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

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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

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

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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:
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The Very Best of Minnesota

The Very Best of Minnesota

Minnesota – the land of 10,000+ lakes and more

Sunrise_Duluth

I’ve called Minnesota home for 25 years, and here are a few must-see-and-do experiences from a local’s perspective. All destinations are appropriate for most ages except where noted, and all accessible by vehicles.

Mall of America offers more than shopping

MOA Escalators

If you‘re a first-timer, the Mall of America (or MOA as we locals call it) can be daunting and overwhelming as the 5.6 million-square-foot mall features more than 500 stores. Located in Bloomington, Minn., it’s only a few miles from the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.

Nickelodean Universe Dora Ferris Wheel

 

Then there’s this seven-acre amusement park in the center – Nickelodean Universe – the largest indoor theme park in the U.S. In all, the Mall of America features 27 rides and attractions, including the Sea Life Minnesota Aquarium.

How to get there: It’s drivable and offers plenty of parking. Or you can take the blue line on the light rail from Minneapolis or the MSP Airport.

 

Go jump into one of the 10,000+ lakes

Lake Marion Geese

 

With 11,842 lakes, you’ll never be at a loss on water activities from fishing to boating to paddleboarding to tubing to swimming. Here are few popular lake destinations.

Minneapolis Chain of Lakes Regional Park – Located right in Minneapolis; this park includes Brownie Lake, Cedar Lake, Lake of the Isles, Bde Maka Ska, and Lake Harriet, with trails connecting them.

Boundary Waters Canoe Area – Looking for a place to completely unplug? This is the place. Located in the northern part of Minnesota, this wilderness area covers more than one million acres and features 1,200 miles of canoe routes and 12 hiking trails. This is a fairly rugged area so probably not suitable for younger children.

Lake Minnetonka – At more than 14,000 square feet, this is the largest lake in the Twin Cities metropolitan area that boasts fun activities for the entire family.

Lake Mille Lacs – a popular family vacation destination, it’s one of the state’s largest lakes where you can enjoy activities year-round

 

Miles and miles of bike and hiking trails

 

 

Minnesota offers 4,000 miles of paved bike trails with many created from former railroad beds in scenic areas. Check this rails-to-trails site for locations, trail terrain, length and reviews. Hiking trails are also quite abundant with various degrees of difficulty – from paved paths to steep rocky climbs. Check this site for details on everything from easy daytrips to multi-day backpacking adventures. These resources are also good in determining age-appropriateness.

 

Stroll through the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden

Spoon and Cherry

 

The iconic Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture is just one of the many works of arts you’ll find at the Minneapolis Sculpture GardenDownload the interactive self-guided tour experience.

 

Take a nature break at Minnehaha Falls

Minnehaha Falls

 

One of Minneapolis’ oldest parks features the 53-foot Minnehaha Falls waterfall right in the heart of the Twin Cities. And if visiting late spring to early fall, be sure to stop at the nearby Sea Salt Eatery, one of my favorite al fresco restaurants.

 

Take the scenic drive along the North Shore to Gooseberry Falls

Gooseberry Falls

If you love waterfalls, take a three-hour drive north of the cities along Lake Superior and visit the beautiful Gooseberry Falls. The whole family can enjoy an easy hike on a paved trail around the falls top to bottom.

 

Tour the historic Split Rock Lighthouse

Split Rock Lighthouse

 

Drive seven miles north of Gooseberry Falls to tour the beautiful and historical Split Rock Lighthouse that sits above Lake Superior in Two Harbors, Minn. If you don’t mind stairs (there’s a lot of them), you can check out the lighthouse from the shores of Lake Superior. Take caution especially with small children as it is very rocky and can become dangerous during inclement weather.

 

Lutsen Mountains offers year-round activities

Lutsen Gondola

 

Take a scenic road trip another 45 miles north on the North Shore and visit Lutsen Mountains. This area offers year-round activities including hiking trails, a gondola ride, alpine slide and skiing. The gondola ride is especially incredible during leaf-peeping season.

 

Duluth – the gateway to Lake Superior

Aerial Lift Bridge Night

 

I could write an entire blog series on all the great things to experience in Duluth, one of my favorite places in Minnesota. My son attends the University of Minnesota-Duluth (Go Bulldogs!) so we visit often (about a 2.5-hour drive from the Twin Cities – depending on weather and construction, of course).

Here’s an abbreviated list of things to do in Duluth.

  • Lake Superior Lakewalk and Boardwalk – a paved 7.5-mile trail where you can enjoy lake views, shopping and restaurants; and can walk up to the harbor lighthouse during the summer
  • Aerial lift bridge – Duluth’s most famous landmark – stay long enough to watch it rise to let boats and even ships through (here’s a ship schedule)
  • Glensheen Mansion tour – this historic two-acre estate overlooks Lake Superior and features gardens, bridges, and a 39-room mansion
  • Great Lakes Aquarium – features animals and habitats found within the Great Lakes Basin as well as animals from other freshwater ecosystems such as the Amazon River
  • Scenic drives – Duluth offers several beautiful drives in the area
  • Brewery tours (21+) – if you’re a fan of craft beer, check out one or more of their local brewery tours
  • Bentleyville Tour of Lights – America’s largest free walk-through lighting display during the winter holiday season

 

Take a family day at the Science Museum of Minnesota

Science Museum Girls

 

The Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul is one of our favorite places to visit especially when my two young nieces visit (elementary school), but we adults also love it.

 

Minnesota Zoo – from tigers to exotic fish to butterflies

Butterfly Garden

 

Open 365 days a year, the Minnesota Zoo is a fun family destination. And while the zoo features many animals, birds and sealife from around the world, my favorite is the Butterfly Garden. Another endearing exhibit is Farm Babies, open March 22 through April 30 – so much cuteness! The Minnesota Zoo is also a great way to eliminate cabin fever during the winter months.
These are just a few of my favorite things to experience in Minnesota, and is not an exhaustive list. For more amazing destinations, refer to Explore Minnesota – a great resource to discover Minnesota.

 

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Bio: Karen Mellott-Foshier (aka kmf)

Karen_Mellott-Foshier_bio_image

A former hockey mom midway through my third year as an emptynester, I recently resigned from corporate life after 25+ years as a journalist, corporate communications manager, writer, and editor. I’m excited to focus my energy on two of my passions – writing and traveling – and sharing travel tips and destination inspirations for emptynester, family, solo, and girlfriend getaways.

Would love to connect with you on social. Here’s where you can find me

Facebook.com/kmfiswriting

Instagram.com/kmf_116

Twitter.com/kmf116

Pinterest.com/kmfiswriting

kmfiswriting.com

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Karen Minnesota looks BEAUTIFUL! I would love to visit when the leaves are changing! Thank you for sharing with us!

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