Go ahead and name another city in Illinois that isn't Chicago. Tough task, isn't it? While the Windy City has bucketloads to be proud about, from its diverse foodie scene to its diehard sports fan and eclectic arts culture, it certainly doesn't deserve all the attention. The Chicago spotlight tends to sweep the rest of gems scattered across the remainder of the state under the rug, but not for long.
There's picturesque natural parks, unique museums, and novelty roadside attractions that you can't help but chuckle at. So, let's forget about Chicago for a minute and explore a little more of the great Midwestern state of Illinois.
10 Starved Rock State Park
Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon might receive the brunt of the attention when it comes to the USA’s national parks, but there are actually a few hidden gems scattered across Illinois as well. One park that stands above the rest is the 2,630-acre Starved Rock State Park. With its plentiful hiking trails, flowing waterfalls, picturesque canyons, and winter ice fishing opportunities, Starved Rock has deservingly been voted as the number one thing to do in Illinois.
Starved Rock is located right next to the town of Utica, which is only about an hour and a half’s drive from the land of deep-dish.
Of all the words that come to mind when we think of Illinois, ‘quaint’ and ‘charming’ aren’t usually among the frontrunners. However, the tiny 3,500-person town of Galena at the northwestern tip of the state is doing its best to change that.
Not only is Galena a welcomed slice of Midwestern mountain-town character, but with its abundance of surrounding forestry and nature, it’s also a gateway to a number of local outdoor and adventure activities. After hiking through the nearby mountains, take an easy stroll down the charming Main Street before putting the feet up at one of its many spa resorts.
8 Bahá'í Temple, Wilmette
Over in the city of Wilmette, which is easily accessible for anyone basing themselves out of Chicago (only about 20 miles north of the Windy City), visitors will discover the largest Bahá’í temple in the world. Its size isn’t the only impressive feature about it - the design and architecture are absolutely stunning, and it actually holds the title as the world’s oldest surviving Bahá’í temple as well, having been constructed back in 1953.
Thanks to its majestic dome, white-cladded exterior, and nine stunning gardens, the unique location has received plenty of design awards, and it’s not too hard to see why.
7 Garden of the Gods (Shawnee National Forest)
Situated in the southern part of the state, the Shawnee National Forest is a welcomed change from the manic go-go-go lifestyles of the Windy City. Spanning almost 300,000 acres, Shawnee offers up beautiful woodlands, picturesque hills and sparkling lakes. Don’t forget the camera, because among the list of potential posing wildlife includes the nation’s icon: bald eagles.
With a name like Garden of the Gods, the expectations for this place are going to be set pretty high - but it certainly delivers. With waterfalls, explorable sandstone formations, and a solid amount of walking tracks, it’s a breath of fresh air.
6 Anderson Japanese Gardens
For our next Illinois POI, we’re stopping in the baby-sized town of Rockford, located in the state’s north, about an hour and a half’s drive northwest of the big city. Here, visitors will come across the sprawling elegance that is the Anderson Japanese Gardens. The setting is as relaxing as it is serene, with plenty of Japanese culture on display, and the options for calligraphy lessons and traditional Japanese tea ceremonies make it all the more worthwhile.
The town is also home to Rockford Art Museum and Rock Cut State Park, so despite its small size, there’s still an abundance of things to do.
5 Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
If you’re venturing through America’s Midwest and suddenly have an urge to learn everything there is to learn about the 16th President of the United States, then the town of Springfield has got you covered. This is actually Lincoln’s hometown, so it’s not hard to put two and two together and realize why it’s the chosen site for the museum.
History buffs will go nuts for the signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as the original copy of the Gettysburg Address. Aside from the countless intriguing artefacts, it’s also considered as one of the first ‘experience museums’, combining history with innovation and interaction, unlike most other museums.
4 Historic Museum of Torture Devices
Sitting smack bang on the Mississippi River, just north of St Louis, Missouri, is the little town of Alton, which sports a population of just under 30,000. For anyone who’s venturing through the area, there’s a rather odd collection of bizarre and ouch-worthy items waiting to be checked out.
While the Historic Museum of Torture Devices now officially changed its name to the Curiosity Museum (to expand its clientele, perhaps), there are still plenty of stabby, killy and punishy torture devices from all corners of the globe on display on its shelves. Thankfully, the entry fee isn’t too painful.
3 The Ghost Town of Cairo
Despite the huge size of Illinois, most people narrow it down to Chicago and Chicago alone, which means that it generally receives a fast-paced and bustling association. If that’s your idea of a worst nightmare, then we’ve got a solution:
Nestled deep in the southern part of the state, Cairo sits on the intersection of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Back in the day when the Mississippi River was used as a common ship route, Cario acted as a port town and was booming as a result. These days, however, it’s nothing more than an eerie ghost town. It’s a rather surreal experience to see a fully-functional locale completely abandoned, and is a worthwhile stop if driving through the region.
2 Dave's Down to Earth Rock Shop
Not too far from the Bahá'í Temple, we’re stopping into a quaint little storefront that boasts much more than meets the eye. Located in the Evanstown area, Dave's Down to Earth Rock Shop has been around for over 40 years, providing a quirky mix of materials of geological materials such gemstones, fossils, and crystals, with friendly information via books or Dave himself on offer to explain it all.
What tends to take visitors by (pleasant) surprise is the dinosaur-themed museum hidden down in the basement. It offers informative fun for all ages and is touted as a worthy stop for anyone looking to get out of the chaos of Chicago and venture into other areas.
1 World’s Largest Catsup Bottle
We’ve left perhaps the state’s most interesting attraction to the very end. Sure, seeing the Cubs play at Wrigley Field might be a hoot, and exploring the Shawnee National Forest offers up some stunning photo ops, but do they really compare to 170ft-tall bottle of Catsup?
It’s not just some tacky roadside attraction either - the locals are incredibly proud of their oversized condiment, and even through an annual World’s Largest Catsup Bottle Festival. Plus, it’s earned its spot of National Register of Historic Places. Do we really need to sell it more? C’mon, it’s a giant Catsup bottle! Check it out just south of the town of Collinsville.