The midwestern state of Illinois is the 25th largest in the United States area-wise.
Illinois is known for Chicago, the country’s third largest city, but also the Mississippi River, and the start of Route 66. It is famous for the highest skyscraper, tall and famous people like Walt Disney, and Abraham Lincoln.
When travelers think of Illinois, Chicago is usually the first thing that comes to mind. While it’s true there is plenty to see and do in the Windy City, the rest of the Prairie State shouldn’t be overlooked.
Illinois has many more interesting places to visit from cultural icons to outdoor playgrounds, historic sites, and museums. Read about what Illinois is known for and get ready to explore this great state.
With the breezes of Lake Michigan giving the city its nickname, Chicago is of course the most famous attraction in Illinois. It’s known for towering skyscrapers, award-winning restaurants (check out Chicago’s dog-friendly restaurants), and some of the world’s best shopping. It would take days or weeks to see everything.
Some of the highlights include shopping on Magnificent Mile, the modern steel and glass sculptures in Millenium Park, and playing along the shores of North Avenue Beach within Lincoln Park. See the city with a bird’s eye view by taking a 70-second elevator ride to the Skydeck on the 103rd floor of Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower, the country’s tallest building – Illinois is also the home of the tallest man)
US Highway 66, also known as the Mother Road, begins in downtown Chicago, heading towards Southern Illinois, and ends in Los Angeles. The route is so famous a television series in the 1960s was named after it.
The 2,000 mile-long road features icons and images of simpler times along the way such as billboards, giant statues, quirky roadside attractions, quaint towns, and mom and pop businesses. Drive part of it or take the whole journey where you’ll end at the Santa Monica Pier.
No matter where you roam in Illinois, you’re sure to find the influence of two iconic foods.
The Chicago-style hot dog got its beginnings on the streets of the city during the Great Depression. Sold from street cart hot dog vendors, the hot meal on a bun only cost a nickel. An authentic Chicago Dog begins with an all-beef hotdog in a steamed poppyseed bun and topped with diced onions, tomatoes, pickles, and mustard. ( If you add ketchup, it’s no longer a Chicago Dog!)
The classic Chicago-style deep-dish pizza has its roots in Neopolitan immigrants who came to America during the late 1800s. Descendents created the new pizza variety in a deeper dish with inverted layers of meats, cheeses, and tomatoes with a thin, crunchy crust.
Illinois is linked to several US presidents including Ulysess Grant, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and Barrack Obama. Only Ronald Reagan was born here, but the others spent a significant part of their lives in the state. Reagan was born in the town of Tampico about 75 miles north of Peoria in an apartment above a bakery. You can visit his birthplace and a museum in the Graham Building in Tampico.
The Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is in Springfield, Illinois. Reagan’s is in his home state of California. Barrack Obama recently broke ground for his presidential library to be built in Chicago.
Maybe you have already heard, Illinois is known as the Land of Lincoln!
Lincoln, Illinois, located off of Route 66 in the center of the state, is the only city to be named after a president who also was alive to Christin it. Travelers can exit off the famed highway and visit several attractions including the Lincoln Heritage Museum at Lincoln College, The Mill on 66 Museum, the World’s Largest Covered Wagon, The Mill on 66 Museum, and Postville Courthouse.
The city sponsors events throughout the year in honor of its namesake including the Lincoln Balloon Festival held in August and the Abraham Lincoln National Railsplitting Festival held in September.
Native Chicagoan Ray Croc opened the first McDonald’s franchise restaurant in Des Plains, Illinois in 1955. He bought the franchise after visiting the McDonald brothers (Dick and Mac) in California who were experts at operating drive-in restaurants. Their Speedy Service System featured 15-cent hamburgers. Its success led to the selling of franchises.
Up until 2017, the city operated a McDonald’s museum in Ray’s honor. After repeated flooding damage, tourists could only peek in the window. It was demolished, and the sale of the land was donated to the city. But you’re sure to find a McDonalds in Des Plains where you can have a Big Mac in his honor.
The fictional character Clark Kent (aka Superman) lived in a city called Metropolis, but the name of the state was never revealed in print or on the screen. That didn’t stop the town of this Illinois town of the same name from staking claim as home to the world’s most famous superhero.
Located in the southern tip of Illinois, Metropolis lies along the Ohio River. The Illinois General Assembly bestowed the honor by proclamation in 1972.
You’ll find a 15-foot statue of the Man of Steel outside the Massac County Courthouse. And the local newspaper is called, you guessed it, The Planet. The city hosts a Superman Celebration every year in June.
For a pleasant stroll among an outdoor museum of trees, head to the town of Lisle about a half-hour outside of Chicago. The arboretum, featuring 17,000 acres of 222,000 live plants was founded by Jay Morton of the Morton Salt Company in Chicago.
It’s a great place to bird-watch and see the changing of the seasons in the spring and fall. A leader in scientific research on tree health, the arboretum also offers educational programming and nature-related activities. There’s a children’s garden, a maze garden, and a guided tram tour.
Channahon is a rural village southwest of Joliet where the forces of three rivers, the DuPage, Des Plaines, and Kankakee, meet to create the Illinois & Michigan National Heritage Corridor.
Visitors can access the Illinois River from several points for fun on the water from fishing and boating to waterskiing or picnicking on the shores. The Illinois & Michigan Canal State Trail is nearby with miles of forested hiking and biking trails.
The peaceful area around Channahon is also home to Channahon State Park where you’ll find the official trailhead of the I&M Canal State Trail. Experience a bit of history with a stop at a restored lock tender’s house near Locks 6 and 7, one of only two still in existence.
In the late 19th century, lock tenders were on call 24 hours a day to operate the large wooden gates for canal boats to pass through. On a busy day, the lock tender would shepard around 30 boats through the canal. A floating bridge over the DuPage River was used as a mule crossing between the Locks. It’s now a footbridge that spans the space. The park is open from 8 a.m. to sunset.
An old converted deer lodge near Winnebago is now Severson Dells Nature Center. It’s accessible from Bypass 20 south of Rockford via the Montegue Rd exit. The 369-acre forested preserve includes a display area, conference room, screened-in porch with a stone fireplace, library, bookstore, and classroom.
The nature center staff has provided educational programs for Illinoians since 1976 through school field trips, lectures, summer camps, and guided tours. The preserve also features five miles of self-guided nature trails for the general public. The preserve is open year-round.
Illinois has a storied past, and you can learn about it at the Chicago Portage House. Walk along the same paths traversed by Native Americans, early explorers, and settlers. An impressive 20-foot tall monument depicts French explorer Louis Joliet and Father Marquette landing their canoe with an indigenous guide.
French fur traders peddled their goods across the marshy area that separates the Great Lakes from the Mighty Mississippi River. This is the “crossroads” that evolved into the great city of Chicago.
Free 90-minute tours are offered beginning at 10 a.m. from May to November. The tour involves walking a half-mile through the woods along a graveled path. Long pants and sturdy shoes are recommended, and golf carts can be reserved for those who need special accommodations.
Avid birders will find paradise at the Lake Renwick Heron Rookery Nature Preserve. Located in Plainfield, visitors can follow a crushed limestone trail along Lake Renwick. Several small islands have structures built to provide nesting for great blue herons,black-crowned night herons, great egrets, cattle egrets, and double-crested cormorants. Access is limited seasonally to protect the migratory birds.
Lockport is a 270-acre nature preserve located along the Des Plaines River. The geological formation is rare and features a dolomite prairie with dolomite limestone layered beneath the soil. Some areas of the preserve dry out in the summer while the water table rises up through the dolomite bedrock in others.
The rising water table forms marshes and fens providing a habitat for rare, native flora and fauna, some of which are endangered. The hiking level ranges from easy to moderate. Some of the paths are unpaved. Hours are 8 a.m. to sunset.
But given that Illinois only ever rises to 1,235 feet above sea level, you are sure not to have to exert yourself too much here.
The Gebhard Woods State Park is situated along a scenic section of the canal on the west edge of the town of Morris. The main office for the I&M Canal State Trail is located here. The park has a visitor center, a few campsites, a playground, a picnic area, and ponds for fishing.
The hike is easy, and you’ll likely spot egrets, herons, beavers, and other animals. Like other Illinois state parks and preserves, it’s open from 8 a.m. to sunset.
Anna is the co-owner of expert world travel and can't wait to share her travel experience with the world. With over 54 countries under her belt she has a lot to write about! Including those insane encounters with black bears in Canada.