The 15 Best Things to See and Do in Illinois

There is much to explore in the state of Illinois beyond the city lights of Chicago, such as the Garden of the Gods in the Shawnee National Forest
There is much to explore in the state of Illinois beyond the city lights of Chicago, such as the Garden of the Gods in the Shawnee National Forest | © YuziS / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Kelsey Grace Pfeifer
21 September 2020

Although Chicago might be the shining star of Illinois, there are plenty of other things to see and do in this phenomenal state. Along with one of the most famous lakes in the US, Illinois is home to historic tours, brilliant museums and natural wonders. From Wrigley Field to Garden of the Gods, here are some of the best things to see and do in the Prairie State.

Lake Michigan

Natural Feature
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Oak Street Beach, Chicago, IL, USA
© dbimages / Alamy Stock Photo

Illinois locals are incredibly proud of Lake Michigan, perhaps because it resembles an ocean more than a lake. The beautiful shores are peppered with families and friends throughout the summer, making it the perfect place for a barbecue or a game of beach volleyball. On top of all that, the sunsets over the lake do not get any better. If you’re an adrenaline junkie, there’s a lot to keep you entertained here, from ice luging and snow kiting in the winter to lake surfing, flyboarding and parasailing when there’s less snow around.

Wrigley Field

Sports Center, Stadium
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Many Chicagoans (and their family and friends) have been forced to love the Cubs since birth – a tough effort for 108 years. Now that the Cubs are playing well again, Wrigley Field is an absolute must-see. The stadium is one of the coolest in the nation, not only because of the architecture, but also due to the fans’ amazing and consistent team spirit. Be sure to check out the home of the much-beloved Cubs, one of the most colorful teams in professional sports.

Six Flags Great America

Amusement Park
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When it comes to theme parks, Six Flags Great America is hard to upstage, even though it sits in the middle of rural Gurnee, Illinois. The rides are out of this world, and the waterpark is the single best way to beat the summer heat. For those who love the spookiest time of year, this place also hosts Fright Fest, which has some of the greatest Halloween festivities in the Midwest. So, grab a ghoulish best friend and ride some insane roller coasters late into the night.

Brookfield Zoo

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A young American bison or buffalo (Bison bison) among a small herd at Brookfield Zoo near Chicago. Brookfield, Illinois, USA.
© Bruce Leighty / Alamy Stock Photo
When it comes to good family fun, nothing beats going to the zoo. Luckily, the Brookfield Zoo is perfect for an afternoon stroll or even a first date. Summers in Illinois are usually mild, so it is definitely a time to be nostalgic and check out some awesome animals. Not only does the Brookfield Zoo have tigers and clouded leopards, but there are also polar bears, giraffes, zebras, wolves, dolphins and gorillas here. You’re going to have a hard time picking which stuffed animal to buy at the gift shop.


Architectural Landmark
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Many people believe that Chicago is the capital of Illinois, but it is actually beautiful and picturesque Springfield. This city is home to a cozy downtown that is perfect for wandering, grabbing a coffee and browsing some shops. While you’re there, check out the capitol building and the amazing history behind it. Springfield is also where Abraham Lincoln lived from 1844 to 1861. Visit his family home and learn more about his life and career.

Willis Tower Ledge

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Fair warning – this spot is not for the faint of heart. But for those willing adventurers, the Ledge truly does offer one of the best views in Chicago. Sitting at 1,353ft (412m) high, the glass boxes extend 4ft (1m) out from the Willis Tower Skydeck. Look down, and you’ll see the whole city from an incredibly unique perspective. Definitely bring your camera to this one, as you’ll be able to take selfies that will up your Instagram game quite considerably.

Chicago Riverwalk

Park, Architectural Landmark
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Looking down onto the Riverwalk in downtown Chicago on a warm summer day.
© D Guest Smith / Alamy Stock Photo

One of the hippest and most hopping places in Chicago is the Riverwalk, which follows the Chicago River and is the perfect way to observe all of the skyscrapers and to try some of Chicago’s best restaurants and wineries along the way. During the summer, this is one of the absolute best spots to eat lunch or watch the sunset. Sometimes it’s nice to take a moment, get out of the immediate city and enjoy a leisurely stroll along the water.

Cantigny Park

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For fans of Alice in Wonderland or the fantasy genre in general, Cantigny Park is the place to be. Take some sure-to-be-famous Instagram shots with the bright yellow furniture that the park is known for. This is also the site of some ridiculously gorgeous weddings, which take place underneath the canopy of never-ending greenery. Whether you’re after a garden party, a place for your evening jog or somewhere for a picnic, Cantigny Park will deliver.

Garden of the Gods

Park, Natural Feature
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Garden of the Gods is an aptly named rock formation and one of the best observational trails in the entire state. Tucked in the Shawnee National Forest, these formations look as if they belong out west in one of the Dakotas, not the Midwest. Make it a day hike or even a few hours; just be sure to see this natural phenomenon. The quarter-mile-long (0.4km) trail is made of natural sandstone and takes around an hour to walk, while interpretive signs explain the area’s geographical history.


Architectural Landmark
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Galena, Illinois
© Amel Dizdarevic / Alamy Stock Photo

The state of Illinois is beautiful, but not very much of it is old-fashioned and charming. The tiny little 3,500-person hamlet of Galena is doing its best to change that. An adorable mountain town with a Main Street that looks like a photograph, Galena is quaint. Plus, it is close to abundant forestry, nature and hikes galore, so there are plenty of activities to keep you occupied. Another benefit is the large number of excellent spas, so after you’ve exercised, you can put your feet up and enjoy a massage.

The culinary specialties

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Beyond the show-stopping landmarks, there is one thing that every person must do when they visit Illinois – try the food! From deep-dish in Chicago to Epic Deli in McHenry, there are many places to visit where you can try a new cuisine or just get a mouthwatering version of a familiar favorite. You should be sure to try a Chicago-style hot dog – an all-beef frankfurter on a poppy seed bun that is said to have been “dragged through the garden,” or topped with a large assembly of extras, including relish, tomato slices and celery salt.

Historic Museum of Torture Devices

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It’s always the quiet ones that surprise you. In the quiet little town of Alton just north of St. Louis, Missouri, is the scarily named Historic Museum of Torture Devices (or the Curiosity Shop, which it’s trying to rename itself as, in order to seem less threatening). There are many inventive, painful-looking and downright terrifying items here. Lucky for you, the cheap entry fee isn’t going to hurt too badly.

The ghost town of Cairo

Architectural Landmark
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Cairo, IL, United States - May 19, 2018: Abandoned and boarded up buildig in Cairo, Illinois.
© Dawid Swierczek / Alamy Stock Photo

Deep in the south half of Illinois, there’s a lot more than fans of Chicago might think there is. Cairo, for instance, is an abandoned town that used to be used as a common shipping route for goods. Now, it’s been left to its own devices; there’s nothing here anymore except tumbleweed. If you’re driving through this eerie ghost town, it’s well worth taking the time to stop the car, explore and snap some selfies by the abandoned shops and houses.

The world’s largest catsup bottle

Architectural Landmark
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Sure, it’s not very cultural. Nor is there much of a point to it at all. But who doesn’t love catsup? And this is the largest ever bottle of it – coming in at a whopping 170ft (52m) tall, it really does live up to its name. Locals in Collinsville, Illinois, are very proud of their oversized ornament and even host an annual World’s Largest Catsup Bottle Festival. It’s also on the National Register of Historic Places. You absolutely must take a souvenir photo here.

Wicker Park Secret Agent Supply Co.

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The Wicker Park Secret Agent Supply Co. The Wicker Park Secret Agent Supply Co. contains everything a kid needs to become a spy
Courtesy of the Wicker Park Secret Agent Supply Co.

This place is, somehow, even cooler than it sounds. It’s a shop where you can stock up on magnifying glasses, powder to take fingerprints with, secret disguises and voice modulators. However, it’s also a charity that holds 826CHI’s writing workshops and tutoring sessions in the building attached to the store. It just goes to show that sometimes when you look beneath the surface, you find something even better than you expected.

Additional reporting by Alice Johnston

These recommendations were updated on September 21, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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