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Sites beyond the Chicago skyline

Courtesy Chicago Southland CVB

Americans know Chicago for its rich history: heavy industries, colorful politics, soaring architecture, vibrant art and diverse cultures. But in the suburbs surrounding Chicago, you’ll find a history as long and colorful as the Windy City that spawned those towns.

The Chicago suburbs of North Shore and Southland, Lake County and DuPage County were home to a presidential candidate and a former U.S. vice president; capitalists who built railroads; and abolitionists who harbored fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad. The suburbs are still home to landmarks such as the historic Grosse Point Lighthouse and the only Bahá’í temple in the Western Hemisphere.

Chicago’s North Shore

When people think of Chicago’s lakefront, they often think ports and piers and heavy industry. That’s not the case in North Shore.

North Shore communities hug the shoreline of Lake Michigan just north of the city, and the area’s beauty and Cape Cod-like feel always surprise visitors, said Gina Speckman, executive director of Chicago’s North Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“They think ‘Chicago,’ and they think it’s a big city, everything is industrialized, there’s industry on the lake,” she said. “When people see the lake here, they’re always amazed that there are white, sandy beaches and kayakers and sailors and white lifeguard towers. They’re surprised the lake is so accessible and so pristine.”

And many of the North Shore’s most popular attractions can be found right on, or with a spectacular view of, the lakefront.

Sheridan Road follows the curves of Lake Michigan, and groups enjoy the drive almost as much as the sites along the way, Speckman said.

“It’s a beautiful road that goes up and down and winds through ravines,” she said. “People just love the drive itself.”

The road leads to the Bahá’í House of Worship, one of only seven Bahá’í temples in the world and the only one in the Western Hemisphere.

Construction began in the 1920s and continued for 30 years as the Bahá’ís continued to raise funds to finish the temple, which was finally dedicated in May 1953.

Like all the religion’s temples, the Bahá’í House of Worship in Wilmette has nine sides, and its snow-white dome rises above meticulously maintained gardens. Docent-led tours of the temple are free.

“They want to tell people about their faith because most people don’t even know what it is,” Speckman said.

Also on Sheridan Road, south of the temple, is the Grosse Point Lighthouse, which the federal government built in 1873 after several ships wrecked in Lake Michigan on their way to Chicago.

Now a national historic landmark, the Grosse Point Lighthouse is open for tours on weekends in the summer, but groups can arrange for tours during the week from mid-May through September. Visitors can climb 141 steps to the top of the picturesque tower or enjoy the grounds and garden free of charge year-round.

Another short jaunt down Sheridan Road takes visitors to the 1894 lakefront mansion of former U.S. vice president and 1925 Nobel Peace Prize winner Charles Gates Dawes.

Dawes bought the mansion in 1909 and lived there until his death in 1951. He arranged to donate his estate in Evanston to Northwestern University with the understanding that it would house the Evanston Historical Society. The family continued to live there until Dawes’ wife died in 1957, and the historical society moved into the mansion in 1960.

Today, the Evanston History Center owns the house and offers docent-led tours. Group tours are available by appointment for groups of at least five people.

Also in Evanston, a few blocks from Lake Michigan just off Sheridan Road, is the home of Frances Willard, one of the most prominent social reformers, suffragettes and women’s rights advocates of the 19th century.

Willard’s house was built in 1865, and the Frances Willard House Museum was established in 1900, meaning the museum has an incredible collection of her personal belongings: furniture, books, family photographs, even her bicycle. The museum offers guided tours, and group tours are available by appointment.

“She’s world-renowned,” Speckman said of Willard. “In the rotunda of the [U.S.] Capitol are statues of two women: Rosa Parks and Frances Willard.”

Rachel Carter

Rachel Carter worked as a newspaper reporter for eight years and spent two years as an online news editor before launching her freelance career. She now writes for national meetings magazines and travel trade publications.