Street view in Woodstock, Illinois. Image credit Nejdet Duzen via Shutterstock

7 Offbeat Towns in Illinois to Visit

Long before pioneers and settlers occupied the state of Illinois, the Algonquin people used the word "Illinois" to describe themselves as a "tribe of superior men." In these modern times, many superior elements of Illinois can still be admired, especially in culturally influential cityscapes like Springfield and Chicago. But it is the offbeat small towns that draw visitors across a state riddled with interstate highways. Those looking for the unique and the unusual ought to visit riverside towns like Nauvoo and Fulton, or perhaps you might enjoy historic locations like Arcola and Ottawa. Either way, the offbeat towns of Illinois are the rare treasures you find on the path less traveled.


View of Main Street in historical downtown area of Galena, Illinois.
Main Street in historical downtown area of Galena, Illinois. Image credit Dawid S Swierczek via Shutterstock

Galena is an out-of-the-way town near the borders of Iowa and Wisconsin. This small town is known for its impeccably preserved 19th-century Victorian architecture, as the 1826 Dowling House exemplifies. The Italianate Ulysses S. Grant Home, a gift from local citizens to the Civil War general turned US president, is also a fine example of Galena's quaint history. Get a chance to witness the Great Galena Balloon Race during summer's highest peak or the Galena General's Parade during St. Patrick's Day.

Stroll through diverse natural features like the Mississippi River or Horseshoe Mound, located on the outskirts of Galena and offering pristine views of three states. Other mounds—believed to be ancient, Native American ceremonial sites—can be explored at Casper Bluff. Need a place to stay? Do not worry, because the Hotel Galena has excellent lodgings to spend the night.


Street view and town clock in Woodstock Town of Illinois
Downtown Woodstock, Illinois. Image credit Nejdet Duzen via Shutterstock

Be ready to relive the same day again in the town of Woodstock, located about 60 miles from Chicago. If you feel an odd sense of déjà vu to the place, then you probably recognize Woodstock as the setting for the classic movie Groundhog Day, referred to as Punxsutawney in the film.

Woodstock even celebrates a Groundhog Day festival every February 2, similar to the Groundhog Day festival in Pennsylvania. Aside from movie references, visitors can be dazzled by performances at the historic, Gothic-themed Opera House. Try not to miss out on the mesmerizing Lighting of the Square at the beginning of Thanksgiving. Last but not least, book a room at the Cherry Tree Inn B&B.


Nauvoo Temple above the Mississippi River at sunrise.
Nauvoo Temple, Illinois above the Mississippi River at sunrise.

Nauvoo sits on the banks of the Mississippi River, just across the river from historic Fort Madison, Iowa. The land had seen many unique cultures come and go, from the Sauk and Fox Native American Tries, to Mormons, Icarians, and German immigrants. The Joseph Smith Historic Site narrates the story of the Latter-Day Saint movement in Nauvoo during the early 1840s. In addition, the Rheinberger HouMuseumeum showcases many pioneer-era articles.

Military enthusiasts might be interested in visiting the workshop of Jonathan Browning, one of the most famous gunmakers in the world, thanks to his Browning guns and rifles. Perhaps tour the Webb Blacksmith Shop for deeper insights into a vital part of life in the American frontier. For places to stay, look no further than the Hotel Nauvoo, the Inn at Old Nauvoo, and Nauvoo Vacation Villas.


The De Immigrant Windmill on the historic Lincoln Highway in Fulton, Illinois.
The De Immigrant Windmill on the historic Lincoln Highway in Fulton, Illinois.

Located about 50 miles from Galena on the Mississippi River, the town of Fulton celebrates its Dutch heritage with the De Immigrant Windmill, an iconic structure brought from the Netherland. On the first weekend of May, Fulton commemorates the arrival of Dutch settlers on Dutch Days. The Andresen Nature Center educates travelers on the preserving of riverside wildlife in the area.

The Fulton (Martin House) Museum also teaches visitors the diverse backstories that built the town. Most of all, the Heritage Canyon will take you back to the hardworking, limestone-mining times of the 1800s. The Heritage Canyon is not a canyon but a 12-acre nature walk dotted with old wooden structures composing the town's old quarry. When it comes to pristine lodgings, the AmericInn Hotel & Suites and the Wild Rose Casino & Resort provide many comforts.


Colorful old brick buildings and storefronts in downtown Princeton, Illinois.
Downtown Princeton, Illinois. Image credit Eddie J. Rodriquez via Shutterstock

An hour away from Peoria, Princeton has often been cited as one of the most charming towns in Illinois. Princeton was as a major railroad station between Chicago, Quincy, and Burlington. Today, the historic Amtrak Train Station continues to shuffle passengers across Illinois. For outdoor and plant enthusiasts, the Hornbaker Gardens is a verdant paradise to explore.

The Barn Quilts of Bureau County testify to Princeton's historic and economic ties as an agricultural community. The four Flags of Freedom fly in salutation to the military men and women who continue to serve the US. Learn more about Princeton's past in the Lovejoy Homestead, or attend Festival 56, a series of Shakespearean or Broadway performances by the Princeton Theatre Group. Once exhaustion seeps in, recharge at the historic Knox Hotel.


The Raggedy Anne and Andy statue by sculptor Jerry McKenna, in downtown Arcola.
The Raggedy Anne and Andy statue by sculptor Jerry McKenna, in downtown Arcola, Illinois. Image credit Eddie J. Rodriquez via Shutterstock

About an hour and a half away from Springfield, the town of Arcola sits on the banks of the Okaw River. Pioneers in the mid-1800s built Arcola, originally called Bagdad (similar sounding to Iraq's Capital, Baghdad, but with no other affiliations), to service the Illinois Central Railroad.

Nowadays, Arcola is more famous for its bountiful produce of broomcorn. The townsfolk even celebrate the Broomcorn Festival every September to honor the town's continuous legacy in agriculture. Journey through Arcola to see the 15 Walldog murals depicting the town's history. One mural talks about Arcola local Johnny Gruelle and the creation of his famous Raggedy Ann Doll, more commonly known as "Annabelle." After seeing more of Arcola's unique attractions, seek accommodations at the Arcola Inn or Quality Inn.


Old fashioned popcorn vendor in downtown Ottawa, Illinois.
Old fashioned popcorn vendor in downtown Ottawa, Illinois. Image credit Eddie J. Rodriquez via Shutterstock

The town of Ottawa in Illinois is a much smaller community than the city of Ottawa in Canada. Located 80 miles from Chicago, the town is centrally positioned, notably at the confluence of the meandering Fox River and pristine Illinois River. It is close to a panoply of state parks, such as Buffalo Rock State Park, Dayton Bluffs Preserve, Starved Rock State Park, and more.

Adventurous visitors can head out for exhilarating skydiving at the nearby Skydive Chicago or offroad biking and biking at Fox Valley Off-Road. Consider touring Reddick Mansion, an Italianate edifice built by Illinois State Senator William Reddick. While in town, marvel at the many murals that showcase Ottawa's vibrant history. Then relax and replenish at the Heritage Harbor.

Sure, cultural centers like Springfield and Chicago may carry the liberal attitudes and industrial activities of the American people, but small towns like Princeton, Fulton, Galena, among others, are not to be underestimated. So travel the road less traveled to these offbeat small towns, and let yourself experience the superiority of Illinois' rural areas.

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