Dubbed the “Pride of the Fox”, St. Charles is a city on the Fox River, 35 miles west of downtown Chicago.
After the Chicago Great Western Railway arrived in the late 19th century, St. Charles became a popular destination for people from Chicago, and the riverfront Hotel Baker is a reminder from those times.
Downtown St. Charles is renowned for its dining, arts and entertainment, with an exciting range of restaurants, bars and live performance venues, like the stately Arcada Theatre, which is now approaching its centennial
The city’s Park District maintains tranquil riverside parks, as well as attractions like a working farm, nature center and Otter Cove Aquatic Park, a go-to for families on hot summer days.
1. Downtown St. Charles
St. Charles has a vibrant core replete with shops, restaurants, cultural venues, riverfront parks and historic buildings.
Main Street is traced by trees and vintage street lamps with flower baskets, and has two of the city’s main sights facing off against each other on opposite banks of the river.
On the east side is the sleek St. Charles Municipal Building (1940) in the Art Deco style, while across the water is the Spanish Revival Hotel Baker (1928), designed as a luxury resort at a time when St. Charles was an escape for Chicago residents.
Today, downtown St. Charles has an enticing array of restaurants, cafes, pubs, ice cream parlors and bars, rubbing shoulders with one-off independent shops for antiques, jewelry, fashion accessories and even equestrian equipment.
2. Arcada Theatre
Always visible on Main Street is the bright marquee of the Arcada Theatre which dates to 1926 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Built in 1926 this Spanish Revival venue screened silent movies, and was held as one of the hottest vaudeville stages in the Fox River Valley.
With an Art Moderne interior the Arcada Theatre is noteworthy for staying open, except for improvements, for all of its history and is now best known as a place for live performance, from concerts to comedy specials.
A brief rundown of the many artists who have performed this 897-seat venue includes Kenny Rogers, Dionne Warwick, Jerry Lewis, Shirley MacLaine, Martin Short, Dana Carvey, The B-52s, Paul Anka and Mickey Rooney.
3. Pottawatomie Park
St. Charles’ favorite park is on the east bank of the Fox River, a comfortable walk north of downtown. This idyllic plot of land has a history going back to the 1830s, and there were plans in the late 19th century to build a hotel and resort at this location.
The imposing pavilion and tower on the riverfront are a reminder from that unrealized project and replaced a similar pavilion from the 1880s.
The main attraction at Pottawatomie Park today is the 18-hole River View Mini Golf, in beautifully kept grounds. The outdoor Swanson Pool is also here and is a hit in summer, with programs like swim lessons and aqua aerobics.
The park is also the departure point for paddlewheelers on the Fox River in summer, and has a surfeit of other amenities like a children’s playground, amphitheater, bike repair station, fitness stations, tennis courts, sand volleyball, softball and an adult activity center.
4. Otter Cove Aquatic Park
This sensational public water park is part of the St. Charles Park District and promises a wonderful day out for families in summer.
To list a few of the park’s amenities you’ve got a lap pool, a zero-depth entry wading pool, a water playground, a lazy river, sand play area and the kind of slides (body and tube) that wouldn’t be out of place at a resort.
For extra comfort you can rent a cabana for the day, while there’s also a pavilion, sand volleyball court and a concession stand (The Dive) for hunger-stomping comfort food, from pizza to hot dogs.
5. St. Charles History Museum
The St. Charles Historical Society was founded in 1933 and has a museum downtown in the McCornack Oil Company building, completed in 1928.
All dedicated to St. Charles and its progress, the collections are extensive with more than 15,000 artifacts and 10,000 photos.
In the Jack & Kathy Brens Exhibit Hall you can explore a permanent rotating exhibit looking at different aspects of St. Charles’ story from the Civil War training ground to its growth as a getaway for Chicago residents.
On the left hand side of the hall are fascinating temporary exhibits going into depth on topics as diverse as education, the Underground Railroad in St. Charles and the city’s links to the Titanic disaster.
6. Fox River Bike Trail
St. Charles is one of a chain of communities on the banks of the Fox River, linked by a multi-use trail that continues for 40 miles.
Downtown the trail crosses the river from the west bank to the east bank, passing through Mount Saint Mary and Pottawatomie Parks and also intersecting with the Great Western Trail, which passes along the right-of-way of a former railroad.
Cycle south to Geneva and the trail crosses a charming river island, embroidered with formal gardens, while a gentle ride north will bring you to the Fox River Trolley Museum and bustling downtown Elgin.
7. Primrose Farm
On the western fringe of the city, the St. Charles Park District maintains a working farm that can be visited for all sorts of rural activities and experiences.
Typically you can bring youngsters to feed the goats, cows and chickens, hang out with the farm’s giant Belgian draft horses, gather freshly laid eggs and even try milking a cow.
There’s a wealth of other activities on offer, with a schedule that changes according to the season, from yoga with goats to needlework sessions outside in the pasture.
Primrose Farm hosts the local 4-H Club, and also sells the produce that it grows at a farmstand, open Wednesday and Saturday, spring through fall.
8. Hickory Knolls Discovery Center
Next to Otter Cove, the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center allows people, especially children, to get to know the habitats and wildlife of the Fox River Valley.
The center is on a 130+ acre property with over three miles of trails and has plenty to occupy families on an hour-long visit.
You can meet a diversity of live animals, from guinea pigs to rabbits and a range of snakes, turtles, amphibians and arthropods.
There are feeders placed all around the center, allowing you to observe abundant birdlife, while other features include a Potawatomi Native American exhibit, a sandbox with a geological theme, an interactive floor-to-ceiling nature mural and of course the wonderful natural scenery on the grounds.
The center has a packed schedule of seasonal activities, educational programs for all ages and special events.
9. Mount Saint Mary Park
This riverside park, just south of downtown St. Charles is a lovely place to spend some time, especially on a sunny day.
Mount Saint Mary Park is on the Fox River Bike Trail and warrants extra attention for a series of public art installations along the main looping walking path.
These works have augmented reality signs for more information about each piece and its artist. The park has large open lawns sprinkled with tall trees, and spots by the water where you can watch the Fox River go by.
Among the many amenities are a boat ramp, tennis courts, a formal garden with pergola, a picnic shelter, a basketball court and a gazebo.
10. St. Charles Paddlewheel Riverboats
Riverboat cruises on the Fox River have been a highlight of summer life in St. Charles since as long ago as the 1940s.
From the start of May to mid-October you can drift along the Fox River Valley’s green corridor, and will be forgiven for wondering if you’ve been transported back to Mark Twain’s day.
There are two paddlewheelers in the fleet, Fox River Queen and the St. Charles Belle II, and there are regular departures all summer long, rain or shine.
Public cruises take place three times a day on weekends throughout the season, and there’s one a day Tuesday to Friday June through August. Check the website for details of themed cruises, from pirate voyages for kids to evening sunset trips.
11. Steel Beam Theatre
Contributing to St. Charles’ famous arts scene, the Steel Beam Theatre puts on professional, award-winning productions downtown in an historic former storage from the turn of the century.
The intimate theatre was created in 2001 when a hundred-year-old wall was torn down, and is a not-for-profit, charitable enterprise, presenting engaging and provocative but always entertaining shows.
These are purposely made accessible and affordable to all and include musicals, plays, improv comedy and an annual Christmas show. The Steel Beam Theatre also has a youth program teaching vital skills to young people, onstage and backstage.
12. Delnor Woods Park
This picturesque neighborhood park is made up of just under 50 acres of native oak-hickory woodland.
Many of the mature trees at Delnor Woods Park date back well over a century, and on the criss-crossing trail you’ll encounter a variety of scenery in the form of wetlands, ponds, a dam and a little waterfall.
Among the amenities at the park are numerous picnic tables, a children’s playground, restrooms and a handful of sculptures and monuments including a touching memorial where people can pay tribute to their beloved pets.
13. Penrose Brewing Company
There’s a small-batch craft brewery in Geneva, little more than five minutes from downtown St. Charles.
The Penrose Brewing Company emphasizes fresh hoppy flavors and wild/sour fermentations, and pours an exciting rotation of beers at the taproom, open Tuesday to Sunday with extended hours on Friday and Saturday nights.
The five beers in the core lineup include the Taproom IPA, Goofy Boots (Juicy Midwest IPA), Dryft (Mosaic IPA), Pilsner and Session Sour.
These are accompanied by a changing array of seasonal and small-batch releases, dominated by IPAs and Sours.
The brewery doesn’t have a kitchen sio you’re encouraged to bring your own food or grab something from one of the food trucks normally parked outside on weekends.
14. Kane County Fair
The most anticipated annual event in the Fox Valley takes place across five days in mid-July at the Kane County Fairgrounds.
It would be impossible to list everything going on at the Kane County Fair, but for a taste you’ve got a demolition derby, pig racing, a petting zoo, kiddy land, live music, car shows, magic shows, wine tasting, cowgirls and pro bull riding.
And not to forget, the local 4-H program is at the heart of the event, and there’s always a diverse choice of food vendors for familiar county fair treats.
15. Kane County Flea Market
Also at the Kane County Fairgrounds is a cherished monthly flea market that has been running since 1967.
The Kane County Flea Market is run by the children of the founder, Helen Robinson, and takes place on the first weekend of the month, March through December.
On a normal weekend there are more than 600 dealers at the market, set up indoors, outside and under sheds.
With a little persistence there’s no knowing what you might uncover, but to whet the appetite there are vintage signs, antique toys, sports collectibles, vinyl records, books, handmade decorations and historic home appliances.