Sitting directly to the west of the similarly flat and agricultural state of Indiana, Illinois may have been slated to be your typical Midwestern state filled with a collection of small factory cities and many towns serving the abundant farms scattered across its expanse…
…except for the fact that a lakeside city by the name of Chicago grew to become the second largest city in the United States. As a result, this state enjoys a heightened profile nationally, and for visitors, nowhere else in the country is there such a pronounced difference between the attitudes and experiences of big city living, and the charms and slower pace of life in its countryside.
Here, some of the best art and history in the USA, as well as the latest in modern skyscrapers await you in within the heavily built up confines of the Chicagoland area, while in its hinterland, the rural lands that raised one of America’s greatest leaders lays out before you in its seemingly infinite flatness, broken up in several places by natural features that you won’t see coming until you happen upon them.
Whatever you do, be sure to make time to sufficiently explore the two solitudes that constitute Illinois, as seeing one and not the other will have you fail in doing this state justice on your travels across America.
What To Do – Culture & History
Culture lovers should begin their time in Illinois at the Art Institute of Chicago. This massive building is second to only the MMA (Metropolitan Museum of Art) of NYC in terms of its size, as this gallery contains more than a quarter million pieces of art dating back as far as 5,000 years over its 1,000,000 square feet of space. In addition to holding numerous pieces from famed artists such as Monet, its collection of African American art is one of the most poignant in the entire country.
Another museum that should be seen before departing Chicago is the Field Museum of Natural History. Ranking as one of the biggest natural history museums in the world, this institution of learning contains exhibits that have been in place for well over 100 years, from the countless reconstructed bones of extinct dinosaurs to the artifacts of ancient Egypt, as well as many galleries that detail the major issues that are troubling our world in the present day.
The one sight that should not be missed outside of the city of Chicago is the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. This place honors and recalls the tumultuous presidency of one of America’s most important leaders, as Abraham Lincoln rose up from the farm land of rural Illinois to first become a senator and then president, leading the country to abolish slavery and then, to defeat the Confederacy, which had induced much of the South to secede from the Union.
This library and museum contains extensive details on his boyhood, his time in the Oval Office, and his tragic end at the Ford Theater, where he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.
Before crossing over into Missouri on your way to Saint Louis, be sure to check out the Cahokia Mounds along the way. This place was home to one of the most significant Native American cities that began to emerge across the Southern United States starting in the 7th century AD.
There are over 80 mounds that have survived to the present day across the six square mile site, all of which are explained by exhibits in the visitor’s center on-site. The city of Saint Louis can be seen from the top of Monk’s Mound, so be sure to bring your telescopic lens with you!
What To Do – Modern & Natural Attractions
True blue urbanites will want to start their time in the Chicago area with a ride up the Willis Tower. Formerly known as the Sears Tower, it was the tallest building in the world when it was built in 1973, retaining that crown for 25 years until the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur claimed the title in 1998. It still is the tallest tower in the Western Hemisphere though, with the resultant views from observation deck being well worth the time and money spent to get up here.
Those who are looking for some fun in their life will love the Navy Pier, an entertainment venue situated on the shores of Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago. Formerly being a place where the Navy trained their recruits, it now contains a giant Ferris Wheel, a children’s museum, piers where boat tours depart, and much more.
While much of rural Illinois consists of the same pancake flat farmland that characterizes its neighbor Indiana, Starved Rock State Park in North Central Illinois offers a landscape that varies considerably from this.
Festooned with over 18 canyons, and numerous rivers and waterfalls, Starved Rock is a heavily favored place for state residents to escape the city to do some camping, fishing, hiking, and other various outdoor activities.
Finally, while the fertile soil of this state gives rise to many crops, it also supports many other kinds of flora, as the Morton Arboretum amply demonstrates. While many plants from around the world are featured here, the centerpiece attraction is the restored Illinois prairie.
Largely supplanted by centuries of agriculture, it is a landscape that few (if any) in the area have seen, a sight that gives rise to reflection by those who ponder the impact of humans on the environment of this region.