The largest city in the county of the same name, DeKalb is a university town with a lively and well preserved downtown.
DeKalb came to the fore in the 1870s when resident Joseph Glidden invented modern barbed wire, teaming up with entrepreneur Isaac Ellwood.
Later Glidden donated his homestead and land, which today makes up the campus for Northern Illinois University (NIU), while you can tour Ellwood’s magnificent mansion.
NIU warrants a visit for its refined architecture and compelling museums for contemporary art and anthropology.
Along with barbed wire, another of De Kalb’s claims to fame is corn. The city played a key role in developing commercial hybrid corn in the 1930s and continues to celebrate this crop with Corn Fest, a music festival downtown in late August.
1. Ellwood House Museum
A leafy residential area not far north of downtown DeKalb is where you’ll find the grand Victorian mansion that Isaac L. Ellwood (1833-1910) commissioned in the late 1870s. The design, initially neo-Gothic, came from Chicago architect George O. Garnsey.
Ellwood ordered lots of alterations later that century, giving the property a Colonial and Georgian Revival character, while the mansion’s current appearance dates from another round of changes made by Isaac’s son Perry in the early 20th century.
Waiting to be toured from March to November is a marvellous building that reflects the changing tastes of three generations of the Ellwood family.
The house is on a ten-acre museum campus with six other buildings, including the 1899 Ellwood-Nehring House and a visitor center converted from an enormous car garage and hosting two free exhibits.
2. Downtown DeKalb
You can tell that DeKalb has put a lot of love into its historic central business district, which today is ideal for a stroll, some shopping, live entertainment and dining.
You can admire the preserved brick and stone facades, particularly along the Lincoln Highway (IL-38) west of 4th Street.
The revitalized streetscapes feature newly planted trees, benches, shrubs, flowerbeds, vintage-style awnings and bike stands.
The shop selection is broad and includes home design, hand-crafted gifts, antiques, herbs, fashion, books and video games.
Food-wise you can choose from Middle Eastern, bagels, pizza, Mexican, Thai, family fare and traditional American, all in the space of a few blocks.
A true linchpin for DeKalb’s cultural scene and the revival of the downtown area is the majestic Egyptian Theatre, which we’ll talk about below.
3. Egyptian Theatre
One of just a handful of surviving Egyptian Revival theaters in the United States, the Egyptian Theatre in downtown DeKalb remains a popular venue, hosting upwards of 125 events each year.
It opened in 1929 with a design inspired by an Ancient Egyptian tomb, as part of a wave that followed the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922.
In its early days the Egyptian Theatre was a movie house and vaudeville stage and following a restoration in the 1980s is now dedicated to the performing arts.
With a capacity of 1,430, this is the largest auditorium in DeKalb County, while the preserved decor is astonishing, particularly in the scarab motif on the stained glass over the marquee.
This can best be admired in the cavernous lobby, adorned with plaster columns and cornices, above the exquisite original mosaic tiled floor.
4. Glidden Homestead
A highly influential figure in the history of the American West, Joseph Glidden (1813-1906) was the farmer who invented modern barbed wire in 1873.
Towards the end of his life he donated the property that would eventually become Northern Illinois University. On the campus you can visit the place where Glidden conceived and perfected his innovation.
The Glidden Homestead comprises the 1861 French Colonial house, the barn from the early 1860s and a working blacksmith forge.
Open to visitors, the property is undergoing a long-term restoration and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Check the homestead’s website for opening times and details of upcoming blacksmithing demonstrations and classes.
5. NIU Art Museum
Set in the palatial Altgeld Hall on the NIU campus is a super art museum contributing to the university’s curriculum but also providing cultural experiences for the wider community.
The museum is open during semesters when it hosts a series of expertly curated temporary exhibitions.
A few examples from the last couple of years are a retrospective of Ellen Roth Deutsch, illustrations by Landis Blair, “Storied References” inspired by oral traditions, war in the visual arts and Buddhist glass painting from Myanmar.
Also in the schedule are exhibitions curated by or featuring the work of students and faculty members from the NIU School of Art and Design.
Complementing these engaging exhibitions is a program of talks, lectures, symposia, panel discussions and more.
6. Pick Museum of Anthropology
Back on the NIU campus is a respected anthropology museum, founded in 1964 and open during the university semesters.
The Pick Museum of Anthropology has a collection of more than 20,000 artefacts, particularly strong for the Southwest and Plains Native Americans, as well as the cultures of New Guinea and Southeast Asia.
Other regions represented include Africa, Mesoamerica, South America and modern Greece. The museum presents absorbing and thought-provoking exhibits that last for a semester, normally sourced from this extensive collection.
Recent topics have been as diverse as Jim Crow America, Bedouin art, sexual violence, the history of dogs, Arctic archeology and Guatemalan migration.
7. Whiskey Acres Distilling Co.
One thing this part of Illinois has no shortage of is corn, and one local farm just south of DeKalb uses this crop to craft artisanal whiskey and vodka.
The property has been in the same family for five generations, and Whiskey Acres is one of only two certified “on-farm” distilleries in the country.
That rich farming background gives the distillers an intimate knowledge of the land and ingredients to craft exceptional spirits, with the help of some gear and knowhow from Kentucky.
The lineup includes Bourbon aged four or five years, Rye, four-year popcorn Bourbon and vodka made from 100% corn raised on this very farm.
The distillery is open Friday to Sunday and there’s almost always a food truck and occasionally some live music.
8. Star Worlds Arcade
The kind of neighborhood attraction that has all but disappeared from American towns, Star Worlds is an old-school video arcade on the east side of downtown DeKalb.
It first opened in Maple Park, Illinois in 1985 and relocated to DeKalb in 2004. What you’ll find inside is a rotating collection of hundreds of classic and modern video games in a family-friendly setting.
The older machines are in tip-top condition, while the walls and ceiling are clad with promotional material, posters, collectibles and more, all harking back to a different era.
9. Prairie Park
Moments from downtown, and on the south side of the NIU campus is a lovely community park with tracts of mature mixed woodland.
Straddling the picturesque Kishwaukee River, Prairie Park is a much-loved destination for walks and bike rides, and is threaded by the DeKalb Nature Trail, which hugs the river through the city and continues north past Annie’s Woods.
Another of the main draws here is the nine-hole disc golf course, which runs alongside the river, so you’ll need to be accurate or bring waders if you don’t want to get wet.
There are fitness stations with sophisticated equipment for grown-ups, as well as a playground for kids.
10. River Heights Golf Course
On the south side of DeKalb, this 18-hole course is run by the city’s park district. One of the things to love about River Heights is the setting, along both banks of the Kishwaukee River.
A little trickier than it looks, the course is made up of a blend of links and traditional-style holes, with water coming into play on no fewer than 13.
You’ll need to be straight with your drives, and the greens can be very quick. There’s a practice green if you want to work on your short game, while the clubhouse has a wrap-around deck for a nice wind down.
11. Forge Brewhouse
Something handy about this craft brewery is that it’s right on the edge of downtown DeKalb, and you can get there on foot from local eateries and spots like the Egyptian Theatre.
Forge Brewhouse was founded in 2015 and moved to its current location in DeKalb in 2018. The brewer, JD, has been making beer for more than three decades and has gone professional after a career as one of the country’s most distinguished farriers.
At the taproom you’ll find up to 13 beers on draft, and you can sample creations like Strawbeera (Fruit Sour), Black Mamba (Dark Coffee Cherry Lager), Great Western (American Pale Ale) and Sunrise Hefe (Hefeweizen), Tremor (Oatmeal Stout), as well as artisan soda and guest ciders.
12. Annie’s Woods
Nestled in a bend on the South Branch Kishwaukee River, this peaceful space has been a public park since as long ago as 1917.
Annie’s Woods, then a ten-acre tract of virgin forest, was purchased by the DeKalb Women’s Club in 1916, and this move eventually gave rise to the creation of the DeKalb Park District.
Being on the riverbank, this is a fine place to pause for a picnic. The park was last renovated in 2013, and has a basketball court, open-air shelter, ping pong table, foosball table, cornhole boards and a well-maintained children’s playground.
13. Katz Park
For those with a four-legged friend, this neighborhood park in the north of DeKalb has a superb fenced dog park, with lots of space.
Unusually, the dog facility at Katz Park is free to use, and has separate areas for smaller and larger dogs.
Some of the other amenities available at Katz Park are a sprawling skate park, four lighted baseball diamonds, a softball field, numerous picnic tables, a BBQ grill and a children’s playground with plenty of climbing equipment.
14. Shabbona Lake State Park
Named for a 19th-century Potawatomi leader, this lake is a fine option for a summer day out or short vacation, 15 miles southwest of DeKalb.
Shabbona Lake is man-made, formed in 1975 when Indian Creek was dammed. Stocked with large and smallmouth bass, rock bass, black and white crappie, walleye, muskie and channel catfish, to name a few, this body of water is geared towards fishing and covers almost 320 acres.
The encompassing park is composed of some 1,550 acres of rambling prairie, with grassland, bottomland woods, a fen and upland mesic woods.
The state park’s campground has 150 Class A sites and two cabins, all complemented by a store and playground.
15. Corn Fest
Well into its fifth decade, the highlight of DeKalb’s summer calendar is one of the last free music festivals in the state.
Taking place at the end of August, Corn Fest sets up right in the heart of downtown DeKalb, between 1st and 4th streets.
Previous headliners include Eddie Montgomery, 7th Heaven, Party Doctors and John Waite, and all shows are free, although there is a small charge to enter the soundstage area.
Accompanying the music there’s a craft fest, carnival, community stage, art fest for kids, more than 90 vendors and, of course, a corn boil on the Saturday.