Naperville Town Focus
The “secret sauce” that blends the best of city and suburb
It’s a city that straddles two counties, with a bustling downtown, thriving cultural institutions and a vibrant nightlife. It’s a quaint suburb with a charming historic district. It’s been called a beach town and a river town.
Naperville isn’t as much a community of contrasts as it is a something-for-everyone place to live, work and visit. All of those benefits have earned this suburb 28 miles due west of Chicago a heap of awards as one of the best places to live in the country, including recognition from Money magazine and livabilty.com. Naperville has received several other awards for its sustainability efforts, business climate, status as a prime place to retire and, at the other end of the spectrum, start a family.
“It’s a funny thing because other municipalities have asked us the same question — ‘What’s the secret sauce?’ We have been able to maintain that small-town feel while being a tourist destination. We have the best of both worlds going on,” says Naperville mayor and lifelong resident Steve Chirico. “I’m in the downtown every day, because my office is there, but in the evening, my wife and I often will ride bikes and walk to downtown Naperville, just enjoying the town.”
Chirico, who was elected in 2015 after succeeding retiring longtime mayor George Pradel, says that the tagline “historical innovation” that has been used to describe Naperville isn’t an oxymoron but a true reflection of the reasons the city has been successful. “Naperville has always been forward-thinking, driven by a can-do spirit. We have had generations before us of people laying that groundwork of ‘We can do that!’ with a sense of volunteerism. It’s a great legacy gift to us,” says Chirico.
In creating a likeable, livable community, generations of residents and leaders have also made Naperville a much-visited suburb. Indeed, everything can’t be packed into one jaunt. “Even in winter, there is so much to do. There’s more here than people even realize,” says Nicki Anderson, president and CEO of the Naperville Chamber of Commerce, who raised four children here, two of whom still live in town and two who come back frequently to visit.
This town of 39.5 square miles spans residential developments and established neighborhoods, busy commercial areas and open land dotted with rivers, ponds and forests. Visitors and new residents quickly see that Naperville is a city of vibrancy and ongoing appeal, built on decades of growth and planning.
Early and Often: The Naper Settlement
Let’s start at the beginning — or at least the site of Naperville’s early days. City founder Joseph Naper created a settlement along DuPage River in the early 1830s, now the site of Naper Settlement.
The history-centric, 12-acre outdoor museum in the heart of town draws more than 300,000 visitors a year. They come to learn about 19th century life, see re-enactments and peek inside preserved historic homes, shops, a chapel and a one-room schoolhouse. More than 10,000 photos and thousands of artifacts are on display. There are also substantial archives.
As well as appealing to history buffs, Naper Settlement attracts today’s youth, too, thanks to attractions like a summer splash pad, a “playscape” with a sensory garden, and other features that tie back into the history of the settlement.
“The experience is meant to be diverse,” says Benjamin Nau, director of marketing. “Visitors can explore our temporary exhibits, like our latest exhibition Community Roots: Agriculture in Naperville, or join us for one of our fascinating ‘History Speaks Lecture Series’ that focus on important figures and times in history,” he says. “Our museum brings the community together with a variety of new programs and events, while being a part of its past, present and future.”
The outdoor museum is a frequent destination for school field trips. “Children learn by experiencing pieces of the past through interactive programming that is hands-on, like churning butter or working a 19th century fire pumper,” explains Nau. “Or minds-on, such as the Underground Railroad Program, where middle school students meet various characters who theatrically perform 19th century views on slavery, creating an understanding of the importance of freedom, building empathy and making connections to our world today,” explains Nau.
Private events, from birthday parties to weddings, are held on the grounds throughout the year. The museum hosts its own special events, too, such as the Harvest Pow Wow in September to honor Native American culture, an Oktoberfest celebration in early October, an All Hallow’s Eve event before Halloween, the Naper Lights light display during the holidays and Christkindlmarket from November 24 through December 24.
Suburban Meets Urban
If you didn’t know any better, you might think you’re on the streets of downtown Chicago when you’re walking in parts of downtown Naperville. A young, talented saxophonist plays notes from a hit song from his spot on a busy corner, nodding to passersby. On sunny days, the sidewalks are lined with crowds, the parking lots fill up and business professionals network over lunchtime meals or coffee. The latest Starbucks in town, which replaced one across the street, is one of that chain’s newer concept stores, with a sleek, urban look and a lit-up counter that invites guests to tap away at laptops or catch up with friends.
At the same time, there are plenty of reminders that this is a big small town, or a small big town, take your pick. Families pushing strollers and old friends on a social outing can be spotted enjoying a scoop of ice cream at Frost Gelato or a scoop of fresh dough at Cookie Dough Creations. Couples hold hands as they walk out of a romantic restaurant, headed for a stroll along the Riverwalk, where they might take a selfie on a covered bridge. Independent merchants are on a first-name basis with customers and they work together to help promote, organize or participate in special events.
“Downtown Naperville is a blend, with a lovely historic backdrop and a real eye to the future with new businesses,” says Katie Wood, executive director of the Downtown Naperville Alliance. The district is designed to provide something for a variety of patrons. “People’s time is precious and they want to spend it in an area where there is something for many ages with many activities.”
From a business perspective, things are looking good in Naperville, reports Anderson, “We feel our community is very strong. I don’t know if it’s a combination of strong volunteers and a great community spirit, but there is always support for shopping local,” she says.
To say that downtown Naperville offers stores, restaurants and service for all kinds of interests and needs is something of an understatement. Within a 15-block area, guests can find any number of restaurants to suit a global or down-home palate. National chains like Ted’s Montana Grill, Nando’s Peri-Peri and Five Guys Burgers & Fries have locations in Naperville, as do truly original places like Mesón Sabika, Board & Barrel, Front Street Cantina and the newer Empire Burgers & Brew along the Riverwalk. It features a rooftop overlooking the river as well as a space for private parties. Favorite Chicago-area restaurants have outposts in Naperville, including Heaven on Seven, Hugo’s Frog Bar & Fish House, Catch 35, Rosebud, Sullivan’s Steakhouse, Q-BBQ, Francesca’s Passaggio, Giordano’s and others.
Noshing while walking is a common sight, and there are several stores that can oblige cravings. Cold treats are on the menu at places like Frost Gelato shop, Cold Stone Creamery, Red Mango, Forever Yogurt and Häaagen-Dazs, while other sweet indulgences are available at Dark Horse Pastries, Le Chocolat du Bouchard, Kernel’s Gourmet Popcorn & More, and Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. Or order a drink — at Starbucks (not one, but three locations within downtown Naperville), Adagio Teas, David’s Tea, or the soon-to-open
As for adult beverages, taverns, bars and wine bars enhance Naperville’s nightlife. Sixty-Four – A Wine Bar has just opened, while perennial favorites like Jimmy’s Grill and The Lantern Tavern & Grill continue to pack in crowds. The newer The Craftsman By Two Brothers is a unique concept — a multi-level dining establishment that’s part café, part tavern and part cocktail bar.
With a mix of mom-and-pop stores, hip boutiques and national chain shops, Naperville has become a shopping mecca over the years. Dean’s Fine Clothing has been in town for more than 50 years, while the town has welcomed national shops like Lululemon, Gap, Banana Republic and J Crew, to name a few.
The same goes for gifts and electronics. Apple found Naperville to be a prime spot for one of its retail stores. At the same time, local businesses like Nerd Rangers help customers find and solve issues with their devices and computers.
Longtime stores continue to engender loyalty among local customers. Beidelman Furniture — in a prime spot on Washington Street across from a two-story Barnes & Noble bookstore — first opened in 1861, during President Lincoln’s administration. “Beidelman Furniture is considered the oldest operating business in DuPage County,” says Wood. Another longtime business is Oswald’s Pharmacy, which moved from downtown Naperville to a location on Gartner Road. That store first opened in 1875.
Naperville was the subject of a lot of buzz in the 1980s for the downtown’s remarkable growth and change. It’s still growing, in fact — the new Water Street District is a mixed-use development with shops, restaurants, residences and even lodging at the 158-room boutique Hotel Indigo overlooking downtown and the Riverwalk.
“Our Water Street District is a whole new frontier for us,” says Wood. “It pushed downtown a little further south and brought us our first downtown hotel . It’s a great addition.”
Wonderful Waterways: Riverwalk and Centennial Beach
While Naperville is located in DuPage and Will counties, far from Lake Michigan, this isn’t a landlocked community.
Indeed, while one might not immediately think of beaches, Naperville was named a top beach town earlier this year by WalletHub. The personal finance website recognized Centennial Beach, a quarry with a sand beach, zero depth entrance and depths of up to 15 feet. The Illinois Department of Health classifies it as a beach because its water, while chlorinated, isn’t filtered as in a traditional swimming pool. It is open through Labor Day.
Naperville has been a river town since its founding by Joseph Naper along the resource-rich DuPage River. Today, the ribbon of river is still a part of the fabric of the community, as the Naperville Riverwalk is one of the city’s hallmarks.
Overseen by Naperville Park District, the 1.75-mile Riverwalk begins in downtown Naperville (you can spot it from the streets by the covered bridges, charming gazebos, small play areas and artistic fountains that line the walk) and winds through town along the west branch of the DuPage River. Constant improvements make this attraction even better, including a renovated Riverwalk Café near Rotary Hill.
“The Café is a picturesque spot that offers outdoor dining and a wide variety of food and beverage options, from burgers and sandwiches to salads and desserts,” says Sameera Luthman, director of marketing and communications for Naperville Park District.
The Riverwalk was conceived after local residents and leaders visited the famous Riverwalk in San Antonio, Texas. It was built in 1981 to commemorate Naperville’s 150th anniversary. “At the time when they did the initial phase of the Riverwalk, business was flocking out of town to the Fox Valley Mall,” recalls Bruce George, president of Charles Vincent George Architects in Naperville, which designed the Riverwalk. “It’s nice to see that it’s a big draw today.”
The Riverwalk not only connects people to beautiful scenery and the history of the town, but to other parts of the community. “As the project continued, we took the Riverwalk features and drew them into the downtown area to tie that part of town to the Riverwalk,” says George, who is also an active, longtime Rotarian in town and a prolific builder in Naperville neighborhoods. “The whole goal was to reinvigorate the city and have the city and the Riverwalk integrated.”
Visitors and residents can take part in water sports in Naperville when the weather is cooperative. Throughout early fall, paddle boats and fishing are available near Quarry Lake, just off the Riverwalk.
For Whom the Bells Toll: Millennium Carillon
Another point of interest within walking distance of downtown Naperville is the 16-story Millennium Carillon in Moser Tower. As its name denotes, the Carillon was built before the year 2000 to commemorate that occasion.
As if the thrice-daily musical peals of the 72 bells within this towering “instrument” aren’t entertaining enough, there are weekly recitals and concerts at the Carillon on Saturdays and Sundays through October. A special “Scare-illon” concert on October 28 will feature spooky music in classic and popular genres.
If you want to get an up close and personal look at the Carillon — and a workout — you can amble up the 253 steps to the top of the tower as part of a tour. An elevator is available for those who physically or medically can’t use the stairs.
Mark Your Calendar: Special Events
The calendar of special events in Naperville includes dozens of activities in the heart of the community, put on by various city, civic and business groups.
“There is rarely a weekend without an event,” says Anderson, who recounts a highlight of her own youth. “I remember going to our sidewalk sales as a kid – for five cents, I could go to Oswald’s Pharmacy and get a bag of stuff. Those are the kind of traditions we have.”
One of the biggest events, Last Fling, is a last hurrah for summer. Sponsored by the Naperville Jaycees, the four-day event in and around downtown is set for Labor Day weekend and will include a street party, carnival, family activities and concerts from Lanco, Bret Michaels and Barenaked Ladies, among others.
September and October are packed with things to do before the temperatures plummet, including the Riverwalk Fine Art Fair, a Skater’s Picnic at Centennial Beach skate park, the Naperville Independent Film Festival and the Naperville Half Marathon and 5K. Halloween is time for fall celebrations, such as the Halloween Light Tours and Halloween Hop in downtown Naperville.
For more events, visit www.naperville.il.us/enjoy-naperville.
Cultural Resources: The Library and Performing Arts
Naperville has been consistently ranked the top library in the country for cities with populations between 100,000 and 249,999 based on Hennen’s American Public Library Ratings. The Library Journal’s Index of Public Library Service awarded this library system its top rating of five stars for several years in a now.
Naperville Public Library has three free-standing facilities — the downtown Nichols Library, a stone’s throw from the retail district and the Riverwalk, Naper Boulevard Library and, on the south end of town, the 95th Street Library.
Naperville’s suburban-meets-urban vibe is reflected in its cultural offerings. The campus at North Central College offers Fine & Performing Arts programs and is home to Wentz Concert Hall, Madden Theatre, Pfeiffer Hall, the Theatre at Meiley-Swallow and Koten Chapel. Marking its 10th year in 2018 and known for its acoustics, Wentz Hall stages classical, jazz and contemporary music concerts year round, with upcoming events featuring student performers as well as outside groups such as the Chicago Sinfonietta, DuPage Symphony Orchestra, Kevin Eubanks (formerly of The Tonight Show), Jim Brickman and Jim Peterik.
Meanwhile, North Central’s theater department presents several musicals, plays and dance recitals during the academic year, including productions of Machinal and Wonder of the World in October, Sweet Charity in November and Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol in December.
Meiley-Swallow Hall is the home stage for Naperville’s BrightSide Theatre. The organization, which includes a popular youth program, puts on productions of Broadway musicals (including a series in November) and other hit productions, including Hairspray early next year.
Other organizations likewise make the most of local talent and audiences, including Center Stage Theatre, which opened its own performing arts center in 2010, and Magical Starlight Theatre.
Reflecting the town’s cultural heritage, the Naperville Municipal Band dates all the way back to 1859. Under the baton of 50-year member and conductor Ron Keller, the band stages concerts in Central Park in the summer and at Wentz Hall in the indoors season.
Art is in the eye of the beholders who walk through downtown Naperville, where there are fine murals, sculptures and mosaics that are part of the Century Walk public art project. Those pieces tell the story of Naperville in unique ways and through a variety of media, including ceramics, clay, glass and paint.
Child’s Play: DuPage Children’s Museum
Located on Washington Street, not far from the Fifth Avenue Metra station, is a three-story, 17,000-sq-ft discovery center for children from toddlers through tweens. The hot-pink façade provides a clue that this building is all about adventure and youth.
DuPage Children’s Museum is designed for today’s entertainment-minded youth, with 150 hands-on activities created to be both fun and educational. Special exhibits and programs cover a range of ages, ranging from building to water play to imaginative play, among a host of other things. An on-site café is available, as is a gift store.
Parks & Rec: Naperville Edition
Naperville Park District, which runs the Riverwalk, Centennial Beach and Rotary Hill, manages a total of 2,400 acres, more than 130 parks, four sports complexes and Springbrook and Naperbrook golf courses. Naperville even has its own cricket patch at Commissioners Park. Last summer, the District opened up Fort Hill Activity Center, an 80,000-sq-ft
According to Luthman, “The Park District truly offers something for everyone. A common misconception is that we mainly serve kids, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. For adults, we have programs that span fitness, sports, arts, the environment, culinary and more,” she says, citing the Fort Hill Fitness Center and programs like free movies and drop-in activities for seniors.
This time of year, says Luthman, the Park District is rolling out its fall programs and promoting the beauty of its outdoor surroundings. “It’s also a popular time to visit the Knoch Knolls Nature Center as the outdoors begins moving toward fall colors,” adds Luthman. “The golf courses see a lot of activity in late summer and early fall as the cooler weather is optimal for enjoying the sport,” she says.
Minding Their Business: Naperville’s Tech and Business Sectors
Naperville is the headquarters of major corporations, including several that came when the city worked to attract tech businesses along the Illinois Technology and Research Corridor. Examples include Nokia, BP America, Nalco, Nicor, Tellabs and Dukane Precast.
Naperville has won a Well Workplace Award from Well City USA and was named a Top Earning Town by Money magazine. At a time when the state’s ratings are the focus of scrutiny and concern, Naperville has a consistent “AAA” rating from Standard & Poor’s.
Building on its technology reputation and investment, Naperville announced a new SmartPark, an outdoor technology park designed to bring millennials to the suburbs and encourage people in the community to engage with technology. “The outdoor tech park will give people another reason to come to downtown Naperville — to sit outside and work and be connected,” says Wood.
Getting Around Town
Navigating downtown Naperville is relatively easy for visitors. Free parking is available in municipal lots, as well as parking decks and garages, including a newly opened Water Street District garage. Electric vehicle charging stations are set up in a surface parking lot on Van Buren Avenue and at the Van Buren parking deck. The Metra train station is only three blocks north of downtown. Naperville is also accessible via a Pace bus route. Trolley tours are available through the Naperville Trolley company.
• Shopping, dining and commercial districts beyond the downtown district include Freedom Commons, Springbrook Prairie Pavilion and the outlets along Ogden Avenue and Route 59.
• The sporting life is alive and well in Naperville, with plenty of privately run spots for recreational and competitive athletics, including iFly Indoor Skydiving, the Naperville Yard Indoor Sports Complex, Players Indoor Sports, Topgolf Naperville and Sky High trampoline, to name a few.
• Naperville has rural elements to it. One example is Mayneland Farm, which grows and sells fruits and vegetables on 15 acres. The farm hosts events and educational tours, and has an on-site farmstand, open through the fall harvest season.
• In addition to North Central College, Naperville is home to satellite campuses of Northern Illinois University, DeVry University, Governors State University and the College of DuPage.Edit Module