13 Top-Rated Things to Do in Rockford, Illinois
Author Brad Lane visited Rockford on a reporting trip throughout Illinois for PlanetWare.
Rockford is in the northern part of the state near the Wisconsin border, and is one of the largest cities in Illinois outside of Chicago. It has the charm of a small town, but provides the tourist attractions and things to do of a populous city.
Rockford is also known as the City of Gardens, and for good reason. With landscaped areas like Anderson Japanese Gardens and the Nicholas Conservatory, there is always something in bloom somewhere in the city. The Rock River provides other sightseeing opportunities in town, dividing the city down the middle.
Alongside colorful gardens to appreciate, the city is home to several other family-friendly places to visit. Along the western bank of Rock River, the Riverfront Museum Park, including the Burpee Museum of Natural History, is a popular family outing, as is the nearby Coronado Performing Arts Center.
For a fully immersive natural attraction, tourists and residents alike can find ample outdoor recreation at Rock Cut State Park, slightly north of the city, where a large collection of campsites encourages visitors to spend the night.
Learn more about the best places to visit with our list of the top things to do in Rockford, Illinois.
1. Anderson Japanese Gardens
For a beautiful walk on manicured grounds, the Anderson Japanese Gardens provides one of the most tranquil surroundings in Illinois. This non-profit garden space was designed by Hoichi Kurisu, the same landscape designer for the Portland Japanese Garden in Oregon.
Landscaped waterfalls, walking paths, and structures like gazebos, pavilions, and tea houses are featured among the many different colorful plants and gardens. Guided tours are available, though individuals are encouraged to explore the scenic space on their own. Dining is available at the on-site Fresco at the Gardens.
The gardens hold a variety of events throughout the spring, summer, and fall, including a Japanese Summer Festival and Tuesday Evenings in the Gardens. The garden closes throughout the colder months, reopening each year sometime in late April. There's a small cost of admission to visit the gardens.
Address: 318 Spring Creek Road, Rockford, Illinois
Read More: Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Illinois
2. Midway Village Museum
The Midway Village Museum is a 148-acre outdoor campus dedicated to the history of the Rockford region, located fifteen minutes east of downtown. A central attraction of this hands-on history museum is the Main Museum Center with more than 20,000 square feet of exhibition space.
One of the most popular displays at the museum, the "Many Faces, One Community" exhibit, portrays the immigration history that has shaped Rockford. Five other exhibits comprise the Main Museum Center, alongside classrooms and community space. The Dollhouse Museum across the street is also a popular point of interest.
Adjacent to the Main Museum Center is the Victorian-era Village with 26 historical buildings and thousands of artifacts to explore. The historical buildings include a general store, police station, and schoolhouse.
Costumed characters are found working the grounds and providing historical insight, and special events throughout the year, like the annual World War II Days, provide a very immersive visit.
Address: 6799 Guilford Road, Rockford, Illinois
3. Rockford Art Museum
Abutting the Rock River at the heart of the city, this century-old art collection focuses primarily on regional displays. With more than 1,900 pieces of art within their collection, the Rockford Art Museum highlights work from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. The collection ranges from Impressionist paintings to a wide mix of multi-media productions.
Permanent displays at the museum include modern and contemporary works, photography, and an "American Masters" collection. Work from local artists can also be found on rotating display. The museum hosts regular events and programs like evening socials and summer camps.
As part of the larger Riverfront Museum Park, the building that houses the art collection is also home to other family-friendly attractions. Sharing the same entrance as the Art Museum, the Discovery Center Museum caters to younger explorers with hands-on activities and play areas.
On the other side of the museum campus, the Burpee Museum of Natural History uncovers ancient history within an interactive space.
Address: 711 North Main Street, Rockford, Illinois
4. Burpee Museum of Natural History
The Burpee Museum of Natural History is part of the Riverfront Museum Park and has been attracting interest since 1942. Permanent showcases at the museum include fully restored dinosaur skeletons, an immersive Carboniferous Coal Forest, and displays relating to the native people and wildlife of the region.
The museum also dives deep into the Rock River Valley environment with their Windows to Wilderness permanent exhibit. The unique Jay and Barbara Brost PaleoLab at Burpee offers insight into the laboratories that prepare the museum's fossil displays. Guided tours are available to provide even more insight into the fascinating exhibits.
Programs and events at Burpee cater to every member of the family, including a massive Easter egg hunt in the spring and lecture series throughout the year. The museum also hosts the Music on The Rock summer concert series.
Address: 737 North Main Street, Rockford, Illinois
5. Rockford City Market
Rockford City Market is a popular Friday evening event occurring downtown near the river. It's part farmers' market and part community celebration, with local vendors and live music. The Market straddles Water Street and culminates under a large metal pavilion.
Over 70 vendors comprise the shopping selection at City Market. These local purveyors' products range from fresh produce to artisan crafts and home goods. Several hot food vendors also serve up ready-to-eat entrees and snacks. Music from the main stage or the acoustic stage comprises the soundtrack for these transactions.
Thousands of people attend these Friday festivals. The season typically spans mid-May until Labor Day weekend (early September). Nearby, the market also operates an Indoor Market Building with permanent vendors throughout the year.
6. Sinnissippi Park and Golf Course
Sinnissippi Park is a sprawling natural space full of family attractions. It's a great setting to walk, picnic, or use some playground equipment, and is also home to the Sinnissippi Music Shell. Dedicated in 1950, this live-music venue can play to more than 3,000 people. The Music Shell has been home to the Music in the Park Summer Concert Series since 1970, among other shows.
Within eyesight of the Music Shell, the Sinnissippi Golf Course provides nine holes of challenging play open to the public. Established in 1912, Sinnissippi Golf Course is the oldest public course in Rockford and is best known for its rolling fairways and big trees lining the rough.
The Sinnissippi Gardens are across the street next to the Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens. These flowering destinations feature an All-American Rose Garden with more than 60 varieties.
Address: 1401 North Second Street, Rockford, Illinois
7. Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens
Encompassing more than 11,000 square feet of botanical space, the Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens is the third-largest conservatory in Illinois. Tropical and colorful plants are in bloom within the sunlit conservatory throughout the year, including an annual orchid exhibit in the winter. Walking through this verdant space is always a colorful and fun thing to do.
In the gardens outside, pedestrian paths link together sculptures, patio spaces, and scenic areas, including the Eclipse Lagoon. This is an excellent area to tour on your own when the weather is nice and a free way to experience the space. There is a small admission fee to enter the Conservatory.
The conservatory is home to many special events and programs, including Tunes on the Terrace, a spring butterfly exhibit, and the annual "All Aglow" event featuring thousands of holiday lights.
Address: 1354 North Second Street, Rockford, Illinois
8. Klehm Arboretum and Botanic Garden
The Klehm Arboretum and Botanic Garden is a living museum south of downtown, offering new displays each month of the year. It features a wide variety of outdoor garden space, as well as a wide-ranging collection of trees throughout the property.
With more than 500 labeled and unique species to discover, Klehm Arboretum is a true sanctuary for trees. On sunny summer weekends, Klehm is also a popular sanctuary for people to explore. A self-guided tour is always encouraged, and scheduled activities like mindfulness practices, annual plant sales, and enchanted story times give more reasons to visit.
Klehm is open daily throughout the year. There's a small price of admission to tour the grounds. While the warmer months tend to attract bigger crowds, the winter months offer a pleasantly quiet atmosphere and a scenic place to stroll.
Address: 2715 South Main Street, Rockford, Illinois
9. Rock Cut State Park
Encompassing more than 3,000 wooded acres and two massive lakes, Rock Cut State Park provides the city's largest natural playground. The state park is accessible from Rockford with less than a 10-mile drive from downtown.
Mountain bikers, hikers, and equestrians all have trails to explore at Rock Cut, and boaters, shoreline anglers, and birdwatchers also have plenty of fun things to do. And, it's easy to extend any adventure at Rock Cut State Park, thanks to the hundreds of campsites to choose from in the shady campground.
Though spring, fall, and summer are the most popular seasons to visit, with cross-country ski and snowshoe trails in the winter, this state park is a year-round recreation destination. Expect crowds and potentially competitive parking on sunny weekends.
Address: 7318 Harlem Road, Loves Park, Illinois
10. Coronado Performing Arts Center
For some great evening entertainment, the Coronado Performing Arts Center, or Coronado Theatre, features a wide variety of performances. Originally constructed in 1927 as an atmospheric theater and movie palace, the Coronado received a massive restoration at the turn of the century to revive its original glamour.
Stage acts at the Coronado today range from nationally touring Broadway musicals to local recitals. The theater also hosts a wide range of other events including national touring musical acts, stand-up comedians, and specialty shows.
Regardless of the performance on stage, one of the biggest appeals of attending a show is the ornate aesthetics of the 2,400-seat auditorium. With a modern stage and lighting, the Coronado still reflects its near-100-year history with a stately ambience.
Address: 314 North Main Street, Rockford, Illinois
11. Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum and Gardens
Robert Hall Tinker, the 1875 mayor of Rockford, wore many hats in the development of the Rockford community. Today, one of the most tangible parts of his legacy is found at his Swiss Cottage overlooking Kent Creek.
Inspired by Swiss architecture from a trip to Europe, Tinker and his family began building the cottage in 1865. The estate covers 27 manicured acres and includes an inspiring view overlooking Kent Creek. This Victorian home is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Visitors today can take a tour of this historic home Tuesday through Sunday at 1 and 3pm. Guided tours offer the only admission into the Cottage Museum and include the elaborate gardens outside. It's a low cost for jumping on a group tour, and the museum hosts "Donation Days" throughout the week that provide free admission for Illinois residents.
The Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum is far from a stationary exhibit. The event calendar contains plenty of fun activities, including paranormal investigations and variously themed murder mystery parties.
Address: 411 Kent Street, Rockford, Illinois
12. Erlander Home Museum
The Erlander Home Museum is operated by the Swedish Historical Society and is located in the Haight Village Historic District. This preserved home museum does well to represent the Swedish culture still found in Rockford today.
Once home to Swedish immigrant John Erlander and his family, this historic residence was first built in 1871. Patrons can still see many of the original artifacts and furnishings within the home on a guided tour.
Besides antiques and memorabilia of the 19th century, the house museum also tells the story of Swedish culture and heritage and how it has become integrated into Rockford today. Touring the home is by appointment only, and reservations should be booked a week in advance.
Address: 404 South Third Street, Rockford, Illinois
13. Volcano Falls Adventure Park
South of Rock Cut State Park on the northeast edge of the city, Volcano Falls Adventure Park appeals to the younger members of the family. With plenty of adventure to be had, Volcano Falls also tends to be fun for the adults who visit.
The most eye-catching attraction at Volcano Falls is the lava-inspired mini-golf course that is universally accessible. The facility also offers a variety of laser games (including a Lazer Maze), as well as multiple go-kart tracks, batting cages, and more than 50 arcade games to choose from.
Volcano Falls is typically open on weekdays from 3pm to 9pm, with extended hours on the weekends. Hours may vary throughout the year. The park closes throughout the winter months, usually re-opening near the beginning of March.
This is a family-friendly attraction that is great for a planned afternoon or impromptu visit. For many, it's a destination to visit after spending the day exploring the woodlands of the nearby Rock Cut State Park.
Address: 7602 Rock Valley Parkway, Loves Park, Illinois