The Windy City is far from the only destination worth visiting in Illinois. Just east of the mighty Mississippi River sits Galena, a 19th-century town charmingly embraced by lush treelines, calm rivers and tranquil lake shores. The town that Ulysses S Grant once called home has plenty of history to share, but of course, it would like you to leave with your own story to tell.
Founded in 2013, Blaum Bros. Distilling Co makes bourbon, gin, vodka, whiskey and absinthe, along with seasonal cocktails. The distillery is open for tours, which reveal more about the Blaum brothers’ process, but please, don’t ask them about their family’s distilling history. Despite the rumors, they’ll insist that their grandfather did not distill moonshine for Al Capone and that they don’t have a secret family recipe that makes their spirits come alive.
It’s no great surprise that Galena has been voted one of “America’s Best Main Streets” by various publications. You won’t find national chain coffee shops or copy-and-paste souvenir outlets here. With quaint 19th-century architecture and boutique stores, the area feels as genuine as the townspeople themselves. Whether searching for gifts or picking up a little something for yourself, there are plenty of unique treats. Check out the locally made, award-winning pantry staples at Galena Canning Company, knickknacks for everyone at Gabby’s Gifts and precious antiques at Elizabeth’s Grand Antique Co.
Long before Galena was founded, this part of the Mississippi was home to Native American tribes. The Casper Bluff Land and Water Reserve preserves more than a thousand years of history. Burial mounds and Native American archaeological sites are scattered throughout the 85-acre (34ha) area. Explore hiking trails – and bring your binoculars as the birdwatching is prime. Casper Bluff is pet-friendly, but you’re encouraged to remember to respect these natural sites and leave no trace behind when taking in the conical mounds and wall-like structures.
Galena’s most-celebrated one-time resident was none other than Civil War hero President Ulysses S Grant. He lived in the town just before and after the Civil War, returning now and again after moving into the White House. His home, gifted to the Grant family after the war, has been restored to its former grandeur, complete with many of Grant’s possessions. Though he spent little time in this home, its thorough restoration makes it one of the best-preserved sites showcasing how Galena was in the 1860s.
The Elihu Benjamin Washburne House is a great example of the Greek Revival architecture that gives Galena its grandeur. Politician Elihu Washburne, who advised both presidents Grant and Lincoln, owned the historic site. Grant actually received his presidential election victory by telegram in the house’s library. Self-guided and group tours are available, but Washburne House is only open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays between May and October.
First time in Galena? Let none other than former president Ulysses S Grant welcome you to town at the Galena and US Grant Museum. The one-time resident tips his hat in hologram form to those up for learning all about the town’s history. More than 6,000sqft (557sqm) of this 19th-century mansion are dedicated to exhibits highlighting World War I, the Port of Galena, regional lead mining and Grant’s Leather Store. Keep tabs on the monthly calendar to catch special events, such as historic home tours and spooky cemetery walks.
Want to discover what Galena’s neighbors are up to in Wisconsin and Iowa? You’ll be afforded a voyeuristic glimpse across both state lines at Horseshoe Mound. This 40-acre (16ha) green space has its eponymous mound as its focal point – hence the views. Once you’ve caught your breath admiring the panoramas, you’ll have plenty of time to explore the local hiking trails, taking atmospheric photos of where the Galena and Mississippi rivers come together.
Galena is so well preserved that you’d think you’re stepping back into the 19th century, which makes the funky and modern West Street Sculpture Park an even cooler addition to the area. This 2-acre (1ha) space is an arena for more than a dozen large steel sculptures created by an artist who doesn’t take himself or his craft too seriously. You’ll guess as much when you encounter the giant Tinkertoy, among other humorous assemblages. Open from dawn until dusk with free admission, this is a weird and truly wonderful outdoor attraction.
Have you noticed how so many homes in Galena possess immaculately manicured green spaces? You can thank Linmar Gardens and its green thumbs. These landscape designers create elegant outdoor spaces for Galena’s residents. No need to feel left out just because your house is in another zip code; you’re free to join one of the daily tours around the gardens for a little leafy inspiration to take back and apply to your outdoor space.
While the town wasn’t short on natural beauty, the creation of this fine man-made lake only enhanced Galena Territory’s landscape. The marina has boats for rent and amenities such as playgrounds, tennis and pickleball courts, and a picnic area. Ask any resident, and they’ll tell you to get out on the water, fishing for bluegill, bass and catfish – you can hire angling gear from the marina’s Bait & Tackle Shop. Of course, if you’d rather, you can just come along for the ride, glimpsing foxes, deer, beavers, turkeys and eagles that live by the lake.
Galena is known affectionately as the “town that time forgot,” but you’ll certainly remember a visit to the majestic Belvedere Mansion and Gardens. Like most buildings in town, this elegant pile was built in the 1850s when Galena was basking in its status as the wealthiest city in the state. The interior is astounding, with a grandfather clock and grand staircase greeting you as you step in off the Victorian porch. Outside, stunning gardens bloom with annual and seasonal plants of every stripe, which, like the property, retain their beauty despite decades of change.