Situated in the Midwest region, Illinois is a diverse state where the local economy is driven by business and natural resources. The state is most famous for its largest city, Chicago, which sits on the waterfront of Lake Michigan.
A major hub for business, transportation and tourism, Chicago is by far the most visited destination in Illinois. What many don’t know about Illinois, apart from the big city, is that the state is actually rich in natural resources and it has become a major agricultural hub for the United States. Outside of Chicago, there are still plenty of activities and attractions worth checking out.
Between the rural landscapes, small towns in Illinois are excellent destinations to get off the beaten track. Visitors can explore what makes these tight knit communities special, while also enjoying magnificent landscapes, historic parks, and thrilling theme attractions.
Livin’ La Vida Illinois
History of “The Prairie State”
Evidence of early human habitation in Illinois has been found at sites throughout the state. Coming from various cultures, places like the Koster and Saddle Sites have been excavated and proven to have artifacts from early American Indians. One of the more famous sites is the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, which includes the large Monks Mound at the center. These people were the ancestors to Native American tribes like the Potawatomi and Shawnee.
The first explorers to navigate through Illinois in 1673 were Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet, who were French and French-Canadian. Marquette would go on to found a mission at the Grand Village of Illinois. However, the first significant settlement was a fort in Peoria, which was built in 1680. Just two years later a second fort was built on top of Starved Rock.
Prior to becoming a state, the territory was mostly reserved for Native Americans. The British Crown wasn’t particularly interested in the land, so it went mostly undeveloped by settlers. The state of Virginia tried to claim the land, but ultimately they gave up their claim to the newly established United States and by the 1780s, Illinois was a part of the Northwest Territory.
When Illinois did become a state in 1818, only the southern portion of the Illinois Territory was admitted to the Union. The northern portion became a part of the Michigan Territory. Although Illinois was in the north, it wasn’t an entirely free state as slavery was first introduced by the French.
During the American Civil War Illinois provided 250,000 soldiers to the Union. After the end of the war, Chicago’s population boomed, which helped it become the prominent city it is today. The state has particularly thrived because of the land’s natural resources, as well as being involved in research, science, and law.
Capital City of Springfield
Home to 114,394 people, Springfield is the capital city of Illinois. The city is known for being the home of President Abraham Lincoln. Tied to the late president, there are various attractions including the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Lincoln Tomb, and the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices State Historic Site.
There are plenty of additional attractions worth visiting too. For those interested in architecture, the Old State Capitol was restored during the 1960s to preserve its historic value. Visitors who enjoy Frank Lloyd Wright, a famous architect, should see the Dana-Thomas House. Featuring his iconic Prairie-style design, this house is most famous for its fine glass doors and windows.
To learn even more history, the Illinois State Museum covers everything from art to anthropology. For Civil War buffs, the Camp Butler National Cemetery was once used by the Union for training, but now functions as a burial ground for veterans from various American wars. Visiting the cemetery is free and on specific holidays, like Veterans Day and Memorial Day, there are special ceremonial events.
Green space can also be found in the city at the Washington Park Botanical Gardens, Adams Wildlife Sanctuary, Washington Park, and the Abraham Lincoln Memorial Garden. Each of these spaces vary in size and are perfect for a quiet nature walk or picnic. Throughout each garden and park, visitors can view unique plants that are native to the state.
Chicago, “The Windy City”
Known as “The Windy City”, Chicago is the largest city in Illinois with a population of 2,746,388 people as of 2020. Situated on Lake Michigan’s shore, the city was first incorporated in 1837 and it didn’t take long for it to become a major metropolitan area. By 1860, Chicago’s population exceeded 100,000. Even after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, the city continued to boom.
An icon of the Midwest, this city is filled with world-class attractions that highlight the local art, culture, history, sports, and landscape. There truly is something for everyone in Chicago. The downtown area sees the most tourists, but in the nearby neighborhoods, tourists will find diverse communities, music venues, Michelin-star restaurants, and artistic installations.
A few of the most iconic attractions are The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago History Museum, Field Museum of Natural History, the Willis Tower, John Hancock Building, The Bean, Lincoln Park Zoo, Wrigley Field, North Avenue Beach, Oak Street Beach, and the Hyde Park neighborhood. Drawing in millions of visitors each year, these attractions tend to be very crowded, especially during the warmer months.
Another busy place to check out is the Navy Pier, which is the best place to visit on the lakefront. Always a happening place, highlights at the pier include the Centennial Wheel, Pier Park, Chicago Children’s Museum, and Chicago Shakespeare Theater. The pier is also a common meeting place to meet for a tour of the city by boats, buses, and bikes.
When you’re feeling peckish, try some comfort food, such as a Chicago pizza, either cracker-style or the traditional thick-crusted, deep-dish.
Aurora, “City of Lights”
Called the “City of Lights” because it was one of the first cities in the nation to use all-electric street lighting by 1881, Aurora is the second largest city by population. Supporting 180,542 residents as of 2020, the city has three sections: West Side, East Side, and the Far East Side.
Though Aurora is a fairly large city, it doesn’t feel nearly as massive as Chicago. Slightly more compact, the city excels at integrating green space into the various districts and neighborhoods. In Aurora, well-known green spaces include Phillips Park, Phillips Park Zoo, Red Oak Nature Center, Mastodon Lake, and the Oakhurst Forest Preserve.
Other attractions in the city are the SciTech Hands-On Museum, Splash Country Water Park, the Fox Valley Mall, Blackberry Farm, and the Vaughan Aquatic Center and Indoor Water Park.
Naperville, “Great Service – All the Time”
A wealthy suburb of Chicago, Naperville is a mid-sized city with a population of 149,540 residents in 2020. Picturesque, it is situated on the banks of the DuPage River. Many consider Naperville to be an excellent place to live, but for temporary visitors, there are also plenty of attractions to explore.
A few of the best places to visit are the Naper Settlement, Catigny Park, the Morton Arboretum, Centennial Beach, the Naperville Riverwalk, and the Knoch Knolls Nature Center. All of these destinations are family-friendly and many offer educational experiences and exhibits.
Rockford, “The Forest City”
Close to the border with Wisconsin is Rockford; home to 148,655 people as of 2020. Known for its abundance of greenery, the city has earned the nicknames, “The Forest City” and the “City of Gardens”. Part of the stunning cityscape includes the Rock River, which runs through the center of Rockford.
Some of the most gorgeous areas in the city are the Anderson Japanese Gardens, Nicholas Conservatory, and the Rock Cut State Park. On the other hand, indoor venues like the Rockford Art Museum, Burpee Museum of Natural History, Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum and Gardens, and the Erlander Home Museum are worth checking out too.
Peoria, “Gem City”
Called the “Gem City” because of its productive trade routes and fertile soil, Peoria is a smaller city in Illinois with a population of 113,150 as of 2020. The famous subject of the phrase, “Will it play in Peoria?”, which Groucho Marx popularized, this city has quite a few winning attractions.
Filled with culture, there are quite a few museums that are worth visiting for their diverse exhibits. One is the Peoria Riverfront Museum, which is affiliated with the Smithsonian. Other attractions are the Caterpillar Visitors Center & Museum, Peoria Zoo, Wildlife Prairie Park, Luthy Botanical Garden, Laura Bradley Park, and the Forest Park Nature Center.
Illinois Beach State Park
Stretching for 6.5 miles along the Lake Michigan shoreline is the Illinois Beach State Park. Created by glaciers long ago, the landscapes in the park include sand dunes, marshes, and oak forests. The entire park covers 4,160 acres and it has been divided into two sections with the northern area dedicated to outdoor recreation and the southern portion acting as a nature preserve.
Activities in the park include swimming, hiking, biking, boating, picnicking, and bird watching. In certain areas of the park, visitors will have access to facilities like parking, showers, and toilets. Fishing is not permitted in the nature preserve or swimming areas. Visitors who want to stay overnight can book a campsite or room at the Illinois Beach Resort, which has a 96 room lodge.
Shawnee National Forest
A part of the famous Ozarks, Shawnee National Forest covers 280,000 acres of land. Though there are many towns throughout the area, the forest is headquartered in Harrisburg. The forest is popular for its unique rock formations and stunning views. Within the park, there are seven wilderness areas: Bald Knob, Bay Creek, Burden Falls, Clear Springs, Garden of the Gods, Lusk Creek, and the Panther Den.
One of the busiest destinations in Shawnee is the Pounds Hollow Recreation Area in Gallatin County. Situated around a small reservoir, visitors to Pounds Hollow can camp, picnic, swim, fish, and boat. However, motorized boats are not permitted.
Cave-in-Rock State Park
Set atop high bluffs that overlook the Ohio River is the Cave-in-Rock State Park. The park name comes after the large cave that was carved by water into the limestone rocks thousands of years ago. While the cave is the main feature, visitors can also enjoy the numerous hiking trails, as well as the restaurant and lodge. Boating and fishing are also permitted in certain areas of the park.
Starved Rock State Park
Starved Rock is another state park that has stunning rock formations. The formations come from St. Peter Sandstone, which has been worn away by rivers and creeks, creating canyons and cliffs. Some of the most famous features are the namesake, Starved Rock, as well as the St. Louis Canyon waterfall and the Starved Rock Lock and Dam.
The state park is about 90 minutes outside of Chicago and it is open daily to visitors. However, there are certain closures on holidays and during the hunting seasons. Visitors can check the official website to learn more about park hours.
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
Traveling back to the past, visitors can learn more about the state’s early history by heading to the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. At the heart of the site is the Monks Mound, which is North America’s largest earthwork. Additionally, there are 69 mounds of various sizes that were built by prehistoric Native Americans.
Trails throughout the site take visitors to the mounds, as well as other preserved areas. At the Interpretive Center, there are educational exhibits, a life-size village recreation, theater, auditorium, shop, courtyard, and restrooms. However, the center has undergone reconstruction and won’t reopen until spring 2023.
An intriguing destination throughout the year, Illinois is the most iconic state to explore in the Midwest. From the windy streets of Chicago to the rural communities, this state is filled with a long list of attractions and activities. Travelers can pick and choose their excursions with an itinerary suitable for any age.