The county seat of Boone County, Belvidere took shape in the 1830s as a stop on the stagecoach line between Chicago and Galena, passing through on the north side of the river.
Later the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad arrived on the south side of the river, relocating much of Belvidere’s commerce and industry to the south bank.
Both sides are linked by State Street, which has plentiful 19th-century Italianate architecture to appreciate.
The river was also important to the city’s fortunes and today is lined with pretty waterfront parks and interesting hints of 19th-century industry.
1. Boone County Museum of History
The Boone Historical Society dates back to 1936 and found a permanent home in the 1960s when it set up a museum in the Gas & Electric building on Whitney Boulevard.
The collection continued to grow over time, and the museum was given an expansion in 2013 when it annexed the old Blackhawk Bank building next door.
The museum has recently made a name for its engaging, interactive exhibits, dealing with topics like WWI, 1969 Miss America and public fitness advocate Judi Ford and the history of farming in Boone County.
Many fascinating objects are on permanent display, such as vintage cars, carriages, Civil War memorabilia, musical instruments and artifacts relating to manufacturing and farming in Boone County.
2. Summerfield Farm & Zoo
Out in the countryside just south of Belvidere is a zoo that was set up on a farm in 1990 and is open on weekends.
A lot of the residents at Summerfield Farm & Zoo are exotic pets rescued from the Northern Illinois Area.
You’ll come across many surprising animals, among them monkeys, lemurs, alligators, reindeer, giant tortoises, zebras, sloths, fennec foxes and mountain lions.
The farm has also raised magnificent Arabian horses for more than four decades. Children will be thrilled with the petting zoo, and depending on when you come you can even bottle-feed kid goats.
Check the website for regular animal shows for a closer look at certain species and their diet and habits.
3. Poplar Grove Vintage Wings & Wheels Museum
Established in 1972, Poplar Grove Airport is a couple of miles north of Belvidere and is bordered by Bel Air Estates, a unique residential fly-in community made up of 140 homes.
Also here is the 12-acre campus for an aviation and transport museum dedicated to the pre-WWII era, showing off an assortment of relocated structures saved from demolition.
Among these are hangars, a beacon light, a gas station and a garage, all giving compelling glimpses of how people got around in the first decades of the 20h century.
The centerpiece is the Art Deco Waukesha Hangar, dating to 1937 and serving as the main museum building, with aircraft, road vehicles and a wealth of memorabilia on show, both inside and outside.
4. Belvidere Park
A treat to discover on foot. Belvidere’s favorite park is on both banks of the Kishwaukee River.
At the east end is the Belvidere Dam, and an old millrace to the north runs parallel to the river, dividing the park into three distinct areas, all beautifully maintained and connected by bridges.
On the north side is the William Grady Pool, an outdoor 25-meter lap pool accompanied by a playground and wading pool for smaller children.
Another highlight is the Baltic Mill, a former gristmill constructed in 1845 and once powered by the millrace. It is now used for events and performances in summer.
Belvidere Park has recreation opportunities for baseball, tennis, fishing, basketball, sand volleyball, disc golf, soccer and climbing, while there are four picnic shelters at the park available for rental.
5. State Street
Nearly all of downtown Belvidere’s restaurants, shops and services are on or near this historic artery. State Street has two historic districts, to the north and south and divided by the Kishwaukee River.
Both abound with fine old architecture, going back to the decades following the arrival of the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad in the 1850s.
More than half of the buildings across both districts date from the 19th century and are in the Italianate style.
To the south, Belvidere City Hall is in the International Style, and the Old Belvidere High School building is the only example of Prairie School design.
There’s a diversity of restaurants along State Street and you can choose from sushi, subs, pizza, burgers, bakeries, a couple of ice cream parlors and a lineup of Mexican restaurants and taquerias.
6. Apollo Theatre AC
One attention-grabbing sight in downtown Belvidere is this historic theater, right where State Street crosses the river.
With a Chicago School design, the Apollo opened in 1921 as a movie theater and also the headquarters for a radio station.
As the 20th century progressed the theater faced some ups and downs, especially the 1970s when it switched to X-rated films. Still in good condition, the Apollo is a banquet hall and one of the area’s premier live music venues for metal and hard rock.
A long list of well-known bands and artists have hit the stage here, from Starset to Puddle of Mudd, 36 Crazyfists, As I Lay Dying and Combichrist.
7. Doty Park
This lovely riverside park can be reached on foot from downtown Belvidere. Starting at Main Street, the Kishwaukee Riverfront Path passes through Doty Park, crossing the river on a footbridge before continuing towards Belvidere Park and Spencer Conservation Area.
One popular summer feature for families is the Doty Park Sprayground, open 11 am to 8 pm throughout the season, with 13 different interactive water features for hours of creative fun.
The park also has lots of open green space, a regular playground, a shelter and an ice arena, which we’ll talk about next.
8. Riverside Ice Arena
A Belvidere Park District facility, this outdoor NHL regulation ice rink arrived at Doty Park in 2015 and opens for the season around Thanksgiving.
The Riverside Ice Arena offers public skate sessions, competitive hockey tournaments, casual stick & puck, as well as skating and hockey lessons.
Beside the rink is the AJ Johnson Warming House, where you can rent skates or have your pair sharpened.
The store here sells a variety of other skating and hockey merchandise, as well as much-needed hot drinks.
9. Boone County Fair
The Boone County Fairgrounds are on the northern edge of Belvidere, and are the scene for six days of action and entertainment in mid-August.
Boone County Fair attracts upwards of 200,000 people from the area, and many of the commercial vendors have attended the fair for decades.
The event is organized to appeal to as many people as possible, with midway rides, live entertainment, events like the crowning of Miss Boone County, tons of 4H/agricultural exhibits, tractor pulls, dog shows and much more.
And of course, fair food is always part of the experience, whether you’re tempted by roasted sweet corn, funnel cake, elephant ears or nachos.
10. Spencer Conservation Area
The Kishwaukee Riverfront Path continues through this 350-acre open space, encompassing around half a mile of the riverbank.
Due to its riverside setting this patch of land has seen human activity for thousands of years, and was the site of a Native American campsite. Much more recently this spot was home to the Boone County Fairgrounds for several decades.
Willows, silver maples and sycamores line the riverbank, and just above the floodplain is savanna forest with hickory, hackberry and red and white oak.
The conservation area also features a wetland on a former stretch of river, attracting waterfowl and wading birds.
As a holdover from the defunct Autumn Pioneer Festival, you’ll find a set of relocated historic buildings on this land, including two 19th-century burr oak cabins, a schoolhouse and blacksmith shop.
Belvidere is in the orbit of the largest city in Illinois, outside of Chicago, and there are lots of reasons to keep Rockford in mind.
The city has an inviting blend of history, sumptuous architecture, natural beauty and world-class art.
Families can marvel at the dinosaur skeletons at the Burpee Museum of Natural History, or learn through interactivity at the Discovery Center Museum.
Rockport is beautiful outside in spring and summer, with attractions like Anderson Japanese Gardens and Rock Cut State Park, just a few short miles from downtown.
There’s also a feast of culture in the city, from Frank Lloyd Wright’s sublime Laurent House to the vibrant Coronado Performing Arts Center and the Rockford Art Museum, with pieces by the likes of Dale Chihuly in its collection.
12. Six Flags Hurricane Harbor Rockford
A short hop from downtown Belvidere, this water park is owned by the Rockford Park District but run by the Six Flags brand.
The park has been around since 1984 and adds new attractions every few seasons. One recent addition is Tidal Wave, the only tailspin water slide in the Midwest.
Also recent are Wipeout, a thrilling trapdoor slide, and the 75-foot Double Dare Drop.
Hurricane Harbor has three pools, including the 707,000-gallon wave pool, Tsunami Bay, and a choice of seven eateries whether you’re in the mood for tacos, pizza, funnel cakes, Italian beef, pretzels, churros or Dippin Dots.
13. Valley Orchard
The Rockford area has a handful of family-owned fruit farms, welcoming the public in summer and fall for U-Pick or freshly picked fruit at the farm stand.
The closest to Belvidere is Valley Orchard in Cherry Valley, growing more than 5,000 apple trees on 35 acres.
The farm produces blueberries, plums, blackberries and raspberries, sold by the pint, and apples by the peck or half-peck.
The farm store also sells freshly pressed apple cider, apple cider donuts, taffy apples, apple pies, as well as decorations and a selection of salsas, jellies, jams, gourds, pumpkins and squashes.
You can also take a tour of the orchard with a wagon ride, and children can navigate the maze and play in the straw pile.
14. Blackhawk Springs Forest Preserve
Not far downriver from Belvidere, the Kishwaukee and its south branch flows through a chain of Winnebago County Forest Preserves.
There are up to ten preserves here, all hugging the banks and merging into one large area of dense woodland, restored prairie and riparian habitats.
Several boat launches are dotted along the river, and the Kishwaukee River is safe for a picturesque canoe, kayak or tubing trip.
The largest and most accessible of these natural spaces is the 630-acre Blackhawk Springs Forest Preserve, with paved and dirt trails for hiking and biking.
For a real adventure you can take the 9.2-mile loop that enters the neighboring Oak Ridge Forest Preserve.
15. Edwards Apple Orchard
There’s another orchard close by that welcomes you to pick your own produce every fall. Around ten minutes to the north in Poplar Grove, Edwards Apple Orchard is family run since 1964 and now into its fourth generation.
September through November you can visit this bucolic place to pick apples, pumpkins (late September onwards) and raspberries.
The farm grows more than 25 apple varieties, from Premier Honeycrisp, ready at the start of the season, to Evercrisp, ripe in late October. Eleven of these are available for U-Pick, and there’s a schedule on the website telling you when each variety is ready.
The remainder are all sold at the century-old Apple Barn, along with treats like apple cider donuts, raspberry salsa and salted caramels.