Why Apartment Therapy Readers Think Oak Park, Illinois Is the Coolest Suburb in America

published May 22, 2019
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Credit: Sarah Crowley/Apartment Therapy

Oak Park was chosen as one of Apartment Therapy’s Coolest Suburbs in America 2019. We showcased the burbs nationwide that offer the most when it comes to cultural activities, a sense of community, and simply a good quality of life. For more on how we define “cool” and what exactly counts as a suburb, check out our methodology here. To view Apartment Therapy’s other Coolest Suburbs in America 2019, head here.

When city-dwellers think of the suburbs, boring homogeneity might be what incorrectly comes to mind. This is probably a reason so many former city residents choose Oak Park, Illinois—just outside of Chicago—which offers suburban perks, while maintaining the diversity and eccentricity of urban life.

Oak Park loves its vintage architecture, but may love its trees even more: In 2015, the village was named Illinois’ first “municipal arboretum.” We even have Village foresters to make sure our trees are properly cared for and a database to help you learn more about the trees growing in public areas.

Oak Park’s proactive stance surrounding diversity is another point of pride for the suburb. In the 1960s, when redlining and other racist practices segregated suburbs around the country, a group of Oak Parkers fought back, by launching an organization to sustain and improve the village’s racial diversity.

The village also has a thriving arts scene, including an award-winning theater company, a symphony, and an arts district. Meanwhile, it’s a very short trip into downtown Chicago by public transportation or by car.

All of this has created a town that blends the comforts of the suburbs with city character—an urban suburb.

It’s for these reasons and more that Oak Park was awarded the Apartment Therapy “Reader’s Choice” award. The burb received the most votes in our Home Team Panel poll, which asked Apartment Therapy’s most engaged readers to cast a ballot for the coolest suburb in America!

Median rent price:

$1,854, according to Rent Cafe.

Median house price

$363,700, according to Zillow.

Price per square foot (compared to city):

$254 in Oak Park vs. $252 in Chicago, according to Zillow.

Walkability score:

78, according to Walk Score.

Median household income:

$87,271, according to Census data.


51,878, according to Census data.

Credit: Sarah Crowley/Apartment Therapy

What the suburb is known for:

Famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright spent the first 20 years of his career living and working in Oak Park. His home and studio are open for tours, and walking tours of the area will show you a number of other homes that were designed by Wright or his students, as well as his iconic Unity Temple. Oak Park is also the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway and his childhood home is now a museum.

Hidden gem:

Squeezed into the space between two larger buildings, the tiny Hole in the Wall Custard Shoppe is so small, it doesn’t even have a website. The line to get a dipped cone can stretch down the block on warm days.

Place that makes you happy to live there:

The Oak Park Public Library is made up of three branches in this town of less than five square miles—one on the north side, one on the south, and the huge main branch in the center of town. In the unlikely event that I can’t find what I want in the library’s massive collection, I can request it online from one of its many partner libraries and have it delivered to my closest branch in a matter of days.

Favorite activity for families:

Open every Saturday morning from mid-spring through mid-autumn, the Oak Park Farmers Market has locally-grown fruits and veggies, meats, and more. You can also get fresh-out-of-the-fryer donuts that are made and sold by a different nonprofit each week.

Favorite hangout for young professionals:

L!VE Café and Creative Space has become a community hub, frequently hosting political and arts-related events in addition to serving up coffee, pastries, and sandwiches. Yelp users also praise L!VE Café’s “blazing fast” WiFi.

Credit: Sarah Crowley/Apartment Therapy

Favorite place to catch a movie:

The seven-screen Lake Theatre is the center of downtown activity on weekend evenings. It’s the only movie theater in town, and with its art deco architecture and sculpture rescued from shuttered theaters of the past, the Lake gives you more to see than just the film. Say hi to Shawn, the ticket-taker who knows everybody in town.

Favorite teen hangout:

With a movie theater, multiple restaurants and cafes, and a few cool stores for browsing, Lake Street is where the teenagers turn up on weekends.

Favorite outdoor lounge spot:

The tree-covered, outdoor seating area at Obsessed Kitchen and Bar is a cozy spot for a meal or cocktail (or both!) on a warm evening.

Favorite date spot:

Average commute:

69 percent of commuters drive and 23 percent use public transportation, according to Trulia. If you’re going into the city, public transportation is the way to go. The Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA) Blue and Green Line trains and the Metra all have multiple stops in Oak Park.

Favorite local bookstore:

Leave yourself plenty of time to browse the shelves at The Book Table, which Chicagoist named one of the best independent bookstores in Chicagoland.

Credit: Sarah Crowley/Apartment Therapy

Favorite place to get coffee:

Wise Cup makes a great cup of coffee, but you can also get delicious Indian treats like mango lassi and samosas.

Favorite bar for when you want to be around people:

Kinslahger offers craft beers brewed on site—you can check out the brewing apparatus through a window at the back. Order a flight to try them all.

Favorite alone spot:

Lindberg Park may include a playground, soccer fields, and tennis courts, but in this giant park, you’ll also find quiet spots under the trees and among the native plantings to get a moment to yourself.

Favorite free cultural thing to take part in:

On Sunday evenings in the summer, Scoville Park hosts free concerts. Bands range from rock, to pop, to big band. Bring a picnic dinner and spread out!

Credit: Sarah Crowley/Apartment Therapy

Signature food:

The ebullient Chef Paco makes 21 different moles at New Rebozo, all derived from recipes his family created in Mexico. If you order the fiesta mole, his signature dish, you can try up to six of the moles on a plate of enchiladas. I recommend the pipian (pumpkin seed) mole and the chocolate mole, which works surprisingly well with the rest of the savory dish.

Favorite boutique:

The Pezalla sisters, the Oak Parkers who own Lively Athletics, have turned their shop into a fitness community. You can buy your running shoes and fitness gear there, and also take part in group runs, races, launch parties, and other special events and gatherings.

Most walkable area:

The recently redesigned Taylor Park includes a wetland with a wide variety of native prairie plantings.

Favorite outdoor stuff:

Favorite spot for an Instagram:

The mosaics on the west wall of the School of Rock music school include mirrored tiles, so go on a bright day to catch the cymbals and guitar glittering in the sunlight.

Favorite brunch:

The Buzz Café has breakfast and brunch every day, with a few extras available on Sundays. Admire the idiosyncratic original art covering the walls while you enjoy waffles, breakfast sandwiches, bacon and eggs, or one of the vegetarian options. Try the spicy Southwestern breakfast wrap to have your bacon and eggs rolled up together.

Favorite free activity:

The Oak Park Conservatory is beautiful all year, but TripAdvisor users particularly recommend a visit in the winter, when the warm air and tropical scents provide a reprieve from the cold.

Favorite grocery store:

Visit the community-owned Sugar Beet Food Co-Op for organics, as well as unique treats you can’t find anywhere else.

Favorite place for a workout:

Yelp users rave about the friendly enthusiasm of the trainers and the affordable prices at BFit Fitness. If you’d rather exercise outdoors, you’ll find fellow athletes running the long stairway at the Barrie Park sledding hill.

Favorite place to take an out-of-towner:

Walk the Oak Park Arts District on Harrison Street for a variety of independent art galleries and studios, quirky shops, cafes, and restaurants. Be sure to include a visit to Val’s Halla Records to browse their huge collection of new and used vinyl.

Worst place to find parking and easiest place to find parking:

Leave time to find a space in a parking garage if you’re going to downtown Oak Park, because you’ll never find a spot on the street. Parking is reasonably easy in most other areas, but be sure to check for signs about permits and other restrictions.

What the neighbors say:

Oak Parkers often say that their hometown offers the best of both worlds—the neighborly feel of a suburb with easy access to what the big city has to offer, since downtown Chicago is just a 10- to 15-minute drive away.

Some like that they don’t even need to drive:

“For me, Oak Park is very bike friendly. I love being close enough to downtown Chicago to make commuting easy, at least from April through November,” says Mattie Langenberg, a UX developer and resident for more than 10 years. “Even from south of Interstate 290, downtown Oak Park is walkable and definitely bikeable. I regularly make bicycle grocery runs to our local market or to the bigger stores on Lake Street.”

Many mentioned the wide selection of public services in Oak Park, with activities for all ages provided by the park district, the libraries, and more.

“The buildings, services, and collections of the library are pure joy,” says Jon Nilson, former university professor and 20-year resident.

Favorite annual event:

Micro Brew Review, a zero-waste craft beer event. Tasty beer and sustainability—what’s not to like?

What I miss about the city living in a suburb:

It sounds a lot cooler to say you live in Chicago than to admit that you live in the suburbs.

What I never miss about the city:

The parking and traffic congestion. Even the busiest evening in downtown Oak Park doesn’t compare to parking in downtown Chicago on an average day. The parking fees (and tickets!) are cheaper, too.

Favorite local home store:

Favorite local diner:

George’s Restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but I suggest you order an omelette regardless the time of day. The gardener’s omelette is so stuffed with healthy veggies that you’ll be full for the rest of the day, and Yelp users express delight over the frequent and free coffee refills.

Favorite house/garden walk:

The Garden Club of Oak Park and River Forest’s Annual Garden Walk is a chance to peek into your neighbors’ yards and get some ideas for your own green patch.

Favorite dog park:

Ridgeland Common Recreation Complex (RCRC) Dog Park, where you can often catch a Little League game or high school soccer match, while your dog plays.

Favorite salon/spa:

Yelp users love the personal touch they get at Elevate Hair & Beauty Boutique.

Favorite resale and antique store:

The Brown Elephant has an eclectic mix of clothing, furniture, and household items, with all proceeds helping to fund health care for the uninsured and under-insured LGBTQ population. For more upscale finds, try Trends, which was named one of Chicago’s best consignment stores by Racked Chicago.

Why do you think your suburb is cool?:

Oak Park gives everyone the chance to be themselves, regardless of race, age, gender identity, or other qualities that make each of us unique. You can explore your individual passions, whether they’re in the area of art, music, sports, dance, business, science, or something else that speaks to you. Individuality is encouraged here, and being free to be and know yourself is definitely cool.

Credit: Apartment Therapy