Why Illinois is the perfect place for your next adventure

Illinois is a place of rich tales, American folklore and one of the greatest cities in the US, rewarding the explorer prepared to go beyond the city, with charming villages peppering the stretches of farmland.

Known as the Prairie State, the plains are Illinois’ defining feature – making the skyscrapers and gleaming architecture of Chicago an outlier, an urban whirlwind at the centre of so much calm.

It’s a place of rich tales and American folklore – not just the home of iconic president Abraham Lincoln, but also the city that invented deep dish pizza and defined the archetypal American gangster.

Wind your way to the Windy City

Chicago is the main draw for most visitors to Illinois, a vibrant city of culture, art, commerce, and sport. Skyscrapers loom and draw your eyes to the skyline, while there’s sensational public art such as Anish Kapoor’s ‘The Bean’ at ground level. Actually called the ‘Cloud Gate’ this is one of the city’s most photographed icons.

This is a sporting town, too, with the Cubs handling the baseball, the Blackhawks ice hockey and the Bears American Football. Grab a ticket in advance for any of these and you’re guaranteed a warm welcome by local fans.

Off the beaten track in Chicago

Once you’ve ticked off the major tourist attractions in Chicago – the Skydeck on the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower is a must, as is Lake Michigan, the city’s aquatic playground – there are some lesser-known gems to be explored.

Chicago waterfront

Seek out the largest T-Rex in the world at the Field Museum of Natural History – she’s called Sue – or perhaps visit the handsome Japanese garden on the wooded island in Jackson Park. Fans of the timeless Wizard of Oz should head for Oz Park, which commemorates the fact that L Frank Baum wrote the book that inspired it in Chicago. It’s full of statues based on his characters, including the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion.

Last up, visit some Depression-era gangster haunts. Al Capone frequented the Green Mill, while Dillinger was shot dead outside the Biograph Theater.

In search of Springfield

The city of Springfield is actually the state capital of Illinois, in large part because former president Abraham Lincoln lived here. You can explore his life here at the Greek Revival house where he lived, and at his presidential library where there’s an original copy of the Gettysburg Address. Head from here to the Oak Ridge Cemetery for the impressive Lincoln Tomb and War Memorials.

Abraham Lincoln house, Springfield.

There’s more to this compact city, however, with a lovely botanical garden, a house built by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Old State Capitol building, and plenty of recreation to be found on the shores of Lake Springfield.

America’s main street

While Route 66 retains its romance, much of it has been replaced and superseded by modern roads. However, the original begins in Illinois, close to Lake Michigan, making this the perfect place to kick off a US road trip. There are markers that make following it easy, and the way is studded with classic drive-thru restaurants and vintage diners, street cars and signs from the past.

To learn more, drive to Pontiac to see the Route 66 Hall of Fame Museum. There’s little more American than hot dogs, and you’ll pass landmarks such as the hot-dog holding Tall Paul the Muffler Man sign and the Cozy Dog drive-in near Springfield.

In love with Lake Michigan

Chicago shares Lake Michigan with several other cities, and a number of states can lay claim to a chunk of its shoreline, but Chicago natives make the most of their stretch.

During summer, the city’s beaches come alive with locals and visitors, golden dunes lapped at gently by the lake’s waters. There are water-based activities galore, from kayaking to more serene pedal boats, or you can take a ferry tour if you prefer a more relaxed approach. Head up the Illinois coast to Waukegan, fewer than 50 miles north of Chicago – it’s the perfect place to charter a fishing boat and spend the day on the lake.

Go for Galena

Galena, Illinois.

Close to the border with Iowa, Galena is perhaps the prettiest town in Illinois. Its historic district is packed with beautiful houses in a variety of styles from Greek Revival to Gothic, all of which tell a tale of the city’s 19th century wealth – made mostly from lead mining.

The Main Street here is straight out of central casting, with friendly stores, antique shops and places serving up fudge and saltwater taffy. You can visit the Italianate home of former president Ulysses S Grant, but this is a place built for sauntering around.

With car hire in Illinois you can explore the far flung places and discover what makes this special state tick.