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11 southern Illinois towns that are worth a visit

Are you looking for the best southern Illinois towns? We have you covered. 

Southern Illinois is home to incredible wineries, historic landmarks, and cultural attractions that make it an amazing and often underrated place to visit.

You can plan a trip that focuses on the entire region or plan some pitstops along the way to your larger destination thanks to the proximity of these towns to larger cities like Chicago and St. Louis.

If you’re planning a trip to Southern Illinois and wondering which towns you should add to your itinerary, this article covers some of the best.

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Best towns in southern Illinois

Here you can find an overview of the towns in southern Illinois that are worth a visit.

Southern Illinois towns that are worth a visit

Highlights
Lincoln theatre in Belleville, Illinois Belleville

Visit the downtown area of Belleville during your visit and experience the charming boutiques, cafes, and other local businesses housed in historic structures

Cahokia Mounds Collinsville

See the world’s largest ketchup bottle when you visit the Brooks Catsup Bottle water tower or learn more about the pre-history of the region by visiting Cahokia Mounds.

The Altgeld Hall in Carbondale Carbondale

Go for a hike through the incredible Shawnee National Forest and admire the natural beauty of the region or visit nearby wineries.

The intermittent waterfall at the start of the Rocky Bluff Trail in the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge Marion

Visit the Orchard National Wildlife refuge or explore the Mandala Gardens.

Blue Sky winery Makanda

Explore local businesses at the Makanda Boardwalk, go wine tasting or visit Giant City State Park.

Hot air balloons in Centralia Centralia

See the many murals that are painted throughout Centralia. There are several, each with its own significance and history.

An abandoned house in Cairo, Illinois Cairo

Explore the town of Cairo and view the abandoned structures.

The first bank in Old Shawneetown Old Shawneetown

Visit the John Marshall House Museum to learn about the history of the region.

Lincoln Douglas Debate Square Alton

Walk the Lincoln & Civil War Legacy Trail to learn about Abraham Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln, and the countless Civil War soldiers who spent time in Alton.

The Grafton zipline Grafton

Grafton has plenty of attractions. Exploring Pere Marquette State Park, taking a river cruise, or riding the aerial-lift are just a few of the many things you can do.

Franklin County Historic Jail Museum Benton

See the George Harrison mural in the city – the Beatles lead guitarist vacationed in Benton with his family prior to the band’s surge in American popularity.

Lincoln theatre in Belleville, Illinois. One of the best towns in southern Illinois to visit.
The Lincoln Theatre in Belleville (photo credits: Daniel X. O’Neill)

Popular southern Illinois towns you need to visit

Belleville

General description of the town

Belleville is southern Illinois’ most populated city which ensures there are many things to do when you visit.

It’s just a quick twenty-five-minute drive east from St. Louis, Missouri.

It was named Belleville by its founder, Scottish-born George Blair, who chose the French phrase meaning “Beautiful City” to represent this new settlement.

Highlights

  • Visit the downtown area of Belleville during your visit and experience the charming boutiques, cafes, and other local businesses housed in historic structures
  • Watch a movie or catch a live performance at the historic Lincoln Theater. Notable stars such as Ginger Rogers have graced the stage of this theater which has been sharing art and music with the citizens of Belleville since the 1920s.  

When to go

The best time to visit Belleville, Illinois would likely be during the early autumn months, specifically during October.

You’d get to enjoy the last days of the summer events such as the town’s farmers market as well as the fall foliage and cooler weather.

November and December are also lovely times to visit as you’ll get to experience Belleville’s holiday magic including their German-style Christmas market.

Cahokia Mounds
Cahokia Mounds

Collinsville

General description of the town

The charming small town of Collinsville in southern Illinois is notable for its beautiful surroundings and eccentric accolades, such as being the horseradish capital of the world.

Another quirky attraction is the Brooks Catsup Bottle water tower, which is a National Historic Landmark and the largest ketchup bottle in the world.

If you want to learn more about the region’s pre-history, you should visit Cahokia Mounds. Guided tours, as well as self-guided tours, are available.

Highlights

When to go

Visit during late August and early September to take advantage of the beautiful weather while you explore the considerable number of outdoor attractions Collinsville has to offer.

Small towns in southern Illinois

The Altgeld Hall in Carbondale
The Altgeld Hall in Carbondale (photo credits: Mark Jaroski)

Carbondale

General description of the town

Although Carbondale is a true small town, it has a lot to offer including a university, museums, restaurants, wineries, and cultural landmarks.

You can drive here from major cities like Chicago and St. Louis and it’s perfect for a weekend getaway or even a day trip. Although staying in town is a great way to enjoy the stunning beauty of this southern Illinois destination.

Highlights

  • Explore the campus of Southern Illinois University and learn about natural history when you visit the college’s onsite museum.
  • Go for a hike through the incredible Shawnee National Forest and admire the natural beauty of the region.
  • Visit nearby wineries. Illinois has a large number of incredible vineyards where you can sample the products and learn about winemaking – some even offer overnight accommodations! Click here to learn more about wineries in southern Illinois.

When to go

Visit Carbondale during the early autumn months so you will get to enjoy the fall foliage while you visit the nearby wineries and explore the town itself.

The intermittent waterfall at the start of the Rocky Bluff Trail in the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge
The Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge (Photo credits: US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Marion

General description of the town

The charming small town of Marion, Illinois used to be a prime destination for shopping. The retail center has been closed for some years now but that is no reason to disregard this fabulous town. You’ll find plenty of museums and outdoor parks to enjoy when you visit.

Highlights

  • The Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge is a prime destination for bird watching in summer. In the Fall you will be able to see white-tailed deer and if you’re really lucky you might even spot a bobcat.
  • Learn about Marion’s past when you visit the Williamson County Historical Museum and Library. The museum contains historic artifacts and time period-themed rooms so you can really get an idea of what life was like when Marion was first founded.
  • Explore the Mandala Gardens. It’s a perfect place to relax, unwind, and soak in the beauty of the outdoors.

When to Go

Autumn is a great time to visit Marion as there is a fall festival and the Mandala Gardens are especially beautiful that time of year.

Blue Sky winery
The Blue Sky winery in Makanda (Photo credits: Blue Sky Winery)

Makanda

General description of the town

The quaint historic town of Makanda, Illinois is a charming destination in the southern part of the state.

Known for its small local businesses and for being a fantastic home base for anyone wishing to explore the Shawnee National Forest, Makanda is sure to be a wonderful destination for your next vacation.

Highlights

Read Also:

Here is an overview of more amazing Illinois State Parks. 

When to go

If you are planning a vacation for the year 2024, you should visit Makanda on April 8th.

Makanda is in the direct path of totality for the solar eclipse of 2024! It will be a popular location for many who are hoping to experience a total solar eclipse, similar to the eclipse that happened in August of 2017.

If you are planning on visiting Makanda during any other year, consider heading there during either the spring for the Makanda SpringFest or during the third weekend in October for the Makanda Vulture Fest which celebrates the migration of vultures to the region.

Hot air balloons in Centralia
The Hot Air Balloon Fest in Centralia (photo credits: Don Burkett)

Centralia

General description of the town

Centralia, Illinois is a moderately sized town with plenty to offer its visitors.

Centralia was established in the 1850s as a stop along the Illinois Central Railroad so the town also has a rich transportation history. The railroad company also gave its name to the city.

It’s home to a vibrant, artistic community and you can see that in the public art murals and the local historic theater.

Highlights

  • Learn about the history of the town when you visit the Centralia Area Historical Society Museum. The area has a rich history especially when it comes to mining, railroads, and even the American Civil War!
  • The historic Illinois Theatre is currently under renovation, but we recommend visiting as soon as the renovations are complete. This cultural landmark will have all new seating, air conditioning, and a modern lighting and sound system while in the same historical building from the early 20th century!
  • See the many murals that are painted throughout Centralia. There are several, each with its own significance and history.

When to go

The best time to visit Centralia is during the middle of August – not only is the weather fantastic during this time, but it’s also when the town’s annual Balloon Festival is held!

This celebration includes hot air balloons as well as live music, food, drinks, and family-friendly fun.

While these towns are amazing, they are certainly not the only ones worth visiting in Southern, Illinois. Lebanon, Elsah, and Greenville are just three other options. For more small towns in Illinois, check out this list.

Southern Illinois ghost towns

An abandoned house in Cairo, Illinois. Cairo is a ghost towns in southern Illinois.
An abandoned house in Cairo, Illinois

Cairo

General description of the town

Cairo is one of the southernmost cities in Illinois and although it is truly a ghost of its former self, around 2,000 residents remain.

The town was hit hard during the Great Depression and was quite a dangerous place to live – at one point, Cairo had the highest murder rate in Illinois and was a hotbed for organized crime.

This along with severe racial tensions made Cairo an unsafe place to live for many and these qualities enveloped the town, making it the largely abandoned town it is today.

Highlights

  • Explore the town of Cairo and view the abandoned structures. This is a great way to learn about Cairo’s history and take some incredible photographs of this historic area.
  • Tour Magnolia Manor, a fantastic example of postbellum architecture. This Victorian-era house museum is managed by the Cairo Historical Association.

When to go

There are not many notable events that occur in Cairo throughout the year, but if you visit during the spring and early summer you’ll have the best chance of experiencing the area with great weather.

The first bank in Old Shawneetown
The first bank in Old Shawneetown, dating back to 1841 (photo credits: cmh2315fl)

Shawneetown

General description of the town

Often called “Old Shawneetown,” this ghost town in Southern Illinois is currently home to a few hundred people.

It played a prominent role as an administrative headquarters for the United States government during the Revolutionary War and is only one of two towns that were ever chartered by the US government – the other is Washington, D.C.

The town is located on the banks of the Ohio River. The river flooded a lot and after a particularly large accident that flooded the entire town in 1937, most of the residents moved inland to create “New Shawneetown”.

Highlights

  • Visit the John Marshall House Museum to learn about the history of the region. The house was built for John Marshall, the owner of the very first bank of Illinois. Although this reconstruction isn’t accurate to the original, it’s a unique opportunity to learn about early Illinois history.

When to go

You can visit Old Shawneetown throughout the year but it’s recommended that you visit during the late summer as the weather tends to be most pleasant during this time.

Southern Illinois river towns

Statues where the Lincoln - Douglas debate was held in Alton
The place where the Lincoln – Douglas debate was held in Alton (photo credits: ksablan)

Alton

General description of the town

Alton was founded in 1803 and has a long and illustrious history.

Local restaurants, small boutiques, and unique landmarks make it a terrific spot to visit.

It’s also a great place to go if you’re interested in history as Alton played a prominent role in several chapters of United States history including the Civil War and the Underground Railroad.

Highlights

  • Explore historic structures like McPike Mansion, Mineral Springs Hotel, The First Unitarian Church, and Milton School. Not only are they fascinating ways to appreciate Alton’s past but they are also said to be extremely haunted.
  • Walk the Lincoln & Civil War Legacy Trail to learn about Abraham Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln, and the countless Civil War soldiers who spent time in Alton.
  • Spot bald eagles in winter. Here is an overview of more best things to do in winter in Illinois.

When to go

If you are interested in Alton’s reputation as the most haunted small town in America, you’ll likely want to visit in  October to take advantage of the additional ghost hunting events that take place during the pre-Halloween days.

There are ghost hunting events during the rest of the year but there are more choices when you visit in October.

The Grafton zipline
Zip through the trees at Aerie’s Resort (photo credits: Aerie’s Resort)

Grafton

Grafton, Illinois is a charming destination in the southern part of the state.

When you visit Grafton you’re sure to find something that you enjoy. If you love wine, Grafton has plenty of incredible vineyards with tasting rooms and restaurants you can visit.

There are also many other things to do such as ziplines, outdoor adventures, and eccentric cafes and breweries down by the riverside to explore.

 

Highlights

There are so many things to do in Grafton that it is difficult to mention a few highlights. Some of the highlights you shouldn’t miss include.

  • Explore Pere Marquette State park.
  • Visit a winery.
  • Take a river cruise.
  • Ride the aerial-lift.

Click here to learn more about all of the amazing things there are to do in Grafton, Illinois.

When to go

Grafton can be visited all year round. Spring is an amazing season to go hiking, biking, or horseriding.

In summer it can get quite hot. But have no fear, Grafton has plenty of activities where you can cool off. Visit the Raging Rivers water park, take a river cruise, or zip at the Grafton zipline.

Fall is an amazing time to drive the Great River Road or to visit one of the many wineries.

Visit in winter to spot bald eagles.

Franklin County Historic Jail Museum
Franklin County Historic Jail Museum (photo credits: J. Stephen Conn)

Southern Illinois lake towns

Benton

General description of the town

The small town of Benton, Illinois has a population of just over 6,000 and is a lovely place to head outside and explore the natural beauty that southern Illinois has to offer.

The beautiful shores of Rend Lake provide a stunning backdrop for a variety of outdoor activities.

Music and history lovers will find something unique in Benton for them as well – a George Harrison mural that commemorates the time the late Beatles guitarist spent in Benton.

Highlights

  • Go camping at the South Marcum campground. This campground is on the shore of Rend Lake and has both tent sites and camper sites. This is a great opportunity for any outdoor enthusiast.
  • Learn about the history of Benton, Illinois when you tour the Franklin County Historic Jail Museum. This fascinating structure has a selection of historic artifacts that you can see while taking a self-guided tour.
  • Shop for some vintage pieces at the County Seat Antique Mall. This fascinating store has a unique ever-changing inventory of household items, clothing, and more from various periods of history.
  • See the George Harrison mural in the city – the Beatles lead guitarist vacationed in Benton with his family prior to the band’s surge in American popularity and would later visit his sister Louise who had moved to the town. He spent time exploring Benton so you can walk in his footsteps when you visit as well.

When to go

The best time to visit Benton is the summer.

As there are many outdoor attractions, visiting in either the late or early summer will allow you to enjoy the best weather possible while exploring the town.

Conclusion

These towns in Southern Illinois each have something different to offer so whether you’re planning a trip to one or many of them, you are sure to have an incredible time.

If you love beautiful scenery, fantastic wine and beer, historic sites, cultural landmarks, and a vibrant and friendly community, Southern Illinois will have something for you.

See the web story that accompanies this post.