Adventures of all varieties are there for the asking in the historic Great Rivers Country of Illinois filled with charming small towns and architectural jewels
Illinois’ historic Great Rivers Country is home to lovely old architecture, incredible natural beauty, beloved restaurants and stellar live entertainment. Once you pay this region a visit, you’ll never want to leave.
Duration: 4 Days
Ideal for: Adults
Day One: Shopping in Galena, a Lincoln landmark and more things to do in Illinois
Begin your day 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. 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 exceptional example of Galena’s limestone-based architecture).
Orient your group to local history 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. Next, register for 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.
Conclude your day with dinner at Fried Green Tomatoes, an acclaimed restaurant on Main Street that features prime-cut steaks, fresh seafood and a Wine Spectator award-winning wine list.
Day 2: Mississippi River adventures, America’s agricultural equipment company and an art deco theater
Follow the Mississippi River downstream to 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.
Spend your afternoon discovering the importance of the Mississippi River to Illinois History. Register for a tour of the Rock Island Arsenal, a 946-acre island that includes the Rock Island Arsenal Museum (which houses weapons used in the Battle of Little Bighorn), the Colonel Davenport House and the Mississippi River Visitor Center. Here you can see Lock and Dam No. 15, an engineering marvel and the largest roller dam in the world. A tour guide can explain how enormous metal cylinders and hydraulic technology allows recreational and commercial vessels to pass through the facility’s locks.
Enjoy a delicious meal and a spirited theater performance at Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse. Once a grand movie house, this beautiful Art Deco space offers a delicious buffet and Vegas-style seating for groups to enjoy Broadway-caliber musicals and murder mysteries.
Day 3: A historic Mormon settlement, architecture attractions and an Alton Illinois organic brewery
Nauvoo, established by Joseph Smith and his followers, was the world’s original Mormon settlement until religious intolerance forced over 10,000 people to flee to Utah in 1844. However, the city retains much of its 1840s character and welcomes groups to explore its preserved buildings. Orient your group at the Joseph Smith Historic Site, which provides background on the Mormon’s migration west before you begin a walking tour of the city. Tours can include the Webb Brothers’ Blacksmith Shop for ironwork demonstrations, the Red Brick Store (which replicates dry goods merchandise from the 1840s) and a home that belonged to famed Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints president Brigham Young.
More architectural jewels await in the city of 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.
The city of Alton, which famously hosted a Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858, welcomes groups to the Old Bakery Beer Company. Housed in a former bakery that dates back to the 19th century, this industrial space now offers groups a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the organic brewing process and samples of local favorites like citrus wheat and porter. Group dining is also available.
Day 4: Historic exhibits, Illinois state parks and a World Heritage Site
The region east of St. Louis is where famed explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark would stop before venturing 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 to visitors the harsh Midwestern winters the crew endured. Visitors can also climb the Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower, which honors the Corps of Discovery launch on May 14, 1804, and rises over 150 feet tall for a great view of the Missouri and Mississippi river confluence. Be sure to stop in at Mississippi Mud Pottery for handcrafted pottery created near the banks of the Mississippi River. Visit the stunning Post Commons, a former U.S. Post Office building repurposed into a popular coffee shop and meeting place.
Conclude your itinerary in Grafton with a ride on the scenic Grafton SkyTour, which takes visitors over 300 feet high to the Mississippi River bluffs in this historic riverfront community. Enjoy an afternoon at Grafton Winery – The Vineyards with a tour of the production facility and a glass of wine overlooking the vineyards. Stop in at Pere Marquette State Park and tour the historic Lodge and Conference Center, which was built during the 1930’s through the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The massive 300-ton limestone fireplace is the centerpiece of the Lodge. The Meriwether Lewis visitor center highlights the wildlife and natural beauty that can be found in Illinois’ largest state park.
The region east of St. Louis is where famed explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark would stop before venturing 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 to visitors the harsh Midwestern winters the crew endured. Visitors can also climb the Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower, which honors the Corps of Discovery launch on May 14, 1804, and rises over 150 feet tall for a great view of the Missouri and Mississippi river confluence.
Conclude your itinerary at the Cahokia Mounds Historic Site in Collinsville, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that encompasses over 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).
For more travel ideas, download our current issue of Leisure Travel Guide.