Kenosha, Wis., might not be the first vacation spot you think of, but at less than 60 miles from downtown Chicago, it's a great spot for a day trip. The former factory town is reinventing itself as a lakeside destination for families, with lots of inexpensive ways to pass the time.
We explored the city thanks to the Kenosha Area Convention and Visitors Bureau and even stayed overnight, courtesy of the Pleasant Prairie Radisson, to take in the best that the city has to offer. Visit kenoshacvb.com for additional details on each of our favorite spots.
This warehouse offers a free half-hour tour aboard the Jelly Belly Express, a train that stops at screens describing how a bean is born and giving fun facts like which president used jelly beans to kick his tobacco habit. Keep an eye out for jelly bean art resembling some of history's finest paintings. Everyone loves the tour's parting souvenir: a bag of Jelly Bellys. Plus, stop by the sample bar, where you can try some of the stranger flavors or discover your own perfect pairings.
Kenosha is a walkable town, made easier by the presence of this old-fashioned trolley that covers a 2-mile loop. The charming streetcar provides a great overview of the city. Kids will love handing over exact change (50 cents kids, $1 adults, $2.50 for all day) before they ride. Tip: Don't forget to pull the cord when you want to get off.
This unassuming restaurant serves up some classic good eats, and since the owner started with a hot dog cart in Chicago, you know his dogs live up to our discerning Windy City palates. The namesake menu item, the "Trolley Dog," is a hot dog and tamale on the same bun, but for safe bets, try the hot dog or Italian beef. Kids will get a kick out of owner Joe Catuara's hot dog hat, and if it's quiet, he might be talked into making a balloon animal.
Southport Light Station & Museum
Before it was known for its manufacturing, Kenosha was a shipping town. Step back in history at the 1866 Southport Lighthouse. Weekends from May to October, ages 8 and up can climb the 76 steps to the top of the lighthouse (wear good shoes) to get a great view of the lake. Then head inside what used to be the lighthouse keeper's house to learn about the town, lighthouses and more. Be sure to check out the restored rooms that show what a kitchen and bedroom looked like in the early 20th century.
Civil War Museum
If your kids are learning about the Civil War, reinforce it with a visit to this museum, which lets them in for free (with $7 adult admission). The museum focuses on the Midwest's role in our deadliest war, with artifacts, re-creations and newspaper pages. Look for the large railroad car, where you can sit down next to a mannequin that actually talks. Another highlight is "12 Tales," an audio exhibit where you can follow different real-life people through three stages of the war.
Kenosha's main drag is 6th Avenue, where you can find shops of all types. Sandy's Popper serves gourmet popcorn varieties (think key lime pie) as well as the classic flavors like cheddar cheese. Scoops! Ice Cream and Candy is an old-fashioned ice cream parlor with flavors galore. Try the pretzel cone for an unexpected flavor combo. While you're there, head next door to Heim's Downtown Toy Store, a place kids won't want to leave. The store is full of classic and educational toys for all ages.
Dinosaur Discovery Museum
If your kids are dino-crazy, there's no better place than this museum, completely free and packed with dinosaur skeletons from 18 different species. Older kids will enjoy the informational videos that take you to a real dino dig. Little ones should be sure to head downstairs for dinosaur-themed coloring, books and puzzles. If you're lucky, you can even watch students from the Carthage Institute of Paleontology working on actual dinosaur bones.
Playgrounds & beaches
If you need a break from the museums, Kenosha is perfect for a stroll in the sand or along the Lake Michigan Promenade. The city also has 56 parks, many of which are free and include playground equipment (we liked the tugboat!). In warmer weather, head just outside the city to the Pleasant Prairie RecPlex, a massive recreation center complete with its own beach, boat rentals, jogging trail, sand volleyball and various other amenities.
Kenosha Public Museum
If there's one word to describe this museum, it's mammoth. No, the museum isn't huge, but it features a mammoth skeleton found in Kenosha County. The museum traces the natural history of the area using a kid-friendly cartoon guide. Before you leave, stop by the Field Station," a hands-on area exploring ornithology and zoology, anthropology and art. We guarantee your kids will be talking about that ginormous skeleton all the way back home to Chicago.
Elizabeth Diffin is the associate editor at Chicago Parent. She lives in Wheaton.
See more of Elizabeth's stories here.