Illinois' smaller communities offer a wealth of attractions beyond the Windy City.
Like a deep-dish pizza, there is much more to Illinois than just the topping. Chicago, with its wealth of eating establishments, intricate architecture, sporting events and entertainment options, receives much of the attention. But as you venture south of the big city, a colorful mosaic emerges that includes rural charm, vibrant college towns and abundant natural beauty.
“Illinois is a state that is full of surprises, and all of them are good,” says Jen Hoelzle, deputy director of the Illinois Office of Tourism. “We truly are a diverse state. There are so many tastes of life that you can experience here.”
Many of those cultural delicacies can be found in Chicago, from Cubs baseball at Wrigley Field to Michigan Avenue shopping to the nightlife on Rush Street, with numerous restaurants and museums sprinkled throughout.
But the winds of change blow once you get beyond the Windy City, and each part of Illinois has its own distinct appeal. The western side of the state is river country, with 550 miles of shoreline along the mighty Mississippi. The central and eastern regions are highlighted by history, with numerous sites honoring Abraham Lincoln as well as the Americana that is Route 66. And the southern part of the state – which is as close to Chattanooga as it is to Chicago – offers rolling hills and outdoor attractions, including dozens of wineries and the 270,000-acre Shawnee National Forest.
“There’s something for everyone in Illinois,” says Meghan Cole, executive director of the Carbondale Main Street program. “You can have more of a rural experience, or you can be in the third-largest city in the United States.”
Small Towns, Big Appeal
Carbondale is one of 41 cities that are part of the Illinois Main Street program, which promotes downtown revitalization. The program focuses on maintaining economic development, refurbishing historical architecture and establishing events such as car shows and street festivals.
“There’s just a special atmosphere about these Main Street communities,” a DCEO spokeperson says. “There are all these great, locally owned restaurants and shopping experiences in the downtown area. There is such a commitment there when these communities get involved in revitalizing their downtowns. The economic impact that comes out of this work is just incredible.”
One of the primary appeals of the small towns scattered throughout Illinois is the historical aspect. A stroll through many of these downtowns is like walking back in time.
“We have a Main Street in Galena that is authentic back to the 1850s,” says Katherine Walker, executive director of the Galena/Jo Daviess County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Abraham Lincoln could walk down our Main Street today and know exactly where he is.
“Even if you go out into the county, they all have events going on to attract visitors. It’s really a very lively county. It’s not an area where you sit and wonder what you’re going to do today, because there is nothing. You have a plenty of choices of restaurants and events.”
The College Crowd
Illinois also is filled with colleges and universities, ranging from urban schools such as Northwestern in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, to more traditional campus settings, such as Urbana-Champaign (University of Illinois) and Carbondale (Southern Illinois University).
“The students really make up a huge portion of our population in Carbondale,” Meghan Cole says. “It’s an ever-changing population, which makes it very diverse and very young. Our median age is around 26. So we are a town of Millennials, which is really an exciting dynamic to have. It gives you kind of a bigger-city feel, but you’re still in a rural area.”
With such a wide variety of attractions to choose from, it should be no surprise that Illinois set a tourism record for the third consecutive year in 2013. Nearly 106 million people visited the state, creating an economic impact of approximately $34.6 billion.
And what they have discovered is that – like a fresh slice of deep-dish – the state of Illinois provides a tasty experience.
Learn more about Illinois’ arts and culture scene.