I stand in the heart of downtown Hinsdale, 20 miles west of Chicago’s Loop, in the middle of a forest, the air sharp and cold. When I close my eyes, a memory wafts in, triggered by the scent of evergreens. I’m back at Christmas circa 1965, breathing in the magical, piney fragrance clinging to my dad’s coat as he carries me on his shoulders through a sea of pungent green. The memory doesn’t entirely fade, even when I open my eyes and take in the rows of firs, spruce and pine alongside Fuller’s Home and Hardware store.
The temporary tree lot is just one way the historical towns along Metra’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe train line dress up to welcome the holidays. On weekdays, the Metra stations in La Grange, Western Springs, Hinsdale and Downers Grove nearly groan under the weight of tired commuters clambering on and off the trains running in and out of Chicago. But on the weekends, these four downtowns feel entirely different to people like me who still appreciate leisurely train rides. I can fill an entire day hopping on and off the train, walking through the downtowns, browsing the boutiques and dining in restaurants catering to foodies.
La Grange is the first stop on the journey, 8 miles from the final stop in Downers Grove. When I meander into Blue Feather Books and Botanicals Ltd., I become aware of a sound that seems from another place entirely. Resonant and pure, the high, vibrating hum sounds ancient. And, in fact, “singing bowls” date back thousands of years. Villagers in Tibet, Nepal, India and Bhutan still use them, striking the edges with a mallet to create tones as rich as an organ, as lovely as a favorite Christmas carol. The imported bowls nestle amid boxes of incense, vials of essential oils, bundles of sage and rows of altar candles in the room where owner Rhonda Day-Kooy mixes a citrusy aromatherapy potion designed to alleviate my stress. I take a quick whiff, hoping it somehow erases holiday-induced tension. The lime mingled with rue smells luscious. I can’t help but smile. It’s Prozac for the nose. It’s also making me hungry.
At the end of a 5-minute train ride, I pull into Western Springs to meet my husband for a late lunch. Settled in at the cozy Mécénat Bistro and Gathering Place, I opt for something sensible. The chili arrives steaming, thick with fat pinto beans and peppery tomatoes. My husband insists on sharing even though he ordered a Midnight Sandwich, piled with pork, chicken, pickles and cheese. I don’t tell him the chili is vegetarian, with tofu standing in for beef. One spoonful, and he’s sold. Conversation stops until we scrape the bowl clean.
We walk to Kirschbaum’s Bakery, where third- and fourth-generation Kirschbaums stand behind the counter. The array overwhelms: rows of cookies, thickly frosted cakes and trays of sweet-smelling breads. We get a small bag of butter cookies with sprinkles. I polish off the red ones. He eats the green. Heading back to the train, we’re happy, sated, slightly sleepy and bound for Hinsdale (another 3 minutes west by train), then Downers Grove (11 more minutes west by Metra).
The oldest of these four towns, Hinsdale has a historical district that looks like it could star on a Currier and Ives Christmas card. Stately mansions dot wooded lanes near South Washington Street, where home-decor shops and fine-apparel boutiques complement the fresh-cut Christmas trees at Fuller’s Home and Hardware.
For a voracious reader like me, though, the finest stop awaits in Downers Grove: Anderson’s Bookshop. Anderson’s is a feast for old-school booklovers—I have tried in vain to warm to my Kindle—and I settle in for some serious browsing. When I look up, half an hour has slid past. Reluctantly, I pull on my gloves and prepare to finish shopping at the many businesses along Main Street. I realize my hands smell like pine, and new memories suddenly mingle with old.
Click ahead for our trip guide.
You can ride for $4.25 each way on Metra and enjoy all four towns without a car (it’s about 20 minutes from La Grange to Downers Grove by train). For schedules, visit metrarail.com .
The shopping district clusters around the La Grange Road station. It’s a happy medium between small Western Springs and larger Downers Grove and Hinsdale (both can easily take a half day to explore). Scarlett’s Tara offers enchanting Christmas ornaments, like Victorian angels and fairies, as well as candles and other home goods. (708) 354-0051 Cleo Boutique sells trendy, colorful separates for women. (708) 482-8770; cleoboutiqueltd.com  Dream catchers, some made by Native Americans, make great stocking stuffers at Blue Feather Books and Botanicals Ltd. (708) 352-8481; bluefeatherforyou.com  You’ll find artisan-made sculptures, fiber arts and jewelry in the Art Stop Gallery. (708) 482-9880; artstopgallery.com  Hand-dipped chocolates and candy-laden caramel apples tempt at Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. (708) 352-6487; lagrangechocolate.com Beautiful light fixtures, wall art and seasonal items shine at Hortons Home Lighting. (708) 352-2110; hortonshome.com  Try to resist the holiday outfits at The Urban Mutt. (708) 354-4655; theurbanmuttstore.com  Wine, beer and holiday collections at Vino e Birra make great hostess gifts. (708) 639-4466; vinoandbirra.com  For lunch, Nicksons Eatery serves American dishes like sliders and the Colorado elk burger, flavored with duck fat and topped with a garlic-infused mayonnaise. (708) 354-4995; nicksonseatery.com 
The area surrounding the train station has more banks, hardware stores and real estate offices than boutiques. But two mini department stores—the Uptown Shop (708) 246-1600; uptownshop.com  and Clever Girl (708) 246-5050; shopclevergirl.com —are worth checking out. Both carry items like ladies’ sweaters and jewel-tone blouses, hostess gifts, soaps, jewelry, decorative cookware and Christmas ornaments. Then plan to stop at Kirschbaum’s Bakery, which has been in business for 60 years. (708) 246-2894; kirschbaumsbakery.com  Foodies love Vie, a farm-to-table spot considered one of the region’s best dinner destinations. (708) 246-2082; vierestaurant.com  Mécénat Bistro and Gathering Place offers burgers and seasonal dinner specials in a cozy dining room. (708) 246-8668; mecenatbistro.com 
The shops are fun but pricier in this affluent suburb. Stop at The Green Goddess Boutique and you’ll find gorgeous, soy-based candles alongside hand-embroidered cowboy boots starting at $410. (630) 655-9050; thegreengoddessboutique.com  Hinsdale Wine Shop appeals to oenophiles. (630) 654-9862; hinsdalecellars.com  Fuller’s Home and Hardware has a seasonal Christmas tree lot. (630) 323-7750; fullershomehardware.com  Ooo La La! is a tween magnet, with merchandise walking a fine line between childishly appealing (knit caps with ears and googly eyes) and sophisticated (silver chains roped around sparkly charms). (630) 655-9330; ooolalaparties.com  Spectacular sushi anchors the menu at Nabuki, or try the exquisitely light shrimp and veggie tempura served on a bed of crunchy rice noodles. (630) 654-8880; nabukihinsdale.com 
A down-to-earth vibe anchors this historical downtown. Baubles and More sells boutique clothing at a discount and costume jewelry. (630) 434-4441; baublesandmoreonline.com  Find gifts for all occasions, including weddings and showers at Avec Panache Gifts (630) 963-1010; avecpanachegifts.com  and classy home decor in a luxe showroom at Dream Interiors. (630) 810-1389; dreaminteriors.com  The staffers at Anderson’s Bookshop have a librarian’s grasp on the store’s selection, and many authors stop here for signings. (630) 963-2665; andersonsbookshop.com  The menu at Capri of Downers Grove looks like standard Italian fare, but the flavors will wow you, especially the rigatoni in tomato-vodka sauce, slow-roasted chicken Vesuvio and Chilean bass Francese. (630) 241-0695; capridownersgrove.com 
For more info: Village of La Grange villageoflagrange.com 
Village of Western Springs wsprings.com 
Hinsdale Chamber of Commerce (630) 323-3952; hinsdalechamber.com 
Downtown Downers Grove (630) 725-0991; downtowndg.org 
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® November/December 2013. Prices, dates, and other details are subject to change, so please check specifics before making travel plans.)