Founded in the early 19th century, Decatur is a university city in Central Illinois steeped in history and with a lovely location on the lake of the same name.
Decatur was Abraham Lincoln’s first home in Illinois and the scene of the Illinois Republican Convention in 1860.
If you’re on the Lincoln trail you can visit the handsome villa of Union Army major general and governor Richard Oglesby, who was present when Lincoln died.
Millikin University, established in 1901, is in Decatur and has a strong cultural standing, with a sensational performing arts center.
And while Decatur may not attract hordes of tourists there’s much to love about the city, especially along the verdant waterfront of Lake Decatur, endowed with parks and visitor attractions.
1. Millikin Place
One of the loveliest and most architecturally significant residential ensembles in Illinois can be found a few blocks west of downtown Decatur.
This is Millikin Place, named after the notable banker James Millikin (1827-1909), who founded Decatur’s namesake museum.
Millikin Place accessible to the public on foot, is famous for the Irving Residence (1911), a Prairie Style home by Frank Lloyd Wright at #2.
This is accompanied by the Robert Mueller Residence at #1 and the Adolph Mueller Residence at #4, designed respectively by Wright’s assistants Hermann V. Holst and Marion Mahony.
To the south on W. Main St is The Homestead, a lavish Italianate mansion commissioned by Millikin in the mid-1870s and rumored to be the earliest building in the city to have indoor plumbing.
2. Scovill Zoo
Scovill Gardens, on the peaceful east shore of Lake Decatur, is the setting for this popular zoo, keeping almost 100 different animal species from six continents.
Scovill Zoo is uniquely adapted for the extremes of the Illinois climate, providing lots of indoor space when the zoo is closed in winter, and using fans, pools and frozen treats when the mercury rises in summer.
A quick rundown of the animals includes spider monkeys, tamarins, cheetahs, capybaras, zebras, llamas, emus, Humboldt penguins, golden pheasants, pythons, Galapagos tortoises, monitors and American alligators.
A narrow-gauge train trundles through the zoo, and there’s also a cute carousel, a large playground and a gift shop.
3. Children’s Museum of Illinois
Also in Scovill Gardens is a nationally recognized children’s attraction promoting open-ended problem solving and exploration.
Most of the exhibits at the Children’s Museum of Illinois mimic familiar real-world settings to encourage critical thinking and healthy choices.
For instance, Seed to Shelf shows where food comes from, Super Service Center is a car repair business, Healthy Mouth shows good tooth brushing habits, and Ready. Set. Build! is a safe construction site and workshop.
This is all just the tip of the iceberg, and we haven’t even mentioned Heroes Hall, where children can find out all about law enforcement, and even sit in the cockpit of a Sheriff’s helicopter parked outside.
4. Nelson Park
The star attraction for the Decatur Park District is this gorgeous lakefront park. No surprise that Nelson Park is the city’s most visited public space, with a dog park, disc golf course and waterfront trail equipped with fitness stations.
Something that brings in the crowds in summer is the Devon G. Buffett Amphitheater, seating 3,200.
This is a waterside venue for concerts and festivals, but also an anchor for road races and Decatur’s 4th of July festivities.
Nelson Park is also one element of Lakeshore Landing, an ongoing plan to turn Decatur’s scenic waterfront into a visitor destination for recreation, dining and shopping.
5. Rock Springs Conservation Area
Decatur is fortunate to have a nature-rich park on its southwestern margins. This area encompasses the sandstone bluffs that line the south bank of the Sangamon River.
These are the source of Rock Spring, which for many hundreds of years was a meeting point for Native Americans.
Much later there was a bottled spring water plant here in the 1910s, and now these 1,300 acres are a mix of woodland and restoration tallgrass prairie.
There are nine miles of trails, also open in winter for cross-country skiing (rentals are available).
The Nature Center in the park puts on art and natural history exhibits, and organized educational but fun programs for all the family.
6. Kirkland Fine Arts Center
Millikin University has had an orchestra since 1914, and their seat is this impressive complex on the campus.
The center opened in 1970 and its focal point is a 1,903-seat auditorium, serving up the Decatur area’s best menu of culture.
As well as regular performances and collaborations from the Millikin-Decatur Symphony Orchestra (September to April), you can catch touring Broadway shows and live music by famous artists.
Some of the stars to grace the stage here in the last 50 years include Ray Charles, Little Richard, Vicki Lawrence and Duke Ellington.
As well as the main auditorium the Kirkland Fine Arts Center houses a range of other halls and rooms for choral performances, lectures, music recitals and art exhibitions.
7. Oglesby Mansion
In the second half of the 19th century Richard J. Oglesby (1824-1899) was Decatur’s most illustrious citizen.
He was Governor of Illinois from 1865 to 1869, after serving with distinction in the Civil War, rising from the rank of colonel to major general by 1863.
He was present at Petersen House when Abraham Lincoln succumbed to his wounds on April 15, 1865. In Decatur you can visit the restored Italianate house in which Oglesby resided with his wife Emma from 1874 to 1882.
A lot of original details survive, like the fire mantels throughout the building, and the property has been carefully decorated with period-appropriate furniture and wallpaper, and objects acquired from Oglesby descendants.
The library is a real highlight thanks to its original walnut shelving, still holding books from Oglesby’s personal collection.
8. Wabash Depot Antique Centre
Testament to Decartur’s position as a key railroad junction is this marvellous piece of heritage. In a Classical Revival style, with quoins and pediments, the Wabash Depot was built in 1901 and has imposing dimensions, at 10,000 square feet.
The monument is on the National Register of Historic Places and today warrants a visit for the giant, multi-dealer antique center within.
Allow plenty of time and you can get lost in this Aladdin’s cave of curiosities, browsing art, furniture, figurines, light fittings, dolls, toys, historic advertising, prints, china, clocks, records, seasonal decorations, vintage car accessories, textiles and a lot more than we can list here.
9. Hieronymus Mueller Museum
One person who figured prominently in Decatur in the 19th-century was the inventor and entrepreneur Hieronymus Mueller (1832-1900).
A German immigrant and eventual holder of more than 500 patents, Mueller started out by opening a gun and machine repair shop in the city in 1857.
This became Mueller Co., switching focus from guns to plumbing goods, and the company is still a market leader for pressure valves and fire hydrants. Mueller Co. is now headquartered in Tennessee, but with a manufacturing facility in Decatur.
You can visit this site to peruse a museum dedicated to the founder, detailing his career and many innovations.
Among the many rare and compelling artifacts in the collection is the seventh of only eight automobiles manufactured by the company.
10. Old Book Barn
A ten-minute drive north of downtown Decatur will bring you to the little village of Forsyth. The reason to make the trip is to visit this enormous bookstore, filling an entire 14,000 sq. ft, warehouse.
The Old Book Barn is a bookworm’s paradise, with more than 250,000 books, both new and used, hardback and paperback, and all carefully catalogued.
You’ll find bestsellers, cookbooks, biographies, history books, children’s titles, antique Victorian books and so much more.
The friendly staff will happily point you in the right direction as you could spend days in this place without seeing everything. And every now and again you’ll come across one of the affectionate cats snoozing on the shelves.
11. Chevrolet Hall of Fame Museum
Close to the airport, this museum was inaugurated in 2009 and gives you a complete retrospective of an iconic car brand.
Spanning more than a century, the Chevrolet Hall of Fame Museum features some of the finest models to roll off the production line in Detroit.
On show are plenty of rare Corvettes and Corvairs in immaculate condition, as well as a small fleet of race cars and Indy 500 pace cars.
Complementing this one of the largest single collections of Chevrolet memorabilia in the country, mounted on the walls and presented in display cases between the vehicles.
12. Decatur District Trails
West of Main Street it’s easy to set off on a little adventure on foot or by bike. Here the Decatur Park District has drawn up a system of mostly interconnected trails snaking through the city, partially on the right of way of a formal railroad.
The network begins in the north at Greendell Park, and from there you can get onto the picturesque Stevens Creek Trail, 1.45 miles long.
The system continues further south into Fairview Park and here you can venture east into this space, south to Kiwanis Park or southwest along the Sangamon River into the Rock Springs Conservation Area.
13. Overlook Adventure Park
This wonderful family attraction can be found at the north end of Nelson Park next to the splash pad.
Here in the natural contours of the park is a pair of delightful mini golf courses. Each hole is linked by a concrete path taking you past neatly tended flower beds and shrubs.
Also at Outlook Adventure Park is a ropes course with challenging but fun transitions on a purpose-built structure, as well as a set of batting cages. And if you’re in the mood for a treat you’ll find a couple of food vendors on site.
14. Connie’s Country Greenhouse
Slightly further out in the village of Latham is a family-run garden center with the largest selection of plants in Central Illinois.
Starting out in 1998 as a small operation, Connie’s Country Greenhouse has spread out across 15 acres.
On sale here is an incredible array of annuals, perennials, vegetable plants, herbs and garden supplies.
What’s more the center grows produce like asparagus, strawberry, tomato and watermelon, available in store or on a U-Pick basis. Take a look at the website before coming to see what is in season.
15. Clinton Lake State Recreation Area
No more than half an hour north of there’s a full spectrum of outdoor recreation available in a beautiful location.
Impounded in the 1970s to provide cooling water for a power plant, Clinton Lake is immense, meandering along Salt Creek for several miles and covering almost 5,000 acres.
The state recreation traces most of the shoreline, and offers swimming, hiking, biking, camping, fishing, hunting and boating.
The beach, open Memorial Day through Labor Day, is a real treat, with over 1,000 feet of white sand.
If you want to drop a line, the lake abounds with bass, bluegill, crappie, catfish and walleye. And if you’d just like to unwind on a stroll, the park attracts 40+ bird species, among them ospreys, which can be seen swooping into the water when hunting.