Illinois, Land of Lincoln or The Prairie State, is popular and famous for many reasons. Illinois is a state that is full of natural beauty and stunning landscapes and is bordered by Lake Michigan to the north and the Mississippi River to the west. From rolling hills to pristine lakes and towering waterfalls, the state has plenty of gorgeous spots for nature lovers to explore. Some of the most beautiful places in Illinois include Starved Rock State Park, Matthiessen State Park, the Shawnee National Forest, and the Garden of the Gods.
Illinois has a rich history, with significant contributions to the arts, politics, and sports. The state is also home to several notable universities, including the University of Illinois, Northwestern University, and the University of Chicago. Whether you’re a city dweller or a nature lover, Illinois is well worth a visit.
I’m a Chicago local and in this guide I’ll show you my selection of the most beautiful places to visit in my home state Illinois. I’ve traveled the length and breadth of the state so don’t worry I’m sure you’re gonna be amazed by what you see.
1. Burden Falls
The Shawnee National Forest is one of America’s most famous natural locations and arguably the most beautiful sight it has to offer visitors is Burden Falls. Located in Pope County, Burden Falls is very small compared to some of the great waterfalls of the United States, but it is still one of the tallest in Illinois.
Bird watching and photography are both very popular at the Burden Falls Wilderness, while hunting and fishing are both allowed in the grounds too. The main hiking trail through the forest is 3.5 miles long. Burden Falls itself is a 20-foot waterfall, but the water descends for a further 80 feet in cascades – watching the falls is a captivating experience. The closest nearby town is Eddyville.
2. Great River Road
The Great River Road in Illinois offers a unique and unforgettable experience for travelers seeking a scenic and historic route through the heartland of America. You can enjoy the natural beauty from the comfort of your car or plan ahead to make some stops to explore further.
One must-visit destination I suggest is Galena, a charming town filled with historic buildings and quaint shops. Another highlight is the Pere Marquette State Park, which boasts stunning views of the river and offers hiking, camping, and fishing opportunities. The Nauvoo Historic District, located on the banks of the Mississippi, is a fascinating glimpse into the history of the Mormon pioneers. And for wine lovers, the Great River Road Wine Trail features over a dozen wineries that offer tastings and tours. Whatever your interests may be, the Great River Road in Illinois is a journey that will leave you with unforgettable memories.
3. Chicago Harbor Lighthouse
The Chicago Harbor Lighthouse is one of the most beautiful sights in Chicago. While it can be spotted from the city’s Navy Pier, a boat tour of the harbor might be the best way to get up close to the lighthouse for a perfect photo opportunity. No access is currently permitted to the lighthouse as it remains a navigational aid to this day.
Nearby parks to the lighthouse include Milton Olive Park and Jane Addams Memorial Park and they are both worth exploring during a visit to Illinois too. Lighthouse viewing point Navy Pier itself is Chicago’s number one tourist attraction.
You may also want to read my guide on some of the best tours in Chicago.
4. Matthiessen State Park
Matthiessen State Park in central LaSalle County is located close to both Oglesby and Utica. The park is famous for its array of unusual and beautiful rock formations and it also combines forest, streams and prairies in a way few other parks in Illinois can. Matthiessen State Park is named after Frederick William Matthiessen, who was a prominent industrialist and philanthropist from LaSalle.
An abundance of plant and animal life can be enjoyed in the park, which has a very large white-tail deer population. The park also boasts a number of stunning picnic spots, the best of which is perhaps at Dells Area, which has a children’s playground to keep the kids entertained.
As Matthiessen State Park is located close to the Plum Island Eagle Sanctuary, bald eagles can also sometimes be spotted within the grounds of the park.
Also see my article on best things to do in Illinois.
5. Holy Name Cathedral
The only cathedral in Chicago, Holy Name Cathedral is among the largest Roman Catholic dioceses in the United States. Thousands of visitors flock to the cathedral from all over the world every week, with the rich history of the site making it well worth making time to see.
Across the street from the cathedral is where North Side Gang member Hymie Weiss was murdered and a major fire damaged the roof and the interior of the church just a few years ago. The Chicago Crime and Mob Tour takes in sites including Holy Name Cathedral, with visitors able to learn all about Chicago’s most notorious criminals on the popular tourist trip.
6. Starved Rock State Park
Starved Rock State Park is one of the most famous parks in Illinois and it might just be the state’s most beautiful too. There is a huge array of things to see and do at the park, which boasts a lodge with the largest two-sided fireplace in Illinois.
The park, located on the Illinois River bluff in LaSalle County, is superb for all kinds of recreation activities, such as hiking, camping and fishing, while the Starved Rock Visitor Center is open all-year round. The cultural history of Starved Rock State Park can be traced back thousands of years, making it one of the most historic places in Illinois.
Named after a mineral that was mined by Native Americans, Galena retains its historic feel to this day, with over 85 per cent of the town deemed to be a national historic district. Architecture fans should head to the six blocks of Main Street in Galena, with Greek Revival and French Colonial buildings sitting side by side.
Over one million people visit Galena every year, making it one of the most popular tourist destinations in the state of Illinois. Among the top attractions drawing tourists are the Old Market House and the Historical Society and Museum, while many also take the chance to go underground into the Vinegar Hill Lead Mine. Among Galena’s rich history is the fact the town was home to no fewer than nine Civil War generals.
8. Starved Rock canyons
The canyons at Starved Rock State Park are one of the top attractions of this beautiful spot. Within its 2,630 acres there are 18 canyons to explore, while visitors can also walk through some 13 miles of trails around the park too. If you’re up for a walk I recommend at least one of the shorter trails.
The Wildcat Canyon bridge is one of the most stunning locations within the grounds of the park, which was named by the Illinois Bureau of Tourism as one of the Seven Wonders of Illinois in 2007. Waterfall enthusiasts will find plenty to love at the park too, with French, LaSalle, Ottawa and St. Louis Canyons the best places to go to see the falls.
The spring is arguably the best time of the year to visit the canyons at Starved Rock State Park, but the wonderful array of colors provided by autumn are well worth checking out too.
9. Grosse Pointe Lighthouse
The beautiful Grosse Point Lighthouse is one of Illinois’ most beautiful buildings, while it is also on the National Register of Historic Places and designated as a National Historic Landmark too. The site of the Grosse Point Lighthouse site is also famous for being reputedly where Father Jacques Marquette landed in 1674 when he came to visit Native American tribes, but there is little firm proof of this happening.
While the lighthouse grounds are open to the public free of charge year-round, tours are held seasonally due to weather conditions. To get to the top of the tower, visitors must climb the 141 steps to the summit of the lighthouse.
10. Chicago Riverwalk
The Chicago Riverwalk is the idea of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and is set to become one of the most important tourist destinations in the whole of Illinois in the coming years. The heart of the Riverwalk is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza, which commemorates those who have given their lives fighting in wars.
Floating gardens, a bridge and fishing piers are among the additions being made to the Chicago Riverwalk. The Riverwalk is worth visiting at any time of day or year, with the stunning architecture lit up at night to make it a special place to go.
The River Theater, the Cove and the Swimming Hole are among the highlights of the Riverwalk, which features a zero-depth fountain, while there is a great deal of restaurants, retail space and public seating too.
11. Giant City State Park
Giant City State Park is a hidden gem tucked away in the rolling hills of southern Illinois. With its towering rock formations, lush forests, and scenic trails, the park offers an unforgettable outdoor adventure for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. Giant City State Park spans over 4,000 acres and is renowned for its unique geological features, including giant sandstone bluffs and rock formations that are millions of years old. Visitors can explore over 80 miles of hiking trails. The park also offers opportunities for rock climbing, horseback riding, camping, fishing, and picnicking. Whether you’re looking for a day trip or an extended stay, I’m sure you’re gonna love it at Giant City State Park.
One must-visit destination I would recommend is Giant City Lodge, a historic lodge and restaurant nestled in the heart of the park. It’s an excellent spot to grab a bite to eat, relax, and take in the beautiful surroundings.
12. Shawnee National Forest
Shawnee National Forest, the biggest publicly owned body of land in the state of Illinois, spans approximately 280,000 acres of land. As the only national forest in Illinois, Shawnee attracts many people who want to enjoy special places such as the stunning Cedar Lake, which can be found south of Carbondale.
There are 10 Research Natural Areas within the grounds of the forest, as well as four heritage resource sites that are on the National Register of Historic Places. As far as places to connect with the natural world go, there are few better spots in Illinois than Shawnee.
Rockford, the third biggest city in the state of Illinois, is often called the Forest City due to its 20,000 acres of green space and it is home to a number of important cultural sites too.
The oldest music club in the nation can be found in Rockford – the Mendelssohn Club – while other places to visit include Anderson Japanese Gardens, Tinker Swiss Cottage and Klehm Arboretum.
Seeing Jane the T-Rex, found at the Burpee Museum of Natural History, is a must for anyone visiting Rockford, while Midway Village and Museum Center are worth making time for as well. Families will also love a day out at Magic Waters, which is conveniently located just off Interstate 90/39.
14. Leaning Tower
The Leaning Tower of Niles is one of the most characterful tourist spots in Illinois, with the building a half-size replica of Italy’s famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. A great photo spot, the tower is currently in need of extensive repairs, but it remains popular.
With facilities including four fountains and a 30-foot pool, the Leaning Tower of Niles is a must for anyone visiting the village, which hosts the annual open-air Leaning Tower Concert Series in the summer. While Pisa’s tower is leaning more over the years, the Leaning Tower of Niles is anchored in concrete to keep it steady.
In the 1990s, Niles became a sister city to Pisa as a result of the presence of the Leaning Tower. I guess you’ll probably want to take photo of you trying to push over the building.
15. Central Illinois
Away from the busy cities of Rockford and Chicago, exploring Central Illinois is a great way to learn what this state is all about. Consisting mostly of flat prairie, Central Illinois is one of the most peaceful places in the whole country.
Man-made lakes such as Lake Shelbyville and Lake Springfield can be found in Central Illinois, which has a number of important historical sites relating to President Abraham Lincoln, such as the Lincoln Home National Historic Site.
The superb Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge is well worth a visit for nature lovers.
16. Garden of the Gods
The Garden of the Gods is an amazing beautiful natural wonder located in the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois. The park is home to a stunning array of unique rock formations that have been shaped over millions of years by the forces of wind and water.
The park’s towering sandstone cliffs and breathtaking vistas offer visitors a glimpse into the natural beauty of Illinois, and the park’s hiking trails provide ample opportunities to explore the surrounding wilderness. For those wanting to take a relaxing walk I would suggest the Oberservation Trail and for those that want to embark on a more challenging hike I’d suggest the River to River Trail.