Illinois may be known for Chicago and the bustling suburbs surrounding it, but there is much to explore without ever stepping foot into “Chi Town.”
The Central Illinois region (or “CI Region”) is the middle third of Illinois when divided north to south. In terms of terrain, the area consists mostly of flat prairie. It is from this landscape that Illinois gets it official nickname, “The Prairie State.”
The city of Chicago, located on the Indiana/Illinois border and along the shore of Lake Michigan, is not inside the CI Region.
But Springfield is, and it is here that you will find many of the historical attractions described below.
Springfield became the state capital in 1839 (at Abraham Lincoln’s insistence). Today, the city is home to roughly 116,200 people. It is located in the center of the southern third of the CI Region.
Other major cities in the CI Region include Quincy, Decatur, Champaign-Urbana, Bloomington-Normal, Danville, and Galesburg.
If you’re interested in visiting Central Illinois, you’ve come to the right place. Keep reading to learn more about the history of the region and what’s it like today.
Central Illinois: History & Trivia
Before the Europeans arrived, the lakes and rivers of Illinois were home to numerous Native American tribes (more on this later). The Central Illinois River Valley is still home to ancient sites, burial mounds, and settlements from these early inhabitants.
Central Illinois is divided diagonally by the Illinois River, a 273-mile waterway that once served as a vital trade route connecting the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River.
The area west of the river is nicknamed “the heart of Illinois,” and was originally a part of the Military Tract of 1812.
French pioneers arrived in the area during the late 1600s, and immediately started using the Illinois River as a trade route. Nearly 100 years later, in the late 1770s, Lewis and Clark claimed the Illinois region for the colony of Virginia.
In 1783, after America’s independence, this region became part of the Northwest Territory. Illinois achieved statehood in 1818, with the first capital in Kaskaskia (followed by Vandalia and then Springfield).
The state was named “Illinois” as a tribute to the Illinois Confederation (AKA Illiniwek), a group of Indian tribes living in the upper Mississippi River Valley.
Fast forward to the Civil War (1861-1865). Illinois was heavily involved in the conflict, sending 25,000 soldiers to fight for the North. General Ulysses S. Grant, who was influential in helping Abraham Lincoln lead the Union army to victory, is memorialized by the Ulysses S. Grant Home in Galena, Illinois.
President Reagan: Illinois is the birthplace of former president Ronald Reagan (born in Tampico, IL in 1911).
State Flag/State Motto: Illinois’ state motto is “State Sovereignty, National Union.” You will find these words on the state flag pictured at left. The shield the eagle is holding shows 13 stars and 13 stripes (representing the original colonies).
The two dates on the rock refer to the year Illinois became a state (1818) and the year the state seal was redesigned (1868).
Fun Fact: Happy hour was illegal in Illinois until July 16th, 2015. Click here to learn more.
With a population of nearly 13 million, Illinois is the 5th most populous state in America.
The Central Region is best known for agriculture, primarily soybeans and corn. Illinois hosts an annual State Fair (along with numerous county fairs) to promote agriculture as well as to offer entertainment.
In regards to manufacturing and service, Caterpillar Inc. (headquartered in Peoria) employs more than 15,000 employees in the region.
The military had a large presence in Illinois until the Chanute Air Force Base closed in 1993.
The Central Illinois Region is also home to several universities and colleges, both public and private. You’ve probably heard of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and their mascot, the Fighting Illini.
The small town America/ Midwestern culture of Central Illinois is directly connected to the state’s focus on agriculture.
When compared to Chicago, the rest of Illinois is relatively relaxed. Illinois is known as a tolerant, multicultural state partly due to Abraham Lincoln’s push to end slavery.
The Underground Railroad has deep roots in Illinois and has helped to shape the tolerant culture it enjoys today.
Much of Central Illinois’ value as a tourism destination is associated with Abraham Lincoln. Places to visit include:
- Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site
- Lincoln Home National Historic Site/ Lincoln’s Springfield home (pictured at left)
- Lincoln’s Tomb
- Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
Popular non-Lincoln attractions include:
- Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge.
- Old State Capitol
- Dana-Thomas House (one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterworks)
- Starved Rock State Park (voted the #1 attraction in Illinois)
- Funk’s Grove
If you’re hungry, you’ve come to the right place. Central Illinois has no shortage of gourmet comfort food and foreign favorites:
- D’arcys in Springfield: Authentic Irish pub with a relaxing beer garden. Try the famous “horseshoe” – a dish featuring Texas toast, your choice of meat/vegetables, fries, and creamy cheese sauce.
- Khoury’s Cuisine in Peoria: Award-winning restaurant featuring Greek and Lebanese dishes. Try the “Super Duper Gyro.”
- Happy Sushi in Springfield: Legendary sushi guaranteed to make you happy. Try the “French Kiss” roll.
- Maize Mexican Grill in Champaign: Authentic Mexican food with fresh ingredients (surprisingly affordable).
- Black Dog Smoke & Ale House in Urbana: You’ll smell it before you see it. Black Dog’s custom-made smokers make for excellent pulled pork, brisket, ribs, and more. Black Dog offers wonderful sides and lots of barbecue sauce options.
- One World Café in Peoria: A one-of-a-kind café famous for its chicken and waffles.
- Thanh Linh Vietnamese in Peoria: You don’t have to visit the “Windy City” for great pho. Thanh Linh’s has excellent Vietnamese dishes with big portions and fantastic service.
Best Resort in the CI Region
Whether you’re taking a road trip with the family or looking for a romantic getaway complete with golfing and spa treatments, Oak Terrace Resort (Pana, IL) is the place for you.
Oak Terrace Resort offers a variety of rooms ranging from standard hotel rooms to lakeside villas. The resort is great for relaxation and appropriate for families. The resort offers a restaurant and bar, full spa, fitness center, tennis courts, and golf.
The spa also has a trichology center specializing in the treatment of hair loss for both men and women. It offers a variety of solutions to alopecia and male pattern hair loss, including hair transplant, laser hair treatment and herbal solutions. It also offers products you can purchase for home use, including some of the best shampoos for thinning hair and oral hair regrowth supplements that contain essential vitamins or DHT blocking ingredients.
The overview above is but a brief introduction of what the CI Region has to offer.
With recommendations on what to do, where to stay, and what to eat (as well as a few useful historical facts), you should be ready to start planning your trip to the Midwest.
Things to do in Central Illinois
Planning a trip to Central Illinois and looking for things to do? If so, you’ve come to the right place. Below, we discuss places of interest and must-see attractions for singles, families, couples, sports fans, and shoppers.
The Central Illinois (CI) Region is the middle third of the state when divided north to south. The terrain consists mainly of flat prairie (Illinois is known as “The Prairie State”).
The CI Region is divided diagonally by the 273-mile Illinois River, and the state’s capital (Springfield) is located near the middle of the region’s southwest quadrant.
For the Shopper
You don’t have to visit Chicago for a fun and unique shopping experience. Here are our top three recommendations:
- SCHEELS in Springfield, IL
SCHEELS is a 200,000 square foot shopping experience that houses the state’s largest collection of sportswear and footwear. But SCHEELS is not like your typical sporting goods store – it’s also a collection of entertainment venues for men, women, and youth.
SHCEELS attractions include eight bronze sculptures, an operating Ferris wheel, a 16,000-gallon saltwater aquarium, a shooting gallery, a gift lodge, and sports simulators for hockey, golf, baseball, NASCAR, and more.
SCHEELS stocks familiar brands like Adidas, Nike, Columbia, Under Armour, and The North Face.
If you’re hungry, check out the SCHEELS deli for sandwiches, soups, and Starbucks coffee. They even have an exclusive fudge shop with 24 flavors (all homemade).
- Main Street Galena in Galena, IL
Dubbed the “best Main Street in the Midwest,” by numerous magazines, Galena’s historic Main Street is a shopper’s paradise.
Galena’s Main Street looks very much like it did during the Civil War, and most of its 100 storefronts are in the style of the 19th century.
You’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
- Peoria Riverfront in Peoria, IL
The popular Peoria Riverfront area offers music venues, art galleries, specialty shops, and fantastic restaurants in a beautiful waterfront atmosphere.
Enjoy entertainment and live music on the weekends and browse the largest antique collection in the state (a perfect place to find gifts).
For Families with Children
Vacationing to The Prairie State can be exciting for all ages. If you’re traveling with kids, we recommend you check out the following locations:
- The “Sirup” Farm at Funks Grove in Shirley, IL (Roadside Attraction)
You just have to stop at this quaint “sirup” factory if you’re driving into Illinois on Route 66 AKA “the Main Street of America.”
Kids and adults will enjoy a guided tour through the grounds (during sirup-making season only) that showcases the Funk family’s unique process. Don’t forget to take home a bottle (or two) of Funks Pure Maple Sirup, typically available at the gift shop between March and August.
- Illinois State Museum in Springfield, IL
Heralded as one of the best places in the area for families, the Illinois State Museum tells the story of Illinois through permanent and changing exhibits. The museum features an interactive history exhibit that allows visitors to explore 500 million years of Midwest history.
On the second floor, visitors will find a family gallery and a collection of contemporary and historic Illinois art. The museum also offers a “Play Museum,” where kids ages 3-10 can dig for fossils, crawl through caves, load a jeep, put together puzzles, frame art, and browse collections of fossils and toys.
- Grady’s Family Fun Center in Bloomington, IL
Bloomington-Normal’s one and only amusement park features batting cages, mini-golf, go-karts, bumper boats, video arcade, and kid rides – everything to keep the kids happy and entertained for a full day.
Grady’s is family owned and operated (not open during the winter).
- Blind Pig Brewery in Champaign, IL (A Local Favorite)
Rated as one of the “top 50 places to drink beer in the USA,” the Blind Pig brewery is a fun stop for couples who enjoy sampling craft beers.
The Blind Pig offers a beautiful wood interior, relaxing atmosphere, and outdoor beer garden.
- Mackinaw Valley Vineyard in Mackinaw, IL
Escape the city and experience the peace, quiet, and beauty of the Mackinaw Valley Vineyard. This gorgeous winery features a gift shop, 20+ wines, and tasting room with a panoramic 30-mile view.
Mackinaw Valley wines are made on site from American-French hybrid grapes and a few native varieties.
Tastings are $1 each, but the first 3 are complimentary.
Mackinaw Valley Vineyard hosts art classes, concerts, murder mystery dinner theater shows, trivia game nights, and more. Check the Vineyard’s website to find out what’s happening during your visit.
- Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana
Looking to catch a live performance? Krannert Center is a premier professional performing arts facility as well as an educational institution.
KCPA hosts more than 300 performances each year, so there’s always something to see (a great option if its cold outside).
The city of Bloomington, Illinois is ranked the second-best city in the US for singles (after Ann Arbor, Michigan). A 2012 report found that over half of the city’s population was single, with an average household income over $57,000.
Kiplinger magazine reports that Bloomington’s singles tend to be well paid, well educated, and surprisingly kind.
The report credits Bloomington’s creative atmosphere for attracting singles, and the city is home to dozens of bars, cafes, and boutiques where you might just find the woman or man of your dreams.
For Sports Fans
- Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa in Galena, IL
If you’re looking for a golfing destination, you’ll want to check out Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa in Galena. This stunning resort offers four championship golf courses, boating on pristine Lake Galena, horseback riding, and even hot air balloon rides.
- My Garage Museum in Effingham, IL
Car racing is a huge sport in the Midwest, and My Garage Museum of Rare Corvettes, Volkswagens, & Memorabilia is a must-see for car enthusiasts. This one-of-a-kind museum features:
- Indy pace cars
- Racing machines
- C-4 Corvette
- 21st Century Corvette
- Retail store
- Real 1910 gas station
- Changing exhibits
The suggestions above are just a few examples of what the Central Illinois Region has to offer. Whether you’re looking for a relaxing getaway with your partner, a fun trip with the family, or a shopping extravaganza, this unique area of the Midwest has you covered.