Illinois is home to Chicago, the third largest city in America, plus a slew of other populated cities to experience. While some of the other biggest cities in the state are Chicagoland-extensions, others are found in central Illinois, to the north, and to the east.
The state is full of history and has long been a hub for transportation, starting with water access through rivers and canals, to the stagecoach and train, and eventually Route 66. Many of these access routes can still be explored today throughout these most busiest destinations in Illinois.
Here are the ten biggest cities in Illinois, in order of the highest to lowest populations:
Known as the “Windy City” due to the breezes blowing across Lake Michigan, Chicago is the third largest city in the country with a population of 2,746,388 in 2020. The urban hub of the Midwest is home to sports teams, world-renowned museums, premier theater opportunities, impressive architecture, culinary experiences, vibrant nightlife, and nearly 9,000 acres of greenspace to explore.
Chicago can be experienced from below with walks along the shores of Lake Michigan, by water through the many boat tours along the Chicago River, or from above at Willis Tower, one of North America’s tallest buildings.
The city of Chicago was incorporated in 1837 and grew rapidly. The Illinois and Michigan Canal created a link between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River, and the expansion of the railroads in the 1850s connected this Midwest city with the East Coast.
In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire destroyed about 17,500 buildings and killed an estimated 300 people. As the city was being rebuilt, much of the debris became landfill forming what is today Grant Park and Millennium Park. Chicago’s new growth also included the nation’s first skyscraper in 1884, a ten-story steel Home Insurance Building.
Just 35 miles west of Chicago lies the suburb of Aurora, which stands on its own outside of the shadow of the state’s largest city. The family-friendly community is home to the largest waterpark in Illinois and recreational experiences along the Fox River, where visitors can bike, hike, or kayak.
Aurora is situated among four counties within its 46 square miles. The affordable community has three school districts and recreation for visitors and locals to enjoy. The city has multiple parks, golf courses, a zoo, and an aquatic center.
Calling itself the “City of Lights” for being one of the first cities in the country with streets completely lighted by electricity, Aurora had a population of 180,542 in the 2020 census. The city’s first post office was established in 1837 and Aurora has grown steadily over nearly two centuries.
Southwest of Chicago, Joliet has a mixture of casinos, museums, sports, entertainment, and outdoor experiences. The city embraces its roots of Route 66 passing through town in the form of informational kiosks, festivals, and a welcome center.
Historic buildings are among the most popular destinations to visit, including the Old Joliet Prison (aka the Collins Street Prison), which was used for scenes in “The Blues Brothers.” The Rialto Square Theater, Victorian-era Jacob Henry Mansion, and the Joliet Area Historical Museum. All are open for tours to the public.
The area was initially called “Juliet” after Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette camped on a mound a few miles from the present-day location. In 1833 the town was platted and incorporated, then in 1845 the name was changed to Joliet and soon reincorporated as a city. With its proximity to the Des Plaines River, the Illinois & Michigan Canal, and the railroad, Joliet became a hub for exporting stone from its quarries and steel from the Joliet mill.
Today, with a population of 150,362 in 2020, Joliet has rebounded from a decline in manufacturing in the 1970s. The addition of riverboat casinos and the Chicagoland Speedway has drawn tourists to the area.
As another of Chicago’s suburbs, Naperville lies along the DuPage River and is conveniently located just 30 miles to the west. The town had 149,540 residents in 2020 and is consistently listed as one of the safest Illinois communities with top-rated school systems.
Naperville was founded by Joseph Naper in 1831, who settled from the northeast. The area was at the crossroads of two stagecoach routes, then became a railroad stop in 1864. The town’s quarries provided stone to Chicago to rebuild after the 1871 fire. A century later, research and development were primary industries and helped fuel the city’s continued growth.
One of the most popular summer locations in Naperville is Centennial Beach, a former stone-quarry turned into a swimming park in 1931. For historic education, visit the interactive Naper Settlement, take a historic trolly tour, or stroll the Century Walk of public murals and sculpture.
Not far from Wisconsin’s border, Rockford is the largest city outside of the Chicago area. It had 148,655 residents in 2020 and its population continues to increase with residents experiencing a lower cost of living than larger communities.
The city was named for its ease of fording nearby Rock River. Rockford was incorporated as a village in 1839 and established as a city in 1852. In the late 19th century, the city was known for having the second-largest furniture-manufacturing center in the country.
Rockford is also known for baseball, initially when the Forest City Baseball Club was established several years after the Civil War. During and after World War II, it was home to the Rockford Peaches, one of the all-female teams portrayed in the movie “A League of Their Own.”
The city is nicknamed the Forest City because of the number of woods and parklands among its 65 square miles. Rockford has 125 neighborhood parks, filled with bike paths, playgrounds, dog parks, and outdoor concert venues. The city is recognized for its amenities for amateur sports including golf, skating, soccer, baseball, and equestrian.
Elgin may not be the most populated city in Illinois, but the community is filled with a rich history and an abundance of entertainment for any age. The city is a suburb of Chicago with claim to a national watch company, influential in the butter business, and recognized in the street sweeping industry.
The three-story Elgin History Museum outlines the history of the Elgin Watch Company, the community’s importance in the dairy industry, and influence in the creation of stick butter. The building includes an exhibit of Elgin Street Sweeper, the first motorized street sweeping company.
Elgin was incorporated in 1835 and named after a popular Scottish song. When Native Americans were removed from Illinois in 1830, militiamen and soldiers sought areas for settlement and found Elgin’s rich soil to be ideal.
The city’s 2020 population was 114,797. Residents and visitors can enjoy biking, hiking, and horseback riding along the many trails of Elgin’s nature preserves. Indoors around Elgin, the casino, unique dining experiences, and the local sports complex provide enjoyment anytime of the year.
Illinois’ capital lies in the center of the state has been a hub of history since it was incorporated in 1832. Springfield was named the state capital the same year that Abraham Lincoln moved to the community. He became a legislator and lived in the city until 1861 when he became president.
Four of the country’s presidents claim Illinois as their home, whether being born there or living in the state when they were elected, but locations related to Lincoln are by far the most popular. Mementos of Lincoln’s past are everywhere in Springfield, including the building where he practiced law, his home with Mary Todd, the First Presbyterian Church with the Lincoln family pew, and his family gravesite.
The Civil War boosted the state capital’s economy, and with Route 66 passing through Springfield even more business opportunities were created. In 2023, government and healthcare jobs are among the most abundant in Springfield.
The community size is slightly decreasing, just as it is for many Illinois cities outside of Chicago. However, Springfield has an urban feel with a small-town vibe thanks to its size of only 114,394 people in 2020.
Peoria, the state’s oldest permanent European settlement, was established in 1691 by French explorer Henri de Tonti. It was named for the Peoria people, Native Americans part of the Illinois Confederation.
The city was a large distributor of whiskey, utilizing the Illinois River as a distribution point, until Prohibition ended operations for 73 distilleries and 24 breweries. Located in the center of an agricultural area, Peoria became a top trading and shipping center in the Midwest for corn, soybeans, and livestock. Manufacturing was also significant in the area.
As the largest city on the Illinois, the riverfront area boasts dining and shopping experiences in a unique setting. Culture abounds with the Peoria Riverfront Museum, Peoria Zoo, Forest Park Nature Center, and PlayHouse Children’s Museum.
Peoria’s population was 113,150 in 2020 and the city is known for its diverse population. A popular phrase, “If it plays in Peoria…” references the city’s Midwest and mainstream appeal.
Along the shore of Lake Michigan, situated directly between Chicago and Milwaukee, Waukegan is the best of all worlds among Illinois’ largest cities. The city has a suburban feel with access to urban and rural experiences.
The town’s name is derived from a Potawatomi word meaning “fort.” Waukegan was believed to start as a French trading post, then a Native American settlement, until it became the county seat in 1841.
Waukegan was home to author Ray Bradbury, comedian Jack Benny, and actor Jerry Orbach, and can claim residency to an impressive roster of fame. While the theaters and historic downtown are frequent stops for visitors, the town has an abundance of parks including 400 acres along Lake Michigan.
This ninth largest city in Illinois had 89,321 residents in 2020 and has seen a steady population increase in its history. Over the past two centuries Waukegan grew in manufacturing and industry, aided by easy access to waterways and trains.
Several hours south of Chicago and an hour east of Springfield lies Champaign, known for its music and film festivals, culture, and as being home to the University of Illinois. The urban community has a small-town vibe, surrounded by rural Illinois.
Champaign is adjacent to the community of Urbana, in the region often referred as Urbana-Champaign. The city was originally called West Urbana until it was renamed in 1860 after a county in Ohio.
Because of its proximity to the university campus, college sports are popular in Champaign. Those more interested in participating can find kayaking, canoeing, hiking, fishing, and cycling available in the many parks. Champaign is home to the only International Dark Sky Park in Illinois, and the area is popular for birding enthusiasts.
Every household in Champaign is within a half mile of a park or green space, making the affordable community a attractive option for those who enjoy time outdoors. The city’s population was 88,302 in 2020, increasing over recent years and conveniently situation between several major metropolitan areas.
As the Midwest’s most populated state, Illinois is known for the beginnings of Route 66, its impact on the area’s industrial growth, and accessibility to a number of waterways and green spaces. The top populated cities in the state embrace their place in history and draw visitors with attractions and amenities reflecting this background.
The largest cities in Illinois are filled with parks, cultural experiences, sports, and recreational opportunities. Many of these top populated cities have only a fraction of Chicago’s population, yet with access to all the benefits that Chicago provides.