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Be A “Forest City” Local: 25 Uniquely Rockford Destinations

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Rockford Riverfront

Rockford, the 3rd largest city in Illinois, never seems to get the respect it deserves. Accessible as a day trip from any part of northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, this destination known as “The Forest City” flies a bit under the radar as a spot to visit …

We at Midwest River Cities aim to change all that though, or at least move the needle a bit. Visiting Rockford will convince you of the city’s charms, as will putting together a travelogue. We’ve done the former many times, and in the course of doing the latter we finally decided to create a (growing) list of locations and businesses you’ll want to visit …

This travelogue runs the gamut of MidwestRiverCities.com’s normal topics – you’ll find information about “The Oldest Bar In Town”, Local Restaurants, Independent Shops, and Getting Out On The River …

But frankly, there were dozens of Rockford delights to choose from, so what follows is a “laundry list” for you to visit and become an honorary Forest City local!




For easy reading, we’ll break them into categories. Numbers are listed beside each listing to help you keep your place, but that’s not to imply a ranking. We think you’ll love all of them.

So here we go …

Rockford’s World Class Gardens

Rockford’s original nickname was “The Forest City” and it’s still referred to by that name. In recent years, another appropriate nickname has cropped up … “The City of Gardens”.

A nickname couldn’t be more on point than that, as Rockford boasts over 7,000 acres of parkland and several beautiful public gardens, three of which make our list.

In no particular order, they are:

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Rockford’s Nicholas Conservatory

#1: Nicholas Conservatory

Operated by the Rockford Park District, the Nicholas Conservatory is the crown jewel of Rockford’s river front. Situated on the river’s east bank walking distance from downtown, the Conservatory features over 11,000 square feet of indoor plant displays and garden settings.

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Colorful Lorikeets

Tropical plants abound, and they’re often featured via special events, like the recent Lorikeet Exhibit (pictured). The Conservatory also features a waterfall, walking paths which link to the Rock River Bike Path, and access to the outdoor Sinnissippi Rose Garden, one of the most spectacular in the Midwest …

The ever changing displays and proliferation of plant life make the Conservatory a must for visitors to Rockford …

#2: Anderson Japanese Gardens

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Anderson Japanese Gardens

This world class peaceful garden sanctuary is located just east of the Rock River Auburn Street bridge. Visited by folks from all over the world, Anderson Japanese Gardens is rated as one of the finest gardens of its type in North America …

The koi ponds here are mesmerizing, and it’s the perfect location to gather your thoughts and turn off the outside world. Inspiring, tranquil, and uplifting, you’ll want to return again and again. Tours of the gardens are offered, or opt to explore on your own.




Insider Tip: Enjoy a light breakfast or lunch in a “green” setting at the Garden’s new Fresco At The Gardens restaurant, featuring locally sourced organic selections.

#3: Klehm Arboretum and Botanic Garden

Located about ten minutes south of downtown on South Main Street, this local gem has roots (literally) dating back to 1910 when it was a tree nursery. Klehm Arboretum is a plant lovers dream, boasting over 1,00 species of trees and plants, including many majestic oaks …

MidwestRiverCities.com/rockfordCheck out the Butterfly Garden or simply walk the paths around the grounds for some fresh air and exercise. There’s a nice circular route which clocks in at about 1.5 miles and takes you past hundreds of tree species, many of which are labeled for educational purposes.

Time your visit during the fall and you’ll be rewarded with a spectacular bouquet of color as the trees change with the season. In spring, you’ll encounter hundreds and hundreds of migrating birds making their way back north. Even in the cold weather months, the grounds are a welcomed respite from the hustle of every day life …

Rockford’s Oldest Bar

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Mary’s Place Bar – Rockford, IL

If you’re a history buff and you also like a cold beer served in a place that has stood the test of time, you’ll like Rockford. There are numerous places here fitting the description, and we’ll be adding to this list over time …

For starters:

#4: Mary’s Place

Locals place by day and live music hotbed after dark, Mary’s Place is Rockford’s oldest bar, dating back to 1919. It’s located on Madison Street just steps away from the Prairie Street Brewing Company (below) …

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Mary’s Place – Rockford’s Oldest Bar

Local bands light up the stage here most nights, with diverse musical styles offered. Monday nights feature local musicians, and sometimes a big name is known to drop in …




The bar itself is casual and welcoming, blue collar to white collar, and all ages of adults. This is a bar … no food here except for snacks in bags, but you’re not here to eat anyway. Grab a seat at the lively semi circular bar or grab a chair overlooking Madison Street. There’s a small parking lot and plenty of street parking just outside …

Come on in, have a Pabst Blue Ribbon on tap, and enjoy Rockford’s oldest bar …

#5: CJ’s Public House

Located downtown at the corner of State and Madison, CJ’s Public House (formerly known as CJ’s Lounge) is a stone’s throw from the Rockford City Market site. This local bar has been a downtown Rockford mainstay since the late 1960’s.

The food here is inexpensive and pretty good, too. Try the CJ Burger, a loose meat creation somewhat reminiscent of a Maid Rite sandwich. It features seasoned ground beef, Swiss cheese, and onions …

The Public House Burger and Pork Tenderloin sandwich are two other excellent and easy on the wallet selections. CJ’s offers a full bar including classic cocktails and as an added bonus, they serve Mrs. Fisher’s potato chips!

This is a great stop anytime you’re downtown … CJ’s is open for lunch, dinner, and late night daily.

Forest City Local Restaurant Gems: Good Eats In Rockford

Sometimes you don’t have to look very hard to find great independent eating establishments. Rockford is one of those places … there are all kinds of local restaurants beloved by area residents and visitors alike. Here’s a synopsis of a few to get you started:

#6: Prairie Street Brewing Company

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Prairie Street Brewhouse – Rockford

Riverside dining? Check. A freshly brewed house beer with a view of the Rock River meandering by? You bet. Creative pub food and a lively atmosphere in historic surroundings? Yup, that too!

Located at the corner of Prairie and Madison on the river’s east bank just a few blocks north of downtown, Prairie Street Brewhouse is one of Rockford’s newer breweries and also its oldest.

The beautiful castle like structure was once the home of the Rockford Brewing Company, the city’s original brewery. The structure housed a number of other businesses over the years and is now the inviting home of Prairie Street Brewhouse …




There’s about a dozen house beers on draught here … no matter your beer preference, you’re covered. Check out the new lower level Dockside Taproom for the closest front row river seat in the city.

Insider Tip: Come by on Thursday nights for the popular “Dinner On The Dock”, which features casual dining just steps from the Rock River, live music, and of course great beer. Downtown Rockford is just to your left as you face the river and the people watching is top notch …

#7: Hope and Anchor English Pub

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Draught Selection – Hope and Anchor Pub

A friendly, casual English style pub with great food, Hope and Anchor is about five minutes north of downtown on 2nd Street. There’s ample parking in the lot directly across the street and the tap selection is an exceptionally well chosen mix appealing to beer fans. The bar rotates a seasonal or two so you’re always in for a pleasant surprise …

Hope and Anchor Pub is a very short distance north of both Nicholas Conservatory and Anderson Japanese Gardens, so plan a stop here if walking the garden paths kicks up a thirst …

#8: Carlyle Brewing Company

MidwestRiverCities.com/rockfordThis is the granddaddy of Rockford’s craft brewing scene, which has blossomed into one of the best in the state, if not the Midwest. Carlyle opened in 2003 and has been a key element in bringing people downtown. They’re located on State Street, just east of the river and a few blocks from the BMO Center …

The star of the show at Carlyle is, of course, the beer. If you’re lucky, Carlyle will have their special Dark Walnut Stout on tap when you visit. This complex, approachable dark beer is an occasional presence at the tap room – even those who don’t like beer will probably like it!

Carlyle Brewing is also known for their square New Haven style pizzas … there are several to choose from and they add to the communal vibe of the place. If you’re downtown and looking for a friendly, casual place to spend an hour or so, this is it …

#9: Capri Restaurant

A long standing downtown family friendly Italian option, Capri Restaurant dates back to 1963. The place feels like home, with dining room murals painted by a local artist and a cozy bar that’s perfect for couples of any age …

Insider Tip: The pizza here is fantastic! The sauce is tangy with a touch of sweet, it’s served crisp, and portions are generous …

If you’re a fan of comfort style Italian food, Capri is your go to choice downtown. Everything is homemade and Capri is also known for their salads with house dressing …

#10: Owly Oop Sports Pub

Another fun, casual choice located right on the river is Owly Oop Sports Pub. They’re right at Madison and Grove Streets, a block south of the Walnut Street Bridge …




If you like to watch sports while you’re enjoying your food and drink, this is the place to be downtown. Located on the second floor of the Sports Factory building, the space boasts the city’s largest television – a mammoth 12 footer. Prairie Street Brewing’s beers are served on tap and the pub style menu features locally sourced ingredients.

Best of all, the view of the Rock River is spectacular!

#11: Zammuto’s

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Zammuto’s – A Rockford Tradition Since 1925

Located about a mile southwest of downtown on Rockford’s west side, ask any local about Zammuto’s and you’ll be greeted with a smile and a knowing nod …

Kind of a walk up place, Zammuto’s has been around for decades. They’re best known for their “granitas”, which are similar to Italian Ice. Several flavors are available and you can also enjoy an array of quick service sandwiches like burgers, hot dogs, chicken sandwiches, etc.

Insider Tip: Look for the Zammuto’s stand at the Friday night Rockford City Market downtown. The stand doesn’t serve food, but you can enjoy their signature granitas …

#12: Beef A Roo

MidwestRiverCities.com/rockfordWe usually don’t tout chains, but Beef A Roo is a small local Rockford based chain that has been around for 50 years. They’ve got about a half dozen locations in the area, each with a different theme and decor …

Beef A Roo is best known for their beef sandwiches. They’re sort of like Arby’s but bigger and better. Salads, sandwiches, and fantastic milk shakes round out the menu. Want to really look like a Rockford local? Buy one of their good looking Beef A Roo t-shirts!

Who Doesn’t Lovee A Good Bakery?

Part of the charm of visiting a new city or town is hanging out where the locals congregate. The local bakery typically qualifies as that sort of place … plus it’s a great way to start your day!

Rockford is a city with deep European heritage … Swedes, Italians, Germans, Irish, Polish, and many more hard working immigrants helped build and shape the character of this river city.

These two local bakeries, while not specific to any ethnic culinary style, are very representative of Rockford and are great places to grab a quick breakfast …

MidwestRiverCities.com/rockford#13: Doughboys Donuts

If you’re coming into Rockford from the south or the east, you’ll probably go right past Doughboys Donuts. They’re just north of the Harrison Street / 11th Street exit off Route 20 on the right hand side as you go north.

It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but there’s plenty of parking and once indoors, you’ll see trays and trays full of all the baked goods you crave … dozens of donut varieties, pastries, long johns, and more.

Have a larger order in mind? Give them a call and your order will be ready for you when you arrive. Good coffee too!

#14: By The Dozen Bakery

By the Dozen Bakery is north of the downtown area on 2nd Street (Route 251) … it’s technically in Machesney Park, but only 10 minutes north of downtown. As you’re heading north on 251, go past Harlem Road and By The Dozen is on the left hand side …

A traditional bakery, this is where Rockford locals get their special occasion cakes, not to mention a wide selection of freshly baked donuts, muffins, sweet rolls, and more. Everything is baked on premise in the back, and you’ll see trays of goodies right out of the oven being stocked in the display case during business hours …

By The Dozen is a great stop if you’re heading north to Beloit on Route 251 …

Uniquely Rockford Attractions

One can best describe Rockford as big enough to be diverse and interesting, and small enough to get around comfortably. A vibrant riverfront and revitalizing downtown offer several attractions you’ll want to experience.

Among them are:

#15: Rockford City Market

RockfordCityMarket.comMost farmers markets are held on Saturday mornings, but the Rockford City Market bucks the trend – it’s held late afternoon into the evenings on Fridays. Tucked away on the east bank of the Rock River just steps away from the heart of downtown, the Rockford City Market is the place to be for Friday happy hour …

Much more than a farmers market, Rockford City Market is more like a festival gathering or a block party. You’ll find fresh produce vendors, similar to a traditional farmers market, but also prepared food, live music, patio seating, adult beverages, and local entrepreneurs showcasing the region’s best …




The Market is held every Friday, rain or shine, from late spring into the fall, and it’s easy walking distance from many of the restaurants, bars, and shops profiled in this travelogue. Developed with downtown revitalization in mind, the Rockford City Market is a model for other river cities. In fact, it’s well worth specifically planning your visit to include a Friday late afternoon and evening so you can visit!

To give you an idea, among those establishments within easy walking distance of the Rockford City Market include Mary’s Place, Prairie Street Brewhouse, Capri Restaurant, Carlyle Brewing, Rocktown Adventures, CJ’s Public House, and many more …

#16: Coronado Performing Arts Center

Friends of the Coronado TheaterThis historic performance center is located near Rockford’s museum campus on the west side of the river. Dating back to the 1920’s vaudeville era, the Coronado has been spectacularly restored and hosts all manners of live performance, from theater to concerts to community events.

The roster of those who’ve performed at the Coronado reads like a Who’s Who of 20th and 21st Century talent – some of the greats have included Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash, President John F. Kennedy, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, and hundreds more. Tours of the Coronado are available; check their website for details …

If there’s a performance at the Coronado when you’re in town, don’t pass up the opportunity!

Get Out On The Rock River

#17: Forest City Queen Riverboat

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On The Rock River – Rockford

Rockford’s riverboat is known as the Forest City Queen … it’s docked along the east bank of the Rock River just steps from the Prairie Street Brewing Company, the Rockford City Market, and other downtown landmarks.

Owned and operated by the Rockford Park District, the Forest City Queen offers a full schedule of sightseeing cruises up and down the Rock River. The standard cruise is a 45 minute narrated journey which takes you close to many of the historic mansions and homes perched on the river’s west bank.

The trip travels upriver past the Auburn Street Bridge and then back to the heart of downtown before returning to the dock. Unless you’re in the river, you won’t get any closer!

#18: Rock River Path

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Rockford Riverfront

Best described a riverfront walking path, this paved path stretches from downtown to well past the Auburn Street Bridge. It’s within a few feet of the east bank of the river and goes past the Nicholas Conservatory, Forest City Queen boat launch, Sinnissippi Rose Garden and more.

The path is wide enough to accommodate walkers and bike riders and the terrain is mostly flat though gently rolling in spots. It’s one of the most scenic vistas in town and you get a little fresh air and exercise for free!

#19: Rocktown Adventures

Want to rent a kayak or canoe and get out on the Rock River from downtown Rockford? Rocktown Adventures has you covered …

They’re located just a block or so east of the Rockford City Market site with easy access to the river. You can also outfit any type of adventure outings, from paddling to hiking to rock climbing and more …

Rocktown Adventures also organizes group outings and offers lessons to assist novice adventure seekers become more acclimated to the outdoors …

Independent Shops

#20: Thrifty Boutique Resale & Consignment

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Thrifty Boutique Resale & Consignment

If you like to look good but don’t want to spend a lot to do it, you’ll love Thrifty Boutique. It’s located about a mile southeast of downtown at Broadway and 7th and it’ll change the way you think about resale and consignment shops forever …

Inside is a multi room display offering gently used women’s and men’s clothing and fashion accessories at a dime on the dollar price. You’ll find all the expensive brand names here without the high end price tag that usually comes with …




The staff is warm and welcoming, ready to help you locate what you’re looking for or letting you browse around to your heart’s content. There’s something here for every age and every style, and the inventory changes daily.

This is the type of place you’re guaranteed to walk out of with a smile on your face, wondering how on earth you scored that great deal!

#21: Minglewood

For the ladies, Minglewood is an eco chic fashion boutique located right downtown on State Street. Stop in if you’re planning a late afternoon at the Rockford City Market or any of the bars or restaurants in the immediate vicinity …

Minglewood offers fashion, fragrances, jewelry, home decor, and personal items like aromatherapy candles and homemade soaps …

#22: Rockford Art Deli

MidwestRiverCities.com/rockfordAlso on State Street (a block east of Minglewood) is a must stop shop in downtown Rockford. Not a deli at all, Rockford Art Deli is all about local. The main thrust of their business is screen printing and graphic and web design, but you’ll find an enticing variety of locally focused items like t-shirts, gift items, and local art with a Rockford theme …

#23: Isa’s Boutique

Stop in at Minglewood and then head a few doors down to Isa’s Boutique. Here you’ll find purses, accessories, fashion, jewelry, and other unique decor items …

Stroll up and down State for a few blocks – you’ll find plenty of great choices for shopping, dining, and entertainment …

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Made In Rockford

Made in America is a good thing, so that means Made in Rockford is too! Two of the best known Rockford area made products are of the snacking variety – potato chips. These chips are beloved by locals and we’re pleased to introduce them to you …

Both have outlet stores attached to their production facilities, so feel free to pay them a visit and get your chip on!

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Mrs. Fisher’s Potato Chips, Rockford

#24: Mrs. Fisher’s

Since 1932, Mrs. Fisher’s has been Rockford’s potato chip manufacturer. They’re tucked away on Fulton Street west of the Rock River, less than two blocks west of Main Street …

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Mrs. Fisher’s Outlet Store, Rockford

Visit their outlet store (attached to the potato chip factory) and buy their chips, snack mix, and cool Mrs. Fisher’s t-shirts. These are traditional style chips which are thicker cut, meaning you’ll enjoy more sizable chips …

Insider Tips:

We have a few tips when visiting Mrs. Fisher’s. First, get yourself a punch card (pictured). Buy ten bags and get the next bag free!

MidwestRiverCities.com/rockfordSecond, buy a bag or two of their “dark” potato chips. They’re only available at the outlet store and they’re packaged in plain silver bags. Dark potato chips are made from special potatoes which are slightly higher in sugar content. When they’re cooked, a caramelization of sorts takes place and the chips look “well done” …

It appears the chips have been cooked longer, but they really haven’t – it’s simply the effect of the higher sugar content in the potatoes. If you like crispy or well done french fries, you’ll love Mrs. Fisher’s Dark Chips!

Third, there’s an inviting long time Rockford restaurant / bar two blocks east of Mrs. Fisher’s at Fulton and Main Street. It’s the Olympic Tavern, which serves upscale pub food and an eclectic beer selection. They’re been here since 1945 and the locals love it …

#25: Ole Salty’s

MidwestRiverCities.com/rockfordOle Salty’s Chips are kettle cooked, so you’ll get that unmistakable crunchy texture. They’re available in grocery stores all over Rockford and also at their retail outlet on East Riverside Boulevard (technically they’re in Loves Park).

Ole Salty’s makes several different varieties, including a really good No Salt style in case you’re looking to cut down on sodium. You can also buy their caramel corn and Ole Salty’s swag at their store, which is in front of where the chips are actually produced and packaged …

Rockford Trivia

– Rockford’s first name was Midway. The settlement was located halfway between Chicago and Galena, the latter of which was a big mining town generations ago …

– The city became known as Rockford due to a rocky ford in the Rock River near the original settlement …

– Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band Cheap Trick hails from Rockford …

– In addition to The Forest City and The City of Gardens, Rockford has also been known as The Screw City due to the historical production of screws and hardware …

– One of the city’s largest early ethnic groups was of Swiss origin. You’ll still see the Swiss culture celebrated and remembered at many area restaurants and in some of Rockford’s historic architecture …

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Rockford’s Riverfront

Want To Add Your Business To This List?

We’d be pleased to expand this list to 50, 100 or more …

There are way more than 25 uniquely Rockford destinations … how about your business?

Visit our Work With Us Page to see how you can have your business added to this travelogue. Tell Rockford visitors (and locals) who you are and why you’re one of the reasons that makes Rockford great!

More Information About Rockford

For more information about Rockford, visit the Rockford Convention & Visitors Bureau at their very helpful website: GoRockford.com

    3 Comments

  1. The Kenneth and Phyllis Laurent House by Frank Lloyd Wright deserves a place on this list!!

    • We’re planning a return visit soon and we’ll check that out!

  2. This underrated river city is close and convenient to anywhere in the Chicagoland and southern Wisconsin areas … what are some of your Rockford local favorites?

    Our plan is to add to this travelogue and get it to 50+ or even 100+ great local destinations … stay tuned!

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