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This Midwestern state is best known for Chicago, and no trip to Illinois would be complete without spending a few days in the Windy City. However, Illinois’ small towns are in stark contrast to this enormous city and really give it character and local flavor. Travelers who haven’t spent time here might not guess that there are rock climbing routes, dramatic canyons, and thriving Amish communities here. It all just goes to show that there’s more to Illinois than cornfields and Chicago!
So whether you’re passing through on a cross-country road trip or looking for a weekend getaway, these are some of the places worth visiting in Illinois.
The most obvious place to start on a trip to Illinois is Chicago because it’s a major city that has so much to see and do. People who live here won’t hesitate to tell you how brutal the winters are but how summers in Chicago make up for them every year. In the summer, the streets come to life with exciting festivals, and everyone heads to the beaches to bike and jog the Lakefront Trail and sunbathe in the sand. But even when the snow is falling, there’s plenty to do. There’s a vibrant arts and culture scene here with Broadway musicals, The Second City and other improv theaters, and versatile concert venues. The craft beer and foodie scene is huge in Chicago, so sample some local brews and cuisine while you’re here. It’s a city with lots of quaint neighborhoods, so make sure to get out of downtown after you’ve done the touristy stuff and learn about their fascinating history and culture.
Head about three hours west of Chicago and you’ll feel like you’re an entire world away. Galena has one of the best main streets you’ll find anywhere in America. It’s quaint, historic, and charming, to say the least. Galena makes a great weekend trip because there are some great bed and breakfasts in the surrounding hillsides. There are also some wineries in the area to visit, as well as art galleries and plenty of restaurants to satisfy your inner foodie.
Springfield is the capital of Illinois and worth a visit to learn about the state’s very important history. The top things to do in Springfield include checking out the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, and the Lincoln Tomb & War Memorials. You can also visit the Illinois State Capitol, the Old State Capital State Historic Site, and the Illinois State Museum. Architecture fans will also enjoy the Dana-Thomas house, which Frank Lloyd Wright built in 1902 and was one of his first Prairie-style homes.
One of the most unique places to visit in Illinois is Arthur. This is the largest population center of the Illinois Amish community, and you’ll share the roads with horses and buggies when you drive through. There are only about 2,300 residents in this small town, but it’s always full of life and activity with local festivals and Amish-owned shops. Take a walk down Vine Street to browse shops with antiques, fresh bread and cheeses, and handicrafts. Take a drive through the countryside nearby to visit quilt shops, Amish-made furniture stores, and farms. A couple of miles outside of town, The Pumpkin Patch is an essential visit in the fall, and the 4th of July fireworks display is a top summer attraction in the state.
Carbondale & Shawnee National Forest
Carbondale is home to Southern Illinois University, but it’s also the gateway to Shawnee National Forest. This is a great place to go on a multi-day backpacking trip because the forest is vast, the trails are well-marked, and the hiking is moderately challenging. A little over an hour east of Carbondale is another amazing natural site called Garden of the Gods in Herod, Illinois. This place is in Shawnee National Forest and famous for its Devil’s Smoke Stack, Camel Rock, and Anvil Rock formations. Come here for amazing outdoor photography and the best hiking in the state. This is also a great place to go rock climbing, whether you have your own gear to set up on your own or want to hire a local guide. The best climbing is at Jackson Falls near the town of Ozark.
Champaign-Urbana is a pair of sister cities in East-Central Illinois that’s home to the famous University of Illinois. This is the largest metro region in this part of Illinois and has a vibrant college life scene that makes it artsy and lively. Visit U of I’s campus town for a great mix of restaurants, fun bars, and quirky shops.
Olgesby & Starved Rock State Park
The big reason to visit Oglesby, Illinois is Starved Rock State Park. This is one of the very best hiking and paddling areas within a couple of hour’s drive from Chicago. Here you’ll find surprisingly dramatic cliffs, bluffs, and canyons that make you question if you’re still in the Midwest. In the winter, you can book an outdoor guide to take you ice climbing on the cliffs here, or go cross-country skiing to enjoy the season. Camp out in a tent or stay in the Starved Rock Lodge or one of the cabins to get the full experience.
While Illinois’ Woodstock might not be home to the legendary hippie music festival, it’s famous in its own right. The movie, Groundhog Day, was filmed here and so was Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Orson Wells also called Woodstock home. You can spend all afternoon exploring the town square here and listening to live music at the venues in town.
You might not expect to see beautiful Victorian homes in Illinois, but here they are in Mount Carroll. The town isn’t even home to 2,000 people, but it’s an easy drive from Chicago – about two hours west. One of the best ways to spend a day here is by catching a performance at the state’s oldest summer theater company, the Timber Lake Playhouse. Or for something a bit spookier, check out the year-round haunted house at Raven’s Grin Inn.
Peoria is one of the largest cities in Illinois and is situated along the Illinois River. There’s a nice riverfront area to walk around, as well as the Riverfront Museum, Caterpillar Visitors Center (this is where the major machinery company is based), the Peoria Zoo, the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum, and the Luthy Botanical Garden. The Peoria Civic Center hosts lots of basketball games and concerts, and you can also check out the beautiful campus of Bradley University here. To experience Peoria from the water, take a ride on the Spirit of Peoria, which is an authentic paddlewheel boat that takes guests on one-day and five-day river cruises. The multi-day tours go to St. Louis and Hannibal, Missouri, and there are themed cruises with fireworks and music.
Another Illinois town with a fun little downtown area to explore is Sycamore. There are lots of historic homes here to check out too if you enjoy architecture. Plan your visit to Sycamore for the fall to check out the local Pumpkin Festival. Just a few miles away in DeKalb, Illinois, which is home to Northern Illinois University, you can often catch basketball games and concerts at the Convocation Center on campus.
The Illinois town of Fulton is best known for its Dutch heritage and is one of the few places in the Midwest where you can see still find authentic windmills. Definitely plan to visit Fulton in May, which is when the town hosts its Dutch Days Festival. If you’re looking for fine dining while in town, there are plenty of good options to choose from in Fulton.