Conversation at Social Urban Bar and Restaurant in Rockford, Illinois, flows like the river of stained glass set into the concrete bar. Chef-owner Paul Sletten’s kitchen staff breezes past, serving seasonal dishes to patrons seated around communal tables made of recycled barn wood. They chat about the pork chop’s apple-cider brine and the heirloom tomatoes in the pasta sauce.
“People say to me all the time, ‘I can’t believe something like this is in Rockford,’ ” Paul says as he carries a local farmer’s eggs into the kitchen. Like this means local, hip and foodie-friendly.
Ask people what they know about Rockford, and you’ll likely hear about the Swedish pancakes served at The Stockholm Inn, a tribute to the mid-1800s, when Scandinavian settlers arrived. You’ll also hear about the Sock Monkey, first crafted more than 100 years ago from red-heeled socks made at Rockford’s Nelson Knitting Mills. (The city celebrates the icon every spring with a Sock Monkey Madness Festival, held at Midway Village, a living-history collection of 26 buildings.)
What most people don’t realize is that Rockford also developed noteworthy art, museums, and parks with free or reasonably priced admission (and free parking—a welcome change to the sticker shock 90 miles east in Chicago). Plans call for even more affordable attractions, including a year-round indoor farmers market (with room for food carts) and a downtown sports complex.
In summer, the parks top to-do lists. Groves of towering pine trees and European larches beckon at Klehm Arboretum and Botanic Garden; evening concerts around the pavilion invite music-lovers to spread blankets under the stars. The sculpted beauty of Anderson Japanese Gardens reveals a 16th-century-style teahouse, cascading waterfalls, arched bridges and swirling-patterned rock gardens. The 10-mile Rock River Recreation Path weaves past sculptures and reveals shoreline mansions; you can learn about them on seasonal Forest City Queen riverboat tours. Nicholas Conservatory and Gardens opened in late 2011 within century-old Sinnissippi Park. Whimsical, hand-blown glass totem poles peek out from tropical greenery near a giant floral clock, sunken rose garden and newly restored lagoon.
Upscale restaurants, boutiques and art galleries are moving in around the restored 1927 Coronado Performing Arts Center, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Sparkling Czech crystal chandeliers and antique furniture from French châteaus fill its glittering lobby. Local lore says Frank Sinatra crooned his first solo performance with Tommy Dorsey’s band on this stage. These days, the Rockford Symphony Orchestra and traveling Broadway shows hold court flanked by massive, writhing dragons masking the original Barton organ’s pipes.
Come dinnertime, Carlyle Brewing Company packs people six deep at the bar for brews made on-site. Couples share silky truffles at Chocolat by Daniel. Foodies feast on seafood and prime aged steak at chic Josef-Barbados Restaurant and Oyster Bar. And friends sip cloudy green absinthe at Social Urban Bar and Restaurant.
To be sure, Rockford has a gritty side leftover from its manufacturing heyday. The best place to stay actually is 10 miles north in Rockton, where the Copperstone Inn blends a limestone facade and plush amenities on a rolling farm. But add all that’s new to Rockford’s proven, long-standing attractions—including the Burpee Museum of Natural History and the Rockford Art Museum—and you’ll wonder how one weekend could be enough to see it all.
Click ahead for our trip guide on what to do, where to eat, where to shop and where to stay.