Being a Local Tourist in Elgin Illinois

Straddling the Fox River about 40 miles northwest of Chicago, Elgin is a city rich with history, art, shopping, and the great outdoors. Dining and drinking options abound, and while there are plenty of chain restaurants, there’s also a plethora of independently owned spots.

I’m a former resident of Elgin and now live a short thirty minutes away – fifteen if I’m visiting the Elgin-area communities of Carpentersville and West and East Dundee. I’ve eaten my way through the city and taken a tour of Elgin’s public art, yet even as both a local and a tourist, every time I visit I discover something new. 

Whether it’s a nature center or a natural history museum, cobblestone homes or painted ladies, the Elgin area is filled with things to do.

It’s also got some mighty-fine places to eat and drink, including the biggest fried pickles I’ve ever seen, adorable coffee shops, award-winning breweries, and a bar that looks like it was drop-shipped from a beach.

Are you ready to explore Elgin?

Exploring Elgin Illinois like a Local Tourist

Which Way, by Joanna White
Which Way, by Joanna White – one of the public art pieces in Elgin

Explore Elgin Area, the destination marketing organization (DMO) for Elgin and nine other communities, has created several itineraries highlighting various interests. These include architecture, nature, the arts, and family getaways. 

The beauty of itineraries is that you can use them as a starting point and then pick and choose based on what gets you jazzed.

Our most recent visit was steeped in a few of my favorite things: history, architecture, and delicious food and drink, and I finally got to see a place that’s been on my bucket list for years. We even stayed in a hotel so we could get the whole tourist experience. 

If you’re thinking of planning a visit to the Elgin area – and you should – be sure to bookmark this page. I’ll keep adding to it as I continue to Explore Elgin.

Full disclosure: Explore Elgin Area reimbursed me for my expenses during this visit. That enabled us to explore semi-incognito so we could have a more authentic “local tourist” experience. All opinions are mine and not influenced at all by giant fried pickles or spiked white chocolate raspberry coffee. 

Architecture and History in Elgin

The Elgin area is swimming in architectural beauty and places that honor the past. From a gorgeous temple to a whole historic district, here are places you can experience both.

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir

BAPS in Bartlett

On the east side of Illinois Route 59 in Bartlett is a stunning sight. It’s an ornate, gleaming marvel, and every time I’ve driven past I’ve told myself that I will visit it one day.

I finally did, and BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir is even more incredible up close. This intricate Hindu temple is constructed of more than 7,000 tons of Italian Carrara marble and Turkish limestone. The materials were shipped to India, where they were hand-carved over a period of two years and then shipped to Bartlett. Somehow, they were able to build this magnificent complex in just sixteen months.

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir

BAPS is open to the public and you enter through the Haveli, which features an indoor courtyard carved in teak. From there, visitors take an underground tunnel lined with exhibits detailing important people in India’s and Hinduism’s past. The man at the information desk said the claims seem remarkable, but they’re all documented.

This is a house of worship and it’s important to enter with respect. Shoes must be removed and placed in racks in the Haveli, and don’t enter with your knees and shoulders exposed. If you are showing some skin, you can use a provided sarong.

They are quite serious about this. When I was there, two women entered wearing short, strapless dresses and the attendant admonished them sternly after one woman said she’d been there before. He said she “should know better.” 

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir

We entered the Mandir during Murti Darshan, Abhishek, and Rajbhog Arti. I am completely ignorant of the Hindu religion and what those rituals mean, but we did know enough to keep our distance from the men and women who were worshipping so as not to disturb them.

No photos are allowed inside any of the buildings, but you can see the Murtis, or sacred images of the Deities and gurus, on the BAPS website.

There’s a souvenir shop that offers music, artwork, literature, and other items. If you get hungry, you can order vegetarian cuisine at their cafe, Shayona.

Despite knowing nothing about Hinduism besides a few terms (yoga, guru, karma, dharma, etc.), the experience was incredibly moving. Seeing the veneration the worshippers displayed brought me to tears of respect. No matter what your religious beliefs are, witnessing that devotion is an honor.

Before visiting BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, check their website for guidelines. I’d also recommend bringing a dollar bill (or more, if you’re inclined). With that small donation, you’ll get a full-color publication that explains the components of the temple and provides an overview of Hinduism.

It also details many of the humanitarian services they provide, including donating thousands for wildfire, earthquake, hurricane, and flood relief around the globe. With over 50,000 volunteers worldwide, they can make quite an impact.

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, 1851 Pramukh Swami Rd, Bartlett, IL  60103; baps.org

Nancy Kimball Cobblestone House

Nancy Kimball Cobblestone House

Built in 1846, the Nancy Kimball Cobblestone House is considered to be the oldest house in west Elgin, and it’s amazing it’s survived.

It wasn’t too long ago the house was boarded up. It had become a problem property; carved into seven apartments, there were eighty-one emergency calls to 302 West Chicago Street between January and March of 2009. The city stepped in and bought the historic structure with the intention of converting it for use in the city’s resident officer program, which houses police officers in troubled areas. Unfortunately, by the time they bought the place they couldn’t afford to convert it. Fortunately, they also couldn’t afford to tear it down.

In stepped the Elgin Area Historical Society and a grassroots effort to save this piece of the city’s past. The house is the oldest of six remaining cobblestone homes in Elgin. One of the others is the James Gifford home. 

James T. Gifford's second house in Elgin, built in 1850
James Gifford home

James and his brother Hezekiah came west from New York and founded a city that was in a direct line from Chicago to Galena, which was the hot spot in the 1830s. James named it Elgin after “The Song of Elgin,” a Scottish hymn.

The Kimballs were the other founders of Elgin, although Joseph died in 1835 from cholera on the way back from collecting his family back east. His widow, Nancy, continued on to this new settlement with their sons, Samuel and William.

Those two, who would both become mayors of Elgin, built their mom a cobblestone house overlooking the Fox River in 1846.

By the time the Elgin Area Historical Society became involved in 2015, the house was in serious disrepair. They essentially had to gut it. Now it’s destined to be a community center with meeting and event spaces on the second floor and a hands-on workshop area on the first.

The restoration and renovation are coming along beautifully, and local craftsman Don Miller has done an incredible job with the extensive woodwork, including a gorgeous staircase with era-appropriate newel posts.

The Nancy Kimball Cobblestone House is projected to open May of 2022. Until then, you can see its notable exterior, its view of downtown Elgin, and imagine the stories that took place inside its sixteen-inch thick walls.

Nancy Kimball Cobblestone House, 302 W. Chicago St, Elgin, IL  60120; elginhistory.org/community/nancy-kimball-cobblestone-house/ 

Elgin History Museum

Elgin History Museum

Elgin’s stories, and there are a lot of them, come to life inside another one of its oldest buildings. “Old Main” was built in 1856 for the Elgin Academy, the oldest coed non-sectarian college prep west of the Alleghany mountains.

After the school moved out in 1969, the building suffered years of neglect. A fire in 1911 had destroyed the original cupola, and then another fire in 1978, but the City of Elgin renovated it in 1979-80 and leased it to the Elgin Area Historical Society the next year.

Over the next several years the Society renovated Old Main and converted it for use as a museum. They moved in 1987 and have been there ever since.

Today’s visitors to the Elgin History Museum are treated to a beautiful cupola-topped building and a trip through Elgin’s past. It’s a complex and proud path from its beginnings with the Giffords and Kimballs, their long journeys west and their cobblestone homes, to the city in the suburbs that Elgin is now. 

Ranch house in Elgin History Museum

A visit to the museum reveals Elgin’s importance in many different aspects of daily life. At one time Elgin was the dairy capital; those butter quarters in your refrigerator are that shape because of Elgin. It was also home to Gail Borden’s Elgin Milk Condensing Company; yes, that Borden – you probably have some Eagle brand in your pantry. 

People all over the world, including travelers through Chicago’s Union Station, knew what time it was because of Elgin National Watch Company.

And you’ll learn about the importance of the railroad; if you’re coming to Elgin from Chicago, you’ll be riding the same route that’s connected the two since 1849. Discover the excitement of the Elgin Road Races and get a picture as a winner.

Other exhibits highlight Native American history, products created in Elgin besides dairy and timepieces, and Elgin’s temperance movement.

Exhibits at the Elgin History Museum are 3D and interactive. Start your visit with a short film near the entrance and then explore this area’s rich past.

Elgin History Museum, 360 Park St, Elgin, IL  60120 elginhistory.org

Elgin Historic District

Historic home in Elgin Historic District

A drive east of downtown Elgin quickly reveals its dedication to preserving that rich past. The Elgin Historic District encompasses several blocks and it’s been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1983.

Included within its boundaries is the location where James Gifford built his first cabin, as well as the cobblestone home he moved into in 1849. He only lived in it for one year before he died, but his daughter inherited it.

One home in the District was constructed in 1845, making it a year older than Nancy Kimball’s cobblestone.

The best way to see these structures is to take a self-guided walking tour. The Elgin Historic District brochure includes fifty-four houses and will take about ninety minutes to complete. 

For even more structures, check the map on the Historic Elgin website. By clicking on the markers, you can get information on the buildings.

If you’d like to see inside some of Elgin’s historic homes, the Gifford Park Association hosts a Historic Elgin House Tour. In 2021, it takes place September 11 and 12 and tickets are available at historicelginhousetour.com

Historic Elgin, historicelgin.com

Elgin Public Museum

There are a few things that distinguish Elgin Public Museum. One is it’s the Fox Valley’s only natural history museum, with exhibits showing the area’s natural and anthropological past. 

The other is that the building is the oldest in Illinois that was expressly built as a museum and is still used for that purpose, built in 1907.

Partially built, anyway, and that’s another distinguishing characteristic. Architect David Postle originally designed the neoclassical building with wings to the west, east, and north. Construction began and they got as far as the great hall and the west wing when the money ran out.

For a couple of years the truncated building was used to store hay before it became the home of the city dog pound, “with animals being disposed of in the basement.”

Things didn’t look good for what was supposed to be the Lord Memorial Museum, named for George Lord, an Elgin philanthropist who had donated funds for the museum before dying in 1906. Then in 1920, the building finally fulfilled its original purpose when it opened as the Elgin Audubon Museum.

For the next several decades visitors could learn all about ornithology. Education Coordinator Sharry Blazier told us another story that sets what is now the Elgin Public Museum apart. 

One of those early Audubon visitors was Nathan Leopold, who with Richard Loeb murdered young Bobby Franks in 1924. Leopold was himself a respected ornithologist and, apparently, a talented taxidermist. When he was imprisoned, he donated several birds to the Elgin Audubon Museum.

There was, as you can imagine, an indignant cry from the public. “He’s a murderer!” they exclaimed, insisting that the museum remove the specimens from display. “But they’re really good birds!” was the response from the museum’s taxidermist.

So what did he do? Well, he messed with the records. With the exception of a great horned owl that’s on the attack, they have no idea which birds are Leopold’s. He did, though. Once he was paroled in 1958, he would come to Elgin to visit them.

The Audubon became Elgin Public Museum in 1975. It still only had one wing, but in the late ‘90s they finally constructed the east wing and evened things out.

There are two floors of exhibits. In addition to the taxidermy displays, there’s a T-rex skull whose jaw opens at the touch of a button, a centennial exhibit detailing the museum’s unusual past, and a hall dedicated to Native Americans.

The LaSalle Room explores the impact of the 17th-century expedition. There are also exhibits for endangered species, local ecology, the Ice Age, insects, and Mazon Creek Fossils. 

Elgin Public Museum, 225 Grand Blvd, Elgin, IL  60120; elginpublicmuseum.org

Elgin Illinois Outdoor Adventures

Despite being a distinctly urban environment with more than 100,000 residents, the Elgin area is still home to many places where you can experience the great outdoors.

Fox River Trail

Path to Walton Island from the Fox River Trail

The Fox River Trail is a 44.6 mile multi-use trail that stretches from Oswego to Algonquin. In Elgin, this rail-trail runs right alongside its namesake. You can park and walk or ride at free lots at both Kimball and Prairie Streets. 

Sights along the path include Grand Victoria Casino and Walton Island, a man-made island created by the WPA in the 1930s. The island is a popular spot for fishing since it’s just south of the Elgin Dam. 

Lords Park & Zoo

Bison at Lords Park Zoo in Elgin Illinois

George and Mary Lord were prominent philanthropists in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Lords purchased a farm previously owned by Dr. Joseph Teftt and gave it to the Elgin under the condition that the city would use it as a park.

Today its 108 acres are the site of the Elgin Public Museum, playgrounds, an aquatic center, lagoons, a nature trail, picnic areas, and tennis and basketball courts.

Elk at Lords Park Zoo in Elgin

It’s also home to some unexpected residents. Lords Park Zoo is a free facility with bison, elk, and white-tailed deer residing in fenced-in areas. During the summer visitors can stroll through a small area that features animals one would see on a farm, like pigs, goats, sheep, and miniature donkeys.

Lords Park and Zoo, 225 Grand Blvd, Elgin, IL  60120; www.cityofelgin.org/1811/Lords-Park-Zoo

Hawthorne Hill Nature Center

Hawthorne Hill Nature Center in Elgin Illinois - one of the many outdoor adventures in the area

Driving past Randall Road north of US-20 you might never guess there’s an oasis in your midst. Hawthorne Hill Nature Center is 67-acres of wooded trails with two ponds, a play area, and a nature center. 

It’s an easy park for a quick nature break since there are only about two miles of trails and they’re wide and paved with wood chips.

Check their calendar for upcoming events, including nature walks and goat yoga.

Hawthorne Hill Nature Center, 26 Brookside Dr, Elgin, IL  60123; www.cityofelgin.org/248/Hawthorne-Hill-Nature-Center

Wing Park

Since 1903, Wing Park has been a popular recreation spot in Elgin. It offers tons of sporting options: basketball, tennis, sand volleyball, an aquatic center, and even a 9-hole golf course. There are picnic shelters that groups and families can reserve, one with electricity and one without. There’s also a bandshell with a 300-person capacity that’s available for rent.

Wing Park, 1010 Wing St, Elgin, IL  60123; www.cityofelgin.org/Facilities/Facility/Details/Wing-Park-76

Where to eat and drink in Elgin Illinois

The Elgin area is home to many wonderful restaurants and bars. Here are a few to get you started.

Black and Gray Brewing

Black and Gray Brewing flight

Some breweries are all about pushing boundaries, seeing how hoppy, bitter, or high gravity they can make their beers.

Others, like Black and Gray Brewing, just want to be really good at making really good beer. Owners Chris and Teresa Kennedy call themselves “average kids from a blue collar neighborhood,” and while I didn’t get a chance to meet them, they sound approachable.

Which is exactly what they want their beer to be. Chris began brewing when Teresa suggested a home brewing kit as a new hobby. He quickly became obsessed and it wasn’t long before they opened their own nanobrewery in the historic square of East Dundee.

Since 2019 they’ve been serving their “lawnmower” beers, but just because that’s their focus it doesn’t mean that’s all Black and Gray brews. On their tap list, they have styles as wide-ranging as a double imperial stout and a fruited sour. If you try something you like, they have crowlers, growlers, and four-packs.

To get the broadest range of beers, order a flight. You can enjoy it in the large tap room, or on pleasant days head outside to their sidewalk patio.

Black and Gray Brewing, 311 Barrington Ave Unit B, East Dundee, IL  60118; blackandgraybrewing.com

Eastside Cafe Coffee and Wine Bar

Eastside Cafe and Wine Bar

I’m in love with Eastside Cafe and Wine Bar. Why? Two words: spiked coffee. Two more words: coffee flight. One word, the one word that makes this place one of my new favorites? Kate.

Located directly across from the historic East Dundee Depot, Eastside (formerly Uncommon Palate) is the kind of place where you could spend hours. It’s a combination cafe, coffee shop, boutique, and wine bar. You can order a panini to go, have a latte out front, or sit at the bar and get a coffee flight.

Yes, coffee flight, which is brilliant. You get to try four different beverages in one sitting. You can pick your own flavors or Kate will choose for you. I let her decide: white chocolate raspberry, peanut butter mocha, lavender sweet cream, and oatmeal cookie. 

These were sinful on their own, but then Kate mentioned spiked coffee. What? Oh, I had to try one of those, especially since she has Round Barn’s Black Walnut Cream. A shot of that in white chocolate raspberry topped with whipped cream and I was in caffeinated heaven.

See why Kate is one of my new favorites?

I’m not alone in my appreciation for her labor of love. Eastside Cafe and Wine Bar remained open through 2020. People couldn’t sit and chat, but they’d come in for pastries, sandwiches, and drinks to go.

Now you can stop in, order a coffee flight, and stay for a bit. Or order your panini and pick up your bottle of Black Walnut Cream. Or both.

Eastside Cafe and Wine Bar, 316 N River St, East Dundee, IL 60118; eastsidedundee.com

Elder + Oat

Elder + Oat

There’s no mistaking the fact that Elder + Oat makes its own bread. There’s a baker right in the front window. They make savory and sweet treats, including their signature focaccia, and you can watch it happen through the window on Main Street.

Once you enter, you’ll be welcomed by a cafe that looks like it was pulled from a Pinterest board. It’s the kind of decorating I wish I knew how to do but somehow always looks like a flea market threw up in my living room. 

Elder + Oat invites you to get comfortable and have fun. They’ve got shelves of board games and a conversation area that’s practically begging you to sit and stay awhile. Or, you can take your iced mocha mint latte and roasted garlic focaccia with savory ricotta spread out to the river. It’s just a few yards from the cafe’s back door.

Roasted garlic focaccia with savory ricotta

Although they’ve only been open since July, word has already gotten around. We were there around 10:30 on a Friday morning and the line was at least ten people deep.

Elder + Oat, 124 W Main St, West Dundee, IL  60118; elderandoat.com

Emmett’s Brewing Co

Emmett’s Brewing Co

Emmett’s Brewing Co has medaled four times at the World Beer Cup, six at the Great American Beer Festival, and twice each at the US Open Beer Championships, the North American Brewing Awards, and the Festival of Barrel Aged Brews.

When it comes to beer, they kinda know what they’re doing.

The original location is in West Dundee in a building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Since 1998, Andy Burns has crafted beer in a brewery named for his grandfather. They now have four locations in the Chicago suburbs and we dined in the first.

I’d been there before. My mom got my son a membership in the beer club. I like Emmett’s. After my most recent visit, I like them even more.

We’re in an era of short-staffing as every business and every person navigates our new reality of changing career choices and demographics. When we were there, the dining room was staffed with a bartender and a server, and that’s it.

It wasn’t terribly busy, but it was enough to impress me that those two handled the dining room with grace and ready smiles. No stress. No sense that they were in the weeds. 

And the food? Perfect medium-rare burger and absolutely delicious blackened walleye with pineapple salsa and cilantro rice. 

Perfect medium-rare burger at Emmett's Brewing Co
delicious blackened walleye

Paired, of course, with an award-winning beer.

Award-winning beer at Emmett's

Emmett’s Brewing Co. 128 W Main St, West Dundee, IL  60118; emmettsbrewingco.com

Chicago Street Pour House

Biggest fried pickles ever at Chicago Street Pour House

Chicago Street Pour House is deceptive. It looks like your standard strip mall sports bar. There are televisions everywhere, including a giant screen that’s bigger than most studio apartments in downtown Chicago. We went on a Thursday night and the horseshoe bar was filled with regulars, just like you’d expect.

What I didn’t expect was to be wowed by the food. 

It began with the fried pickles. That’s a standard sports bar appetizer, and is usually a pile of sliced pickles that have been breaded, deep-fried, and served with ranch dressing.

I gotta tell you – I’m having a hard time writing about this because I want to jump in my car and head back to Chicago Street Pour House. Their fried pickles are the absolute best fried pickles I have ever had.

They’re giant. Tempura battered. The pickles themselves are made in-house, and have the right balance of tang and savory. Their ranch is dressed up with chipotle, and it’s perfect.

Biggest fried pickles at Chicago Street Pour House

Sigh.

That appetizer alone is worth a visit. We also had the beer-battered crispy chicken melt and the garlic prime rib dip with provolone. They were good, especially the chicken (hello, Merkt’s!), but I think starting with those pickles did them a disservice, because, really, how do you match perfection?

beer battered crispy chicken melt
garlic prime rib dip with provolone

With scoop fries. These concave versions of french fries are so addictive I kept eating them way after I should have stopped. 

The cocktails are hand-crafted. They skew sweet, but you can ask the bartender to make them less so.

Chicago Street Pour House is open daily for lunch and dinner, and you’ll definitely want to add their Sunday brunch to your plans. 

Why?

Bottomless mimosas for FIVE DOLLARS.

That’s why.

Chicago Street Pour House, 1350 E Chicago St, Elgin, IL  60120; pourhousekitchen.com

Old Republic Kitchen + Bar

Old Republic Kitchen + Bar looks like a chain, and I mean that in the best way possible. It is so slick and so cool it can’t be the only one in existence – yet it is. From the family that created The Village Squire, Rookies Sports Pub, and Alexander’s Cafe is a restaurant and bar with a surprising vibe.

The outdoor bar is huge. A neon sign screams COCKTAIL DRINK TEQUILA BAR next to a stage that’s serious about its sound. Umbrella topped tables fill the large courtyard.

It looks like you can hear the ocean.

Everything’s made in-house and they smoke their own meats. Kate at Eastide Cafe suggested the elote shrimp tacos.

They’re tacos, so of course I was going to like them, but these are grilled shrimp served in corn tortillas with roasted elote corn, shredded lettuce, cotija cheese, cilantro, and what I think was a chipotle aioli. One bite and I understood why Kate practically insisted on them.

elote shrimp tacos

Mr. TLT ordered the smoked brisket sandwich. I think it was mainly because of the Tillamook cheddar melted on top, because you can’t go wrong with Tillamook. The grilled onions and barbecue sauce didn’t hurt, and then add on some tater tots and he was one happy man.

smoked brisket sandwich Old Republic Kitchen and Bar

I’d like to go back to try the Halsted Spread, a spicy feta dip with grilled pita, and the Optimus Brave, a prime rib roast burger topped with grilled crimini mushrooms and havarti cheese and served with au jus.

I’ll definitely have to bring friends so we can get Big Thunder Mountain, a heaping pile o’ brisket and cheese curds on top of fries with melted cheddar, barbecue sauce, and scallions.

If you’re going with the beach bar vibe, order yourself a pina colada or a frozen lemonade. They’ve also got a decent beer list with a few local brews.

Sandwiches are in the $13 – $18 range. If you’d like something a little less expensive, you can get one of five sandwiches for $5 Monday through Friday from 11am to 5pm.

Old Republic Kitchen + Bar, 155 S Randall Rd, Elgin, IL  60123; oldrepublicbar.com

Elgin Illinois Map of things to do & places to eat

Want to craft your own itinerary? Find all the above mentioned places in this map so you, too, can be a Local Tourist in Elgin.


Exploring the Elgin area was a perfect illustration of my belief that every place is unique and every town has something to offer, and probably much more than you might expect at first glance. Whether you’ve visited Elgin before or have never even heard of it, I hope this guide inspires you to see just how much there is to do.

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