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The Best Vacation Destinations in Illinois

A traveler snaps a photo of Chicago's Cloud Gate

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Explorers who want to experience the best of the American Midwest should head to Illinois. With a mix of big-city excitement, gorgeous natural landscapes, and plenty of culture and recreation, the Land of Lincoln is perfect for a week’s vacation or even just a weekend getaway!

Whether you’re up for an exciting trip to Chicago, an outdoor adventure at one of the state’s protected parks, or even a chill week of checking out some super-interesting historical sites (there are so many!), Illinois has it all.

Lots of the best vacation spots in Illinois are easily accessible by train or bus, so you can reach the places you want to see without dropping a ton of cash.

Here are our picks for the best places to vacation in Illinois to help you plan an epic trip to the Prairie State.

1. Rockford

A waterfall in Rockford's Anderson Japanese Gardens

The city of Rockford is the third-largest in the state. But it’s not the typical metropolis – the Forest City boasts 20,000 acres of green space! Don’t miss Anderson Japanese Gardens, often called the best Japanese garden in the U.S.

Rock Cut State Park on Rockford’s outskirts offers year-round adventures, with bike, hiking, and equestrian trails, along with cross-country skiing in the winter months. Or you can just relax by Pierce Lake or Olson Lake and enjoy swimming, fishing, and boating in the warmer months.

Looking for culture in the city? Rockford is home to one of the oldest music clubs in the country, the Mendelssohn Performing Arts Center. The venue has played host to an eclectic mix of local artists for over 135 years!

Visit the Tinker Swiss Cottage, an adorable European-inspired house museum full of Victorian-era furnishings and memorabilia, to learn about the history, heritage, and culture of the city’s early settlers.

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Bus prices are based on the average cost of a one-way ticket for the respective route available on Wanderu over a 30-day period. 

2. Oglesby

The small city of Oglesby, located less than 100 miles from Chicago, is your gateway to discover two spectacular state parks – Starved Rock State Park and Matthiessen State Park are right there to explore!

At Starved Rock on the Illinois River, you’ll find a diverse landscape of waterfalls, sandstone canyons, and rock formations. Find the best views in town by hiking out to Lover’s Leap Outlook, or visit during winter for snowshoeing or climbing the frozen waterfalls!

Just a few miles away, Matthiessen State Park’s 1,700 acres of unbeatable scenery make it one of the most popular vacation spots in Illinois. In addition to miles of scenic hiking trails, the park also offers cross-country skiing, mountain biking, and fishing opportunities.

For a break from the wilderness, the Oglesby area is also home to several top-notch wineries and breweries for some après-hike relaxation!

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3. Quincy

Villa Kathrine in Quincy

One of Illinois’ cultural hubs, Quincy is perfect for a long weekend getaway. Located right on the Mississippi River, the Gem City is a must-visit spot for all history and architecture fans.

Once you get there, take a moment to visit the Villa Kathrine, a Moorish villa with manicured grounds built over 120 years ago by an eccentric former resident. Legend has it that his Great Dane, Bingo, still haunts the place!

The History Museum on the Square, a turreted Romanesque Revival building, is the best place to get a feel for the history of Quincy. It’s also home to a beautiful collection of stained glass (you’ll find pieces by Tiffany and Frank Lloyd Wright), as well as a sculpture garden on the museum’s grounds.

For a taste of early pioneer life, head upriver to Quinsippi Island. There you’ll find the preserved Log Cabin Village – a set of four log cabins, a log church, a stone smokehouse, and a corn crib – all dating to the Lincoln era.

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Bus prices are based on the average cost of a one-way ticket for the respective route available on Wanderu over a 30-day period. 

4. Arthur

Are you craving an escape from modern life for a little while? The small town of Arthur is one of the best vacation destinations in Illinois to get away from it all. This Amish community is known for its horses and buggies (you can even take a buggy ride to get the whole experience!)

In Arthur and the surrounding towns, you’ll find many quaint shops selling plain wooden furniture, quilts, homemade jam, and other souvenirs of a simpler time.

Arthur is famous for its Labor Day Cheese Festival, where you can sample free cheese, watch a tractor pull, and enjoy live music. Or set a record at the National Cheese Eating Championship or the International Cheese Curling Championship!

No matter what time of year you visit Arthur, make sure to enjoy a home-cooked Amish meal (Yoder’s Country Kitchen is the place to go). Try the chicken stack and a slice of fresh pie, or sample a bit of everything at the buffet.

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5. Peoria

Peoria's waterfront at sunset

Located in central Illinois on the Illinois River, the city of Peoria boasts an array of cultural attractions, as well as plenty of green space, including lovely parks and gardens.

The Peoria Riverfront Museum is the cultural hub in the city, with its rotating tour of exhibits from the Smithsonian catalog and permanent art and science collections. Also, check out the Giant Screen Theater’s 3D documentary screenings. Or take in one of the 30 different shows at the Dome Planetarium.

Animal lovers and outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy Wildlife Prairie Park, a 2,000-acre zoological park with over 50 native species, including bison, black bears, and bobcats. In addition, the outdoor space includes a butterfly habitat, mountain bike trails, disc golf, and train tours on the Wildlife Prairie Park Railroad.

One of Peoria’s most popular attractions is the Caterpillar Visitors Center. Fans of the iconic yellow machines wouldn’t want to pass up trying your skills on a simulator or designing your own Cat!

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Bus prices are based on the average cost of a one-way ticket for the respective route available on Wanderu over a 30-day period. 

6. Springfield

Located in the heart of Illinois, the state capital of Springfield is best known for its memories of Abraham Lincoln. You can visit his former home, his tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery (it’s one of the most-visited cemeteries in the world!), and explore the Lincoln Presidential Library.

In Springfield’s bustling downtown, you’ll find the domed Capitol building with its beautiful stained glass. Take a walking tour to soak up the history, or check it out on your own. The Illinois State Museum and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Dana Thomas House are two must-see spots in the city.

Lincoln’s hometown is a fantastic place for an Illinois getaway any time of year, so why not plan a cheap President’s Day trip?

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Bus and train prices are based on the average cost of a one-way ticket for the respective route available on Wanderu over a 30-day period. 

7. Shawnee National Forest

Shawnee National Forest

Near the town of Herod in the southern part of the state, the Shawnee National Forest is the place to get outdoors on your Illinois getaway.

You’ll enjoy crystal-clear lakes, stunning waterfall views, and lots of wildlife while hiking in this forested area between the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Be sure to visit in the early morning hours for the best chance to spot beavers, opossums, and even armadillos!

Don’t miss the Garden of the Gods, a remarkable set of sandstone rock formations and cliffs. It’s the most popular spot in the forest. But the most beautiful site is Burden Falls, a 20-foot waterfall that extends another 80 feet in cascades.

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8. Galena

An aerial view of Galena's forests in the fall

With over eighty percent of the city marked as a National Historic District, Galena is one of the most exciting places to visit in Illinois.

You’ll find tons of things to do in this riverfront city, from shopping in its quaint Main Street stores, to visiting President Grant’s former home, to going underground in the Vinegar Hill Lead Mine!

Galena is also known for its festivals, including the Midwest Garlic Fest and the Great Galena Balloon Race.

Climb up Horseshoe Mound, thought to be an ancient ceremonial site, to enjoy sweeping views of three states. For a romantic getaway in Illinois, book a relaxing stay in one of Galena’s charming inns or B&Bs.

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Bus prices are based on the average cost of a one-way ticket for the respective route available on Wanderu over a 30-day period. 

9. Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Stairs lead to the top of a grassy mound at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Just outside of St. Louis near Collinsville, IL is the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, one of the best-preserved pre-Columbian sites in the United States.

The 69 mounds, now covered in grass, were formed by native people who lived there over 800 years ago in what was then the biggest city north of Mexico. The largest of these mounds is Monks Mound, at over 100 feet tall!

Cahokia also includes Woodhenge, a 48-post wooden circle that aligns with the solar calendar, much like Stonehenge in England. You can learn a lot about the native culture and history by taking a tour of this well-preserved site on your Illinois getaway.

The best way to access the historic sites is to travel to nearby St. Louis and grab a rideshare across the river into Illinois.

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Bus and train prices are based on the average cost of a one-way ticket for the respective route available on Wanderu over a 30-day period. 

10. Champaign-Urbana

A path lined with flowers on the University of Illinois campus

Although technically they’re two neighboring cities, Champaign and Urbana meld together into one big metropolis. Home to the state’s largest university, the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana has a classic college town feel.

Wander the beautiful campus, stroll through the parks, and enjoy a wide variety of cuisines in this lovely city two hours south of Chicago.

You’ll find lots of culture here – the Spurlock Museum and the Krannert Art Museum host excellent collections of art and artifacts. Enjoy a show at the Virginia Theatre, or explore downtown Champaign with its cute boutiques, art galleries, and quirky antique and consignment shops.

You’ll soon see why Champaign-Urbana is one of the top cities to visit in Illinois!

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Bus and train prices are based on the average cost of a one-way ticket for the respective route available on Wanderu over a 30-day period. 

11. Oregon

A red barn in winter in Oregon, IL

You might never have heard of Oregon, Illinois, but once you visit this small city 90 miles west of Chicago, you’ll never forget it.

This hidden gem is home to gorgeous bed and breakfasts and excellent dining. Spend a day browsing its roster of antique and vintage shops, then get out and explore the local scenery.

There are two state parks nearby – Lowden State Park and Castle Rock State Park – offering hiking, boating, and fishing. Alternatively, you can spend a weekend at White Pines Ranch to enjoy horseback riding, fossil hunting, and campfire sing-alongs at a traditional dude ranch.

Oregon is also home to the second-largest concrete monolithic statue in the world! The 50-foot statue known as Black Hawk is a tribute to the native peoples of the area.

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12. Chicago

No list of places to go in Illinois is complete without Chicago. Don’t worry, we didn’t forget about Windy City!

The third-largest city in the U.S. by population and a top choice for millennials to visit, Chicago is a world-class destination with incredible museums, restaurants, performing arts, and culture. Top attractions include Navy Pier and The Loop, an area that includes the Chicago Institute of Art, Grant Park, and Millennium Park.

Get the best view of the city’s famous skyline by taking a boat tour on the Chicago River or Lake Michigan and learn about the city’s mix of Art Deco and Neoclassical buildings, as well as the newer skyscrapers.

Chicago’s one of the best places to vacation in Illinois, so explore our guide to things to do in Chicago for even more fun ideas.

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Bus and train prices are based on the average cost of a one-way ticket for the respective route available on Wanderu over a 30-day period. 

Whatever your travel style, in Illinois, you’re bound to find a destination that will check off many of the things you crave while on vacation. When you’re ready to get out and adventure in the Midwest, you can book the cheapest train and bus tickets on Wanderu to save money on your Illinois vacation.

Don’t forget to download the Wanderu app to take us with you on your adventures!

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About the author
Carrie Ann Karstunen

Carrie Ann Karstunen

A lifelong adventurer, Carrie Ann is equally at home hiking atop a glacier in Alaska or snorkeling a Caribbean shipwreck. Carrie Ann is always on the lookout for hidden beaches, offbeat museums, and scenic trails in the places she explores.

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