Aurora Town Focus
This city of lights is a mecca for shopping, dining, entertainment and family fun
For a community that shares a name with the natural phenomena of the northern nights, Aurora always has something interesting on the horizon. Depending on your location, vantage point, time of day, season and purpose, there is something to do or see in virtually every part of town. Like an aurora display on a summer’s night, the shape, hue and duration of things to do in this city is unique, variable and often vibrant.
Such a broad and distinct scope isn’t that surprising when you consider that this far western suburb is an Illinois metropolis and home to approximately 200,000 residents of parts of Kane, Will, Kendall and DuPage counties, not to mention thousands more who work in Aurora or visit on a daily basis. “Being the second largest city in the state next to Chicago, we have a number of business parks, retail corridors and dining and entertainment establishments,” says Maureen Gasek, director of events and marketing for the Aurora Regional Chamber of Commerce.
In addition to its central downtown district, which has its own high rise in the form of the 22-story Leland Tower and a new residential development going up, Aurora boasts other thriving areas. “Route 59 is the second busiest retail corridor in the state, after the Magnificent Mile in Chicago,” says Gasek of the wide, north-south byway lined with all kinds of businesses and services. That’s not even counting other commercial hubs in Aurora, including the Chicago Premium Outlets shopping center and the Fox Valley Mall.
There is another natural occurrence in this city of lights that makes Aurora what it is — a community of residents, civic leaders, volunteers, business leaders and others. This network, often inter-linking, springs out of various neighborhoods and common purposes and interests. “You see that in any big city, and it keeps communities tight,” says Gasek, adding that while neighborhoods and groups are tight-knit, Aurora is a diverse 21st century community in many ways.
That viewpoint is shared by Marissa Amoni, events coordinator for the Downtown Aurora business organization “People do indeed light up the City of Lights,” she says of Aurora, which got its name in part because it was one of the first cities in the country to have an electric street lighting system in the 1880s.
Amoni cites the example of Mayor Richard Irvin’s state of the city address in April, which attracted an audience of more than 800 and echoed the sentiment that Aurora’s robust community spirit is driven by dedicated people. “To see grassroots events like First Fridays being heralded by the mayor is encouraging,” says Amoni. “Over the years, business owners and citizens have stepped up to create their own vision for the city they love. It’s everyone working together and cheering each other on that is palpable and makes Aurora shine brightly.”
For a city of this size, there are a lot of instances of people working together. Accordingly, the list of things to do, see and experience in Aurora is a long one, with some highlights that exemplify the character of the area.
Historic Stolp Island: Downtown Aurora
Just as Chicago has its Loop, Aurora has its historic downtown. Similar to the larger city to its east, Aurora’s downtown also was built along a river, in this case, the Fox River.
Aurora is unique in the sense that part of its downtown is located on a piece of geography called Stolp Island, which divides the east and west sides of town and which was home to various manufacturing sites and government buildings for the good part of a century. Today, Stolp Island — connected by bridges to other parts of the city — is still a hub for business and entertainment, while also offering urban living within the suburbs.
Visitors might want to stop on Stolp Island to pick up information from the Aurora Area Convention and Visitors Bureau or to pop into the Aurora Public Library. The city’s civic offices are in this part of town, too.
The Leland Tower — at one point the tallest building in the state outside of Chicago, when it was built in 1928 as a hotel — is now a residential structure. At the base is Leland Legends, a restaurant that offers a throwback to the era in which the hotel boomed and welcomed the likes of Al Capone and John Dillinger.
Charming bits of history are found in buildings in other parts of downtown including the Stolp Woolen Mill Dye House, the oldest building on the island. It dates to 1858, and was built by the district’s namesake, Joseph Stolp. Also of interest is the former Aurora Elks Club building, which has been renovated into an apartment building called The Mayan.
History buffs and those interested in firefighting can check out another hotspot (pun intended), the Aurora Regional Fire Museum. Located in a fully restored circa-1894 station, the museum has a new interactive exhibit called “Getting There, Getting Water, Getting Rescued,” which traces the evolution of firefighting tools. Visitors can try passing leather fire buckets and peek inside old horse stalls.
Another intriguing place to learn about history — in this case, about the Civil War — is the G.A.R. Museum. It was first built to honor those who served in the Grand Army of the Republic in the Civil War and has been restored to include a variety of exhibits on the war, local soldiers and the post-Civil War era.
To get more information on people and places that have shaped Aurora’s heritage and legacy, a trip to the David L. Pierce Art and History Center may be in order. The center is run by the city and is home to Aurora Historical Society’s exhibits and galleries. Lest you think it’s all pieces of the past, the center also showcases public art from new and emerging area artists.
Eat, Drink and Be Merry
While many buildings in downtown Aurora date back more than a century — and some to pre-Civil War years — that doesn’t mean that they are relics. One vintage spot that oozes both history and charm is Endiro Coffee, housed in a 19th century building next to the Fox River and serving up coffee, pastries and other items from an eclectic menu. As a testament to that charm, baristas proffer a free snickerdoodle cookie when they hand you your beverage at the end of the bar. You’ll have to go pretty far — to the East African country of Uganda — to go to another Endiro Coffee location.
In addition to a cup of coffee — or a sun-brewed iced tea, which steeps in a glass jar on the deck overlooking the river — from Endiro, there are plenty of dining options in Aurora. A nice place for a pint of beer or some Irish-inspired fare is Ballydoyle Irish Pub. Get a taste of New Orleans at Shrimpy’s, where you can order up some crawfish, okra and crab legs. For authentic Mexican and Latin American cuisine, check out local favorites like Tortas Guadalajara, Tecalitlan Mexican Restaurant, La Quinta de los Reyes and U Samba, among others. Those seeking more casual pizza or bar food can head to Miss Lee’s Tavern, New China Hut, Doughballs Pizza Palace, Spizzico to Go or Gillerson’s Grubbery (which offers a large duck burger), among others.
A popular — and historic — place for dinner and entertainment in the main downtown district is Two Brothers Roundhouse, a full service restaurant, brewpub, banquet space and music venue built in a limestone roundhouse that was constructed in 1856 along the Chicago and Aurora railroad. In summer, the outdoor beer garden is filled with people taking advantage of the much savored warm weather.
Other places in downtown Aurora are fun stops for treats and snacks. For the past 35 years, Banana Split has been a destination for some good old soft serve ice cream ordered from a walk-up window. Some bakeries in this part of town deliver the goods, too, including La France Bakery and Jake’s Bagels & Deli.
Aurora is known for its retail stores in other parts of town, but the downtown district does have some shops, such as Glanze Boutique, the All Spoked Up bike shop, Wardell Art Glass, Delgado Jewelry, Bella Jewelry and Aurora Jewelry. Combining shopping with DIY, you can channel your inner foodie or beverage guru at PME Arts & Crafts, which specializes in cake supplies and decoration, or Fox Valley Homebrew & Winery Supplies.
Cort Carlson, executive director of the Aurora Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, says that it’s easy to make a day of it — or a weekend — of it in Aurora. “If they come for a concert at RiverEdge Park, they can get here early and go shopping at the outlet mall and walk along our great riverwalk. Or maybe if they’re going to a show at Paramount Theatre, they can have an early lunch or late dinner and then go gambling at the casino,” he says.
Carlson underscores the natural elements of the downtown area. “One unique aspect is that not only do we have dining and nightlife, we have outfitters where people can rent kayaks. People go kayaking or canoeing on the river and biking along the river trail,” he says.
Concert Time: RiverEdge Park
RiverEdge Park is a downtown spot that is as conveniently located as it is scenic. “It’s a great location, right on the river, across from the Metra station and the Two Brothers Roundhouse,” says Carlson. “Even those who live in Chicago or the other near-west suburbs can take the train here, see a show or go to eat, and get on a train to go back home.”
To be sure, this is a busy time of year at RiverEdge Park, which offers a full slate of events and concerts. The season kicks off on June 15 and 16 with Blues on the Fox, an event featuring several blues performers, including Aaron Neville and Elle King. George Thorogood and the Destroyers come into town on Aug. 4, and Gladys Knight and the O’Jays are stopping by on Aug. 18 for a show.
The park has its own concession area, and guests can also nosh on goodies from food trucks that often pull up nearby.
That’s Entertainment: Paramount Arts Center
Indeed, the arts and entertainment are alive and well in downtown Aurora. One venue that reflects the history of the city and its status as a regional attraction is Paramount Theatre, run by the Aurora Civic Center Authority, the organization that manages RiverEdge Park.
Built in 1931 as one of the country’s grandest movie palaces, the 1,888-seat Paramount Theatre (it’s actually larger than many Broadway theaters) has long attracted high-wattage performers, from Claudette Colbert who attended the grand opening in 1931 to comedian Jay Leno, who came to town in mid-April for a comedy show. For the past several years — following an extensive restoration — the theatre has become known for its strong theater productions that have drawn large and diverse crowds.
“Seven or eight years ago, the all-time attendance was 56,000 in an entire year. This past year, when we did Elf, we had 82,000 attend in seven weeks. Paramount brings in 350,000 guests a year,” says Jim Jarvis, vice president of programming and sales, who points out that the venue boasts the country’s second largest subscription base, with more than 36,000 subscribers hailing from 13 states.
While award-winning shows and talented performers have elevated Paramount’s reputation as a serious theater venue, the increasing popularity is also due to its operators’ emphasis on the sheer enjoyment of the arts. “One of the greatest things about it is that we are bringing the arts to everyone. We want to make it affordable, a great experience and a family place to bring the kids,” says Jarvis.
There’s also the bonus of enjoying art in a grand setting. Even visiting performers get a thrill from being at Paramount. “When you get to watch someone walk into our theater for the first time, and see how it’s restored to the 1930s character, it’s amazing to see their face,” says Jarvis of the reaction that extends from celebrity performers to first-time patrons.
Upcoming shows at Paramount include a staging of the Tony-award-winning show Once: The Musical, through June 3, and Legally Blonde, from Sept. 5 through Oct. 21.
Back to Jarvis’s point about accessible entertainment, Paramount Theatre screens classic movies on Mondays for just $1 admission. “Return to Oz” will be shown on May 14, “Hacksaw Ridge” on May 21 and “Interstellar” on May 28.
The Aurora Civic Center Authority also manages Paramount’s “sister” theater, the Copley Theater, across the street on Galena Boulevard. The organization is currently working hard on the January 2019 opening of a new Paramount School of the Arts in a building next door to the theatre, which will offer classes for all ages in singing, dancing, music and improv, among other areas of interest. In the Cards: Hollywood Casino
It’s a large city well outside Chicago. It’s located along a river. It has a network of hotels and restaurants and accessibility to roadways and public transportation. All of those factors make Aurora an ideal site for a riverboat casino. Accordingly, Hollywood Casino draws sizable crowds to this 53,000-sq-ft venue. Visitors play the slots (there are more than 1,000 machines) and try their hand at table games.
Befitting a casino, there are on-site restaurants, including Fairbanks Steakhouse, Take Two Deli and, of course, a buffet that’s dubbed Epic Buffet.
Animal Adventures: Phillips Park Zoo
One of the best kept secrets in Aurora is that the city has its own zoo. Well, it might not be a secret, but it’s not as widely known as Brookfield Zoo or Lincoln Park Zoo in the Chicagoland area. “We’re trying to become more visible, and are working on buildings and on getting in new and more animals,” says zoo manager Dan Powell, citing recent and pending additions like goats, snakes, and reptiles. Currently, the zoo has an extensive population of birds ranging from bald eagles to peregrine falcons, as well as mammals such as North American river otters and gray wolves to reptiles like the American alligator and African spurred tortoise.
The Phillips Park Zoo is charming because of the animal life and its setting. “With a lot of zoos, you have to drive a ways to get there and once you do, you have to park, and then spend almost the whole day there to make it worth the drive and money,” Powell points out. “With this zoo, it’s free, you can see it within two hours and there is still time to have a picnic or walk around. We’re surrounded by a park, so you can make it a leisurely day.”
Best of the Fests: Special Events
Now that the warmer weather is arriving, more people are headed outside to dine al fresco, take a bike ride or enjoy outdoor activities and events. Organizers in the city of Aurora are more than accommodating in that regard.
Underscoring the tight-knit nature of Aurora residents, many special events are the result of collaborations on ways to make visiting and living in this city better. “Aurora has an active group of citizens that have dreamed up things like the Aurora ArtWalk, Alley Art Festival and The ArtBar. The community is constantly evolving, but one constant is the passion and energy of Aurorans to nurture a vibrant downtown,” says Amoni.
An ongoing “First Fridays” series has proven especially popular. “On the first Friday of the month from February to December with the exception of July, downtown venues are open with art, music, and more. There’s everything from dancing to massage at more than 20 participating locations. A trolley takes patrons on free rides on every First Friday, too,” says Amoni.
Other upcoming and well-attended events include a Food Truck Festival with live music at Millennium Plaza on Stolp Avenue on May 4, and a Downtown Aurora Magic event on June 9, focusing on magic and wizardry. “An event that’s been growing in recent years is Roots Aurora, a one-of-a-kind celebration of diversity and culture in Aurora,” adds Amoni. Roots Aurora is held on the first Friday in September on Water Street Mall, a pedestrian area near City Hall.
Traditional seasonal events include a Fourth of July parade on Independence Day, trick or treating in the downtown area in October and a Winter Lights festival around the holidays.
Get Smart: SciTech Museum
You might say that one attraction is gathering steam in Aurora — in this case, STEAM. The SciTech Hands-On Museum offers more than 200 interactive exhibits based on the STEAM principles of science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.
A popular destination for families, field trips, birthday parties as well as individual visitors, SciTech offers a variety of programs based on certain themes, such as May 17 activities on bees, spiders and butterflies. Housed in a former U.S. Post Office building, the museum also offers summer camp programs for children in pre-kindergarten through 8th grade.
Other Aurora Highlights
• Get back to nature — and maybe back a century or so — at Blackberry Farm. The living history museum recreates pioneer life and offers all kinds of fun to go along with the education, including hay rides, paddle boats, pony rides and more. Family Fun Free Days are offered on select dates in the summer
• The Riverfront Playhouse in downtown Aurora is run by a small local group that stages plays throughout the year, including performances in May of Marjorie Prime.
• Golfers can hit the links at the 18-hole Phillips Park Golf, owned and operated by the city of Aurora. A new lighted practice facility recently opened.
• Higher education is part of the fabric of the city at institutions like Waubonsee Community College’s downtown Aurora campus, and at Aurora University, located in a charming neighborhood on the west side of town. A recently unveiled athletic venue is among the school’s new facilities.
• All of those cars you see parked in huge lots just off the Reagan Tollway? They’re from visitors to the Chicago Premium Outlet mall, which shows that despite online commerce, brick and mortar stores are hardly out of fashion. Chicago Premium Outlet also hosts concerts in the summer, like an upcoming performance by Beatles tribute band American English on June 15.
• Speaking of malls, Fox Valley Mall on the east side of Aurora is home to dozens of stores, from American Eagle to Zales, along with numerous on-site dining spots.Edit Module