There's plenty to explore in every region of Illinois. We've picked out four places to explore in each region, all with attractions that are perfect for a fall getaway.
At the confluence of the Illinois and Fox rivers (about 90 minutes southwest of Chicago), Ottawa opens doors to compelling history and natural beauty. The city is the northeast gateway for the Illinois River Road, a National Scenic Byway that follows the water for 150 miles southwest to Havana. A spectacular lift-style railroad bridge crosses the river in Ottawa near the Old Town business district (Allen Park offers a great view). Downtown, eight building exteriors wear large murals depicting local history, including Native Americans, the Lincoln-Douglas debate, Civil War soldiers, and the Illinois and Michigan Canal.
►Sandstone bluffs overlook the Illinois River, which make for a scenic paddle adjacent to Buffalo Rock State Park.
►Stroll through Washington Square Park, where statues of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas recall their first senatorial debate, held at the park in 1858.
►Bike the route of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, an 1800s commercial waterway-turned-recreational corridor. A 15-mile stretch links Ottawa and LaSalle. The Bike Shop in Ottawa has rentals.
►Across from Washington Square Park, the Reddick Mansion offers a glimpse of 1800s-style luxury living, including a sofa that Lincoln reportedly used.
►The Cheese Shop ’n’ Deli offers more than 30 kinds of sandwiches, as well as scratch-made soups, fish baskets, pastas and desserts.
►Overlooking the marina at Heritage Harbor, The Red Dog Grill serves seafood, gourmet burgers and more.
►Visit Tangled Roots Brewing Company for beers like the Devil’s Paint Box, an American IPA named after a colorful rock at nearby Matthiessen State Park.
►Sleep in the bookish Lincoln Bedroom or the frilly Mary Todd Bedroom at River House Bed and Breakfast, an 1890 Queen Anne set high on a bluff overlooking the Illinois and Fox rivers.
►At Fox River Bed and Breakfast, stay in the room where famed aviator Charles Lindbergh spent the night in 1926 (after his mail plane crashed on the property).
►Rent a charming river-view guest cottage at Heritage Harbor Ottawa. The recently built units include kitchens and laundries and provide access to a pool, bar, restaurant and the marina.
The Quad Cities region, anchored by the Mississippi River and straddling the Illinois-Iowa border, includes the Illinois towns of Rock Island, Moline and East Moline. I-74, I-80 and I-88 all meet in the Quad Cities, making the region easily accessible. Rock Island got its name from the largest island in the river, now called Arsenal Island. The Rock Island Arsenal is a U.S. Army facility with historic buildings to tour and the Mississippi River Visitor Center, where you can watch barges pass through Lock and Dam 15. Moline is home to farm equipment giant John Deere. Tours explore the company’s headquarters and mansions once owned by the Deere family.
►Walk or bike the 5.5-mile Rock Island Riverfront Trail, part of the Great River Trail, to view water and wildlife.
►Wander a tropical atrium at the Quad City Botanical Center in Rock Island. The children’s garden has a mini Mississippi River that kids can splash in.
►As part of the hands-on farming history at John Deere Pavilion in Moline, kids can “drive” simulators.
►See the river Mark Twain-style aboard the Celebration Belle, a passenger paddlewheel boat that boards in Moline.
►Stop by Navarro Canoe Co. in Rock Island to find handcrafted canoes designed for beauty and performance.
►Zebra moray eels and a giant octopus are some of the animals in the new Oceans exhibit at Niabi Zoo in Coal Valley.
►Dig into one of the famous hot fudge sundaes at Lagomarcino’s, a Moline institution that opened in 1908.
►A funky, friendly vibe fills Theo’s Java Club in Rock Island, home to coffee, breakfast burritos and sandwiches.
►Sip a craft beer at Big Swing Brewing Company in Rock Island.
►Coffee-infused Uncommon Stout is a top seller at Moline’s Bent River Brewing Company. Pair it with fried pickle chips.
►Lodge-look rooms enhance the sense of escape at the Stoney Creek Hotel and Conference Center in Moline.
►Open-concept, ecofriendly design sets off Element Moline, newly carved out of a former 100-year-old warehouse.
►Stay your way at Hyatt Place or Hyatt House, two brand options under one roof along the river in East Moline.
►Close to the river and TaxSlayer Center arena, the Radisson on John Deere Commons-Moline is in a sweet spot.
As it cuts through the southern part of Central Illinois, I-70 parallels the Historic National Road (now US-40) that opened the state to settlement in the 1800s. The I-70 corridor includes Marshall, home to the Archer House, an 1841 hotel that operated for more than 160 years and counted Abe Lincoln as a frequent guest. In Greenup, the Jackson Truss Covered Bridge (a vintage-look replica) spans the Embarras River. Effingham, near the junction of I-70 and I-57, straddled two major rail lines for decades. Today, the historic passenger line City of New Orleans still passes through town daily. Vandalia, on the Kaskaskia River, served as capital of Illinois from 1820 to 1839.
►Experience how Illinois settlers lived by visiting a restored cabin; a few blocks away visit the Marshall Visitors Center.
►Catch a big-time musical like Mamma Mia! at The Little Theatre On The Square in Sullivan, which has been bringing Broadway to Central Illinois for 60 years.
►Peek at a 1963 Chevy Corvette Z06 and other rare cars at My Garage Museum in Effingham. Snap a photo in front of a 1910 gas station that was restored on-site.
►Watch flames shoot out from the giant Kaskaskia Dragon in Vandalia. Just insert a token (sold at local businesses) to watch the metal monster unleash its fury.
►View a replica Conestoga wagon and an original roadway timber at the National Road Interpretive Center in Vandalia, the historic route’s initial endpoint.
►Bobby Flay and other top chefs use butcher-block cutting boards made by John Boos and Co. in Effingham. Browse the showroom and retail outlet.
►Hit the TREC trail in Effingham, a countywide system (7 miles are complete).
►Even with GPS, it’s hard to find the Moonshine Store near Martinsville, but a Moonburger is worth the effort. The grill closes at 12:30 p.m. sharp.
►Fill up on craft beer and a Flaming Goat Burger, Drunkin Pig sandwich or Effin’ Tasty Steak Bites at Gabby Goat American Pub and Grill in Effingham.
►Enjoy the signature flowerpot bread at the Gallatin Street Grille in Vandalia. Save room for salted caramel cream pie.
►Sample Embarras Blush (named for the nearby river) or National Road Red at Cameo Vineyards in Greenup. They crush 35 tons of Illinois grapes yearly.
►For an outdoor-oriented stay, rent a close-to-water cabin at Anthony Acres Resort in Effingham, where the focus is on relaxation on Lake Sara.
If you like the scenic route, take State-127 between Murphysboro and Jonesboro in Southern Illinois. It crosses the Big Muddy River and cuts through a rolling region that includes the Shawnee National Forest, Trail of Tears State Forest, Giant City State Park and acres of fertile land turned into orchards and vineyards. Even some cold-hardy palm trees grow in the relatively mild climate. Lincoln left his footprints here. Jonesboro was the site of the third Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858—see the historical markers in Lincoln Memorial Park. Before and after the debate, Abe stayed two nights in the neighboring town of Anna.
►Hike a 3-mile trail (especially beautiful in fall) to overlooks more than 300 feet above the canyon floor at the Little Grand Canyon in the Shawnee National Forest.
►Marvel at the 111-foot-tall Bald Knob Cross of Peace overlooking the Shawnee National Forest near Alto Pass.
►Celebrate all things apple—pie, cider, butter and more—during the Murphysboro Apple Festival (September 12–15).
►Craft brews rule at the Big Muddy Monster Brew Fest (October 13) at Riverside Park in Murphysboro. The town’s beer heritage dates back more than a century.
►Art, music and even yoga go with wine at Alto Vineyards in Alto Pass. Check out views from the rooftop Vine Deck.
►The Root Beer Saloon in Alto Pass serves frosty mugs amid its famous ambience of antlers and taxidermy.
►A restored barn from the site’s peach-growing days houses Peachbarn Winery & Café in Alto Pass.
►The modest exterior of 17th Street BBQ in Murphysboro hides nationally bragged-about smoked-meat fare by legendary pitmaster Mike Mills.
►You’ll find both Cabernet Sauvignon and Chocolate Milk Stout at Von Jakob Winery and Brewery in Alto Pass.
►Sample the region’s craft beers, wine and spirits (even moonshine) at Brews Brothers Taproom in Murphysboro.
►Big Muddy Brewing in Murphysboro supplies its craft beers to area bars and stores. Make reservations to sample tastes in the taproom.
►Relax in vintage elegance and modern comfort at the 1887 Historic Hull House Inn in Murphysboro.
►For a classy stay, enroll at the Davie School Inn, a 1910 schoolhouse- turned-B&B. Each suite has a whirlpool and kitchenette.
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