According to the most recent census, Chicago makes up about a quarter of the population of Illinois. That’s a big city with a big draw. But the majority of the state is made up of cornfields, suburbs, rolling plains, and tight knit communities. And these are just as worthy of being high on your bucket-list.
I’m an Illinois local (born and raised) and have explored all that the state has to offer. The American Midwest is on full display in this list I created of the 15 best small towns to visit in Illinois:
Consistently ranked as one of the best places to visit in the American Midwest, Galena is a big draw for honeymooners, foodies, and city dwellers who need a little rest and relaxation. It used to be a mining community and now is one of the top two tourism stops in Illinois. Just about 3,500 people call Galena home and they know first-hand that there is plenty to do.
Visit the former home of U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, spend an afternoon at one of ten nearby golf courses, or maybe a full day at one of the two wineries in town. On the Galena River you can boat, canoe, or kayak, and just 13 miles from town flows the mighty Mississippi. If you really want to get out in nature I suggest you visit Apple River Canyon State Park and enjoy camping and fishing in the heart of the parks striking limestone cliffs. If you’re visiting in June, be sure to check out the annual Great Galena Balloon Race.
Elmhurst’s most popular resident is undoubtedly Carl Sandburg, a Chicago poet who brought a lot of positive attention to the city and the state. I recommenda visit to Elmhurst Historical Museum to view some of the poets’ archives.
The town was founded in the 19th century and attracts a large number of artists – and their wealthy patrons. Elmhurst College has a reputation as a progressive liberal arts school, and the reputation spills over into town. If you’re looking for a sleepy town to get lost in, or maybe start the next great American novel, give Elmhurst a try.
This is small town at its best. Shaped by the rolling praires that surround it, Galesburg is a step back in time. No matter your age you’ll feel nostalgia and the beauty to be found in simple living when you visit. For most of its history, it has been a railway centre for Illinois.
If you’re travelling with a family, you’ll love the Galesburg Railroad Museum and the Discovery Depot Children’s Museum. The railway has shaped the town and you can see the influence today. Visit Lake Storey Recreational Area for swimming and picnicking in the summer, and in winter try ice skating and cross country skiing. Each August there is a Civil War re-enactment during Heritage Days.
Further reading: 22 Amazing Hidden Gems in Illinois
If you’re into interesting history, it doesn’t get better than Nauvoo. In the 1840’s it was home to the Mormon Church, when they sought refuge and a plot of land to live undisturbed by the United States government. It was here that founder Joseph Smith was killed by an angry mob – an event that led to the migration of the church to present day Utah.
There are more than 60 restored historic buildings in Nauvoo including the Browning Home and Gunsmith Shop, several museums, the former home of Brigham Young, a working blacksmith shop, and a downtown area where you watch candle making, bread making, and a variety of other pioneer demonstrations.
5. Arlington Heights
The City of Good Neighbors is an historically agricultural town. Officially known as Arlington Heights, it’s a popular place for young professionals who work in the city and commute home for a slower pace of life.
It’s also a family friendly place – be sure to check out Kids Adventure Hunts which lets parents and children explore the downtown area by following clues and taking pictures of their discoveries. For nightlife, try the Metropolis Performing Arts Center which produces both theater and musical performance.
6. Mount Carroll
Just ten miles from the Mississippi River is Mount Carrol. Though firmly a Midwestern town, it’s often referred to as “the New England of the Midwest,’ thanks to its distinctive architecture. The perfect place for walking or biking, it’s everything you want a small town to be.
They’ve got an active community playhouse, a wildly popular bowling alley, a historic (and beautiful) grain mill on the Wakarusa River, and a strong arts and music scene. What’s incredible about Mount Carroll is that it looks basically the same as it did 50 years ago. Enjoy the eclectic atmosphere, fantastic coffee shops, and great local food during your visit.
The best places for intriguing shopping are the Amish towns of Arthur and Arcola. Send heirloom and handmade gifts home from your trip through Amish country, and you’re sure to be a hit. The appeal of these towns is a simpler way of life. Here, horse drawn buggies share the road with cars, the food is hearty, and tradition is everything.
Check out the Amish own coffee shop, followed by the Amish bakery, and then take a visit out to see the popular quilt shows at Rockome Gardens. There’s always a festival in Arcola – see if you can time your visit to attend the Horse Progress days, the Raggedy Ann Festival, the Amish Country Bicycle Tour, or Oktoberfest. Be sure to take home some Amish fudge. You won’t be sorry.
Read more: 15 Best Weekend Getaways in Illinois
The heritage of Fulton comes from the Dutch, and the influence is evident all over town. Each May the town hosts the Dutch Days festival and they are home to one of the only authentic Dutch windmills in the United States. It was manufactured in the Netherlands and then shipped to Fulton in 2000.
Quaint is the perfect word for Fulton, but then, so are charming and idyllic. You can see what pioneer living was like when you visit Heritage Canyon, see the history of the area at Martin House Museum, and check out everything else the town has on offer – Andresen Nature Centre, the historic downtown, two gorgeous national scenic by-ways, and the Great River Bike Trail.
9. Bishop Hill
It seems Illinois has a history of attracting large groups looking for freedom of some kind. Nauvoo attracted both the Mormons and then later a group of French communists, and Bishop Hill attracted a group of Swedes hoping to form a utopian society under the guidance of Erik Jansson.
The city was added to the National Register of Historic Places in the 1970’s and the town is home to artists, craftsmen, galleries, boutiques, and good restaurants. This country village is an ideal place to enjoy a mix of the old and the new. Check out the Midsummer Music Festival if you’re travelling in June.
Greenville is one of the oldest communities in Illinois, and they take their heritage seriously. Downtown is old-fashioned and unique. Local artists have made murals around town as part of a restoration project. There’s a large stone memorial that marks the exact spot where both Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln made speeches while they were running for president in 1858.
If you want a little more history, be sure to visit the American Farm Heritage Museum and Hills Fort, aimed at preserving agricultural history. Now, Greenville is a college town filled with festivals. Here you can find the Graffiti Car Show, the county fair, the World Powered Parachute Championships, and the Agape Music Festival – point of town pride for almost 40 years.
Read next: 15 Amazing Waterfalls in Illinois
11. Alto Pass/Jonesboro
Ranked on the list of 100 Best Small Town Getaways are Alto Pass and Jonesboro. Topping of the list of fabulous attractions are top notch outdoor activities, great wineries, and agri-tourism. The orchards there are famous for peaches and apples. Nearby is Shawnee National Forest and many huntsmen come here in season for turkey, goose, and bear hunting.
There’s also rare bird watching available and an annual rattlesnake migration – which isn’t so much something you want to go and watch, but rather something to be fascinated by. If you want more outdoor activities there’s Giant City State Park, the Trail of Tears State Forest, the Ozark Hills, and Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge. Recently several wineries have joined forces to create the Shawnee Hill Wine Trail, which I would recommend having a look at.
If you’re a fan of American movies, you might recognize Woodstock from movies like Planes, Trains and Automobiles as well as Groundhog Day. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was named a “Preserve America Community” by the White House. There is great shopping alongside a nostalgic and yet buzzing atmosphere.
Spend the day walking about town and soaking up the relaxation. They’ve got phenomenal hand-crafted pottery, leather goods, handmade jewellery, fine art, antiques, and more. The restaurants are eclectic and sure to leave you talking. At Christmastime come for Woodstock’s Victorian Christmas celebration complete with horse drawn carriages and carollers in period dress walking the streets.
Almost impossible to find, Elsah is tucked away in a ravine, surrounded by thick woods. On either side of the ravine are large bluffs with a view down to the Mississippi River. Simply put, it’s gorgeous. And because of its location, it has remained a small town, been able to maintain most of its historic charm, and become known as an amazing place to observe the American Bald Eagle.
Native Americans once settled here and geologist love to study the pre-historic rock formations nearby. It’s really a rather dramatic oasis in the midst of the flat Midwestern plans. Stroll tree shaded streets and enjoy the towns architecture and beauty.
Elmhurst is known as a fantastic place to receive a public liberal arts education. Nearby Wheaton is known as a more conservative and traditional college town. Proud of its traditions and community covenant, the atmosphere here isn’t like your typical college town. The community enjoys the Wheaton French Market that has a decidedly European feeling as opposed to Americana.
The civic pride is on full display during the Prairie Path Clean-up, when the entire town gathers to take care of a 61-mile stretch of highway through town. Free outdoor concerts, summer vintage car shows, and the Wine and Cultural Arts Festival, make Wheaton a small town cultural mecca.
The area now known as the Village of Bartlett was once a settlement for Potawatomi, Ottawa, Miami, and Cherokee tribes. Over the centuries, it’s also been claimed by the French, the English, and the Spanish. But it was a wealthy benefactor named Luther Bartlett who brought the railroad in and made modern day Bartlett what it is.
You can check out the 19th century Bartlett Depot Museum at the original railroad station. Locals love baseball and the town has the distinction of having the largest Little League program in the country.