Historical Galena Town view at Autumn in Illinois. Image credit Nejdet Duzen via Shutterstock

6 Most Charming River Towns in Illinois

Illinois, a state that is often underappreciated when it comes to natural beauty and charm, has a surprising amount to offer. Both the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers have gifted Illinoisans with some of the most serene riverside towns in all of the US. The charm and small-town culture present in these places are hard to find in the big cities.


Church in Peoria, Illinois
A Catholic church in the middle of Peoria's downtown. Image credit Henryk Sadura via Shutterstock

Located between Chicago and Springfield, Peoria is the middle child of Illinois. Hugging the banks of the Illinois River, Peoria has long been an import dock and shipyard for trade heading out of the Great Lakes and to the Mississippi River.

Very much a blue-collar city, do not let that dissuade you from coming here. The locals are some of the most accommodating in the state. Along with scenic river city views, the natural beauty of Peoria is stunning at any time of the year. Peoria is also famous for hosting some of the most extravagant Christmas festivals in the region.


Windmill on a bike path in Fulton Illinois
Windmill on a bike path in Fulton, Illinois. Image credit K.L. Swett via Shutterstock

Found on the Mississippi River, right across from Iowa, Fulton stands out for the deep Dutch cultural influence that is still present in the town.

While small, the points of interest in Fulton are many. The Heritage Canyon is a series of 19th-century dwellings that are available for viewing by tour. The small Dutch village is just as they left it, with a wooden church, schoolhouse, and bridge still intact.

At the center of town lays the impressive De Immigrant Windmill. A large Dutch-style windmill constructed for the town's annual Dutch Days Festival stands almost 100 feet tall. To this day it remains the focal point of all of Fulton's cultural festivities.


Bridge over Mississippi, Chester, Illinois
Original steel bridge over Mississippi, Chester, Illinois. Image credit photo.eccles via Shutterstock

This small town of fewer than 7,000 people sits across the Mississippi River from Missouri. The riverside location of Chester gives this town an endless supply of tranquil river views. However, the scenery is not the only thing that makes this town special. 

Chester is home to none other than the world-renowned cartoon character Popeye. In 1977 the town erected a statue of Popeye to commemorate the lovable character. As the years passed, more statues popped up to pay homage to the other characters in the Popeye series. In 2020 QR codes were even added to some of the statues to offer visitors more information about the show and the characters' backstories.


Nauvoo Temple Illinois
The Mormon church in Nauvoo is undoubtedly the most impressive building in town. Image credit SkyBlodgett via Shutterstock

With a population of approximately 950, Nauvoo, Illinois is a small but popular destination on the Mississippi River. Nauvoo is none other than the site of the family home of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion.

Due to Nauvoo's connection to the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, this small town is a hotbed for religious pilgrimages made by Mormons. Most of the town's amenities and lodgings portray the Mormonism style. In the middle of Nauvoo is an enormous Mormon temple that dominates the rest of the structures around it. Regardless of your religious affiliation, it is worth a visit.

Cave In Rock

Cave in rock
It is easy to see why so many outlaws used Cave in Rock as a base of operations. Image credit Wildnerdpix via Shutterstock

A small village found across the Ohio River from Kentucky, Cave in Rock has a unique past. Carved out the side of a limestone mountain, the 55-foot wide cave gave the town its name. While the cave itself is an impressive geological phenomenon, the history of the cave is much more interesting.

Since it was first discovered by white settlers in the late 18th century, the cave has been a sanctuary for all manner of undesirables. River pirates, serial killers, highway gangs, and wanted criminals are all said to have lived in the cave at one time or another.


Galena Illinois
Grant Park view of the Galena River, Galena, Illinois. Image credit Nejdet Duzen via Shutterstock

The Galena River which runs into the mighty Mississippi River flows majestically through the quaint town of Galena. A popular Christmas destination for all Illinoisans, Galena is picturesque during the winter months. With a stunning historic downtown filled with shops, restaurants, and bars, Galena makes for an ideal Christmas trip with family and friends.

Galena is in remarkably good condition and is still home to countless red brick buildings, first built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With the annual Holidaze Festival every December, winter is the perfect time to experience Galena for yourself.

The small river towns of Illinois have much to offer, with scenic views and endless nature to explore. Whether you are a Morman making a trip to Nauvoo, a family celebrating Christmas in Galena, or someone obsessed with serial killers scoping out Cave in Rock, there is something for everyone. The winter months especially, with fresh blankets of snow make traveling to these towns all that more beautiful and special.

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