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

Lincoln_Home_1

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

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.

Dana-Thomas House

dana thomas house

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

gc

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

shawnee

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

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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

img_7753-2

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

The Very Best of Arizona

The Best Of Arizona by Melissa Temple http://www.disableddisney.com

unnamed

When you are out exploring the country don’t forget to explore Arizona! Arizona has many beautiful and unique experiences to offer. We have a thriving metropolitan area in Downtown Phoenix with art, dinning and museums and there are many activities in Southern Arizona to explore and have fun. This article is going to focus on all the beauty and fun of Northern Arizona.

If you have a week to vacation in Arizona, you should definitely check out this vacation! For this vacation you are going to need a vehicle! If you are close enough to drive, I suggest driving. I use an app called Gas Buddy to check fuel prices. If you fly into Sky Harbor International Airport, you can rent a vehicle at the Airport. I like to use Enterprise. They are have very good customer service and I get a discount through my cell phone service.

For booking hotels I use Booking.com because I can pay at the hotel and get kicks through an app called Shopkick! You save the kicks and earn gift cards. So in my book it’s a win-win. There are a lot of great hotels in Flagstaff, Arizona, which is where you need to base yourself! I do recommend the La Quinta Inn and Suites! It’s easy to find where I-17 and I-40 meet!

Day 1 of this vacation starts by arriving in Flagstaff or flying into the airport, renting a vehicle and driving to Flagstaff. It’s about 2-3 hours North of Phoenix. It is really easy to get to. You just take I-10 West to I-17 North and that takes you to Flagstaff! So get to Flag as we locals call it, check into your hotel, and get something for dinner! Get a good night’s sleep tomorrow will be a busy day!

Day 2 I want to suggest you book a trip on the Grand Canyon Railroad! Go to TheTrain.com, that’s the website where you book passage to the Grand Canyon. It is a 65 mile daily train ride from Williams, AZ to the Grand Canyon. You have about 30-45 minute drive to get to Williams in the morning. The train departs at different times during the year but a typical trip could leave at 9:30am and gets to the Grand Canyon at approximately 11:45am. It departs back to Williams at 3:30pm and then you drive back to Flagstaff.

The Train operates 364 days per year closed on December 25. The trip on the railway includes a Wild West Shootout at the Williams depot before your train departs. Then during your journey there is entertainment and live action onboard! You will also be able to get a copy of Territorial Times, the Grand Canyon Railroads very own news publication.

While you are at the Grand Canyon, take lots of pictures! It is one of the most beautiful natural landscapes in the World! While you are there you can take a 1.5 hour guided tour that is only open to the patrons of The Train. You can have lunch, check out the Grand Canyon Village, the Museum, and the hotels! This is an amazing site you should definitely check out and the taking the train is a beautiful and relaxing way to go! You can even have a seat in the panoramic dome and see the Kaibab National Forest.

(Photos Courtesy of Yourtravelhandbook.com)

image7 (1)
(Photo Courtesy of Lowell Observatory)

Day 3 of this Arizona adventure keeps you in Flagstaff. I suggest visiting the Lowell Observatory. It is 125 year old telescope.  They have programs for everyone to enjoy. They have daytime tours, evening activities and a special Jr. Astronomer Program for kids!

The daytime tours consist of three different topics. The first called the Lowell Tour takes you around the campus and discusses the history of the observatory. You also get to see the 24” Clark Refracting Telescope still in use today! It’s a little slice of history. On The Story of Pluto Tour you learn about the Pluto Discovery Telescope. And on the Lunar Legacy Tour you learn the history of the telescopes part in the Apollo Moon missions.

At night they have several programs. The Wonders Of The Solar System, The Lives Of The Stars, The Flyby, Galaxies And The Expanding Universe, Constellation Tour and evening viewing of the Telescope. You can also participate in 45 minute science demonstrations which are hands-on!

They have a museum called the Rotunda Museum and it is open during certain hours. It houses artifacts relating to the history of the Observatory. They also have a cute gift shop, called My Astronomy Shop. You can get souvenirs, telescopes and other space themed items!

The Jr. Astronomer Program is similar to the Jr. Ranger Program at the National Parks. Kids ages 5 and older can complete activities while visiting the Observatory and earn a badge. It costs $3 and is approximately 3 hours. It is designed for kids ages 5-13 but “kids” of any age can complete the program! So if you have ever wanted to be an astronomer you should check out this program!

image13 (1)
(Photo Courtesy of the Lowell Observatory Jr. Astronomer Program)

So after your day of hanging out at the Lowell Observatory you are going to want to eat. Flagstaff is no different then most cities and have plenty of chain restaurants or fast food restaurants if that is what you like. However if you want to try something new try the Flagstaff Brewing Company. You can pare craft beer or they have specialty whiskey also with your burger or sandwhich!  If you want a quaint diner experience try Downtown Diner 7 E Aspen Ave (they don’t have a website!). If you want a cool Route 66 experience check out The Crown Railroad Cafe.

Speaking of Route 66…it’s a historic roadway steeped in tradition and history. So check out the Historic Route 66 Walking Tour. They also have a Historic District Walking Tour and Haunted Flagstaff Walking Tour. I don’t know about you but I love to do these behind the scenes kind of tours!

Day 4 of your perfect Arizona trip is a drive out to Meteor Crater! It’s about a 45 minute drive from Flagstaff. This is another really big hole in the ground! But it’s beautiful and very picturesque. A definite must do in your Arizona itinerary. This crater was made long ago when a meteor hit the desert landscape. They have educational programs and you can learn all about how the crater was formed. They also have a cool exhibit about astronauts and a gift shop.

image4 (1)
(Photo Courtesy of Meteor Crater)

A guided tour is available and included with admission.  Admission information is available online. They do offer Military Discounts for active duty and retired. They have complementary RV Parking and Big Rig Parking if you want to do this trip in an RV which would be an amazing way to do this trip also.

image16 (1)

Day 5 is a trip to the Petrified Forest. It is about an hour and a half drive from Flagstaff but it is worth the trip! It is part of the National Parks system. They have a Jr. Ranger program for kids to participate in as well.  They also have guided tours if that is your thing. But if you are a little more adventurous they have backpacking, camping and horseback riding.

To backpack or camp you have to get a permit which is free. You can get this permit at either of the Visitor Centers. The area is very fragile and delicate so groups are limited to 8 people. There are a lot of regulations you must follow and abide by pack in and pack out rules. But it is an amazing experience.

They also have geocaching which you can find out more by clicking on the link. There is so much history and culture to learn about and take in, be prepared for this to be a whole day experience. Also do not take any plants, rocks or petrified wood!!! It is illegal and disturbs the land.

image9 (1)
(Photos courtesy of National Park Service)
image8 (1)
(Photos courtesy of National Park Service)
image15
(Photos courtesy of National Park Service)

Day 6 your trip is almost done! This day takes you to Sedona, AZ. It’s about an hour drive South of Flagstaff. This is a must for any Arizona trip. It’s where the famed Red Rocks are located. There is a thriving art culture in Sedona. If you like fine art, abstracts, bronze, kinetic sculpture, jewelry, Native American art, photography, ceramics or woodcarvings, you will find something to love! Please utilize the Sedona Visitor Center Information website to research and plan your day! I will of course be telling you about my favorite Sedona things to do!

I personally love Oak Creek Canyon. Which has hiking, camping and fishing. They also have a scenic driving route and if you love mountainous and curvy roads I highly suggest you drive the Canyon. They have a really great place during the summer called Slide Rock and it is a natural water slide. We used to go as kids with friends and it is such a fun family friendly activity! If you are going to be there just for one day there is day use area but if you would like to camp there for your Arizona trip they have tent and RV sites available.  The other activity I really enjoy in Sedona is Pink Jeep Tours.

image18
(Photo courtesy of VisitSedona.com)

With a Pink Jeep Tour they have full day adventures or even just a few hours. They take you to some amazing sights and you get to have a fun off-road adventure! There is also some tours that include hiking, lunch and shopping if that is what you like to do. They have tours for all physical ability levels from easy to adventurous. So no matter what you would like to experience they can accommodate your family.

Day 7 is always the saddest of the trip. This is your pack up and head home day. If you decide you want to stay and play for a while in Flagstaff, you can check out the downtown area or anything in the day 3 suggestions you didn’t get to experience yet. You can also utilize the Flagstaff Visitor information website to find out more of this beautiful Arizona destination.

After reading this, I hope Arizona is on your list of States or Areas of the country to visit. We really have an eclectic and picturesque State with all of our scenery, culture and history to learn and explore!

About the Author:

image1 (3)

Melissa Temple is a disabled wife and mother. She has worked in the medical and mental health fields. She loves to help people and volunteer in her community. She loves reading, crafts, Disney movies, and music. She blogs about disability travel and lifestyle with a very heavy emphasis on Disney related travel. She started Disabled Disney with her husband of 19 years, David. Disabled Disney has a website, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter and Facebook and Patreon https://linktr.ee/disableddisney.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Melissa thank you so much for sharing! Arizona looks beautiful and like there is a lot to do outside! I enjoy being outside! A jeep tour I would love that! We keep on going back and forth on if we want to purchase a jeep on not. I have never had one nor have I driven one. I am kind of afraid to go test drive one and fall in love and make a HAVE TO purchase. Haha! Hopefully someday soon my family and I can visit!

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

img_7753-1

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com