50 Places to See in Illinois Before Your Kids Graduate High School

Let us guess: your family is a few weeks away from a vacation, and still have nothing planned. That’s OK. Welcome to the Land of Lincoln, where there’s something to do for kids – and families – of all ages and stages. Museums, check. Parks, check. Statues, check. And we haven’t even left Chicago yet. 

Whether you want to travel for the day, the weekend or just hop the L for someplace to take your preschooler, we’ve got you covered. Start checking your list and making plans for your next vacation in Illinois. 


Art Institute of Chicago

Best for ages: All ages

Known for: From drop-in classes for all ages to opportunities and gallery programs for teens, The Art Institute of Chicago is a destination for the whole family. Adults will love to find their favorite paintings in the galleries – Georges Seurat, Grant Wood, Vincent van Gogh, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Marc Chagall (to name-drop a few) have art hanging at The Art Institute – and watch the events calendar for treasure hunts, family story times and drop-in drawing dates. 

While you’re there: If you go in the summer, turn north or south on Michigan Avenue to enjoy one of the city’s parks. Crown Fountain, with its well-known water feature, is to the north, as is Millennium Park and The Bean (aka Cloud Gate). To the south you’ll find Grant Park, Buckingham Fountain and the Tiffany Celebration Garden.  

Chicago Botanic Garden

Best for ages: All ages

Known for: The Botanic Garden’s Bonsai Collection joins the 27 gardens and four natural areas that are situated on 385 acres on the North Shore. Families can walk, stroll and enjoy the gardens in every season. During the 2019 holiday season, the Botanic Garden introduced Lightscape, a light show that married nature with holiday spectacular. Family events from story times to a kite festival run year-round and the seasonal flower shows bring visitors back again and again.

While you’re there: If you head into Glencoe via Metra, you can’t miss the historic Metra station, built in 1891 and located two blocks from the Glencoe Boat House and Glencoe Beach, which are great destinations in the summer. All year round, families can enjoy the Forest Preserve of Cook County, which surrounds the Botanic Garden, or Skokie Lagoons to the south. 

Chicagoland Speedway

Best for ages: Early elementary and older

Known for: The Chicagoland Speedway hosts NASCAR events through the summer, including a Cup Series race every year. There’s a Kids Club for young racing fans to sign up for benefits like a special credential and access to the Kids Club Zone. Families are also invited to camp on site during events in the infield or on the back stretch. Families with young children should remember that races can be very loud and to include ear protection for the youngest fans. 

While you’re there: The Speedway and adjacent Route 66 Raceway are located south of Joliet. Sugar Creek Preserve, part of the Forest Preserve District of Will County is located a quick four miles away. Sugar Creek has 22 miles of hiking and biking trails within the preserve that are also frequented by horseback riders.

Chicago Theatre Tour

Best for ages: Early elementary and older

Known for: The Chicago Theatre was restored in 1986 and turned from a movie house into the theater that we know today for its stage productions, shows, lectures and concerts. Families can tour the building and learn about its architecture, its history and the renovation process. See the dressing rooms (unless it is a concert day) and the walls signed by some of America’s favorite acts. Tours run 60 minutes and start at noon every day (advance ticket purchase is highly recommended), and families can stand on the stage and look out into the seats at the theater. 

While you’re there: With the theatre located at 175 S. State Street, families can head south to shop the stores on State Street, or visit the Harold Washington Library with its newly remodeled Thomas Hughes Children’s Library.

DuSable Museum of African American History

Best for ages: Early elementary and older

Known for: The building that houses the city’s Museum of African American History was designed by famed Chicago architects Burnham & Root in 1910 as administrative offices for Washington Park. With permanent exhibits and rotating exhibitions that tell the stories of black history in Chicago and the U.S., in February the museum opened TIME’s “The March” virtual reality exhibition of Martin Luther King Jr.’s march in Washington. Visitors receive free admission to the museum on Tuesdays.   

While you’re there: The museum is located in Washington Park, one of Chicago’s historic parks designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, who was also a designer of the Colombian Exposition and New York City’s Central Park. Some of the buildings in the park date back to the early 1900s. Regular events are held in Washington Park year-round. If you travel a few blocks to the east, you’ll find the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art and Oriental Institute Museum, both of which are family-friendly and hold regular family events. 

Joliet Prison Tour

Best for ages: Late elementary and older

Known for: The Old Joliet Prison was built in 1858 of Joliet limestone and designed by W.W. Boyington, the architect of the Chicago Water Tower. It was created as a state penitentiary and housed the likes of Leopold & Loeb and Baby Face Nelson. Despite steady interest from Hollywood – most notably The Blues Brothers movie in 1980 –  the prison closed in 2002. It has continued to be the set of movies and television shows even after its closing, including Prison Break, set there in 2005. Visitors ages 10 and older can enjoy a 90-minute walking tour of the facility as it stands now. This year also marks the 40th anniversary of The Blues Brothers, with a party planned this summer. 

While you’re there: The prison is just east of the Des Plaines River and adjacent to forest preserve areas. Just to the south of the Old Joliet Prison is Joliet Iron Works Historic Site, a former iron manufacturing facility that is now part of the Forest Preserve District of Will County. In addition to learning about the former manufacturing site, families can bike, skate, picnic and enjoy hiking in the area. 

Lincoln Park Zoo

Best for ages: All ages

Known for: The free zoo is one of the most popular educational destinations in the city. In operation for more than 150 years, the zoo has animal exhibits, educational opportunities, fairs and fests throughout the year and is open every day. Families can meet and touch animals, and while the zoo is free to enter, there are additional fees to ride the Lionel Train Adventure, enjoy a penguin encounter or ride the carousel.  

While you’re there: Across the street to the north of the zoo is Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. The nature museum is the home to the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven, which releases first flight butterflies at 2 p.m. daily, historical collections from the Chicago Academy of Sciences, daily storytime and rotating exhibits. In the winter, the museum lobby is the site of an indoor farmer’s market. 

Museum Campus

Best for ages: All ages

Known for: The 57 acres sitting on the shores of Lake Michigan is home to three of Chicago’s top museums: The Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium. While it is not recommended to try to see all in one day, Illinois residents can take advantage of the free admission days offered by each museum. The Field Museum is home to Sue, the most complete T.rex skeleton, as well as a Crown Family Play Lab, rotating exhibits and opportunities to see scientists at work. Shedd Aquarium boasts aquatic species from across the globe and a presentation area that looks out onto Lake Michigan. Adler Planetarium has upgraded its family facilities with the installation of its newest Community PlayLab and houses the Atwood Sphere in its Chicago’s Night Sky exhibit. 

While you’re there: If the day is sunny and maybe just a little warm take a stroll along the lakeshore and a family picture with the Chicago Skyline as your background. In all seasons, your family is just steps from Northerly Island, which is a great fishing locale in the summer and houses winter walks and nature programs in the colder months. 

Navy Pier Centennial Wheel

Best for ages: Early Elementary and older

Known for: Chicago is the birthplace of the Ferris Wheel, as George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. constructed the first one as a landmark for the 1893 Colombian Exposition. The Centennial Wheel on Navy Pier was erected in 2016 and replaced an earlier 1995 version, letting families see the Chicago skyline at nearly 200 feet in the air. While it doesn’t come close to the tallest heights of a Ferris Wheel (that honor goes to the High Roller Wheel in Las Vegas at 550 feet), the Centennial Wheel is the sixth largest in the United States. 

While you’re there: Navy Pier attracts conventions, fairs, art and boats year round. Families can stop at Crystal Gardens, a great place to warm up in the winter and see plants and flowers all year long. Older kids can take in a show at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and the Chicago Children’s Museum has a home on Navy Pier, with climbing apparatuses, rotating exhibits, exhibitions dedicated to the fire department and city’s architecture and fun for all ages. 

Pullman National Monument

Best for ages: Late Elementary and older

Known for: The Pullman neighborhood in south Chicago was built in 1884 as a manufacturing town created by George M. Pullman, whose company created Pullman railcars. He wanted a town to house his workers, hoping a short commute and good living conditions would create a better working environment. In 2015, then-President Barack Obama declared Pullman a National Historic District under the purview of the National Park Service. Families can take docent or self-guided tours of the visitors center and some of the buildings. Admission to the park is free, though families should check the park’s website before planning a visit as it is closed during some winter months. 

While you’re there: Pullman continues to be a working neighborhood with homes, shops and parks. Two Chicago Park District Parks – Arcade Park and Pullman Park – have play structures and walking trails for families. Located north of the monument is the Pullman Porter Museum, dedicated to the porters who worked on trains and to African Americans in the labor movement. 


Best for ages: All ages

Known for: The Skydeck sits atop Willis Tower, the tallest tower in the Western Hemisphere. If your family is ready to see the view from 1,353 feet in the air, you can step out onto “The Ledge,” a glass-bottomed balcony that looks al-l-l-l-l-l-l-l the way down. The Ledge might not be suited for kids with fears of heights, but for the littlest littles, you can snap your Instagram-worthy photos before their fear sets in. On a crystal clear day, you can see four states from the top of the tower.

While you’re there: Willis Tower houses a variety of businesses among its tenants, and has recently added first-floor amenities such as Urbanspace, a food hall expected to open later in 2020, and the newly-opened Shake Shack, Do-Rite Donuts & Chicken and Brown Bag Seafood Company. So, you can fill your tummies after your trek into the clouds. 

Wrigley Field

Best for ages: All ages

Known for: With apologies to the fans of baseball on the South Side, Wrigley Field holds a cache as a park of more than 100 years that’s hard to find in newer baseball stadiums. Built in 1914, the stadium has been updated in all the right places, but kept its historic charm. The field has hosted baseball, football, soccer, hockey and concerts, in case your family is looking for a reason to go, but not a fan of baseball. Gallagher Way, a veranda area adjacent to the field, was built in 2018 and hosts events year-round, including family movies and movement classes in the summer and ice skating in the winter. The Wrigley Field marquee is one of the most photographed spots in the city, according to Thrillist.

While you’re there: Clark Street is inundated with food options to the north and south of the ballpark. Families looking for fun after a game can head south on Clark to Sluggers, a sports bar with batting cages and arcade games on the second floor. Or, head a couple blocks west to Southport to find Candyality, a candy store complete with popcorn, chocolate, gummies and even retro sweet treats. 

Get Away for the Day

Alpine Slide, Galena

Distance from Chicago: 160 miles

Best for ages: Early elementary and older

Known for: Families can ride a sled 2,050 feet down a hill toward the Mississippi River (don’t worry, you’ll stop long before you reach the river). Riders younger than 7 will have to ride the sled with an adult, but this is the perfect opportunity for family members to “race” their way down the hill. The ride back to the top is on a ski lift, from which you can see three states. The slide is open during non-snowy months. 

While you’re there: The Alpine Slide is located at the Chestnut Mountain Resort on the far southern end of Galena. While the slide doesn’t run in the snow, the resort is a year-round experience. With snow-covered ski mountains and trails in the winter and a zip line and river cruise when there’s warmer weather, families have a hard time getting bored at Chestnut Mountain.

Anderson Japanese Gardens, Rockford

Distance from Chicago: 85 miles

Best for ages: All ages

Known for: Articulately pruned Japanese Gardens are both a work of art and a living landscape. Anderson Japanese Garden was created in 1978 and includes a restaurant, regular events and classes and docent-led tours twice each day (so if you know the family is headed to Rockford, sign up for a class in advance). 

While you’re there: The Discovery Center Museum is a quick two miles from the Gardens, the perfect spot for young learners. With multiple levels and interactive, hands-on exhibits, families can spend a day just exploring every nook and cranny. Older kids interested in architecture would enjoy the Laurent House, Frank Lloyd Wright’s only home designed for a disabled client, who was a WWII veteran. 

Burger King, Mattoon 

Distance from Chicago: 180 miles

Best for ages: Preschool and older

Known for: Before you think to yourself, “Burger King?! I’ve got one on the corner!” this isn’t your average Burger King. It’s not a franchise or a chain restaurant, and it is the site of a court case about trademark rights. The original owner, Gene Hoots, registered the rights to “Burger King” in Illinois while the Burger King chain of restaurants was starting its business in Florida. Hoots sued to maintain his trademark, and the national franchise argued that since it held the federal register it held the rights. The court found in favor of Hoots, and the Mattoon Burger King is the only in a 20-mile radius of Mattoon. The burgers are hot off the grill, and since the stand was originally a “Frigid Queen,” it also serves soft serve ice cream with candy eyeballs, fresh milk shakes and pork tenderloin.

While you’re there: Stay on the Mattoon food trail and pick up something off of the Frigid Queen menu at the ice cream stand shaped like a cone. Formerly a Twistee Treat, the ice cream stand was purchased by the Burger King owners and serves the same tasty treats down the road. If you choose to visit in July – prime ice cream time – stay for Bagelfest and the World’s Largest Bagel Parade. Bagelfest includes live music, a parade, a Beautiful Baby Bagel contest and was started after Murray Lender – of Lender’s Bagels – first hosted a free bagel breakfast in town.

Eternal Indian Statue, Oregon

Distance from Chicago: 100 miles

Best for ages: All ages

Known for: The Eternal Indian Statue, known to locals as Black Hawk, was created by artist Lorado Taft and dedicated in 1911. It overlooks the Rock River in Lowden State Park on the former site of the Eagle’s Nest Art Colony, which was founded by Taft. Made of concrete, it has recently undergone a restoration to repair broken concrete and is expected to be celebrated May 2020. The statue was erected to honor the Native American tribes that inhabited the Sauk Valley in the western part of the state. 

While you’re there: Conover Square is a former piano factory converted into a multi-level shopping mall with independent stores, antiques and even a model train room for kids to get lost in. Events throughout the year – ranging from a celebration of Autumn to the Ogle County Fair – are worth putting on the calendar if you’re looking to spend the weekend.

Forge into Fall Fun, Grand Detour

Distance from Chicago: 110 miles

Best for ages: Early elementary and older

Known for: Formerly known as the Hammer-In, the state’s blacksmithing festival attracts tradesmen from across the country to one of the John Deere Historic sites. The blacksmiths and other artisans create one-of-a-kind items of pioneer craftsmanship. The newest incarnation of the festival will take place from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Oct. 10, and include horse and wagon rides.  

While you’re there: The John Deere Historic site in Grand Detour is a journey in its own right. From demonstrations to artifacts to tours of the original 1836 John Deere family home, visitors can step back in time to learn about the history of the area and the tractor company.


Distance from Chicago: 170 miles

Best for ages: All ages

Known for: Situated on the banks of the Mississippi River, Galena is a resort town that is a short drive to two other Midwestern states: Iowa and Wisconsin. President Ulysses S. Grant moved to Galena before the Civil War broke out, as his father owned a leather goods store in the area. He rose to the rank of general and then president, and the U.S. Grant Museum is a popular spot to learn about the 18th president.

While you’re there: Check out the Blacksmith Shop, built as an authentic 1897 shop with working forges and 100-year-old equipment and tools. Or, gain more history knowledge at the Apple River Fort Historic Site to learn about the Black Hawk War and tour the 1830s fort. And the downtown is a hotbed of shopping, from antiques to fashion to fresh farmers markets. 

Groundhog Day in Woodstock

Distance from Chicago: 51 miles

Best for ages: All ages

Known for: The cult classic film Groundhog Day was filmed in Woodstock in 1992 with Chicago-area native Bill Murray as the movie’s star. Over the last 30 years the movie’s fandom has flocked to Woodstock to take part in the days-long celebration, that includes storytime for the youngest fans, a walking tour of the movie’s filming sites and a groundhog prognostication. 

While you’re there: If you go during Groundhog Days, take in breakfast with the town at the Woodstock Moose Lodge. If you arrive during the summer months to see the sights, the Woodstock Opera House has performances, live shows and art exhibits all-year-round. Or head to the Challenger Learning Center to see a simulated space mission.

I&M Canal, across Illinois

Distance from Chicago: 0-100 miles

Best for ages: Early elementary and older

Known for: The Illinois-Michigan Canal opened in 1848 and created a crossway of the Illinois River to Lake Michigan, in part helping to form the “port” city of Chicago. The canal stretches from Cook County through LaSalle County. The Bridgeport neighborhood is a “canal” town, and families can ride the canal trails in Joliet, Lemont, Lockport, and Seneca, or take a boat tour of the canal in LaSalle. 

While you’re there: Pick a port city on the canal route and you’ll find some fun. In LaSalle, visitors can see historical buildings, homes and businesses built before the 20th century. In Morris, families are invited to enjoy the Grundy County Corn Festival in the fall.

llinois Amish Country, Arthur

Distance from Chicago: 175 miles

Best for ages: Late elementary and older

Known for: Of the more than 6,000 residents of Arthur, more than 4,500 of them are Amish. Most of the Amish-owned businesses in the area are located outside of the city proper, in rural areas, but welcome visitors year-round. The Amish culture is ground in farming, and includes other crafts such as quilting, baking, woodworking and cabinet-making. Visitors to the area are invited to watch for horses and buggies on the roads, mind that members of the Amish faith will not appreciate having their photographs taken, and note that Amish-owned businesses are closed on Sundays.

While you’re there: Visitors to Arthur can enjoy year-round festivals, including the Strawberry Jam in June, the Cheese Festival on Labor Day weekend and a Christmas Parade in the winter. You’ll also be about a 15-minute drive from Arcola, which is home to the Aikman Wildlife Adventure, a drive-through site to see zebras, camels and water buffalo. 

Lincoln Log Cabin, Lerna

Distance from Chicago: 200 miles

Best for ages: Early elementary and older

Known for: Abraham Lincoln’s father and step-mother moved to Lerna when Lincoln was an early practicing lawyer. Lincoln visited the log cabin often, and the restored site is a step into 1840s rural Illinois, with live history programming from May through October. 

While you’re there: A short 15-mile drive to Mattoon or Charleston will help visitors find more things to do. Take in a show at Eastern Illinois’ Doudna Fine Arts Center or take a bite of a burger at Mattoon’s Original Burger King.

Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home, Dixon

Distance from Chicago: 100 miles

Best for ages: Late elementary and older

Known for: President Ronald Reagan spent his boyhood in Dixon, in the Sauk Valley. The home where his family lived, including the barn and 1919 Model T owned by the Reagans have been preserved. Timelines, artifacts and family history can be seen by families on self-led or docent-led tours. The home is open for tours from April 1 through the end of October. 

While you’re there: If your family is collecting photos of Abraham Lincoln statues, you’ll find the one of the few of Lincoln in uniform at President’s Park. Lincoln joined the Illinois Militia in the Black Hawk War at Fort Dixon in 1832. Families that love flowers should make the trek in July in time for the Dixon Petunia Festival.

Starved Rock, Oglesby

Distance from Chicago: 100 miles

Best for ages: Preschool and older

Known for: Starved Rock State Park is best known for St. Louis Canyon, a scenic waterfall. Stair climbing is required to reach the canyon, but the views are worth it. Kids are invited to play in the natural sand pile surrounding the canyon, and natural wildlife surrounds in the park.  

While you’re there: Matthiessen State Park is a few miles down the road, and also includes a beautiful waterfall experience. If your family wants to turn waterfalls into water fun, Grand Bear Falls is a waterpark at Grizzly Jack’s Grand Bear Resort that invites kids of all ages to splish, splash and enjoy the waves. The resort is also a destination for weekend travelers with an arcade and mini-golf course. 

Make it a Weekend


Distance from Chicago: 300 miles

Best for ages: Preschool and older

Known for: Alton sits 25 miles north of St. Louis on the Mississippi River, and is the birthplace of Miles Davis and the home of Robert Wadlow, the world’s tallest man at 8 feet, 11.1 inches. A statue of Wadlow remains a centerpiece of the town, that also housed the last Lincoln-Douglas Debate and was a stop for Lincoln during his law years.

While you’re there: Years of murder, war and death have made Alton one of the “Most Haunted Small Towns in America.” Visitors can take haunted tours or see the sights themselves. Visitors can also take Underground Railroad tours, see parks and museums about the history of the river and the region. 

Blackhawk Chocolate Trail

Distance from Chicago: Varies

Best for ages: Early elementary and older

Known for: Though relatively close in proximity to Chicago, this is not a trail that can be done in a day. The best way to see Northwest Illinois is to eat your way through it. From Sterling and Rock Falls to the south to Fulton and Savanna right on the Mississippi River, the Blackhawk Chocolate Trail is a walk through hometown bakeries in the villages that dot the northwest portion of the state. 

While you’re there: Be sure to stop at The Village Bakery while you’re on the trail in Oregon. The bakery employs adults with disabilities, who work next to the professional chefs to give the learning skills needed for employment. Go antiquing on Main Street in Savanna, or see the working Dutch windmill in Fulton.

Broom Corn Festival, Arcola

Distance from Chicago: 180 miles

Best for ages: All ages

Known for: Held in September every year, the Broom Corn Festival celebrates Arcola’s heritage as the “Broomcorn Capital of the World.” The festival includes a parade with Arcola’s “World Famous Amazing Lawn Rangers,” a precision lawn mower drill team that performed in the 2009 Inaugural Parade for President Barack Obama. The festival also includes broom-making demonstrations, broom activities and live entertainment.  

While you’re there: The creator of Raggedy Ann & Andy hails from Arcola, and in his honor, benches with life-sized figures of the dolls are the perfect site for photos. In 2012, artists from across the world painted 15 murals on the sides of buildings in Arcola that became known as the Walldogs Murals. Arcola is also part of Illinois Amish Country, and visitors can shop in the many Amish-owned businesses. 

Cahokia Mounds, Collinsville

Distance from Chicago: 300 miles

Best for ages: Late Elementary-Teens

Known for: Cahokia Mounds are the remains of a prehistoric city that banked on the Mississippi Valley home. You can see artifacts from the civilization that called Cahokia home and then walk grounds of the city that had roots as far back as 700 AD. As there’s lots of walking, this is best for older kids who can make the 1- to 2-mile treks around the site.  

While you’re there: Collinsville is the home to the “World’s Largest Catsup Bottle,” also known as the water tower that originally serviced the Brooks Catsup bottling plant. Take your picture at this roadside attraction. 

Capitol, Springfield

Distance from Chicago: 200 miles

Best for ages: Late elementary and older

Known for: The current state house is actually the sixth built to hold the Illinois seat of government. It was built in 1868, and its most recent renovation was completed in 2012. Families can take free tours of the building daily (except major holidays), but can’t go beyond the first floor after 4 p.m. or on weekends. 

While you’re there: Of the six state capitol buildings, only two are in Springfield. Visit the “Old State Capitol” for historic reference. The Old State Capitol is where both Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama announced their bids for the presidency, and is depicted on the back of one version of the 2009 Bicentennial Penny. While on the Lincoln trail, take a few steps down from the Old State Capitol to the Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum where families can learn about Lincoln’s presidency and see rotating exhibits and events.  

Boo Castle Park, Carbondale

Distance from Chicago: 330 miles

Best for ages: Infant to late elementary

Known for: Castle Park, also known as Jeremy “Boo” Rochman Memorial Park, was built as a memorial for a 19-year-old who died in a car accident and was an avid Dungeons & Dragons role player. With an elaborate castle, for kids to play on, dragon sculptures and statues throughout the park, it is a medieval dream come true. 

While you’re there: Carbondale is the home of Southern Illinois University, with museums and architecture that surrounds a large school. The Science Center is a hands-on museum perfect for kids up to late elementary with exhibits about wind, music, geology and dinos. The Science Center is located in University Mall, so while younger kids are learning older kids can be shopping.

Drive Route 66

Distance from Chicago: 300 miles

Best for ages: Late elementary and older

Known for: Route 66 was the “Mother Road” that took cross-country trekkers from Chicago to Los Angeles before the interstate highway system was built. (It is also the impetus for the song “Route 66” by the Nat King Cole Trio.) The trip kicks off on E. Adams Street in Chicago and travels the winding roads through small towns headed southwest. The point of the trip is to stop at the roadside oasis (and your kids who are fans of Disney Pixar’s “Cars” will understand the importance of stopping along the way). 

While you’re there: Don’t miss the Gemini Giant in Wilmington, a statue in front of the Launching Pad restaurant. A large Paul Bunyon hawks hot dogs at the Palms Grill Cafe in Atlanta and the Route 66 Welcome Center (complete with sign-in book) is located in Joliet. 

Frank Lloyd Wright Trail

Distance from Chicago: Varies

Best for ages: Late elementary and older

Known for: If your kids have attended every family day at the Chicago Architecture Center, this trail is for you. With homes like the Robie House in Chicago to the Laurent House in Rockford to the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield, fans of architecture can learn all about Wright seeing 10 homes in Illinois. 

While you’re there: There are several paths to choose from if you want to stay in one centralized area. Chicago’s trek includes the Rookery, Robie House, Emil Bach House and Charnley-Persky House Museum. Mind your timeline as some homes don’t conduct tours during colder months, or on only certain days of the week.

Fort De Chartres, Prairie du Rocher

Distance from Chicago: 340 miles

Best for ages: Early elementary and older

Known for: First erected by French settlers in the 1720, Fort De Chartres will celebrate its 300th anniversary this summer. The fort and area settlements were under both French and British control up to 1772. Thanks to the Mississippi River, parts of the fort fell into ruins, but reconstruction and renovation make this a National Historic Landmark where families can learn about pre-Colonial settlers and Mississippi River trade. 

While you’re there: A short drive to the southeast is the Modoc Rock Shelter, a rock cliff along the Mississippi River that was used by hunters more than 9,000 years ago. The shelter is a little more than a historical marker now, but families can stretch their legs and see the geological impact of the river in the rock wall.

Grafton Sky Tour, Grafton

Distance from Chicago: 300 miles

Best for ages: Early elementary and older

Known for: Using an enclosed gondola, ski lift or zip line, families can soar above the Mississippi River Valley, seeing vegetation and the town of Grafton along the way. Prices vary based on day and adventure, but the views of the river and area are unmatched. 

While you’re there: Pre-Civil War brick homes line the town, as Grafton is home to seven buildings on the National Register of Historic places. A walk through town or a tour will give families a view of the oldest city in Jefferson County. Tourism is king year-round as visitors can enjoy Pere Marquette State Park, an 8,000 acre natural haven with camping, boating, fishing and hiking.

Illinois State Fair, Springfield

Distance from Chicago: 200 miles

Best for ages: All ages

Known for: Known for its butter cow (a cow sculpted of butter), the Illinois State Fair is a draw with rides, agricultural displays, fair food and live entertainment. Held this year from Aug. 13-23, the 2019 edition of the state fair brought more than 500,000 people to Springfield, a new record for attendance, with draws like Snoop Dogg and Reba McEntire. 

While you’re there: If your family isn’t in Springfield during the 10 days of the fair, the grounds – with more than 100 permanent buildings – are used for everything from horse races to dog shows during the non-fair months. Couples preparing a wedding can also use the facilities as a reception area.

John Deere Pavilion, Moline

Distance from Chicago: 165 miles

Best for ages: Preschool to late elementary

Known for: There are three major John Deere sites around the country and two are in Illinois. The pavilion differs from the historical site in Grand Detour in that it houses innovation and technology of the farm tractor trade. Kids can climb on board tractors of all sizes and styles while learning the history of the machine and experiencing interactive exhibits.

While you’re there: Moline is one of the Quad Cities on the Mississippi River, joining Rock Island and East Moline in Illinois and Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa. Moline is home to the Niabi Zoo and TaxSlayer Center, a 12,000-seat venue that has shown concerts, indoor football league games and hockey games.


Distance from Chicago: 375 miles

Best for ages: Late elementary and older

Known for: Kaskaskia was the site of Illinois’ original capital. In the 18th century, nearly 7,000 residents lived in the town, a port city on the southwest border of the state at the Mississippi River. Flooding in 1881 destroyed most of the town and forestation has moved its accessibility to Missouri, though it is still part of Illinois. The 2010 census put the population at 14, the second-smallest town in the state.

While you’re there: King Louis XV gave the residents a bell forged in France in 1741 and given to the Catholic Church of Illinois. Known as the Liberty Bell of the West, it was rung in celebration of the town’s reclamation from the British in 1778. Floods in 1973 and 1993 washed the bell from its housing and it can’t be rung due to an expanding crack in the side.

Lewis & Clark State Site, Hartford

Distance from Chicago: 300 miles

Best for ages: Early elementary and older

Known for: The state site is built on the former Camp Dubois, where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out for the Pacific Ocean in 1804. The exhibits are designed to be kid-friendly, with lots of hands-on areas for young learners. Keep an eye on the events schedule all summer long for events like the Hummingbird Festival and the Historic Craft Fair. 

While you’re there: If traveling by riverboat isn’t your family’s speed, you can drive the Mississippi by way of the Meeting of the Great Rivers Byway. You don’t have to drive all 33 miles to see some pretty cool scenes and foliage. You can coast almost 10 miles from Hartford to Alton to the north and see a lovely stretch on the four-lane road. 

Lincoln’s New Salem, Petersburgh

Distance from Chicago: 200 miles

Best for ages: Late elementary and older

Known for: Lincoln spent his early adult years in New Salem, now known as Petersburgh, northwest of Springfield. The town of log cabins stands as it did, with early 19th century small-town industry (stores, blacksmith shop). The tours are self-guided, so it’s best for kids who can read along with historical markers. A visitor’s center includes artifacts and an introductory film. Lincoln’s New Salem is open most days May-October. 

While you’re there: Theatre in the Park is located on the grounds of Lincoln’s New Salem and offers up live theater experiences that run the theatrical gamut – from plays about Mary Todd Lincoln to Big Fish on the docket for the 2020 summer season. The Starhill Forest Arboretum is located in Petersburg and is open year-round. Guy Sternberg, co-owner of the arboretum, grew up on Blue Island on the southwest side of Chicago and his love for trees came after an early childhood visit to Morton Arboretum.

Lincoln-Douglas Debate trail 

Distance from Chicago: Varies

Best for ages: Late elementary and older

Known for: When Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas were opposing candidates for in the 1858 election to the senate, they decided to hold debates in each of the nine congressional districts. Since they’d already both spoken in Chicago and Springfield, the remaining seven became debate sites. A museum in Charleston, the site of the fourth debate, tells the stories of the debates and their results. The other debate sites – Ottawa, Freeport, Jonesboro, Galesburg, Quincy and Alton – have their own debate-site statues and/or historical markers. 

While you’re there: To see all seven sites is a trip through Illinois political history. Your family will see the entire state as the political rivals did, stopping near the Mississippi and in rural areas. Start in Charleston at the museum for an overview of what the debates meant to the 1860 presidential campaign and how politics has changed in Illinois (U.S. Senators were previously elected by the majority party in the statehouse).


Distance from Chicago: 270 miles

Best for ages: Preschool and older

Known for: Mormon settlers founded the town of Nauvoo in 1839 and the “pioneering” spirit lives with historic tours and town sites open year-round. A kid-sized log home welcomes youngsters in warmer months as kids are encouraged to dress in period costumes and play 19th century games. 

While you’re there: Shopping in Nauvoo includes antiquing and homemade breads and pies. Families can also take a walking tour of historic homes in the area and what the shopping district looked like in the 1860s.

Old Statehouse, Vandalia

Distance from Chicago: 250 miles

Best for ages: Late elementary and older

Known for: Vandalia was the site of the second state capital and second through fourth capitol buildings. The one standing, known as the “Old Statehouse,” was where Abraham Lincoln began his political career. Families can tour the grounds and events all year long share the story of Illinois’ history. Visit Vandalia in early December to see the Old Statehouse transform for the 19th century holidays. 

While you’re there: As Illinois is the “Land of Lincoln,” have your family pose for a photo next to a bronze statue of Lincoln reading in Lincoln Park. Or stroll down the scenic walking trail that was previously the rails of the Illinois Central Railroad. The one-mile path will help families stretch their legs.

Spirit of Peoria River Boat Rides, Peoria

Distance from Chicago: 170 miles

Best for ages: Early elementary and older

Known for: Cruise the Illinois River for a few hours or a few days on a three-tiered paddlewheel boat designed to look like the boats that took Mark Twain up and down the Mississippi River. Cruise themes vary from ice cream to zombies with entertainment on onboard and outside the window. The multi-day cruises include on-shore excursions and on-board historical entertainment. 

While you’re there: Cruises land in Hannibal, Mo., St. Louis or Starved Rock. Riding the Illinois River through to the Mississippi River will take passengers through southwest Illinois. Take advantage of chances to stop on shore and see the little towns along the way. For instance, the trip to St. Louis will stop in Grafton, where families will stay in Pere Marquette State Park, a year-round park that has a bike trail, rock climbing and equestrian trails. 

Popeye Character Trail, Chester

Distance from Chicago: 350 miles

Best for ages: All ages

Known for: Elzie Crisler Segar, the creator of the Popeye comics, was born in Chester in 1894. He began drawing the Oly family comics after moving to Chicago and then introduced Popeye in 1929. The characters were based after townspeople that Segar knew in Chester. In 1977, a Popeye statue was erected in front of the town’s Welcome Center, and nearly 30 years later, the town began adding a new statue each year around town. Fans of the series will recognize the deep dive that the newer statues include, with characters such as King Blozo and Nana Oyl added most recently. By the end of 2020, there are slated to be 16 characters to find around Chester. 

While you’re there: Chester embraces its home as Popeye central. For Popeye merchandise – including kid-sized Swee’ Pea T-shirts – visit Spinach Can Collectibles. And the Popeye Picnic is held every year during Labor Day weekend. Chester is also a stop on several riverboat tours, and visitors coming from the boats can arrange tours of the character trail.

Garden of the Gods, Herod

Distance from Chicago: 350 miles

Best for ages: Early elementary and older

Known for: Located in the Shawnee National Forest, Garden of the Gods is a natural area that overlooks the forest canopy. The 1/4-mile trail takes about an hour to walk, and the DNR website lists high cliffs and steep grades in the trail that should be of special attention for young hikers. The area includes 12 campsites within the Garden that are first-come first-served for families wanting to enjoy the scene with breakfast.  

While you’re there: Three miles to the south of the entrance to Shawnee National Forest is the Ohio River and Cave In Rock State Park. A 55-foot cave was carved into the rock on the river by water thousands of years ago, and those daring to make the hike to it can peek inside. The park also includes fishing, boating and a restaurant.

Sleep in a Treehouse, Elizabethtown

Distance from Chicago: 350 miles

Best for ages: Early elementary and older

Known for: Timber Ridge Outpost and Cabins has two treehouses that will sleep up to a family of four or six (depending on the cabin). This isn’t Swiss Family Robinson sleeping; the Robinsons didn’t have a Sleep Number Bed. You’ll be comfy and your kids will love the experience of actually sleeping in the trees.

While you’re there: You’ll be close to Shawnee National Forest, and a horse ride is in order through the forest. Take a trip to Lake Glendale Stables for rides of 30 minutes to three hours.

Superman Statue, Metropolis

Distance from Chicago: 370 miles

Best for ages: All ages

Known for: Who will save Metropolis from the evil villains who try to destroy it? For the far southern town in Illinois, that would be Superman! A 15-foot statue in downtown Metropolis warns evil-doers that Illinois is protected, and the Superman Celebration in June brings celebrities from the movies and TV shows to town. 

While you’re there: Superman isn’t the only statue in Metropolis. One of Lois Lane stands nearby, and statues of George Rogers Clark, Big John (a local grocery man) and the Planet Globe are also in town. Track down one or all of the six murals in town, depicting the non-Superman parts of life and history in Metropolis. Or, families can knock down a few pins at Super Bowl, a bowling alley and arcade. 

Tunnel Hill State Trail 

Distance from Chicago: Varies

Best for ages: Tweens and teens

Known for: With 55 miles of former rails in Southern Illinois turned into trails in four counties, this is a great activity for teens and almost teens as you’re looking to try new bicycle paths outside of the city and suburbs. (Though this is the perfect bike trail at 55 miles, it also works really well for anyone wanting a long hike.) 

While you’re there: For those wanting to start at the northern end of the trail, it opens in Harrisburg and ends at the Barkhausen Wetlands Center. If you want to spend the weekend on a bike or hiking – or have someone meet you along the trail with the option of a hot shower – with hotel options in Vienna and camping in six state parks.

World’s Largest Things, Casey

Distance from Chicago: 210 miles

Best for ages: All ages

Known for: Travelers are all about the roadside fun. Stop along the way to have your picture taken or just see it to say you saw it. World’s Largest Rocking Chair? We got it. World’s Largest Golf Tee? We got it. World’s Largest Twizzle Spoon? We got that, too. And they’re all in one place: Casey. And seeing all the things is the same price: Free. 

While you’re there: If your kids are softball enthusiasts, they’ll love a stop at the Casey Softball Museum, home of the Illinois Amateur Softball Hall of Fame. A stop through on Labor Day will also bring visitors to the Casey Popcorn Festival, complete with rides, entertainment and popcorn.

World’s Largest Covered Wagon, Lincoln

Distance from Chicago: 170 miles

Best for ages: All ages

Known for: Not actually located in Casey is the World’s Largest Covered Wagon, the Railsplitter Wagon with Abraham Lincoln minding the driver’s seat while reading a law book. According to Guinness Book of Records, the wagon was hand built out of Illinois oak and steel. Those traveling Route 66 can find the wagon as it was moved from its original location to a spot along the road. It has been the world’s largest since 2001. 

While you’re there: For those wanting to avoid the congestion of the car on this road trip, pick up the Amtrak at Union Station bound for St. Louis, with a stop in Lincoln. There are also 11 murals on buildings in downtown Lincoln, and if you’re waiting for a return trip on the train, take the Lincoln Walking Tour, which includes 24 stops and the site of one of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.

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