After a year-plus cooped up in the house, chances are that pretty much everywhere that isn’t your home looks dazzling and novel right now. (Did the Red Line get a glow-up, or have we just not been riding for 14 months?) But even in a time when practically everywhere looks beautiful to our eyes, some places in the Prairie State are more objectively captivating than others—and they deserve a day (or weekend) trip. Read on to choose your next adventure with our pick of the most beautiful places in Illinois.
The 10 Most Beautiful Places in Illinois
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1. Starved Rock State Park
It’s no wonder that Starved Rock State Park is one of Illinois’ most popular. It has it all: waterfalls and wildflowers, cliffs and caverns, and plenty of opportunities for hiking, camping, fishing and picnicking. Don’t forget your comfortable shoes and your phone charger, because these photo opps are too good to miss.
2. Great River Road
Even if you stayed in the car the whole time, a ride down the Great River Road would be well worth the trip: as you travel the length of Illinois’ western border, you’re sandwiched between the Mississippi River on one side, and local flora and fauna on the other. But there’s plenty more beauty to be found along the way, from Galena’s charming historical downtown to the north and the Shawnee National Forest to the south, so plan your snack breaks accordingly. PS: If kitsch is more of your thing, don’t miss the world’s largest catsup bottle in Collinsville.
Since the Great River Road covers the whole length of the state, we recommend exploring the destinations that best fit your interests (or your driving itinerary for that day). Get started with hotel options near Galena (upstate), hotel options near Quincy (mid-state), and hotels near Carbondale (downstate)—and then click over to the “restaurants” tab to find your next meal.
3. Anderson Japanese Gardens
Every centimeter of the 12-acre Rockford’s Anderson Japanese Gardens is meticulously maintained to live up to the vision of revered landscape designer Hoichi Kurisu. Amble down soft gravel paths that wind past koi ponds and waterfalls, plus pairings of trees, bushes, flowers and other plants that were placed just so to complement each other through the seasons.
4. Giant City State Park
Nestled within the Shawnee National Forest—and not far from the Great River Road—sits Giant City State Park, so named for its unique sandstone formations that evoke pathways suited for larger-than-life beings. While there are plenty of geological features to admire here, they’re softened by an abundance of ferns, wildflowers and a verdant canopy of trees.
5. Illinois Beach State Park
Sign us up for a day of exploring Illinois Beach State Park’s 6.5 miles of shoreline… or for just plopping down on a beach towel to sun ourselves. Either way, beautiful sights abound here, such as dune grasses waving in the wind, birds and butterflies flitting through marshland, and towering oak forests tossing some shade onto the hot beach sand.
6. Morton Arboretum
Proudly declare yourself a tree-hugger at the Morton Arboretum (as long as you’re gentle with the trees), where nearly a quarter million plants thrive along 16 miles of hiking trails and beyond. The arboretum is dedicated to the study and conservation of plant life from all over the world, and their handy Tree ID feature can tell you exactly what you’re looking at, wherever you are. Don’t leave without a turn through the Maze Garden, and keep your eyes peeled for large-scale art installations throughout the property, too.
7. Graceland Cemetery
Of Chicago’s many stately and elegant cemeteries, Graceland may be our favorite, thanks to its reputation as “the cemetery of architects.” Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and other people who literally shaped our city call Graceland their final resting place. (As you’d expect, their monuments live up to their reputations, too.) Graceland is also an arboretum of its own, so you’ll have plenty of shady spots to stand in as you gaze upon tombstones and mausoleums of other Chicago celebrities (Marshall Field, anyone?).
8. Cache River State Natural Area
Grab your kayak and get ready for some niche bragging rights—soon you’ll be able to say you’ve kayaked through the northernmost cypress swamp in the country. (Does it look sorta familiar? A different cypress swamp plays a large role in The Notebook.) What your kayaking trip will lack in Ryan Gosling, it will make up for with actual goslings—or with sightings of endangered wildlife, at least.
Explore hotel options in nearby cities (Note: camping is not allowed in the Cache River State Natural Area.)
9. Grandview Drive
Who are we to disagree with Teddy Roosevelt, who declared Peoria’s Grandview Drive “the world’s most beautiful drive”? This 2.5-mile route showcases the area’s natural splendor, as well as the stately historical homes that line the way. While it’s especially pretty in the fall (all those changing leaves!), it’s still a fun summertime hang that affords views of Upper Peoria Lake. You can literally drive through, or you can hop on a paved hiking trail to take things at a slower pace and select the perfect picnic spot.
10. Bahá'í House Of Worship
Hop on your bike for a pleasant ride to the Bahá'í House of Worship in Wilmette, where you can rest and rehydrate while perched along a reflecting pool or nestled between colorful flower beds. The only Bahá'í temple in North America, it took nearly 40 years to build this quartz-and-concrete temple, which features architectural elements in groups of nine (a Bahá'í symbol of perfection). Challenge your companions to see how many groupings of nine they can spot, or just challenge them to pipe down for a moment while you all admire the building and the symmetrical gardens that surround it.
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