A River Runs Through it in Great Rivers Country

Activities, Midwestern US Itinerary

Itinerary at a Glance

Following the Mississippi River for 3,000 miles through 10 states, The Great River Road lives up to its name and then some. In Illinois, the historic byway follows the Mississippi through charming river towns, bustling urban cities, stunning state parks and historic sites as it travels the western border of the state for more than 550 miles. To honor this scenic route, signs emblazoned with a green pilot’s wheel logo denote that the road is part of The Great River Road. To make the most of your Illinois Great River Road experience, we recommend following the wise words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Life is a journey, not a destination.” Here, we offer a three-day itinerary to get you started.

5 Not to be missed eateries and distilleries:

  • Blaum Bros. Distilling Co
  • Galena Cellars
  • Fried Green Tomatoes
  • Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse
  • Old Bakery Beer Company

Details and Tips

Region: Great Rivers Country

Length: 3 nights

Best time of year: Spring, summer or fall

Suitable for: Adults who have a passion for history, architecture, shopping, theater, outdoor adventures, and local food and drink

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Day-To-Day Itinerary

Day 1: The Great River Road Experience


Begin your Great River Road experience with a walk down Galena’s Historic Main Street to browse specialty stores and boutiques along curving streets that were first paved in the 1840s. Give your feet a rest and hop on a Galena Trolley Tour, which leisurely rolls by 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 exceptional example of Galena’s limestone-based architecture).


Add some local history to your group’s itinerary with a visit to the Ulysses S. Grant State Historic Site. The famed Civil War general lived and eventually retired here before and after his presidency, and a docent can offer a thorough tour of this Italianate-style manor that retains its 1865 furnishings. Continue the time-traveling vibe with a visit to Old Blacksmith Shop, an authentic 1897 blacksmith shop with working forges and filled with historic tools and equipment. Head to the gift shop for a Galena-forged item made by one of their blacksmiths. Quench your thirst with a tour and tasting at Blaum Bros. Distilling Co. Established by two brothers in 2014, the business allows groups to learn about the distilling process, walk through the barrel aging room, and sample small-batch whiskey, bourbon and rye. Or if fermented grape juice is more your speed, opt for a visit to the serene Galena Cellars, a family-fun vineyard and winery where you can enjoy a tour followed by a wine tasting.  


End your day with dinner at Fried Green Tomatoes in Galena, a famous restaurant on Main Street that serves steaks, fresh seafood and a Wine Spectator award-winning wine list.

Day 2: Things to Do on the Great River Road


Fuel up for your second day on the Great River Road with a visit to Galena Bakehouse, which features made-from-scratch pastries, egg-filled empanadas and coffee. Not too far from Galena is Elizabeth, where you’ll find Apple River Fort, the site of one of the battles fought during the Black Hawk War, one of the so-called Indian Wars, in 1832. The family-friendly site includes both an interpretive visitor center and a reconstruction of the long-vanished fort modeled upon findings of a 1995 archaeological dig.


From there, continue your journey south until you arrive at Quad Cities, an area that blossomed in the 19th century as a steamboat trade hub and includes two Illinois cities, Rock Island and Moline, that retain thriving entertainment districts and historic downtowns. Visit the John Deere Pavilion in Moline to learn about how a modest blacksmith began to sell handmade shovels and developed America’s premier agricultural equipment company. This glass-enclosed space houses vintage equipment, interactive tractor exhibits and previews of 21st century farming innovation. Nearby is the downtown area, known as Moline Centre to locals, a great spot for antique shopping and dining.

For some in-depth river knowledge, head to the Mississippi River Visitor Center. Located on historical Rock Island Arsenal Island, a 946-acre island that includes the Rock Island Arsenal Museum (which houses weapons used in the Battle of Little Bighorn) and the Colonel Davenport House at Lock & Dam 15, this is a great spot to you can watch barges lock through.

Or connect with mother nature with a visit to the Quad City Botanical Center in Rock Island. Indoors you’ll find exotic tropical flowers, a 14-foot waterfall and reflecting pools with koi, while outside are the lovely conifer gardens and interactive Children’s Garden.


Savor a tasty meal and an excellent theater performance at Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse in Rock Island. Once a movie house, this lovely theater serves a delectable buffet and Vegas-style seating for groups to enjoy Broadway-caliber musicals and murder mysteries.

Day 3: Great River Road Activities


Begin the day with a stop at Underbrinks Bakery in Quincy, which has been supplying locals with the best made-from-scratch baked goods — think gooey pecan coffee cake,  flaky chocolate croissants — since 1929.

Plenty of architectural jewels await Quincy, whose historic district includes beautiful examples of Queen Anne, Gothic and Arts & Crafts architecture. The city’s Greek Revival highlight is the John Wood Mansion, home of Quincy’s founder and the twelfth governor of Illinois. Visitors can walk through a preserved log cabin built in 1837 and a parsonage building that houses Adams County artifacts that date back centuries.


Get an intimate look at some of Quincy’s finest mansions, with a Private Home Tour. More than 20 homeowners are participating in this unique tour that allows groups of 20 or more inside magnificent homes and gardens throughout Quincy. A great place to explore Quincy’s Underground Railroad History is Dr. Richard Eells House, the oldest standing two-story brick house in town. Back in the 1840s, Quincy was the first stop for fugitives this side of the Mississippi and Dr. Eells is created with helping several hundred slaves make their way to freedom. Housed in a historic 1890s home, the Quincy Museum features everything from the history of the Mississippi River to dinosaurs and Native American artifacts. Be sure to pause to admire the restored 14-karat gold woodwork.


The city of Alton welcomes groups to the Old Bakery Beer Company. Located in a former bakery that dates back to the 19th century, this industrial space offers groups a behind-the-scenes look at the organic brewing process and samples of local favorite flavors.

Day 4: Final Day on the Great River Road


Pay a visit to the famous Cahokia Mounds Historic Site in Collinsville, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that covers more than 2,000 acres of archaeological remains and 70 burial mounds. Group tours can include the interpretive center (which houses a recreated Cahokia village), several natural trails and a walk to the top of the 100-foot Monk’s Mound (the largest man-made mound north of Mexico).


The region east of St. Louis is where famous explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark stopped before continuing to the Pacific Ocean. The Lewis & Clark Historic Site in Hartford reconstructs Fort Dubois, where the Corps of Discovery made its final preparations during the winter of 1803-1804. Exhibits replicate 1803 U.S. Army designs and daily interpreters explain the harsh Midwestern winters the crew endured. Another option is to visit Nauvoo, which was established by Joseph Smith and his followers and was the world’s original Mormon settlement until religious intolerance forced more than 100,000 to flee to Utah in 1844. The city still retains much of its 1840s character and welcomes groups to explore its preserved buildings.

The Great River Road is a memorable trip for travelers of all ages. If you’d like to get more amazing travel ideas for single or group travelers of all ages, then be sure to Subscribe to Leisure Group Travel magazine for FREE

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