Situated in the bluffs of Central Illinois along the banks of the Illinois River, “Will it play in Peoria?” is the phrase that put this discerning Midwest locale on the map. Long a test market for everything from new musical productions to the McRib sandwich, Peoria’s no stranger to fresh experiences. And as a four-time All-American City award winner and haven for one of the largest large equipment manufacturers in the world, it’s certainly not a bad place to spend a weekend.
With my Top 10 Things to Do in Peoria, you’ll explore favorite local spots, sample award-winning coffee, discover animal encounters and uncover history at Peoria museums. As a long-time Peoria devotee, this list could easily be 100 Things to Do in Peoria… but I’ll save a few for the Tricentennial.
Striking up a conversation with locals, you’d be hard-pressed to find an individual who isn’t at least indirectly impacted – if not directly employed by – the engineering behemoth that is Caterpillar. As the original headquarters of Caterpillar (now located in north suburban Deerfield) and current home of the company’s largest manufacturing facilities and 90% of its workforce, Caterpillar and Peoria are one in the same. For this reason, it only makes sense that Peoria would have a museum devoted to its legacy.
At the Caterpillar Visitor Center, you’ll be immersed in all things CAT. Climb in real Caterpillar equipment, view vintage CAT machinery and learn the history of this industrial giant. With an exhibit devoted to Caterpillar employees, you’ll even get a sneak peek at the individuals who keep things running.
Situated in the RiverFront District, the Peoria Riverfront Museum is an easy afternoon outing. From permanent collections like the sculpture garden and Peoria Holocaust Memorial to a variety of rotating exhibits, galleries and events, there’s always something happening at the Riverfront Museum. Thinking dinner and a movie? Grab tickets to a wide release movie in their giant screen theater. You’ll also glean plenty of interesting insights about the Peoria Area to enhance your understanding of the Central Illinois locale.
If you’re making the trip, don’t miss the museum’s Dome Planetarium. With its real-time Uniview technology, the planetarium employs real-time satellite feeds and the latest astronomical data to provide viewers with the most timely and accurate real-color view of our universe. And with their real-sky Zeiss Powerdome’s patented fiber-optic projection, their night-sky projections are more accurate than any other planetarium instrument available today. It’s so cool, you might even say it’s “out of this world.”
No Peoria Top 10 would be complete without a nod to the Spirit of Peoria. I mean seriously, it’s called the SPIRIT of PEORIA!
Calling to mind images from a Mark Twain novel, the Spirit of Peoria is the ultimate Peoria pleasure cruise. With its unmistakable paddleboat construction, the Spirit gently shuttles travelers up and down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. Cruises range from a couple hours to a couple days and give guests an intimate view of river life. A fully-stocked bar is also available in the cabin for guests looking to view the river with a drink in hand.
When a Theodore of any political status makes a definitive statement, it’s worth taking note, and Grandview Drive is no exception. Christened by President Theodore Roosevelt “the world’s most beautiful drive,” Grandview Drive is a 2.52-mile pleasure trail that offers breathtaking panoramic views of the Illinois River Valley. If that’s not enough, you’ll also be overwhelmed by intense feelings of personal failure as you ogle at the myriad of jaw-dropping homes (castles) lining the picture-perfect river bluffs.
While President Roosevelt was right in asserting the preferred means of conveyance is the car, hiking, biking and walking trails will give you plenty of reason to get out and stretch your legs. This drive is a must any time of year, but it’s unmissable in Autumn as the changing colors paint an ever-more dramatic landscape for visitors.
Ever wonder what it would be like to experience an untamed Illinois? Ya’know, the good old days when a friendly bison could wander up to your cattle car and adorable otters were busy with their otter hijinks. Well you’re in luck. Delivering a zoological experience unique to Illinois, the Wildlife Prairie Park utilizes native natural resources and animals to present a picture of Illinois during the time of the pioneers.
Step into the wild Midwest at Wildlife Prairie Park where you can explore more than 2,000 acres of natural Illinois habitat in a one-of-a-kind zoological park. Take the train or hike winding trails that overlook prairie and wetlands dotted with 150 animals native to Illinois, from elk and otters to wolves. You can even fish in the park’s restored water systems.
Looking for truly unique lodgings in Peoria? Skip the hotel and book a night in one of the park’s converted train cabooses!
100 species of animals including several endangered species (like the white rhino), easy to navigate pathways and engaging exhibits make the Peoria Zoo a delight. But the real gem is the Australia Walk-About.
Imagine taking a nice leisurely stroll. It’s nice, right? Now imagine that same leisurely stroll with wallabies bouncing around your feet. That’s exactly what you get with the Australia Walk-About. Seriously, I can’t say enough about this wallaby exhibit. It’s worth a trip alone.
A day out at the ballgame is always a fan favorite, and the Peoria Chiefs deliver the goods. With a history of local professional baseball dating back to the late 19th century, the Peoria Chiefs are right at home in this All-American City.
Making their home at Dozer Park (yes, that’s a Caterpillar reference), affordable ticket prices, amazing food deals and activities for the whole family make this an easy night out. Stick around for the closing fireworks show – you won’t regret it.
As any good river-town should, Peoria has a lively riverfront district. Along with weekly farmers markets and lots of live entertainment, if you’re looking for a good place to grab a drink, a bite or both, the Peoria Riverfront District should be your first stop. Here’s a few of my personal recommendations:
It’s not hyperbole to say that thirty-thirty is the coffee shop that made me fall in love with great coffee. Prior to meeting thirty-thirty, I had an on-again off-again relationship with the stuff. I just wasn’t that into it. The first day I stepped into thirty-thirty, it was love. And I haven’t looked back since.
thirty-thirty takes a hands-on approach to coffee, roasting each of their beans in-house using only their senses and knowledge of the coffee to deliver the perfect brew. No computerized methods allowed. Their farm-to-cup model also introduced Peoria to what’s known as “Origins Roasting,” a method in which each particular coffee is roasted specifically and carefully to bring out the flavor profiles desired by the farmer and region from which it originated.
From expertly brewed espressos to the best miel my lips have touched, thirty-thirty knows what they’re doing when it comes to great drinks. And their flagship location even boasts an awesome stuffed grizzly bear – perfect for your next coffee-gram.
When we talk about Peoria institutions, one place rises above the pack. Consistently voted best burger in Central Illinois, the Burger Barge is a right of passage for Peoria visitors. With burgers that strike equal parts joy and fear in the hearts of its guests, curiosity alone is enough to bring you to its shores.
Menu highlights include the classic Captain’s Burger, the experimental Mashed Potatoes & Gravy Burger, or my personal favorite, the Kraken – complete with onion rings and cheese sauce sandwiched between two bacon grilled-cheese sandwiches. Nestled into the banks of the Illinois River with a laid back beachside vibe and eclecticdécor choices, the setting makes for fun night out.
Peoria has its share of local ice cream stands, but none’s more essential than Emo’s Dairy Mart. Rarely is a place truly “iconic”, but in the example of Emo’s Dairy Mart, that’s absolutely the case.
Adorned with a giant clown nearly visible from space, Emo’s is somewhat of a local landmark. This classic snack shack keeps nostalgia in mind, and their food is no joke. Soft-serve ice cream with lots of mix-ins and their secret Coney Dog recipe keep the locals coming back each season. Other menu staples include burgers, fries and sundry deep-fried delicacies. If you find yourself in Peoria with a sweet tooth, Emo’s is the only sensible solution.
This article was written as part of the Illinois Bicentennial 200 Years, 200 Stories project. Read more stories from the project.