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 road trip in any season.
A winding waterway unites the Fox River Valley, home to a collection of suburbs 40 miles west of Chicago. Spend an afternoon soaking up fall color along the Fox River on the St. Charles Paddlewheel Riverboats and learn about points of interest from the captain. In downtown St. Charles, concert acts take the stage at the 1926 Arcada Theatre. Also big on entertainment is Pheasant Run Resort, which houses Zanies Comedy Club, as well as an 18-hole, par-72 golf course and spa. Fill your trunk with treasures at the Kane County Flea Market, held at the fairgrounds, usually the first weekend of every month, or search for finds at the dozen-plus antiques stores in St. Charles. Cycling enthusiasts will enjoy the Fox River Bike Trail, which passes through nature preserves and the towns of Aurora and Geneva before linking to the 26-mile Prairie Trail in Algonquin. From there, bicyclists follow a rail-to-trail path to rural McHenry.
►In Aurora, shop the 160 stores at the Chicago Premium Outlets. The 1931 Paramount Theatre presents Broadway shows and concerts.
►Seasonal celebrations bring visitors to the Richardson Farm in Spring Grove. Richardson Adventure Farm boasts the world’s largest corn maze, a 750-foot-long zipline, almost endless kids’ rides and a pumpkin patch. During winter, hunt for a Christmas tree at Richardson U-Cut Tree Farm while munching on kettle corn.
►The McHenry Outdoor Theater is a throwback to drive-in theaters. Pile kids into the car and see a flick under the stars (through October).
►View more than 100 handcrafted scarecrows before voting for your fave at the Scarecrow Festival in St. Charles.
►Discover the vital role of railroads at the Illinois Railway Museum, the largest railroad museum in the states, in Union (22 miles northwest of Elgin).
►In the clubhouse at the Highlands of Elgin Golf Course, Grumpy Goat Tavern specializes in Creole-inspired dishes (like crawfish étouffée).
►Two Brothers Roundhouse in Aurora features bands, a beer garden and dining in the country’s oldest limestone railroad roundhouse.
►In McHenry, they take barbecue seriously at the Hickory Pit, known for beef brisket and pulled pork.
►For a posh stay in downtown St. Charles, choose the historic Hotel Baker, perched above the Fox River.
► Looking for bed-and-breakfast options? The Mansion Bed and Breakfast, located on a private estate in West Dundee, retains its early-1900s charm with exquisite woodwork and stained-glass windows. Woodstock’s Royal Victorian Manor Bed and Breakfast appeared in the 1993 cult classic film Groundhog Day. In early February, the town celebrates Groundhog Days with movie screenings and a walking tour of film sites.
It’s all about the RiverFront in Peoria, a jewel situated on the Illinois River. Enjoy a sight-seeing tour aboard the Spirit of Peoria, a replica 19th-century riverboat. At the Caterpillar Visitors Center, virtually operate an earth-moving machine and watch a film in a theater housed inside a giant mining truck. At the next-door Peoria Riverfront Museum, wander through exhibits on the history of the region, stargaze in a state-of-the-art planetarium, or watch a 3-D movie.
►Follow a 1½-mile trail to see native animals such as elk, cougars, black bears and bison in natural settings at the Wildlife Prairie Park, or hop aboard the zoological park’s train for a 40-minute narrated tour in Hanna City, 10 miles west of Peoria.
►The stockholders who own the Wheels O’ Time Museum showcase their vintage autos, fire engines, steam locomotives and farm equipment in a sprawling complex in Dunlap, 10 miles north of Peoria.
►Besides an extensive stock of sporting goods, the Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World in East Peoria houses a general store that sells 300 kinds of fudge, plus the splashy Uncle Buck’s Fishbowl and Grill, which includes an aquatic-themed bowling alley.
►The 2017 Das Pumpkin! is the 51st Morton Pumpkin Festival and includes parades, a carnival and pumpkin-infused foods like ice cream and chili, 10 miles southeast of Peoria.
►The East Peoria Festival of Lights kicks off with a glittering parade of 30-plus floats—all in lights—in November.
►Dine at restaurants along Peoria’s RiverFront. The Blue Duck Barbecue Tavern serves house-smoked meats in a renovated train depot. Kelleher’s Irish Pub and Eatery offers Emerald Isle fare and 90 varieties of bottled beer. At Obed and Isaac’s Microbrewery and Eatery, sip craft brews against a backdrop of stained-glass windows.
►In Peoria’s Warehouse District, the Sugar Wood-Fired Bistro turns out quick-serve wood-fired pizza.
►Cayenne dazzles with Day of the Dead-inspired decor and creative tacos (like Korean barbecue) in the Peoria Heights shopping and dining district, 5 miles northeast of downtown.
►The boutique Mark Twain Hotel serves made-to-order omelets and waffles for breakfast and sizzling steaks in its clubby Two25 lounge.
A visit here lands you in the heart of Illini country—the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign anchors the area’s attractions. Root for the Fighting Illini basketball team at State Farm Center (formerly Assembly Hall). The 15,500-seat venue also hosts big-name concerts and Broadway shows. On campus, browse the galleries of the Krannert Art Museum, home of the U of I’s art collection. See experimental music, theater and dance showcased at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. The university’s Spurlock Museum of World Cultures exhibits archaeological and cultural collections that trace the world’s history. A stone walking path leads to flowering discoveries at the Arboretum. The Virginia Theatre, a historic downtown Champaign performing arts center, presents live performances. For craft beers, try The Blind Pig Company and The Blind Pig Brewery. Alto Vineyards and Winery offers a tasting room and wine garden.
►Mingle with locals and shop for farm-fresh produce, wine and handmade crafts on Saturday mornings through November at Urbana’s Market at the Square.
►Drive on Champaign’s picturesque rural roads and discover Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery. On a self-guided tour of this working farm, pet the goats and taste creamy artisanal cheeses and goat milk gelato.
►Curtis Orchard and Pumpkin Patch, on a family-owned centennial farm, caters to families in the fall. Kids ride ponies, pet goats, get their faces painted, play games and go on rides. The 80-acre orchard includes a corn maze, too. Be sure to snag the popular apple doughnuts.
►Find your inner zen at Allerton Park and Retreat Center, known for its formal gardens and more than 100 sculptures in Monticello.
►In downtown Champaign, Big Grove Tavern serves modern tavern cuisine (think sage-and-stone-fruit pork loin) and craft cocktails in a rustic-chic dining room. Grab a slider (try the bratwurst or salmon versions) and microbrew at the stylish Seven Saints tavern.
►In both Urbana and Champaign, seek out Black Dog Smoke and Ale House for its Carolina-style house-smoked barbecue and craft beers. Get there early for the quick-selling burnt ends (bits of brisket).
►At Urbana’s Silvercreek Restaurant, which is peppered with antiques, try the potato-crusted whitefish served with citrus cream and asparagus
►Hyatt Place Champaign/Urbana puts you in the middle of the action in downtown Champaign, within walking distance of restaurants and bars.
►The modern I Hotel and Conference Center, located on the University of Illinois campus, offers 125 spacious guest rooms.
►Close to campus in Urbana, Sylvia’s Irish Inn is a cozy bed-and-breakfast nestled within a historic Queen Anne-style home.
Outdoor adventures and wineries await exploration in southern Illinois. Sailing fans head for Carlyle Lake, the largest man-made lake in the state. Hikers follow nearly 10 miles of trails in the adjacent Eldon Hazlet State Recreation Area. Thrill-seekers whoosh along the treetops on an American Obstacle Zipline Canopy Tour in nearby Kinmundy. Anglers love Pyramid State Recreation Area, and its forested hills and more than 16 miles of trails also attract hikers, mountain bikers and equestrian riders. Are wine trails more your speed? The region’s Heartland Rivers Wine Trail weaves along country roads to a dozen different wineries. Hidden Lake Winery lives up to its name—it really is hidden in the woods near Aviston.
►Microbrews are big in the area. Excel Brewing Company bottles four year-round brews in Breese, plus a handful of seasonals like Oktoberfest. You’ll find St. Nicholas Brewing Company in a renovated historic hotel in downtown Du Quoin.
►The Centralia Area Historical Museum, set in an impressive former grocery warehouse, is chock-full of exhibits.
►The World’s Largest Catsup Bottle (170 feet tall) makes a great photo op in Collinsville, next to Route-159.
►Located on a 167-year-old family farm in Nashville, Rainbow Ranch Petting Zoo houses exotic animals like a zebra and camels, along with potbellied pigs.
►Brown Jersey cows rule at Marcoot Jersey Creamery, where their rich milk is turned into farmstead cheeses. Tours of this Greenville dairy farm include a peek at the family’s cheese-making process.
►The LuBar and Bistro serves Italian dishes in a charming storefront on historic Courthouse Square in Carlyle. Down the street, grab a homemade burger (you’ll need two hands) at Schleicher’s Bar and Grill.
►A bit out of the way but worth the drive, Popeye’s Chop House in St. Rose wins acclaim for its 16-ounce ribeye.
►In Du Quoin, try longtime favorite Alongi’s Italian Restaurant. Or dine on pasta and steaks at the The W Restaurant and Lounge, located on a horse ranch.
►Train fans make tracks to Centralia House Restaurant, located in a former 1850s saloon near the original Illinois Central Railroad tracks.
►Choose between a modern resort hotel suite or a rustic cabin on a pond at Mariner’s Village at Carlyle Lake.
►Tuck in at Francie’s Inn, a bed-and-breakfast located in an 1896 home near the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds.
►Expect to be greeted by the resident hound, Babe, at Timmermann House Bed and Breakfast in Aviston.
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