When I told people that I was going on an Illinois roadtrip, I either got looks of disbelief or a sympathetic laugh. “There’s nothing out here,” more than a few people told me, as I trekked through the waves of agricultural lands dotted with picturesque farms and homesteads. As an outsider, however, I am here to tell you that there is, in fact, more than enough in the state for a weekend or even a week-long roadtrip. If you, like many of the people I met on the road, are wondering what to do in Illinois, this is the guide for you. I will give you the low-down on some of my favorite spots so that you can build your own trip, and I will provide a short itinerary based on my travels as well.
- 1 Hiking in Illinois
- 2 History
- 3 “Road Side” Attractions
- 4 Food
- 5 Sample Itinerary
Hiking in Illinois
Considering that Illinois is known for being a plains state, flat with [insert agricultural plant] it might be surprising to some that there is good hiking to be had there. But where there is a trail there is a way! And there are actually some really amazing parks to explore on your Illinois itinerary.
Shawnee National Forest
Shawnee National Forest is nestled down at the southern tip of Illinois, making it somewhat hard to get to (from Chicago anyway), but it is well worth the drive. Not only is the forest free to use but it is home to some absolutely otherworldly and beautiful landscapes that even a world traveler would enjoy. For a very comprehensive guide to the forest, please see the Unofficial Shawnee Forest website. I used this to pick out a few places that I visited during my own roadtrip, the Garden of the Gods and the Little Grand Canyon; it is a great resource.
Garden of the Gods
The Garden of the Gods is definitely at the top of my what to do in Illinois list. It is completely unexpected amidst the rest of the Illinois landscape, and even reminds me of some of the places that I have visited in the Southwestern US. Of particular interest to anyone who makes it out to this area, the Observation Trail is a short walk out to the stone columns for which the place is named. Whether you are a casual or expert hiker, this easy trail will get you some of the best views in Shawnee, as far as I am concerned. For people looking for more time on the trail, there are more miles to be explored elsewhere in the Garden of the Gods. There are also bathrooms at the end of the road in this part of the forest.
The Little Grand Canyon
The Little Grand Canyon was another must-see for me, particularly because I come from the Grand Canyon State. In terms of Illinois hiking, I think that this trail is a more difficult option that will appeal to more experienced hikers. This trail will take you out along a ridge, before leading you into a tranquil bend in the rocky walls of the rim. You will have to do a bit of basic bouldering, climbing down past waterfalls down to the bottom of the little, dead-end canyon. Once there you will follow along a side stream of the distant river before making your way back up to the parking lot. All in all, if you are able to do the whole loop it is about 2.9 miles long. Sadly, when I visited, a big section of the trail was flooded, so I wasn’t able to do the whole thing. Be sure to check on the trail conditions on the national forest website so that you can make the most informed decision about visiting and hiking this trail.
These are just two spots amid many that you can choose from in Shawnee National Forest, but do note that the forest is very large, and you will need to budget your time carefully while planning to visit this area. Driving from one end to the other is very time consuming and may require navigation of twisting, rural roads, which may be surprisingly mountainous for an Illinois road.
Other Hiking Spots
As mentioned in our guide to Designing Your Perfect Chicago Itinerary, there are also some amazing places to hike closer to Chicago. When thinking about what to do in Illinois, hikers should consider some of these smaller parks.
Starved Rock State Park: Starved Rock is a great place to chase waterfalls in Illinois. It is currently free, but there are ongoing discussions about charging people to park right now. While the park is only 90 miles from Chicago, with traffic, it can take up to 2 hours or more to get to Starved Rock from downtown.
Waterfall Glen: Hiking Illinois is the perfect way to see the beautiful and wild side of the state, even in the heart of the city. About an hour from the heart of Chicago, Waterfall Glen has more than 11 miles of hiking trails and supports an amazing amount of biodiversity. You can also fish and practice your orienteering skills in the park. This park is free to access.
While Springfield might not compare to Chicago in terms of shear number of attractions, it is certainly the heart of history in Illinois, and for that reason alone it is a must-see on any Illinois roadtrip.
Lincoln Home National Historic Monument
One of the most special, historical aspects of Illinois is its fame for being the birthplace and home of Abraham Lincoln, one of the United States’ greatest presidents. The only home that Lincoln ever owned still remains in the heart of the city, in the care of the National Park Service, along with several other historical homes. Visiting this park will give you the opportunity to get an immersive sense of what Lincoln’s home life was like. You will also be transported back in time to the gravel streets of old Springfield, where Lincoln himself would have once walked. It is free to visit the park and take a tour of the house. You do need to pick up tickets in the visitor center before getting onto a tour. During the high, summer season, you will need to get there early to insure that you are able to view the inside of the house. The park is open Mon-Sun 8:30a-5:00p.
Illinois State Museum
The Illinois State Museum might not be as famous as the big-name museums in Chicago, but it is a worthy addition to a what to do in Illinois list. There are few better places to learn more about the natural and cultural history of the state, and the staff have done a stellar job at creating an immersive, exciting experience for visitors. It is also extremely affordable, with tickets being $5 for adults. The museum is open from Mon-Sat: 9:00a-4:30p, Sun: 12:00p-4:30p.
“Road Side” Attractions
While Illinois may be known for its vast expanses of farmland, the state is also home to a colorful array of roadside attractions that can make any roadtrip enjoyable and fun. In particular, there are many quirky places to visit along the length of Route 66 in Illinois. Only in Your State has a great guide to these attractions. But don’t stop there. Casey, Illinois is home to many of the world’s largest things, and we visited a few amazing roadside attractions on our Illinois roadtrip as well.
The Chevrolet Hall of Fame Museum
In the university town of Decatur, sits an unassuming building- the Chevrolet Hall of Fame. Most of their collection is of various pace cars from over the years. The also have historic Chevy models that will take you back to their earliest cars. We were lucky to visit at a time where it was quiet enough for the staff to show us around and teach us about the various models. There is a story beneath almost every hood and this is the perfect attraction for any car-lover. The museum is $12 for adults. It is open from 10:00am-5:00pm every day but for Monday, when that are closed.
There are plenty of attractions in Bloomington that make this city perfect for any list of what to do in Illinois. The David Davis Mansion is a beautiful, restored Victorian mansion that you can tour. It looks like a building straight out of a classic ghost movie. Tours are offered Weds-Sat from 9:00a-4:00p, with the final tour starting at 3p. Reservations are not necessary unless you are coming with more than 10 people. Tours are offered for free although donations of $4 per adult is suggested.
Ewing Manor is another historic building well worth a visit. From May to October free tours of the buildings are offered on Mondays from 4:00p-6:00p. But if you happen to be in town on another day or outside of the high season, you can visit the center and stroll through the gardens and view the buildings from the outside.
Anderson Japanese Garden
You wouldn’t think that Japanese Gardens would be on an Illinois itinerary. In fact, one of the largest Japanese gardens in the US calls Illinois home. The Anderson Japanese Garden in Rockford is 12 acres of serene pools and gardens. It is only open to the public from May to the end of October, and it is then open 7 days a week from 9:00a-5:00p. It is $9.50 for an adult ticket.
You can find great, Chicago-style hot dogs throughout Illinois, and they are a must-try. I think Chicago is the best place to pick up one of these. I would suggest going to smaller restaurants in the older sections of town. That being said, there are some great places to get hot dogs in the suburbs as well. Just try to avoid chains if you want to get the best experience.
There is a particular kind of smash burger that Illinois is famous for. One absolutely delicious place to get one is Krekel’s Custard in Decatur. There’s no place to sit in the restaurant, but believe me, it is worth a meal in the car to try one of these juicy burgers.
“You managed to find the best restaurant in Springfield!” multiple customers exclaimed when we arrived at the American Harvest Eatery and admitted to coming all the way from Phoenix, Arizona. As such, I would be remiss to leave this out of my what to do in Illinois guide. For anyone staying in Springfield, this is a great place to get fresh, artful meals with healthy, vibrant ingredients that change with the seasons.
Day 1: Driving to Springfield
(1) It is about a 3.5 hour drive from Chicago to Springfield.
(2) Stop at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie to hike and potentially see some bison.
(3) Take time in Bloomington to visit the David Davis Mansion and the Ewing Cultural Center.
(4) Arrive in Springfield and have dinner at the American Harvest Eatery.
Day 2: Shawnee National Forest
*This is a long driving day- start early if you want to do all of these activities.
(1) Drive through and hike the Garden of the Gods in Shawnee National Forest (this is about 3.5 hours from Springfield).
(2) Hike the Little Grand Canyon (this is about 2 hours from the Garden of the Gods).
(3) Check out the Cahokia Mounds near St. Louis.
(4) Sample local ciders and get dinner at the Brick River Cidery in St. Louis.
Day 3: Springfield
(1) Visit Lincoln’s House for a tour.
(2) Stop by the Illinois State Museum.
(3) Drive up to Decatur (45 min) for lunch at Krekel’s and a stop of the Chevrolet Hall of Fame.
(4) Return to Chicago (3 hours)
Day 4+: Explore Chicago
See our guide to designing your own Chicago itinerary for details.