Fifteen minutes from downtown St. Louis, and with three Metrolink stations, Belleville is the most populous city in southern Illinois.
Belleville came to prominence at the end of the 19th century as a manufacturing hub, and the Labor & Industry Museum charts that intriguing period.
One of several things that will strike you about this city is the exceptional downtown area, couched in a large historic district with heritage architecture, plenty of independent stores and all kinds of dining and entertainment options.
On Belleville’s east side is Scott Air Force Base, which has been around since 1917 and is the HQ for one of the 11 unified combatant commands of the Department of Defense.
1. Downtown Belleville
Part of the largest historic district in Illinois, downtown Belleville remains an exciting place to live, shop, work, hang out and be entertained.
In that canyon of elegant brick buildings on Main Street are numerous local, one-off businesses. You can browse specialty food stores, jewelers, collectibles shops, florists, bakeries, fashion boutiques, a tea room and shops with unique handmade gifts.
Among these businesses are eateries for a wealth of cuisines, including Mexican, sushi, American classics, contemporary American, pizza and Chinese.
A linchpin downtown is the historic Lincoln theatre, which we’ll talk about below, while the Public Square at the west end is the setting for a ton of events year round.
2. Belleville Public Square
Standing at this grand square, enclosed by imposing St. Clair County buildings, Belleville will give the impression of a large urban center.
The Public Square has been the city’s focal point since 1814 when one George Blair donated an acre of his land for a town square.
A dynamic calendar of markets, festivals, parades and concerts are held at this spot every year, a couple of which will feature later in this list (Art on the Square, Christkindlmarkt).
These take place in the corners, which have neat landscaping, trees, public art and interesting little monuments like the “Curt Time” clock.
At the center, surrounded by flagpoles, is the Veterans Memorial Fountain, first installed in 1937 and owing its current appearance to a restoration in the 1980s.
3. Lincoln Theatre
This exquisite movie theatre has been entertaining Belleville’s residents for more than a century.
The Lincoln Theatre opened in 1921 as a vaudeville stage and movie house, and the likes of Ginger Rogers and the Marx Brothers trod these boards in that first decade.
Easily spotted for its swish vertical marquee, the building was painstakingly restored across two decades from 1980 to 2000.
One of the finishing touches was the return of the auditorium’s pipe organ, and an organist continues to play before shows on Friday and Saturday nights.
The Lincoln Theatre screens first run releases, but also hosts concerts by the Belleville Philharmonic, as well as children’s theater and all kinds of other live entertainment.
4. Scott Field Heritage Air Park
Next door to Belleville is one of the oldest continually operating Air Force bases in the country. The Scott Air Force Base was one of the 32 Air Service training camps set up in 1917 when the United States entered World War I.
Now the base is the headquarters for Air Mobility Command and United States Transportation Command.
At the Heritage Air Park you can find out the story of these commands, as well as the base’s airlift, aeromedical evacuation and air refueling missions.
Two of the stalwarts of the Air Mobility Command are on show, in the C-141 Starlifter and the KC-135 Stratotanker, as well as the C-9 Nightingale, the United States’ only aircraft devoted to aeromedical evacuation. There are six aircraft in all, encircled by paths for 360° views.
5. Labor & Industry Museum
The only public museum of its kind in Southwestern Illinois, the Labor & Industry Museum chronicles this area’s fascinating industrial heritage and the story of its workforce.
In the late 19th century Belleville was a key industrial center for Illinois, which ranked third in the country for heavy industry at the time.
The venue for the museum is the remarkable Conrad Bornman house (1837), and within are enthralling exhibits detailing the area’s cast-iron stove, brewing, brick, glass and pattern-making industries.
The Union Hall has a reference library of books and documents dedicated to the struggles of working men and women and the establishment of the American middle class.
6. The Edge
This entertainment center in Belleville has a world of attractions for all the family. The headline at The Edge has to be the multi-story laser tag arena, which is claimed to be the largest in the world, at more than 14,000 square feet.
There’s a capacity for up to 60 players and a variety of game formats to choose from. But on top of this you’ve got a karting track, bowling lanes, bumper cars, virtual reality games and the latest arcade machines.
We’re not done there though, because The Edge also features a family-friendly sports pub with 45 flatscreen TVs and a five-screen movie theater with in-seat service and luxury recliners.
7. St. Clair County Historical Society
This organization looks after several interesting sites around Belleville. The foremost of these, and the HQ for the St. Clair County Historical Society is the Victorian Home, a fine townhouse constructed in 1866 for the local businessman Morris Dobschutz.
The Victorian Home is preserved as a house museum, giving you an insight into a life for a wealthy Belleville family in the 19th century, as you tour the dining room, parlor, library, child’s bedroom, master bedroom and a fascinating exhibition space with rotating displays about St. Clair County.
8. Skyview Drive-In
The sort of amenity that has slowly disappeared from American life, the Skyview Drive-In is the only drive-in theater in the St Louis area.
This spot opened in 1949 and during its mid-20th century heyday had what is thought to have been the largest screen in the Midwest, at 115 feet.
In those times the Skyview was almost like a mini amusement park, with a Ferris wheel, miniature train and pony rides.
The season runs from April to November and at the time of writing there were two screens and a snack stand.
9. National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows
One of the largest outdoor shrines in the United States sits just to the northwest of Belleville.
Venerated by more than a million Catholic worshippers each year, the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows is dedicated to the Basilica of St Mary Major in Rome and is administered by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
On 200 landscaped acres are picturesque gardens, an expansive outdoor amphitheater, the Stations of the Cross, a faithful replica of the Lourdes Grotto, the landmark Millennium Spire, a visitor and conference center, a hotel, apartment complex and restaurant.
10. Braeutigam Orchards
On Belleville’s southeastern outskirts is a fruit farm that has been in the Braeutigam family since 1831.
In 1935, Rollin Braeutigam turned his hand to the fruit business, doing a roaring trade selling tree-ripened peaches from the farm’s stand despite being a whole mile from the nearest main road.
June through October Braeutigam Orchards sells farm-fresh fruit and vegetables, from apricots in early summer to pumpkins in fall. There are more than ten peach varieties and as many as 14 different types of apples available.
For families, Grampa Lester’s Farmyard Village is a summer mainstay, while the Pumpkin Festival is a highlight of the fall season, with cider, hayrides, gourds, fall decor and apple cider donuts.
11. Art on the Square
The weekend after Mother’s Day in May there’s a hugely popular fine arts fair at Public Square downtown.
Art on the Square is a juried competition displaying and appraising the work of more than 100 artists each year.
Running since 2002, the fair generates more than $120,000 in sales each year, and awards thousands of dollars in prizes for categories like Best of Show, Best of Category and excellence awards.
Some 75,000 art lovers turn up each year to admire the work in categories as varied as glass art, painting and ceramics, and to sample delicious local food and drink, as well as high-quality live entertainment.
For youngsters there’s the Children’s Art Garden where littler artists can create their own masterpieces to take home.
12. Old Town Farmers’ Market
Just off Main Street in downtown Belleville there’s a superb seasonal open-air market on Saturday mornings, May through October.
The Old Town Farmers’ Market is now well into its third decade, and is a fine way to support local businesses, shopping for fruit, vegetables, herbs, plants, baked goods, honey, jellies, pet supplies, handmade arts and crafts and a lot more besides.
And on top of all that you can chat with the producers to find out about things like preparation, storage and recipes. Most weekends there will also be live music to entertain you while you shop.
Growing by the year, this traditional German-style Christmas market lights up the Public Square in downtown Belleville from late November to December 23.
Special Christmas markets have been held in Germany for centuries, and while Belleville’s only dates back to 2014 it has been a big success.
Come for handmade gifts and decorations, as well as classic German festive treats like Glühwein (mulled wine) and gingerbread.
The market has a truly international array of vendors, from as far afield as Nepal and Russia, all bringing a little magic to the holidays.
14. Orchards Golf Course
Right next to Braeutigam Orchards is a public 18-hole championship golf course that was laid out in 1991.
The course architect was none other than Masters (1968) winner Bob Goaldby, who was born right here in Belleville in 1929.
Something remarkable about the course is its variety, with no two holes the same, while there are six sets of tees for all ability levels.
The course is complemented by a driving range, with zoysia grass tees on two of its levels, along with a practice bunker and green.
15. Eckert’s Country Store & Farms
Eckert’s is a PYO fruit and country store brand based mainly in Illinois, but with locations as far afield as Versailles, Kentucky.
Unlike many farm stands the Belleville location it is open all year and has a varying selection of fruit, vegetables and other crops to pick between May and December.
The season begins with strawberries in early summer and culminates with Christmas trees in the holiday season.
You can head to the country store for fresh meats, delectable baked goods, produce from the farm, handmade condiments and unique gifts, while there’s a full-service restaurant famed for its fabulous fried chicken.
Come by for frozen custard in summer, or for one of the many popular seasonal events throughout the year, from Breakfast with Santa to “Easter Egg-citement”.