The Very Best of Illinois

My Home State, Illinois!

I was born and raised in Illinois, and I’ve always been proud of where I’m from. I’ve visited and stayed at places from the southern tip of the state all the way to the north. Illinois is way more than just Chicago, and I hope to convince you of that in this post. If I were to visit my fair state as a tourist with a week to spare, I’d split my visit up into three parts:

  • 3 days in Chicago
  • 2 days in Springfield
  • 2 days in Southern Illinois

I’ll tell you about each area in more detail, and why I recommend them so highly. First, we’ll talk about the best way to get around Illinois.

Getting Around Illinois

Illinois is a big state – over 200 miles wide, and nearly 400 miles long. If you arrive in Chicago and are venturing anywhere outside the city, it’s best to have (or to rent) a car for the duration of your stay. Driving in the city can be a hassle at times, and parking is expensive. But if you’re going anywhere outside the metro area (city and close-in suburbs), there’s really no good transportation. Amtrak travels to Chicago and Carbondale 2-3 times a day, but you’re on their schedule.

Trust me – get a car. You won’t be disappointed. And the money you spend will be worth it.

Chicago

As the largest city in Illinois and the third largest in the US, Chicago is truly a world-class city. It’s got everything you could want: great restaurants, nightlife, family-friendly activities, and great sports teams. It’s not easy to see the entire city in three days, but I’ll recommend some activities you should check out.

The Loop

The Loop is Chicago’s central business district and is also home to a lot of cultural and architectural wonders. It was originally defined as the area inside of the rectangular route of the Elevated Train system, or the “El” as we call it. I wrote a post on touring Chicago’s Loop on foot, so I’ll just hit a few highlights here.

Chicago El tracks

If you head toward the east side of the Loop (closer to Lake Michigan), you’ll encounter Millennium Park. The park is 25 acres and is full of beautiful landscaping, architecture and public art. It’s also full of fun, free and family friendly activities year-round. It houses one of my personal favorite sculptures: Sir Anish Kapoor’s sculpture “Cloud Gate,” which we affectionately refer to as “The Bean.”

The Bean

The Bean is one of the best-known sculptures in all of Chicago. It’s accessible 24 hours a day and draws visitors all hours of the day and night. It’s interesting by itself, and it also provides some unique reflections of the Chicago skyline. If you get the chance to see it, walk all the way around – including underneath it – to experience the reflections from all angles. It’s like a funhouse mirror writ large.

One final memorable spot I’d recommend in the loop is Buckingham Fountain. The fountain is just to the south of Millennium Park and is located in Grant Park. From the spring through the fall, the fountain has an active and fun light and water show going on continually. It’s surrounded by well-tended gardens and lots of sitting and relaxing space – all the better to take in views of the Chicago skyline.

Pride

During the summer, you can find free concerts and other forms of entertainment in the Millennium Park and Grant Park area. There are way more activities and wonderful sites in the park than we can cover in this short article, so be sure to check out ChooseChicago.com’s list of Top 10 Things You Shouldn’t Miss at Chicago’s Millennium Park Campus.

As big as the Loop is, this is just the tip of the Chicago iceberg. One other area I recommend highly for tourists – especially families – is the Lincoln Park area, located just north of downtown.

Lincoln Park

Lincoln Park is nestled between the Chicago River on the west, Lake Michigan on the east, and is between Diversey Parkway and North Avenue. It’s a very short bus or taxi ride from the Loop area and is full of family-friendly activities.

Lincoln Park Zoo

One of the most popular family activities in this area is the Lincoln Park Zoo. Opened in 1868, is one of the nation’s oldest zoos. It is also one of the few remaining zoos with no entrance fee. Hours vary by season and holiday, but the zoo is generally open from 10:00AM to either 4:30PM or 5:00PM most days. It stretches over 35 acres and contains well over 1,100 animals from over 200 species. It’s open 365 days a year, and has both indoor and outdoor exhibits.

Just past the north end of the zoo, you’ll find the Lincoln Park Conservatory. It’s a 3-acre conservatory and botanical garden containing a variety of species from many different climate types – from arid to tropical. The conservatory is open from 9AM to 5PM every day, and admission is free.

If you’re planning to be in Chicago in August, try to plan your visit around the Chicago Air and Water Show. The show is planned for the third weekend every August and is the country’s largest free air show. Both civilian and military aircraft fly in the show – everything from propeller-driven biplanes to our military’s fastest and most effective bombers and fighters. If you’re going to attend the show, check out my post on tips for attending and photographing it.

A Word About Chicago’s Food

Of course, you can’t visit Chicago without indulging in our decadent food choices. I recommend a few:

  • Garrett’s Popcorn: When out-of-town friends come in, Garrett’s is the number one most requested item. Their specialties are cheese popcorn, caramel corn, and what they call the “Chicago blend” – a mix of cheese and caramel corn. The blend of savory and sweet is to die for!
  • Lou Malnati’s pizza: I don’t care what New Yorkers say…Chicago has the best pizza, hands down. Chicago is the home of the deep-dish pizza, and Lou Malnati was a real Chicago chef instrumental in its creation. Of all Chicago’s many pizza places, this has got to be my favorite.
  • Italian beef sandwiches: I’ve never found these anywhere other than Chicago. It’s made of thinly-sliced beef marinated in a gravy with onions, garlic, salt, pepper, and a few other spices for good measure. It’s served on a French roll, often with peppers (sweet and/or hot). There are literally hundreds of fast food restaurants in the city that sell them. Portillio’s makes my favorite, but I’ve never had a bad one anywhere I’ve been to.

WHEW. That’s a lot to see and do in three days. But wait…Illinois has more in store.

Springfield

After three whirlwind days in Chicago, it’s time to take a trip south to Springfield. The best way to reach Springfield from Chicago is via Interstate 55. The drive takes approximately three hours.

Springfield is the capital of Illinois, and the place where Abraham Lincoln spent most of his time. It also has great architecture that’s worth a visit. We’ll cover a few key places you should consider seeing during your time in Springfield.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum

The Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum documents the life of our 16th President as well as the Civil War, which occurred during his administration. It is one of the most visited Presidential libraries in the entire United States.

In addition to documents covering the life and history of Lincoln, it also contains all his Presidential papers. The papers are preserved in a climate-controlled environment and are available to scholars and researchers from all over the world. The museum also contains records and archives on the state of Illinois, providing rich insight into the progress and events that have occurred since the state’s founding in 1818.

The Museum is open from 9AM-5PM daily, with exceptions for certain holidays. Check the museum’s website for current admission fees and schedules of upcoming events.

Lincoln Home National Historical Site

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The house in which Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln lived during their tenure in Springfield was the only home they ever owned. After falling into disrepair in the first part of the 20th century, the home has been lovingly restored to its former glory. It’s now a National Historical Site that can be toured during normal hours of operation. The Site also has ongoing living historical demonstrations: actors dressed in period clothes, doing activities and chores that people in Lincoln’s day would have done…giving you an insight into the history and culture of the time.

For hours of operation and fees, consult the National Park Service page for the Lincoln Home.

The Old State Capitol

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The Old State Capitol building is a reconstruction of Illinois’ fifth capitol, and the first one located in Springfield. This capitol was an important site in Lincoln’s life as well as in the history of the United States. It was one of the spots for the Lincoln-Douglas debates prior to Lincoln’s election as President. It also saw the sad end of his tenure – it was the final location where his body laid in state after his assassination in 1863.

The building was rehabbed and modernized in the 1960s. Tours are conducted on a daily basis, explaining and demonstrating not only the architectural features of the building but also providing a glimpse into Illinois’ history.

Dana-Thomas House

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6The Dana Thomas House

There are, of course, things to see and experience in Springfield besides Lincoln-related sites. One of my favorites is the Dana-Thomas House. The house was constructed by world-renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1902 for local socialite Susan Lawrence Dana. The 12,000 square foot home has been restored to its initial construction specifications. It contains many fine specimens not only of Wright’s architecture, but also his stained glass and furniture designs.

Southern Illinois

After departing Springfield, drive approximately three hours south. You’ll go past Carbondale, the home of Southern Illinois University (SIU). It’s a good college town and a good place for food if you need a stop. From here you’ll step out of the hustle and bustle of city life you experienced in Chicago and Springfield – and trade it for some real natural beauty.

Two sites you should definitely visit in Southern Illinois are Giant City State Park, and the western edge of the Shawnee National Forest.

Giant City State Park

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Giant City State Park, just outside Carbondale and within the bounds of the Shawnee National Forest, is a natural paradise offering a wide variety of activities for those who love the outdoors. The park offers hiking, camping, horseback riding, fishing and rappelling.

Giant City Lodge, located within the park, offers reasonable and comfortable stays while you’re in the park. The park also offers camping opportunities. You can reserve a spot head of time or take advantage of one of the “first come, first served” sites.

Hunting is also allowed in the park at certain seasons. The park is open year-round from 7AM to 10PM daily. For more information, consult the park’s website.

Shawnee National Forest

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We’ll end our tour of Illinois with a day in the Shawnee National Forest. The forest borders the Ohio River in the extreme southeastern corner of Illinois. Its 289,000 acres of forests, wetlands and rugged hiking trails are relaxing and beautiful – a great way to stay in touch with nature. A wide variety of plants and animals can be found within the park year-round. It also offers a wide variety of outdoor activities such as bicycling, hiking, fishing and hunting, horseback riding, and swimming.

A lodge and camp sites are available for visitors who choose to extend their stay in the Forest.

A Few Final Thoughts

I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of my home state. A visitor could easily spend a week in any one of these places, but there are always tradeoffs to make with limited time. Hopefully you’ll enjoy enough of Illinois that you’ll come back soon!

Author Bio

Jim Jones is an award winning blogger and travel photographer. He’s been to all 50 states, over 40 countries, and 5 continents…and he’s not done seeing the world yet. He works to inspire people to visit great destinations and to start or improve their focus on travel, nature and landscape photography. As his site’s tagline says, he encourages people to “Go Travel. Take Photos. Tell Stories.”

My social links are as follows:

Blog: https://travelstoriesandimages.com

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/storiesnimages

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/storiesnimages

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/storiesnimages

Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/storiesnimages

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Jim thank you so much for telling us all abut your home state. I have been to Chicago before for a long weekend and loved it! Here is all about our stay. My son and husband have been talking about wanting to go back really soon for the pizza!

Follow me at any of these places:
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/loveinjune16/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/jrenfro99

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The Very Best of Tennessee

joshua-ness-109309-unsplash-1440x960Photo by Joshua Ness

If you’re looking to plan a trip to the Nashville area, I’ve got you covered with some cool stuff you can do.

Just a quick note, I won’t be talking about any of the country music stuff because that’s what most people associate Nashville with and there’s way more to it than that. Also, I’m trying to talk about locations that people from out of state or across the state may not know about, or maybe have heard but have never experienced. I will, for the most part, avoid talking about tourist destinations.

I will also be showing you around my hometown, Murfreesboro! It is about 35 minutes south of Nashville, and is growing rapidly. It has a lot of its own fun places but with a more suburban feel.

All information is current as of March 2019. All times listed are in Central Time. All photos were taken by Jackie of The Vibrant Dreamer unless otherwise stated.

Getting Here!

Nashville only has one airport, BNA. It is located between all three major interstates in Tennessee. I would recommend renting a car or taking your own car.

Both Nashville and Murfreesboro have a bus transit system, but I’d still recommend driving yourself. The public transit system is… basically, not great unless you’re just going around downtown Nashville, in which case you can utilize the free Music City Circuit.

There are several lots in downtown Nashville that you can choose from; if you’re planning on visiting several different spots in a day I’d recommend figuring out which lot is best for you based on proximity to your hotel/AirBNB. Or, it may be cheaper for you to take an Uber. It’s really going to depend on what works for you. I am the type of person who prefers to just park once and be done with it, but I am also able-bodied and don’t have children.

Murfreesboro is a more suburban area, so most of the places that aren’t in the heart of downtown will have their own lots. If you are visiting the public square, most of the parking is free for 1-2 hours only. You can park for free all day in the public library parking garage located on Sevier Street, and there is also a parking garage at the Judicial Center located at 225 N. Maple Street.

Fun Activities in Nashville & Murfreesboro

Adventure Science Center – Nashville

(Open every day from 10am-5pm, except for some events)

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The Adventure Science Center is a multi-level, interactive science and technology museum. They feature various science/technology exhibits and also several activities for all ages. Some events are adult-only but most of them are for all age groups.

They also feature a planetarium with a variety of its own events and showings. The planetarium has a separate event list that can be viewed here. Also, on Monday mornings before they officially open, they have an Early Explorers event geared towards children 6 and under! For more information and the event schedule, click here.

You can plan on spending a long time there, as there’s a lot to do and see! It’s possible to spend several hours there and still not see everything, so this is definitely not something you’d want to rush. They do have a Subway restaurant inside, and you are permitted to leave the center and come back, as long as you keep your ticket receipt for re-entry.

Nashville Zoo at Grassmere – Nashville

(Open 9am-6pm: March 8, 2019 – October 10, 2019

Open 9am-4pm: October 11, 2019 – March 2020)

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Photo by Jacob Brogdon

I know zoos are not everyone’s cup of tea, but if you and your family enjoy them the Nashville one is a good experience.

The food at the zoo is tasty, but it’s expensive. If you are on a budget, I recommend bringing your own food– there are plenty of tables/benches to sit at to eat. Save your money for something from the gift shop if you are looking to spend money at the zoo.

A must-see exhibit is the Kangaroo Kickabout! It’s a quite popular exhibit, but absolutely worth it. You can go through the exhibit on a path where the kangaroos are just out, so you get to be closer to them than you normally would (but you still have to stay on the path). There are usually crowds, and last time I went there was a line… but it’s worth the wait.

They recently added a cool thing called the Veterinary Center… that I haven’t even been to yet, that’s how new it is! You can see how the animals are taken care of at the zoo, and learn about animal conservation and care as well.

It usually takes around 2-3 hours to see everything, but possibly longer with children.

Mewsic Kitty Cafe – Nashville

(Open Thursday-Sunday from 11am-6pm)

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Photo by Mikhail Vasilyev

Nashville’s first cat cafe!!! If you aren’t familiar with cat cafes, basically they are a place where you can get some coffee/tea/pastries and play with some cute cats who are available for adoption. You can get some much-needed cat therapy!

They will only accept walk-ins if there is space, so if you need a specific time slot a reservation is your best bet. You can book online up to three months in advance. The cafe does recommend that you arrive approximately ten minutes before your appointment.

Cheekwood Estate & Gardens – Nashville

(open Tuesday-Sunday from 9am-5pm; hours may vary by event and season)

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Photo by Joshua Ness

A gorgeous 1930s estate that now serves Nashville as a botanical garden and art museum.

They feature 55 acres of gardens for your viewing pleasure. Cheekwood also hosts several events throughout the year; their calendar is here in case you want to see if any of them coincide with your visit!

Honestly my favorite thing to do here is just… walk around and be in nature. This might be a good chance for you and your family / significant other to just unplug from technology and be outside.

Go USA Fun Park – Murfreesboro

(Open Sunday-Thursday 10am-10pm; Friday 10am-1am; Saturday 9am-1am)

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There’s something here for everyone– Go karts, mini golf, driving range, batting cages, and a pretty big arcade. You can easily spend hourshere, and if you have kids they probably won’t want to leave… that’s how I was when I was a kid, anyway.

Insider Tip: Take the entrance from Robert Rose Drive to avoid a traffic nightmare!

Stones River Battlefield – Murfreesboro

(open 8am-5pm)

One of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War occurred here in 1862. Today, it showcases several walking trails, guided tours (May-October) and a visitor’s center. They do also offer self-guided audio tours year round. Across the street from the visitor’s center is the Stones River National Cemetery, where over 6,000 soldiers rest.

You can also visit the remnants of Fortress Rosecrans, which was the largest fortification built during the Civil War. There are walking trails there that are also connected to Murfreesboro’s public walkway system, called the Greenway. The Battlefield itself also has some trails you can walk.

Cannonsburgh Village – Murfreesboro

(official hours vary by season; typically 9am-4pm Tuesday-Saturday)

Cannonsburgh is a historic village that represents what life was like in Tennessee in the 19th and early 20th Century. You can go on a self-guided tour for free and purchase souvenirs for your trip (such as post cards and t-shirts) in the on-site gift shop.

The official season is May-November; you can still visit the grounds in the off season but some of the buildings aren’t open. The grounds are occasionally rented out for private events, so if you’re concerned about that you may want to call ahead to be sure it’s available.

The Best Shopping & Entertainment Destinations in Nashville & Murfreesboro

Printer’s Alley – Nashville

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Historic Printer’s Alley is one of Nashville’s smaller entertainment districts with a more relaxed nightlife/bar vibe. The nightlife isn’t as “bustling” as the more touristy areas; it’s more of an area where the city is trying to preserve history, but you still get a slice of the old-school Nashville culture.

If you prefer a more energetic vibe, head a few blocks over to Broadway!

12South – Nashville

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Home to some trendy places and some iconic Nashville Murals. This is probably one of my favorite parts of Nashville. Plenty of great places to grab a meal (honestly… there’s enough options here for all three meals!), amazing coffee, cookies, and take pictures. It’s also the home of Reese Witherspoon’s clothing boutique, Draper James.

The Gulch – Nashville

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Super trendy neighborhood with a more urban feel. Home of the infamous “What Lifts You” mural… which, by the way, people wait in line to take pictures with! There is A LOT to see and do in The Gulch; from breweries to shopping… there’s something for everyone!

McKay Media – Nashville West

(Open Monday-Thursday 9am-9pm; Friday-Saturday 9am-10pm; Sunday 11am-7pm)

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Photo by Jonas Jacobsson

You can literally spend HOURS in here. They sell all kinds of used media and entertainment ranging from books to comics to video games to CDs to instruments to games to… basically anything of that nature you can think of. It’s two levels and there is SO much to see. If you’re a lover of books and entertainment, you should absolutely check it out.

Public Square – Murfreesboro

Murfreesboro’s public square and the surrounding streets have quite a few fun little shops, boutiques, bakeries, and restaurants. You could probably spend a couple hours looking around here. If you like theatre, check out what’s showing at the Centre for the Arts; they also have a gallery featuring local artists that changes each month.

Quinn’s Mercantile – Murfreesboro

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The best place to shop for unique gifts to take home to your friends and family, so they can have a slice of your trip as well! It’s near the public square, but slightly away from it so if you don’t know it’s there you might miss it! Don’t forget to pick something up for yourself, too.

Social Links

twitter: @1vibrantdreamer

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blog: thevibrantdreamer.com

Author Bio:

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Jackie is a mental health and lifestyle blogger who wants to inspire others and help break the stigma around mental health. She currently lives in Murfreesboro, TN with her boyfriend and two cats.

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Jackie Tennessee sounds like an amazing place to visit! I like that you put so much in here that does not have much to do with country! While I do like country you are right everyone knows that there is country there. I totally want to go to the Kangaroo kickabout and cat café!

Follow me at any of these places:
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