Illinois

In the heart of the U.S., there are haunted towns, outstanding wineries, and an epicenter that’s bursting with history and innovation. Yet, these are just a fraction of the things that make Illinois an unforgettable place to visit. Check out a few of the must-see and -do places in Richard’s guide to Illinois.

EXPLORE | EAT & DRINK | SLEEP​​

WHAT TO DO

Wine Sipping in Rural Illinois

No trip to Illinois would be complete without a drive (or stroll) through Shawnee Hills Wine Trail. There are 12 outstanding wineries on the hilly, wooded trail in Southern Illinois, all stitched together on one terribly scenic roadway winding through the Shawnee National Forest.

The Shawnee Hills Wine Trail comprises a 40-mile radius, so visitors can hop on and off the trail at any point along the way. You can spend a day visiting 2 or 3 vineyards or spend the entire weekend sipping wine at 7 or 8. No matter which vineyard you choose, you are sure to experience both a gustatory and visual feast.

The Wineries and Vineyards

The Blue Sky Vineyard

    – a lovely little place at the eastern end of the trail that’s well worth the wait. We spent most of our time here.

Alto Vineyards

    – Family-owned vineyard not far from University of Illinois campus.

Honker Hill Winery

    – the newest member of the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail with five large ponds, a fireplace-warmed patio, and a wildlife room.

Hedman Vineyard

    – 16 miles south of Carbondale, this winery features hand-on activities such as antiquing, peaching picking, and hummingbird watching.

Hickory Ridge Vineyard

    – family-style picnic tables and the best view on the trail.

Kite Hill Vineyards

    – proudly promote their full-flavored wines and wine slushies.

Orlandini Vineyards

    – located deep within the heart of the Shawnee Hills, these guys have two decades of grape-growing experience.

Owl Creek Vineyard

    – artisanal family winery now serving hard ciders.

Pomona Winery

    – seven table wines, three desert wines, and a lovely garden picnic area for tasting.

Rustle Hill Winery

    – multi-purpose grounds feature a winery, restaurant, cabin accommodations, and amphitheater concerts.

StarView Vineyards

    – breathtaking views of rural Illinois with koi ponds and large oak trees.

Von Jakob Vineyards

    – experience a trip to “Little Germany” in this unique winery and intimate atmosphere.

​​
If you feel the urge to veer from the trail, there’s a great hike with scenic views in nearby Alto Pass. Quetil Trail runs along the abandoned Cairo & St Louis Narrow Gage railroad and is close enough to Shawnee Hills that you’ll still be feeling your wine buzz.

The Most Haunted Town in America

What makes Alton, Illinois the most haunted town in America? I endeavored to find out:

It is said that limestone, a building material used in many Alton dwellings because of its supply nearby, holds psychic energy. The Illini Indians once dominated this place, along with the nearby convergence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. All this makes for a great ghostly paradise!

Here you can camp out in a haunted swimming pool or pay homage to the Alton Giant, the tallest person who ever lived.

Or spend an afternoon rummaging around McPike Mansion to find out why psychics, mediums, and ghost hunters have been frequenting this place for ages.

3 Must-See Museums of Chicago

In the late 19th century, With the flowers of industry and commerce blooming, there came new prosperity in Chicago. With that came the means and desire to create halls where scientific specimens, works of art, and other objects of value were displayed. This was the wellspring for the Great Museums of Chicago:

The Museums

Museum of Science & Industry

      – The largest science museum in the Western Hemisphere. A hands-on, family friendly, educational museum that should not be missed.

Permanent exhibitions: U-505 Submarine, Coal Mine, Pioneer Zephyr, Apollo 8 Spacecraft

Field Museum of Natural History

      – One of the premier natural history museums in the world.

Permanent exhibitions: Inside Ancient Egypt, Evolving Planet, Sue the Tyrannosaurus Rex

Art Institute of Chicago

      – A impressive collection of art which is second to none. An equally stunning architectural design.

Permanent collections: Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, American, Old Masters, and modern and contemporary art.

Visit Starved Rock State Park in Utica

Starved Rock is a special state park in Utica, Illinois with towering trees, canyons and waterfalls that beckon adventure.

There is an idea maze of trails through 18 canyons in this park, and we set off to hike a few, including French and LaSalle at the edge of the woods, along the Illinois River, whose waters ripple with the drift of eagles for much of the year. We veer inland, through clusters of Virginia bluebells, and floral arrays of marsh marigolds, wild iris, trillium and Dutchman’s breeches, plus purple-flowered spiderworts, nodding columbine and blooms of shooting star. We step up a steep walled sandstone slit to a silky waterfall. This is unexpected. It looks like Arizona. Here, in this quiet warm-toned canyon, with a crack to heaven, there is the kind of repose that inspires poets and dreamers.

Visit the Best Small Town Main Street in America

The former rip-roaring lead-mining town of Galena once produced almost 85% of the nation’s lead, and was the busiest Mississippi River port between St. Louis and St. Paul, a bustle bigger than Chicago. Now, it charm lies in the preservation of its past, one which Galena proudly embraces.

The street is exuberant with boutiques, bars, reliquaries, art galleries, cafes, ghost tours, trolleys, locals sporting thick, black Ulysses S. Grant beards, and shops specializing in everything “craft.” The old brown brick buildings host handcrafted jewelry, homemade fudge, artisanal cheese, hand-sewn clothing, self-published books, in-house roasted coffee, immaculate confections, stove-popped gourmet popcorn, and, of course, craft beer.

The Allure of Illinois

​​​​​

You’re in a place with a wine trail named after the Shawnee Indians, a tribe who settled here in the 19th century. As my son says, you’re in the most “hauntedess” place in the world. You’re in a place whose southern-most region is called “Little Egypt.” You’re in a place where Carl Sandburg, Ernest Hemingway, Upton Sinclair and Saul Bellow found inspiration. Who could not?

You’re in the place where the classic Steven King movie The Shinning should have been shot. You’re in the place where the Boy Scouts of America was founded. You’re on the canal that enabled a village swamp to become the commercial hub and crossroad of the continent.

Look around. What do you see? Or what do you not see? Neon, franchises, fast food. And the buildings are exactly the same as they were in 1859. You’re in the place where the theater scene in Field of Dreams was shot. You’re in a place that has the highest, steepest, fastest wooden roller coaster in the world. Home of the Heath Bar. You’re in Illinois. What’s not to love?

​​

Where to Rest Your Head

In Chicago, we stayed at the Kinzie Hotel, a contemporary boutique hotel with a laid-back atmosphere and personable staff.

For more on my experience in Illinois, Click here.