Best Things to do in Illinois

The 25 Best Things to do in Illinois

Illinois is set right in the heart of the US and is home to diverse landscapes – from picturesque cornfields to sprawling metropolitan cities. The Prairie State might be best known for the big city of Chicago, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find a wealth of exciting attractions throughout this incredible state. 

After you get a taste of the Midwest’s most iconic city, experience true Americana along the legendary Route 66 or explore the area that Abraham Lincoln once called home. Discover some of Illinois’ charming small towns, such as Galena, or pick up one-of-a-kind treasures in Amish country. History enthusiasts can even explore the remains of a prehistoric civilization at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. 

Outdoor lovers will want to add a hiking trip to the scenic trails within Shawnee National Forest and visit its most popular attraction, the Garden of the Gods. Nature lovers can also opt for a waterfall hike at Starved Rock, a kayaking trip on the Big Vermilion River, or a cycling excursion to one of the state’s quaint towns.

With so many things to see and do in The Prairie State, you might not know where to begin with your itinerary. So, we’ve compiled our list of the absolute best things to do in Illinois, including the state’s top-rated attractions, outdoor adventures, and must-see sights. Stick to this exciting Illinois bucket list and there’s no doubt you’ll have an amazing time exploring this iconic Midwest state. 

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25 Cool and Unique Things to do in Illinois

1. Check Out Chicago’s Top Attractions

Cool Things to do in Illinois: Lincoln Park Zoo
Images courtesy of Lincoln Park Zoo

With world-class museums, historic sports venues, and iconic architecture, there’s so much to see and do in Chicago that it’s impossible to fit everything into one trip. The “Windy City” has it all, from the famous 110-ton Cloud Gate sculpture at Millennium Park to the galleries and luxury shops that line Magnificent Mile

Start your journey at one of the city’s famous museums, such as the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Science and Industry, or the Field Museum of Natural History. Take a stroll around the amusement area at the waterfront Navy Pier or enjoy the outdoors at Lincoln Park, which is home to the Lincoln Park Zoo

See the city from new heights atop the Willis Tower, which has a SkyDeck on its 103rd floor, or soar above Magnificent Mile at the “Tilt” deck at 360 Chicago in the John Hancock Center. However, nothing beats the scenic views along the Chicago Riverwalk, a 1.25-mile pedestrian walkway along the Chicago River. 

If you’re a sports fan, Wrigley Field is the second-oldest Major League Baseball stadium in the US and is a must-see attraction. Basketball enthusiasts will want to head straight to United Center, which hosts Chicago Bulls games. Families with kids can opt for an afternoon at Shedd Aquarium and participate in stingray feedings! 


2. Hop Aboard a Fascinating Chicago Architecture Cruise

Best Things to do in Illinois: Chicago Architecture Cruise

A trip to Chicago wouldn’t be complete without tagging along on one of the famous Chicago architecture cruises. Many say it’s one of the most unique things to do in Illinois! You’ll have the chance to enjoy stunning views of this famous city’s historic skyline while cruising along the Chicago River. 

The towering buildings are put front and center on this leisurely narrated tour. Plus, you’ll learn all about the storied history of the city’s skyline and its most famous buildings. Kick back on the open-air boat deck and learn fun facts about the city’s most iconic structures like the Wrigley Building, the Leo Burnett Building, and the Fulton House. 

Several companies offer this popular tour, including Wendella Sightseeing Co. and Chicago Line Cruises. Chicago’s First Lady Cruises is also a favorite. In addition to soaking up Chicago’s rich history, you can enjoy incredible views and photo ops along the way. 

If you want to check out the architecture of Chicago in a completely unique way, join a kayaking tour with Kayak Chicago. This tour allows you to paddle along the canyons of the Chicago River while learning about the architecture in downtown Chicago. 


3. Groove to Live Blues Music in Chicago

Best Things to do in Illinois: Live Blues Music
Image courtesy of Blue Chicago, Original Oil Painting Clark Street Rambler by John Carrol Doyle c.1994

When it comes to live blues music, Chicago does it best! Often called the “Blues Capital of the World,” the emergence of the Windy City’s one-of-a-kind blues culture began in the 1920s and it is still alive and kicking today. 

If you want to step inside some of the hottest blues bars in the city, start your journey at Blue Chicago, which stands out for its collection of live music offerings. Buddy Guy’s Legends is also a local hotspot and was opened by legendary Chicago blues star Buddy Guy in 1989. 

Still going strong since 1968, Kingston Mines is the city’s longest-running blues club. And finally, be sure to pay a visit to the family-owned and operated Rosa’s Lounge where President Obama used to watch live shows back in the day! 

If you time your visit to Chicago for June, you can catch the free Chicago Blues Festival, which is typically held in Millennium Park. The three-day lineup celebrates icons of the past and present and has been a tradition in the city for more than three decades. In years past, big-name performers like B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Etta James have graced the stage!  

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4. Indulge in Chicago’s Culinary Creations

Must do things in Illinois: Culinary Creations
Image courtesy Bartoli’s Pizzeria

Chicago is home to a long list of signature dishes that are essential additions to your Illinois bucket list. From deep dish pizza to Chicago-style hot dogs to Italian beef sandwiches, this city doesn’t disappoint when it comes to culinary offerings. 

No food is more synonymous with Chicago than the deep dish pizza, which features a super thick crust, loads of mozzarella cheese, and a generous layer of tomato sauce. Some of the best places around town to sink your teeth into a slice are Lou Malnati’s, Pequod’s Pizza, Bartoli’s Pizzeria, and Burt’s Place

If you’re looking for a taste of a traditional Chicago-style hot dog, head to Portillo’s, Superdawg Drive-In, Wolfy’s, or Byron’s Hot Dogs. Alternately, opt for a Chicago-style Italian beef sandwich at Al’s Italian Beef, which is a quintessential Chicago experience!

Foodies can also head to the West Loop, as the former meatpacking district has become one of the hottest dining destinations in the city. Specifically, the stretch of Randolph Street that is now known as Restaurant Row. Head here and you’ll find many of the city’s most celebrated eateries, from high-end Italian restaurants to hidden ramen joints. 

Cool Things to do in Illinois: Portillo’s
Image courtesy of Portillo’s

Nearby, Fulton Market is always bustling with activity. The area is home to a long list of trendy restaurants and bars that have taken over old warehouse spaces. The area also boasts tons of art galleries and cool shops you can browse post-meal. 


5. Follow the Frank Lloyd Wright Trail

Best Things to do in Illinois: Frank Lloyd Wright Trail
Image courtesy of Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, Chicago. Photographer: James Caulfield

Famed architect and designer Frank Lloyd Wright gave Illinois some of its greatest architecture, and many of his buildings are open to the public for sightseeing! One of the best ways to see his masterpieces and most famous designs is along the Frank Lloyd Wright Trail. 

The Frederick C. Robie House and the Unity Temple are two of the most famous destinations in Chicago and are both listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Other highlights include the Charnley-Persky House Museum, which some consider the first truly modern American home. 

The Rookery is another favorite with its glass lobby, while the Emil Bach House is an example of Wright’s late Prairie-style period. If you want to see more, take a day trip to the Prairie-style B. Harley Bradley House in Kankakee or the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield, which features the world’s largest collection of site-specific art and furniture by Wright. 

Avid Wright enthusiasts can add the Muirhead Farmhouse in Hampshire and the Laurent House in Rockford to their list. The Colonial George Fabian Villa in Geneva even features a Japanese garden and a Dutch windmill!

If you want an intimate look at Wright’s most beautiful creations, be sure to check official websites since many of these destinations are only open for tours on select days. 


6. Stop Off at Some of Route 66’s Most Iconic Sights 

Fun Things to do in Illinois: Route 66

If you’re looking to tick a classic road trip off your Illinois bucket list, plan a trip on Route 66. Known as “The Mother Road,” this is one of the most legendary road trips in the US. The route stretches all the way from Chicago to the Santa Monica Pier in California! 

Even if you only explore the sections in Illinois, you’ll come across some of the country’s most iconic roadside scenes. Expect to see neon signage and kitschy Americana landscapes along the way, as well as several historic gas stations in Dwight, Odell, and Mt. Olive.

Illinois is actually the symbolic start of Route 66. The Buckingham Fountain in Chicago’s Millennium Park is the perfect place to kick off your road trip. Get orientated at the Route 66 Welcome Center at the Joliet Area Historical Museum and then head out to explore some of the best pit stops in Illinois!

Don’t miss “The World’s Largest Catsup Bottle” in Collinsville and all the colorful outdoor murals in Pontiac. Must-see stops include the Route 66 Eastern Terminus Sign in Chicago and the Lauterbach Muffler Man in Springfield. You can also browse the Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum in Pontiac to see unique artifacts and historic memorabilia. 

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7. Marvel at Seasonal Foliage at the Morton Arboretum

Cool Things to do in Illinois: The Morton Arboretum
Images courtesy The Morton Arboretum

Located in Lisle, The Morton Arboretum boasts 1,700 acres and more than 222,000 plants. It’s the perfect spot for a leisurely stroll while taking in the views of the ever-changing landscapes throughout the seasons. 

Fall is one of the most beautiful times to visit this attraction, as it features a collection of brilliantly colored trees. The 2,000-square-foot formal Four Seasons Garden is a visual treat year-round, while the carpet of colorful flowers in the Ground Cover Garden is a favorite among photographers. 

Challenge yourself in the life-size puzzle at the Maze Garden, then stop to smell the roses and admire the fruit trees in the Rose Family Collection. If you’re a fan of diverse foliage, take a break in the Conifer, Maple, Willow, Birch, and Gingko collections. The European, Asian, and North American collections feature plants from across the globe. 

You can also hop aboard the Acorn Express Tram Tours, which is a guided tour that winds through the woodlands, wetlands, and prairie. Kids will love the four-acre Children’s Garden, which features secret streams, massive acorns, and giant tree roots with slides. 


8. Follow Scenic Trails at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve

Illinois Things to do: Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve
Images courtesy of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County

If you’re looking for hiking spots near Chicago, head to Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve. The 2,503-acre preserve is not only one of the most ecologically impressive areas of open space in Illinois, but it is home to some of the most scenic hiking near the big city. 

You can explore the beautiful forest preserves, which boast impressive trails as well as the Rocky Glen Waterfall and the Sawmill Creek bluff overlook. A gorgeous setting for hikers of all skill levels, you’ll find four mapped trails with 11 miles of limestone-covered routes that wind through the wooded landscape. 

The trails here are shared by hikers, cyclists, horseback riders, and, in the winter, cross-country skiers. You can also enjoy excellent wildlife watching in this preserve. More than 300 species of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles call this place home!

There are also several spots within Waterfall Glen to enjoy a picnic, especially near the Des Plaines River scenic overlook in the southwestern corner of the preserve. Several old quarries scattered throughout the preserve also offer waters ideal for fishing. 


9. Explore Whimsical Landscapes in Wheaton’s Cantigny Park

What to do in Illinois: Cantigny Park
Image courtesy of Cantigny Park

Families traveling with kids to Illinois should make a beeline to Cantigny Park in Wheaton. A perfect destination for little ones and nature lovers alike, this unique place features 500 acres of attractions and whimsical garden landscapes. 

Cantigny Park is located on the former estate of Colonel Robert R. McCormick, the longtime editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune. It features picturesque paths with beautiful garden beds and bubbling fountains. The garden area covers around 30 acres and features photogenic ornamental gardens to explore. 

Take a walk through the park to see the year-round displays, including the Rose Garden and Idea Garden. You can let the kids loose on the playground or let them climb on top of the giant tanks!

You can also visit the First Division Museum and learn about the history of World War I. History buffs will love seeing, touching, and climbing on tanks once used for combat, the simulated rides in a military vehicle, and the live re-enactments. 

Other facilities here include a 27-hole golf course, a picnic area, and hiking paths, as well as an on-site restaurant and gift shop. Located only 30 miles west of Chicago, it’s a great day trip from the big city.

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10. Hike Through Scenic Canyons in Starved Rock State Park

Best Things to do in Illinois: Starved Rock State Park

If you’re looking for an outdoor adventure in Illinois, head to Starved Rock State Park. Located less than 100 miles southwest of Chicago, this picturesque park is known for its natural beauty that includes cascading waterfalls, beautiful bluffs, and rugged canyons. 

Hikers can follow 13 miles of scenic hiking trails that wind through the towering trees and lead to scenic overlooks. Whether you prefer the quarter-mile trek from the parking lot to Aurora Canyon or the more strenuous 4.7-mile trail to Illinois Canyon, you can tailor your hiking trip to suit your preferences. There are also loop trails that lead you to multiple canyons. 

For impressive views, follow River Trail to Lover’s Leap Overlook for a glimpse of the area below, the dam, and Starved Rock. Keep going and you’ll reach Eagle Cliff Overlook, which features a deck overlooking the river and dam. If you want to see the waterfalls, the best time to visit is in the spring after it has rained.

Starved Rock is a popular spot for other adventures like canoeing, cross-country skiing, and fishing. You can also enjoy the scenery on trolley tours and river cruises. If you want to stay overnight, book a room at the historic Starved Rock Lodge or one of the cozy cabins on site. 


11. Go Kayaking or Whitewater Rafting Along the Big Vermilion River

Unique Things to do in Illinois: Vermilion River

Paddling enthusiasts should head to the Big Vermilion River near Oglesby. Featuring three main tributaries, the Salt Fork, the Middle Fork, and the North Fork, it’s a lovely destination for kayaking and canoeing. 

Public access is plentiful, with many access points on public land. However, guided tours offer better insight into the area. Vermillion River Rafting offers three to four-hour whitewater rafting and kayaking adventures on the Big Vermilion River. 

The Big Vermilion River starts its 50-mile course as a pair of creeks on the border of Ford and Livingston counties. It then deepens through Pontiac, picks up speed through Matthiessen State Park, and empties into the Illinois River near LaSalle/Peru. 

For those looking to go river rafting, there are about 14 sets of rapids in the nine miles that are classified as Class I and Class II waters. It’s a good run for beginners and families with kids. The best time to run the river is from May to mid-July when the spring rain brings water levels up to about four feet. 

This river is also a great spot for swimming and fishing, with slack pools, overhanging trees, deep holes, and rocky shorelines. If you’re looking for a leisurely day near the water, bring your fishing pole and picnic lunch and enjoy the view! 


12. Visit the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield

Illinois Bucket List: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library

History enthusiasts will want to add the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum in Springfield to their Illinois itinerary. At this state-of-the-art facility, you’ll find over 40,000 square feet of galleries, theaters, and historic displays that feature the world’s best collection of Lincoln exhibits. 

In addition to well-preserved artifacts, you can explore the life and legacy of the country’s 16th President through interactive displays and multimedia programs. See a reproduction of the White House as it looked in 1861 and an original handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address, as well as the evening gloves President Lincoln had in his pocket the night he was assassinated. 

The attraction appeals to all ages. There’s even an attic where kids can play with a model of the Lincoln Home, try on period clothing, and perform chores from the 1800s. They can also have their photo taken with life-size models of Abraham Lincoln as a boy and an adult, as well as his wife Mary Todd and their children. 

Only a short 30-minute drive away in Petersburg, you can enhance your experience with a visit to Lincoln’s New Salem. At this reconstructed pioneer village, you can step back in time nearly 200 years and see how Lincoln lived and worked as a young man. History comes to life with costumed characters and engaging events. 

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13. Cruise the Sam Vadalabene Great River Road Bike Trail in Alton

Fun Things to do in Illinois: Great River Road

There’s nothing like seeing scenic landscapes on two wheels, and one of the best bike trails in Illinois is the Sam Vadalabene Great River Road Bike Trail in Alton! It’s completely paved and takes cyclists through the beautiful towns of Elsah and Grafton.

Embark on a relaxing National Scenic Byway ride on this trail, which extends 20 miles from Alton to Pere Marquette State Park. It runs parallel to the Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway along IL Route 100, as well as the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. 

When you need a break, make a pit stop at stations in Piasa Park, Clifton Terrace Park, Grafton Visitors Center, and Pere Marquette State Park. The bike trail is ideal for riders of all ages and skill levels, with families with kids often making the journey. 

You can also walk or jog along the trail if you prefer. With the limestone bluffs painted in shades of red, yellow, and orange, the fall season is particularly scenic. In the winter, you might even spot bald eagles soaring above the river and bluffs or floating down the river on the ice!


14. Go Shopping in Amish Country

Fun Things to do in Illinois: Shopping in Amish Country
Images courtesy of Yoder’s Kitchen

The small town of Arthur is located in the heart of Amish country in Illinois. The area is home to hundreds of charming countryside businesses where you can pick up unique treasures. It’s the largest and oldest Amish community in the state and the perfect place to pick up anything from homemade apple pie to a tailored suit to handcrafted wood furniture. 

The friendly and welcoming atmosphere is complemented by the town’s motto: “You’re only a stranger once.” Come here to visit the “country shops” and enjoy the unique sight of horse-drawn Amish buggies passing by! 

Arthur’s downtown district features hundreds of unique stores, including gift shops, bakeries, boutique stores, and furniture outlets. You can easily spend half a day or more browsing the local offerings in this quaint Midwest destination.

After shopping, stroll around the Shady Crest Farm Market to find fresh goods. After that, head to Yoder’s Kitchen for a buffet of Amish-style meals or The Homestead Bakery for delicious baked goods. Arthur is also known for its annual events, including the Great Pumpkin Patch, the Arthur Cheese Festival, and the Strawberry Jam Festival.


15. See Wildlife Up Close at Aikman Wildlife Adventure

Best Things to do in Illinois: Aikman Wildlife Adventure
Images courtesy of Aikman Wildlife Adventure

If you’re an animal lover and looking for things to do in Illinois, add a visit to Aikman Wildlife Adventure to your list. This wildlife drive-thru park is a unique family-friendly attraction where you can get up close and personal with animals you’ve only seen at the zoo! 

Set between Arthur and Arcola, the wildlife park allows you to snap photos of the animals right from your vehicle. The park is home to over 200 animals and 70 different species, including bison, camels, water buffalo, zebras, and horses. 

Drive along the one-mile-long path and then experience the Walk-Thru Adventure. You can say hello to peacocks, hyenas, wolfdogs, and lemurs. After that, pay a visit to the large Petting Zoo area and its mini-cows, sheep, and pygmy goats. 

Aikman Wildlife Adventure also boats a Prehistoric Museum with interesting exhibits. Browse its life-size models of animals and dinosaurs, then marvel at the realistic fossil sculptures. You can also hop aboard a Wagon Adventure to roam the grounds with a narrated guide. 

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16. Photograph Giant Art Pieces in Casey

Visiting Casey is without a doubt one of the coolest things to do in Illinois. It boasts some of the world’s largest attractions, including a massive wind chime, rocking chair, and mailbox, among other unique structures. 

It’s the little town that made it big (its motto is actually “Big Things in a Small Town)! It’s also the perfect detour off Interstate 70 for those looking to capture a few selfies with giant objects in the background. It boasts eight objects recognized by Guinness World Records and a bunch of other ridiculously oversized objects that are fun and interactive. 

Snap a photo of a 30-foot golf tee weighing in at 6,659 pounds, marvel at a 32-foot-long pencil, and send mail through the 32-foot-tall mailbox. Take a picture of you swinging in the birdcage or posing with a giant pitchfork, then peek into the large wooden clogs. 

It feels like a trip into the world of Alice and Wonderland and is now considered a pilgrimage for travelers who love quirky roadside attractions. All of the sculptures are located within a three-block area of Casey and are a hit with all ages. 


17. Step Back in Time at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Must do things in Illinois: Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is one of the most fascinating historical landmarks in Illinois. The 2,000-acre area features the remains of the most civilized prehistoric civilization north of Mexico. 

You can explore its grounds and the 70 remaining manmade mounds. Learn how they were used for ceremonial purposes and burial grounds, as well as how life was back in these times, including their clever design of everyday materials. Stop to see the reconstructed stockade wall and “Woodhenge,” where the sunrise can be aligned to determine the season and time of year. 

Visiting this prehistoric Native American city is a must for history buffs. You can examine artifacts in the Interpretive Center, which also has a life-size village recreation. Become immersed in the culture of Cahokia, which occupied this area from 700 to 1400! 

Afterward, climb to the top of Monk’s Mound, which is considered to be the largest manmade mound north of Mexico. You’ll find interpretive signs explaining its history and an impressive view. For a longer trek, follow the 6.2-mile Nature/Culture Trail that passes through more remote areas. 


18. Browse the Historic Town Square in Carbondale

Cool Things to do in Illinois: Town Square in Carbondale
Image Courtesy of Geoff Ritter

Home to Southern Illinois University, Carbondale boasts a charming historic district, bustling with shops and restaurants. It also offers access to leafy parks, top-rated golf courses, and the iconic Shawnee Hills Vine Trail. 

Located near the state’s southern tip, this popular weekend destination is located less than 100 miles from St. Louis and is easily reached from Chicago. This Midwestern college town centers around the university, as well as its traditional town square that’s chock full of boutique shops and specialty stores housed in historic buildings.

If you want to enjoy the outdoors, you can escape to the nearby Shawnee National Forest to find miles of hiking trails. Closer to the city you’ll find Giant City State Park, a local favorite with hikers, campers, and rock climbers. Water lovers can also enjoy kayaking and canoeing at Cedar Lake. 

For live entertainment, the Varsity Center hosts plays and concerts, while the Southern Illinois Symphony Orchestra plays classical works at the Shryock Auditorium. If you’ve got the kids in tow, head to the Science Center to check out the interactive exhibits and hands-on activities. 

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19. Sip Vino Along the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail

Best Things to do in Illinois: Shawnee Hills Wine Trail
Image courtesy of Blue Sky Vineyard

Wine lovers will want to save plenty of time to sip, sample, and savor locally produced wines on the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail. Featuring 11 award-winning wineries, the wine trail is set near Carbondale along a 35-mile scenic drive along Highway 51 in the Shawnee National Forest. 

There’s no need to travel to Burgundy or Napa Valley, as this Illinois area offers a taste of authentic wine culture. Enjoy views of the Shawnee Hills from the patio of Blue Sky Vineyard. Afterward, sample the array of award-winning boutique wines available at Star View Vineyards!

Honker Hill Winery produces fine Illinois wines from fruit grown directly in their vineyard, while Pomona Winery offers seven table wines and three fortified dessert wines. Alternately, opt for a visit to Feather Hills Vineyard to experience the family-owned, boutique atmosphere. 

Each winery offers its own blends and varieties. You can sample all sorts of wines while taking in some of the most beautiful countryside landscapes in the Midwest. Along the way, you can also enjoy a picnic, take a scenic hike, or stay overnight in one of the cozy bed and breakfast accommodations nearby. 


20. Enjoy Panoramic Forest Views at Garden of the Gods

Unique Things to do in Illinois: Garden of the Gods

For a chance to see one of the most unique rock formations in the United States, plan a trip to Garden of the Gods. It’s one of the crown jewels of the beautiful Shawnee National Forest and one of the coolest things to do in Illinois for adventure-seekers.

Not only will you get an amazing insight into the geological structure of this beautiful region, but it also boasts a view that stretches for miles over the forest. Dating back more than 320 million years ago, the Shawnee National Forest features multiple hiking trails. But none as iconic as the Garden of the Gods!

It’s a short 1/4-mile marked trail to the vantage point, featuring wooden and rock steps and signs highlighting its historical significance. While you savor the impressive views, you can learn about the unique features of the sandstone bluffs and formations. 

Along the way, make sure to stop and see the most famous rock formation, Camel Rock. Other highlights include Anvil Rock and Mushroom Rock. While this trail is family-friendly and ideal for kids, there are 5.5 miles of interconnecting trails available at Garden of the Gods if you prefer a more extended hike. 


21. Explore the Bizarre Underwater Objects at Mermet Springs

Illinois Things to do: Mermet Springs
Images courtesy of Mermet Springs

If you love exploring underwater, imagine getting up close to a submerged airplane! Scuba diving at Mermet Springs is one of the coolest things to do in Illinois, as this unique spring-fed stone quarry is a full-service dive site and scuba diving training facility. It’s one of the most popular dive facilities in the Midwest, with water visibility ranging from 15 feet to over 60 feet.

It offers a one-of-a-kind diving experience, where you can swim past the Boeing 727 featured in the film U.S. Marshals. Test your skills while diving around this unique piece of Hollywood memorabilia, where you can see its charred cockpit controls, missing wings, and open hatches underwater. There’s also an array of other bizarre submerged attractions at Mermet Springs, including a school bus, semi-tractor, and sunken boats, as well as 100-foot-deep underwater cliffs. 

Aside from its sunken treasures, there are schools of colored, prehistoric-looking fish to see, including large bluegill, giant albino channel catfish, and spoonbills. If you’ve never been scuba diving before, Mermet Springs offers scuba classes, including private and group training. 

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22. Stroll the Anderson Japanese Gardens in Rockford

Illinois Bucket List: Anderson Japanese Gardens

Located in Rockford, the Anderson Japanese Gardens is consistently rated as one of the best Japanese gardens in all of North America. Offering 12 acres of award-winning landscapes, it’s one of the top things to do in Illinois for nature lovers!

Stroll the tranquil garden space to find beautiful koi-filled ponds, winding paths, gentle streams, and cascading waterfalls. Its raked gravel gardens are a sight to behold and will have you feeling as if you’ve been transported to Japan. You’ll also love perusing the 16th-century traditional architecture found throughout the garden. 

Take a self-guided tour through the serene setting and admire the landscapes dotted with Japanese maples and pines. Photogenic vistas can be found around every corner and the gardens are brimming with colorful flowers. See the bronze angel sculptures in the Garden of Reflection, then cross the Cypress Bridge and wander around the Pond Strolling Garden.

If exploring the garden has you feeling hungry, head over to the on-site Fresco at the Gardens cafe. Before your tour, you can also stop at the gift shop to purchase food for the koi so you can see the colorful fish swim to the surface. 


23. Stroll Main Street in the Charming Mountain Town of Galena 

Best Things to do in Illinois: Galena

Escape the big city and travel to Galena, a charming mountain town known for its picture-perfect Main Street. It’s the perfect stop on your Illinois itinerary, featuring beautifully preserved 19th-century buildings, local vineyards, championship golf courses, and hiking trails. 

Start your exploration of Galena in the downtown area, where you can browse its boutique shops and antique stores, and stop for a sweet treat in a fudge shop. While the famous Ulysses S. Grant Home is the city’s most iconic attraction, Galena Cellars Vineyard and Winery is a treat for vino lovers who want to sample wine flights. 

Stretch your legs along the picturesque Galena River Trail or sit back and tour some of the most popular attractions with Galena Trolley Tours. Step back in time at Dowling House, the city’s oldest house that offers guided tours, or see a 20-foot waterfall and landscaped gardens at Linmar Gardens

If you’re visiting in the winter, add a stop at the popular mountain and skiing resort Chestnut Mountain Resort. Overlooking the grand Mississippi River, the resort offers over 19 skiing and snowboarding trails. In the warmer months, you can zip line or ride the alpine slide while taking in impressive views of the towering mountain peaks. 

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24. Map Out an Unforgettable Road Trip Along the Great River Road

Must do things in Illinois: Great River Road

If you want to add an epic road trip to your Illinois bucket list, the Great River Road is considered one of the best scenic drives in America. Running 2,000 miles across 10 states along the Mississippi River, the 33-mile stretch from Hartford to Grafton, Illinois, is known as the Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway.

Some of the prettiest pockets of this route are in Illinois! The Illinois portion of the route begins in the northwest corner of the state. Galena is the perfect starting point with its charming shopping district on Main Street and 19th-century Italianate-style Ulysses S. Grant Home offering a glimpse of post-Civil War life. 

Next, head to Moline and Rock Island, where you can take a break at the Quad City Botanical Garden Center and Schwiebert Riverfront Park. Alternately, opt for a leisurely cruise on the Celebration Belle riverboat. 

See the massive Mormon church in Nauvoo or visit Baxter’s Vineyards, the oldest winery in Illinois, for a tasting. Home to a charming East End Historic District with restored 1800s houses, Quincy is the next worthy stop. Wrap up your trip with a hike in Grafton’s Pere Marquette State Park and a view of the Mississippi River and its limestone bluffs on your way to your last stop in Alton.

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25. Catch a Spectacular Sunrise Over Lake Michigan 

What to do in Illinois: Lake Michigan

Seeing Lake Michigan – the sixth-largest lake in the world – is a must-do thing in Illinois. It’s also one of the best spots in the US for catching a spectacular sunrise. You’ll be in awe as the landscape of pink, purple, and orange clouds lights up over the crashing waves below! 

Located an hour north of Chicago, near the Wisconsin border, Illinois Beach State Park is one of the best spots in Illinois to see the sunrise over Lake Michigan. Nestled right on the lake, the area is home to one of the most beautiful beaches in the Midwest, as well as picturesque sand dunes and plant and fish-filled marshes. The park is well worth visiting even if you don’t want to wake up early for sunrise!

After you’ve enjoyed the show, you can walk along the 6.5-mile-long beach, go hiking or biking on one of the many trails, or explore the park’s marshes, dunes, and forests. You can either pack a picnic for breakfast or if you want to dine on one of the best breakfasts in town, head over to nearby Emily’s Pancake House and fuel up with a cup of coffee and a hearty skillet or omelet.

There you have it! 25 of the best things to do in Illinois. What’s your favorite thing to do in The Prairie State?


Planning a trip to Illinois? Check out our favorite books and travel guides!


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