Galena, Illinois, in fall.

These Small Towns In Illinois Have The Best Historic Districts

Although Illinois is best known for being home to the bustling, world-class city of Chicago, it also has its fair share of quaint, scenic small towns that beckon tourists from all over the Midwest. Since Illinois has such a rich history dating back to its founding in 1818, many of the state's towns have lively historic districts filled with fascinating museums, unique boutiques and cafes, and buildings featuring eye-catching architectural details. The districts also often feature historical landmarks that put the destinations on the map. Here are seven Illinois small towns with the state's best, most visit-worthy historic districts. 


Grant Park in Galena, Illinois
Grant Park in Galena, Illinois, named after President Ulysses S. Grant.

Once home to Civil War general and U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant, Galena, which is situated on the Mississippi River, is rich in both scenic beauty and history. Galena's historic district comprises 85 percent of the charming small town and draws visitors year-round. The town's picturesque streets are lined with perfectly preserved buildings featuring late Victorian-style architecture, including the charming DeSoto House Hotel. Downtown Galena is filled with unique gift shops, specialty boutiques selling local, handmade goods, quaint coffee houses, and restaurants serving everything from casual to gourmet fare. Grant's home is available for daily tours, and there is a park dedicated to his honor that features three Civil War cannons in the heart of the historic district. Each fall, the town hosts the Annual Tour of Historic Galena Homes, showcasing several buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 


An old Dutch windmill in Geneva, Illinois.
An old Dutch windmill in Geneva, Illinois.

The town of Geneva is a western suburb of Chicago but feels a world away due to its charming downtown and impressive historic district, which consists of 102 buildings and structures. The most notable building is the P.D. Hoyt House, which was designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The district was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and beckons visitors throughout the year. Downtown Geneva is known for its main street, which is lined with historic Victorian structures that house a varied collection of shops and eateries. Situated on the Fox River, Geneva is blessed with several waterfront city parks. The town is also located on Fox River Trail and the Prairie Path, both part of an extensive bike trail system. 


Effingham County Courthouse, Effingham, Illinois
Effingham County Courthouse, Effingham, Illinois.

Effingham is centrally located in the state, where Interstates 57 and 70 meet, making it a convenient town to visit while on a road trip. Historically, Effingham was a significant rail junction as it's where the Pennsylvania Railroad and the former Illinois Central Railroad crossed paths. Today, Effingham's history-rich downtown is alive with historical landmarks and buildings, coffee shops and eateries, boutiques, museums, and a warm community feel. The charming town is also known for its arts and culture scene, featuring attractions such as the Effingham Performance Center, the Effingham Art Guild, and the historic Art Deco-style Heart Theatre. The Effingham County Courthouse, which was built in the 1800s in the Second Empire architectural style, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 


Main Street lined by historical buildings in Paxton, Illinois.
Main Street lined by historical buildings in Paxton, Illinois.

Situated in the east-central region of the state, Paxton is the quintessential small Midwestern town. Although it has a quaint feel, Paxton is located near three major highways, making it easily accessible to Chicago and other urban areas. Originally established as a Swedish settlement in the 1800s, Paxton is proud of its rich Scandinavian culture. Paxton's charming downtown historic district features two buildings on the National Register of Historic Places: the Paxton Carnegie Library, which was constructed in 1903, and the town's 80-foot-tall water tower, which was built in 1887. Paxton's main street also features a unique collection of boutiques and eateries. 


Woodstock Square in early spring in Woodstock, Illinois.
Woodstock Square in early spring in Woodstock, Illinois.

The small, charming town of Woodstock's Victorian town square draws visitors from all over the region. Not only has the historic district been featured in popular movies, but it's also home to the world-renowned Opera House, which has showcased the talents of many famous actors, actresses, musicians, and other performing artists since the late 1800s. Woodstock's picturesque historic district boasts several special events throughout the year, including the Woodstock Folk Festival and festive seasonal parades. Visitors can explore the charming downtown specialty stores, coffee shops, and restaurants and admire the late-19th-century Victorian buildings. 

Saint Charles

Pottawatomi Indian Statue in St. Charles, Illinois.
Pottawatomi Indian Statue in St. Charles, Illinois.

The historic town of Saint Charles offers the best of both worlds as it features the charm of a small river town while being conveniently located just 35 miles from Chicago. Saint Charles, which is situated on the Fox River, has two distinct historic districts, which are both worth visiting. The Central Historic District encompasses the thriving downtown, which is home to several buildings that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the scenic Arcada Theatre. The Hotel Baker, which was built in 1928 in the Romantic Revival style, and the town's municipal building, which features a 1940 Art Moderne style, are also located downtown. The Moody-Millington Historic District constitutes eight blocks of primarily residential structures. 


Old fashioned popcorn vendor in downtown Ottawa, Illinois.
Old fashioned popcorn vendor in downtown Ottawa, Illinois. Editorial credit: Eddie J. Rodriquez /

Due to its location at the conjunction of the Fox and Illinois Rivers, the town of Ottawa has always been one of the state's thriving manufacturing hubs. The Ottawa Commerical Historic District was originally platted in 1829 and is home to several buildings that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Ottawa also features the East Side Historic District, a residential area founded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Visitors can take a tour of the history-rich neighborhood, which features a collection of visually stunning homes, many of which overlook the Fox River. 

No matter what region of Illinois you find yourself in, you'll discover charming historic districts worthy of a day or more of exploration. Many of the scenic districts feature perfectly preserved buildings, which harken back to the state's bustling railroad and manufacturing eras. Not only are Illinois' historic districts easy on the eyes, but they also transport visitors back to other eras via either self-guided or professional tours. 

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