Busy Main Street in the historic downtown area of Galena, Illinois, USA, bustling with cars and people. Editorial credit: Dawid S Swierczek / Shutterstock.com

11 Top-Rated Small Towns In Illinois

Any first-timer planning a trip to Illinois naturally has Chicago as their top destination. But with the Windy City hosting about a quarter of the state’s population, why would you want to jostle for space with endless crowds when there is so much more of the state to experience? The small towns in rural Illinois have a unique charm and promise just as fulfilling a holiday experience as you’d expect from the bigger cities. 

From sprawling state parks, rich historical heritage, and unparalleled cultural attractions to endless outdoor opportunities, these little-known locations are the state’s best-kept secret. Additionally, the slow pace of life and friendly, tight-knit communities guarantee a fresh and exciting experience. For a break from the monotony, these are the top-rated small towns in Illinois to visit. 


Main Street in the historical town of Galena, Illinois, USA.
Main Street in the historic town of Galena, Illinois, USA. Editorial credit: Nejdet Duzen / Shutterstock.com

Consistently ranked among the top small destinations in Illinois, Galena draws visitors with its historical heritage and relaxed atmosphere. The town is known for being the home of former U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant and for the Galena Historic District, which houses several properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There is a treasure trove of landmarks to discover in this exciting corridor, highlighted by the U.S. Grant Home State Historic Site and the Washburne House State Historic Site.

One of the best ways to explore this historic neighborhood is with the Galena Trolley Tours, featuring stops at the top sites with incredible photo opportunities. History aside, the town has a few nature spots worth checking out, including Grant Park. Sitting next to the Galena River presents the ideal setting to relax, unwind, and enjoy the river views. While there are numerous lodging options, the DeSoto House Hotel is among the go-to places. 


A windmill located in Mt. Emblem Cemetery in Elmhurst.
A windmill located in Mt. Emblem Cemetery in Elmhurst.

This Chicago suburb offers a sweet escape for those looking to break from the hustle and bustle of the Windy City. It has a vibrant arts scene, with many museums and theater venues dotting the town. Some of the best points of interest for art and theater lovers include the Elmhurst Art Museum and Classic Cinemas York Theater. But if historical pursuits capture your attention, then the Elmhurst History Museum is a worthy alternative, with rotating exhibits presenting a glimpse into the region’s past. 

Outdoor enthusiasts will fancy the delightful setting of Wilder Park, which boasts one of the largest District playgrounds. This popular public space impresses with multiple amenities, including gardens, picnic areas, museums, playgrounds, and sports facilities. Meanwhile, environmentalists will love the diverse flora and ambiance of the Wilder Park Conservatory. 


Street view in the town of Woodstock, Illinois, USA.
Street view in the town of Woodstock, Illinois, USA. Editorial credit: Nejdet Duzen / Shutterstock.com

Woodstock’s claim to fame was the filming location of the famous 1993 comedy flick Groundhog Day. If you visit the town today, you can watch the movie at the historic Woodstock Opera House, one of the oldest operating theaters in the country. But movies aside, this modest locality in McHenry County has a vibrant downtown, which draws visitors to the Woodstock Square Historic District and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

Those desiring to explore the open spaces can head to the Duffield Pond Conservation Area for a hiking expedition along an outback trail or fish for species like bluegill and largemouth bass at the onsite pond. Woodstock is famous for hosting multiple events, concerts, festivals, and the award-winning Woodstock Farmers Market. This means it remains a worthy visit regardless of season and offers several accommodation options, including the iconic Cherry Tree Inn. 


Reddick Mansion in the historical park of Ottawa, Illinois, USA. This mansion was built for local businessman and politician, William Reddick.
Reddick Mansion in Ottawa, Illinois, USA. Editorial credit: Dawid S Swierczek / Shutterstock.com

Outdoor adventurers are in for a treat in this picturesque town, located on the confluence of the Fox and Illinois Rivers. Ottawa promises a jam-packed experience with several outdoor opportunities in its many parks and is one of the most adorable towns in Illinois. Buffalo Rock State Park is an excellent spot for hiking and enjoying views of the Illinois Rivers. On the other side lies the famous Starved Rock State Park, home to a diverse ecosystem with beautiful landscapes and fantastic wildlife species to discover. 

History buffs will be intrigued to know that Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham had their first face-off in a debate at Washington Square Park, which sits in the heart of the town’s historic district. The park houses several other iconic landmarks and offers a tranquil setting for those looking to relax and people-watch. Lastly, you will enjoy the stay at Heritage Harbor Resort, which guarantees easy access to the fun activities around the vibrant Illinois River marina. 


Downtown storefronts in Fulton, Illinois, USA, on a beautiful sunny afternoon.
Downtown storefronts in Fulton, Illinois, USA, on a beautiful sunny afternoon. Editorial credit: Eddie J. Rodriquez / Shutterstock.com

Charming, quaint, and idyllic words perfectly describe this Whiteside County village, set along the banks of the Mississippi River. Fulton is steeped in Dutch heritage and hosts descendants of Dutch immigrants who settled in the area in the 1800s. This foreign influence is evident throughout Fulton, including in top attractions like the Heritage Canyon. This 12-acre complex houses a lovely nature trail and a historic village replica offering a look into 19th-century farm life in Fulton. 

Other notable points of interest include the Windmill Cultural Center, which displays an impressive collection of European windmill models. Also, the de Immigrant Windmill is an authentic Dutch windmill you will want to witness. Besides the cultural experience, the Andresen Nature Center presents an exciting look at local wildlife, insects, and flora. For an immersive experience in Fulton, try to schedule your visit during the Dutch Days Festival on May’s first weekend. 


The Hollister-Balsley House located in the Rockton Historic District, Illinois.
The Hollister-Balsley House is located in the Rockton Historic District, Illinois. Editorial Credit: By Boscophotos - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43448765

Hosting a small community of about 7,800, Rockton is a charming village in the Rock River Valley. It has beautiful natural scenery with a serene atmosphere, making it one of the best towns in Illinois for a quiet getaway. Thanks to spots like the J. Norman Jensen Forest Preserve, a pleasing space with recreational opportunities like fishing, hiking, picnicking, and sightseeing, nature lovers will be spoilt for choice. Alternatively, you can head to the Carl and Myrna Nygren Wetland Preserve to bask in a serene environment and explore the wetland area and restored prairies. On the other hand, downtown has a more upbeat atmosphere, with a raft of spots where locals and tourists converge, such as the popular After The Vine. History buffs will be glad to check out the Macktown Living History Education Center or the Rockton Township Historical Society to glimpse the town’s past. 


Nauvoo, Illinois with the LDS Mormon Temple on a beautiful morning.
Nauvoo, Illinois, with the LDS Mormon Temple on a beautiful morning.

Nauvoo, Hebrew for “beautiful Place,” describes this pint-sized locality along the Mississippi River. The town’s beauty comes from breathtaking natural scenery and unique historical significance. Nauvoo traces its history to the 1800s when it was headquartered in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Today, you can explore this past at the Nauvoo Illinois Temple, admire its gorgeous façade, or wander its well-kept gardens. Another surreal experience awaits at the Joseph Smith Historic Site, which houses ancient structures from the 1800s. 

You can explore the outdoors at the Nauvoo State Park while geeking at the town’s historical treasures. Straddling 148 acres, the park is a hub of recreational opportunities, such as fishing, boating, camping, and hiking. Finally, the Trail of Hope offers a surreal spiritual experience along the route that church members followed when fleeing persecution. 

Bishop Hill

The historic Bishop Hill Steeple Building, constructed in 1854, on a cloudy afternoon in Bishop Hill, Illinois, USA.
The historic Bishop Hill Steeple Building on a cloudy afternoon in Bishop Hill, Illinois, USA. Editorial credit: Eddie J. Rodriquez / Shutterstock.com

While Fulton attracted Dutch immigrants and Nauvoo attracted the Mormons, Bishop Hill was the destination for Swedish immigrants looking for a utopian society. This sleepy town lies along the South Edwards River, and its tiny population of just over 100 means there is enough space for historians to explore its storied past. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, you can visit the Bishop Hill State Historic Site to browse through the Colony Hotel, Museum, and Colony Church. 

There is more Swedish immigrant history to uncover at the Bishop Hill Heritage Association, which houses restored colony-era buildings. Before leaving this quaint location, don’t forget to stop by Hantverk Galleri and admire the intricate handicrafts on sale. These will make a cute souvenir to take home after your stay at the cozy Twinflower Inn. 


The Bond County Courthouse located in Greenville, Illinois.
The Bond County Courthouse located in Greenville, Illinois.

One of the oldest towns in the state, Greenville was established in the 1810s and has a storied past that the town takes great pride in. Its retro downtown hosts a treasure trove of historical gems, featuring many museums and sites that take you back to the bygone eras. One such venue is the American Farm Heritage Museum, an outdoor museum displaying farm implements and tools dating over a century ago. 

Another venue to check out is the Bond County Museum, dedicated to local history. It houses a collection of artifacts and memorabilia, painting a picture of Greenville through the years. Even with its old profile, Greenville is today a bubbly college town hosting Greenville University and events that you can schedule your trip to coincide with. These include the Agape Music Festival and the World Powered Parachute Championships. 


A country folk singer performing on a stage with a guitar on a red brick road during a fall festival in Lebanon, Illinois, USA. Old buildings and craft booths are visible in the background.
Country folk singer performing on stage during a fall festival in Lebanon, IL. Editorial credit: RozenskiP / Shutterstock.com

Lebanon gets its name from the Mediterranean country and lies in the section of Illinois known as “Little Egypt.” This is because of the Indian mounds in the region that once seemed like the pyramids. As such, Lebanon has a few archeological treasures, including the Emerald Mound and Village Site, five mounds representing the remains of an ancient Indian village. The town is also home to the oldest college in the state, McKendree University, and hosts several other historical landmarks. 

A good example is the Mermaid House Hotel, constructed in 1830 by Lyman Adams. Charles Dickens even mentioned the landmark inn in his book American Notes. If you are not keen on the town’s history, you can explore the 58-acre Horner Park and take advantage of its recreational facilities, such as basketball and tennis courts, softball and baseball fields, and a fishing lake. 


A view of homes in the historic village of Elsah, Illinois, USA.
A view of homes in the historic village of Elsah, Illinois, USA. Editorial credit: Fsendek / Shutterstock.com

Elsah is a tiny village in Jersey County, tucked away in a lush ravine and encircled by a dense network of woods. This picturesque hidden gem houses a small population of about 600 but offers a fair share of attractions to entertain visitors. If you are a wildlife enthusiast, Elsah is one of the best places to watch the American Bald Eagle. A tour of Elsah Village takes you down memory lane to 19th-century life in the town as seen through ancient stone houses and gardens. The quiet downtown offers a picture of a village frozen in time. Its deserted streets are lined with old buildings, such as the Stone Houses on LaSalle Street, built before 1861. When it is time to call it a day, the Green Tree Inn of Elsah is an adorable B&B inside the historic village you will like. 

Discover Illinois Beyond Chicago

Although Chicago gets all the hype when it comes to Illinois travels, there is more to experience beyond the Windy City. The state's rural side harbors hidden gems you will be happy to discover. These small towns in Illinois promise a remarkable experience, whether traveling alone, with a spouse, or with family. 

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