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15 best small towns in Illinois you must see

Looking for cute towns in Illinois?  You have come to the right place. Therefore, here is a well-curated list of the best small towns in Illinois.

Whether you are looking for a relaxing weekend or just want to make a day trip. This list of quaint Illinois destinations includes towns that are historic and beautiful retreats that are perfect for you to relax and unwind. 

So jump in your car and let’s go. 

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Overview of the smallest towns in Illinois

Best towns to visit in Illinois

Highlights
Anderson Hall Elsah Illinois Elsah
  • Explore Elsah which is listed on the National Register of Historic places
  • Visit the Elsah Museum
Woodstock Illinois Woodstock
  • Visit during the Woodstock Willie festival
The Arcada Theater Building in St. Charles St. Charles
  • Visit the Fox River Trolley Museum and learn more about the history of transportation in the area.
  • See a show at the Acadia Theater
LaSalle Canyon in Starved Rock State Park Illinois Ottawa
  • Visit the beautiful Starved Rock State Park
de immigrant Windmill in Fulton, Illinois Fulton
  • Visit the Sawmill Museum
  • See the De Immigrant Windmill
Fabyan Villa in Geneva, Illinois Geneva
  • Explore the Geneva historic district
  • Visit the Geneva History Museum
  • Explore the Fabyan Forest Preserve
The beautiful facade of the Opera Hall in Arcola, Illinois Arcola
  • Visit the Carnegie Library
  • Visit the Historic Illinois Central Train Depot
The peaceful little town of Lebanon after dark Lebanon
  • Tour the Mermaid House Hotel
  • Visit the Emerald Mound and Village Site
The Mount Carroll courthouse in the pretty little town of Caroll in Illinois Mount Carroll
  • See a play at the Timber Lake Playhouse
  • Discover the beautiful architecture as you walk through town.
Nauvoo Mormon Temple Nauvoo
  • Dive into Nauvoo’s Mormon history
Statue of President Ulysses S. Grant in the Galena Grant Park Galena
  • Visit the home of President Ulysses S.
  • Wander around Galena’s Main Street
The Quincy Memorial Bridge Quincy
  • Stop by the Villa Kathrine
  • Visit the Quincy Museum
The DeKalb County Courthouse in Sycamore Sycamore
  • Read a book at the Sycamore Public Library
The Public Library in the little town of Greenville, Illinois Greenville
  • Visit the Richard Bock Museum
Princeton
  • Walk down Princeton’s picturesque main street
  • Visit the Lovejoy Homestead
The Anderson Hall of the Principia College in Elsah, Illinois
Anderson Hall, part of the Principia College in Elsah (Photo credits: Loving Heart2009)

Best small villages in Illinois

Elsah

Elsah is a truly small town – the population barely surpassed 600 at the last official count. It’s a lovely place to visit and has retained quite a bit of its history. Its nickname is the “village where time stood still.”

It’s a truly unique experience and if you’re a history buff you’ll enjoy your time visiting as you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time!

Highlights

  • The entire town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places!
  • You can visit beautiful stone and wooden houses from the early 19th century.
  • The Elsah Museum is free to visit and paints a picture of what life was like in this small town.
  • Even though most people come to catch a glimpse of the past this charming town also offers nice opportunities to spot bald eagles.

When to go

Elsah is truly beautiful throughout the year, but visiting in the late summer/early fall will give you the most incredible views of the town and the surrounding area before it gets too cold.

How to get there

Elsah is located on the western border of the state, along the Mississippi River and IL-100 N/Great River Rd/Mc Adams Pkwy.

It’s about a 4.5-hour drive from Chicago, or you can fly into the St. Louis Lambert International Airport and then drive about 38 minutes to Elsah.

Woodstock is one of the best small towns in Illinois
Woodstock

Woodstock

The town of Woodstock is so small you might not expect it to have connections to Hollywood, but it does. Famous films such as Groundhog Day and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles were filmed on location here.

Even if you’re not interested in these movies, there’s a lot you may like in Woodstock from incredible views of the surrounding area to the historic structures.

Highlights

  • Ever since the film Groundhog Day was filmed in Woodstock, the town decided to celebrate the day with their own groundhog, nicknamed Woodstock Willie. If you visit the town on Groundhog Day, you can take part in the celebrations.
  • The town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and also named a Preserve America Community by the White House
  • The historic Woodstock Square with the opera house

When to Go

In terms of weather, Woodstock is beautiful throughout the year but the colors that come with autumn are unlike any other.

If you have a chance to visit on February 2nd for Groundhog Day, you’ll be able to participate in the festivities.

The Victorian Christmas Celebration is another great time to visit this town. It becomes extra charming lit by thousands of christmas lights. Carolers spread the joy and you can enjoy all this wile taking a horse-drawn carriage ride. The festivities start each year at Thanksgiving.

How to Get There

Woodstock is located in the northeast corner of the state and is north and slightly west of Chicago.

There is a direct bus from Chicago to Woodstock that costs about $9.50 – the UP-NW. You can also drive, following I-90W to IL-47.

The Arcada Theater Building in St. Charles
The Arcada Theater Building in St. Charles (Photo credits: G Le Tourneau)

St. Charles

This charming small vilage in Illinois is notable for its history, culture, and the Fox River that runs through it.

Although it has a long history, it was never the most accessible town because the Fox River was not navigable for larger boats. That’s why St. Charles has remained relatively small throughout the years.

One notable aspect of its rich history are the underground railroad stations that are supposed to have existed in multiple houses in this town. They were used by members of abolitionists group who took slaves to safe locations. The Wheeler house has the most historical evidence of such operations.

Today, the city of St. Charles is known for its outdoor areas and lively atmosphere, making it a great spot for a summer vacation.

Highlights

  • Visit the Fox River Trolley Museum and learn more about the history of transportation in the area.
  • See a show at the Arcada Theater, which was first built in 1926. Preservation efforts and upgrades began in the early 2000s, and the theater is currently still active and thriving to this day.

When to go

Visit St. Charles during the summer so you can take advantage of the nice weather and explore the outdoor parks and areas.

How to get there

St. Charles is located directly west of Chicago and easy to drive to if you’re starting out in the big city. Simply drive west on I-290 W until you arrive in St. Charles.

You can also take public transportation from Chicago by hopping on the UP-W train and then switching to the 801 bus in Geneva.

LaSalle Canyon in Starved Rock State Park Illinois
The LaSalla waterfall in Starved Rock State Park

Ottawa

Like many towns on this list, Ottawa, Illinois features an idyllic and charming downtown area. The town square is lined with local shops and restaurants and is historic in its own right. You will find many well-maintained Victorian homes.

There is a modern twist as well as several modern murals add some color to the town.

Many visitors stay in Ottawa when visiting nearby Starved Rock State Park with its many beautiful waterfalls.

Highlights

  • Visit the beautiful Starved Rock State Park – you could easily spend a day here exploring and hiking before heading back into town.

When to go

Visit Ottawa during spring or autumn. This is the best time to hike in nearby Starved Rock State Park. It is one of the most incredible things to do in the area, and if you visit in the spring the waterfalls will be at their best. Autumn is great as well to see the colorful foliage.

How to get there

Ottawa is located west and slightly south of Chicago and you can make the drive in about an hour and a half. Simply drive south on I-55 S before turning onto I-80 W. From there, continue on until you arrive in Ottawa.

de immigrant Windmill in Fulton, Illinois
“De Immigrant” windmill in Fulton

Fulton

The town of Fulton is named for Robert Fulton, the inventor of the steamboat.

The population of Fulton has historically been Dutch, and the people here are proud of that heritage and celebrate it regularly – one unique example is the Dutch windmill that was commissioned and shipped to Fulton from the Netherlands.

The windmill is called “de immigrant” and is fully operational.

It can be visited for free and the flours that are produced are for sale in the gift shop.

Highlights

  • Learn more about the history of the lumber industry in the area when you visit the Sawmill Museum
  • See “De Immigrant” Windmill, which was made in the Netherlands and assembled in the town of Fulton as a tribute to the people of the town and their Dutch heritage.
  • The Heritage Canyon, a self-guided walking tour where you will learn about the history of the city that started in the mid-1800s. You will see what is left of the pioneer-era structures including an original schoolhouse and a covered bridge.

When to go

While Fulton is beautiful at any time, the autumn season is particularly beautiful.

If you want to see the city brimming with activity you should plan your visit during the first weekend of May when the Dutch Days festival is being held and the inhabitants dress up in traditional clothing and join lively parades. It can be fun for the whole family.

How to get there

Fulton is located on the western border of Illinois and is almost directly west of Chicago. It lies along the Mississippi River. To drive to Fulton from Chicago, head west on I-88 W and take exit 36 to arrive in Fulton.

Fabyan Villa in Geneva, Illinois
Fabyan Villa (Photo credits: Steve Cukrov – stock.adobe.com)

Geneva

The town of Geneva is the quintessential quaint small town.

It’s located to the west of Chicago and is technically part of the Chicago suburbs. It’s quite close to the city which makes it easy to visit.

It makes a great day out. You can stroll throughout its historic district with beautiful well-preserved victorian houses, along the Fox River, and in several beautiful parks.

Highlights

  • You can explore the Geneva historic district and step into buildings that are over a century old, if not older.
  • Visit the Geneva History Museum to learn more about the area.
  • Explore the Fabyan Forest Preserve where you find a tranquil Japanese garden, a villa renovated by Frank Lloyd Wright, and a 5-storied Dutch windmill dating back to 1870.

When to go

Visit Geneva during the late spring and summer so you can take advantage of the nice summer weather and explore the outdoors.

How to get there

Geneva is located to the west of Chicago and is easily accessible via car or public transportation. To drive, head west on I-290 W before turning onto IL-38 W until you arrive in Geneva.

You can also take public transportation from Chicago by hopping on the UP-W train which will take you directly to Geneva.

The beautiful facade of the Opera Hall in Arcola, Illinois
The beautiful facade of the Opera Hall in Arcola

Arcola

Arcola, Illinois is located within a few hours of major cities, so it’s easy to get to. You can come to Arcola to experience a charming small town full of history – there are museums and the town’s Carnegie Library to visit.

It’s located in Amish country and is also known as the place where the Raggedy Ann doll was first created.

Highlights

  • Be sure to visit the Carnegie Library which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places
  • You can visit the Historic Illinois Central Train Depot and see some railroad memorabilia from the town’s history
  • Keep an eye out for mentions or depictions of Raggedy Ann – the famous doll was first created in Arcola over a century ago!

When to go

Arcola is great to visit during the summer and the autumn, but if you can narrow it down and visit during Labor Day, you should do it.

The town has a festival during that weekend that includes a parade and other festivities.

How to get there

You can drive in two hours to Arcola from Chicago, or Indianapolis, Indiana. There is also a small regional airport called the Willard Airport in Champaign, Illinois. To drive to Arcola from Willard Airport, drive south on US-45 S and you will arrive in town in 30 minutes.

The peaceful little town of Lebanon after dark
The peaceful little town of Lebanon, Illinois after dark

Lebanon

Despite being a small town with a population of 4,256, Lebanon, Illinois still has a lot going on due to the fact that it’s a college town.

It’s home to the oldest college in the state of Illinois, McKendree University.

It is a pretty small town located in the Southern Illinois which is also often referred to as Little Egypt.

European Immigrants saw similarities in the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio river with the Nile Delta.

That also explains the name of this town and many others in the region. For example, neighboring towns go by the names of Cairo, Palestine, and Sparta.

The university with the area directly around it, two residential areas, the city’s main commercial area, and the Emerald Mound and Village Site, an archeological site on the city’s edge, are the five main areas that make up the Lebanon Historic District.

This archaeological site was a satellite village of Cahokia, the most influential settlement of the Mississippian culture. It is registered as a historic place in 1971.

Highlights

  • You can tour the Mermaid House Hotel which was built in 1830, a wonderful historic hotel that once hosted famed author Charles Dickens.
  • The Emerald Mound and Village Site is also worth a visit, a pre-Columbian architectural site where you can learn more about the history of the region.
  • Stroll along Brick street, the main street in the historic shopping district. The street is lined with antique stores, restaurants and bars.

When to go

For a more isolated experience, visit during the summer when there are fewer students at the university.

That said, if you choose to visit during the times where the school is in session, you’ll still be able to enjoy the area without significant crowds as the number of students who attend the university is under 2,500.

How to get there

Lebanon is located in the southern part of Illinois, along Route 64. It is much closer to St. Louis than it is to Chicago.

You can drive along I-55 S from Chicago to Lebanon. That journey would take over 4 hours. You can fly into St. Louis Lambert International Airport and drive from there along I-70 E. From there, you’ll take I-64 E and take exit 19B to arrive in Lebanon.

Getting there from St. Louis takes under half an hour.

Here is an overview of more Southern Illinois tourist attractions.

The Mount Carroll courthouse in the pretty little town of Carroll in Illinois
The Mount Carroll townhouse is listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Mount Carroll

The town of Mount Carroll has a high elevation and keeps the record for the coldest city in Illinois because of record low winter temperature of -38 degrees Fahrenheit. The town often has very cold winters but in summer the temperatures rise to a comfortable 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

Its structure and layout may remind you of New England, and many of its over 80 historically significant structures are incredibly well-preserved. 

The town has always kept its yesteryear charm. It only counts about 1,500 residents and they claim their streets look exactly the same as they did when they were young.

You will find a town with a bohemian vibe, many artists and artisans have settled in the area and there is a good chance that you can attend a music event during your visit.

Highlights

  • See a play at the Timber Lake Playhouse. This local favorite was built in the 1960s – it had to be rebuilt in the 1970s after a fire so even though the structure isn’t original, the traditions and passion for live entertainment are!
  • Visit the haunted Raven’s Grin Inn
  • Attend a live music event
  • See the beautiful architecture as you walk through town.

When to go

The cold temperatures in the winter aren’t extreme by some standards so Mount Carroll is possible to visit during the winter months.

That said, it’s best to visit in the spring, summer or autumn to enjoy the town at its best. The Timber Lake Playhouse season typically runs from June to September.

How to get there

Mount Carroll is located on the western border of Illinois and is almost directly west of Chicago. It is close to the Mississippi River.

To drive to Mount Carroll from Chicago, head west on I-88 W and take exit 104 to continue onto I-64 W, and then US-52 W to arrive in Mount Carroll.

Nauvoo Mormon Temple. Nauvoo is one of the best small towns in Illinois to visit.
The impressive reconstructed Mormon temple in Nauvoo (Photo credits: Entheta)

Nauvoo

In 1844, the town of Nauvoo had a population of 12,000. This may not sound like much, but this was the same as the population of Chicago at the time.

While the number of people living in Chicago has grown exponentially since then, Nauvoo’s population has only declined and stands at just 1000 today.

The city had its glory days when it was Mormon, the LDS temple that still stands over the city is proof of that. The temple was reconstructed in 2000 but the exterior is an exact replica of the original one.

Highlights

  • Nauvoo is famous for its Mormon history – you can visit the reconstructed Nauvoo Temple  and other sites around the town to learn more about it
  • Nature lovers can also make a day trip to Nauvoo State Park where they can go hiking, fishing, and boating

When to go

There is no bad time to visit Nauvoo. If you have to narrow it down, a visit in the springtime is particularly beautiful.

How to get there

Nauvoo is a 4.5-hour drive from Chicago, but the easiest way to arrive in this small town is to fly into the Southeast Iowa Regional Airport and drive from there. Flights between Chicago and Southeast Iowa Regional Airport are offered by Air Choice One.

From the airport, you can drive on US-61 S. and then turn onto IL-96 S and continue until you arrive in Nauvoo.

Statue of President Ulysses S. Grant in the Galena Grant Park
Statue of President Ulysses S. Grant in the Galena Grant Park

Galena

The town of Galena is named for the mineral that was mined here long ago, and the town is just as beautiful as the metallic crystal it’s named for.

The town is really rich in history. It has over 800 properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places and its Main Street is regularly recognized as one of America’s best by renowned publications such as Travel+Leisure.

The buildings lining Main Street date back to the 1800s.

It’s located in the northwest corner of the state and is a great destination for outdoor living.

You can do kayak and SUP tours on the Galena River and nearby Apple River Canyon State Park is a great place for hiking or fishing.

In short, it’s one of the best small towns in Illinois to live in.

Highlights

  • The home of President Ulysses S. Grant is located in Galena and is open for tours.
  • This small town has a big history – there are over 800 sites within Galena that are on the National Register of Historic Places.
  • Galena’s Main Street is well-known and notable, and walking down the streets and visiting the many local shops is the quintessential small-town experience.
  • The Thunder Bay Falls are just 10 minutes from downtown Galena.

When to go

Galena is especially beautiful in the late summer/early autumn as the vivid colors make the town even more beautiful than it already is.

How to get there

Galena is located in the far northwest corner of Illinois. It’s about a three-hour drive from Chicago, but the most convenient way to get to Galena is from the Dubuque Regional Airport. American offers flights from Chicago.

From the airport, drive north on US-61 N before turning right onto US-20 E/Dodge St/US Hwy 20 W.

Follow this road until you arrive in Galena.

Read Also:

If you are looking for amazing canyons in Illinois, click here.

The Quincy Memorial Bridge
The Quincy Memorial Bridge

Quincy

Quincy, Illinois is quite large compared to some of the small towns on this list – its current population is about 40,000. It used to be a thriving transportation hub with riverboats and trains connecting the city to many economic hotspots in the 19th century.

The welfare attracted many immigrants and today you can still witness the prosperity that the city knew back then.

The city has several historic districts, one being the South Side German Historic District. In its streets, you can see the rich German architecture.

As you wander through this town’s streets you will also come along several colorful mural paintings that offer a glimpse of the businesses that were once there.

Quincy is a perfect option if you want to experience a small town without going too far off the beaten path.

Highlights

  • Stop by the Villa Kathrine – this tourist information center is a sight to see all on its own due to its beautiful Mediterranean architectural style
  • Visit the Quincy Museum for a glimpse at what life was like in Quincy in the old days.

When to go

Visit Quincy in the late spring or early summer for the best experience.

How to get there

Quincy, Illinois is located southwest of Chicago, along the border with Missouri formed by the Mississippi river.

Drive south on I-55 and continue onto I-172 N. Take exit 2 for IL-57 to Marblehead. Follow this road to Quincy.

The DeKalb County Courthouse in Sycamore
The DeKalb County Courthouse in Sycamore

Sycamore

Sycamore, Illinois was first established in 1835 when the first European settlers arrived in the area.

In the time since then, Sycamore has grown but has never had a significant population boom. It has, instead, grown steadily and retained its small-town charm through the years.

The Sycamore historic district is formed around the DeKalb Courthouse and the city’s public library among other beautiful historical and Victorian houses, several of them Queen Anne style mansions.

The listing in the National Register of Historic Places includes over 200 properties.

Highlights

  • Read a book at the Sycamore Public Library, which is a Carnegie Library.

When to go

Visit Sycamore in the autumn – you can enjoy the beautiful reds and golds of the leaves, and you can attend the Sycamore Pumpkin Festival.

How to get there

Sycamore is west of Chicago and easy to drive to. Simply drive west on I- 88 W and take exit 94 and continue and you will arrive in Sycamore.

The Carnegie Public Library in the little town of Greenville, Illinois
The Greenville Public Library (Photo credits: Jerrye and Roy Klotz MD)

Greenville

The quaint small town of Greenville has a population of about 7,000 and is notable for being one of the oldest communities in the state of Illinois.

It’s home to Greenville University and has many of the benefits of being a small college town including a younger population and a lot of things to do.

The town’s public library is also funded by Andrew Carnegie and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Highlights

  • Visit the Richard Bock Museum – Bock was a sculptor and associate of Frank Lloyd Wright.
  • The DeMoulin museum was once focused on the then booming number of secret societies. In their museum they showcase gag devices, steampunk gadgets, gizmos and more that have been produced for the special initiation sessions of these societies. The also began producing robes and uniforms for these societies that are also on display. Today the company is still active but it is now producing uniforms for bands and companies.

When to go

The town can be visited year-round. There are a number of festivals and events in the Spring, Summerand Autumn months, such as the Living History Days, the Harvest festival and the Hummingbird festival, which can add some flair to a visit.

Starting the weekend following Thanksgiving, the town gets in the holiday mood with various Christmas light displays at the courthouse and throughout town.

How to get there

Greenville is located in the southern part of the state of Illinois and is closer to St. Louis than it is to Chicago. Drive from the St. Louis Lambert International Airport on I-70 E and take exit 41 on US -40 E. Continue to Greenville.

This Red Covered Bridge is in the National Register of Historic Places.  It is a little outside of Princeton, one of the best small towns in Illinois.
This Red Covered Bridge dates back to 1863 and is still in use. It can be found a little outside Princeton.(Photo Credits; Tom Gill)

Princeton

The picturesque town of Princeton was initially settled by people coming from New England in the 1800s. Nowadays the city is a popular satellite town of Chicago, partly thanks to the Amtrak Station. The city has been growing, albeit slowly, and counts almost 8000 residents.

This small town is a great place to go to learn more about the history of the area and experience the charm of small-town life. The northern as well as the southern part of main street are well-preserved and listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Highlights

  • Walk down Princeton’s picturesque main street that is lined with historic structures and is historic in itself!
  • Catch a movie in the Apollo Theater, open since 1883
  • Visit the Lovejoy Homestead, which was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The underground railroad was the name for a network of secret routes used to help slaves escape to slave-free states, Mexico or other places were slavery was abolished.

When to Go

Visit Princeton during the second week of September so you can attend the Homestead Festival which includes beer gardens, barbeques, craft stations, and booths where local artisans can sell their wares.

How to get there

Princeton is located west of Chicago. To drive here, head west on I-80 W and take exit 3 onto US-6 W. The trip takes just under two hours without traffic.

Conclusion

This list of 15 charming small cities in Illinois can be visited alone or can be added as stops along the way if you’re planning a road trip through the state.

These cool towns in Illinois are vastly underrated and when you visit you’ll be blown away by the history, rich cultural heritage, and fantastic natural attractions that each of these towns offers.

If you are looking for more nature destinations in Illinois have a look at the following posts.

View the web story that accompanies this article.

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