When you think about Illinois, chances are you think only of Chicago. Indeed, America's vibrant, third-largest city does deserve your attention because of its colourful history, Lake Michigan-fronting beaches and parks, cutting-edge architecture, lively cultural scene and numerous shopping opportunities. But out there beyond the cloud-piercing skyscrapers is another, quite different Illinois of particular interest to those fascinated by America's unique history and folk culture.
Start by heading south on legendary Route 66. Mile-on-mile, the Illinois portion of the 'Mother Road' holds more roadside attractions such as classic diners, drive-ins and petrol stations than any other. Stop in Springfield, the capital of Illinois, for an unforgettable visit to President Abraham Lincoln’s hometown where history comes alive.
Make sure to visit quaint riverside towns along the Mississippi River including Alton, famous for its antique stores, ghosts and nesting bald eagles as well as Grafton and Moline, bases for paddleboat river cruises. Among the most appealing is Galena, tucked away in the north-west corner of the state. Explore its historic district on a guided carriage ride, visit Civil War sites, sample wine in the local vineyards and enjoy shopping, golfing and kayaking.
Things to do
Popular Illinois holiday ideas
Top tips for visiting Illinois
• Minutes from O’Hare International Airport, the Fashion Outlets of Chicago have more than 130 designer outlets, while the Chicago Premium Outlets (with 120 stores) in the Chicago suburb of Aurora and the Huntley Outlet Center (50 stores) near Rockford offer quality brands at favourable prices.
2. Take to the road
• Make sure to take to the road on one of Illinois’ seven National Scenic Byways.
• The Great River Road which runs along the edge of the Mississippi River is not to be missed. You’ll be treated to views of soaring chiselled limestone bluffs and the meeting place of three rivers. Drive the scenic stretch along Route 100 between the towns of Alton and Grafton.
3. Road tales
• Listen to the stories of America’s past on Route 66, America’s most famous road, which starts in Chicago. The first 400 miles in Illinois are lined with colourful motels, diners and quirky tourist stops. The people who you will meet along the road have as much history as the places and they love talking about the old days.
4. Festival fun
• Enjoy the rocking sounds and classic cars at the International Route 66 Mother Road Festival in Springfield (last weekend in September).
• If you are into jazz then check out 2 Rivers Wine and Jazz Fest in Ottawa (early June). Winemakers from Illinois sell their products with live jazz on the lawn plus fresh lobsters are flown in from New England.
5. Winning wine
• Sip Illinois wine at one of 450 vineyards or 100 wineries in some of the state’s most enchanting parts. Many of the wineries offer tastings and some have restaurants and B&Bs.
• Taste wines at Mackinaw Valley Vineyard which hosts outdoor concerts and festival on its lakeside grounds.
• Take a vineyard tour at the award-winning Galena Cellars Vineyards & Winery.
• Make sure to visit Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, home to a dozen wineries within 30 miles of each other including Blue Sky Vineyard, Owl Creek, and Alto Vineyards.
6. Food fancies
• Illinois is known for hearty American cooking from classic diner food to some of the best fried chicken this side of the Mississippi.
• Must tries are the horseshoe sandwich (open-faced sandwich of meat served on thick toast with cheese sauce) and corn dog (breaded hot dog on a stick) - both delicacies from Springfield.
• For foodies, there are acclaimed restaurants worth the drive. Recently, a modern American farm-to-table restaurant in Peoria was named one of the 50 Best New Restaurants in the U.S. by Travel & Leisure Magazine.
• Firefly Grill, ranked as the second most eco-friendly restaurant in the nation by Bon Appetit magazine, located in Effingham is 210 miles from Chicago.
• For the best barbecue ribs in the country as acclaimed by Bon Appetit Magazine, 17th Street Bar & Grill is worth the trip in Murphysboro, 333 miles from Chicago.
7. Outdoor enthusiasts
• Starved Rock State Park is a popular destination for hiking through waterfall canyons, kayaking and biking. Start your adventure in Utica just 93 miles southwest of Chicago, where you’ll marvel at the 18 canyons carved out of 400 million year old sandstone bluffs.
• Or explore Shawnee National Forest, 330 miles from Chicago at the southern tip of Illinois for hiking, rock climbing, biking, canoeing and horseback riding. Make sure to visit the spectacular Garden of the Gods, noted for its towering sandstone formations and magnificent bluffs.
8. History lovers
• Head down to Springfield for all things to do with Abraham Lincoln.
• For more Civil War sites, make sure to visit the home of the Civil War hero and later U.S. president, Ulysses S. Grant in Galena.
• To experience American colonial life, stop by Fort de Chartres in the Great Rivers Country which hosts regular living history events.
• Near the end of the Illinois portion of Route 66 are the Cahokia Mounds, a World Heritage site and the remains of the largest prehistoric Native American city north of Mexico.
9. Architectural wonders
• While Chicago is known for its outstanding architecture, don’t miss out on the other architectural wonders around the state.
• Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park, 10 miles west of Chicago, is a must see. With 25 Wright-designed buildings in the area, Oak Park is an outdoor museum of architecture.
• Dana-Thomas House in Springfield is another stop for Frank Lloyd Wright fans, with the largest collection of site specific, original Wright-designed art glass and furniture.
• Farnsworth House, designed by minimalist architect Mies van der Rohe, is a stunning glass house in Plano that is an icon of American Modernism.
• Bahai House of Worship is one of only seven Bahai temples in the world. This ivory domed structure in Wilmette was designed by French-Canadian architect Louis Bourgeois.