small and mid-size towns with big holiday spirit

Over the river and through the prairies to Central Illinois we go. Browse artisan shops for the perfect present or ornament. Be dazzled by light festivals that make everything merry & bright. Pet a real reindeer or ride in a one-horse open carriage and have the happiest holiday season.

Many attractions have reopened with limited capacity or different operating hours. Inquire with attractions ahead of time for up-to-date travel policies and health and safety information.

  • Day 1: Rantoul, Champaign, and Monticello

The holidays are for spending time with family, and there’s nothing better than seeing the kids’ eyes light up. To start the day, discover Rantoul’s Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch, a quirky attraction where you can get up close and personal with a herd of authentic Alaskan reindeer. With rebuilt and restored century-old barns and 5,000 Christmas trees, this is the perfect holiday setting for families and groups looking to get away from fast-paced city life. It’s open through December 28. 

Keep the mojo going in downtown Champaign. You’ll find different family-friendly activities each weekend in December, like a scavenger hunt around the area’s small businesses, special holiday shops, eye-catching window displays and even carriage rides! 

Follow up that family fun by getting your food fix at either Everyday Kitchen or Seven Saints. The former puts a creative spin on comfort food — from bison meatloaf to duck confit quesadillas — while the latter features quintessential Midwestern favorites like sliders and cheese curds. Or you can head to Monticello to try the family-owned 3Ravens Food & Spirits for incredible burgers, appetizers, and top-notch whiskey.

Once you’re in Monticello, check out Illinois Maker Prairie Fire Glass, which creates one-of-a-kind, handcrafted jewelry, ornaments and vases — which are ideal stocking stuffers and hostess gifts. As the sun starts to go down, experience the holiday magic of the Allerton Park & Retreat Centers illuminated winter walk, where you’ll follow a beautiful, meandering path through the park grounds lined by twinkling lights.

In downtown Springfield, the holiday vibe will be in high supply. Experience it all, from a tour at the historical Dana Thomas House to ice skating at the Old State Capitol. Speaking of the historic statehouse, the Old Capitol Holiday Walks program offers a variety of special events each weekend throughout the holiday season, including carriage rides, a Mistletoe Market, and performances on the plaza. 

Or save your appetite for your arrival in Springfield, where you can enjoy killer flatbreads and award-winning beer at Obed & Isaac’s Microbrewery and Eatery or partake in traditional fine dining at the historic Maldaner’sRestaurant. If a cozy Irish pub is more your speed, grab a drink at D’Arcy’s Pintand indulge in a Springfield delicacy the horseshoe (choice of meat on a bed of Texas Toast, piled high with fries and then smothered with D’Arcy’s famous cheese sauce). 

If you’re fading fast, don’t worry — your accommodations aren’t far. History enthusiasts will want to make camp at President Abraham Lincoln Springfield - a DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel, which is just steps from Bank of Springfield Center and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Or check into the Springfield Suites Marriott, conveniently located next door to SCHEELS, a popular experiential sporting goods store with arcade games, a Ferris wheel and more.

  • Day 2: Springfield, Peoria, and East Peoria

After a restful slumber, fuel up for the day with a piping hot cup of joe at Illinois Maker Custom Cup Coffee, or swing by Cafe Moxo for breakfast favorites like cheddar bacon biscuits or baked strawberry pecan French toast. Then head to Wildlife Prairie Park in Hanna City. This 1,800-acre zoological retreat is home to 60 different species and over 150 native Illinois animals. Cougars, bobcats and black bears — oh my!

You’ve braved the brisk conditions to explore the great outdoors  — you deserve a hearty meal. Warm up with wood-fired pizzas at Sugar Wood-Fired Bistro, a quick-casual space with an inviting open-kitchen layout. The pizzas can be paired deliciously with a craft beer or glass of wine if you so choose.

You started the day with a nature expedition, and now it’s on to cultural activities. Pique your curiosity at the Peoria Riverfront Museum and Dome Planetarium. Not only does this public museum of art, science, history, and technology feature fascinating exhibits, it also offers beautiful views of the river and downtown Peoria. Be sure to check if a classic holiday movie will be playing during your visit!

As darkness descends, brighten the evening at the 37th annual Festival of Lights, a beloved local tradition that combines massive light displays, festive floats and joyous holiday music. The fest runs from November 25 to January 2, and online tickets are not available, so be ready to purchase tickets at the entrance booth. 

Unwind after an active day by filling up on smoked meats and unique plates like pulled pork tortas or Asian-style tacos at The Blue Duck Barbecue. Or perhaps you’d rather enjoy fine Irish dishes like shepherd’s pie and Guinness pot roast, in which case you should check out Kelleher's Irish Pub

When it’s finally time to get some shuteye, stay overnight at the Embassy Suites - East Peoriaa scenic riverfront hotel within walking distance of several local attractions.

  • Day 3: Peoria

Cap off a relaxing morning at the hotel with a visit to Childers Eatery, a local favorite with elevated brunch fare and a wide selection of fresh-squeezed juices. 

Finish off your holiday shopping list — or partake in some post-holiday retail therapy — at the many shops in Peoria, where you can find both well-known brands and one-of-a-kind gifts. West Main Street is home to an eclectic group of small shops, art studios, and specialty shops, giving you an excellent opportunity to support local before heading home.


 

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