Travel Illinois from A to Z

Postcard of Cahokia's Monk Mound with the words Travel Illinois from A to Z

Whether for a day trip or a weekend getaway, Illinois is full of places to see, things to do and people to meet. From the iconic skyline of Chicago to the charm of the small towns scattered throughout the state, there’s something for every traveler to enjoy. Illinois offers rich history, outdoor adventures and unique stops along the way. The opportunities are endless, so here’s a guide to explore the state. Finding a place to go in Illinois is as easy as ABC.


Abraham Lincoln — The Land of Lincoln offers travelers a myriad of opportunities to learn more about our 16th President, including New Salem in Petersburg, where he lived as a young man, and the Lincoln Home National Historic Site and Lincoln Tomb in Springfield. For a deeper understanding of the trials Lincoln faced during his presidency and in his personal life, visitors can tour the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, also in Springfield. Many other Lincoln sites can be found throughout the state.


Barbecue — For barbecue lovers, the small city of Murphysboro is a top destination. Named the Barbecue Capital of Illinois by the state legislature in 2014, the small town hosts an annual barbecue cookoff and has been home to two Barbecue Hall of Fame inductees — the late Mike Mills of 17th Street Barbecue and Pat Burke, owner of Pat’s BBQ. Those aren’t the only reasons for that distinction, however. There’s a delicious history of this favorite food in southern Illinois just waiting to be tasted.


Chicago — Founded in 1837, Illinois’ most famous city is known for many things — architecture, music and food are just a few. From Wrigley Field to Navy Pier and Tribune Tower, there is no limit to what its guests can do and see. Take in Cloud Gate (perhaps better known as The Bean, the iconic statue in Millenium Park), try a classic Chicago hot dog or deep-dish pizza and explore the Museum of Science and Industry, for good measure.


Drive-in theaters — A popular outing for residents and travelers alike is taking in a show on the big screen under an even bigger summer sky. Experience the nostalgia and share it with the younger generation at a number of drive-in theaters located throughout the state, like Harvest Moon Twin Drive-in in Gibson City or the Midway Drive-In in Sterling. Just check to make sure theaters are open before hitting the road.


Eagle watching — It may be surprising to learn that every winter, our state sees more than 3,000 bald eagles — second in number only to Alaska. As a result, December, January and February are great months to do a little eagle-watching. Check out Pere Marquette State Park Bald Eagle Days in Grafton, Quad Cities Bald Eagle Days in Rock Island or the Audubon Eagle Ice Festival in Alton, all of which offer a variety of viewing opportunities.

Photo courtesy of Dana Thomas House Foundation


Frank Lloyd Wright — Architect Frank Lloyd Wright is well-known in these parts, and beyond. Considered by many to be the greatest American architect of all time, Wright designed innovative spaces that can be toured to this day. Some of his earlier work can be found in northern Illinois, including the Robie House in Chicago and his own home in Oak Park. Later downstate designs exhibit his signature “prairie-style,” like the Harley Bradley House in Kankakee and the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield.


Great River Road — The Great River Road in Illinois has been named a National Scenic Byway and All-American Road, which means it is considered a “destination unto itself.” History and culture are just two reasons to give this scenic drive a go. Explore the many communities it passes through and visit the wealth of parks, museums and vineyards along the way. A few ideas: Fort Defiance Park in Cairo, Lincoln and Douglas Square in Alton and Fergedaboudit Vineyard and Winery in Hanover.


Historic communities — Many Illinois communities are rich in history, with places like Bishop Hill, founded by Swedish immigrants and now an open-air museum called “Utopia on the Prairie,” and Kampsville, the base of operations for the Center for American Archeology. Galena, founded in 1826, was once home to Ulysses S. Grant; Nauvoo is known for historical sites related to the Mormon settlement period; and Arthur is the home of Illinois’ oldest Amish community. These are just a few examples.


Independent bookstores — There’s a reason independent bookstores have endured. These indie shops are a part of their communities, offering both a place to convene and find carefully curated content. Stores like Books on First in Dixon, Afterwords Books in Edwardsville, Boxcar Books & Vinyl in Hoopeston and Prairie Fox Books in Ottawa — along with so many others — create spaces for conversation and surprise readers with unique atmospheres and unexpected literary discoveries in cities and small towns across Illinois.


Jam sessions — From country and blues to folk and rock, local music scenes are a favorite source of entertainment to both residents of the prairie state and those who are passing through. Many musicians, like Wolf Crick Boys in Riverton and Tom Irwin in Springfield, have large followings in their communities, and their shows are far more intimate than big-stage concert events. Experience how music can provide a layer of rich context to places traveled.


Kids’ museums — Illinois has a plethora of places for children to learn about the world they live in. Kids’ museums can play a vital role in nurturing young minds by providing a safe and engaging environment where they can explore and discover the world around them. Hands-on experiences await kids at the Children’s Museum of Illinois in Decatur, The Science Center of Southern Illinois in Carbondale and the Discovery Center Museum in Rockford.


Lakes — Yes, Illinois is the Land of Lincoln, but it is also the land of lakes: Kinkaid Lake in Jackson County, Lake Shelbyville in Shelby and Moultrie counties and Lake Michigan in the northeast region of the state, to name a few. These scenic bodies of water provide respite from busy lives, and some, depending on location, terrain and season, offer great camping, hiking, fishing, boating and swimming. Whether on the shore or on the water, the state’s lakes are perfect places to relax and enjoy the outdoors.


Murals — Big art is big fun in the Midwest, and Illinois is no exception. Mural trails can be found throughout the state, including the Silo Pathways Countryside Art Tour in the north-central region, the Route 66 Mural Trail and 30-plus interpretive murals along the Illinois Lincoln Highway. Outdoor art pieces like these depict the history and culture of the area in creative, colorful ways along the state’s highways and byways and in the small towns and cities dotting the landscape.


Native American sites — Illinois is home to some well-known Native American sites. Although its interpretive center is currently undergoing renovations, visitors of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site can still explore the 100-foot-tall Monks Mound. Dickson Mounds is a Native American settlement site and burial mound in Fulton County. The museum onsite at the latter, a branch of the Illinois State Museum, offers a look at the site’s archaeology and a series of walking trails.


Old state capitols — Of the state’s six Capitol buildings, only three remain. Kaskaskia was home to the first, a 2-story brick building no longer standing. Vandalia became home to the second (lost to fire), third and fourth. The fifth State Capitol building, now the Old State Capitol State Historic Site in Springfield, served as the statehouse from 1840 to 1876; however, it is temporarily closed. Currently, visitors can tour the Vandalia State House (the fourth location) and the current State Capitol in Springfield.


Parks and recreation — Giant City, Ferne Clyffe, Cave-in-Rock, Eagle Creek, Pere Marquette, Starved Rock … the state’s multiple state parks have a lot to offer. Rappel in Giant City, hike Pontiac Canyon at Starved Rock, picnic in Eagle Creek — travelers could spend an entire season taking advantage of the outdoor activities Illinois state parks provide. Fishing, boating and biking are common, but at some parks hobbyists can also enjoy skiing, geocaching, metal detecting, horseback riding and archery.


Quad Cities — For travelers to the Quad Cities, there’s a wealth of things to do and see. Explore the Butterworth Center and Deere-Wiman House and the John Deere Pavilion in Moline as well as the Rock Island Arsenal Museum. Take a twilight riverboat cruise, kayak or view bald eagles. Try out the QC Coffee Trail, Ale Trail or Public Art Trail. Enjoy a theatrical production at the historic Circa 21 Dinner Playhouse in Rock Island or The Spotlight Theatre in downtown Moline — the list is endless.


Route 66 — Stop at any number of roadside attractions while traversing the Mother Road in Illinois, which offers numerous photo opportunities along the way, like Bunyon’s Statue in Atlanta, the Railsplitter Covered Wagon in Lincoln, the Pink Elephant Antique Mall in Livingston and Brooks Catsup Bottle in Collinsville. Some other must-sees on the historic roadway are the Two-Cell Jail in Gardner, the Standard Oil Gasoline Station in Odell and Henry’s Rabbit Ranch in Staunton.


Shawnee National Forest — The Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois is comprised of 289,000 acres of flora and fauna. Its camping, horseback riding, hiking, nature viewing, water activities and outdoor learning opportunities attract nearly a million visitors annually. Some highlights: Crow Knob and Sand Cave (a lookout point and place of shelter, respectively) on the Underground Railroad, the Illinois Iron Furnace Historic Site, the Garden of the Gods and the Rim Rock National Recreation Trail.


Theater — While Chicago is an obvious destination for theater lovers, downstate Illinois has options as well. Among them are Hoogland Center for the Arts in Springfield, Kirkland Fine Arts Center in Decatur and Rialto Square Theatre in Joliet. Three stages at the Hoogland are graced by resident performing arts groups regularly. The Kirkland Fine Arts Center showcases professional touring groups as well as student events, and the historic Rialto hosts a multitude of theatrical events throughout the year.


Underground Railroad — African Americans seeking freedom from slavery found their way to it through the Underground Railroad, which included safe houses in several Illinois locations. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Owen Lovejoy Homestead in Princeton. Lovejoy was an abolitionist preacher whose brother was murdered after the preacher shared his views publicly. Other stops include Dr. Richard Eell’s House in Quincy, and Beecher Hall and Woodlawn Farm in Jacksonville, as well as homes and churches in Alton.


Vineyards — Wine trails in Illinois have become popular travel destinations. Carlyle Lake Wine Trail visits five off-the-beaten-path wineries. The Heart of Illinois Wine Trail is comprised of nine stops in or near Peoria, Bloomington-Normal, Springfield, Canton and Galesburg. In western Illinois, the Mississippi Valley Wine Trail promises a scenic tasting trip, as does the Shawnee Hill Wine Trail in southern Illinois. And, don’t forget the five wineries featured on the Wabash Valley Wine Trail. Taste the flavors of Illinois wine.


Waterfalls — The tranquil beauty of waterfalls draws visitors from far and wide, and Illinois has its share of them. Take a hike and enjoy Waterfall Glen, a forest preserve in DuPage County and home to Rocky Glen Waterfall, or Jackson Falls Waterfall, located in the Shawnee National Forest. Another to keep in mind is Cascade Falls in Matthiessen State Park. When planning a visit to these or others in the state, please note that weather and the time of year are key factors in the size of Midwest waterfalls.


eXtreme sports — The opportunity to participate in sports that some people may consider extreme is a draw for many travelers. Snowboarding at Chestnut Mountain in Galena, spelunking in Illinois Caverns in Waterloo or ziplining at one of the state’s many locations may fit the bill for that select group of people. Looking for an even more adrenaline-thumping option? The Illinois Skydiving Center is a drop zone located in Paxton.


Yum — Supporting local is all the rage these days — make sure to also practice it when choosing restaurants on your travels. Illinois has an abundance of locally owned eateries that feature regional flavors and unique twists on favorites. Experiencing local dishes is just one more way to truly experience the places you visit — and keep small Illinois communities thriving.


Zoos — Who doesn’t love animals? The Scovill Zoo in Decatur features hundreds of animals from multiple continents, from cheetahs to wallabies to crocodiles and cuckoos. Miller Park Zoo in Bloomington opened in the late 1800s and is the only zoo in the state that features the endangered Sumatran tiger. Brown’s Oakridge Zoo in Smithfield is family-owned and operated, and hosts Siberian tigers, black bears and lions. Hit the road and make a few furry friends.

From A to Z and beyond, there are so many things to do in Illinois. While this list certainly cannot include everything, hopefully it will inspire you to go out and explore this great state. For more travel ideas, go to, visit local tourism bureaus or find articles on