The oldest European settlement in the state, Peoria grew up as a port on the Illinois River and continues to be an important manufacturing center.
One company established here in 1910 is the heavy machinery maker Caterpillar, and this brand’s Visitors Center is part of a series of inviting attractions along the riverfront.
Another is the multifaceted Peoria Riverfront Museum, while the convivial outdoor space by the water is used for concerts, festivals and farmers’ markets throughout the summer.
A little way north of downtown, Glen Oak Park also has a cluster of attractions, including Peoria Zoo, and from there you can get onto the picturesque Grandview Drive, which was praised by Theodore Roosevelt when he visited in 1910.
I’m an Illinois local and have experienced much of what the state has to offer to tourists as well as locals. Here’s my list on the best things to do in Peoria:
1. Peoria Riverfront Museum
Opened in front of the historic Rock Island Depot and Freight House in 2012, the Smithsonian-affiliated Peoria Riverfront Museum rolls a multitude of experiences into one attraction.
The exhibits here are interactive and wide-ranging, including everything from major traveling shows to local history, art, science and technology. Included in the complex is a 194-seat giant screen theater and a 40-foot dome planetarium.
The permanent collection is also vast, and includes fine art, decorative art, natural science specimens and fascinating artifacts from Peoria over the last 200 years.
You can catch more than 20 self-curated exhibitions at the museum each year, and these are complemented by a busy schedule of workshops, classes, camps, lectures and tours.
I highly recommend a visit, it’s definitely my number 1 activity for Peoria.
2. Caterpillar Visitors Center
From the company’s inception until 2018, the heavy equipment and engine manufacturer, Caterpillar was headquartered in Peoria.
Now, although Deerfield, IL, is the new official HQ, Peoria is the spiritual home and the riverfront remains the setting for the Caterpillar Visitors Center.
This is a compelling journey through the history of the company and an exciting look into its future.
I learned how Caterpillar was forged in a merger in 1910 and learned about some of the famous megaprojects that have used Caterpillar machinery, like the San Francisco cable car system, the expansion of the Panama Canal and the Three Gorges Dam in China.
The Immersive Visualization Center employs 3D modeling and put me at the controls of a CAT machine of the future and glimpse how an assembly line might look in years to come.
You can also design your own CAT, climb in a real Caterpillar track-type tractor and test your skills on a Caterpillar simulator.
3. Peoria Zoo
Despite the bitter winter temperatures in Peoria this zoo in the heart of the city is able to stay open 360 days a year. Peoria Zoo is a conservation-oriented attraction, keeping around 230 animals from more than 100 species.
Exhibits here are being updated all the time, and when I compiled this list there were six main areas.
The largest is Africa!, anchored by the Zambezi River Village and home to African lions, giraffes, zebras, white rhinos and more.
On the Asian Trail I came across Amir tigers and Galapagos tortoises, while on the Australia Walk-About I saw wallabies and emus. The Tropics Building houses a variety of snakes, bats, turtles, arachnids, monkeys, lemurs and sloths.
Another indoor exhibit I warmly recommend, the Conservation Center, keeps threatened species like the Chinese alligator and Solomon Islands skink, and finally there’s the contact barn, a place for kids to interact with domestic animals like Nigerian dwarf goats, llamas, donkeys, chickens and horses.
4. George L. Luthy Memorial Botanical Garden
Peoria’s Glen Oak Park is the setting for a fabulous botanical garden, established in 1951 and planted with species and cultivars from around the world.
The Luthy Botanical Garden is in five picturesque acres and is a popular backdrop for events like weddings and showers.
You can tour more than a dozen themed gardens, as well as a tropical conservatory, and there’s always something beautiful to see, especially at seasonal shows.
These feature spring bulbs, orchids, chrysanthemums and finally poinsettias, which are in flower in November and September and accompanied by festive decor.
5. Dozer Park
A couple of blocks in from the riverside is a modern baseball stadium for the minor league franchise, the Peoria Chiefs.
This team is an affiliate for the St. Louis Cardinals, so the roster is filled with up-and-coming talent. Over the last 40 years, the Chiefs have helped develop a slew of Major League stars, and notable alumni include Greg Maddux, Ryne Sandberg, Albert Pujols and Josh Donaldson, to name just a few.
Dozer Park, so-called because of Caterpillar’s sponsorship, is a state-of-the-art facility, able to seat 8,500.
Food-wise there’s a superb choice of permanent concessions stands and carts, whether you’re in the mood for burgers, dogs, tacos, philly cheese steak, savory pies or sweet treats. There’s even craft beer, bottled or draft, courtesy of local breweries.
6. Spirit of Peoria
Normally docked right here on the Peoria waterfront, the Spirit of Peoria is a paddlewheeler inspired by the great riverboats of the 19th century.
This vessel, launched in 1988, is a little different, with a wheel powered by twin Caterpillar 3412 diesel gensets, reaching speeds of more than 15 mph.
This is one of the few paddlewheelers in the country still offering overnight trips. You can choose from a variety of experiences ranging from a 1.5-hour sightseeing cruise (two-five times a week) to a five-day adventure along the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers.
There’s always something fun happening on board, whether it’s live ragtime or banjo music or a storyteller recounting tales from these famous watercourses.
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7. Wildlife Prairie Park (WPP)
Out in the scenic nature just west of Peoria is a wildlife park showcasing the species native to Illinois.
An essential day out since the 1970s, Wildlife Prairie Park has more than 50 species, in enclosures that mimic these animals’ natural habitats.
A real highlight is the 90-acre parcel of restored prairie, home to roving elk and bison. You make your way through the park, spotting wolves, bears, otters, coyotes, bobcats, eagles and more along 14 miles of walking trails and 20 miles of cycling trails.
WPP is also primed for all kinds of other activities, at fishing lakes, historical displays including an 1800s schoolhouse and cabin, a narrow-gauge railroad and a wonderful playground with a 60-foot slide embedded in the hillside.
8. Peoria Civic Center
In the heart of the city is a large, multipurpose event facility designed by Pritzker Prize winner Philip Johnson and opened in 1982.
The Civic Center has an arena with a capacity of 11,300, a 2,196-seater theater and tens of thousands of square feet allocated for exhibitions and conventions.
The arena is home court for Bradley University’s basketball team, the Bradley Braves, and also hosts the SPHL’s Peoria Rivermen.
The Ameren Illinois Broadway in Peoria series brings top shows to the theater stage, and there’s a regular lineup of touring dance acts, famous comedians and renowned music artists.
The arena meanwhile has welcomed a wealth of famous acts, from Elton John to The Eagles, Cher, Kiss and Blake Shelton.
9. Grandview Drive
When President Theodore Roosevelt visited Peoria in 1910 he is claimed to have dubbed this scenic road in the city the “World’s Most Beautiful Drive”.
Two and a half miles long, Grandview Drive was laid down in 1903, tracing the steep west bank of the Illinois River, at the top of the tree covered parks that swoop down to the water’s edge.
It’s no surprise that some of Peoria’s most prestigious properties are located in this privileged position, so the drive gives you the dual appeal of glorious views over the valley and palatial architecture.
I recommend a pause at the Grandview Lookout, between Terrace Park and Hillside Park, for a spectacular panorama, especially early in the day as the sun comes up. The parks are dominated by deciduous trees, so the scenery is magical in fall.
10. Sculpture Walk Peoria
Since 2015 Peoria has hosted an annual juried public art walk, enriched with large-scale sculpture by artists from all over the county.
This is set on Washington Street close to the Peoria Riverfront Museum and is part of a long-term campaign to establish the city as a destination for the arts.
During their time on Washington Street, many of these photo-worthy pieces become minor landmarks.
The Sculpture Walk is crowdfunded and runs from May through March of the following year, before being updated with new works. At the time of writing, Sculpture Walk Peoria had commissioned more than 60 works.
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11. Peoria PlayHouse
Also in Glen Oak Park is an interactive children’s museum that opened in 2015 and attracts families from across Central Illinois.
The Peoria PlayHouse has six permanent exhibits rooted in the nature, history and culture of Peoria and the wider region.
For instance, kids can pretend to sail along the Illinois River, find out about Illinois’s agricultural heritage, go back in time in Peoria and dig for fossils.
There are also creative exhibits exploring concepts like speed, distance, gravity and momentum, while children can also put on hard hats and operate miniature loaders and a dump truck for their own construction projects.
The PlayHouse is also engaged in a wealth of programs, from maker workshops to camps and drop-in activities like storytime, animal encounters and art classes.
12. Corn Stock Theatre
Ensconced in the greenery at upper Bradley Park is a thriving community theatre, staging productions throughout the year generating almost all of its income through ticket sales alone.
There are five shows in the summer, in a large big top tent that was renovated in 2003.
This is set next door to a permanent building, which hosts four to five shows in the winter as part of the Winter Playhouse Program, while Corn Stock Theatre also stages two annual children’s productions, as well as a summer workshop for kids and young people aged 7 to 18.
The group was founded as long ago as 1954 and moved to its present location just two years later. Productions here are a wonderful community effort, with up to 100 volunteers working on each show.
13. Peoria RiverFront Farmers Market
Late May through late September there’s a sensational farmers’ market at the Peoria RiverFront, loaded with great produce from across Central Illinois.
The RiverFront Market boasts a changing array of farm-fresh seasonal produce, as well as flowers, eggs, farm-raised meats, cheeses and other baked goods.
Everything is local to the region, and you can chat with the farmer or grower about their selection and how to make the most of it at home.
For something unique, the market is also a hub for local artists and crafters to sell their wares, ranging from blown glass to jewelry, carved wood, pottery, candles, cosmetics and photography.
14. CEFCU Center Stage at the Landing
Something else that brings people down to the riverfront in summer is this outdoor stage, which springs to life around May and has lovely views over the water.
CEFCU Center Stage at the Landing is an anchor for major festivals and events like August’s India Fest, hosted by the Indo-American Society and featuring authentic live music, dance and Native American cuisine.
Also in August there’s a fun program to go with the weekend of motorcycle racing during the Grand Nationals. Throughout the summer there will also be a packed schedule of concerts by big name recording artists.
15. Wheels O’ Time Museum
North of Peoria, the Wheels O’ Time Museum is about eight miles from downtown on Route 40. This attraction is a nostalgic look at life in days gone by, with a focus on the history of motorized transport.
There’s a thrilling display of antique autos, airplanes, tractors, fire trucks and locomotives, accompanied by toys, bicycles, musical instruments, clocks, historic tools, vintage clothing and much more besides.
Many of the smaller exhibits are hands-on, bringing all sorts of things to life, from train sets to singing presidents to a miniature carnival, all at the push of a button.
The museum is open May to October and features a Ford exhibit that is updated every month.