Over the last couple of decades this city opposite Peoria on the Illinois River has witnessed some big changes.
In a kind of symbiosis with its immediate neighbor, East Peoria’s downtown has become a big shopping and dining destination along Interstate 74, with an improved waterfront for walks and bike rides.
East Peoria’s modern history goes hand-in-hand with Caterpillar, which moved to the city in 1910.
Across the water there’s a modern Visitors Center telling you all you need to know about this world-renowned heavy machinery company.
Walking and biking trails lead along the riverfront, or inland towards Morton, and there’s a raft of lovable, family-oriented businesses and attractions, from an historic farm park to quirky roadside landmarks and veteran food stands, all vying for your attention.
1. Peoria Riverfront Museum
Right across the river is a multifaceted visitor attraction for the region, in a statement building unveiled in 2012.
The Peoria Riverfront Museum has something for all comers, blending interactive exhibits, natural history and art collections, local history, the Illinois River Experience and the RealD Giant Screen Theater and Dome Planetarium.
You can view captivating pieces from the museum’s rich collections, as well as major traveling exhibitions on topics as diverse as the T. rex Leonardo da Vinci.
The Giant Screen Theater, at five by seven stories, has a wonderful program of classic movies and highly immersive documentaries, while there are eye-popping shows aplenty at the magnificent Dome Planetarium, using world-class a 6.5K Digistar 7 projection system.
2. Caterpillar Visitors Center
The history of the greater Peoria area has interlinked with the manufacturing giant, Caterpillar, ever since Benjamin Holt relocated his agricultural machinery company to East Peoria in 1910.
Although the company’s headquarters are now in Deerfield, IL, Caterpillar is still part of the local identity, and maintains a high-tech attraction next to the Peoria Riverfront Museum.
You’ll get to know Caterpillar’s origins, how this distinctive name was coined, and how the modern company was formed by a merger in 1925.
There’s an interesting overview of the world-changing megaprojects that have used Caterpillar technology, and thrilling insights into how the brand’s assembly lines will look in the future.
The Caterpillar Visitors Center is highly interactive, letting you design your own Cat machine, operate heavy-duty equipment on a simulator and climb aboard a genuine track-type tractor.
3. East Peoria Riverfront Park
Between the handsome Murray Baker Bridge in the east and the Bob Michel Bridge in the west is a charming riverside park, with a bike trail, lawns, benches and newly planted flower beds and trees.
This is a fabulous place to pause and appreciate the Illinois River and the Peoria skyline, with information boards every few yards pointing out the landmarks across the water.
Late in the day the scenery is particularly pretty, with the sun going down behind Peoria and the Murray Baker Bridge illuminated by a new set of decorative lights.
There’s a shopping center behind the park with a range of eateries like Shogun Japanese, Culver’s, Texas Roadhouse, Steak n’ Shake and Lorena’s Mexican.
4. Levee District
In the last couple of decades the center of East Peoria has become a key shopping and dining destination for the greater Peoria area.
At the heart of this is the Levee District, a pedestrian-friendly shopping center woven with landscaped areas and home to big box stores for the likes of Target, Costco, Ross Dress for Less and Ulta.
Across the district are dining choices for all tastes, from Red Robin to Chipotle, Jersey Mike’s, McDonald’s, Panera, Chick-fil-A and Starbucks.
The Levee District is part of a whole corridor of mixed-use developments that continues alongside Interstate 74 to the waterfront, combining Hilton and Holiday Inn hotels, major stores and almost any restaurant chain you can think of.
5. River Trail of Illinois
A lovely way to see more of East Peoria and experience the natural beauty of the Illinois River Valley, this five-mile trail courses through the city heading southeast to Morton.
Established in 1991 and repaved in the last decade, the River Trail of Illinois is on the converted roadbed of the old Illinois Terminal Railway line.
This is a safe choice for a family walk or bike ride, as the trail crosses only quiet residential streets, and passes under I-74 near its Morton trailhead.
On a peaceful journey between wooded hillsides, you’ll see tallgrass prairie and forest and bluff habitats.
6. ROC Ice Cream and Golf
Two great things rolled into one, ROC Ice Cream and Golf is an ice cream parlor with an 18-hole mini golf course.
The course is affordable and smartly laid out, scattered with flower beds and shrubs and laced with a fountain/stream that flows through the whole course and will claim any wayward shots.
The ice cream meanwhile comes from a dairy in Madison, Wisconsin, with a big choice of imaginative flavors from strawberry cheesecake to salted caramel. These come in scoop sizes, from kids’ to large, and you can also order a sundae, rootbeer float or an ultra-indulgent shake.
7. East Peoria Riverfront Greenway
For a picturesque walk or bike ride next to the Illinois River/Peoria Lake you could set off along this path linking the EastPort and Spindler Marinas.
Just under two miles long, the East Peoria Riverfront Greenway leads you through Cooper Park and includes a 1,200-foot section of raised boardwalk, with observation decks granting views over several wetland areas.
Among these is a series of ponds created by beaver dams. In the fall there’s a wealth of birdlife along the trail, with loons, grebes and a variety of duck species visible.
All along you’ll have impressive panoramas of Caterpillar and the Peoria skyline, and you’ll never be far from a lakeside restaurant, especially at the trail’s south end.
8. Fon Du Lac Farm Park
In six acres of Neumann Park in the east of the city is a seasonal educational attraction showing what rural life was like in Central Illinois in the 1920s.
A few of the things awaiting families at Fon Du Lac Farm Park include a historic schoolhouse, an antique tractor, a covered bridge, a forge and a big red play barn with a silo slide.
You can check out old-time appliances and skills at the country kitchen museum, and kids are sure to enjoy hand-feeding and petting farm animals like donkeys and goats.
The Feed Shed concession stand has a child-friendly menu at reasonable prices.
9. EastSide Centre
One of the top sports facilities in the Midwest can be found in East Peoria. Over the last 20+ years the EastSide Centre has hosted numerous state championships and finals for softball, baseball, soccer and track.
Using natural grass throughout, the 100-acre complex comprises 10 baseball/softball fields, four soccer/lacrosse fields and three indoor basketball courts.
The immense indoor complex also features a 20,000-square-foot gymnasium, an indoor walking track and a fitness center with the latest strength and conditioning equipment.
10. Pleasant Hill Antique Mall
The River Trail of Illinois passes close by this antique center, off U.S. Route 150 (Meadow Ave) in the southeast of the city.
The first thing to note about the Pleasant Hill Antique Mall is its setting, in a repurposed school gymnasium with a barrel vault. The building is deceptively large and is used by multiple antique dealers.
Selling everything from furniture to vinyl records, porcelain, toys, dolls, antique sports equipment, paintings, glassware, board games, clothing, fashion accessories, home appliances and much more than can be listed here.
11. Festival of Lights
One of the great things about the holiday season in East Peoria is this fantastic celebration, featuring a drive-through light display at Folepi’s Winter Wonderland at the south end of Veterans Park.
Bringing cheer from Thanksgiving through early January, the Festival of Lights has been a winter highlight since 1984.
The curtain is raised each year with the Parade of Lights, in which spectacular LED-lit floats, dozens of feet long, pass along East Washington Street.
After this you can pay a visit to Folepi’s Winter Wonderland for that magical drive-through display.
If you’re wondering about Folepi, he’s a wooden soldier and mascot of the festival with an acronym for a name from, Festival Of Lights, East Peoria, Illinois.
12. Grandview Drive
The north end of East Peoria is just across the water from a winding driveway declared the “world’s most beautiful drive” by Theodore Roosevelt when he visited in 1910.
Traveling from East Peoria, Grandview Drive begins close to the bridge of Illinois Route 29. From here the road meanders high above the river for 2.5 miles, as far as N Prospect Rd in the north.
Laid out in 1903 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the road has palatial mansions on one side, and inspiring vistas of the river valley on the other.
Draped on the steep valleyside are the Country Club of Peoria, Hillside Park, Terrace Park and Grandview Park, with lots of places where you can step out of the car and soak up the scenery.
13. Peoria Zoo
Open seven days a week and only closed for the big holidays is a zoo that dates back to 1955 and covers 14 acres in Peoria’s Glen Oak Park.
The main exhibits at Peoria Zoo are Africa!, Asian Trail, Australia Walkabout, the Tropics Building, the Conservation Center and the Contact Barn.
A few of the 100 or so species that you’ll come across are African lions, giraffes, mandrills, Galapagos turtles, Amur tigers, emus, wallabies, boa constrictors and ring-tailed lemurs.
Thanks to its extensive indoor exhibits, Peoria Zoo is a year-round attraction, and in the winter you can see the Amur tigers and Sichuan takins making the most of the snow.
14. Giant Rooster in a Top Hat
If you have a taste for campy roadside attractions there’s a fun one at 821 E Camp St in East Peoria.
At Carl’s Bakery you’ll be greeted by a 10-foot rooster, which, as the title tells you, sports a black top hat.
The owners of Carl’s Bakery purchased the giant bird at a Chicago trade show several decades ago, placing it out front to become a kind of advertisement.
The rooster has long since become a local landmark, while the barn-style eatery next to it continues to serve homemade tenderloin, burgers, Polish sausage and broasted chicken.
Another quirky sight close by at 1207 E Washington St is Twistee Treat, an ice cream and fast food stand shaped like a giant soft serve cone.
15. Par-A-Dice Hotel Casino
Right on the lake is a Vegas-style hotel-casino that serves the entire Central Illinois area. Free to enter and Open seven days, the Par-A-Dice Hotel Casino has extended weekend hours to 6:00 am on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
On hand are more than 520 slots, as well as 20 table games including blackjack, craps, roulette, 3-card poker, Mississippi stud and mini baccarat.
Voted among the Midwest’s top casino hotels, the complex has sleek, Art Deco-style interiors and scenic views of the lake and Peoria skyline.
When it comes to dining you’ll have four options, from the salads and sandwiches at Nelson’s Deli to Boyd’s Steakhouse, with its choice of ribeye, New York strip and prime rib.