Home to lush green cornfields, historic escapes and world-class urban architecture, Illinois has something for every traveler’s interests. From the bustling energy of Chicago to the tranquil trails of Shawnee National Forest and the winding grooves of Route 66, the Midwest is at its best on a trip to the Prairie State. The only hard part is deciding where to start. Here’s what you won’t want to miss.
The Field Museum
The sparkling gem of Chicago’s robust Museum Campus is the Field Museum of Natural History. The museum’s most famous resident, Sue, is the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex fossil ever found. In 2018, the museum also welcomed a life-sized cast of a titanosaur, the largest dinosaur known to have existed. Alongside the dinosaurs, the museum’s immersive exhibits explore ancient cultures, scientific discoveries and wild creatures great and small. Those looking for more education can troop over to the museum’s neighbors, the Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium, the oldest planetarium in the country.
Shawnee National Forest
Groups can get out into the great outdoors at Shawnee National Forest. This southern Illinois escape between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers is 289,000 acres of pristine, untouched wilderness. Peaceful hiking trails crisscross the park, leading to breathtaking waterfalls, panoramic vistas and, on a lucky day, a peek at a bald eagle or two. The park’s Garden of the Gods is adorned with rugged sandstone formations and overlooks with postcard-perfect views.
History is around every corner in Springfield, where Abraham Lincoln lived and worked and where he was laid to rest. Groups can explore the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, tour the former president’s home and visit Lincoln’s tomb. As Illinois’ capital, Springfield is home to the Old Illinois State House, where Lincoln made many of his most famous speeches in the mid-1800s. The statehouse is closed while it undergoes renovations, but even its facade is magnificent on its own and worth admiring. For another type of architectural exploration, the Dana Thomas House is a stunning Frank Lloyd Wright creation built between 1902 and 1904.
Up and Coming
Hoof It + Sip It in Galena
This one-of-a-kind experience combines wine, goats and the great outdoors for an unforgettable afternoon. Located on a family-run farm in the historic town of Galena, Hoof It + Sip It invites guests to take a guided walk-through forests and prairies, wine in hand, as friendly goats follow on the path. After the walk, visitors can enjoy tastings from local vineyard and winery Fergedaboudit.
Southern Illinois Coffee Trail
Travelers who start their day with a piping-hot dark roast will love this trail of 27 coffee shops dotting Southern Illinois’ 21 counties. Featuring cafes with charming names like Cup of Joy, Common Grounds and Around the Corner, each stop on the tour is a peek into a Southern Illinois community and a way to start exploring the region’s local culture.
Route History Metaverse Experience
As the starting point of Route 66, Illinois has long honored the history of the great American road trip. Route History, a museum and visitors center in Springfield focused on Black history along Route 66, takes that to a whole new level using augmented reality and virtual reality to recreate the experience of traveling with a Green Book — the iconic travel guide that advised Black road trippers in the Jim Crow era on which towns and establishments were welcoming and which were not. It’s a glimpse into what the famous highway was like for Black travelers from the 1930s through the 1960s. The museum worked with local partners in each location along the experience to ensure it is as accurate and insightful as possible.
The Graduate Evanston
The Evanston iteration of this growing collection of personalized campus hotels is packed with originality and charm. Every detail is chosen to evoke Northwestern University nostalgia, but the property is just as delightful for travelers who have never set foot on the school’s campus. With homey wood floors, eye-popping wallpaper and plush vintage furniture, the hotel’s vibe combines the cozy warmth of academia and the mismatched charm of a bed and breakfast — all within the infrastructure of a well-run, large hotel.
The sprawling Aerie’s Resort in Grafton has beautiful views of the Mississippi River, a winery, outdoor dining with live music and a newly added trend-setting thrill ride. Illinois’ first-ever alpine coaster, with 3,000 feet of track, winds through the resort’s lush landscape. Travelers can twist and turn through summer greenery or fall’s changing foliage. The resort’s zipline and sky lift allow groups to experience Grafton’s natural beauty from every angle.
A Route 66 staple in Springfield, Maldaner’s has been around since 1884. Every dish on the menu is made with farm-fresh ingredients, and one of its most popular dishes is its take on the legendary Illinois horseshoe sandwich. This open-faced delicacy, created in 1928 at a local hotel, combines thick toast, a hefty piece of meat, French fries and a rich cheese sauce. If travelers want to try one, Maldaner’s is the place to do it.
Anju Above, a farm-to-table eatery in Bloomington, is known for small plates with international influence. Its vibrant, buzzy atmosphere is the perfect setting for groups to try a variety of dishes, from Korean pork buns and sushi to pizza. Anju Above’s ingredients are sourced from Epiphany Farms, a 75-acre local fixture focused on regenerative farming and sustainable crops.