This one-of-a-kind region showcases historic Route 66 and the extraordinary Great River Road
Southwest Illinois is home to a myriad of unique attractions and charming towns. It is also the only location in America where two of our nation’s legendary roadways merge alongside the confluence of three great rivers.
Road trippers seeking to savor one of the most scenic drives in the country can journey down historic Route 66 from Virden to just outside St. Louis, where they will encounter a slew of attractions from the classic to the quirky that make Route 66 famous. Adventurers can also shift gears and merge onto the Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway, where they will experience the shimmering brilliance of the junction of the Missouri, Mississippi and Illinois rivers. Here are some memorable stops travelers can make along the way:
Historic Route 66, first known as the Main Street of America and later named the Mother Road by novelist John Steinbeck in 1939, is a road filled with nostalgic eats, unconventional museums and an abundance of attractions.
When you’re cruising down Route 66 and hunger strikes, visit one of the oldest American restaurants on the legendary highway. The Ariston Café in Litchfield opened its doors in 1924 and is one of the oldest continually-operational Route 66 restaurants. Another venerable stop is Doc’s Soda Fountain in Girard, which was established in 1884. The original soda fountain was added in 1929 and today, Doc’s offers old-fashioned sodas, breakfast, lunch, dinner, pies and ice cream.
Henry’s Rabbit Ranch in Staunton is a roadside wonder that lets travelers take a trip back to yesteryear with its collection of highway and trucking memorabilia and historic vehicles including a collection of Volkswagen Rabbits. Henry’s is also home to actual rabbits, some of who have been trained to perform tricks. Another fun stop is the Pink Elephant Antique Mall in Livingston, a mall that boasts larger than life sculptures including a pink elephant, the iconic Muffler Man, Uniroyal Gal and even the Twistee Treat, which is also an antique diner. The mall also features two floors of antiques with a wide range of merchandise from more than 50 vendors, a retro ice cream shop and a fudge and candy shop.
For an Instagram-worthy group photo, the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle in Collinsville provides a perfect backdrop. A 170-foot-tall refurbished water tower, the Catsup Bottle was built in 1949 and is recognized the world over as an excellent example of 20th century roadside Americana. For a delicious meal, the Old Herald Brewery & Distillery in Collinsville is the former site of the Collinsville Herald newspaper and has been transformed into a full-service restaurant, production brewery and craft distillery.
The historic Wildey Theatre in Edwardsville opened in 1909 as an opera house and a second-floor meeting hall for the Independent Order of Oddfellows. Having undergone renovations over the years, the Wildey is open for guided tours where guests can see its memorabilia and artifacts. The theater is also a live events venue for concerts, films and performances. Those seeking a fine dinner can visit Bella Milano in Edwardsville, which serves exceptional dishes with artistic presentation in a modern, inviting atmosphere.
Great River Road
Sometimes referred to as the Heart of America, the Great River Road represents four centuries of history and heritage. Its route on Illinois’ western border offers breathtaking views and magnificent landscapes that inspire. Here are some stops groups can make on their adventure:
On a guided tour at the Lewis and Clark State Historic Site in Hartford, travelers can follow the trail taken by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark who explored the western United States from 1803 to 1804. This location is National Trail Site No. 1 on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and is at the southern end of the meeting of the Great Rivers Scenic Route. For a spectacular view of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and the surrounding village of Hartford, visitors can ascend the Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower that stands 180 feet tall. With three viewing platforms at 50, 100 and 150 feet, the views are dramatic.
Not to be outdone, the new Grafton Sky Tour aerial lift at Aerie’s Resort and Winery enables guests to soar over the Mississippi bluffs and enjoy breathtaking views. At the resort, visitors can tour the winery and enjoy wine tastings, fine dining and live entertainment. Those who want a closer view of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers can board the Hakuna Matata in Grafton Harbor, a 49-passenger tour boat featuring an enclosed lower deck and an open-air upper deck that offers 360-degree views of the river, bluffs and islands.
This all-weather boat contains a tiki bar and is available to rent for private parties. Another outstanding stop near Grafton is Pere Marquette State Park, an 8,050-acre protected area along the Illinois River that is the largest state park in Illinois. A hub of recreational activities, visitors can hike, bike, fish and enjoy a picnic amid a picturesque natural setting. After a day of exploring, travelers can visit the Pere Marquette Lodge Restaurant, which is renowned for its family-style chicken dinner and seasonal Sunday brunch buffets.
Visiting the historic Village of Elsah is akin to taking a journey back in time. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Elsah’s impeccably preserved buildings and quiet surroundings give visitors a glimpse of the past thanks to its quaint stone houses, lush gardens, cozy inns and homestyle eateries. Elsah has the distinction of being the first village in its entirety to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Another must-see stop in Elsah is Principia College, where sightseers can take a narrated self-guided driving campus tour of this National Historic Landmark. Designed by architect Bernard Maybeck, the college includes stately buildings like the Chapel, which features American colonial architecture, and the cottage-like Mistake House, an experimental building that illustrates an assortment of construction techniques.