29 Illinois Landmarks You Need to See Before You Die
You’ve been on bar crawls. National Historic Landmark crawls? Different vibe, but still cool. So instead of another bleary-eyed trolley ride through Wrigleyville, gas up the old Subaru Impreza and traverse the state this summer crossing National Historic Landmarks off your bucket list. For the adventure-challenged, not to worry: many of them start right here in Chicago.
As America’s first planetarium, Adler has always led the way when it comes to space exploration and study, but nowadays they are also known for their “Sun Salutations” yoga and highly date-worthy “Adler After Dark” program. It’s much more than a museum, with the space visualization laboratory, classrooms, exhibits, and events happening year round. Also, booze during Adler After Dark.
This architectural masterpiece first came to life in 1889 by famed architects Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan (what, you haven’t heard of them???). As a way to bring the fine arts to the good people of Chicago, the building combines theatre seating and a 400-room hotel, plus 136 offices and stores. It was dedicated as a National Landmark in 1975 and a Chicago Landmark in 1976.
As an early religious settlement, the state of Illinois has preserved a number of buildings in this western Illinois town including The Colony Church (1848), Colony Honey (1852-1860), and the “Boys Dormitory” (1850). The district also contains a reconstructed gazebo and war monuments. Bringing in some modernity to the historical site is a newly constructed museum dedicated to the painting collection of former area resident Olof Krans.
This 2,200-acre historical site across the river from St. Louis (boo) preserves the remains of the largest prehistoric Native American city north of Mexico. Its interpretive center will guide your way through this actually really cool prehistoric site with museum exhibits, public-programming, education programs, and tours of the Monks Mound, the largest earthwork in North America. Worth it.
Considered a pivotal work in modern architecture, the Carson, Pirie, Scott & Company Building marks its place as one of the iconic structures in the Loop. Officially restored to its original ornamentation, the famous local structure is the architectural masterpiece of Louis Sullivan. Its form-following-function design depicts the revolution of urban life, or something like that.
Sweaty traders yelling at each other all day notwithstanding, the Chicago Board of Trade Building is a beautiful symbol of the Art Deco décor of the 1930s. Designed by Holabird & Root, the CBOT Building features a three storied marble lobby and the iconic statue of Ceres, the goddess of grain (which you can trade on the floor), standing atop the building observing the financial district below. The building was dedicated as a Chicago Landmark in 1977 and a National Landmark in 1978, long before that one summer you decided to clerk there and never went back.
Perfectly preserved by the Illinois State Historic Preservation Agency, the Dana-Thomas House (or Susan Lawrence Dana House, depending on how you roll) is a gorgeous testament to Frank Lloyd Wright’s genius. Designed in 1902, the house features 35 rooms within 12,000sqft split between 19 total varied levels. Which is, like, a lot. It also displays detailed craftsmanship of glass doors, windows, terra cotta sculptures, and a mural.
Attracting more than 60,000 visitors per year, the Davis David Mansion in Bloomington was the home of Judge David Davis -- U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice and close friend to Abraham Lincoln -- and his wife Sarah in the 19th century. The house showcases a variety of decorative arts and rare technological features. Outside is a badass and elegantly preserved garden that features the same design and beds as when it was built in 1872.
West of Prairie du Rocher
Reconstructed as a museum, this French military fort allows you to experience life in colonial Illinois first-hand (minus the syphilis). The fort holds the restored power magazine, two reconstructed stone buildings, and other exposed foundations. Historically dressed people you NEED to Instagram will take you through your journey to the 18th century with crafts, food, music, flintlock rifle and musket contests, and cannon and mortar competitions. You best bring your own cannonball.
As the place where you lost your mind during both Spring Awakening and fall football, you probably already know Soldier Field was built by Holabird and Roche in 1919 as a memorial for America’s fallen soldiers. Today, as the NFL’s second-oldest stadium, Soldier Field’s architecture is a combination of the original 1920s stone-clad shell and the modern interior renovations of 2003. While its capacity of 61,500 makes it the third-smallest stadium in the league, Soldier Field more than makes up for it with yearlong events from beer fests to rock shows (Guns N' Roses, be there) to yes, even rodeos.
Ulysses S. Grant was presented this famous Galena home by local citizens in 1865 during a town celebration. The house is designed in a luxurious Italianate style characterized by rectilinear shapes, a low-pitched roof, and pillared balconies over covered porches. It was opened to the public in 1904 and makes a nice diversion when you’re drinking your way through town.
With its light visible up to 21 miles away, The Grosse Point Light Station was built in 1873 as the primary lighthouse for ships arriving in Chicago. These days, visitors can tour the lighthouse and climb 141 steps to the top. Which is something you should definitely NOT do after scarfing down a plate of gyros at Cross-Rhodes.
Grundy, LaSalle, and Will Counties
Once traversed by Native Americans and explorers, the Illinois and Michigan Canal connects the Illinois River to Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River. Today it’s 62 miles of nature-packed hiking and biking trails that travel through four state parks with varying landscapes from bluffs to rolling hills. You can also ride a paddleboard over the river Heart of Darkness style, if that’s your thing.
Constructed between 1869-1874, the final resting place of Honest Abe and his family members offers good luck for those who rub the nose of Lincoln’s bust at the entrance of the building. With most of the bronze rubbed off his nose from repeated petting, clearly this is a thing.
Occupying the entire block of Randolph and Wabash, Marshall Field & Company Store is a staple to the city’s retail district. The 12-story granite building maintains much of its original settings with smooth granite pilasters, ionic columns, and recessed windows. Visitors are still able to enjoy the original Marshall Field’s sign and the iconic clock, even though now it’s a goddamn Macy’s.
Mormon history lovers, rejoice! The Nauvoo Historic District preserves more than 30 historic buildings built by the early members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 1840s. Visitors can get interactive Book of Mormon-style touring restored homes, buildings, statues, gardens, and the famous Nauvoo Temple in one of Illinois’ most underrated towns.
Old Main at the Knox College campus is famous for holding the iconic Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858. The building is the only remaining original site of the famed political debates and holds historical artifacts, including the chair where Lincoln sat which still sits in the Old Main’s Alumni Room. And no, no one discussed their penis size during this debate.
Once the center of Illinois political life from 1839-1876, The Old State Capitol in Springfield is a reconstruction of Illinois' fifth statehouse. Abraham Lincoln practiced law, served as a legislator, and gave his iconic “House Divided” speech in 1858 in the building. So if you missed it on your high school field trip, now’s your chance to redeem yourself, kid.
Constructed from 1931 to 1946, the Principia College Historic District was the final project for architecture luminary Bernard Maybeck. With 11 of the original buildings still standing today on bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River between Alton and Grafton, Principa College was dedicated a National Historic Landmark in 1993. Go Thunder Chickens!
Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece, Robie House, is located in Hyde Park on the University of Chicago campus. Completed in 1910, it forms the complete essence of his Prairie-style with each element, site, structure, foundation, and decoration all being intertwined with one another. The Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust offers guided tours of this quintessential Prairie-style home, which you should totally do.
Designed by John Wellborn Root and Daniel Burnham in 1885, the Rookery depicts structural advances for urban buildings during that time. The Rookery holds an elaborate main lobby and a light court renovated by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1905. Named a Chicago Landmark in 1972 and a National Historic Landmark in 1975, it’s named after the shady local pols who inhabited the former City Hall that once occupied this land.
Once the largest indoor aquarium in the world, the Shedd was opened in 1930 as the first inland aquarium with a permanent saltwater fish collection. Given to the city as a gift by Marshall Field protégé John G. Shedd, today it’s one of the city’s most popular attractions with five million gallons of water and 1,500 species. If you are one of the few Chicagoans who haven’t been here yet, this is the first one to cross off any bucket list.
Vicinity of Utica
The area around The Rock of Starved Rock State Park (Illinois’ most-visited state park) was designed a National Historic Landmark in 1960, while additional archeological sites associated with the park were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. These days hiking trails meander through towering trees and scenic overlooks along the Illinois River, and the waterfalls are some of the most beautiful sights in all of Illinois.
A supporter and friend to Abraham Lincoln, the house of former Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull was built in 1849 in Alton. It is included on the “Walk with Lincoln” tour depicting the rich history of Alton, which also happens to be the hometown of Miles Davis. Cool right?
Housed in the former Palace of Fine Arts from the 1893 World’s Fair, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry opened in 1933 and today is the largest science museum in the Western Hemisphere. Sure there are more than 800 exhibits, including the legendary U-505, a mineshaft, and robots at work in a toy factory, but odds are all you remember is that trip to the Omnimax with your friend’s parents when you were kid. Might be time for a refresher course.
Unity Temple, another Frank Lloyd Wright modern masterpiece, was built in 1909 as an icon of modern architecture that is famous for its brilliant use of light and space. One of the most complex and exciting buildings in 20th-century architecture, it was Wright's first public commission and is the only surviving public building from his golden Prairie period.
Smack in the middle of U of I’s campus, University of Illinois’ Astronomical Observatory was built in 1896 and once led the way to scientific innovations in fields you’ve never heard of such as of astronomical photometry. Dedicated as a National Historic Landmark in 1989, all trips to this bucket list landmark should include a mandatory stopover at The Blind Pig. That’s just science.
Built in 1899, this two-story house in Oak Park served as Wright's private residence and studio from 1889-1909. Practicing complete artistic control and experimenting with new ideas over the prolific time he lived there, he went on to design 25 homes and buildings in the neighborhood surrounding the studio. None of which you can afford.
Built in 1914 as Weeghman Park, Wrigley is the oldest park in baseball this side of Fenway and one of the coolest places to work in the city. You don’t need a history lesson to know it’s been kind of a while since the Cubs won the World Series, but you wouldn’t know it by the vibe buzzing around the Friendly Confines these days. This place is about to explode. Get there before it does.
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