Downtown of Galena Illinois , with Christmas decoration, via StelsONe /

8 Must-See Historic Towns in Illinois

There are many ways of discovering Illinois’ fascinating history, but nothing beats the adventure of exploring its forgotten old towns hidden in the backcountry. From 18th-century frontier hamlets and historic settlements to Industrial Revolution boomtowns, these charming localities paint a vivid picture of the state’s past through unique stories. Strolling through their downtown districts exposes you to antique architectural gems and historical markers, and interacting with the locals introduces you to long-held traditions passed down through generations. So, if you’ve been yearning for an immersive historical adventure in Little Lincoln, these small towns in Illinois let you delve into the state’s rich past. 


Main Street in the historical downtown area of Galena, Illinois
Main Street in the historical downtown area of Galena, Illinois, USA. Editorial credit: Dawid S Swierczek /

This small northwest Illinois town boasts a rich mining and presidential history. At its peak, it was among the state’s wealthiest cities, producing about 85% of America’s lead. It is also known for being the home of President Ulysses S. Grant. Constructed in 1859, the U.S. Grant Home State Historic Site explores the legacy of the former Civil War general during his time in Galena. The downtown district houses several well-preserved 19th-century buildings, with the Dowling House offering the perfect example. It is the oldest structure standing in the town, built by John Dowling in 1826. A tour of the house reveals period furnishings, artifacts, and other relics showcasing life in Victorian-era Galena. 

The Washburne House State Historic Site leaves first-timers in awe of its gorgeous Greek Revival architectural style. This historic home belonged to former U.S. Congressman Elihu B. Washington and invites the public for tours. Many visitors to Galena choose to stay at the DeSoto House Hotel due to its historical significance. It dates back to the 1850s and is a short distance from the U.S. Grant home. 


The Menard County Courthouse in Menard County, Illinois. This is an image of a place or building that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places in the United States of America.
The Menard County Courthouse in Menard County, Illinois, By Matt Turner - Menard County Courthouse, IL, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

This tiny Menard County village is renowned for hosting New Salem, a recreated pioneer settlement where President Abraham Lincoln spent his life as a law student and a budding politician. At Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site, you can step almost two centuries back in time in a pioneer village to see how Lincoln lived from 1831 to 1837 as a young adult. Besides the house tour, guests also wander the quiet walkways around the neighborhood, which presents a relaxed outdoor setting. 

However, you will have a more fulfilling time outdoors at Hurie Park. The dog-friendly space is perfect for a family day out and provides guests with facilities like a playground, sports fields, and picnic areas. Petersburg also boasts a thriving bar and winery culture, evidenced by the many joints dotting the downtown. A stop at West of Wise Winery offers the opportunity to sample freshly crafted wines in a cozy green atmosphere, accompanied by great food and live music. 


Old business buildings in Quincy, Illinois, USA, on an early winter morning.
Old business buildings in Quincy, Illinois, USA, on an early winter morning. Editorial credit: Sabrina Janelle Gordon /

Illinois’ “Gem City” sits along the picturesque banks of the Mississippi River in Adams County. It has a rich heritage that stretches back to the early 1800s, serving as a vital stop in the Underground Railroad and contributing towards the abolition of slavery. This captivating history is well documented at the Quincy Museum, housed in an 1890s structure. Inside, you can peruse artifacts focusing on local history, Native American heritage, and even dinosaurs. The Indian Mounds Park is another exciting venue to explore, ideal for history buffs and outdoor lovers. The site preserves a historic Indian burial ground but also features green surroundings with isolated trails and cute picnic spots. 

Architectural enthusiasts can admire some of the best old-world building styles at the John Wood Mansion. This 1830s home, by Illinois’ 12th governor, John Wood, impresses with a Greek Revival façade and decorative details inside. Quincy’s thriving arts culture is best experienced at the Quincy Art Center, which draws connoisseurs to examine over 400 art pieces by local and regional creatives. 


Downtown Jacksonville, Illinois.
 Downtown Jacksonville, Illinois. Image credit: Randy von Liski via

A town of many firsts, Jacksonville is home to the state’s first college, the Illinois College, which went on to establish the first medical school in Illinois. Its colorful heritage is well documented at various historical markers around the town. The Jacksonville Area Museum is a local gem depicting the history of the city as a bastion of education. It exhibits old documents, archives, and artifacts that take you back through the evolution of Jacksonville from its early days. Jacksonville also houses one of the most iconic landmarks in the state. The Big Eli Ferris Wheel dates back to the start of the 20th century and lies inside Community Park. 

If you are interested in the arts, you can check out the David Strawn Art Gallery, which has been exhibiting since 1915. It continues this tradition by displaying a mix of permanent and rotating pieces by various artists. As a reminder of your experience in Jacksonville, be sure to find a cute souvenir at the Market House Antiques before leaving. 


Downtown Nauvoo, Illinois.
Downtown Nauvoo, Illinois. Image credit: Ken Lund via

Nauvoo is a small town steeped in Mormon heritage, serving as the headquarters of the Mormon Church for seven years during the 1840s. Today, you can find remains of its Mormon roots in its impressively preserved historic district. Noteworthy among them is the Nauvoo Illinois Temple, which is the second temple in the state constructed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Meanwhile, the Joseph Smith Historic Site honors the memory and legacy of Joseph Smith Jr., founder of the Latter Day Saint Movement. 

Nauvoo’s location along the scenic banks of the Mississippi River results in serene and green natural surroundings. You can explore the outdoor scenery at Nauvoo State Park, which straddles over 140 acres and offers quaint picnic spots, playgrounds, walking trails, and camping sites. When you have soaked in enough of the town’s storied history, you can unwind with a glass of fresh wine at Baxter’s Vineyards and Winery. 


Metropolis, Illinois: Chevrolet, Bel Air, Classic car park infront of the Super Museum
Metropolis, Illinois: Chevrolet, Bel Air, Classic car park infront of the Super Museum

The self-proclaimed “Home of Superman” is a charming all-American town along the Ohio River. For years, Metropolis has drawn Superman fans from around the country, proving to be a Mecca for comic enthusiasts. As one of the most conspicuous sights in the town, the World’s Largest Superman Statue stands at 15 feet tall, and visitors can’t help but snap a photo beside the larger-than-life statue. Metropolis also houses the Super Museum, an excellent stop for families. Inside, kids can go through at least 20,000 Superman-themed comics, shirts, toys, and other merchandise. 

Furthermore, you can’t miss out on Fort Massac State Park, which houses a historic French colonial-era fort featured on the National Register of Historic Places. The park straddles over 1,500 acres and provides endless outdoor opportunities, from fishing and hiking to fishing and boating. And when you’ve worked up an appetite from moving up and down the town, you can restock with delicious Italian dishes at Cordavino’s. 


Old abandoned buildings and storefronts in Cairo, Illinois
Old abandoned buildings and storefronts in Cairo, Illinois, via Eddie J. Rodriquez /

Cairo sits at the southern tip of the state, where the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers converge. The town played a crucial role during the Civil War, serving as a strategic post for the Union forces. You can explore more about this part of its history at Fort Defiance State Park. Besides hosting the historic fortification, the park covers over 190 acres, presenting endless opportunities for adventurers like hikers, campers, anglers, picnickers, and snowmobilers. Strolling through Cairo’s Historic Park District reveals various historical markers, with preserved structures dating back to the 19th century. 

While in the neighborhood, don’t forget to check out Magnolia Manor, a 14-room brick mansion built by Charles Galigher in 1869. The home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and opens its doors to public tours. Finally, you can wind up the historical experience at the Cairo Custom House Museum. The imposing building was constructed in 1872 and served the town as a courthouse, customs house, and post office. 


Old Cahokia Courthouse in Cahokia, Illinois.
Old Cahokia Courthouse in Cahokia, Illinois. By Rklawton, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Cahokia’s territory has continuously been inhabited for over 1,000 years. What started as a French trading settlement in the late 17th century grew into a significant Mississippian civilization center, making Cahokia the first permanent European settlement in Illinois. At the heart of the town are the remarkable Cahokia Mounds, part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can wander the 80 surviving earthworks and effigy mounds, take in views from the dramatic Monks Mound, and learn about the sophisticated civilization that achieved these architectural feats. Two other prominent historical attractions reflect Cahokia's cultural roots. 

The Cahokia Courthouse, built in 1740, serves as the area's oldest surviving example of French colonial architecture. Meanwhile, Jarrot Mansion offers a glimpse into early 19th-century French life in Illinois through its restored buildings and exhibits. After a day exploring Cahokia's illuminating historical sites, unwind at the Sandy Ridge Bar. Within its relaxed atmosphere, kick back with a locally crafted cocktail as live music plays. 

Final Thoughts

These small towns in Illinois collectively showcase the rich history of the state, from its formative years through its development to where it stands today. They offer an intimate look at what life was for the pioneers who helped shape the destiny of the Prairie State. As they transport you to the bygone eras, these localities are not merely relics of the past; they are a continuation of primitive communities that have grown into thriving urbanized centers. Sparing a day to tour any of them promises an immersive experience that will leave a lasting impression. 

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