The spot for this Southern Illinois college town was chosen in the 1850s, between two proposed railroad stations.
Southern Illinois University (SIU) came a little later in 1870 and is key to Carbondale’s identity. The campus is on the southern edge of downtown and brings culture, museums, sports action and architectural splendor.
The architect and thinker Buckminster Fuller spent the 1960s working in Carbondale, and lived in a self-designed geodesic dome in the town.
On Carbondale’s outskirts are majestic expanses of nature at the Shawnee National Forest, while Southern Illinois has broken through as a wine region, with a number of wineries close to the town.
1. Downtown Carbondale
Threaded by Main Street, Carbondale has an expansive central commercial district for a town of this size.
Downtown Carbondale is perfectly walkable, and has lots of interesting things to see, from the Old Train Depot at the very center, to some 25 historic buildings dotted around the Historic Town Square.
This is the kind of downtown where local, independent businesses can thrive, and you can pass a lot of time perusing the area’s one-off stores for art, fashion, collectibles, board games, musical instruments, leather goods, bikes, skating gear, vintage clothes and sewing accessories.
Food-wise there’s a cosmopolitan choice, running to crêpes, pizza, Indian cuisine, Mexican, Italian, Thai, Chinese, American classics and hot dogs.
2. The University Museum
Coming up for its 150th anniversary, the sensational museum at the SIU campus is free and open to all.
The collection was begun in the 1870s and now comprises 70,000 objects, spanning the arts, humanities and the sciences.
The museum has a lively program of exhibits, with up to five taking place at any one time, dealing with anything from geology to local metalwork, Guatemalan textiles and Chinese calligraphy.
Our Region, an ongoing exhibit in the South Hall explores the nature and history of Southern Illinois, with fascinating artifacts uncovered at SIU digs.
The Lutes Gallery displays the marvellous collections of alumnus Carl W. Lutes, specializing in Renaissance sculpture, painting, furniture and tapestries.
3. Carbondale Farmers’ Market
A community of multigenerational farmers, artisans and producers converge at this well-attended farmers’ market where pretty much everything comes from Southern Illinois.
Held on Saturday mornings, the market has a summer location, at the Westown Centre, and then moves indoors at the University Mall (most recent location) for the winter season, from early December to late March.
The market is now well into its fifth decade and is a go-to for farm-fresh produce throughout the summer, but also eggs, honey, cheese, baked goods, pickles, salsas, diverse baked goods and unique gifts made by local craftspeople.
4. SIU Campus
Southern Illinois University will pique your interest with its museums, cultural venues and sports teams, but also warrants a walking tour thanks to its abundance of grand architecture.
A standout is the Renaissance Revival Altgeld Hall (1896). The second building constructed on the campus and the oldest still standing, Altgeld Hall was renovated in the 2010s and houses SIU’s School of Music.
Next door is Wheeler Hall (1904), the former library, now part of the School of Medicine. Other sights to take in are Allyn Hall (1908), Anthony Hall (1913), the Davies Gymnasium (1925) and the Byzantine Revival Shryock Auditorium (1918), containing a 3,312-pipe Reuter Organ.
A few of the important figures to talk at the auditorium include President Taft (1918), Vice-President Nixon (1956), Buckminster Fuller (1965).
5. Shawnee National Forest
Carbondale is on the edge of an immense area of conserved natural beauty, composed of 280,000 acres of federally managed lands incorporating the Ozark and Shawnee Hills.
As you can imagine, there’s an extraordinary variety of scenery at Shawnee National Forest, ranging from rugged bluffs and curious rock formations to rolling forest, creeks and lakes, all explored along more than 400 miles of hiking and equestrian trails.
Within these boundaries are either sizable wilderness areas, the closest being Panther Den, with its sheer cliffs, the wildlife-rich Clear Springs and neighboring Bald Knob, both rugged and remote.
Almost all of the Shawnee Hills American Viticulture Area is within the national forest, with varieties like Chambourcin, Chardonel, Riesling and Cabernet Franc flourishing in this region.
6. African American Museum
This compelling museum can be found at SIU’s University Mall. Founded in 1997, the African American Museum identifies, preserves and presents outstanding achievements in African American culture and history.
The collections feature hundreds of artifacts, many starkly portraying the reality of slavery, for instance, preserved auction notices and shackles purposely designed for women and children.
There are also works of sculpture, quilts, pieces of clothing, books and photographs, all displayed in rotating exhibitions.
7. R. Buckminster Fuller and Anne Hewlett Dome Home
The treasured architect, philosopher and systems theorist Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) worked at SIU throughout the 1960s and much of the 70s.
From 1960 to 1971 he resided at a self-designed house, at 407 S. Forest Ave with his wife Anne Hewlett.
This is the only house that Fuller ever owned, and is also the only geodesic dome, for which he was famous, that he actually lived in. During his time here, Fuller designed the famous Montreal Biosphere, wrote eleven books and was also awarded nine patents.
Restored in the 2000s, the property is an easy ten-minute walk from downtown Carbondale and is owned by a non-profit that gives tours and will eventually set up a historic house museum at the site.
8. Giant City State Park
Minutes south of Carbondale is a state park named for its wealth of awe-inspiring sandstone formations.
Giant City State Park is on 4,000 acres and its natural wonders can be experienced on numerous trails, like the Giant City Nature Trail, taking you to the Giant City Streets, walled by massive sheer bluffs.
The park’s formations are a big draw for rock climbers, with two designated areas at Devil’s Standtable and Shelter One.
For more details on the park’s geology, as well as its animals, plants and interesting Native American past, you can check out interpretive displays at the visitor center.
The impressive lodge at the park was a Civilian Conservation Corps project in the mid-1930s and contains a restaurant and gift shop.
9. Evergreen Park
On the south side of the SIU campus is a beloved park by Carbondale Reservoir. This municipal water supply reservoir was constructed in 1926 and covers 135 acres.
Evergreen Park is somewhere to bask in the beauty of the scenery, with picnic tables, shelters, BBQ grills and children’s play equipment next to the access roads/parking lots and lots of tall old trees bring plenty of shade to the park’s green spaces in summer.
There’s a boat launch at the park, and fishing is a popular activity, with largemouth bass, crappie and channel catfish recorded here in recent surveys.
10. McLeod Theater
This wonderful SIU performing arts venue hosts musicals and plays produced by students and professional companies.
So if you’re up for live entertainment at an affordable price, you’ve got a great option a short way from downtown Carbondale.
The McLeod Theater seats 521 on two tiers, and regularly modernizes its stage technology and lighting.
In the summer months the SIU Department of Theater’s professional arm, the McLeod Summer Playhouses, puts on a season of four productions over six weeks.
11. Banterra Center (SIU Arena)
SIU’s sports facilities are on “Saluki Way” on the southeast side of the campus, where you’ll find a cluster of complexes and arenas like the 15,000-seater Saluki Stadium, unveiled in 2010.
This is next door to the Modernist Banterra Center, completed in 1964 at a cost of $4.3 million ($35+ million in today’s money).
In the 70s and 80s a slew of important music artists, including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Peter Gabriel performed at this venue, while it was here in 2010 that rapper Drake gave the first live show of his career.
The arena has a capacity of 8,339 for the Southern Illinois Salukis basketball teams. The men’s team competes in NCAA Division I, qualifying for the Sweet Sixteen most recently in 2007 and producing nine NBA players in its history.
12. Boo Rochman Memorial Park
This privately owned park on 3.5 acres southeast of Carbondale is open to the public and has a sad but inspiring backstory.
Opened in 2000, Boo Rochman Memorial Park is a touching tribute to Jeremy “Boo” Rochman, who died at the age of 19 in a car accident around 300 yards from the park’s location.
Rochman was a fan of Dungeons & Dragons, and the Memorial Park, funded by a legal settlement and donations, has a beautifully realized fantasy theme.
Impeccably maintained, there’s a realistic stone and wood castle for kids to explore, complete with a throne room, as well as climbable statues of dragons and figures like knights, a wizard and fairy.
13. Super Splash Park
Summers are a little more fun in Carbondale thanks to this public water park run by the city’s park district.
Super Splash Park is geared towards swimmers who want some exercise as much as families with energetic children.
There’s an eight-lane lap pool with a diving board, as well as a leisure pool with beach entry, a lazy river, a water slide and interactive spray equipment for smaller kids.
This is all complemented by amenities like a party pavilion, a large deck with shaded areas and a concession stand.
14. The Science Center of Southern Illinois (TSC)
University Mall is also home to this hands-on children’s museum packed with engaging exhibits for ages 3-13, and also offering an exciting lineup of programs.
TSC is always increasing and upgrading its huge assortment of exhibits. When we wrote this article some of the highlights were a 3D real-time topographical sandbox, a Fuller-inspired geodesic dome climbing structure, a whimsical musical area, an earthquake table and a 10-foot Lariat chain kinetic sculpture.
These are combined with creatively designed stations where children can discover and explore fields and concepts like wind energy, probabilities, paleontology and engineering.
15. Monte Alegre Vineyard & Cellars
Carbondale is on the northwestern fringe of the Shawnee Hills AVA, but there are plenty of wineries/vineyards in the vicinity.
The most convenient has to be Monte Alegre, just off E Main St, less than ten minutes from downtown.
Once a farm for horse breeding and training, the property became a commercial vineyard in the 90s, primarily growing Chambourcin and Vidal Blanc, and later Chardonel, Seyval Blanc, Sangiovese and Cabernet Franc among others.
At Monte Alegre you can taste and purchase wines from grapes grown, hand-picked at this vineyard and aged in the cellars. In a bucolic setting there’s a choice of varietal wines and blends, as well as fresh grape juice during the harvest season, July through October.