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11 northern Illinois cities that are worth exploring

If you’re planning a visit to northern Illinois cities, this is the place for you.

Northern Illinois is a wonderful area to visit for its beautiful nature, interesting history, and unique cultural aspects.

With so much focus on the forests and wildlife and the contrast to the big cities, it can be easy to overlook the smaller cities and towns.

However, northern Illinois has an abundance of great small towns and cities to explore.

Here we have some of the best towns in northern Illinois for your next Illinois trip.

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Cities in Northern Illinois that are worth a visit

Highlights
Ellwood House Museum DeKalb
  • Visit the NIU Art Museum
  • Explore The Ellwood House Museum and Gurler House to experience different architectural styles
  • Visit Forge Brewhouse for unique locally-brewed beers
John Deere Historic Site Dixon
  • Visit the Reagan Peace Park for unique political history exhibits
  • Follow the Ronald Reagan trail to see various significant spots from Ronald Reagan’s history
  • Find all three Dixon Railroad Street Arches to see a beautiful part of local history
The Historic Galena Train Depot Galena
  • Visit the Chestnut Mountain Resort for ski and snowboard trails and beautiful mountain views
  • See the Elihu B. Washburne House for an interesting example of Greek Revival architecture
  • See a show at the unique P.T Murphy Magic Theater
A detail of RavenStone Castle Harvard
  • Visit the Ravenstone Castle for a taste of history
  • Explore High Point Conservation Area for a beginner-friendly hiking experience
  • Have a picnic at Brookdale Conservation Area to take in the beautiful surrounding nature
Kaskaskia Canyon, a beautiful canyon in Starved Rock State Park Nord Utica
  • Visit Starved Rock state park for an amazing hiking experience
  • Follow the Illinois and Michigan Canal and State Trail
  • Visit the Illinois Waterway Visitors Center
Rockford
  • Visit the Rockford Art Museum to see a range of Illinois-based artists
  • Enjoy a day at one of the many parks and gardens
  • Visit the Riverfront Museum Park to enjoy a look into history and a day at the park.
Rochelle
  • Try a tasting at Kennay Farms Distilling
  • Visit the Faux Pas Gallery for art that’s a little bit different
  • Enjoy local history at the Flagg Township Museum
Sterling
  • Follow the relaxing walking trails of Sinnissippi Park
  • Enjoy outdoor activities along the Rock River
  • Visit the Dillon Home Museum for a taste of local history
Rock Falls
  • Visit the Hennepin Canal State Parkway
  • Enjoy the activities at Crystal Lake Recreation
  • Try a game of Frisbee golf at Nims Park or Joshua Park
Stockton
  • Explore the Valley of Eden Bird Sanctuary
  • View the Stockton Downtown Murals
  • Visit the Stockton Heritage Museum
The DeKalb County Courthouse in Sycamore Sycamore
  • Visit the Plank Road Apple Orchard
  • Stroll through the Sycamore Park District
  • Play some arcade games at Star Worlds Arcade
Ellwood House Museum
The Ellwood House Museum (photo credits: Andy McMurray)

Best cities in Northern Illinois

DeKalb

DeKalb is a larger city in the north of Illinois and is home to NIU (Northern Illinois University).

This has allowed for it to maintain a lively, bustling downtown area, vibrant with unique places to dine, drink and enjoy local culture.

With an interesting mix of old and modern architecture, DeKalb is a great place to explore the changing architectural trends of recent history.

The Ellwood House Museum is a great example of this, having been originally built in the 1870s in a neo-Gothic design with multiple alterations made later in Colonial, Georgian Revival, and early 20th Century styles.

The house retains elements of the various styles and is a great ode to changing trends and designs.

Another interesting historical building is the Egyptian Theater. Built during the 1920s as part of the Egyptian Revival, the theatre has been a mainstay in the area of performing arts in the area.

If you are looking for some interesting art while in town, the NIU Art Museum is a great way to explore a wide range of contemporary artists, including both global and local artists.

To see more about DeKalb, check out our previous post here.

Where to stay

The Hampton Inn Dekalb is located just a 5-minute drive from NIU, making it convenient to the center of town and a range of top local destinations.

The Hampton Inn has a wide range of facilities including an indoor pool, fitness center, and 24-hour on-site mini-market.

Previous guests enjoyed the good location and friendly staff.

When to go

Dekalb can be enjoyed year-round, however, it is perhaps better to go during good weather so as to be able to enjoy the wide range of indoor and outdoor activities.

John Deere Historic Site
John Deere Historic Site (Photo credits: Ivo Shandor)

Dixon

Dixon is a lovely historical town that is ideal for a trip exploring various parts of US history.

As the childhood home of Ronald Reagan, one of the most influential US presidents, there are a number of sites that house unique historical artifacts and information of the time.

For example, the Ronald Reagan House is the house Ronald Reagan lived in as a boy.

The Ronald Reagan Trail connects a number of significant sites in Reagan’s life and political history. The Reagan Peace Park features a replica of the Berlin wall and murals dedicated to the iconic ‘Tear Down This Wall’ speech by Reagan from this period.

If you are more interested in other points in history, there is also the John Deere Historic Site ( free to visit), where you can see blacksmith demonstrations and visit the almost 200 years old Deere family home. For an overview of more free things to see in Illinois, click here.

You can walk underneath the Dixon Railroad Street Arches, a set of historic limestone arches dating back to 1855 that were originally created for the trains. And there is many more.

Where to stay

The Quality Inn and Suites Dixon can be found along the Ronald Reagan Trail, making it perfect for exploring this part of history.

The hotel is well-equipped with each room offering a range of facilities. There is also a daily complimentary hot breakfast offered.

When to go

Visit Dixon over a long weekend to fully explore the town and the important part in history that it holds.

The Historic Galena Train Depot
The Historic Galena Train Depot

Galena

The city of Galena is a great destination for a range of travelers, including families, solo travelers, and couples.

With its beautiful landscapes, amazing historical structures, and lively local culture, Galena has something to offer to everyone.

One of Galena’s main attractions is the range of wineries in the area. Surrounded by beautiful scenery, visiting the wineries makes for a great day out.

For more information on the various wineries, see our more detailed post here.

Galena also has a number of nature areas to explore.

The Casper Bluff Land and Water Reserve is crisscrossed with hiking trails and offers excellent birdwatching opportunities. Thrill-seekers can go to the Chestnut Mountain Resort where there is an alpine slide and zipline.

In winter the mountain offers close to 20 ski slopes. Here is an overview of more great places to ski in and around Illinois.

Tired of skiing? Here is an overview of more amazing things to do in Illinois in winter.

If you are more interested in history, there are many historically significant houses and museums in the area.

For a list of more museums in Il, click here.

Where to stay

Chestnut Mountain resort with amazing views of the Mississippi makes a great weekend getaway.

Another great option is the Goldmoor Inn and Resort.

This resort is located close to a range of historic sites and is within easy access to many outdoor activities, such as hiking, cycling, and skiing.

The hotel has a restaurant, bar, and garden on-site, as well as a hot tub and ski pass sales point. This resort is an ideal mid-way point for enjoying all the sights Galena has to offer.  

If you are traveling with your significant other and looking for a romantic cabin in Galena, click here. For a list of more cool hotels in Illinois, click here.

A detail of RavenStone Castle in Harvard. Harvard is an interesting city in northern Illinois.
The RavenStone Castle (photo credits: Contemplative imaging)

Harvard

Harvard is a small town located in the northeastern corner of Illinois.

Harvard has a great mix of natural conservation sites and history-based tourist attractions.

For those who enjoy hiking and exploring nature, the Rush Creek Conservation Area and High Point Conservation Area are great places to visit.

Read Also:

If you love hiking, check out this list of other hiking trails in northern Illinois.

The Brookdale Conservation Area also offers a range of trails along with picnic tables, making it great for families.

Harvard is also home to Ravenstone Castle, a medieval-style castle built among beautiful scenery.

Despite being built in 2001, Ravenstone Castle has amazing attention to detail and commitment to historic styles.

Where to stay

The above-mentioned Ravenstone Castle is actually much more than just a tourist attraction as they also offer themed rooms to stay in overnight.

Staying in the castle is a truly unique accommodation experience with each room being individually decorated with its own theme.

When to go

Harvard is great to visit at a time when the landscape is at its best and exploring the surroundings is convenient, such as spring or autumn.

Kaskaskia Canyon, a beautiful canyon in Starved Rock State Park
The Kaskaskia Canyon Falls in Starved Rock State Park

Nord Utica

Utica is a small town ideally located for visiting some of the best state parks and forests in the state.

With easy access to Starved Rock State Park and Buffalo Rock State Park, Utica is a hiking enthusiast’s dream location.

For more information about Starved Rock State Park, check out our guide to Starved Rock here. If you love state parks, check out our guide to the best state parks in northern Illinois.

The beautiful natural areas don’t stop with the state parks, as Utica is also close to the Illinois and Michigan Canal State Trail.

The visitors center is in Utica and they can provide more information about the various attractions along the canal such as a mule-pulled boat tour.

Utica is ideal for anyone interested in enjoying the beautiful natural surroundings and exploring the local flora and fauna.

Where to stay

There are many amazing places to stay near Nord Utica, including various hotels and resorts. For a full list of the best places to stay, our article on places to stay in the area is ideal.

When to go

This region is beautiful year-round but if you want to see the waterfalls in Starved Rock it’s best to plan your visit in early spring.

The Anderson Japanese Garden in Rockford is absolutely worth visiting.
The Anderson Japanese Garden in Rockford

Rockford

Rockford is the second-largest city in Illinois, coming in behind the largest city, Chicago.

Rockford has a strong focus on preserving local culture and art, which can be seen through the many museums, art galleries, and support for local businesses.

It’s also home to the Prairie Street Brewing Company which is a great place to sample some local beers.

Rockford is also great for experiencing nature, with its many parks and gardens leading to the nickname the ‘Forest City’.

There are beautifully landscaped areas, such as the Anderson Japanese Gardens and the Nicholas Conservatory.

The Burpee Museum of Natural History, attached to the Riverfront Museum Park is a great way to combine a day of enjoying nature and culture.

If you love water parks, you should definitely visit Hurricane Harbor, one of the largest water parks in Illinois.

To see more of our recommendations in Rockford, check out our previous post here.

Where to stay

The Embassy Suites by Hilton Rockford Riverfront is a great hotel located close to the Coronado Theatre in Rockford.

It features an outdoor pool, restaurant, bar, fitness center, and more. Previous guests enjoyed the spacious rooms, hotel design, and multiple facilities.

When to go

Rockford is great year-round. If you are hoping to enjoy the various parks and gardens, it may be best to check a blooming schedule to plan around the flowers or plants you are most hoping to see.

The Holcomb house in Rochelle (photo credits: Andy McMurray)

Rochelle

Rochelle is a short 2-hour drive outside of Chicago and so is an ideal location for a day trip or weekend holiday.

Rochelle is home to a range of interesting local historical sites and cultural destinations.

For example, the Flagg Township Museum has over 20,000 prehistoric and historic artifacts relating to life and culture in the area.

There are also local distilleries and breweries where you can try unique local drinks.

One example of this is Kennay Farms Distilling, a distillery that has been family-owned for six generations.

The distillery has a charming, rustic quality and does tastings of their many high-quality alcoholic drinks.

Where to stay

The Holiday Inn Express Rochelle is a great accommodation option when visiting Rochelle.

The hotel has an indoor swimming pool and fitness center along with laundry services and meeting rooms.

The rooms are well-equipped with luxury bedding, air conditioning, coffee makers, and more.

Previous guests enjoyed the high level of cleanliness and convenient location.

When to go

Rochelle is great for visiting on long weekends when you want a holiday without the fuss of a lot of traveling.

Indian Mounds at the Sinnissippi Park in Sterling (photo credits: Ivo Shandor )

Sterling

Sterling is a small city in northern Illinois with a strong industrial background.

Originally built around a few river mills in the area, the city soon grew to support a range of industries and over time has evolved to become a bustling hub of local business.

Sterling is home to a large number of retail locations with a variety of large, commonly-known shops and charming, locally-owned stores.

There are also many top-quality restaurants in the area, making it an ideal place for a day out.

Sterling is located along the Rock River and so there are many opportunities for outdoor activities, such as fishing, boating, kayaking, and more.

There are also many parks nearby which are great for walking and exploring.

Where to stay

The Holiday Inn Express and Suites Rock Falls is a great accommodation option for visitors to Sterling.

While it is technically located in Rock Falls, it is just across the river from the main area of Sterling and so is still within easy access. The hotel has an indoor pool and fitness center and the rooms are well-equipped.

Previous guests enjoyed the provided continental breakfast and the friendly staff.

When to go

Sterling has an extensive calendar with regular farmers’ markets and pop-up markets.

Combining your visit with one of these markets will provide more opportunities to see and support unique local businesses.

Hennepin Canal in Illinois

Rock Falls

Rock Falls is a small northern Illinois town located on the other side of the Rock River to Sterling. Many of the attractions of one city are also accessible and easy to visit from the other.

There are a lot of recreation facilities in the area, such as Rainbow Falls Adventure Golf and Crystal Lake Recreation, a large recreation center offering a swim lake, other water activities, camping, and more.

The Hennepin Canal State Parkway is also very popular with its beautiful scenery, historic iron bridges, and fun outdoor activities.

The Parkway is great for walking, kayaking, photography, and general exploring.

Here is an overview of the best Illinois kayaking spots.

Where to stay

We already suggested the Holiday Inn Express and Suites Rock Falls when we wrote about Sterling.

It is a great hotel for staying in this area.

It is located centrally to Rock Falls making it very convenient for getting around town.

When to go

As the area has so many outdoor activities, especially water activities, summer is perhaps the best time to visit

Apple River Canyon State Park (photo credits: Ivo Shandor)

Stockton

Stockton is a great all-rounder town with a range of things to enjoy.

There are attractions to enjoy for all types of travelers and to suit all interests.

If you enjoy exploring nature while on holiday, Stockton is close to the beautiful Apple River Canyon State Park, full of beautiful forests, canyons, wildlife, and just a 15-minute drive from the Apple Canyon Lake Waterfall.

There is also the Valley of Eden Bird Sanctuary, a 409-acre sanctuary with over 6 miles of trails to explore. With over 100 species of bird in the sanctuary, it is a bird-watchers dream as well as interesting for even casual observers.

If you are more interested in history, the Stockton Heritage Museum is a great stop, with a range of exhibits about local area history.

Where to stay

Stockton Country Inn and Suites is located a short 14-minute drive from the beautiful Apple River Canyon State Park, making it ideal for anyone looking to explore nature in the area.

The hotel has an indoor pool, hot tub, fitness center, and daily a free hot breakfast is provided.

The hotel has a country-style design and previous guests described it as comfortable with friendly and efficient staff.

If you are looking for a romantic gateway, check out this beautiful cabin.

When to go

If you are interested in history, the Stockton Heritage Museum is open from May to October, although they are able to schedule visits outside of these times.

If you are more interested in nature, it might be best to check the migration times of the birds you are interested in seeing in order to have the best chances.

The DeKalb County Courthouse in Sycamore
The county courthouse in Sycamore

Sycamore

Sycamore is a lovely little city just outside of Chicago in Illinois. It is primarily a commercial city but has a lot of interesting cultural and historical areas.

For those who prefer nature, the Sycamore Park District has many parks, wetlands, and woodlands as part of an effort to maintain the nature of the area.

These can be used for outdoor activities or simply strolling through.

Plank Road Apple Orchard is another great option for a unique outdoor activity. Strolling through apple orchards and picking your own apples is a great way to spend a day.

Sycamore also has many historical sites, including over 200 properties on the National Register of Historic Places.

For more information about Sycamore, see our previous post here.

Where to stay

Sycamore Country Inn and Suites is located just a 5-minute drive from the center of Sycamore, making it an ideal location for exploring the town.

The hotel has a daily buffet breakfast and snacks such as cookies and fresh fruit are available all day. Previous guests enjoyed the homey feel and the high level of cleanliness.

When to go

Sycamore is great to visit in autumn as it is possible to pick your own apples at this time. Fall foliage in the Sycamore Park District is also beautiful during this season.

Conclusion

Northern Illinois is often known for its beautiful nature and big cities.

However, there are many interesting and unique small cities and towns that are just as intriguing, if not more so.

Here we have collated some of the best northern Illinois towns to explore on your next trip.

If you are looking for more charming small town in Illinois, click here. If you plan on visiting southern Illinois, check out our list of charming small towns.

See the web story that accompanies this post.