The charming town of Galena, Illinois.

Illinois's 12 Most Underrated Towns To Visit In 2024

Famous destinations like Chicago rightly draw the most visitors to Illinois annually. They are always in the headlines and delight newcomers with their bustling downtowns, world-class museums, famous sports franchises, and electric nightlife. But beyond the major metro areas, hidden in Illinois' beautiful backcountry, are gorgeous small towns that rarely get a piece of the spotlight. From historic villages dating back centuries with conspicuous old-world architecture to riverine communities with unique, long-held traditions, these small towns in Illinois deserve more recognition from travelers. 

Exploring these overlooked towns in 2024 promises visitors an authentic glimpse into a rarely-seen side of the Land of Lincoln. Whether you seek charming main streets, outdoor adventures, or a taste of small-town Midwest life, look beyond Chicago to discover Illinois's many underexplored gems.


The charming town of Galena, Illinois.
The charming town of Galena, Illinois.

Galena doesn't get enough credit as a must-see historical town in Illinois. In the 19th century, it was among the wealthiest cities in the country, producing about 85% of America's lead. Furthermore, it was here that a young president, Ulysses S. Grant, lived as a child, and the U.S. Grant Home State Historic Site offers an intimate look into his legacy. Wandering through downtown Galena reveals well-preserved structures from the 1800s, such as the 1826 Dowling House, the oldest building in Galena. Inside the venue, you can explore Victorian-era life through period furnishings and artifacts. History buffs will be awed by the Greek Revival architecture of the Washburne House State Historic Site, former home to Congressman Elihu B. Washburne. Many visitors to Galena choose to stay at the historic DeSoto House Hotel, which dates back to the 1850s, for the complete historical experience. 


Aerial view of Woodstock, Illinois.
Aerial view of Woodstock, Illinois.

Just outside of Chicago, the charming town of Woodstock invites visitors for an exciting journey back through time. Walking through the Woodstock Square Historic District reveals well-preserved Victorian architecture in a district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The neighborhood hosts an eclectic mix of restaurants, antique shops, galleries, and museums in the antique structures. One of the top attractions is the iconic Woodstock Opera House, famous across Illinois for staging enthralling live performances since the 1800s. 

Beyond admiring the town's aesthetic, you can experience Woodstock's cultural charm during the annual Folk Festival, where the community gathers to celebrate music and tradition. For the outdoor adventurer, the nearby Dufield Pond Conservation Area offers scenic hiking trails through dense woodlands. 


Mississippi River in Alton, Illinois.
Mississippi River in Alton, Illinois.

Alton has an indelible mark on national and world history! It was in this tiny riverside village where Abraham Lincoln engaged in his historic senate debate with Stephen Douglas, a pivotal moment on the road to his presidency. Alton is also forever linked to Robert Wadlow, the world's tallest man in history, who called the town home. History buffs can learn about the impact of the Mississippi River on the community at the National Great Rivers Museum by browsing a range of exhibits. Another significant site is the Lovejoy State Memorial, honoring Elijah Lovejoy's championing of free speech and abolition. With such influential figures in its past, Alton offers visitors a glimpse into impactful moments in American history. 

Beyond learning about its historical imprint, those traveling to Alton can experience the scenic Mississippi River firsthand by renting a boat at the Alton Marina or taking in the views from its picnic areas. Art lovers won't want to miss the intricate pieces crafted at Mississippi Mud Pottery, carrying a piece of the town's heritage home.


North view over Island Park in Geneva, Illinois.
North view over Island Park in Geneva, Illinois.

Geneva's most impressive attraction may just be its charming downtown, which is entirely listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Spanning over 100 historic buildings, primarily in the distinctive Victorian architectural style, a stroll through Geneva's iconic Main Street feels like stepping back in time. One of the most notable structures is the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed P.D. Hoyt House. In addition to beautifully preserved buildings housing shops and eateries, the Geneva History Museum provides a look into the town's rich history through interactive exhibits. 

When visitors want to experience the great outdoors, Fabyan Forest Preserve is the perfect destination. It offers a mix of scenic trails, cutting through secluded fishing spots, and fabulous boating opportunities. You can't miss the historic Fabyan Windmill, an original Dutch structure from the 1850s. 


Nauvoo, Illinois.
Nauvoo, Illinois.

The beautiful town of Nauvoo sits picturesquely along the banks of the Mississippi River. With stunning natural scenery and significant historical sites, Nauvoo lives up to its Hebrew name, "beautiful place." It is renowned for being the original headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 1800s, and the rich town's past comes alive through places like the gorgeous Nauvoo Illinois Temple. History buffs can also explore original 1800s buildings at the Joseph Smith Historic Site. 

When not delving into Nauvoo's cultural treasures, visitors can soak in the natural beauty of the 148-acre Nauvoo State Park, which offers recreational activities like fishing, boating, camping, and hiking. Through its scenic landscape and remnants of the unique history unfolding here, the beautiful town of Nauvoo captivates all who take in its blend of nature and cultural intrigue.


Downtown Princeton, Illinois.
Downtown Princeton, Illinois. Image credit: EJRodriquez -

This delightful Bureau County town possesses an engaging blend of history, culture, and natural beauty. Princeton's charm lies in its quaint shops and well-preserved covered bridges. But you can delve deeper into the town's history at gems like the Bureau County Historical Society Museum. Housing thousands of intimate local photographs and rare Native American artifacts, it showcases the area's people and places through the years. Visitors will appreciate exploring the life of abolitionist Owen Lovejoy at his 19th-century home, now a National Historic Landmark. 

Outdoorsy types can relax amid the scenic setting of the Captain Swift Covered Bridge. After taking in Princeton's fascinating remnants of the past, unwind with a film at the family-friendly Apollo Theater. With its engaging blend of cultural attractions and stunning scenery, this delightful Bureau County town offers a welcome escape into small-town heartland charm.


The DeKalb County Courthouse in Sycamore, Illinois
The DeKalb County Courthouse in Sycamore, Illinois.

Outdoor enthusiasts will love the natural beauty found around Sycamore. Nestled in DeKalb County, the town boasts 19 park areas managed by the Sycamore Park District. Visitors can enjoy endless recreation amid lovely trails and expansive lawns within these varied green spaces. Whether hiking, picnicking, or simply soaking in the scenery, the parks offer the perfect setting to appreciate Mother Nature. Beyond natural attractions, the town delights with its lively downtown atmosphere and renowned annual festivals. None shines brighter than the iconic Pumpkin Festival in the fall. 

Drawing crowds from far and wide, it immerses attendees in a remarkable extravaganza through parades, dance shows, and carnival fun. After a day spent in Sycamore's scenic parks and attending bustling events, spots like Hink's Bar & Grill and Four Seasons Sports invite guests to unwind with family and friends. 


Downtown Edwardsville, Illinois.
Downtown Edwardsville, Illinois. Image credit: pasa47 via Wikimedia Commons.

A perennial feature in lists of the best towns in Illinois, Edwardsville is a quaint community of around 27,000. It boasts an exciting mix of attractions curated to impress all types of travelers. History buffs can begin their exploration at the Colonel Benjamin Stephenson House, an evocative 1820 Federal home of a famous Illinois politician, offering a glimpse of old-day Edwardsville. Families will find delight in exploring the interactive exhibits and hands-on activities at the Edwardsville Children's Museum, which are perfect for all ages. 

When seeking a natural respite, the 40-acre Watershed Nature Center preserve provides a diverse ecosystem featuring scenic woodland trails. As a top small town, Edwardsville offers something for every traveler with its balanced mix of kid-friendly fun, recreation, and natural beauty nested in its renowned heritage. 

Long Grove

The beautiful town of Long Grove, Illinois.
The beautiful town of Long Grove, Illinois.

Steeped in a rich history that residents work tirelessly to preserve, a stroll through Historic Downtown Long Grove immerses one in the charming ambiance of this special community. Cobblestone streets lined with eclectic shops wind their way through the laidback corridor. If you visit with children, you can take them to the Sock Monkey Museum, which houses the world's largest collection of handmade sock monkeys. But Long Grove offers much more than just cultural and historical pursuits. 

Outdoor adventurists will appreciate the scenic trails and diverse wildlife of Buffalo Creek Forest Preserve, whether hiking, biking or cross-country skiing its paths. Anglers will also find the reservoir to be an excellent fishing spot. Alternatively, the Reed-Turner Woodland Nature Center introduces even more ways to appreciate the natural beauty surrounding Long Grove. 


Amish Country, near Arthur, Illinois
Amish Country, near Arthur, Illinois. Image credit: Castaway in Scotland via

This tiny village is famous for housing the state's oldest Amish community. Defined by its sprawling rural farmland, Arthur offers a peaceful respite in a community of about 2,300. Here, one gets an authentic feel of traditional Amish life. At the Illinois Amish Heritage Center, you can explore interesting cultural heritage and traditions through various insightful exhibitions. Visitors can immerse themselves at Yoder's Kitchen by enjoying hearty, homemade Amish cuisine. Nature lovers appreciate wandering the stunning gardens at Great Pumpkin Patch farm, which is filled with seasonal squash, pumpkins, and gourds. 

Before leaving, stop by Yoder's Lamps Antiques and Collectibles to shop for a unique memento. Though small, Arthur lovingly preserves the heritage of Illinois' first Amish settlement, offering cultural enlightenment to all who venture through this historic village.


Downtown Cairo, Illinois.
Downtown Cairo, Illinois. Image credit: gobucks2 via

Prepare to experience unique Native American, African, and European cultural influences in this beautiful melting point along the Mississippi. Cairo's cultural blend is apparent throughout the well-preserved Cairo Historic District. Wandering the quiet streets exposes you to abandoned mansions once belonging to the town's prosperous multi-ethnic inhabitants. A deeper dive into local history awaits at several sites honoring the town's mix of heritages, such as the grand Victorian-era Magnolia Manor House and the Cairo Custom House Museum. 

For nature lovers, scenic Fort Defiance State Park showcases Cairo's significance during the Civil War as a strategic base along the Mississippi. The beautiful oasis presents opportunities for recreation, from hiking and camping to horse riding. 


Courthouse Square, Vienna, Illinois.
Courthouse Square, Vienna, Illinois. Image credit: J. Stephen Conn via

This modest community of around 1,500 residents provides an escape from the rowdy urban crowds and into nature's warm embrace. Visitors to Vienna will find plenty of room to enjoy attractions without worry. Outdoor lovers flock to the scenic Tunnel Hill State Trail, a recreation hub for hikers, bikers, and joggers drawn to the lush wilderness. Meanwhile, birdwatchers can find a chill spot at Heron Pond- Little Black Slough Nature Preserve to spot species like red-shouldered hawks, barred owls and warblers.

Antique enthusiasts will also find unique treasures at the Vienna Town Square Mall. The establishment offers diverse collectibles, home décor, crafts, primitives, and more mementos that are perfect for any souvenir hunter. 

Wrapping Up

Throughout the Land of Lincoln, many unknown destinations preserve unique charm and cultural heritage that visitors will be glad to experience. By visiting these towns in Illinois, curious travelers can experience a more authentic slice of the state without worry of choking crowds. Whether recognizing the state's earliest Amish settlements, appreciating the blend of influences along the Mississippi River, or simply unwinding among nature, lesser-known towns offer quality experiences different from what well-known cities provide. Their modest sizes allow visiting different aspects of Illinois in a relaxed environment. 

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