The Most Beautiful Places to Visit in Illinois
Get some fresh air.
If 2020’s pandemic-fueled wrath destroyed your travel plans, you’re far from alone. But just because we weren’t able to jet off to Paris or embark on that Sub-Saharan safari doesn’t mean all adventure is dead. On the contrary, it means that we suddenly have all the time in the world to finally fully appreciate our own spectacular backyards. Bundle up, throw on the four wheel drive, and take matters into your own lockdown-weary hands by setting out on a snowy—and socially distanced, of course—roadtrip to one of these game-changing Illinois destinations.
This massive 280,000-acre southern Illinois national forest is simultaneously the state’s most beautiful natural attraction and best kept secret. Revel in the sweeping views from atop Inspiration Point, set up camp before sunset within the iconic year-round Garden of the Gods Wilderness, or get some serious steps in along the 160-mile River to River Trail.
Great River Road
Virtually the opposite of Chicago's rush-hour insanity, this peaceful scenic drive follows the flow of the Mississippi River for more than 550 miles along the Western edge of the state. The meandering road is home to unobstructed views of the river and woodlands and ramps it up a notch by passing through several pillars of Midwestern small town amazingness like Galena, Alton, and Grafton.
Regarded as one of the most authentic Japanese gardens in all of North America, this 12-acre seasonal sanctuary in the heart of Rockford features waterfalls, a traditional tea house, ornate bridges, rock gardens, and more. If a more zen destination exists, we haven’t found it yet. Chill out, unplug, and be one with nature starting May 1, 2021.
All 2,630 acres of Starved Rock State Park are stunning, but it’s the numerous cascading waterfalls that truly make traversing the park’s 18 canyons and 13 miles of trails worth it. Also worth it? A post-hike beer on the back patio of the historic Starved Rock Lodge, where you should also spend the night if you know what’s good for you. If you’re game, up the ante by hopping over to the historic, hard-drinking nearby town of LaSalle while you’re at it.
We wouldn’t exactly call watching politics in action beautiful, but the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield is definitely one of America’s most iconic statehouses. Built in 1868 in the French Renaissance Revival style and capped with an ornate dome, the 361-foot-high building is currently open for exterior tours and stands even taller than the US Capitol in Washington, DC.
Unabashedly crowned one of the most charming small towns in America, downtown Galena and its corresponding 800-property historic district is quite simply a spectacular sight to behold under any conditions. Stroll down Main Street to admire the Americana-soaked shops and restaurants then spend a few hours exploring the stately Ulysses S. Grant Home before taking a load off at the DeSoto House Hotel, the state’s oldest operating lodging since 1855, or opting for an epic Airbnb like the Historic Owl House.
Summer is the name of the game at this expansive 4,160-acre state park perched just south of the Wisconsin border in Zion, whose main attraction is its 6.5 miles of prime beachfront property glistening in the afternoon sun along Lake Michigan. Don’t spend all day at the beach, however, as there are plenty of dunes, marshes, oak forests, and wildlife to familiarize oneself with.
From hiking and rock climbing to fishing and nearly a dozen miles of equestrian trails, this southern Illinois park has something for every type of recreational outdoors-person. Particularly noteworthy, however, are the "Giant City Streets" along the main nature trail, which are colossal sandstone bluffs formed some 12,000 years ago.
Attracting far fewer crowds than the 2.5 million souls who file into nearby Starved Rock State Park every year, this unassuming but equally awe-inspiring state park offers an array of canyons, waterfalls, prairies, beautiful rock formations, and forested hiking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing trails that continue to dazzle the senses while providing way more space for pandemic-friendly social distancing.
Don’t let the fact that it’s only 2.52 miles long fool you into writing off this nationally registered historic destination as just another glorified driveway. Established in 1903, this well-trodden trail packs killer panoramic views of the Illinois River Valley and was even dubbed “the world’s most beautiful drive” by none other than President Teddy Roosevelt in 1910. Cruising along the scenic stretch past stately homes, the view is so enchanting you just might want to cash in and become a full-time resident.
Stationed just a stone’s throw northeast of St. Louis, Missouri, this sweeping 2,200-acre expanse stands as Illinois’ one and only UNESCO World Heritage site, and, no joke, encompasses the remnants of the biggest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico. Who knew? The to-do list includes climbing Monk’s Mound, the continent’s largest prehistoric earthwork, checking out Woodhenge, an ancient astronomical observatory, and delving into the site’s freshly-reopened Interpretive Center to get a taste of daily life between 1050 and 1200 AD.
Open from May through mid-October, the main attraction at this seasonal pastoral escape is the 68-foot, five-story Fabyan Windmill, built around 1870 and considered one of the country’s premiere authentic Dutch windmills. But don’t stop there—the park also showcases a museum and utterly serene Japanese-style garden, while the picturesque town of Geneva (particularly along its quaint bar and restaurant-lined Third Street) brims with plenty of socially distanced action to fill your weekend.
A favorite among big sky aficionados, this state park is located near the confluence of the mighty Mississippi and Apple rivers and features 15 miles of rugged and groomed cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and hiking trails plus ample opportunities for ice fishing, weather permitting. Make your way around soaring cliffs, limestone caves, and wooded ravines, and if you’re feeling confident, bring your own gear and have a go at Twin Sister and Indian Head, two of the most popular rock-climbing formations in the state.
After the snow thaw, canoe-savvy travellers flock to the state’s southern tip to paddle their way through this perpetually waterlogged forest. The submerged 14,960-acre reserve was formed eons ago by glacial floods flowing from the Ohio River and today serves as a major recreational hub for outdoorsy Illinoisans. While the whole park is breathtaking, it’s really all about the sky-scraping cypress trees jutting dramatically out of the algae-speckled waters, many of which are over a thousand years old and measure upwards of 40 feet in circumference.
While most folks visit Champaign-Urbana to rage with college kids at the University of Illinois or catch some Big 10 football at Memorial Stadium, off-season road trippers will find a wealth of more cultured delights just outside the campus area. Case and point? The Downtown Urbana Historic District, which landed a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 2019 thanks to an array of captivating landmarks including Busey’s Hall/Princess Theatre, an Art Deco masterpiece that dates to 1870.
Dubbed one of the best small towns in America by the fine map-making folks at Rand McNally, Kewanee has been drawing crowds with its ambitious and eye-catching public art collection since an esteemed international group of 210 painters known as the Walldogs descended upon the northwestern Illinois hamlet in 2013, brushes in hand. Grab your selfie stick and immerse yourself in local lore along Kewanee’s self-guided “History in the Paint” tour that guides gapers through 15 Instagram-worthy outdoor murals.
Illinois’s 301-mile stretch of Route 66 from Chicago to St. Louis is packed not only with an array of vintage neon signs and weird roadside attractions, but also plenty of cool stopovers such as the Old Joliet Prison from Blues Brothers, classic restaurants slinging all forms of Midwestern comfort foods, and the Route 66 mural outside the recently reopened Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum in Pontiac.
Strap on your cross-country skis, lace up your snowshoes, or simply tug on your hiking boots and hit the looping trails at this 1700-acre preserve. Established in 1922 by Joy Morton (of Morton’s Salt Company, no less), you don’t have to be a botanist to appreciate this suburban oasis’ extensive inventory, a collection that spans more than 200,000 cataloged plants representing 4,100 different species. And at just 25 miles outside of the city, it’s one of Chicagoland’s easiest and quickest fresh air getaways.
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