Travel outside Chicago just a few miles to the south/southwest, and you’ll discover the unique suburban landscape known as Chicago Southland. From train-themed attractions for rail fans, to outdoor art showcasing the area’s history, to a national monument, there are plenty of things to do in Chicago Southland. Whether you explore on a day trip from Chicago or stay overnight, it’s a destination worth discovering. Our Globetrotting Grandmom spent some time in these unique communities. Here are some of her discoveries.
Discover All the Things to do in Chicago Southland
I’ve visited the Windy City many times—it’s one of my favorite cities. But until recently, I had never explored outside the city. I had no idea what I was missing! The Pullman National Monument showcases the area where so much of our country’s labor and civil rights movement began. The Dixie Highway Murals artfully showcase life in another era. Viewing platforms extend over extensive railroad tracks to the delight of rail fans. And, if it’s pizza you seek, Aurelio’s has been serving up perfect pies since 1959. It’s all just a few miles from the heart of Chicago easily accessible by train or car. Here are some of my favorite experiences.
Entertain Rail Fans at Parks, Platforms and Railroad-themed Brews
As the crossroads of America, the Chicago Southland has an abundance of train action for rail fans. Head to the Park Forest Rail Fan Park to watch the Canadian National Railway and Metra trains pass by from a 40-foot elevated and wheelchair accessible platform. Notably, this is one of the rare places to see a double wye rail interchange. This looks something like a cloverleaf interchange for trains.
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Featuring a restored locomotive and caboose, the Homewood Railroad Platform and Park allows viewing of trains with live switchyard audio. Nearby, railway history murals adorn the walls of an underground walkway leading to the park.
Housed in an old Illinois central rail station, the Flossmoor Station Restaurant & Brewery continues with the train theme. On the menu you’ll find a unique selection of local craft brews, also train themed. Try the award-winning Pullman Ale or the Gandy Dancer Honey Lager, named after those dedicated railroad track workers.
Explore Outdoor Art and Historic Highways
The Dixie Highway runs through Homewood, showcasing 14 Richard Haas murals depicting life from days gone by. Along a 25-mile stretch of the Lincoln Highway, interpretive gazebos and murals tell the story of America’s first cross-country road. Jay Allen, owner of ShawCraft Signs, created the interpretive mural series and left behind stories about the history of the region for you to discover.
Governors State University in University Park is home to the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park. Placed throughout the 100 acres of prairie land are 29 sculptures including landscaped theme sculptures and my favorite, Paul Bunyan. Towering over the landscape, the gentle giant stands 30 feet tall. He’s hunched over as if he’s carrying the weight of the world and dragging his massive axe. Be sure to stand next to Big Paul’s boots for perspective on just how big this fella is.
Seek Out Teachable Moments at the Oak Lawn Children’s Museum
If you have the kids or grandkids in tow, don’t miss the Oak Lawn Children’s Museum. Exhibits teach the little ones about dairy products, construction, science and more. Highlights include “We the People,” an exhibit focusing on unity, friendship, helping others and patriotism. Two World Trade Center beams salvaged from the 9/11 attack are on display as the focal point of the exhibit.
Walk through history at the Pullman National Monument
A walk along Pullman Street is a walk through history. Today, the country’s first industrialized town is a national monument. Pullman was voted the “World’s Most Perfect Town” in 1896. Then things took a turn for the worse after George Pullman decided to reduce the wages of his laborers. Mr. Pullman’s decision sparked an incident that forever changed the country’s civil rights and spurred the birth of the American Railway Union. Be sure to stop in the Pullman Historic Foundation Visitors Center to learn how the town bounced back and how residents created a better life for future generations.
Taste the Perfect Pies at Aurelio’s Pizza
Armed with family recipes and a vision, Joe Aurelio opened Aurelio’s Pizza on August 20, 1959, in the Village of Homewood. Little did he know he was starting a beloved tradition for generations to come.
In the mid-1970s, Joe moved Aurelio’s to its current location. Today, the sprawling pizzeria occupies more than 16,000 square feet of space. Tiffany lights and rough-sawn cedar dominate the décor. Vintage stained glass, Chicago artifacts, antiques and multiple levels of seating complete the impressive flagship restaurant.
Notably, the pizzeria is still family-owned and operated. It doesn’t take long to realize this is more than a pizzeria—it’s part of the community. Long-time residents share stories about working at Aurelio’s when they were young. And when families reunite for holidays, you can bet Aurelio’s will be on the menu. Oh, and the pizza is good, too—REALLY good!
Overnight at La Banque
The Chicago Southland is an easy road trip from Chicago. But should you decided to spend the night, check out La Banque. Located in the center of the Village of Homewood, La Banque is a former bank turned luxury boutique hotel. It’s an ideal home base for exploring the Chicago Southland communities. Incorporated into the décor, repurposed safe deposit boxes provide a nod to the building’s past life. And prominently displayed in the hotel’s restaurant, La Voute Bistro and Bar, is the bank vault door signed by former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.