There's just something about train travel: The impressive size of the towering silver cars. The nifty flippable seats, upper deck, green-tinged windows, squeal of metal against metal and the big Chicago ticket takers punching tickets and bantering with the boys.
My kids still get their electrono-gadgets out, but focus on them less, mesmerized as they are by the long, thin ribbons of track, sway of cars and the backside view of the guts and alleyways that butt up against railways. Our train-tripping adventures are all about that: making the journey part of the adventure.
Our pick for fall: A Metra-train journey on the BNSF line to Naperville and Lisle. The trip is scalable: All-day, if you include stops at the DuPage Children's Museum, Naper Settlement and Museum at Lisle Station Park. Shorter, if you cut one or two of those destinations out.
The route Start at Union Station, 225 South Canal St., that monolithic Chicago hulk of a commuter hub, which is itself fascinating to kids. Catch the BNSF train to Aurora, getting off at Naperville.
The cost It's $5 each way for an adult train ticket; $7 for unlimited weekend rides. Weekdays, kids 7-11 are 50 percent off; kids under 7 ride free. Weekends kids up to 11 ride free with an adult. Admission at the DuPage Children's Museum is $8.50 per person. Naper Settlement entry fees are $9 for adults, $6.50 for kids. The Museum at Lisle Station Park is free.
Tips Start early! Leaving on the 7:45 a.m. train will put you at the children's museum just as it opens at 9 a.m. (Museum hours are 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday). Pack water, sunscreen, snacks and books or toys for the journey.
Suggested day plan
7:30 a.m. Arrive at Union Station and buy round-trip tickets to Naperville.
7:35 a.m. Board train
8:45 a.m. Arrive at the Naperville train station. From here, take the stairs and ramp that will bring you under the tracks and up across the street to DuPage Children's Museum, 301 N. Washington St. Geared for kids birth-10 years, there's lots to keep children interested. Long-standing favorite exhibits include the Waterways water play area and AirWorks drying tunnel and blowers and the Build It construction area. On Sept. 14, the museum launches a new exhibit upstairs, "The Play's the Thing," featuring a stage and props for budding set designers, costumes and special programming including plays, puppets and dramatics.
11 a.m. It's about a 15 minute stroll south on Washington and west on Aurora Avenue to get to the Naper Settlement. (Note: We like tucking an extra 15 minutes into the journey, allowing us to meander west along Naperville's Riverwalk (covered bridges, ducks, fountains and flowers) before crossing over to the settlement at 523 S. Webster St.). Naper Settlement is an outdoor history museum depicting an old-time 19th-century Midwest village. Enter the settlement through the Pre-Emption House Visitor Center, Naperville's oldest hotel and tavern. From here, you can ramble along the settlement's streets viewing blacksmiths, stonecarvers and printers at work. Costumed volunteers roam the 12 acres of grounds and 30 buildings, bringing the scene to life. There are log homes and mansions, churches and shops, plus, an 1840 schoolhouse still scratched with kids' graffiti that's centuries old.
1 p.m. At this juncture, you'll need to decide if you want to head home or continue on to Lisle. Either way, you'll be ready for lunch. Walking back to the train, there are numerous downtown dining options. Whatever you choose, save a little room for a treat from Naper Nuts & Sweets, 10 E. Jefferson Ave., (just a half block off of Washington Street). Pull open the heavy door with a jangle and you're in candy heaven. There's not much elbow room inside, but row upon row of sweets-packaged candy on the shelves, bulk candy in the jars and house-made candy behind the glass counter.
2:30 p.m. Catch the train south to Chicago or get off at the next stop, Lisle, to view the Museum at Lisle Station Park. If the ticket taker comes by before you get off at Lisle, be sure to tell him you'll be getting back on shortly to continue down to Union Station-that way, you can reuse your ticket.
2:38 p.m. From the Lisle train stop, it's a short block and a half over to the square of historic buildings that make up Lisle Station Park, tucked just behind Lisle's Village Hall. Open from 1-4 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays (or by appointment) admission is free, and Museum Curator Brian Failing or one of his volunteers will be happy to take you on a tour. Buildings include the original 1874 Lisle train station with ticket office, waiting room, baggage area and the conductor's living quarters. There's also a mid-1800s blacksmith/woodworking shop, the 1840s Beaubien Tavern and Inn and the 1855 Netzley/Yender farmhouse. We liked the house's fully functional summer kitchen with beehive baking oven and smokehouse. Be sure to ask for a peek at the intricate model train display in the lower level of the farmhouse. But the best time to come back? Sept. 18-19. Station Park will be bustling with its 26th Annual Lisle Depot Days, a free festival including live music, craft show, blacksmithing and more pioneer demonstrations. Call (630) 964-3410 for information.
3:38 p.m. Catch the train back to Chicago. By now, you'll be very ready to settle into your seat. (You'll arrive at Union Station at 4:42 p.m.) The kids will probably nap, you might, too. Either way, you'll be glad to leave the driving to the train conductor.
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