10 Ways to Celebrate Illinois Life in Springfield

July 09, 2018

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Springfield is central to Illinois in many senses: location, history, and influence. It’s been the state capital for nearly 180 years. And it’s home to more historic Lincoln sites than anywhere else in the nation.

A trip to Springfield celebrates the state’s heritage across the many eras of its history, and today it represents the quintessential Illinois experience.

So it’s the perfect place to visit as we celebrate the state’s bicentennial. Soak up presidential and state heritage at the many historical sites around town, go for a walk in a beautiful park, and enjoy the local tastes on offer at some of the city’s fun eateries.

Explore the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

No Illinois history tour is complete without a salute to perhaps the most well-known resident the state has had, Abraham Lincoln.

So your first stop in Springfield has to be the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. With more than 40,000 square feet of galleries, theaters, and historic displays, it has the biggest and best collection of Lincoln lore you could find anywhere.

Here you can delve in and explore Lincoln’s life and influence from every angle. And it’s got some real treasures for history buffs and regular folk alike. You’ll be able to take in original artifacts from some of our nation’s most defining moments, including an original copy of the Gettysburg Address, and the quill with which Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. With a further 12 million Lincoln-related items from the Illinois State Historical Library, you’ll never be short something to look at.

But while it has an eye on the past, it’s presented with all the wonders of the present. High-tech exhibits, interactive displays, and multimedia programs featuring holograms and live actors bring the age of Lincoln back to life.

View the Dana-Thomas House

When Susan Lawrence Dana recruited 32-year old Frank Lloyd Wright to remodel her house, it was the young architect’s largest commission to date, in what would become a 12,600 square foot, 35-room residence.

Although it started as a remodel, Dana and Wright’s collaboration saw the existing house encompassed by what was essentially an entirely new one. No doubt that was helped by the unlimited budget Wright was given to complete the project.

The house features many of the Prairie Style features of Wright’s designs, the largest amount of art glass you’ll find in any of his homes, and rooms full of furniture he designed himself. It’s said to be the best-preserved and most-complete of Wright’s early homes.

When you’re there, make sure to grab a photo of the House’s barrel-vaulted dining room and gallery—two of the most-photographed spaces in the history of American architecture.

Get a Bite at Cozy Dog Drive In

Switching it up to another classic era in Illinois history, Cozy Dog Drive In is an Old Route 66 landmark, and a celebration of a great American tradition, the drive-in.

Cozy Dog has been serving up the delicacy for which it’s named since 1949. A Cozy Dog is similar to a corn dog on a stick, but with a unique batter that makes it extra-quick to prepare, and extra tasty. There’s nothing like ‘em!

You’ll also find classic American fare like cheeseburgers, pancakes, grilled cheese, and root beer, for that full Route 66 experience.

Stroll the Washington Park Botanical Garden

The Washington Park Botanical Garden not only showcases the beautiful flora of Illinois and the United States, it also transports you to tropical Africa, the jungles of Asia, and the rainforests of South America—without ever leaving the Springfield area!

The Garden is home to more than 1800 species of plants in 10 specific garden areas across 20 acres of land. It’s the perfect place for a tranquil stroll and picnic lunch after checking out some of the area’s historical sights!

Discover Old State Capitol

First came Kanaskia, then Vandalia, but since 1839, Springfield has been home to our state’s capitol buildings.

The Old State Capitol is a reconstruction of the first Illinois statehouse to be built in Springfield; the fifth overall. The original building served as the center of Illinois political life from 1839–1876, and it was here that Lincoln gave his famed House Divided speech on slavery in 1858. You can take a guided tour or just wander the grand halls, meeting rooms and libraries, soaking up the history.

(Want to see the center of Illinois political life today? Check out the current State Capitol.)

Learn a Wealth of Knowledge at Illinois State Museum

Ever seen a Mastodon skeleton? You’ll be able to answer “yes” once you visit the Illinois State Museum.

There’s a lot to discover there as you explore three impressive levels of Illinois history and art. Apart from the aforementioned Mastodon, you’ll be introduced to life-size dioramas of Illinois’ Native American heritage, a Jefferson’s Ground Sloth skeleton, and plenty of other exhibits showcasing artifacts drawn from the museum’s collection of more than 13.5 million!

All the while you’ll learn about all eras of Illinois history: how its landscape was formed and continues to develop, the lives of native peoples and frontier Americans on the Illinois prairie, and the works of great Illinois artists.

There’s something for the younger members of your group, too! The Mary Ann MacLean Play Museum, open on weekends, provides an exciting interactive experience for children ages 3-10. They can load a jeep, dig for fossils, crawl through a cave, and learn and discover to their hearts’ content!

Get Your Adrenalin Pumping at Knight’s Action Park

Illinois history has no shortage of excitement. But if you want to really get the adrenalin going, then Knight’s Action Park is the place for you.

With a water park, driving range, go-karts, mini golf, batting cages and a drive-in theater, you’re sure to find something to thrill and excite! Play some ball, tee off, cool off in the pool, or get your thrills on Splash Kingdom’s heart-stopping Royal Flush and Devil Ray slides.

And if you’re there in the summer months, then you can finish off your day watching a blockbuster at the Route 66 Twin Drive-In Theater.

Pay Your Respects at the Lincoln Tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery

Pay your respects to the 16th President of the United States and his legacy. The Lincoln Tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery is the final resting place of Lincoln, along with his wife Mary, and three of their four sons.

It’s a powerful and moving site, host to visitors from around the world every day. A larger-than-life bronze bust greets visitors, symbolizing the size of Lincoln’s influence… but perhaps also his easy-going character—the bust’s nose bright and shiny from all the people who rub it for good luck! 

The surrounding Oak Ridge Cemetery is also home to over eighty notable Illinoisans, and is the second most visited cemetery in the nation. And nearby, you’ll find three war memorials, honoring nearly a million Illinois veterans: The World War II Illinois Veterans Memorial, Korean War Memorial, and Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Dine on a Springfield Horseshoe

While you’re exploring the rest of Springfield, don’t miss out on the city’s special dish, the Horseshoe sandwich. An open-faced sandwich made of Texas toast and two char-grilled patties, all smothered in cheese sauce and French fries; a Springfield Horseshoe will more than satisfy any hungry sightseer. 

You’ll find the Horseshoe at a number of places throughout Springfield, including historic local restaurant Obed & Isaac’s Microbrewery, D'Arcy's, and Maldaner's.

Visit the Lincoln Home National Historic Site

Visit the only home Abraham Lincoln ever owned at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site. Built in 1839, the home is beautifully restored to its 1860 appearance–similar to how it would have looked before Abraham Lincoln left home to serve as President.

You can also tour the neighborhood around the home, with four blocks of historic exhibits that give you a closer look at Lincoln as a husband, father and neighbor, as well as a President. Tours are free and tickets can be picked up from the nearby Lincoln Home Visitors Center.

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