Last weekend, Mike and I drove the hour and a half from Chicago to Rockford to see what this suburban city had to offer. We left bright and early on Saturday morning, with our puppy in tow as our hotel was dog-friendly (so was the rest of Rockford, as we learned). I’m not sure why in the world I thought we would be able to check into our room at 9:30am ( I worked at a hotel for five years, I really should know better), but I did and we couldn’t. This resulted in Mike and I parting ways for the first stop in our tour of Rockford, the Anderson Japanese Gardens.
I have to say, we were a little frazzled when we arrived at the gardens, but, once I started walking through, I felt much calmer. The path wove through ponds, over bridges, and next to waterfalls. It was so beautiful and tranquil. There weren’t many people there, but there were quite a few photographers shuffling around each other, trying to get the best shot. My favorite part of the park was the koi fish pond and the area around it, particularly the boardwalk that passed under a huge, perfect willow tree. I really could have grabbed a book and sat there all day.
But we had a lot more on our schedule, so we moved on to downtown Rockford. The main drag, State Street, was lined with cute stores, coffee shops, breweries and restaurants. We popped into Salvaged by Sonja, an amazing antique store, first. The gentleman behind the counter was so friendly and happy to give us more information on the city and recommendations for dinner and activities in the area.
I bought a beautiful bracelet and ring and we crossed the street to Art Deli. This store is the epitome of city pride. Their freshly pressed t-shirts advertise Rockford in all it’s glory and nicknames (Screw City??). The shirts were so cute and soft, but I opted for a tote bag emblazoned with “Explore the Midwest” – it suited me. The proprietors of the shop were also more than happy to discuss the area and tell us all of their favorite places to go for dinner and drinks. We were finding that this was a trend among all of the people we met while in Rockford. Everyone was wonderful, kind and brimming with city pride.
We popped into a couple more stores (CD Source, Minglewood and EuroStyle) before heading to Taco Betty’s for lunch. What a fun restaurant! They’re decor was colorful and whimsical (they had Dirty Harry’s famous line proudly displayed at the front of the restaurant). As soon as we sat down, a bowl of spicy pork rinds was brought to the table, and we ordered some sangria (beer for mike) and poblano guacamole to enjoy while we poured over the menu. We decided to split 3 sets of tacos (each order came with 2): Mole Chicken, Crispy Fish, and Pork & Poblano. Everything was delicious, but the fish tacos were without a doubt the best I’ve ever had. Actually, I wish I had some now.
We were lucky enough to meet the owner, Paul, who also operates two other restaurants on State Street: Abreo and Social Urban. He was another enthusiastic Rockfordian who was happy to tell us how far along the city has come in the past five years.
We finished up our lunch and headed back out onto the main drag to get some coffee from Wired (a cozy cafe with delicious espresso). We finally got a call from the hotel saying we could check in, so we made our way to the Holiday Inn Express 15 minutes outside downtown to do so. We then drove into Rock Cut State Park, which was very close by, to meet Andrea from Go Rockford for some boating on Pierce Lake.
We chose a paddle boat because we thought it would be the easiest, but it took a surprising amount of effort to propel that thing. There were a lot of other boats on the lake (kayaks, row boats, fishing boats…), and once we got to the middle, we stopped to take it all in. The scenery was really just stunning, especially with the leaves changing color along the shore. It was so peaceful out in the middle of the lake, even with the hollering fisherman and rowdy family reunions in the park.
After a while, we headed back in, peddling hard and moving slowly. Once we finally made it to the dock, we turned in our life jackets and headed back to the hotel to grab my camera and make sure Brody was comfortable. From there, we moved onto Prairie Street Brewhouse, which was close to the main drag downtown. The old warehouse still had the train tracks running through it and was both a restaurant/bar and event space. We were meeting the CEO of Go Rockford, John, who graciously showed us through the first two floors of the building. They were set up for a wedding in their larger event space and it was gorgeous (made me want to start making some plans…). The three of us sat outside on the pier to drink our house-brewed beers. I had their Black & Blue Kolsch, which was tart and delicious.
The weather, scenery, and conversation were all perfect and Mike and I agreed that we’d need to come back to this beautiful brewhouse sooner rather than later. The next stop in our makeshift bar hop was Social Urban, a lounge-style restaurant with community seating and wonderful, smoke-filled bourbon cocktails that taste like cinnamon. The making of said cocktails was a show all its own, with smoke and sparks and requiring two bartenders. We also ordered the cheese curds (a recommendation from our friends at Art Deli), the cheese plate and the charcuterie plate.
Everything was local or from one of the surrounding areas and it was all so damn good. The cheese plate came with this amazing jalapeno & cherry jelly and the charcuterie plate had HOMEMADE BOLOGNA!! We were in heaven. At one point, the waiter came over to chat, quipping that most people only get cheese plates to start or end the meal. To which I answered “we get it for an entree, RESPECT THE CHEESE!” Mike noted that I said it too forcefully to be taken as a joke, but I meant it. I just really like cheese.
After we finished every last bite, we decided to stroll down State street again, and popped into the local skate shop, Ground Level. We met the owners, yet more proof that Rockford is full of proud citizens/wonderful people, who were happy to give us more recommendations and convinced us to go to Carlyle Brewing next door. Though their main selling point, the shuffle board & dart boards in the back room, were closed for a private event, we thoroughly enjoyed sitting at the bar sipping CBR’s (Carlyle Beer Rocks). This crisp, delicious beer was the breweries take on the classic PBR recipe.
We next made our way to the Pig Minds, a vegan brewery in an industrial area outside of downtown. They were having their Oktoberfest with a live band out on their patio and a full (vegan) German menu. The restaurant was bustling, and we had to do a couple laps before we found a spot at the bar. We both loved our chosen beers (a blueberry ale and a coffee stout) so much that we left with two growlers to take home. We ordered some vegan pretzel sticks and cheese to enjoy while we listened to the band. The bar had such a fun atmosphere.
Our last stop of the night was the Nicholas Conservatory and Gardens. They were (and still are – until November 5) showcasing the Bruce Munro light show, which took place within the greenhouse and through the gardens. I’m so happy we didn’t skip it to turn in early like we discussed at Pigs Mind. It was so much fun. We walked the length of the gardens, through each exhibit, reading the inspiring explanations as we went. I really loved the flamingos exhibit and the fields of twinkling lights. I hope they do a show like this again, because it really was so pretty.
We drove back to the hotel afterwards and promptly fell asleep as soon as we got our pajamas on. The next morning, we met Andrea and her husband, Nick, for breakfast at Lydia’s Cafe, a local favorite. It was a sweet little spot with local art on the walls. I got a plate-sized blueberry pancake and Mike got a skillet named for the a park in the area. The meal was perfect and delicious comfort food and the company was fantastic. We chatted like old friends and made plans to meet up again in Chicago.
We had such a wonderful time! Who knew there was such a perfect oasis so close to Chicago?! I can confidently say that we will be making our way back to Rockford very soon.
Have you ever been to Rockford? Where is your favorite oasis near your city?
**A huge thank you to the wonderful people at Go Rockford for hosting us and showing us the best parts of this fun town**