The Most Beautiful Places to Visit in Illinois
Buckle up and hit the road for soaring architectural feats, breathtaking naturescapes, and more.
I know we all thought we’d be throwing our masks into a massive bonfire this winter, but the sad truth is that we've got a ways to go before that happens. In the meantime, you can still buckle up and explore the finest views our very own lovely state has to offer—and though this may be an unpopular opinion, winter is the best time to venture out, thanks to thinned crowds, quiet natural escapes, and sparsely populated roadways.
Just outside the city, a vast snow-dusted terrain awaits, a much more pleasant journey than navigating the algorithms predicting your next Netflix binge. Not that there's anything wrong with that—we love a shameless Emily in Paris marathon as much as the next seasonal shut-in—but winter is long, and changing up your routine will get you that much closer to summer, promise. It’s time to bundle up and appreciate the state you’re in by pointing your GPS toward the most beautiful places in Illinois.
Citydwellers may not realize that one of the “Seven Wonders of Illinois” sits right beneath our noses. The Bahá'í House of Worship nestled inside the northern Chicago neighborhood Wilmette is the oldest Bahá'í temple still standing and is open for all to enjoy. The impressive structure took 50 years to complete, incorporating meticulous detail and architectural elements in groupings of nine, a number that symbolizes “perfection” in the Bahá'í faith. As a result, the buildings and surrounding gardens fosters an ethos of oneness and peace. In the winter months, the temple welcomes visitors to come and revel in its grandeur—who knows, you might even get in touch with your inner spirituality along the way.
Tracing the border of Illinois and Missouri in southwest Illinois is a winding national highway slicing through towns and countryside and running along stunning cliffs and forested bluffs. One of the country’s most historic river valleys, this byway spans the confluence of the Illinois, Missouri, and Mississippi Rivers for 33 breathtaking miles. Beginning in Hartford, take Illinois Route 3 northwest to The Great River Road and cruise past the idyllic waterfront villages of Wood River, East Alton, Alton, Elsah, Chautauqua, and Grafton—all imbued with their own unique charms like antique shops, guided tours, live music venues, and plenty of romantic inns, hotels, and bed and breakfasts to make for a memorable getaway.
Boasting 20,000 acres of green space, Rockford is the fourth largest city in Illinois and teeming with cultural and historical landmarks. Kick things off with a stop into the Mendelssohn Performing Arts Center, the oldest continuously operated organization of its kind in the country, then venture over to Nicholas Conservatory to take in its 11,000-square-foot plant exhibition area, pop over to the architecturally fascinating Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum and Gardens, and finish your day at the Burpee Museum of Natural History, where visitors can get up close and personal with Jane, Jane, the world’s most complete and best preserved juvenile T. rex. For a taste of winter wonderland, the Klehm Arboretum, Rock Cut State Park, Atwood Park, and Lowden State Park all have ample forest and trails for cross-country skiing, birding, hiking, snowshoeing, ice fishing, fat biking, and other frosty adventures.
This massive 280,000-acre southern Illinois national forest is simultaneously the state’s most beautiful natural attraction and its best kept secret. Revel in the sweeping wintery views from atop Fountain Bluff, where the snow-covered trees give way to the crisp Mississippi River. And the iconic year-round Garden of the Gods Wilderness is a great place to set up a wintery year-round campsite or get some serious steps along the 160-mile River to River Trail.
All 2,630 acres of Starved Rock State Park are stunning, but it’s the numerous caves and bluffs and countless frozen waterfalls cascading down the sandstone walls truly make traversing the park’s 18 canyons and 13 miles of trails worth it. Also worth it? A post-hike seasonal cocktail inside the historic Starved Rock Lodge, where you should also spend the night, if you know what’s good for you. And 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 stunning statehouses, especially when it’s dusted in a fluffy cloud of freshly fallen snow. Built in 1868 in the French Renaissance Revival style and capped with an ornate dome, the 361-foot-high building is currently open for tours and stands even taller than the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Afterwards, pay a visit to Abraham Lincoln’s home where he lived before becoming the 16th president of the United states (no big).
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 or a cozy stay at Inn at Irish Hollow. Before speeding back over to the big city, stretch your legs by hitting the slopes at Chestnut Mountain, working up a sweat along the Galena River Trail’s cross-country ski path, or strapping into a pair of snowshoes and taking in the sights at Eagle Ridge Nordic Center.
From guided moonlit hikes and winter birding opportunities to multiple public art displays, Giant City State Park is home to all sorts of seasonal fun. Nearly a dozen miles of equestrian trails makes this southern Illinois park special for every type of recreational outdoors-person. Particularly noteworthy, however, are the "Giant City Streets'' along the main nature trail—colossal sandstone bluffs formed some 12,000 years ago. And as soon as early February rolls around (sooner than you think, we’re sure), treat yourself to a cozy cabin at the historic Giant City Lodge and bask in the rustic grandeur that’s enticed visitors for decades.
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, icy waterfalls, snow dusted prairies, beautiful rock formations, and forested hiking. Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing trails 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 all-season 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 tree-lined 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 Interpretive Center to get a taste of daily life between 1050 and 1200 AD. Though they are not currently doing tours, the grounds are open dawn until dusk by appointment only, so call ahead to snag a spot.
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 picturesque Geneva (particularly along its quaint bar and restaurant-lined Third Street) brims with enough small town 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.
While most folks visit Champaign-Urbana to rage with college kids at the University of Illinois or catch Big 10 football at Memorial Stadium, off-season road trippers will find a wealth of more cultured delights just outside the campus area. Case in 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 dating to 1870.
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.
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.