Do not fall for the widely-held misconception. The fact Illinois is the second-flattest state in the country after Florida does not mean it lacks sites, scenes, or attractions that can leave a first-time visitor completely blown away. And it is not just about Chicago, a storied city reputed to be the birthplace of the skyscraper. From unique, geologic formations to cascading waterfalls, and panoramic hiking trails, the Prairie State is not without its fair share of beauty. Dotting this Midwestern state is a delightful array of charming small towns that often serve as jumping-off-points to some of the state's most beautiful treasures. For those willing to give Illinois a try, the following are the nine must-visit small towns in the state.
Consistently named among the prettiest in the nation, Galena is the perfect rebuttal to the misconception that Illinois is an unbroken pancake. But before exploring the tapestry of mountains, valleys, and other outdoor marvels, you should kickstart your trip by sitting at a table at Otto's Place and savoring an insanely delicious brunch. Known for its distilleries, a tour of the Blaum Bros. Distilling Co. will then be in order. Besides its intriguing history, this property’s classic cocktails are known to awaken every sleeping taste bud. You will also want to see the Italianate-style Ulysses S. Grant Home, a gift by the area residents to Ulysses S. Grant on his victorious return from the Civil War. One can also split time between exploring the beautiful 19th-century architecture that defines Galena's downtown area and ambling through the woods at the expansive Mississippi Palisades State Park, located about 30 miles southeast of the town.
Tucked away about 51 miles northwest of Chicago, Woodstock boasts a historic square that the National Trust for Historic Preservation has labeled as a Distinctive Destination. Woodstock’s historic square is not only fit for a Hollywood movie but has starred in one: The 1993 comedy classic Groundhog Day. The Woodstock Opera House, a feature of Woodstock for more than 130 years, is in a stunningly beautiful, historic building that conveniently overlooks the town square — and is often a perfect spot to catch a show. Antiquarians will want to traipse through the town's menu of antique stores, including the Roscoe Woodstock Antique Mall — while All Seasons Orchard is a perfect spot to relax and decompress, perhaps with a glass of delicious, fresh apple cider.
Called home by about 2,200 residents, Arthur is best known for its Amish heritage. The town is smack in the middle of Illinois Amish Country and hosts, in its environs, the largest and oldest Amish community in the Prairie State. Because of this, the Illinois Amish Heritage Center should be a must-do, partly because it hosts the oldest Amish house in Illinois. For learning about Amish culture, this heritage center always fits the bill. For those who want to sample Amish dishes, Yoder's Kitchen is known for its delicious Grandma-like food and is often a memorable culinary experience. For something crispy or crunchy, one can opt for the Homestead Bakery, known for its kick-ass cinnamon rolls. Finally, the annual Arthur Cheese Festival, which typically features cheese-eating contests, is known to bring the town to a stop.
Secreted in the rolling hills of northwestern Illinois about 10 miles from the ‘Ol Man River, and two and a half hours west of Chicago, Mount Carroll hosts about 1,500 residents and is an ideal spot for history buffs or architecture nerds. That said, thrills and chills await first-time visitors at the Raven’s Green Inn, one of the town's most sought-after attractions. The history of the building, a supposedly haunted sculpture garden, and a labyrinth of secret passages and dioramas are ingredients of this eccentric experience. Plus, a first-time visitor will want to catch a performance at Timber Lake Playhouse — or enjoy a stroll at the 25-acre Point Rock Park, while inhaling beautiful views of the Wakarusa River.
A vibrant town of about 7,500 residents, Princeton is a must-visit Illinois gem, situated along the scenic Hennepin Canal. First-time visitors often enjoy the outdoor adventures on offer at the expansive Hennepin Canal Parkway State Park, a green space gem also ideal for rest or reflection. One can hike the park’s trails, drop a line and see what comes up, or just bob about above shimmering waters. On the flip side, the Lovejoy Homestead, once one of the last stops on the underground railroad, is often quite a draw with history buffs and is known to provide an evocative experience — while opening a window into one of the gloomiest chapters in the history of the nation. Lastly— the neighboring Heritage Corridor, a popular outdoor recreational dream, will never fail to elicit gasps at every turn of the eye.
Known for its Dutch heritage, Fulton is ideal for those desiring to have a first-hand experience of the history, culture, and legacy of the Dutch in Illinois. “The City on the Narrows,” ostensibly because it sits at one the narrowest points on the Mississippi, is Dutch through and through. For instance, you will find tulips, the gorgeous flower most associated with the Dutch, stenciled on the downtown sidewalks. The real show-stopper, however, is the giant windmill. Standing at nearly 100 feet tall, de Immigrant Windmill, the most conspicuous landmark on the riverfront, was manufactured and pre-assembled in the Netherlands before being transported to the United States. As you hear the whoosh of the sails, you will start imagining you are in the Netherlands. Fulton’s other attractions include Heritage Canyon, a 12-acre former limestone quarry that now houses nature trails dotted with buildings reminiscent of pioneer days — as well as US Lock and Dam No. 13 — where one can watch a cargo-carrying vessel pass through the lock while jovial pelicans fly about in the air.
“On warm summer days,” an 1879 travel booklet described Geneva, “the shaded streets are cool and quiet; nothing is astir for hours… Towards evening, everything is gay and active, however, and the scene on the arrival of the evening train is quite like that at many Eastern resorts.” Known to be quaint and charming, Geneva’s character is its historic architecture. While the town is home to some large, ornate homes, many of its mid-to-late 19th-century homes are anything but humongous. You may want to visit this Fox River town because it hosts a restaurant reputed to be among the best in Illinois. Niche’s signature frog legs, for instance, is a particular favorite with patrons and is worth trying out. Since Fabyan Villa Museum & Japanese Garden is temporarily closed, you may want to opt for Peck Farm Park, a gorgeous farm-turned-park that features a beautiful lake, a butterfly garden, and miles of hiking trails.
Home to about 18,600 residents, Ottawa is a vibrant small town best known as the gateway to Starved Rock State Park. The most popular state park in the Prairie State is only about 9 miles from downtown Ottawa — and is quite famous for its waterfalls (best seen soon after a downpour), 18 breathtaking canyons, and miles of scenic hiking trails. Nestled at the confluence of the Fox and Illinois rivers, about 80 minutes southwest of the Windy City, Ottawa is also the gateway for the Illinois River Road, a National Scenic Byway that follows the water for an incredible 150 miles. The Old Rail Bridge was constructed in 1898 and is a fine example of early 20th-century engineering. This town is also famous for being the site of the first Lincoln-Douglas senatorial debate. Described as “an immense affair,” that famous encounter took place in Ottawa's historic Washington Square and is known to have propelled Lincoln to the national spotlight.
A spring-fed lake. A beautiful and spacious recreation area. Awesome shopping venues. Casual but classy eateries. These — and more, are what draw visitors to this charming McHenry County town. Located 50 miles northwest of Chicago, and near several major highways and interstates, Crystal Lake combines the look of a big city with the feel of a small, friendly town. Three Oaks Recreation Area is a great place for people-watching, bird-watching, or fish-watching. The beach is spacious and pretty and features a deeper side with a dock where one can jump off. The Dole Mansion is a Civil War-era architectural marvel that dabbles as a farmers' market on weekends. If you want to slide down a nice hill, especially in winter, Veteran Acres Park is what you have in mind.
Away from Chicago’s famed skyscrapers, Illinois boasts several heart-melting vistas that are, in large part, criminally neglected. Dramatic sandstone formation (we are talking about the Garden of the Gods), delicious Mississippi River views, and authentic Midwestern charm, are some of the Prairie State’s most loved features. If you are looking for a small town to visit, Galena is often a tasty choice and is widely famous for its postcard-perfect beauty. Other contenders include Woodstock, Arthur, MountCarroll, and Princeton, which hosts the Lovejoy Homestead, once one of the last stops on the underground railroad.