As the home of everything from Abraham Lincoln to the modern-day skyscraper, few states are more quintessentially American than Illinois. Best known for the sprawling metropolis of Chicago, Illinois offers far more for fun-loving, curious travelers than simply the Windy City. Indeed, its rich commercial, cultural, and agricultural history have left Illinois with some of the most quaint, curious, and occasionally cutesy attractions in all of America.
The trick is to find out what and where they are — and how best to visit them. Whether it’s a cheesecake factory tour in Illinois’s north or a Superman-themed town in its deep south, the state never fails to amaze travelers of every age. Here are 11 of Illinois’s most fanciful, comical, and inspirational sites.
The Shedd Aquarium, Chicago
The Shedd Aquarium and the Chicago skyline. (Photo: Shutterstock)
A unique aquarium, the Shedd houses more than 1,500 species of marine animals — including an impressive selection of massive mammals like porpoises, sea lions, and beluga whales. Logically laid out and easy to follow, the Shedd features a series of destination-specific exhibitions exploring the underwater worlds of the Caribbean and the Amazon, as well as the coral reefs of the Philippines.
Anderson Japanese Gardens, Rockford
Anderson Japanese Gardens (Photo: Anderson Japanese Gardens/Facebook)
Who would have thought that the most splendid Japanese-style gardens in America would be found in Rockford, Illinois? But there they are: the Anderson Japanese Gardens, which were established in 1978 by local resident John R. Anderson and acclaimed Japanese landscape designer Hoichi Kurisu. Spread over 12 acres, the gardens themselves were declared the best of their kind in the U.S. by the Japanese Journal of Gardening. The complex also displays priceless Japanese artifacts and offers traditional tea ceremonies, calligraphy classes, and cultural events.
Choo Choo Restaurant, Des Plaines
The Choo Choo Restaurant’s unique food-delivery system. (Photo: Choo Choo Restaurant/Facebook)
Food historians know Des Plaines as the site of the world’s first McDonald’s restaurant. But food lovers with a penchant for fun swarm to the town for the Choo Choo Restaurant. Opened in 1951, the Choo Choo is part restaurant and part miniature railroad experience. Much like the automated sushi spots it preceeded, the Choo Choo serves burgers, fries, hot dogs, and the like via a mechanical train that loops through the restaurant delivering dishes along the way.
German U-505 Sub, Chicago
Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago (Photo: Shutterstock)
Considering the continental U.S. was spared direct action during World War II, it’s rare to see enemy machinery up close and personal. But not at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. Here, along with exhibits on math, science history, and space, you’ll find a rare German U-505 submarine, the only one of its kind in the entire U.S. During WWII, the submarine wreaked havoc along the coast of West Africa where its pilots sought out American and Allied ships. Hit by a missile in 1944, the once-aquatic craft now resides in a special museum exhibition space showcasing its history, restoration, and relocation. Come onboard to experience life aboard this iconic sub during one of America’s most important historic periods.
Cahokia Mounds, Collinsville
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville. (Photo: Bryce Edwards/Flickr)
There are many reasons to visit Cahokia Mounds — a prehistoric Native American settlement, state historic site and UNESCO World Heritage site close to St. Louis, Missouri (but still in Illinois). For one thing, Cahokia is the largest pre-Columbian site of its kind north of Mexico — a complex of 120 different man-made mounds built between 700 and 1,400 A.D. and once home to between 10,000 and 20,000 inhabitants. Cahokia is also big — sprawling over 3.5 square miles with some of the grandest and most complex structures of its kind in the nation. Reminiscent of iconic Mayan and Aztec sites across Mexico and Central America, Cahokia evokes the memory of America’s earliest inhabitants.
Metropolis: the Home of Superman
The giant Superman statue in Metropolis, Ill. (Photo: Hysterical Mark/Flickr)
Any doubts that Superman actually exists (or at least in spirit) will quickly be put to rest with a visit to Metropolis — a quintessentially American town set along the Ohio River in southern Illinois. As its name might suggest, Metropolis celebrates all things Superman, from the aptly-named Superman Square and exhibit-filled Superman Museum to its Superman and Lois Lane statues and local paper, the Metropolis Planet. Add in cinematic must-visits like Clark Kent’s photo booth and a “kryptonite” meteorite, and Metropolis is a comic fan’s nirvana. And if that isn’t enough, consider visiting in June for the annual Superman Celebration, when more than 100,000 fans descend on Metropolis for four days of Superman-themed fun.
The Ledge, Chicago
Visitors stand on the glass balcony at the Skydeck of the Willis Tower Chicago. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Chicago is the home of the skyscraper, so it’s only fitting that its most jaw-dropping, eye-popping, awe-inspiring attraction is an homage to these architectural wonders. It’s the Ledge — AKA Skydeck Chicago — a glass box suspended some 1,353 feet above the earth as it hangs from the top of the Willis Tower. A glass “balcony” of sorts, the Ledge allows its fearless visitors to see straight on to four states from one of the tallest buildings in the entire Western Hemisphere. The box itself is roughly four feet deep and 10 feet high, and is crafted from 1.5-inch laminated glass panels.
International Museum of Surgical Science, Chicago
Medical bottles on display at the International Museum of Surgical Science. (Photo: International Museum of Surgical Science/Facebook)
The International Museum of Surgical Science is the kind of place that amuses as much as educates. Set among the luxury residential towers gracing Chicago’s Gold Coast, the museum — which opened in 1954 — is dedicated to the fascinating world of human surgery. Yes, there is the occasional moment of gore, but no matter. Most of the 7,000 artifacts on display are fully family-friendly, including highlights such as Victorian-era X-ray-proof underwear, an original plaster cast used on Napoleon Bonaparte, rare medical books, and documents and letters from seminal figures in medical history such as Florence Nightingale.
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
The bed where Lincoln died. (Photo: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation)
No president is more associated with his home state than Abraham Lincoln, who — despite immense accomplishments — never forgot his Illinois roots. Honest Abe is celebrated statewide, but nowhere more so than at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (ALPLM) in Springfield. At once a research-rich library, exhibition-filled museum and a formal, scholarly foundation, the ALPLF is a one-stop destination for all things Lincoln — including diaries and letters by Civil War soldiers, hundreds of personal artifacts from the Lincoln family itself, and a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. In all, there are thousands of fascinating items exploring the personal, political and professional life of America’s 16th president — and his equally iconic family — all presented in a simple-to-understand format that’s easily accessible to history buffs of all ages.
Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch
Kissing a reindeer at Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch (Photo: Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch)
It would be easy to think that central Illinois has little in common with the North Pole. But Santa’s favorite reindeer surprisingly abound in the town of Rantoul at Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch. Set amid century-old barns and thousands of dark green Christmas trees, Hardy’s is open annually from August to the holiday itself as a living, breathing, thrilling testament to the holiday spirit. Founded back in 1995 by a deer-loving couple, the ranch now houses Alaskan reindeer who are as friendly as they are beautiful. It also offers a range of reindeer tours — which allows fans (both big and small) to feed, pet, and play with the sturdy creatures. There’s even a chance for a sloppy reindeer kiss — a perfect photo-op if you don’t mind getting a bit wet!
The Chicago River
Kayaking the Chicago River. (Photo: Urban Kayaks)
Nothing better defines the city of Chicago than its eponymous river — which courses through the Windy City. Back in 1900, city officials literally reversed the river’s flow in order to better ensure city health and sanitation. The result is one of America’s most vibrant and user-friendly urban waterfronts. Make the most of this aquatic asset with a ride along the river via Kayak Chicago or Urban Kayaks. As their names suggest, the most popular journeys feature… what else… kayaks. All rides include equal doses fun and fitness — along with some of the best views in the entire city.
For more information about traveling in Illinois, go to enjoyillinois.com.