15 Best Things to Do in Waukegan, IL

Waukegan, IL
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Waukegan is a part of the Chicago metropolitan area: the county seat of Lake County, Illinois, and the largest and most populous city in it.

As of the 2020 census, it has a population of 89,321, placing it as the 10thmost populous city in Illinois.

It is situated 29 miles of Chicago’s North Side and sits along the shores of Lake Michigan.

A lakefront city, Waukegan has been an encampment for explorers searching the Mississippi River, was once one of the most bustling harbors of the Great Lakes, and was an industrial hub at the turn of the 19th century.

Waukegan has a notable working-class population and many blue-collar areas within it, as well as a fair-sized middle-class community.

It has a flair for the arts, a bustling downtown, and a whole host of outdoor recreations.

Waukegan is a place that has been through a lot of regeneration, filled with places to discover and explore: restaurants, museums, forests, parks, theaters, amusement centers, shorefronts, and many others.

If you’re ready to start wandering Waukegan, read up on this list of the best things to do here.

Admire Waukegan Harbor Light

Front View of Waukegan Harbor Light and the sea
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Waukegan Harbor Light sits at the end of Government Pier on the western shores at Lake Michigan and is an emblem of the harbor at Waukegan.

Waukegan Harbor Light was first built in 1889 and was moved when the pier was extended, with a fog signal building added to the tower.

A fire razed it in 1967 and destroyed the structure, light, and fog signal, leaving the cast-iron tower undamaged.

Closer View of Waukegan Harbor Light
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The fog signal house and lantern were removed at the time, and today it looks very much like it did when first built.

It is an active lighthouse, with the light tower now capped and topped by an exposed beacon, the upper portion of the tower painted green, and the house emanating a green light.

Catch captivating views of Waukegan, downtown Chicago, and Lake Michigan from the lighthouse and surround yourself in the romantic and peaceful setting by the sea.

Watch a Show at Jack Benny Center for the Arts

Jack Benny Center for the Arts is a multidisciplinary arts center that is the Cultural Arts Division of Waukegan Park District and the seat of Bowen Park Theatre and Opera Company and Waukegan Symphony Orchestra and Concert Chorus.

The Jack Benny Center gives fine arts instruction for dance, music, art, Theatre, private music and voice lessons, and traditional craft and lecture programming through the Bowen Heritage Circle.

The venue takes its name from beloved entertainer Jack Benny, who grew up in the city and came back in 1974 to star in Waukegan Symphony Orchestra’s debut performance.

Jack Benny was a long-standing comedian who worked in vaudeville, television, radio, and the movies and excelled in all his crafts.

Enjoy amazing concerts or Shakespearian plays at the Center and look forward to events, such as Ray Bradbury’s Fine Arts Festival in early June or the Joseph A. Favero Memorial Do It Yourself Messiah in December.

Wander Out on Waukegan Municipal Beach

If you want to spend a day on the shores of Lake Michigan, Waukegan Municipal Beach is a beautiful mile of natural sand fringed by some of the region’s only remaining sand dunes.

Along with the beach, there is a 400-acre lakefront and a 1,000-slip marina for recreations, such as competitive boat racing, fishing, kiteboarding, and simply enjoying the water.

The water is crystal-clear and claimed to be among the cleanest in Lake County, and the lovely stretch of sand is perfect for picnics, sand volleyball, sand soccer, sunbathing, beachcombing, and sandcastle-building.

The Stiner Pavilion is a great place for listening to live music, and on Tuesday nights, you can attend a variety of concerts and festivals throughout the summer.

Also enjoy yummy fare from the mobile food vendors around the beach and stop for ice cream and snacks at the Dockside area close to the harbor.

Catch a Concert at Genesee Theatre

Front View of Genesee Theatre
edward P. steinburg desnged, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Genesee Theatre is a movie palace and concert hall in Waukegan used as a vaudeville theatre and cinema hosting musical shows and artists.

It was built in 1927 and comfortably seats 2,403 people, still a marvelous landmark almost a hundred years after its first opening.

The venue was conceived as a moviehouse but has also included 40 apartments and retail space.

Sign in Genesee Theatre
Wendy Brandt, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It is a grand structure of much finery, with an ornate lounge and a lobby, an enormous stage, beautifully restored plaster moldings, a grand chandelier, a state-of-the-art heating and cooling system, seven tons of Italian marble, and 1,200 yards of luxurious tapestry fabric.

Today the Theatre hosts a wide range of entertainment: movies, concerts, Broadway shows, dance recitals, live comedy, tributes, cultural presentations, and family events.

The Theatre has stood firm in historical integrity: a symbol of the hope of the 20th century and a landmark of the Waukegan community.

Let Your Imagination Soar at Ray Bradbury Experience Museum

The beloved and influential writer Ray Bradbury was born in Waukegan and spent his early childhood in the city.

Waukegan stayed in Bradbury’s imagination and was called ‘Green Town’ in his books, where he drew on his experiences to fuel his imagination.

The iconic Bradbury left behind classics such as Dandelion Wine, Fahrenheit 451, and The Martian Chronicles—a legacy that comes alive at this museum.

Journey into Bradbury’s great mind and discover his connection to the heart of the town, love of comic books, passion for space exploration, freedom of expression, works in the movies, and so much more.

The museum intends to interpret the works of Bradbury with interactive experiences studying his Waukegan roots and his impact on 20th-century culture, bringing it to life with integrity, innovation, and transformative experiences.

Come explore the exceptional mind of this writer and share his vision for a better future.

Check Out Waukegan’s Art Scene at ArtWauk

ArtWauk is a thriving community event that has been held at downtown Waukegan on the third Saturday every month for almost a decade.

It is a multidisciplinary extravaganza, brimming with arts and crafts, with a circle of studios and galleries downtown opening their doors for visitors interested in buying paintings, sculptures, and decorative works.

Artists open their minds and share their artistic ventures; craftsmen show meticulous creations and handmade items; musicians hold dancing sessions, drumming, and songs; and directors showcase quirky performances and original stories.

Anticipate live music, film, comedy, street theatre, and delicious offerings from local bars and eateries.

ArtWauk started in 2011 when the Waukegan community wished to breathe life into the empty downtown storefronts by inviting artists and friends to color them with possibilities.

Today, ArtWauk is truly an event that cannot be missed, a cultural jewel, and a celebration of the visual arts.

Spend a Day at Bowen Park

View of Trees at Bowen Park
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Bowen Park is numbered among the best outdoor spaces in the area, a stunning 60-acre green wonder in the heart of Waukegan.

It was residential property in 1843, used as a summer residence by many people, including former Chicago mayor, John Charles Haines.

The park served as a country club for most of the 20th century and was sold in 1963 to the Waukegan Park District.

View of Bowen Park
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It has been transformed into a public park with a wide range of recreational facilities, including a ravine, an old-growth forest, greenhouses and flower beds, picnic areas with grills, a pond, a stream, and even a skating park.

For athletic endeavors, it features a baseball field, a splash pad, a basketball court, and has a six-station exercise and fitness trail.

It also holds an award-winning playground called Forest Findings, equipped with playground amenities and environmental learning stations representing a forest ecosystem.

Go Fishing with Windycitysalmon Fishing Charters

Waukegan has a harbor and a 1,000-slip marina packed with facilities and is, therefore, a natural destination for fishing on Lake Michigan.

There is a season of world-class salmon and trout fishing at the harbor starting from April to November, and you can enlist fishing charter companies for a great experience.

One of these companies is Windycitysalmon Fishing Charters, featuring unsurpassed experience nearshore and offshore and in deep water in Lake Michigan.

Captain Rick Bentley heads the Independence, a fully outfitted and custom-equipped fishing boat designed for Great Lakes trout and salmon fishing.

The knowledgeable Captain Rick has many fishery stories and will expertly handle the full spread of rods for you and your crew.

Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned angler, you will have a great time being out on the lake and hauling in the fish!

Take Your Family to People’s Choice Family Fun Center

At the heart of Waukegan, the People’s Choice Family Fun Center is 43,000 square feet of family entertainment and recreational fun!

Encounter all kinds of attractions for the entire family.

There are spinning bumper cars and a kiddie train ride for the young ones; Vegas strip with penny, nickel, and quarter slots; and video gaming machines for the adults.

Head to their incredible glow-in-the-dark 18-hole mini-golf space to practice your swing or the gaming lounge for billiards and bowling.

And then there is the Family Fun Zone with 150 of the hottest arcade games for all ages, all of which require tokens and award tickets to be redeemed.

The redemption counter happens to be one of the largest in Lake County, boasting over a thousand prizes!

And afterward, at the Pizzeria, refresh yourselves with handmade pizzas, burgers, ribs, fries, along with ice cream scoops, shakes, smoothies, and banana splits.

Have a History Lesson at the Waukegan History Museum

The Waukegan History Museum is hosted in the beautiful Haines House in Bowen Park and is home to the Waukegan Historical Society.

You will glimpse an interesting portrayal of Victorian life in Waukegan in one of the oldest properties in Lake County built in 1843.

The museum gives a peek into the local Waukegan life in the late 1800s, with fittings and furniture that used to belong to local families.

Spot various artifacts, exhibits, and photographs featuring period furnishings, such as drapes, carpets, light fixtures, and wallpapers from important local families that highlight Waukegan’s history.

Also, spy interesting objects connected to local personas, such as a bed used by Abraham Lincoln, who came to Waukegan in 1860, a charred clock from when the Lake County courthouse was hit by fire in 1875, and a trunk that belonged to Jack Benny back in the vaudeville days.

Enjoy Nature at Lyons Woods Forest Preserve

Flowers at Lyons Woods Forest Preserve
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The great outdoors is never far from Waukegan at this lovely wooded spot featuring 345 acres of habitat.

Lyons Woods was named after the Lyons family of Waukegan and was acquired as a forest preserve between 1976 and 1986.

It offers an incredibly diverse, mixed terrain of fen, pine groves, savanna, woodland, and prairie.

There are woods that run with black, bur, and white oaks and prairies filled with dropseed, goldenrod, and big bluestem.

View of Skunk Cabbage at Lyons Woods Forest Preserve
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Lyons Woods is a birders paradise and part of Lake Michigan flyaway.

Here, you may see the spring and fall migrants, like townsend’s solitaire, northern goshawk, and white-winged crossbill.

It has among the highest diversities of breeding warblers in natural areas at Lake County, including the blue-winged warbler, the common yellowthroat, and the ovenbird.

The preserve is located on high bluff lands around Lake Michigan and has a welcoming 2.5 miles of trails for biking, hiking, and cross-country skiing during winter.

Have a Beer at ZümBier Brewery

ZümBier in German means ‘to the bier’ or ‘to the beer,’ and this has come to be the defining story of the couple and ZümBier Brewery founders Larry and Talea Bloom.

The couple believes in hard work and commitment to the craft of brewing beers, and their ‘biers’ have a German accent produced in small batches, 22 year-round brews, and seasonal and special releases.

They have many delicious beers, such as Kölsch Diddy, Schwarz Talea or Düsseldorf Altbier Made Dark, Unda Cova Brudda or Imperial Rye India Black Ale, Der Chief or Berliner Weiss with Cherry or Lime ‘Schuss,’ and a selection of juicy sours.

They open up their cozy taproom with a lovely ambiance and put on live music and trivia nights, serving delicious homemade popcorn.

Enjoy a great variety of drinks at their all-around lovely spot.

Other Things to Do Nearby

See the Beauty of Illinois Beach State Park

View of a trail at  Illinois Beach State Park
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Illinois Beach State Park, which stretches 6.5 miles on the sandy shore of Lake Michigan, is a 4160-acre park comprising a delicate system of plant and animal life along the dunes.

It is an entrancing biosystem, the only remaining beach ridge shoreline in the state created during the glacial area.

Here, you'll see dunes and swales, sprawling marshes, colorful wildflowers, wet prairies, and sandy ridges with aromatic pines and black oak forests.

Scenic view of Illinois Beach State Park
Jacob Boomsma / Shutterstock.com

In the dunes area alone, over 650 plant species have been recorded: wildflowers, prickly pear cactus, grasses, sedges, cattails, big bluestem, and so much more.

At the savanna-like sandy ridges, a stream called the Dead River is blocked by sand bars formed by waves at the river mouth that shape a sluggish marsh area.

On this shore, you will encounter many fantastic recreational opportunities for swimming, fishing, camping, hiking, picnicking, boating, and simply appreciating the wild beauty of nature on the shore.

Have a Family Day at Six Flags Great America

View of Rides at Six Flags Great America
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Six Flags Great America is one of the 20 most popular theme parks in the country and can be found just 34 minutes from Waukegan.

It first opened as Marriott’s Great America in 1976, and it currently has 15 thrilling roller coasters among its almost 50 attractions.

View of Rides at Six Flags Great America
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Some roller coaster standouts are Maxx Force, which reaches speeds of 78 miles per hour in under 2 seconds; Raging Bull, the tallest, longest, and fastest coaster at the park; Goliath, which elevates everyone to a heart-racing drop; and X-Flight, a one-of-a-kind wing roller coaster that leaves you suspended and dangling.

Find yourself swinging through the clouds on the Whirligig carousel, watching incredible views of the Great America Skyline as you relax at the Sky Trek Tower, and going for an epically dizzying spin at Revolution.

View of Rides at Six Flags Great America
Christophe95, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Or have an immersive thrill ride 4-D experience at Justice League: Battle for Metropolis, swing wildly around unpredictable currents at Roaring Rapids, and go on a spiraling adventure at Triple Play.

Six Flags Great America is guaranteed to give you a blast with the thrill rides and the awesome entertainment.

So hop on board with your friends and family and have a great time!

View of Rides at Six Flags Great America
Jeremy Thompson from Los Angeles, California, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Explore the National Museum of the American Sailor

At just 16 minutes from Waukegan, navigating towards the navy station at the Great Lakes, you will find one of the country’s ten navy museums, overseen by the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Peruse an in-depth view of the U.S. Navy stemming back from colonial America to the present day in more than 40,000 artifacts covering a stunning collection.

Browse weapons, accessories, uniforms, and a veritable treasure of media, including the country’s largest archive of boot camp photography.

Find a tribute to Navy Sailors who served and are currently serving and the visual records of their bonds in profiles and photographs.

Also, spot a Navy Art collection with over 20,000 prints, drawings, paintings, and engravings covering naval personnel, ships, and actions from different eras of U.S. naval history.

See how the museum pays tribute to honor, courage, and commitment, principles that have guided the nation’s sailors in their unswerving and patriotic allegiance.

Final Thoughts

Awaiting you in Waukegan are cultural landmarks, stunning natural areas, amusing recreations, and imaginative pursuits.

If you’re ready to be a visitor, take this list to check off the best things to do in Waukegan.

This lakefront city has come very far, and you are welcome to discover all the things to be found in its streets, trails, and shores.