After a nearly twenty-year hiatus of visiting Illinois, I finally made it back and added three new cities to my travels. I had so much fun exploring Champaign, Monticello, Rantoul, and Springfield before making my way into Chicago for the evening. I wasn’t expecting to find reindeer, some of the best goat cheese ever, and be head over heels in love with the Lincoln hoopla in Springfield. Here are reasons to visit these five must-see cities around Illinois.
I always love a good college town, and being in Champaign-Urbana (the two are literally right across the street from each other) during the University of Illinois graduation was particularly exciting. I got to witness and take photos of graduates donned in their gear in front of Alma Mater, the University of Illinois statue symbolizing the connections between past and present students.
The University of Illinois students are as much international as they are domestic, so the diversity and offerings in Champaign-Urbana are exceptional. I felt like I was strolling around the Hell’s Kitchen area of NYC rather than downtown Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.
The food is tasty and reasonably priced at Seven Saints, where the slider menu drew me in. I chose the lunch trio with soup, salad, and a single slider, the Black Jack—a perfect mix of everything. The goat cheese salad is exceptional, with fresh strawberries, candied walnuts, and a raspberry vinaigrette.
Do drop by Hopscotch Bakery + Market for amazing pastries and sweets, plus delicious cold brew and teas. The scones are excellent, as are the coffee drinks, and I loved the upscale foods available in the market. There are a couple of outdoor tables for enjoying the scenery and your snacks.
Urban parks and sculptures are abundant in Champaign-Urbana, and there are plenty of places to stroll around, soak up the sun, and admire the arts of this town. Be sure to get your photo made with famous movie-reviewer Roger Ebert in front of the Virginia Theatre, a great photo-op.
Allerton Park was a real treat, with 1,517-acres, a nature center, restaurant, and conference center. The 14 formal gardens are free to browse, and they are gorgeous. Ornate sculptures, topiaries, pruned hedges, and the purpose for every bloom and tree in the gardens separate this attraction from others of the exact nature.
Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery
Sara and I smiled ear to ear the entire time we were at Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery. A couple of hundred goats are all eager to be petted and get their pictures made, loved, and cared for impeccably. You can have an artisan and farmstead cheese tasting or shop from the products in the adorable market. The black goat (ash) and chèvre were my favorites. Prairie Farms is an agritourism attraction perfect for the whole family.
For lodging, I recommend the Comfort Suites Urbana Champaign, University Area. The rooms (suites) are super spacious and comfortable—I was a big fan of the huge couch and tv area. Complimentary Wifi, parking, and breakfast are included in your stay. This pet-friendly property has a fitness room and indoor heated pool.
The Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch is the best! Rantoul is a town on the outskirts of Champaign, still in Champaign County, and is easily one of the must-see cities in Illinois. The authentic Alaskan reindeer ranch attraction is unique and easily one of the best finds of the year for me. It is geared for the whole family, and bus tours are big fans of the venue, which also has chuckwagon dinners and group banquets. The reindeer are curious and so fun to watch. I also learned a lot about the species on my visit.
You’ll find 100-year-old barns, a gift shop, pedal race carts, and tasty concessions on the property, besides the dozens of gorgeous reindeer. The animals are especially fond of graham crackers, so you may end up with kisses from a reindeer if you offer them one. Seasonal events are popular at Hardy Reindeer Ranch, including the Fall Corn Maze, hayrides, and cookouts.
After visiting the reindeer ranch, pop into ET’s, a stylish eatery in the heart of downtown Rantoul that specializes in bbq, though burgers, wings, and pressed sandwiches are also on the menu. I loved ET’s pulled pork, and a side of sriracha candied bacon “Crack Fries” is a must. Thumbs up on all the dipping sauces…they were delicious.
My friend, Sara, and I just happened upon the darling little town of Monticello, Illinois. This is my kind of town…friendly locals, no chain stores or restaurants, cute murals, and a walkable downtown…with a courthouse. Oh my, everything about this little Midwestern gem just made me happy.
I browsed several stores and noted that they had great apparel, gifts, home accents and decor, plus seasonal items. It’s worth mentioning that the antique store I popped in was one of the best I’ve seen in the Midwest, with many rare things.
Monarch Brewing Company is in the midst of the boutique shopping but wasn’t open during the hours I visited. The downtown streets were tidy, and I loved the small park with loads of blooming flowers in the heart of town.
7/3 Update: I learned from a reader that unfortunately Monarch Brewing went out of business.
For lunch, look no further than Brown Bag, with a homemade pie selection that will leave you drooling and a fabulous menu of sandwiches, soups, subs, and salads. Pie choices (by Inge) may include chocolate peanut butter, butterscotch, blueberry rhubarb, lemon meringue, and peach lattice, to name a few.
Sara raved about the Karina sandwich while I had a bowl of tomato bisque and a scoop of turkey salad. Everything was perfect—namely the triple berry pie a la mode that I devoured.
Sara and I visited a friend in Springfield, Cindy Ladage of Traveling Adventures of a Farm Girl. She was an excellent tour guide, showing us all the Lincoln statues, sculptures, murals, and historic homes. We also toured the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (well, the museum portion only since the library is still closed), which I cannot praise enough. One should allow two to three hours, making time for the film in the Mr. Lincoln Theater and exploring the touring exhibit, The State of Sound: A World of Music from Illinois, in our case.
Important buildings related to Lincoln and Illinois, in general, to add to your Springfield travels include:
- The Old State Capitol
- The Lincoln Depot
- Lincoln’s New Salem
- Lincoln Tomb
- Lincoln’s Springfield Home (part of the National Park Service)
- Surrounding neighborhood
Lincoln lived in this house for 17 years, and for me, it was amazing to think of how many things one of my idols did in this region.
Storyboards around town give excellent historical information about Springfield, Illinois, and Lincoln. There are also a few great Lincoln and other vibrant murals to see in downtown Springfield.
I am still in awe of how gorgeous the Illinois State Capitol is, with the solo Lincoln statue in front. The 405-foot dome is so stately and makes the Renaissance Revival architecture really pop against the blue sky. It is stunning!
I also had my first supper club experience at Saputo’s, an old-school (1948) Italian restaurant. We feasted on great Italian food (I had beef and cheese ravioli dishes, halved), warm baked bread, and had a fabulous waitress all the while. Saputo’s has plenty of parking and is a historic fixture in Springfield.
For breakfast the following day, we hit a Springfield icon—Charlie Parker’s Diner. This quaint establishment has been featured on Triple D (Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives) and is home to the “breakfast shoe.” I had the smaller version of the shoe, called the pony, which had sausage and hash browns covered with gravy, cheddar cheese, and an egg of your choice. Pretty darned tasty, and definitely filling.
I had been to Chicago, Illinois, ten times before taking the train into the city to get some new pictures for my photo library. I just roamed around the Downtown Loop and the River North Gallery District on foot on this trip, soaking up the incredible Chicago scenery, landmarks, and architecture. You can’t deny that Chicago’s buildings are some of the best in the country. I’m always impressed and amazed. I even saw a Muddy Waters mural designed by my favorite muralist, Kobra,
Sara and I ended up hitting Land and Lake Kitchen for happy hour and were able to enjoy a gourmet American cheeseburger for $7 and with fries. It was so darned good, and I added a side of Deviled Eggs, too, which were delicious and highly recommended. Before leaving the city, we popped into Magnolia Bakery for decadent treats. While specialty cupcakes are their claim to fame, I’m a fan of the famous banana pudding.
Other than walking around the streets of Chicago, taking in the vibrant spring blooms and photo-ops around town, we didn’t do much, but it was enough to send us back to the hotel happy campers.
Stepping Out of My Comfort Zone
How did we get there? Being a Southerner, we drive or fly everywhere; public transportation is a foreign concept. However, Sara and I shuttled from our hotel to the airport (it’s free!), where we paid $10 to board the blue line “L” trains and ride the 45 minutes or so into town. It was much faster than braving the traffic, as I’ve only flown into Chicago in the past.
Forty-five minutes later, we were walking up onto the platform to see The Bean. We caught the “L” back to the hotel (no additional ticket needed, we bought the all-day pass) and in 30 minutes were back to O’Hare. This was definitely the way to see the city and only pay around $100 for lodging.
And speaking of lodging, we stayed at the Sonesta Simply Suites Chicago O’Hare at Schiller Park. The price was affordable (I used Hotels.com), and they offered free parking and a shuttle to the airport. My room was clean, comfortable and had all the amenities I needed, including a whole kitchen. Breakfast is included in your stay.
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Want more adventures? How do these places sound to you?