Top 20 Illinois Attractions You Just Can't Miss

Last Updated on January 19, 2024 by Nikki Jain

When most people think of visiting Illinois, they picture Chicago, but the state offers much more than just the Windy City. From flowing cornfields to metropolitan cities to historic sites, there is a wide variety of attractions in Illinois that visitors can look forward to.

Heading outside of Chicago will show you gorgeous state parks, and staying in the metropolitan area offers plenty of activities revolving around Lake Michigan. There are large malls for shopping, plenty of headlining sports teams, historical reenactments, gorgeous architecture, museums and other cultural attractions in the Land of Lincoln.

To start planning your visit, consider beginning with some of these top Illinois attractions.

Things To Do in Illinois

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1: Millennium Park

Millennium Park
Flickr/Peter Ciro

Built in celebration of the turn of the 21st century, Millenium Park is a jewel on the coastline of Lake Michigan, in the Loop district of Chicago.

Its most famous icon is probably "The Bean," a giant stainless steel sculpture that is also known by its official name, Cloud Gate.

The curves in the sculpture, which are responsible for its nickname, twist and bend the famous Chicago skyline from every angle.

Right next to that is the Crown Fountain, two clear towers with video screens inside that project, among other things, images of people's faces that occasionally appear to spit water.

A garden, a skating rink, and a serpentine pedestrian bridge can also be found here.

Accommodation: Where to stay in Chicago

Address: 201 E Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60602

Also Read: Top Tourist Attractions in Chicago, Illinois

2: Navy Pier

Navy Pier

This iconic Chicago landmark has been gracing the shoreline of Lake Michigan since 1916.

Designed by Daniel Burnham, the same architect responsible for the nearby Field Museum, Navy Pier was originally designed to be a docking place for large ships.

It was given its naval moniker in honor of those who served in the Navy during WWI.

Since its blue-collar beginnings, Navy Pier has endured becoming Chicago's top tourist destination.

Shops and restaurants dot the area, in between Pier Park with its 150ft Ferris wheel, the Chicago Children's Museum, the IMAX theatre, and many other attractions.

Accommodation: Where to stay near Navy Pier

Address: 600 E Grand Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

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3: The Magnificent Mile

The Magnificent Mile

The Magnificent Mile is the name bestowed upon an illustrious stretch of Michigan Avenue just north of the downtown area, running in a north-south direction.

The most famous eminence on this street is undoubtedly the John Hancock Tower, one of the most recognizable buildings in the Chicago skyline.

Other notable buildings include the Wrigley Building, the Tribune Tower, and the Allerton Hotel.

If shopping is your aim, this avenue is jam-packed with high-end retailers like Kate Spade, Cartier, and Tiffany & Co., with plenty of swanky restaurants nearby for when it's time for a break.

Address: North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611

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4: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
Dreamstime/Walter Arce

This museum honors Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, and stands in his hometown of Springfield, IL.

The museum is full of artifacts from notable events in his life, like the original copy of the Gettysburg Address and a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, the document that ended slavery in the U.S.

There are also items relating to Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd, such as her wedding dress and pieces from her china collection.

There are also exhibits featuring recreations of Lincoln's childhood home and the box seat at Ford Theatre where he ultimately met his demise.

Accommodation: Where to stay in Springfield

Address: 112 N 6th St, Springfield, IL 62701

Also Read: Top 10 Tourist Attractions in Springfield, Illinois

5: Shedd Aquarium

Shedd Aquarium

The ocean is on display at this "oceanarium," which was the first saltwater aquarium of its kind to be built in the United States. It contains over 1,500 species of fish, mammals, coral and other marine life.

Most notably, the saltwater section includes beluga whales, porpoises, sea lions and penguins. Many of these saltwater creatures perform shows at designated times throughout the day.

The aquarium serves to educate patrons on the ecology and biology of waterways around the world, including the Amazon River, the Caribbean Sea, and the coral reefs of the Philippines.

Accommodation: Where to stay near Shedd Aquarium

Address: 1200 S Lake Shore Dr, Chicago, IL 60605

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Also Read: 25 Best Aquariums in the US

6: The Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago
Dreamstime/Ivan Kokoulin

This neoclassical structure was originally built for the Art Institute to celebrate the World Fair in 1893.

It has accumulated a massive collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist work in its permanent collection, including paintings by such giants as Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh.

It also includes famous paintings like American Gothic, the portrait of a solemn father and daughter from the rural countryside.

Edward Hopper's famous Nighthawks painting is also here portraying a scene in a late-night diner. The collection is extensive and full of treasures from all around the world.

Address: 111 S Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60603

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Also Read:
- Top Tourist Attractions in Chicago
- The Best Museums in Chicago You Must Visit

7: Starved Rock State Park

Starved Rock State Park

This canyon-filled park outside of Utica, IL, covers over 2,000 acres.

Geologists speculate that a catastrophic flood occurred between 14,000 and 17,000 years ago and created the park's unique geological features because they are atypical for this region of the country.

The land has been surveyed by archaeologists from the University of Chicago as well as the Illinois State Museum.

The park is full of registered historical places like Corbin Farm, Hotel Plaza and Little Beaver, all significant for their archaeological artifacts.

Address: 2668 E 875th Rd, Oglesby, IL 61348

Also Read: 25 Best State Parks in America

8: Garden of the Gods - Shawnee National Forest

Garden of the Gods - Shawnee National Forest

This park in southern Illinois is a collection of wilderness areas, spanning 280,000 acres.

It started out as agricultural land which was rejuvenated by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and 1940s when they planted evergreen trees to help stabilize the barren soil.

Now its combination of forest and unique geological features makes it a must-see destination.

The Garden of the Gods Wilderness is remarkable for its rock formations and breathtaking vantage points.

There are also wilderness areas containing springs and waterfalls and large sandstone formations that can be climbed on and explored.

Accommodation: Where to stay near Garden of the Gods

Address: 50 Hwy 145 South, Harrisburg, IL 62946

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9: Lincoln Park Zoo

Lincoln Park Zoo
Flickr/Ryan Summers

Nestled by the lakefront in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood, this zoo is free to the public.

It is an accredited zoo that features polar bears, big cats, gorillas, monkeys, reptiles and more, with the Hancock building and Chicago's iconic skyline as a backdrop.

The Birds of Prey exhibit contains a vulture, a snowy owl and a bald eagle. There's even a penguin house.

Domestic animals are also on display in the Farm-in-the-Zoo, intended to educate urban children on life in the more rural areas. Horses, cows and pigs can be found here.

Accommodation: Where to stay near Lincoln Park Zoo

Address: 2001 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60614

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Also Read: 30 Best Zoos in the US

10: Anderson Japanese Gardens

Anderson Japanese Gardens

This elegant garden in Rockford, IL was a design collaboration between John R. Anderson and Hoichi Kurisu.

Anderson enlisted the help of Korisu because he was the landscape architect for the Japanese Gardens in Portland, Oregon.

The final result is so beautiful that these gardens were named the finest Japanese Gardens in the United States by the Japanese Journal of Gardening.

In addition to the serene natural setting, there's a lot of Japanese culture on display here.

Visitors can take part in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony or learn the basics of calligraphy, or attend one of the many cultural programs that take place.

Accommodation: Where to stay in Rockford

Address: 318 Spring Creek Rd, Rockford, IL 61107

11: Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
Dreamstime/Vladislav Gajic

Step back in time at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, a 2,200-acre tract of land that contains the archaeological remains of one of the most cultured prehistoric native civilizations north of Mexico.

At its peak between 1050 and 1150, this ancient agricultural society of the Mississippian period may have been home to 10 to 20 thousand people.

Its people were known to be accomplished builders and created everything from homes for residents and their families to grand monuments that would stand the test of time.

Take a guided or self-guided tour of the 800 acres that are open to the public.

Explore the Interpretive Center exhibit gallery, the site's hiking trails, and the archaeological sites of the Grand Plaza, Monks Mound, Twin Mounds, Mound 72, and Woodhenge, a reconstructed ancient sun calendar.

The site is open from April through October. Call ahead for guided tour reservations.

Accommodation: Where to stay in Collinsville

Address: Collinsville, IL

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12: Dana-Thomas House

Dana-Thomas House
Dreamstime/Dietmar Rauscher

Avid and would-be fans of Frank Lloyd Wright will delight in the Dana-Thomas House, commissioned for socialite-activist Susan Lawrence Dana in 1903.

Dana envisioned an impressive home in which she could host gatherings to advance ideas about education and democracy. The mansion remains Wright’s best-preserved early Prairie-style structure.

Explore the 35 rooms of varying heights on different levels, noticing the 100 pieces of original Wright furniture, 250 art-glass doors and windows, and 100 art-glass light fixtures.

Two vast entertainment areas, with musicians' balconies, were used for large social gatherings and concerts.

Take the hour-long guided tour (free, with suggested donation) to fully appreciate the entire home. Reservations are strongly recommended.

Address: 301 E Lawrence Ave, Springfield, IL 62703

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13: Ulysses S. Grant Home State Historic Site

Ulysses S. Grant Home State Historic Site
Dreamstime/Jim Roberts

Visit the former home of one of American history’s most famous names, the United States’ 18th president, General Ulysses S. Grant, in historic Galena.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this Italianate home on Bouthillier Street was presented to the general with much fanfare following a jubilant parade on August 18, 1865, to celebrate the general's triumphant return from the Civil War.

The home, complete with its original furnishings, was opened to the public in 1904 when Grant’s children gifted it to the city of Galena for use as a memorial to the celebrated general.

Tours are available for a small suggested donation. If you are visiting with a large group, advance reservations are recommended.

Accommodation: Where to stay in Galena

Address: 500 Bouthillier St, Galena, IL 61036

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Also Read: Most Famous Historic Homes in America

14: Discovery Center Museum

Discovery Center Museum

Kids of all ages can play all day at Discovery Center Museum, a top-rated, hands-on children's science museum on the Rockford Riverfront Museum Park campus.

Explore more than 300 interactive exhibits on two floors related to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).

Learn about the human body, electricity, simple machines, agriculture, the science of sports, space travel, color, light, and math.

Outside, the Rock River Discovery Park boasts a large wooden play structure, two-story maze, water play area, the Secret Garden, and the kid-favorite dinosaur fossil digging pit.

Several vending machines are on-site in the lunchroom, with various snacks, drinks, and sandwiches. Visitors are also welcome to bring a sack lunch to eat in the indoor or outdoor dining spaces.

Admission includes all exhibits, as well as special events. Children one and under are free of charge. Free parking is available on-site.

Address: 711 N Main St, Rockford, IL 61103

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15: Buffalo Rock State Park

Buffalo Rock State Park
Flickr/Richie Diesterheft

For a quick, low-key hike and a fascinating peek into the area's natural history, visit Buffalo Rock State Park, set on the bluffs above the Illinois River.

The area was originally home to the Illinois Indians at the time when Louis Jolliet, a French explorer, and the Jesuit missionary priest Father Jacques Marquette traveled there in 1673.

The park's large earthen exhibit, molded from Illinois clay, is known as the Effigy Tumuli as a tribute to the Native American burial grounds that inspired it.

The exhibit comprises five clay sculptures, in turn representing a snack, turtle, catfish, frog, and water strider, all of which are native to the Illinois River region.

The 298-acre park offers excellent views of the river and is a favorite of local picnickers. Visitors may also view the American bison who live at Buffalo Rock.

Look for their pen and grazing area across from the baseball diamond. The park is located three miles west of Ottawa in LaSalle County.

Three primitive, walk- or bike-in camping areas are located between Buffalo Rock and Utica.

Accommodation: Where to stay in Ottawa

Address: 1300 N 27th Rd, Ottawa, IL 61350

16: Museum of Science and Industry

Museum of Science and Industry

Among the many engaging exhibits of the Museum of Science and Industry is its massive U-505 German submarine – the length of a city block and three times the weight of the Statue of Liberty.

Hear its amazing wartime story, then move on to other captivating exhibits. Walk into a tornado, gape at the miniature Fairy Castle, learn about the wonders of the human body, and watch baby chicks hatch out of their shells as you marvel at the mystery of DNA.

Follow a model train as it tells the tale of the railroad from Chicago to Seattle, look up at the Boeing 727 that sailed Lake Michigan en route to the museum, and learn about the region's innovative agricultural technology that brings food to your table. In the Giant Dome Theater, a variety of science-based films are shown.

Check the museum’s website for the latest film schedule. Purchase tickets and parking in advance online or at the entrance.

Address: 5700 S Lake Shore Dr, Chicago, IL 60637

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Accomodation: 10 Best Family Friendly Hotels in Chicago

17: Illinois Beach State Park

Illinois Beach State Park
Dreamstime/Jason P Ross

Spend a day wiggling your toes in the sandy beaches of Lake Michigan at the Illinois Beach State Park, 6.5 miles of recreation along with one of the nation's prettiest waterfronts.

Illinois Beach remains the only beach ridge shoreline in the state, complete with dunes, swales, marshes, oak forests, and indigenous flora and fauna.

Within the 4,160-acre park, stretching from Waukegan to the Wisconsin state line, visitors can swim, hike, bike, fish, boat, picnic, and camp.

Bikers can connect the North and South Units of the state park by using the Zion Bike Trail.

Nature lovers are smitten with the more than 650 species of plants that have been recorded here, from colorful wildflowers in the dunes to prickly pear cactus in the dry areas and cattails in the marshes.

Black oaks and century-old fragrant pines line the sandy ridges. The beach is open 8 AM to 8 PM daily.

Address: 1 Lake Front Dr, Zion, IL 60099

Also Read: 25 Best State Parks to Visit in the US

18: Grand View Drive

Grand View Drive

Lauded by President Theodore Roosevelt, who knew a thing or two about America’s beautiful places, as the “world’s most beautiful drive,” Grand View Drive is a must-see.

Constructed in 1903, the scenic road offers gorgeous views of the Illinois River Valley. Drive the 2.52-mile road or stroll 1.75 miles along the paved sidewalk.

If you time your visit in autumn, the kaleidoscopic colors of the changing leaves make the views even more dramatic.

The grand and historic houses along the drive are a site unto themselves – the residential area on the west of the drive was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.

Be sure to have someone in the passenger seat snapping photos as you make the short but sweet drive.

Accommodation: Where to stay in Peoria

Address: Peoria, IL

19: Mississippi Palisades State Park

Mississippi Palisades State Park

Walk the same trails blazed by the Native American pathfinders who once followed the bluffs and rock palisades of the Mississippi River.

Here, where the mighty Mississippi and Apple rivers meet in northwestern Illinois, find the Mississippi Palisades State Park, a 2,500-acre expanse rich in Native American history.

A palisade describes a line of lofty, steep cliffs, typically along a river, and you’ll find just that as you walk the park’s longest trail, the 1.3-mile Sentinel Trail.

Soon, you’ll arrive at the impressive Sentinel Rock, just one of several monoliths for which the area is famous.

Also, visit the Indian Head and Twin Sisters rock formations, among the site's remarkable features that led the U.S. Interior Department to designate it a national landmark.

Keep an eye out for waterfowl, shorebirds, wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, gray and red fox, and the occasional badger.

Address: 16327A IL-84, Savanna, IL 61074

20: Matthiessen State Park

Matthiessen State Park

Get back to nature and learn about the region's geology at Matthiessen State Park, with 5 miles of trails, cliffs, canyons, bluffs, prairie land, and waterfalls.

Beautiful rock formations are surrounded by lush vegetation and resident wildlife (look for the deer who use the park's mineral springs as salt licks).

Take the stairs to descend into the main canyon to visit the Upper and Lower Dells. Deer Park Lake marks the beginning of the Upper Dell, which continues to Cascade Falls.

At this point, the canyon drops 45 feet, and the Lower Dell begins. The entire canyon is approximately one mile long.

Notice the beautiful coloring of the canyon walls due to the minerals in the water that seeps out of the sandstone.

There is water everywhere, in creeks, streams, and waterfalls, so be sure to wear footwear that can get wet.

Access the park via the main entrance or in the area at the back of the park near the lake shelter.

Accommodation: Where to stay in Oglesby

Address: 2500 Illinois Route 178, Oglesby, IL 61348

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