The Land of Lincoln is an unassuming midwestern state with one massive claim to fame: The majestic city of Chicago.
Illinois might be a flyover state if not for the windy city, but visitors would miss the beautiful spaces the rest of the state offers. Here are the best things to do in Illinois outside of Chicago, plus the top five in the second city!
Top 5 Things to do in Chicago
Illinois boasts the third-largest city in the United States. Chicago abounds with museums, theme parks, restaurants, parks, venues, and unique neighborhoods, making it a top bucket list destination for many travelers. Over 30 million people visited Chicago in 2021.
Because this article is about visiting Illinois in general, we’re limiting the Chicago section to the top five, even though there are many other things to do in the windy city.
Visit a Museum
Some of the best museums in the country call Chicago home. Meet Sue, the most intact Tyrannosaurus rex fossil ever discovered, at the Field Museum of Natural History, or explore an authentic German U-boat from World War II at the Museum of Science and Industry.
If you only have time for one, consider the Art Institute of Chicago. From the iconic architecture guarded by two lions to the impressive collection of art spanning centuries, the Art Institute has it all. Marvel at Monet’s haystacks in the impressionist wing, or wonder at Warhol’s screen prints of Marylin Monroe.
The Art Institute features influential artists from around the world and is one of the top-rated things to do in Chicago.
See a Live Show
Chicago has a thriving music scene. Check out live music at one of Chicago’s iconic concert halls, the Aragon Ballroom, the Riviera, or the smaller, gritty Metro. Consider checking out a small, local band at one of the many live music venues scattered throughout the city, remembering that huge acts such as The Smashing Pumpkins, Rise Against, Styx, Fallout Boy, and, of course, Chicago, all hail from the Windy City.
Live shows in Chicago aren’t limited to music. Catch an off-Broadway play at the Broadway Playhouse or Cadillac Palace Theater. Visit the historic Chicago Theater or the VIC to enjoy a classic play. For classical theater, head to the Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier.
Become a Chicago Foodie
Chicago is renowned for its spectacular food. Visitors can’t decide between deep dish at Lou Malnati’s or Giordano’s, but locals will tell you that deep-dish pizza is mainly for tourists.
Chicago natives prefer authentic Chicago tavern-style pizza, which, although not as well known, is far superior to deep-dish pizza and New York Style pizza. Head to a local franchise like Beggars Pizza to enjoy this delicious pie loved by Chicagoans.
Pizza is only one of Chicago’s claims to fame. Visitors must try authentic Chicago hot dogs (please don’t add ketchup!), Italian beef sandwiches and Polish sausages. Portillo’s is a local chain where you can try all three, but consider the Weiner’s Circle, Al’s beef, or Maxwell Street Polish for a taste as well.
It’s not only about greasy, delicious comfort food. Chicago has thousands of restaurants for any palate. Head to the Moon Palace in Chinatown for some of the best Chinese food you’ve ever tasted. If you’re dying for authentic Italian, check out the mom-and-pop Italian restaurants on Taylor Street. Get amazing enchiladas and mouth-watering Mexican food at La Villita, the “Little Village” neighborhood just west of downtown.
Whatever food you’re in the mood for, Chicago likely has a tasty, authentic option.
Stroll through a Spectacular Park
You may be surprised by how many serene parks are nestled amongst the Chicago skyscrapers. Grant Park features nearly 320 acres and is located right in Chicago’s central business district. The park is home to the majestic Buckingham Fountain (featured prominently in the opening of the 1980s hit sitcom “Married with Children” and hosts numerous events throughout the year, including the must-visit Taste of Chicago in July.
Head to Millennium Park to see a marvel of modern art, Cloud Gate, fondly nicknamed “the Bean.” If you’re visiting Chicago with children, you may want to check out Play Park or Maggie Daley Park.
Take in Epic Views of the City
Chicago is renowned for its epic skyscrapers. The Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower) held the record for the tallest building in the world for many years before being overtaken by the Petronas Tower in Malaysia. Though it no longer ranks in the top 10, it’s still a spectacular site.
Head to the Willis Tower Skydeck to view the city from all angles. On a clear day, you can see three states from atop the tower: Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana. The Skydeck features a glass floor, allowing brave visitors to glimpse the bustling city below.
If a ticket to the Skydeck is too touristy for your tastes, opt for a drink in the Signature Room of the John Hancock building instead. The 95th-floor bar and restaurant may not be as high as the Willis Tower, but you can see fantastic city views while enjoying an expensive cocktail.
What is in Illinois Besides Chicago?
Chicago may get most of the love, but there are many other things to see in Illinois outside the city. Illinois encompasses over 57,000 square miles, and only a little over 200 of those are in the city of Chicago.
The rest of Illinois is lush with natural areas, farmland, small towns, and various fun activities for travelers of all ages. Don’t discount the rest of Illinois for your next adventure!
Things to do in Illinois Outside of Chicago
Explore the State Capital
Springfield serves as the state capital. The downtown area features the state capital building, home to gorgeous stained-glass windows and sculptures of historical figures.
Those interested in history can visit the Old State Capital, a National Historic Landmark where President Lincoln first announced his presidency.
Frolic in a Field of Wild Flowers
The Prairie State is marvelous to behold in the spring. The endangered prairie ecosystem bursts with color during wildflower blooms, making it an idyllic location for a frolic.
Visitors to Southern Illinois need to explore the Garden of the Gods Observation Trail for wildflowers in the spring and gorgeous rock formations year-round.
The Lincoln Home National Historic Site
While in Springfield, be sure to check out the only still-standing home of Abraham Lincoln and his family at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site. Purchased by the Lincolns in 1844, the house underwent several renovations while the family lived in Springfield.
When Lincoln headed to DC, the family rented the home. In 1887, Robert Lincoln signed the deed over to the state of Illinois under the provision that it be maintained as a historical site open to the public.
Visitors to the park can tour the home, watch a film on Lincoln’s life, and explore Lincoln’s old neighborhood.
The Lincoln Home is a must-visit location for Civil War buffs and fans of US history.
Lincoln Heritage Museum
Lincoln, IL, sits about 40 minutes north of Springfield. The small town was named after Abraham Lincoln before he became president and is honored to host the Lincoln Heritage Museum.
Lincoln College, established during the Civil War, operates the museum, which started as the Lincoln Room in 1941 after a large donation of Lincoln artifacts from an alumnus, Judge Lawrence Stringer.
Over time and with further donations, the room expanded into a library and then further into the full museum it is today.
The museum features artifacts from Lincoln’s life, including furniture, law books, campaign banners, and more. The second floor hosts an immersion tour, a complete audio/video experience allowing visitors to travel through time on a review of Lincoln’s life.
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
The final Lincoln-themed destination to visit on your trip to Illinois is the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Located in Springfield, Ill, the museum showcases Lincoln’s work and legacy as the 16th president of the United States.
The library focuses on two journeys, one through Lincoln’s life and works before his presidency and the other on the trials and tribulations of presiding over a divided nation, culminating in tragedy.
The library holds various artifacts from Lincoln’s life, including documents from his time as president. The exhibit constantly changes as historians work to preserve precious artifacts from our nation’s history.
When you’re tired of learning about Abraham Lincoln, switch gears and head to the Dana-Thomas House, an architectural marvel designed by Frank Llyod Wright in 1902. The home features 35 rooms on 16 overall levels, though only three of the levels are considered “main” levels.
The Dana-Thomas House also features one of the largest collections of art glass planned by Wright. The architect devised a wide array of artistic doors, windows, light fixtures, and light panels to complement each room’s magnificent design.
The state owns the house, which the Department of Natural Resources operates. The department offers daily tours, allowing visitors to admire Wright’s genius.
Starved Rock State Park
Illinois doesn’t have any National Parks but makes up for the absence with a variety of scenic State Parks. One of the most stunning is Starved Rock State Park, located about 90 miles southwest of Chicago.
The park is a favorite weekend getaway location for Chicago natives. Various hiking trails allow guests to explore the wilderness and view the iconic rock bluffs and waterfalls featured throughout the park. The park’s location along the Illinois river makes it ideal for boating, fishing, and kayaking.
Starved Rock offers options for travelers of all types. The lively campground is perfect for those looking for a rugged outdoor adventure, while the lodge offers cozy rooms and cabins for guests wanting the comforts of home.
Six Flags and Gurnee Mills
Gurnee is one of the northernmost suburbs of Chicago, located closer to the Wisconsin border than the city center. However, Gurnee is one of the best places to visit in Illinois, as it features an iconic theme park and a massive shopping center.
Six Flags Great America is one of the best things to do in Illinois. Dubbed the Thrill Capital of the Midwest, this Six Flags Park features over ten thrilling roller coasters and many small rides suitable for riders of all ages.
In addition to the rides, Six Flags offers shows, games, special events, and several family-friendly activities.
Those who don’t like theme parks can spend their day shopping at Gurnee Mills Mall, one of the largest shopping centers in the state. The mall features outlets, factory stores, and big-name stores you know and love. There’s also an arcade and food court, giving older kids great options for passing the time.
Visit a Farm
Most of Illinois is farmland. The state accounts for 4% of total US agriculture sales, primarily via corn, soybeans, and wheat.
Although most of the farms scattered throughout the state are working farms not open to the public, some offer activities and learning opportunities for visitors.
Family farms such as Kinnikinnick offer farm stays, allowing kids to help around the farm and learn about sustainable agriculture. Rader Family Farms in central Illinois transformed the farmland into a small agro-centric theme park, featuring numerous fun activities allowing kids to learn more about Illinois agriculture.
Many Illinois farms feature pumpkin patches in the fall, allowing families to pick their pumpkins directly from the vine.
Stroll Through an Orchard
Though corn is the star of Illinois agriculture, the state also grows fruit throughout the year. Visit an orchard to enjoy the delicious treats directly from the tree or vine.
Eckert’s family of farms has three locations along the Mississippi in Illinois plus a location in Kentucky and Missouri. Although most farms are only open seasonally, the original Belleville, IL, site is open year-round.
The farms offer various crops throughout the year, from apples to Christmas trees. Many also feature farm-focused fun, such as pig races, corn mazes, and petting zoos, making a visit one of the best family-friendly things to do in Illinois.
Ulysses S. Grant Home
Although Illinois heavily focuses on Abraham Lincoln as the presidential claim to fame, another US president had a home in the state.
Ulysses S. Grant was born and raised in Ohio but moved to the small town of Galena in Western Illinois in 1860. Grant left his new home in 1861 to join the war effort and returned in 1865 as a celebrated war hero.
Grant’s children gifted the house to the city of Galena in 1904 as a monument to their father. The city offered it to the state for preservation in the 1950s.
Visitors can tour the home Wednesday through Sunday. The site also features two other historic buildings, the Old Market House and the Elihu B. Washburne House.
Shawnee National Forest
Shawnee National Forest is a breathtaking forestland located near the southern tip of Illinois. The nearly 300,000-acre protected wilderness features stunning oak forests, providing lush shade in the summer and spectacular bursts of color in the fall.
Visitors will also find wetlands, canyons, and impressive rock formations throughout the forest, making it a perfect place to visit throughout the year. The forest area abounds with recreation areas, hiking trails, lakes, and campgrounds, offering guests a wide array of things to do in the park.
National Great Rivers Museum
The mighty Mississippi guards the 581-mile stretch of Illinois’s western border, making up nearly 25% of the iconic river’s flow. The river played an integral role in the state’s development throughout history.
The National Great Rivers Museum in Alton, Il, pays homage to the massive river. Guests can learn how the waterway contributed to the growth of the state (and nation) while taking in spectacular views from the lookout point.
The site also features the Melvin Price Locks and Dam, an engineering feat controlling the mighty river’s flow.
Have an Adventure on the Nation’s Largest River
Although learning about the river is fantastic, it’s far more fun to experience it yourself. The 581-mile border abounds with ways to enjoy the river.
State Parks in Illinois offer hiking with views of the river, while industrious resorts such as Chestnut Mountain offer zipline adventures allowing guests to soar over the mighty waterway. Various locations throughout the state offer river cruises, small boat tours, fishing expeditions, and other river adventures.
Wherever you find yourself along the western border, you’re sure to find a fantastic way to enjoy the raging river.
Hot Air Ballooning
You don’t have to travel to Turkey to check flying in a hot air balloon off your bucket list. Numerous companies offer hot air balloon rides throughout the state.
Those visiting Chicago should book with Midwest Ballooning Adventures, with two locations just outside the city, one to the west and another to the south.
Galena on the Fly offers flights near the Northwestern tip of the state, offering guests panoramic views of the Mississippi River and the tallest point in Illinois, which is only 1235 feet above sea level. If you want a bird’s eye view of the sprawling prairie native to central Illinois, book a ride with Balloons over Bloomington.
Escape to a Charming Small Town
Tourists flock to Illinois largest city, often ignoring the charming towns and villages scattered throughout the state. For a relaxing getaway, consider visiting a smaller town instead of the bustling city.
Galena in Northwestern Illinois should be at the top of your list. There are tons of things to do in the small tourist town, many of which feature prominently on this list.
Quincy is a charming small town nestled near the Mississippi river in central Illinois. The village features an abundance of homes on the National Register of Historic Places and numerous specialty museums.
Carbondale, in the Southern portion of the state, is a gateway to Shawnee National Forest and offers visitors a variety of restaurants, wineries, and historical activities.
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
Nobody thinks of Illinois when they think of historic ruins, but that needs to change! Cahokia Mounds is an archaeological site featuring over 2000 acres of the largest prehistoric settlement north of Mexico.
Archaeologists have discovered homes, public works, and other remnants of life in the Americas during the Middle Ages at Cahokia. However, most of the ruins consist of large mounds scattered throughout the area.
The historic site offers guided and self-guided public tours, a gift shop, trails, and an interpretive center.
The site is located in Collinsville, IL, and is a short drive from St. Louis.
Though Utah currently hosts the most prominent Mormon population, Nauvoo, Illinois was an early home for the religious sect. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, named the town and lived there until his untimely death at the Carthage jail in 1844.
Today, the town celebrates its past. Visitors can tour the Joseph Smith historic site and other historic buildings in the area. The Carthage jail transformed into a visitor center, where guests can learn about Smith’s ministry and final days.
Although most of the town’s attractions are geared towards Mormons, visitors from other religions will appreciate the historical significance of the sites and attractions. It’s a wonderful thing to do in Illinois for anyone interested in the history of religion.
Visit Powerhouses of Industry
The two biggest names in agricultural innovation have visitor centers in Illinois. Anyone interested in trucks, tractors, farming, or agriculture should plan a visit to one of these two fantastic attractions.
John Deere Historic Site
The John Deere Historic Site in Dixon, Illinois is an unassuming plot of land that changed the course of history. Here, John Deere developed the first commercially successful plow, making it easier for Midwestern farmers to cultivate their lands.
The John Deere Company still owns the site today, offering visitors free admission to view the historical artifacts and watch live blacksmithing demonstrations.
Caterpillar Visitor Center
Caterpillar is the king of industrial equipment. Founders Holt and Best invented one of the first ever steam-powered tractors, helping farmers cultivate the land without using horses. The company spawned an empire from there, creating innovative industrial equipment with thousands of uses.
Though now headquartered in Texas, the company was originally established in Peoria Illinois, and was headquartered there for over 100 years. Caterpillar maintains a presence in its first home with a visitors center and museum.
Visitors can explore Caterpillar’s impact on the United States’ development through the museum galleries and interactive exhibits. Future engineers can use the 3D software embraced by Caterpillar to design their own perfect CAT machines. The visitor’s center is perfect for learning niche US history while enjoying a day with your family.
Visit Old Joliet Prison
Joliet, Illinois, claims a notorious history. As the site of the Illinois State Penitentiary from 1858 to 2002, the prison housed criminals from around the state.
Overpopulation and horrendous conditions plagued the prison, leading to the construction of Statesville (the current state prison) in 1926. However, with so many inmates, the prison couldn’t close until the early 2000s.
Upon its closure, the prison fell into a state of disarray. Vandalism ran rampant, and state officials did nothing to improve the facility’s structural integrity. The city of Joliet reclaimed ownership in 2017 and transformed the site into a historic park and visitors centers.
Visitors can embark upon numerous tours through the prison, including the infamous after-dark tour, where you can learn the haunting and macabre tales of the old jail.
Peoria Riverfront Museum
The Peoria Riverfront Museum offers an eclectic mix of art, history, and science all under one roof. The museum holds over 15,000 objects in its permanent collection and hosts numerous traveling exhibitions throughout the year.
Guests can explore an impressive collection of fine art from around the world, uncover secrets of the cosmos in the planetarium, or discover the history of the first gasoline-powered car.
The wide assortment of exhibits ensures everyone will find something interesting at the museum, making it one of the best things to do in Illinois outside Chicago.
Jump out of an Airplane
Though you can find skydiving opportunities in many states, Illinois is the only one that hosted a major international event.
The World Freefall Convention ran from 1990-2006 in Quincy and Rantoul, Il. Thousands of skydivers from across the globe flocked to central Illinois to jump out of airplanes together over the vast, flat Illinois prairie.
Though the event is long gone unless the founder brings it back, central Illinois is still a great place to try skydiving. Numerous companies in the area offer solo or tandem jumps, making it ideal for both beginners and experts in the sport.
Various Outdoor Activities
Illinois starts with a northern forest, then blossoms into lush prairies, and ends with southern plains and wetlands. The varying ecosystems present throughout the state make it ideal for a wide array of outdoor activities.
Go water skiing, kayaking, canoeing, or boating on one of the state’s many rivers or lakes. Hike through forests, grasslands, or ravines at the different state parks scattered around the state. Enjoy hunting or fishing in the untouched wilds of central or southern Illinois.
The possibilities for outdoor activities are endless. If you’re a traveler who loves the outdoors, don’t discount Illinois for your next adventure.
Tons of Fun Things to Do in Illinois
Illinois is a diverse state offering far more than Chicago. Whether planning a trip or just passing through, continue stopping to enjoy all the beautiful sights in the prairie state.
Melanie Allen is an American journalist and happiness expert. She has bylines on MSN, the AP News Wire, Wealth of Geeks, Media Decision, and numerous media outlets across the nation. She covers a wide range of topics centered around self-actualization and the quest for a fulfilling life.