The home of Eastern Illinois University (EIU), Charleston is a city of around 20,000 with a beautiful downtown area filled with historic architecture, restaurants and mom-and-pop stores.
Charleston has strong ties to Abraham Lincoln, as the scene of his fourth debate with Stephen Douglas in 1858.
Much earlier, in 1831, Abraham’s father Thomas had settled near Charleston with his second wife Sarah Bush Lincoln. You can visit the site of their log cabin, and see their final resting place close by in Shiloh.
On the south side of town, EIU elevates Charleston’s arts scene with the Tarble Arts Center and Doudna Fine Arts Center, and offers top-quality sports action at O’Brien Field.
1. Downtown Charleston
The mainstay in downtown Charleston is the magnificent Coles County Courthouse, built in the Richardsonian Romanesque style in 1898.
Composed of rusticated local brownstone from the Embarras River, this has paler, dressed Bedford limestone for its window fittings and other architectural details.
Surrounding this historic square are handsome blocks dating from the late 19th century and early 20th century.
These have a wealth of independent businesses, with a butcher, secondhand bookshop, grocer, embroidery shop, game shop, costume shop and more.
You’ve also got a diversity of restaurants, bars and cafes, whether you’re in the mood for pizza, Thai, Chinese, freshly roasted coffee, pub grub and American comfort food.
Off the square’s northeast corner is the Art Deco Will Rogers Theatre and Commercial Block (1935-1938), awaiting restoration at the time of writing.
2. Lincoln-Douglas Debate Museum
On October 7, 1858 Charleston witnessed the fourth in a series of seven public debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas (incumbent) in the United States Senate race.
The subject of these debates was whether slavery would be permitted in the new states in territory acquired by the Lousiana Purchase in 1803.
The debates had a seismic impact on the future of the country, paving the way for a fracture in the Democratic Party, Lincoln’s run for president and the ensuing Civil War.
Now on that very site is the Lincoln-Douglas Debate Museum interpreting the debate, complete with artifacts, photos and modern audio, footage, lifesize statues of both men and a children’s area.
3. Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site
Ten minutes south of downtown Charleston is the place where Abraham Lincoln’s father, Thomas (1778-1851) settled with his second wife, Sarah (Abraham’s step-mother) in 1831.
Up to this time Thomas, who was illiterate, had led an itinerant life, working as a farmer and carpenter. Abraham never lived at this location, having chosen to leave the house the year before to start his own life at the age of 21.
Abraham visited occasionally, and maintained the farm for Sarah (1788-1869) after his father’s death. The original log cabin was dismantled and moved to Chicago for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 before being lost.
Fortunately, there were extensive photographic records, and these were used by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s to construct an exact replica.
The cabin and surrounding property appears as it would have done in the 1840s, with outbuildings, livestock, orchards, cornfields and gardens.
4. Tarble Arts Center
One of a few reasons to keep the EIU campus in mind, the Tarble Arts Center is a superb contemporary art museum with a permanent collection of more than 1,000 pieces, around half of which is devoted to Illinois folk arts from the late 20th century.
There’s always something interesting to see, and major exhibitions in the last few years have featured artists like Sue de Beer, Jiha Moon, Yoshitoshi and Federico Solmi to name a few.
There are also long-running shows for graduates, a faculty biennial on odd years and a much-loved annual children’s art exhibition.
The museum’s programs include music, dance and spoken-word performances, talks by important speakers and all kinds of workshops.
5. Doudna Fine Arts Center
The Eastern Illinois University campus is endowed with some impressive buildings, standing for a century or more, like the Gothic Revival Old Main (1899) and Pemberton Hall (1909).
A striking modern addition is the Doudna Fine Arts Center, designed by noted international architect Antoine Predock and opened in 2007.
The Doudna Fine Arts Center is a hive of creative activity, containing concert halls, theatres, studios, lecture halls, classrooms, rehearsal rooms and convivial spaces for students like the Red Zone, between the Music and Art wings.
You can visit for a first-class music, dance or theatre performance, as well as art exhibitions, by groups and individuals from both inside and outside the university. If you’d like a look around, you can take a self-guided tour or request a 45-minute guided tour by appointment.
6. Lake Charleston
The water supply for Charleston and EIU comes from a reservoir on the Embarras River, impounded in 1947.
Wrapped in dense forest, Lake Charleston is very scenic, and has an extensive system of trails surrounding the water on all sides. On the lake’s western and southern shores, these pass through the city parks, Lakeview Park, Woodyard Park and Spillway Park, all offering parking, picnic areas and sensational views.
One special location at the lake’s southern tip is the Alex Russell Memorial Fishing Pier, with a gazebo behind, surrounded by gardens. Species regularly caught at Lake Charleston include largemouth bass, channel catfish and white crappie.
7. Amish Country of Illinois
There are plenty of interesting places to check out within a short drive of Charleston. To the northwest are the towns of Arcola and Arthur, and in this area you’ll find the largest community of Old Order Amish in Illinois.
Living simple lives, a lot of these are farmers, working the land with horse-drawn equipment, while a portion of local Amish are highly skilled furniture and cabinet makers, and you can visit to purchase a beautiful handmade piece for your home.
Start at Arcola’s Historic Depot which has a directory of Amish owned businesses in the area.
8. Douglas-Hart Nature Center
Three native Illinois habitats have been preserved for visitors at this 70-acre space just west of Charleston.
These are tall grass prairie, wetlands and woodlands made up of native coniferous and deciduous tree species.
You can experience the Douglas-Hart Nature Center on two miles of accessible, mapped trails, leading through each habitat.
For a little more context there’s a visitor center with a bird observation area, interactive exhibits about local ecosystems and live animal exhibits for reptiles and amphibians.
There’s plenty for kids to get up to, and the center is brimming with programs, from nature walks to fireside chats and talks by naturalists.
9. O’Brien Field
Another benefit of having a university on the doorstep is the chance to enjoy some NCAA sports action, courtesy of the Panthers.
The 10,000-capacity O’Brien Field first opened in 1970 and was given a renovation in 1999, with a high-end scoreboard installed in 2009. The stadium is used by EIU’s football and track and field teams.
The football team has made 16 playoff appearances since 1982, and claimed 19 conference titles going back to 1912.
Six tournament playoff games have been held at O’Brien field since 1970, and the Illinois High School Association’s annual track and field meet welcomes 5,000 competitors and more than 15,000 spectators.
10. Fox Ridge State Park
While the landscapes around Charleston are mostly dominated by flat prairieland, there’s a parcel of rolling hills, lush valleys and wooded bluffs on the banks of the Embarras River to the south of the city.
Fox Ridge State is more than 2,000 acres, with picnic areas throughout, as well as shelters, a pavilion, over 40 campsites and two rustic cabins.
The park has been a treasured hiking destination for decades, with an eight-mile trail system made up of 18 separate or connected trails.
A favorite spot is the Eagle’s Nest, where a bluff-top deck can be reached via 144 steps for magnificent views.
The park is a year-round attraction, with stunning wildflowers in spring, lush vegetation in summer, spectacular colors in fall and clear views for miles through the trees in winter.
11. McFarland-Dudley House
The Coles County Historical Society is based at this fine Queen Anne-style house constructed in 1892.
Now in a leafy residential area with mature trees, the McFarland-Dudley House was built in the wave of development south of the town square, close to Eastern Illinois University, established soon after.
The house changed hands several times until in 1920 when Dr. and Mrs. G. B. Dudley moved in. Their son Tilford would eventually donate the house to the Cole County Historical Society in 1982.
A renovation took place in the 1980s and the house appears as it did in the first half of the 20th century, with original fixtures intact and furnishings from the 1920s and 1940s. When we wrote this article the house was free to visit by appointment.
12. Cameo Vineyards
South of Charleston is an award-winning winery producing 14 varieties, from dry to sweet. The vines, now numbering almost 4,000, were first planted at Cameo Vineyards in 1991 and the vintners spent the next 11 years honing their winemaking craft.
The winery opened in 2002 and today crushes close to 35 tons of grapes each year, all from French-American hybrids that thrive in the eastern Illinois climate.
You can call in for complimentary tastings, wine by the glass, as well as tours of the cellar when possible.
The winery has a cozy porch with gorgeous views, and you can pair your wine with bites like cheeses, crackers and summer sausage.
13. Shiloh Cemetery (Thomas Lincoln Cemetery)
You can combine a visit to the Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site with the Shiloh Presbytarian Church close by in Lerna.
This is the burial place of Thomas Lincoln and Sarah Bush Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln came to this appropriately humble setting on January 31, 1861, in the company of his step-mother to visit his father’s grave, shortly before assuming the presidency.
The Lincoln plot is enclosed by a low fence, with modest footstones side-by-side for Thomas and Sarah, and a headstone erected by the Lions Club of Illinois.
14. Aikman Wildlife Adventure
Not far west of Arcola is a drive-thru wildlife park where you can get up close to some 70 different animal species from six different continents.
Aikman Wildlife Adventure features the likes of zebu, Grant’s zebras, watusi, water buffalo, scimitar-horned oryxes, wildebeest, dromedary camels, Scottish Highlanders and many more.
There’s also a walk-thru adventure, with smaller animals and predators including ring-tailed lemurs, pot-bellied pigs, macaws and hyenas, as well a petting zoo keeping sheep, pygmy goats, mini cows and fallow deer.
There has been a visitor attraction at this site for more than 80 years, and the park’s predecessor was Rockome Gardens, an Amish theme park opened in 1937.
15. Bent Tree Golf Course
Much close to home, there’s an 18-hole golf course in the countryside south of Charleston.
A par 70, Bent Tree Golf Course measures 6,240 yards from the tips and was landscaped in two phases in the 1980s and 1990s.
An upshot of the front and back nines being developed at different times is that they have completely different characters: The front nine is open and long, while the back nine is more technical, with water often coming into play.
The 115-yard 18th has an island green and will test the nerve of even experienced players.