At the heart of the United States is Illinois, a state of firsts. The first skyscraper was erected in The Prairie State along with the first Ferris wheel. The State, which was named after the Illinois River, is as varied as possible and is the leading producer of corn in the US but also home to the world’s busiest airport and the USA’s tallest building.
Illinois is often referred to as the Land of Lincoln as it is where the 16th president of the United States began his political journey. The pride and respect towards this figure is obvious in the state due to the numerous monuments and landmarks dedicated to him. Illinois has many charming towns and state parks but is largely dominated by The Windy City, Chicago. Home to world-class museums, memorable sights, great food and a lot of shops, Chicago is truly a travelers paradise. It is one of the largest cities in the US and draws millions of visitors every year.
I’ve lived in Illinois my whole life and started exploring it at a young age together with parents in the RV and later went on many city and road trips. So from my personal experience I have created this list on some of the most interesting things to do in the state:
1. Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is situated in Springfield and offers a great opportunity to learn not only about Abraham Lincoln, but also about Illinois and its history (what better way to start of this list). Officially opened in 2004, the museums collection has been a work in progress for at least a century. The facility is also used for research and not all of the collection is available for public viewing.
If you’re planning on visiting Springfield I suggest reading my guide on the city, which includes some helpful insights.
2. Chicago’s Magnificent Mile
The Magnificent Mile on Michigan Avenue is a must for any visitors to the Windy City. Chicago’s Magnificent Mile is a bustling, vibrant section of the city known for its high-end shopping (my favorite), dining, and entertainment. Stretching for roughly a mile along Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago, the Magnificent Mile is home to some of the city’s most iconic landmarks, including the historic Wrigley Building and the John Hancock Center.
You can explore luxury retail stores, art galleries, and world-class restaurants, or simply take in the sights and sounds of the bustling city streets. The Magnificent Mile is a popular destination for both tourists and locals alike, offering a unique blend of culture, history, and modern-day amenities.
3. Ulysses S Grant Home State Historic Site
The Ulysses S. Grant Home State Historic Site is a must-visit destination for history buffs and anyone interested in the life and legacy of one of America’s most famous presidents. Located in Galena, Illinois, the site is the former home of Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the United States.
The house has been restored to its original grandeur, providing visitors with an intimate glimpse into the life of one of the country’s most revered leaders. Visitors can explore the house, which is filled with original furnishings and decor, as well as stroll through the beautiful gardens and grounds. The Ulysses S. Grant Home State Historic Site is a fascinating destination that offers a unique perspective on American history and the life of one of its most iconic figures.
4. Navy Pier
The Navy Pier is a great tourist destination located on the waterfront in Chicago.
The pier has something for everybody: museums, shopping, theater, restaurants and cinema.
The highlights of the pier are the Crystal Gardens, which offer a one-acre tropical oasis all year round and the Ferris wheel, which offers spectacular views of the city.
5. Starved Rock State Park
This state park, named after a group of Native Americans left to starve on one of the rocks by their enemies, is renowned for its beautiful canyons and stunning waterfalls.
Located on the Illinois River southwest of Chicago, the park has some excellent hiking trails, which incorporate access to the park’s scenic areas.
For the safety conscious, guided hikes are available.
As with most US state parks, Starved Rock is a great place for activities such as fishing, horseback riding and boating.
6. Art Institute of Chicago
One of the city of Chicago’s foremost cultural attractions, the Art Institute of Chicago is recognized internationally for its impressive collection.
The building, which dates back to the late 1800s, houses a wide variety of art ranging from ancient sculptures to post-impressionist works.
The most notable works in the museum include Vincent Van Gogh’s Self-portrait and a Han Dynasty tomb sculpture that is over 2000 years old.
Further reading: best tours in Chicago
7. Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
Cahokia Mounds is known for being the largest prehistoric Native American settlement north of Mexico. The site is home to 120 mounds including the 100-foot tall Monks Mound.
The site is believed to have been occupied between the years 700AD and 1400AD. At its peak, in the year 1100AD, the site may have had 20,000 occupants.
Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the Interpretive Center situated here tells the story of the people who built the area using artifacts, audio-visual presentations and dioramas.
8. Dana-Thomas House
The Dana-Thomas House was built by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1902 and is one of the best-preserved examples of his large scale, Prairie-style houses.
The 35 room building in Springfield is now a museum and offers guided tours to members of the public.
The house showcases Wright’s craftsmanship particularly in the windows, doors and light fixtures.
9. Anderson Japanese Gardens
These 10-acre Japanese gardens set in Rockford contain waterfalls, ponds, streams and rock formations as well as an authentic sukiya style guest house and tea room. The Anderson Japanese Gardens offers visitors a serene and picturesque setting in which to relax and connect with nature. The gardens were inspired by the traditional Japanese garden design principles of balance, harmony, and simplicity, and feature a variety of plant and tree species that are native to Japan.
You can stroll along winding pathways, cross over ornate bridges, and take in the beauty of the garden’s many water features, including tranquil ponds and waterfalls. There’s also a tea house, where visitors can enjoy traditional Japanese tea and sweets while taking in the beauty of their surroundings. I suggest checking their website as they also offer tea ceremonies on some dates.
10. Field Museum of Natural History
The Field Museum of Natural History is one of the largest of its kind in the world and fittingly is home to the largest Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever discovered.
The T-Rex (called Sue) is 13 feet tall at the hip and 42 feet long and has her own gift shop.
In addition to this impressive prehistoric specimen, the museum has much more to offer including permanent exhibits on the Americas and ancient Egypt.
The temporary special exhibits are usually high quality and well worth seeing.
11. Willis Tower
Known as the Sears Tower until 2009 when insurance company Willis Group Holdings bought the rights to the name, the tower is the tallest building in the United States.
The top floor Skydeck gives visitors panoramic views of Chicago and even has a vertigo-inducing ledge with a glass floor for a terrifying perspective of the height above street level.
Queues for entrance to the top floor can be up to an hour on busy days.
12. Shedd Aquarium
This public aquarium in Chicago has been open since May 1930 and houses more than 8000 aquatic animals.
The top draws include the Wild Reef, which allows you to witness dozens of sharks up close, and the Oceanarium which houses rescued sea otters.
The Oceanarium has caused controversy in recent years for keeping whales and white-sided dolphins in captivity.
13. Lincoln Park
Lincoln Park is the largest in Chicago and stretches for six miles, covering a staggering area of 1200 acres.
The park has many trails, lakes and paths making it perfect for recreation. In winter is possible while sunbathing is common in the summer months.
The park is a great place to enjoy snacks bought from the nearby markets on Clark Street and Diversey Parkway.
14. Grant Park
This large urban park is located in Chicago’s business district and plays host to many of the cities mega events including the Blues Fest and Lollapalooza.
The Buckingham Fountain is the centerpiece of Grant Park and is one of the largest in the world.
The fountain operates its 134 jets every hour, on the hour for twenty minutes at a time.
At night, the display is made even more impressive by multi-colored lights and music.
15. Adler Planetarium
Founded by Chicago businessman Max Adler in 1930, the Adler Planetarium is a museum dedicated to the study of astronomy and astrophysics.
With public telescopes, fascinating 3D lectures and Planet Explorers exhibit allowing children to launch a rocket, the Adler Planetarium is a must for space enthusiasts.
The Adler’s steps are a great place to see Chicago’s skyline as well as having a reputation as a smooching point for couples.
16. The Driehaus Museum
Set in the gorgeous Nickerson Mansion, the Driehaus Museum provides Gilded Age decorative art and architecture.
Three floors of extravagant objects and sublime stained glass are available for public viewing.
Guided tours also operate in the museum and don’t require any advance booking.
17. Old State Capitol
The Old State Capitol, which can be found in Springfield, Illinois, was built in 1837 in magnificent Greek revival style. It served as the state house from 1840 until 1876 and was used by Barack Obama for his candidacy announcement in 2007.
Passionate museum docents provide guided tours of the building, providing visitors with tales of Lincoln and the history of the building. Before visiting you could read my guide on Springfield.
18. Chicago Cultural Center
This block long building has a lot to offer: Music concerts at lunchtime, foreign films, a Tiffany stained glass dome and Chicago’s main visitor center.
All of these attractions are free as is the guided tour that takes place on a Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. StoryCorps (also free!) allows visitors to record a story of their life experiences.
The tale is recorded onto a CD as well as being preserved in the Library of Congress.
19. Lincoln’s Tomb
Lincoln’s body was laid to rest in this impressive tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery after his assassination in 1865.
The nose of the bronze bust on the tomb has been noticeably discoloured over the years by the touch of visitors paying their respects.
On Tuesdays in summer, the flag on the tomb is lowered and muskets are fired by infantry re-enactors.
20. Chicago Theatre
This famous theatre has hosted stars such as Prince and Frank Sinatra over the years and is a great photo opportunity.
The six-story sign on the building’s façade may be impressive but the real showstopper is the building’s incredible lobby modeled on the Palace of Versailles.
When it opened it 1921, the theatre played silent movies and tickets cost only 50 cents.
Presently, the theatre is a concert venue with guided tours offered daily in summer.
21. 360 Chicago
360 Chicago, formerly the John Hancock Centre is Chicago’s third highest skyscraper at 100 stories and 1,127 feet high.
Some argue that the view from this building is better than its taller counterpart, the Willis Tower.
The observatory on the 94th floor has an informative display and the open air “skywalk”, which allows you to feel the wind as you admire the views.
For visitors looking to appreciate their surroundings in a more relaxed manner, the Signature Room on the 95th floor offers fine dining with fine views.
22. Lincoln Home
This National Historic Site is where Abraham Lincoln lived from 1844 to 1961 before he became president of the United States and was the only home Lincoln ever owned.
The house fills up quickly during the busy summer months but the staff are very knowledgeable and a tour is very informative.
23. Six Flags Great America
The Six Flags theme park, opened in 1976, is situated in Gurnee. The park, like all Six Flags parks, offers a wide range of rides and attractions for all age groups.
Notable thrill rides include Goliath and the double tracked, racing rollercoaster American Eagle. There are plenty of places to eat on site and a selection of souvenirs. My favorite ride is the Goliath which is a wooden ride and pretty steep.
24. Chicago Lakefront Trail
The Chicago Lakefront Trail runs along the coast of Lake Michigan for 18 miles.
Along the trail are several of Chicago’s lakeside neighbourhoods including Lakeview and Lincoln Park.
It is a great place for cycling and walking and offers great views of the lake and Chicago’s cityscape.
Along the trail are parks, playgrounds, tennis courts and soccer pitches as well as amenities such as washrooms, concession stands and drinking fountains.
25. The Chicago Botanic Garden
Situated on nine islands in Glencoe, this living plant museum covers an area of 385 acres and features 26 display gardens, surrounded by four natural habitats.
The gardens opened over 40 years ago and has since matures into one of the world’s finest ling museums.
The garden is renowned for its impressive bonsai collection and is also home to a giant Night Spike which, when in bloom, smells terrible and is often referred to as the Corpse Plant.