Where to Discover Historic Illinois

Activities, History & Heritage

Discover Illinois history with visits to homes of beloved presidents, buildings by famous architects and a drive on a road like no other

It’s hard to get very far in Illinois without seeing some reference to its most revered native son. The memory of Abraham Lincoln is alive and well here — and for good reason. But while our 16th president deserves all the accolades and then some (see Where to Experience Lincoln’s Legacy below), there’s so much more to Illinois history than Honest Abe. From a Native American city and iconic architecture to a spooky prison, Illinois is chockfull of exciting experiences around every corner that depict times gone by. Leave the history books at home.

WHERE TO VIEW HISTORIC ILLINOIS ARCHITECTURE

From towering modern skyscrapers to charming decades-old buildings, Chicago is home to a range of architecture that is sure to please a variety of design tastes. To get a lay of the land, head to the Chicago Architecture Center, located in a beautiful new building just off Michigan Avenue and next to the Chicago River. In addition to a variety of boat and walking tours, the Center offers the Chicago City Model Experience, featuring more than 4,000 buildings and interactive elements that tell amazing stories of the city and its historic design.

Armed with your new knowledge, head out to visit some architecture up close. Noteworthy buildings to view all within walking distance include Frank Lloyd Wright’s The Rookery, a light-filled marble and glass masterpiece; the Art Deco Chicago Board of Trade; and the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, a one-time private men’s club that opened in 1893 and has been lovingly restored inch by inch to its previous grandeur.

Looking for more Wright wonders? A trip to Oak Park is in order, where you’ll find the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio, along with 30 more structures from the famed Illinois architect scattered through this lovely neighborhood.

In Southern Illinois, the Centralia Area Historical Society Museum in downtown Centralia features two floors of a former wholesale grocery warehouse filled with railroading, mining, oil industry, agricultural and Civil War artifacts. In Carlyle, Ten Pin Antique Mall is home to thousands of items for sale in a repurposed bowling alley that still has the old signage, bowling lanes and scoring monitors.

Land of Lincoln historic attractions

NOT-TO-BE-MISSED HISTORIC ILLINOIS SITES

In southwestern Illinois in Collinsville lies a UNESCO World Heritage Site encompassing more than 2,000 acres of archaeological remains. Cahokia Mounds Historic Site is the location of a pre-Columbian Native American city and includes several natural trails, a walk to the top of the 100-foot Monk’s Mound (the largest man-made mound north of Mexico) and 70 burials mounds.

To glimpse one of the oldest remaining municipalities in the world that began as a French outpost, head to the city of Prairie du Rocher, where you’ll find Fort de Chartres State Historic Site. A former major hub for 18th century French merchants, the reconstructed fort is now open to visitors, who can walk the garrisons, and learn about colonial life from historic reenactors.

In Hartford, Camp Dubois served as the winter camp and launch-point for the exploration of the Louisiana Purchase by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. View a replica of the 1803 winter fort the duo called home before heading off on their westward journey. Visitors can also climb the Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower, which rises over 150 feet tall for a terrific view of the Missouri and Mississippi river confluence.

In the far northwest corner of Illinois, you’ll find some of the Midwest’s best-preserved 19th century towns, including Galena, where you’ll find the Ulysses Grant Home State Historic Site. It’s here the Civil War hero and 18th U.S. president lived after returning from the Civil War. The two-story brickhouse includes some of Grant’s possessions and original furnishings. Also in Galena, groups can enjoy a walk down the city’s Historic Main Street, featuring specialty stores and boutiques along curving streets that were first paved in the 1840s. You can also embark on a Galena Trolley Tour to pass famous buildings like the DeSoto House Hotel (where Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech from the balcony in 1856) and the Dowling House (one of the state’s oldest surviving buildings and an fabulous example of Galena’s limestone-based architecture).

Looking for some spooky vibes to go along with your Illinois history? Joliet Prison, which once housed famous criminals such as Leopold & Loeb and Babyface Nelson, now welcome non-criminals to check out its castle-like guard towers, wrought-iron gates and some cellblocks.

Nestled between Springfield’s brick-paved streets and the State Capitol, the Illinois Governor’s Mansion is the third-oldest state governor’s residence in the United States and the oldest gubernatorial residence in the Midwest. After admiring its beautiful architecture from the outside, head inside for a free tour.

WHERE TO EXPERIENCE LINCOLN’S HISTORIC LEGACY

A history-focused Illinois trip wouldn’t be complete without a visit to some of the many Abraham Lincoln-centric sites. There’s a reason, after all, Illinois is called the Land of Lincoln. And Springfield, the capital of Illinois, is the city where America’s 16th president spent much of his life. At the Abraham Lincoln Library & Museum you’ll see rare artifacts as well as dazzling exhibits and theater shows.

At the Old State Capitol, you can see where Lincoln delivered his famous House Divided speech and where his body lay in state after the assassination. Pay your respects to his final home with a visit to Lincoln’s Tomb in Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery. Near Petersburg, you can get an idea of Lincoln’s stomping grounds as a young adult with a visit to Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site, a log-cabin village.

Route66 Pontiac Roszellis Daniels (credit Adam Alexander)

Route66 Pontiac Roszellis Daniels (credit Adam Alexander)

AN ILLINOIS ROAD LIKE NO OTHER

A trip along “The Mother Road,” as Route 66 is affectionately called, is always a fun adventure in American history and trends. In Pontiac, you’ll find the home of the free-admission Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum, which celebrates the people and businesses that served motorists fabled national highway.

Next door is the free Livingston County War repository of gear, uniforms and other U.S. military mementoes from World War I up to current Middle East conflicts. The nearby Pontiac-Oakland Automobile Museum, another gratis experience, spotlights the popular Pontiac brand and the development of early car travel in America.

Illinois has so much history for travelers to experience, but Leisure Group Travel has even more travel ideas. If you’d like to learn about what else Illinois has for travels, be sure to Subscribe to Leisure Group Travel magazine for FREE 

By Lisa Shames

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