On the Illinois bank of the Mississippi, Granite City is part of Greater St. Louis, and sits a short distance from The Gateway City’s most famous attractions.
The city was founded in 1896 by a pair of German-American industrialist brothers who set up a steel factory producing enamel-coated kitchen supplies, known as Granite ware.
In the 21st century heavy manufacturing, including the steel industry, is still a key employer in blue collar Granite City.
More than 200 years ago, the Mississippi river bank just north of Granite City was the starting point for the Lewis and Clark expedition, and a short way southwest is Cahokia, the site of an immense pre-Columbian metropolis.
1. St. Louis
Granite City is around 15 minutes from the famous Gateway Arch, which sits in its own national park and of course heralds your entry to the West, and to St. Louis, Missouri.
In no time at all you could be at any number of big-time attractions, like the whimsical City Museum, the St. Louis Zoo (free) and the Missouri Botanical Garden, home to the second-largest herbarium in North America.
The Saint Louis Art Museum has a world-class modern art collection with pieces by Matisse, Monet, Picasso, Gauguin and many more, while the city has the nightlife, entertainment, pro sports teams and impressive monuments you want from a big city.
St. Louis also has its own regional cuisine, from the Chinese-American St. Paul Sandwich, to St. Louis-style thin crust pizza.
2. Cahokia Mounds State Park
Granite City is also a matter of minutes from a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Awaiting you at Cahokia Mounds State Park is the largest pre-Columbian settlement to be found north of Mexico.
Once as large as 3,950 acres, Cahokia consisted of around 120 earthwork mounds and was inhabited between 800 and 1400 CE.
Today the state park counts 80 mounds in 2,200 acres and hints at the scale of a settlement that may have had more than 18,000 inhabitants at its peak.
Monks Mound for instance is 100 feet tall, and was crowned by a 5,000-square-foot building rising another 50 feet. The free Visitor Center gives you background on this incredible place and insights into the lives of Cahokia’s people.
3. Lewis & Clark State Historic Site
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark passed the winter of 1803-04 at Camp Dubois, a few short miles north of Granite City near modern-day Wood river.
The Corps of Discovery spent this time preparing for their famous multi-year expedition to map the newly acquired western portion of the country and finding a viable route to the Pacific Coast.
At the Lewis & Clark State Historic Site is an informative exhibit space with six artifact-rich galleries giving a timeline of the expedition, documenting the winter of 1803-04 and tracking the pair’s progress westwards.
You can visit a reconstructed Camp Dubois on the grounds, and there are plenty of hands-on exhibits to keep younger visitors engaged. Be sure to take a guided tour for extra insight.
4. Wilson Park
Many of the Granite City Park District’s recreation facilities can be found at this gorgeous community park, established in 1921 and surrounded by elegant homes from the turn of the 20th century.
Something to note about Wilson Park is its abundance of foliage, counting 1,000 mature native and exotic trees, which, along with carefully tended formal gardens, lend the park a distinguished air.
And as for amenities there’s a pool complex, skating rink, six lighted tennis courts, seven baseball fields, a lighted softball field, a 1.4-mile fitness trail, a stage, outdoor pavilion, several picnic shelters and one of the state’s largest accessible playgrounds.
5. Horseshoe Lake State Park
The second largest natural lake in Illinois is on Granite City’s east side. Encompassing 2,400 acres, Horseshoe Lake is a remnant of a meander on the Mississippi River that was cut off thousands of years ago by the floods that occurred regularly long before the current system of levees was constructed.
A sign of its great age, the lake is very shallow, rarely deeper than three feet. You can access the state park off Highway 111, and on the lakeshore are four miles of hiking trails, two boat ramps, five picnic shelters and 26 campsites for tents or trailers.
Fishing is permitted from the shore and by boat (outside waterfowl season) and the lake contains bluegill, carp, crappie, bigmouth buffalo, bass and channel catfish.
6. MCT Nature Trail
A great way to see more of the scenery on the Illinois side of the Mississippi is via this 14.4-mile rail trail.
Granite City is at the western end of the Madison County Transit Trail, which sets off from Wilson Park and guides you east through old residential neighborhoods, wetlands, woods and farmland as far as the corner of Bryant Ave. and 2nd Ave. in Edwardsville.
If you want to continue your adventure, the MCT Nature Trail intersects with several other Madison County Transit routes, including the Goshen, Nickel Plate, Schoolhouse and Bluff trails.
7. Granite City Cinema
Credited with injecting life into downtown Granite City, which had suffered a little since the 1980s, Granite City Cinema was built by the city and first opened in 2010.
This is an intimate triplex for first run movies, and the aim was to recreate a traditional movie destination, rather than a soulless multiplex.
Ticket prices also tend to be a little lower than the big chains, and the cinema is praised for the high quality of its sound system and concessions like popcorn.
8. Old Chain of Rocks Bridge
With an eastern end on nearby Chouteau Island, this historic cantilever through-truss bridge is a great way to walk or ride across the Mississippi.
The Old Chain of Rocks Bridge was completed in 1929 and has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2006.
The crossing was built for vehicle traffic, and for a while was part of Route 66, before being replaced by the New Chain of Rocks Bridge to the north in the 1960s.
The east end, closest to Granite City, is a pretty place to spend time by the river, with a fishing area and nature trail that gives you a good look at the bridge from below.
9. Gateway Motorsports Park
Moments south of Granite City in Madison is one of the premier auto racing complexes in the Midwest. There are four tracks in one at the Gateway Motorsports Park.
On the outside is a 1.25-mile oval for IndyCar and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
Then inside this is a. 1.6 mile road course used by the likes of the Sports Car Club of America. Also here is a quarter-mile drag strip, hosting major NHRA drag racing events.
With a capacity for almost 80,000 spectators, the complex has a history going back to 1967 with the construction of the original drag strip, and continues to add new facilities, most recently an outdoor karting track that we’ll talk about later in this list.
10. Lewis and Clark Confluence Tower
Close to the state historic site is a 150-foot observation tower near where the Missouri River meets the Mississippi.
Commenced to mark the 200th anniversary of the start of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, this monument was unveiled in 2010 and has observation decks at 50, 100 and 150 feet.
At every level are interesting interpretive boards explaining the importance of the Missouri-Mississippi confluence and the story of Lewis and Clark.
If you catch a clear day you can make out a big chunk of the St. Louis skyline as well as the Gateway Arch.
11. Tri-City Speedway
On the outskirts of Granite City by Nameoki Rd (IL 203) is an auto racing track for high-octane thrills.
The Tri-City Speedway is a oval dirt track, ⅜ of a mile long and with a grandstand on the home straight.
The season runs from the start of June through late October, in a variety of classes including Super Late Models, Winged and Non-winged Sprint Cars, Modifieds, B-Mods and Street Stock Cars, mostly under the UMP and MLRA organizations.
The majority of race meets take place on Friday and Saturday nights, when there’s a family-friendly atmosphere and a good choice of food.
12. Mastermind Vodka
There’s a highly-rated craft distillery within a few minutes of Granite City in Pontoon Beach. Founded in 2007, Mastermind Vodka takes advantage of the world-class grains grown right here in the Midwest.
This is the first distillery to be established in Madison County since 1882, relying solely on local manpower and ingredients.
You can visit Mastermind Vodka for tours and there’s a tasting room/bar attached to the distillery, where you can taste the product of years of research and development.
13. Gateway Kartplex
In 2014 a world-class karting facility opened within the oval at Gateway Motorsports Park and is a venue for several highly competitive racing series.
For everyone else the way to get behind the wheel is with an Arrive & Drive package. The Gateway Kartplex uses gas-powered Sodi GT5 karts, billed as the fastest in the St. Louis area and capable of up to 55 mph.
The track is totally independent of the surrounding facilities and can hold races even when the oval and road course are in use.
The track has been designed for technical drivers and has a lot of opportunities for overtaking, with 11 turns.
14. Alfresco Performing Arts Center
A local success story, the Alfresco Productions was born in 2009 when Granite City resident and former steel worker Brenda Whitaker started staging outdoor productions in the garden of her tea room.
The programs launched in those early days were such a hit that the company needed a permanent base, and this was found in 2012 at a historic former Baptist Church in downtown Granite City.
The Alfresco Performing Arts Center has an exciting season of productions, from musicals to seasonal events like a haunted house at Halloween, the Blues and BBQ Festival in July and the cherished Melting Pot Market from May to October.
15. Patriots in the Park
Wilson Park hosts Granite City’s 4th of July celebrations, which are considered some of the best in the entire St. Louis area.
This normally takes place across a whole weekend and involves a carnival, a massive choice of food, an auto show and lots of live music.
Of course, just after dusk everything culminates with a majestic fireworks display, one of the best in the bi-state area. Patriots in the Park has free entry and is a family friendly event.