main street in Galena, Illinois, via Nejdet Duzen /

9 Underappreciated Towns to Visit in Illinois

Most people who have never traveled to Illinois can barely name a city other than Chicago, let alone the smaller towns on the fringes of the state. While the Windy City dominates the headlines as a cultural hub with glittering skyscrapers, the Land of Lincoln has little-known towns that deserve exploration. Off the well-beaten path of commercialized tourism, authentic Midwestern communities preserve rustic charms and regional heritage.


Main Street in Galena, Illinois, USA
Main Street in Galena, Illinois, USA. Editorial credit: Wirestock Creators /

This antique jewel of northwest Illinois needs more credit for its historical significance. Simply just a stroll through its charming downtown to notice the richness of heritage Galena harbors, thanks to a unique display of 19th-century buildings and old-world architecture decorating its skyline. The Washburne House State Historic Site and U.S. Grant Home State Historic Site are not just vital historical markers but also exhibit the best examples of Greek Revival and Italianate architectural styles in the region. But Galena offers more than just history; it has a decent arts landscape visitors can sample at the River Bend Gallery.

The town retains its charm throughout the year, even during the snow season. It is home to one of the most recognized ski resorts in the state, Chestnut Mountain Resort, ensuring there is always something fun to do, come rain or shine.


The Slaten-LaMarsh House, a historical building, in downtown Grafton, Illinois.
The Slaten-LaMarsh House, a historical building, in downtown Grafton, Illinois. Image credit: Wikigaurabia via Wikimedia Commons.

There is a good reason why this tiny Jersey County is sometimes called the "Key West of the Midwest," but travelers rarely talk about being swept away by its beauty. Apparently, not many people have had a chance to experience its unmatched flair. Set on the confluence of the Illinois River and Mississippi River, it offers exciting water-fueled opportunities to discover the town from the water, including riding the Grafton Ferry. However, some of the best views are from the sky. Tourists take the Grafton SkyTour to enjoy a fun gondola ride and soak up sweeping views of the rivers below.

Grafton's waterfront restaurants, including the Loading Dock and Grafton Oyster Bar, give off resort vibes. Tourists can enjoy sumptuous meals while taking in stunning views. The town also boasts Raging Rivers WaterPark, a world-class amusement park tailored for family entertainment.


Downtown Woodstock, Illinois
Downtown Woodstock, Illinois. Image credit Nejdet Duzen via Shutterstock

This small Chicago suburb offers almost everything a tourist can ask for, from famous festivals and a rich art scene to historic buildings with unique old-world architecture. Woodstock has a charming historic district showcasing its colorful heritage. The Woodstock Square Historic District features multiple 19th-century buildings that take you back to the Victorian periods. It also has a bustling arts community in historic and contemporary venues. The Woodstock Opera House best embodies the town's undying heritage, staging captivating performance art shows inside a rustic 1889 theater.

An exciting lineup of events and festivals across the calendar ensures there are no dull moments in Woodstock. Festival goers from within and outside flood the town yearly to attend long-held local extravaganzas like the Woodstock Folk Festival and Woodstock Mozart Festival.


Overlooking Island Park in Geneva, Illinois.
Overlooking Island Park in Geneva, Illinois.

Geneva's proximity to Chicago causes tourists to pass through it on their way to the Windy City without stopping over or looking around. However, this doesn't detract from the fact that it's a bonafide destination with a rich mix of attractions. The Geneva History Museum, which exhibits a comprehensive artifact and archive collection, details its captivating past. Also, Friends of the Viking Ship is an unmissable site in Geneva, showcasing an authentic Viking shape from 1893 constructed for the World's Columbian Exposition.

The town has lush outdoor scenery that invites newcomers to explore, especially the Fabyan Forest Preserve. Bordering the Fox River, the reserve presents a serene atmosphere with opportunities for anglers, picnickers, and boaters.


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

While Nauvoo is known to be the genesis of the Mormon church, hosting the first church established by the founder, not many realize just how many historical sites it continues hosting to date. The town promises a deep historical experience thanks to an impressive cluster of antique landmarks. Travelers can still visit the home whether the church's founder, Joseph Smith Jr., lived at the Joseph Smith Historic Site. Newcomers will appreciate the architectural genius and craftsmanship that went into building the Nauvoo Illinois Temple. It towers above the town's skyline and impresses with its grandiosity.

Fortunately, there is more to see and do in Nauvoo than history. When you start to grow impatient with the same experience, you can venture outdoors into Nauvoo State Park. With 148 acres of pure wilderness, adventurers can enjoy recreation like swimming, camping, hiking, and boating along the Mississippi River.


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

Although many tourists head to Illinois's Amish Country staples like Arthur for a cultural adventure, they should remember to include this small village in Whiteside County in their next itinerary. Steeped in Dutch culture, Fulton offers a unique taste of Ohio's European connection. It hosts multiple cultural centers that preserve its heritage, including the modest Martin House Museum. Additionally, Heritage Canyon provides a more intimate glimpse into the lives of the town's pioneers through an 1800s pioneer village. The complex features several wooden structures across a 12-acre property.

De Immigrant Windmill is a conspicuous landmark in Fulton. Erected along the Mississippi River, this authentic Dutch windmill, constructed in the Netherlands and shipped to the United States, displays rare traditional craftsmanship and architecture.


Court House in Pittsfield, Illinois
Court House in Pittsfield, Illinois

Despite being one of the most historically relevant towns to visit in Illinois, Pittsfield still struggles to attract tourists. The town is recognized for its lasting love affair with numerous historical figures, none more prominent than America's 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. It has an impressive cluster of antique structures, including the John Shastid House from 1836. John Shastid was a close friend of Abraham Lincoln when he was still practicing as a lawyer in New Salem. History aside, Pittsfield charms visitors with green natural surroundings, beckoning adventures to seek recreation like hiking, camping, and boating at Lake Pittsfield.

Alternatively, many tourists choose a low-key golf session on the beautiful grounds of Old Orchard Country Club. The course conveniently accommodates all skill levels and has a serene atmosphere.


Views of Alton, Illinois, from the middle of the street, flanked by city buildings.
Views of Alton, Illinois, from the middle of the street, flanked by city buildings. Editorial credit: Fsendek /

With so many Mississippi River cities and towns to explore, it makes sense that Alton remains largely underexplored. Nevertheless, those visiting it appreciate its historical significance, having hosted the final Lincoln-Douglas debate. Alton is home to the National Great Rivers Museum, which preserves the heritage of the Great Mississippi and showcases its impact on the surrounding communities through the years. Alton has a vibrant arts scene, combining visual and performance art venues to delight enthusiasts. Foreigners and locals constantly congregate at the Alton Little Theater to watch and support local talent. Those craving to get on the Mississippi River can find several crafts for hire at the Alton Marina. Besides the opportunity to discover the village from the water, the venue also hosts eateries where visitors can enjoy treats while soaking up the water views.


Metamora Courthouse
Metamora Courthouse

Very few people have heard the strange name of this tiny Midwestern village, let alone set foot in it. With around 4,000 residents, this town has a well-preserved heritage and various cultural and historical attractions bound to excite newcomers. The Potting Shed Art Studio provides a quaint space to admire art and hosts small events. Meanwhile, those who prefer the outdoors can harness the cozy atmosphere of Black Partridge Park to commune with Mother Nature. The site offers essential amenities like picnic tables, pavilions, and sports fields for the public's entertainment.

Metamora's charming bar and restaurant scene offers multiple hangouts where visitors can mingle with residents over a tasty meal or refreshing glass of beer. This is possible at Hanover's Pub, which offers pleasant outdoor seating and hosts entertaining live performances.

Final Thought

These lesser-known towns to visit in Illinois provide a refreshing glimpse into untouched corners of the Prairie State that developed independently from large cities. Whether admiring well-preserved historic districts, sampling small-town cuisine, or communing with nature, visitors can spend an illuminating stay retreating from busier destinations into the slow pace and natural beauty. Though small, each hamlet leaves an impression with authentic Midwestern charm. Their appeal lies in serving as portals to adventure amid scenes unseen elsewhere in the state.

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