WHY VISIT ILLINOIS
Chicago grabs the glory, but lift the lid on the rest of Illinois and you will encounter tales of Abraham Lincoln, kitsch diners on Route 66, enticing wineries, and ancient blackwater swamps.
Curling along the shore of Lake Michigan, Chicago is the USA’s third largest city and the birthplace of the skyscraper. Peer over the edge of the iconic Willis Tower for epic views or keep your heart rate down on a cruise around the city’s historic waterways. Culturally, Chicago is up there with the best, thanks to its phenomenal museums, world-renowned symphony orchestra, and terrific open-air performances at the legendary Petrillo Music Shell.
Central Illinois is Abe Lincoln’s territory. You can dip into Lincoln’s history at his family home, law offices, and the presidential museum in Springfield, then chomp your way through the regional specialty: a battered hot dog on a stick, known locally as a ‘cozy dog’.
Many a road trip has kicked off in Illinois along historic Route 66, which is lined with all-American diners and naff roadside attractions. There are memorabilia aplenty at the Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum in Pontiac as well as the ultimate photo op – a giant mural featuring the iconic Route 66 shield.
Between the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, western Illinois is effortlessly compelling, with pretty towns, excellent wineries, and rippling countryside. It’s also home to Galena, a charming town characterized by its sweep of 19th-century storefronts.
Seeking adventure? Then get outdoors in southern Illinois where canoeists weave through 1,000-year-old cypress trees on the Cache River, cyclists freewheel through ghost towns on the Tunnel Hill State Trail and hikers scramble over gnarly rock formations in Shawnee National Forest’s Garden of the Gods.
WHAT TO SEE IN ILLINOIS
- Chicago: nearly all of Illinois’ attractions are found in and around Chicago, one of America’s greatest cities. From the beaches and paved paths around Lake Michigan to the iconic fountain at Grant Park, nature is never far from the urban pleasures of shopping along the Magnificent Mile or dining in Chicago’s gentrified neighborhoods. The free Lincoln Park Zoo, the impressive Art Institute, and a picture at Cloud Gate (“the Bean”) or the Ledge at the Willis (Sears) Tower are essential experiences. At night, the Goodman Theater and Lyric Opera host some of America’s top performing artists.
- Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum: the capital of Illinois is actually in Springfield, the hometown of legendary US President Abe Lincoln. His Presidential Library is one of the most significant in the country because of the priceless treasures on display, such as the original Gettysburg Address. The center is a fantastic look into the personal and political life of this iconic American leader.
- John Hancock Observatory: from the observation deck on this landmark on the edge of Chicago, you can see into four states and across over 80 miles on clear days. Be sure and try the open-air Sky Walk for a cool high wire experience or catch the fireworks at Navy Pier when the city is hosting a special celebration.
- Galena: one of the most charming historic towns in Illinois sits along the banks of the Mississippi River. Its 19th-century downtown area is perfectly preserved as how it looked when the town was a major river port. There are several attractions in the area including the home of General Ulysses S Grant, the charming Old Market House, and the Washburne House. The downtown is full of quaint mom-and-pop shops with a trolley to get around.
- Starved Rock State Park: arguably the prettiest of the 50 state parks in Illinois is Starved Rock, located just outside the town of Utica. There’s a great mix of Native American archaeological sites, colonial-era settlements, and natural beauty interspersed within the park’s 3,000 acres of recreation.
- Lincoln Park Zoo: one of America’s greatest zoos is found right in the heart of Chicago and it’s free for all to enjoy. Animal-friendly habitats include the Regenstein African Journey, the Sea Lion Pool, and the Regenstein Center for African Apes. What really makes Lincoln Park Zoo stand out is that it feels more like an open-air botanical garden than concrete confinement and wildlife aside, it’s a lovely park to stroll on any day of the year.
- Navy Pier: this entertainment complex in the center of downtown Chicago covers 50 acres of the lakefront promenade. With dozens of shops, restaurants, and pubs, many feature al fresco dining with stunning views of the lake. There’s an amusement park, a massive Ferris wheel, an IMAX theater, and even the Chicago Children’s Museum. Dinner and sightseeing cruises depart from the pier continuously day or night for a cool view of the skyline, making Navy Pier one of the city’s most popular attractions for kids and adults alike.
- Great River Valley: this magical region of Illinois follows the river basin of the mighty Mississippi as it flows southward. One of the state’s most popular scenic byways, the Illinois River Road winds its way through hundreds of historic and natural attractions. By many accounts, this drive is one of America’s finest, especially in the Midwest region. Besides the old towns like Peoria, Ottawa, and Princeton, more than a dozen wineries are open to visitors. Throw in a handful of pretty state parks and you’ve got the makings of a classic multi-day road trip.
WHEN TO GO TO ILLINOIS
The best period to visit Illinois is from June to September.
The running joke among residents of Chicago is that if you don’t like the weather, just wait an hour and it will change. This is particularly true during the spring and fall, when you may find yourself juggling back and forth between a t-shirt and sweater all day long. This erratic weather is largely due to the location on Lake Michigan. The entire northern region of Illinois is influenced by the Great Lake, which creates its own microclimate.
Spring temperatures average in the low 60’s (°F) in April and May before warming up into the mid to upper 80’s (°F) for most of the summer. A solid dose of humidity makes the mercury feel much hotter, but in general, summers are very nice in Illinois, particularly in the north and around Chicago. Thunderstorms are common from June through early fall with a decent chance of tornadoes when the weather is severe enough in April and May. Illinois gets an average of 35 tornadoes each year, mainly in the spring and down south, which is the most mercurial season of the year.
Winters are certainly cold in Illinois, but really no worse than in any other northern state. Chicago gets a bad rap for having brutally cold winters, but it’s really the wind that makes it feel worse than it is. From December through February, daytime highs rarely break the 40°F mark, and winds off Lake Michigan can make Chicago live up to its name, the Windy City (which really came from the shady politics, not the weather, though). But the city doesn’t shut down, so dress warmly and prepare to slog through the slush and cold like everyone else as Chicago and northern Illinois get around 40 inches of snowfall on average each winter. Southern Illinois gets much less snow and has temperatures about 10°F warmer than the north of the state.
WHAT TO DO IN ILLINOIS
Pregame a Cubs game in Wrigleyville
Chicago may well have the best sports fans on the planet, and you’ll feel that unmistakable passion when bar-hopping through Wrigleyville on the afternoon before a Cubs game. You don’t even need tickets to get the full experience: rolling off the CTA at Addison puts you square in the middle of a neighborhood-wide party. On Summer Fridays, seemingly the entire city packs the bars for hours before game time, effectively extending Wrigley Field for blocks. Watching a game from one of the bars’ famous rooftops is a baseball fan’s dream, but you can party on the streets outside and still be part of the action.
Following is a list of typical festivals and celebrations in Illinois.
- Chicago Air & Water Show: every August, two fun days of air and water excitement come to Chicago’s North Avenue Beach. This free event is really popular as Lincoln Park’s waterfront shows off all kinds of cool watercraft and aerial tricks. The highlight is the US Navy Blue Angels jet formation flight and the Golden Knights parachute team from the US Army as they somehow weave through the city’s skyscrapers to land at the beach.
- North Michigan Avenue Art Festival: for three days in July, Chicago’s Pioneer Court transforms into an outdoor art gallery showcasing the works of both famous and unknown Illinois artists. Works by more than 200 painters, potters, sculptors, and photographers are on display with artists ready to sell their unique creations.
- Ravinia Festival: this hugely popular music festival extends for three solid months from early June until early September. It is held in Highland Park, a 30-minute drive north of Chicago, and features a constant stream of live outdoor concerts that range from hot bands to classical symphony music and everything in between. Picnic on the lawn and enjoy music on the balmy summer evening. The park is easily accessible via Metra train from downtown.
- Viva! Chicago Latin Music Festival: each September, this major music and culture event takes over Chicago’s Millennium Park, attracting around 150,000 visitors. Latin bands from across the Americas come to take part in this famous festival, supported by hordes of Latin food and drink vendors and the whole thing is free to the public.
- Chicago Jazz Festival: another major musical event each September is the free jazz festival, which attracts big names and up-and-comers to Illinois alike to the outdoor stages at Millennium Park and Grant Park. Sit on the lawn and enjoy the free moody tunes, and if you’re a real jazz fan, be on the lookout for hot after-hours jazz sets at all the city’s top bars and clubs.
- Chicago International Film Festival: America’s longest-running competitive film festival, the Chicago International Film fest began in 1964. More than 100 flicks in all genres are screened at theaters all around the city every October. There’s a big emphasis on international films, bringing some rare treats from around the globe to the city’s screens. Famous actors and directors also make appearances at premier events.
- Chicago Thanksgiving Parade: started way back in 1934, this is one of America’s oldest Thanksgiving Day parades and only New York’s parade even comes close. Illinois actually has more floats, balloons, and marching bands. The parade romps up State Street for several blocks as 350,000 people watch on the sidewalks in the nippy November air.
- Lollapalooza: for three days the first weekend of August, Chicago’s biggest musical event of the year rivals fests around the country like Bonaroo and Coachella. Started twenty years ago by rocker Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction, major acts and headliners make their way to Grant Park. Spread out over 115 acres and multiple stages, 130+ artists a year run the gamete from pop, rap, and alternative to an especially rocking DJ tent.
HOW TO REACH AND TRAVEL THROUGH ILLINOIS
Illinois sits at the crossroads of several major interstate highways, making driving to and through this state a breeze. Car rental will certainly make life easier if you plan on doing any kind of traveling around Illinois, and major rental companies have offices at the airports and downtown in most large cities like Springfield and Chicago.
If you plan to stay in Chicago, a car is not necessary. There are fleets of taxis in the Windy City and nearly all the neighborhoods of interest and star attractions can be reached via public transportation. Parking in Chicago’s downtown is hard to come by and quite pricy, which greatly adds to the cost of having a rental car. Taxis are not cheap either, but are still more convenient and a better value than rental cars.
Illinois has some of the most extensive railway lines in America. Travelers can make good use of Amtrak to reach the state and move between cities such as Chicago, Springfield, and a dozen smaller towns across Illinois. The California Zephyr line begins in Chicago, stopping in Naperville, Princeton, and Galesburg as it heads to California. The Texas Eagle line also starts in Chicago, stopping in Joliet, Pontiac, Lincoln, Normal, Alton, and Springfield on its way to San Antonio. The Southwest Chief line starts in Chicago and passes through Mendota, Galesburg, and Princeton on the way to Los Angeles.
Several other major Amtrak routes stop in Chicago as a midpoint across the country. Amtrak trains are a bit slow and notorious for delays, but the fares are reasonable, the seats very roomy and the scenery often superb. If time is not a factor, traveling by train is a great way to see the Midwest.
Alternatively, the Greyhound bus company has stops in nearly every town and city in Illinois. Fares are cheap and buses are often the most convenient of all the transportation options, as well as comfortable for short journeys around the state.
Only Chicago has an extensive public transport network that is useful for visitors. Its train system, known as the El (for elevated), has seven lines designated by the color that run both above and below ground and cover most of the inner city. A single fare will take you as far as you want to ride, and the downtown loop is particularly scenic. Along Chicago’s lakefront, the public bus is the way to go. Buy a Visitor Pass, good for 24 hours of unlimited transport on the El and buses from local hotels, airports, museums, and transport centers.
Main airports are:
GENERAL INFORMATION ON ILLINOIS
health tips & vaccination: none
local currency: US Dollar
local time zone: GMT-6 (-5)
electricity: type A and type B (120V – 60 Hz)
WHAT TO DO IN ILLINOIS
Typical food in Illinois
- Prime rib steaks.
- Deep pan Chicago pizza.
- Chicago-style hotdog (steamed/boiled all-beef sausage in a poppy seed bun).
- Tootsie roll (sweet cocoa-flavoured chews).
- Soul food (African-American cooking).
Souvenirs from Illinois