Travel

The Most Beautiful Places to Visit in Illinois

In case you need a change of scenery.

Galena Historic District
Galena Historic District | Nejdet Duzen / Shutterstock
Galena Historic District | Nejdet Duzen / Shutterstock

Summer is always a good time for a road trip. But being months into a pandemic and self-isolation probably has you especially craving a change of scenery. As many are choosing to stay closer to home for their first foray into the outside world, we’ve rounded up some of the best spots in Illinois to take in the Land of Lincoln’s natural and cultural sites from a safe distance. So load up the car, pack hand sanitizer and wipes, and bring along plenty of spare face masks. Welcome to road tripping, 2020 style.

Shawnee National Forest

Southern Illinois
This massive 280,000-acre national forest covering much of the southern tip of Illinois is by far the state’s most beautiful natural attraction that most people remain totally unaware of. Take in sweeping views of the forests and bluffs from Inspiration Point, set up camp before sunset within the iconic Garden of the Gods Wilderness, or get some serious steps in along the 160-mile River to River Trail.

Great River Road 

East Dubuque-Cairo
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 the woodlands, and also passes through several great Midwestern towns more than worthy of your radar such as Galena, Alton, and Grafton.

Anderson Japanese Gardens

Rockford
Regarded as one of the most authentic Japanese gardens in North America, this 12-acre sanctuary in the heart of Rockford features waterfalls, a traditional tea house, ornate bridges, rock gardens, and more. If a more serene place exists, we haven’t found it yet. Chill out, unplug, and be one with nature.

Starved Rock State Park

Oglesby
All 2,630 acres of Starved Rock State Park are stunning, but its numerous waterfalls are what truly make a hike through 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. Explore the historic, hard-drinking nearby town of LaSalle while you’re at it.

Illinois State Capitol
Illinois State Capitol | Visit Springfield

Illinois State Capitol

Springfield
We wouldn’t exactly call watching politics in action beautiful, but the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield is one of America’s most picturesque statehouses. Built in 1868 in a French Renaissance Revival style capped with an ornate dome, the 361-foot-high building is taller than the US Capitol in Washington DC. While you’re in town, check out the Lincoln Home National Historic Site.

Galena Historic District
Galena Historic District | Nejdet Duzen / Shutterstock

Galena Historic District

Galena
Long known as one of the most charming small towns in America, downtown Galena and its 800-property Galena Historic District is simply a spectacular sight to behold. Stroll down Main Street to admire the small town Americana-soaked shops and restaurants and explore the Ulysses S. Grant Home before checking into the DeSoto House Hotel, the oldest operating hotel in the state since 1855.

Illinois Beach State Park

Zion
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.

giant city state park
Beth Trudeau/Shutterstock

Giant City State Park

Makanda
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.

Matthiessen State Park

Oglesby
Attracting far fewer crowds than the 2.5 million souls who pack nearby Starved Rock State Park every year, this unassuming but equally awesome state park offers an array of canyons, waterfalls, and forested hiking trails that are similar to Starved Rock -- but should provide significantly more space for social distancing.

Grand View Drive

Peoria
Don’t let the fact that it’s only 2.52 miles long fool you: this glorified driveway packs killer panoramic views of the Illinois River Valley, and was even called “the world’s most beautiful drive” by President Teddy Roosevelt during his visit in 1910. Established in 1903 and lined with a number of historic homes, the view is so enchanting you might want to move in.

Cahokia Mounds

Collinsville
This sweeping 2,200-acre site is Illinois’ one and only United Nations World Heritage site, and contains the remnants of a massive portion of the largest prehistoric Native American civilization in the United States. Climb Monk’s Mound, check out the Woodhenge calendar, and learn about what life in this early city was like at its peak from 1050 to 1200 AD.

Fabyan Forest Preserve

Geneva
The main attraction here is the 68-ft, five-story Fabyan Windmill, built in the mid-19th century and considered one of the best examples of an authentic Dutch windmill in the United States. But don’t stop there: The park also includes a museum and Japanese-style garden, while the town of Geneva (particularly along its quaint bar and restaurant-lined Third Street) brims with plenty of action to fill your weekend.

Mississippi Palisades State Park

Savanna
This state park is located near the confluence of the Mississippi and Apple Rivers, and with 15 miles of varied and rugged trails, is a favorite among hiking aficionados. Take in the dramatic cliffs, limestone caves, and wooded ravines, and if you’re feeling confident, bring your own rock-climbing equipment and have a go at Twin Sister and Indian Head, two of the most popular rock formations open for climbing.

Cache River Wetlands

Cypress
Travel to the southern tip of the state to canoe through the waters of this perpetually flooded forest. Sky-scraping cypress trees jut out from the algae-speckled water, many of which are over a thousand years old and have flared bases some 40 feet in circumference.

Busey's Hall / Princess Theatre
Busey's Hall / Princess Theatre | Daniel X. O'Neil / flickr

Downtown Urbana Historic District

Urbana
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, summer road trippers will find a wealth of more relaxing delights outside of the campus area. Recently added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2019, the Downtown Urbana Historic District includes five local landmarks such as the 1870-built Busey’s Hall/Princess Theatre.

Kewanee Public Art Tour

Kewanee
Once dubbed the “friendliest city in America” by the fine map-making folks of Rand McNally, today the small town of Kewanee popping up about halfway between Peoria and Davenport is known for its public art. Learn about the town’s history along its self-guided “History in the Paint” public art tour of 15 Instagram-friendly murals.

Illinois Route 66

Chicago-St. Louis
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 and the Route 66 mural outside the Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum in Pontiac.

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Kailley Lindman is a contributing writer for Thrillist Chicago, as well as a freelance food photographer, food blogger at KailleysKitchen.com, and recovering vegetarian. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Jay Gentile is an award-winning freelance journalist specializing in travel, food & drink, culture, events and entertainment stories. In addition to Thrillist, you can find his work in The Washington Post, The Guardian, CNN Travel, Chicago Tribune, Lonely Planet, VICE, Outside Magazine and more. Follow @thejaygentile.