Weekend Getaway: Rockford

Head west for surprisingly good eats

Pack an overnight bag and cue your favorite road-trip playlist, because this Columbus Day weekend, we're hitting I-90 and heading west to the third-largest city in Illinois.

Located a mere 80 miles from downtown Chicago, Rockford, Illinois is an easily accessible—albeit under-the-radar—destination for a weekend retreat.

A 10 a.m. departure from Chicago will put you in Rockford around noon, just in time for lunch at PK Diner, a new breakfast/lunch spot from local restaurateur Paul Sletten (Abreo, Social Urban Bar & Restaurant). Try a signature "fry jack" ($11 to $15), a pillowy creation made with house-made dough akin to an elephant ear, with your choice of sweet or savory toppings, and pair it with one of the diner's dozens of craft soda options.

Walk off lunch and take in the autumn colors while you stroll around Anderson Japanese Gardens ($8 per person), a breathtaking Japanese garden in the heart of Rockford that has garnered national attention in recent years for both its authenticity and its beauty. There, explore the many waterfalls, koi ponds and pagodas.

For dinner, look no further than Alchemy, a trendy pizza and craft beer stop with a retractable exterior wall for all-weather dining. Go for broke with the Predator ($13), chef/owner Al Castrogiovanni's take on a meat lover's pie, or salute the homeland with the outside-the-box Chicago Dog Pizza ($14) studded with pieces of Wagyu hotdog. Pair your pie with the beer of your choice and finish off your meal with a gelato flight ($5) of the restaurant's house-made gelatos. Then indulge in after-dinner drinks at Pearl, a swanky bar and bistro a five-minute drive away.

When it's time to turn in, head to the Copperstone Inn, in neighboring Rockton, Illinois, for a stay in one of the luxury bed and breakfast's seven charming suites. Each room within the limestone manor has its own motif; if availability will allow, book a night in the Farmers Quarters for a true Midwestern experience.

The next morning, get up at your leisure and make the drive back into Rockford for a Swedish pancake feast at the Stockholm Inn. The Scandinavian restaurant has been a mainstay since 1968, and ordering anything other than "Swedes" loaded with lingonberry jam ($5.50) will likely be seen as sacrilege.

If you'd like to make a second day of it, hit the Rockford Art Museum before grabbing a beer at the Carlyle Brewing Co. Just make sure you drink responsibly—maybe a house-made root beer is the best idea. After all, you've got a two-hour drive home.