If You Like Chicago’s Access to the Outdoors, Try Moving to This Smaller City

If You Like Chicago’s Access to the Outdoors, Try Moving to This Smaller City

If you’ve ever spoken to a Chicagoan, you know they never shut up about their beloved Windy City. After a decade of living here, I have become, unfortunately, one of these folks. Maybe our dedication to the city stems from being sandwiched between endless East Coast/West Coast debates, while Chicagoans wait patiently for the opportunity to say, “Hey, we have beaches and boating, too!” 

And it’s true — Chicago’s summers are teeming with outdoor activity, luring natives out of their cozy apartments and drawing tourists from all over. Considering what we put up with during the frigid winters, Chicagoans deserve all the delightful outdoor goodness. With that said, I do have a secret. Despite the stunning views of Lake Michigan, the ample activity along the lakefront trail, and festivals galore, my nature-loving heart belongs to nearby Rockford, Illinois.

Born and raised in Rockford, my memories of year-round outdoor activities are fond and plentiful. No matter the season, as my Chicago friends and I make plans for hiking or festival-going or picnicking, I always think: dang, we should be doing this back home. For  Chicagophiles searching for an affordable alternative to the big city, Rockford’s outdoor adventures will make you a believer — and maybe even a transplant!

Lakefront Trail, Meet Rock River Recreation Path

I love a lakefront path. Biking, jogging, or just walk-gossiping with a friend against the background of a vast body of water is a special type of pleasure. Rockford has all of that and more along its Rock River Recreation Path. Nestled along — you guessed it! — the Rock River, downtown Rockford’s bike path is expansive and passes along a variety of must-see spots. Art installations, Sinnissippi Park’s gardens and nature conservatory (more on that below), and my favorite, the Rockmen Guardians! Meet new people, stretch those legs, and enjoy the view.

So you want to visit a garden? How much time do you have, pal!? Rockford is truly gaga for gardens, with a variety of options to choose from throughout the city. As I mentioned before, along the Rock River Recreation Path is Sinnissippi Gardens, complete with its Nicholas Conservatory. 

An absolute must-see for Rockford? Anderson Japanese Gardens. Friends, I am darn-near obsessed with this world-renowned Japanese garden. Enjoy a sound bath! Attend group yoga in the gardens! Sit quietly beside the massive koi pond and contemplate life’s greatest mysteries! This place is enchanting. 

In Chicago, there’s a different festival every weekend in the summer. While I’m grateful for the opportunities, they soon blend together with the same vendors, performers, entrance fees, while the transportation woes overwhelm me. Rockford, on the other hand, knows how to party. Rockford City Market in particular has absolutely blown up in the past few years. A Friday staple, Rockfordians flock downtown to enjoy food, music, and shopping. 

Tons of other festival options abound. I’m a big fan of the annual Festa Italiana (arancini is life), Greek Fest, vintage fairs, farmers markets, and the majorly popular and already sold out for 2021 Screw City Beer Fest.

I go hard for holidays, and so does The 815 (a cool way to say “Rockford.”) If you are looking to be incredibly creeped out this Halloween, the Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum and Gardens is home to one of Rockford’s oldest (if not, the oldest) homes and consequently, a bunch of ghosts. I’ve been on a paranormal investigation there and I’m still not convinced I didn’t conjure something and bring it home with me. 

For my fellow freaks for fall, Edwards Apple Orchard is a quaint and cozy spot to sip cider, feed some goats, pick your own apples, and succumb to the siren call of apple cider donuts. Rockford’s Stroll on State event is “the Rockford region’s kick-off to the holiday season.” If you want to feel like you’re in the best Hallmark Christmas movie you’ve ever seen, run, don’t walk to the Stroll. And lastly, my personal favorite, Williams Tree Farm in neighboring Rockton, is not just where one chops down their own tree. It’s also a place for horse-drawn wagons, wandering farm pups, and llama sightings. 

Immerse Yourself In Nature 

Canoeing and hiking in Chicago is a little surreal when right above the treeline you can spot the tips of skyscrapers. Rockford boasts the real deal, right in your backyard. Severson Dells Nature Center has a variety of programming for folks of all ages. Whether prancing through a butterfly garden, taking a guided moonlight hike, or joining in on a canoe convoy, visitors can soak up the great outdoors and never have to worry about their parking meter expiring.

It would be remiss of me to leave out the great Rock Cut State Park, where visitors can hunt, fish, camp, cross country ski — you name it. Plus, abundant wildlife is always lurking around the corner. Good luck driving to my Aunt Cindy’s house without spotting a hawk or deer. (As every Apartment Therapy reader surely knows, one must pass the state park to get to my Aunt Cindy’s house.) Happy hiking, friends!

Sarah Magnuson


Sarah Magnuson is a Chicago-based, Rockford, Illinois-born and bred writer and comedian. She has bachelor’s degrees in English and Sociology and a master’s degree in Public Service Management. When she’s not interviewing real estate experts or sharing her thoughts on laundry chutes (major proponent), Sarah can be found producing sketch comedy shows and liberating retro artifacts from her parents’ basement.

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A Chicago Condo Has an Incredibly Organized and Inspiring Custom Spice Rack

A Chicago Condo Has an Incredibly Organized and Inspiring Custom Spice Rack

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Name: Anne Lauer and husband, Travis
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Type of home: Condo
Size: 1200 square feet
Years lived in: 1 year, owned

Tell us a little (or a lot) about your home and the people who live there: We moved into our condo in August 2020. Moving during a pandemic was stressful, but in a way convenient, since the world was at a standstill. I had lots of time to dedicate to fixing up our new investment. The house itself was built in the 1890s and consists of six ranch-style units. The condo is west-facing with loads of natural light and a generous and open living and dining space. My favorite area is the house’s custom-made bay window and seat. It has a large kitchen with 42″ maple cabinets and granite countertops and I built in a custom spice rack and pantry shelves. I turned the private deck space into a relaxing oasis. The primary bedroom is generously sized with a huge, professionally organized walk-in closet. The second bedroom is large enough to fit a queen-sized bed and also doubles as an office. We have maple hardwood floors in the living areas, custom window treatments throughout, and have made seating a priority in the dining and living areas.

Describe your home’s style in 5 words or less: Cozy, Airy, Eclectic, Vintage, Pop Culture

What is your favorite room and why? I would have to say my kitchen. When we moved in there was the beautiful buffet built in and above it all this empty wall space, and I knew I had to do something with it. I had custom maple pantry shelves built in (thanks to my brother-in-law who brings all my visions to life!) and I filled them up with pantry items and kitchen wares. In the summer I decorate them with ivy, in the fall with leaves, and in the winter with pine. Growing up I could never find anything in our house so I knew I wanted a well-organized kitchen made for cooking but also entertaining. I had a huge maple spice rack made as well that is about six feet tall. I love how everything is so accessible and has a purpose.

Any advice for creating a home you love? DO YOU! Fill it up with things you love and it will figure itself out. There does not need to be a theme or a rhyme or reason. Build around things you love and the nuances will fill themselves in.

This submission’s responses and photos were edited for length/size and clarity.

This Cool Chicago Cottage Shows How Colorful a Home with White Walls Can Be

This Cool Chicago Cottage Shows How Colorful a Home with White Walls Can Be

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Name: Sara Wenokur, Garrett Jones, and Helma (poodle) and Kramer (schnauzer)
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Size: 1200 square feet on the main floor and about 900 square feet in the basement
Type of Home: 1910 Worker’s Cottage
Time lived in: 6 months, owned

Sara Wenokur, an artist and floral designer, and her partner, musician and software developer Garrett Jones, had been hunting on and off for a house for the past few years. With their apartment lease expiring, they ramped up their hunt in late 2020. “Our search was mainly constrained by our budget and our proximity to public transit. This really narrowed down our search and we ended up focusing on the northwest and southwest sides. Finding a house in our old neighborhood was not going to happen. Because it was the end of the season, we thought we’d have to wait until the spring for more homes to enter the market (as they usually do…) but we fortunately decided to check out a few houses (six) and the last house we looked at is our new house!” explains Sara.

Built in 1910, the couple’s house is what’s known as a “classic Chicago worker’s cottage” and they describe it as being located on a street lined with trees. “It has so much subtle character: plaster walls, archways, original flooring (in most rooms) and diffused sunlight.” A large size, their main floor features 1200 square feet, but there’s also a big basement that’s 900 square feet. And another huge bonus is their huge backyard that they both adore.

“In the short warmer months we have in Chicago, it’s the perfect size for us to garden, hang with friends, and for our two dogs to run around,” the couple exclaims. “When not outside, Garrett is a musician, specifically a drummer, so he’s excited to finally have a drum set again (its been about 10 years). He also likes to spend time reading in the hammock or working on a new recipe. Sara spends her time in the front room drawing, pressing flowers, tending to her plant babies, or working on a new craft project. We are both homebodies and are incredibly grateful to find a place that we love so much.”

Apartment Therapy Survey:

My Style: Eclectic, Colorful, Cozy

Inspiration: Color and patterns! Sara went to school with a focus on textile design and is naturally drawn to bold and colorful prints. We both love looking at old issues of home magazines (Architectural Digest/Better Homes and Gardens). Folk art from all over the world. Going on walks around our neighborhood gives us everyday inspiration for our front and backyards.

Favorite Element: Our backyard! We spend most of our time outside (when the weather is nice) drinking coffee in the morning, eating dinner in the warmer evenings, and swinging on our hammocks with our dogs. We built raised beds in our last apartment and planted vegetables, flowers, and herbs and it’s been so nice to have our own garden. We’re still both very new to gardening and we made a lot of mistakes this year, but we’re already planning our garden for next year (where we’ll make new mistakes). We have plans for a cut-flower garden, which Sara wants to use for a neighborhood flower stand.

We also love having a basement — we know we’ll be spending a lot of time down there with our friends once it’s too hot or too cold to hang outside. We’ve got a TV for the first time in about ten years and we also got a karaoke machine. Eventually we’ll get it outfitted with a proper Chicago basement bar.

What is your favorite thing about your home? From an object to a room to a paint color to a window view. The front bay window lets in so much natural sunlight, and since it’s west facing, the light is diffused most of the day but really lights up the main rooms in the evening. Our last apartment was south facing, and while sunny all day, we had to be careful about what plants we could place in the front window. The lighting, in general, is perfect in our new home. Just having a more permanent space to display things we’ve found on our travels really makes this feel like our home. We also love the ledge that hides the French drain system in the basement — it’s become a great way to store things off the floor — books, lamps, games, and in-progress art projects like Sara’s flower mirrors.

Biggest Challenge: In general, finding a home within our budget was not easy and the competition for our price range is very high. Finding a home in our price range, at the perfect time, and close to public transit was definitely the biggest challenge. After we moved in, trying to utilize our bedroom space was most challenging; these older worker cottages/bungalows have very small bedrooms (and bathrooms) and thats why we don’t currently have a door solution for our bedroom. We ended up making a small floating side table to save floor space, kept the decor pretty minimal, and we have future plans for a pocket door. In the future, we would love to turn the attic into our main bedroom.

Proudest DIY: Removing all the carpet from our basement and bedrooms! Also painting all of the walls in the house. When we first got the house, we were still living in our apartment for a month and Sara would come over and spend the whole day painting — we saved so much money.

Biggest Indulgence: Indoor plants and flowers for our backyard/deck, installed a new window in our living room, and we updated the electrical throughout the home — including installing switches and lights in the bedrooms, which were never wired up.

Is there something unique about your home or the way you use it? The front room with the bay windows looked so awkward when we first saw the house but we ended up using it as a small studio where Sara draws and stores most of her artwork / supplies. Eventually we would love to turn our detached garage into an art /music studio.

What are your favorite products you have bought for your home and why? Our Roomba — our dogs love to track in stuff from outside and it’s so nice pushing a button and letting the Roomba do its thing!

Please describe any helpful, inspiring, brilliant, or just plain useful small space maximizing and/or organizing tips you have: Mirrors! It might look like we’re narcissists by the amount of them we have in our house, but they really add dimension and make smaller spaces look so much larger and brighter.

Finally, what’s your absolute best home secret or decorating advice?  ETSY! During quarantine Sara would spend hours just browsing different shops to fill her antiquing fix.  We have found so many treasures for our home by looking on there. Also don’t be afraid to shop kid’s sections at stores if you are looking for something colorful and fun (and usually cheaper).

This house tour’s responses were edited for length and clarity.

Sarah Crowley


Sarah Crowley is an interiors, food + lifestyle photographer living in Chicago. When she’s not taking pictures, Sarah is likely out and about trying new sandwiches around the city with her fiancé, Jeff.

This Incredibly Cool and Colorful Chicago Condo is an Attack on Neutrals

This Incredibly Cool and Colorful Chicago Condo is an Attack on Neutrals

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Name: Anna and Richard, and two cats, Bob and Barbara
Location: Lincoln Square — Chicago, Illinois
Size: Unsure
Years lived in: 3 years, owned

“I couldn’t do minimalism if I tried,” confesses Anna, the incredibly cool purveyor of vintage fashion and home decor under the Instagram moniker Barbie Roadkill. “White and gray bore me to tears.” I first got a taste of Anna’s bold approach to interior design in her last house tour, an Irving Park apartment with a no-painting rule. “We were coming from an apartment where we weren’t allowed to paint the drab beige walls, so my initial approach to decorating our new condo was largely reactionary to that; an attack on neutrals,” she explains.

“When we moved in, all the walls were gray so the first thing we did was paint every single room a different pastel color (assigned somewhat at random),” Anna says. Thankfully, her husband Richard, who is an elementary school art teacher, is a fan of rainbow hues. “My goal was to pack as much color into each room as possible, while still allowing for some distinguishing characteristics from one room to the next. Like in the living room, where nearly all the decor is from the ’80s and abstract shapes and patterns are repeating elements.”

Built in 1922, Anna says their condo is the “perfect combination of new and old, with well-preserved vintage features and practical modern updates. I love the built-in hutch in the dining room, the fireplace, and the sunroom with windows on all sides. It has a lot of character but doesn’t feel too antique.”

Apartment Therapy Survey:

Our Style: “Golden Girls” meets Lydia’s house in “Beetlejuice” meets a box of crayons. Is that too much?

Inspiration: 1980s Miami during the peak of Art Deco revival. Blanche Devereaux’s bedroom is the ultimate inspiration! (Google it, you won’t be disappointed!)

Favorite Home Element: I love our sunroom, which is where all the plants live. It’s not the most practical use of space but it always cheers me up.

Biggest Challenge: Currently I’m struggling with the identity of the second bedroom (the pink room, which is also the TV room… and my closet.) It’s filled with all the rainbow, kitsch, and neon things we own. It’s garish (definition: obtrusively bright and showy—I just looked it up).  And yet I’m really happy in that space. Wherever I live, there’s always going to be at least one room that’s a little over the top with color.  I couldn’t do minimalism if I tried.  White and gray bore me to tears.

Proudest DIY: When I started sourcing vintage home decor, I would often find amazing lamps that were structurally sound but broken due to faulty wiring or missing pieces. At the beginning of the pandemic when we were in lockdown, I watched a bunch of YouTube videos about how to rewire old lamps, and I started fixing my own. It’s become my favorite hobby! I haven’t electrocuted myself (yet?) and it’s very satisfying work. (I included a photo of a pair of iridescent salmon cascading wave lamps that I rewired.)

Biggest Indulgence: I recently drove to Michigan and back in a day for a vintage Charles Hollis Jones Lucite rocking chair I found on eBay (it’s in the living room). It was worth it.

What’s your best home secret or advice? If I’m looking for something in particular, say a gold floor lamp, I always search Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist before looking at a new furniture store. Vintage furniture has stood the test of time and won’t fall apart after a year like some of the mass-produced furniture I see today. I’m the same with clothes; I have T-shirts from the ’60s that are in better shape than those I purchased just a few years ago. The craftsmanship from decades past can’t be beat, and I feel good about supporting sustainable fashion and home decor from local thrift stores or unique designs from artists and creators, instead of spending much more money on items that are cheaply made.

What to people most get wrong about using color in their home? I think it’s a mistake to focus too much on color theory rather than on color combinations that bring us joy.  Granted, my approach to color can be haphazard and juvenile sometimes. (I was once told that I have the aesthetic of a kindergartner.) But I think a bold and fearless approach to color can be just as rewarding as achieving that perfect balance of muted tones.

What are the biggest tricks/secrets to using color in decor? I like to take a whole bunch of paint swatches from a paint shop, cut out my favorite ones, and mix and match them until I find combinations I like. I also include swatches for the colors of my furniture, so I can get an idea of how it will look all together.

Favorite wall paint color of all time: I love the light purple walls in our bedroom (Confetti by Behr). The hue changes color throughout the day depending on the amount of sunlight.  Sometimes I choose paint colors for their names. I mean, confetti?? Sold.

This house tour’s responses were edited for length and clarity.

Adrienne Breaux

House Tour Editor

Adrienne loves architecture, design, cats, science fiction and watching Star Trek. In the past 10 years she’s called home: a van, a former downtown store in small town Texas and a studio apartment rumored to have once been owned by Willie Nelson.

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