And Geneva is a really ideal place to do this.” 

While a stronger current on other parts of the Fox River makes an out-and-back paddle challenging, the dams in downtown Geneva and St. Charles
have created a three-mile stretch of calm waters. Sign up for a two-hour time slot, and the staff will set you up with a board, paddle, and life vest and help you shove off from the boat launch just south of the shop. 

Pack a picnic and walk down the Fox River Trail to enjoy it at Island Park (2 Route 25) or take a 20-minute walk to Wheeler Park (101 North St.), where you can let the kiddos loose on the playground, shoot a round at Stone Creek Miniature Golf Course (genevaparks.org/facilities/stone-creek-miniature-golf-course), or play 18 holes at the Links Disc Golf Course (www.genevaparks.org/facilities/links-disc-golf-course). You
can BYO disc or rent a few at the clubhouse onsite. 

For a less sporty day, enjoy the river with an early morning stroll at Fabyan Forest Preserve (1925 S. Batavia Ave.) Peep the picturesque 68-foot-tall Dutch windmill, circa 1870, on the preserve’s east side and wander the Fabyan Japanese Garden on the west for a peaceful moment with nature. 

If a spa day is just your style, plan ahead and book a service at the Herrington Inn & Spa (15 S. River Lane, herringtoninn.com), a boutique hotel on the river’s west bank. The Herrington Delight is a two-hour treatment that begins with a lavender and chamomile body scrub, followed by a private rainfall shower rinse-off, Swedish massage, and hydrating body wrap. 

Afterward, enjoy a fancy alfresco lunch on the flower-lined back patio at FoxFire (17 W. State St., foxfiregeneva.com), where the menu tempts with options both surf—like the lobster roll or crabwich—and turf, such as the blackberry brie burger or classic fillet mignon. 

Cap off the day by making your way over to Third Street for a little shopping. Browse gourmet goodies at the Royal Wren (11 S. Third St., theroyalwren.shopsettings.com), chic clothing and art at Artemisia (101 S. Third St., artemisiastyle.com), and home decor and gifts of all sorts at Cocoon (212 S. Third St., cocoononline.com), where surprises dwell around every corner of 10 rooms on two floors. 

Photos courtesy of Getty Images (windmill), Jake Wolfe (kayak), and The Herrington Inn & Spa


North Aurora & Aurora

For newbies, the Fox River in North Aurora is a great place to get on the river
for a beginner-level paddle. Plan ahead and book a kayak trip with Howling Wolfe Canoe and Kayak (howlingwolfe.com). 

“It’s 30 minutes to an hour, no portages—you’re just paddling between
two dams,” says owner Jake Wolfe. 

You’ll meet your guide at Aurora Athletic Club (550 Clearwater Dr., North Aurora), park your car, and take a shuttle van up to launch at North Aurora Island Park. Before you drop in, grab a glazed doughnut or jelly bismarck at Harner’s Bakery and Restaurant (10 W. State St., North Aurora, harnersbakery.com), a favorite of Wolfe’s. 

“The long lines just mean it’s amazing, so be patient,” he says. 

After paddling, hop in your car and take a five-minute drive south along the river to downtown Aurora. There, sustenance awaits in the form of jibaritos (plantain sandwiches stuffed with roasted pork, stewed chicken, or steak) and pastellios (beef turnovers) at Chupacabra Puerto Rican Kitchen (31 N. Broadway, Aurora, chupacabraprkitchen.com). Next, hit up Yetee Station Arcade (11 N. Broadway, Aurora, yeteestation.fun), where $15 admission buys unlimited play (no quarters necessary!) on retro ’80s faves such as Ms. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Japanese candy cabs as well as new pinball machines such as Deadpool and Godzilla. When you’ve had your gaming fill, keep the nostalgic vibes going at Superjumbo (102 E. Galena Ave., Aurora, superjumboaurora.myshopify.com), a colorful shop that appeals to adults as much as kids with collectible toys up front and a record shop in the back. 

End your trek at Charlie’s Silver Spoon Creamery (6 E. Downer Pl., charliescreamery.com), a small-batch ice cream parlor serving scoops of summery flavors such as Key Lime Pie and Lemon Basil. The shop opened three years ago in the historic Aurora Silverplate Manufacturing Company building on Stolp Island, a small island between the river’s east and west banks that was deeded to Joseph Stolp, whose uncle purchased the land for $12.72 in 1848. 

“Being on that island, it’s very nostalgic for me,” says Charlie’s owner Esther Saltijeral, who grew up on this street and recalls walks over the river with her mother and six siblings. “I just remember a sense of peace and calm crossing the bridge and walking over the river.”


DUPAGE RIVER

One of the narrower rivers in the Chicago area, the DuPage River is a tributary of the Des Plaines River that is actually two rivers in one. The West Branch starts in Schaumburg and winds south through Wheaton, Warrenville, Winfield, and Naperville, while the East Branch flows south from Bloomingdale through Glen Ellyn, Lisle, and Woodridge before meeting the West Branch just south of Naperville. 


Savor a specialty burger or flat bread at Berger Bros. Pub

Take in the view of the DuPage River

Winfield

Where the DuPage River carves through Winfield just west
of Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital, you’ll find the Winfield Riverwalk (27W530 High Lake Road), a new destination for walking, biking, and horseback riding and the latest link in the West Branch DuPage River Trail. Boardwalk bridges mimic the curves of the DuPage River as you make your way north from Highlake Road past a kayak launch, bike-repair station, and picnic pavilion. 

“There are a couple of benches there to have a nice look at the river, or if you wanted to divert off the trail, we have some exercise stations with different equipment you can use there,” says John Schwartz with the Village of Winfield. A second phase of construction this year will add a band shell, another picnic shelter, and bocce and bag courts.

When you reach Geneva Road, double back to retrace your steps and then cross the railroad tracks on Winfield Road to head to a handful of quaint shops. Build your own bouquet or pick out a potted plant at Shamrock Garden (0S118 Winfield Rd., shamrockgardenflorist.com) before searching for vintage treasures at Antiques of Winfield (27W461 Beecher Ave., antiquesofwinfield.com), and Antique & Chic Winfield (0S125
Church St., antiqueandchicwinfield.com).

Stop for a photo op at the gazebo at Creekside Park (0S211 Winfield Road) before crossing back over the tracks to Berger Bros. Pub (0S050 Winfield Rd., bergerbrospub.com), self-dubbed Home of the Holy Grail Cheese. Sit out on the brick patio (opening for the season in late May, weather permitting) or inside at the bar and choose from an array of towering Berger’s burgers, salads, and flat breads, as well as local craft brews on tap.

Illustration by Juliette Borda
Photos courtesy of Zbigniew Bzdak (DuPage River) and Berger Bros. Pub



Centennial Beach

Naperville

Start your day at Firecakes Donuts (50 S. Main St., firecakesdonuts.com) and try a matcha latte and a massive Tahitian vanilla iced doughnut to savor on the walk over to Riverwalk Park (500 Jackson Ave.) along the West Branch of the DuPage River. There, the Paddleboat Quarry (napervilleparks.org/paddleboatspaddleboardskayaking) opens for the season May 7 and offers paddleboat, paddleboard, and kayak rentals on weekends through May 30 until daily service kicks off for the summer on Memorial Day. Cross the covered bridge and walk east along the Riverwalk to the ’80-and-’90s-themed JoJo’s ShakeBAR (5 Jackson Ave., jojosshakebar.com) to lunch on hearty sandwiches, big salads, or walking tacos. Top it off with an over-the-top milkshake, such as the Three’s Company or Chocolate Nirvana.

For afternoon fun, hit Centennial Beach (500 Jackson Ave., centennialbeach.org), a former quarry turned massive public riverside swimming hole—a whopping 6.2 million gallons—that spans from a zero-depth entry to 15 feet deep. New this season, swimmers can place mobile orders for Centennial Grill using the Toast app; the third service window will serve mobile orders to Riverwalk guests. 

Dry off on the walk over to Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams (218 S. Main St., jenis.com), where Powdered Jelly Donut is the buzzworthy new spring flavor, made with raspberry jelly and brown-sugar doughnut crumbles swirled into vanilla custard. 

Browse along the Main Street shops and pop into Little Luxuries (212 S. Main St.) for candles, jewelry, and home decor as well as Tinker (227 S. Main St., tinkerboutique.shop), a darling children’s boutique. 

Walk south to Water Street and keep the night going with dinner at Blue Sushi Sake Grill (123 Water St., bluesushisakegrill.com), which boasts up-close river views from its raised stone patio. If you’re on borrowed time, buy a build-your-own-sushi box to take home and assemble. It’s filled with everything you need to make eight of the restaurant’s classic maki, including a link to a video tutorial that will get you rolling. 

Photo courtesy of Naperville Park District (Centennial Beach)


The West Branch of the DuPage River flows through downtown Naperville
Take a float with Plainfield River Tubing
Grab a brew and a meal at Werk Force Brewing Co.

Plainfield   

If paddling or biking seems too laborious, how does floating leisurely down the DuPage River sound? That’s exactly what you can do on a tubing trip with Plainfield River Tubing (plainfieldrivertubing.com; reserve early, as trips sell out every weekend). 

“Kayaking is lovely and fun, but you’re working,” says owner Kris Most. “This is: Sit back, relax, and enjoy and just go with the flow of the river. You’ll see turtles, you’ll see deer, you’ll see all kinds of birds—you don’t even feel like you’re in Plainfield.” 

Before you meet at West Electric Park and shuttle to the tube launch at Eaton Preserve, stop for a ciabatta breakfast sandwich and caffeination at Krema Coffee House (24038 W. Lockport St., kremacoffeehouse.com). The ride will last 90 minutes to three hours, depending on the flow of the river. You can add a cooler tube to your rental for toting snacks and beverages along the way. Postfloat, head to Werk Force Brewing Co. (14903 S. Center St., werkforcebrewing.com), where the owners expanded outdoor seating for pandemic times and now plan to keep it in perpetuity. 

“We have such a large space so it’s easy for tubers to gather here with a group or family,” says Amanda Wright, co-owner. “We have nonalcoholic options for kids, and we are opening a kitchen.” Expect approachable, snackable options such as flatbreads, sandwiches, and salads. 

End the day at Legendary Escape Rooms & Axe Throwing (15115 Des Plaines St., legendaryescaperooms.com), where you can refine your axe-wielding skills or reason your way out of pirate- or wizard-themed escape rooms. All reservations are currently private, so you’ll play only with the friends
or family you came with.  

Photos courtesy of Andrew Palochko (West Branch of DuPage River), Werk Force Brewing Co., and Plainfield River Tubing.