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.
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 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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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!
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.”
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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!