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Things to do in Central Illinois: 16 fun activities you shouldn’t miss

Plan the perfect trip with our list of top things to do in Central Illinois.

While the “Prairie State” is famed for its National parks to the south and the great city of Chicago to the west, there are endless Central Illinois attractions for travelers of all ages and interests. 

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The Capital building in Springfield

Fun things to do in Central Illinois

Here is a list of the most fun things to do in Central Illinois.

Explore Springfield

Springfield, Illinois is a vibrant city full of effervescent street art, a growing craft beer scene, and rich history.

Not only is it the city where Lincoln raised his family prior to his presidency or where former President Obama announced his candidacy, but it’s also the capital of the great state of Illinois.

You’ll find the original Old State Capitol Hall, built in 1837, standing tall in a Greek-revival style.

This is the building where Lincoln spent much of his time as a lawyer and as a politician.

He famously delivered his “House Divided” speech here in 1858 and established headquarters for his presidential campaign in 1860.

As the state grew, so did the need for a larger legislative building. The Illinois State Capitol that is still used today was constructed in 1877 in a Renaissance Revival and Second Empire style. It’s topped with a 405-foot dome and impressive architectural details throughout.

The Lincoln home in Springfield
The Lincoln home in Springfield

Learn more about Abraham Lincoln

Even if you aren’t a history buff, the United States’ 16th president has a fascinating story and Springfield is filled with a variety of experiences to immerse yourself in 19th-century American culture.

At the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum, history is brought to life through immersive displays and hi-tech shows and exhibits.

Visitors of every age are bound to find Lincoln’s story and the human costs of slavery and war to be both compelling and harrowing.

Beyond the museum are a number of sites that you can visit that were instrumental in Lincoln’s life.

One of which is his family home which is free to visit. The Lincoln Home National Historic Site is where he and his wife, Mary, raised their children for over seventeen years before his presidency.

Here is a list with more historic places to visit in Illinois.

Today, the general public is able to walk through his well-preserved bedrooms, kitchen, and servant’s area.

Similarly, you can also travel to Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site which is a reconstruction of the village of New Salem where Lincoln lived from 1831 to1837.

In addition to the museums and tours, you can also visit Lincoln’s mausoleum where three of his four children, he, and his wife are laid to rest.

The 117-foot-tall granite tomb is situated in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield surrounded by towering oak trees and an impressive memorial.

Where to stay in Springfield: The Inn at 835 Boutique Hotel lies close to a majority of the historic sites. It is a great place to stay while exploring Springfield.

The beautiful facade of the Opera Hall in Arcola, Illinois
The Opera Hall in Arcola (Photo credits: Jimmy Emmerson)

Stroll around a small town

One of the top free things to do in central Illinois is exploring the charming towns surrounding Springfield.

Two notable small towns include Quincy and Arcola.

Quincy

Downtown Quincy looks straight out of a movie with its charming local shops and picturesque views of the Mississippi River.

While the town may be small, it is filled with historical buildings, more than 100 local landmarks, and 20 sites on the National Register of Historic Places.

Here you can read more about Quincy and what there is to do.

Arcola

Similarly, the town of Arcola is the quintessential ‘small town USA’ scene as well as the entrance to Illinois Amish Country.

Take a walk down the original brick road of their main street past an abundance of antique stores and art shops selling handcrafted local Amish furniture and baked goods.

Past the shops, you’ll find fresh country air, festivals, old-fashioned farming, and horse-drawn buggies.

If you’re looking for more unique things to do in Central Illinois such as this, make sure to check out this post with many more quaint small towns.

Welcome to Lincoln Trail State Park (photo credits: Dual Freq)

Explore a state park in Central Illinois

Illinois may not have internationally acclaimed national parks like the Grand Canyon, instead, you get many wonderful state parks without the influx of international tourists.

Beaver Dam State Park

Beaver Dam State Park boasts over 750 acres of oak and hickory woodland, lake, and marsh.

Beaver Dam is a great spot for camping, fishing, picnicking, and immersing yourself in nature.

This includes over eight miles of hiking and an archery range that is free of charge.

Fox Ridge State Park

While the majority of Illinois, particularly central Illinois, is famously flat, Fox Ridge is a heavily forested park located on the rolling hills near the Embarras River.

This park is perfect for hiking, especially for those looking for a challenge. Its steep ridges, rugged trails, and scenic bluffs make for the perfect outdoor adventure.

Kickapoo State Park

Kickapoo State Park is located in Vermilion County near Danville.

This was once a barren plot of land, heavily mined and stripped for coal production.

However, the last fifty years have seen the rebirth of the natural vegetation and forestry of the area, resulting in lush forests, fields of wildflowers, and crystal-clear ponds.

Visitors can choose to run or hike its trails, go fishing or hunting, canoeing or camping, or even go scuba diving. 

Lincoln Trail State Park

Lincoln Trail State Park is named after the trail Abraham Lincoln and his family traveled from Indiana to Illinois in 1831.

However, this land historically belonged to the Miami, Kickapoo, and Mascouten Native American groups until it was ceded to the United States in the early 19th century.

Visitors enjoy the Beechwood forests, wildflowers, and a wide range of outdoor recreational activities that can be found here.

Railsplitter State Park

Railsplitter State Park offers one of the quietest and most peaceful destinations in central Illinois.

It’s located along Salt Creek in Logan County and is surrounded by the largest sycamore trees in Illinois.

This is a perfect place for birdwatching, wildlife sighting, and admiring an abundance of local plant species and trees.

If you are looking for more amazing State Parks in Illinois, check out this post.

Grandview Drive
A grand view from Grandview Drive (photo credits: Randy von Liski)

Take a scenic drive

There is no road more iconic than the famous Route 66 that just so happens to wind through Springfield.

Route 66 is one of the original highways in the U.S. Highway system constructed in 1926.

Some of the route’s most famous stops in central Illinois include the Cozy Dog Drive-in, Mahan’s Filling Station, Lauterbach Giant, the Route 66 Drive-in Theater, and the Motorheads & Ace Sign Co. Museum.

Another popular route is Grandview Drive in the city of Peoria. President Roosevelt named this the “world’s most beautiful drive” in the year 1910 for its stunning views.

Although it’s short, it’s an itinerary must if you’ll be in Central Illinois.

For more scenic drive inspiration, check out our list of top scenic drives through the state.  

The paddlewheel boat Spirit of Peoria

Take a Cruise

One of the best ways to enjoy the Mississippi and Illinois rivers is to set out on a cruise.

This is a unique opportunity to enjoy a peaceful experience on the water while enjoying wildlife and landmark sightings and gaining a historical perspective of the river.

Cruises such as The Spirit of Peoria offer a variety of cruise options to fit your preferences.

These include a variety of different themes, durations, and destinations. For example, the Starved Rock 3-day cruise offers a chef’s prime rib dinner, live entertainment, and tours of the famous National Park, all while traveling on a unique paddleboat.

Other excursions take you as far as Hannibal Missouri, the home of author Mark Twain, on a 5-day adventure. 

Obed Isaac's Microbrewery Peoria Illinois
(photo credits: Obed & Isaac’s Microbrewery )

Have a beer

Obed & Isaac’s Microbrewery, Springfield

Stop by Obed & Isaac’s where you’ll find delicious, award-winning beers that are brewed on-site and a mouthwatering menu served al fresco style on their expansive patio or inside their historic dining room.

You’ll find a variety of ciders, ales, and IPA’s as well as family recipes and endless live entertainment.

This historic home’s story begins 150 years ago when married couple Obed Lewis and Cordelia Iles set out to build a family home just a block away from their friends and neighbors, Abraham and Mary Lincoln.

The present-day owners of the property are the couple’s great-great-grandson and his wife who unfortunately could not restore the original house but were able to move a similar Lincoln-era home, the Isaac family home, onto their property and get started sharing local history and serving delicious family-made beers.

(photo credits: Decatur Brew Works)

Decatur Brew Works

Decatur Brew Works is the genius of longtime friends Dreux Lewandowski and Micah Koll, the owners of the first brewery in Decatur in nearly 100 years.

Located in the historic Haines and Essick building in downtown Decatur, Brew Works offers a wide variety of their own home-brewed craft beers as well as a fully functioning taproom with hand-selected draught beers as well.

The owners, who are highly experienced brewers, happen to only be experienced in beverages, not in food.

As a result, visitors are encouraged to bring their own food or have it delivered if you’re looking for a bite to eat, and Brew Works will supply the drinks.

If you are looking for more Illinois breweries, check out this post.

The botanical garden in Washington Park
The botanical garden in Washington Park ( photo credits: Jeremy Wilburn)

Visit a botanical garden

Washington Botanical Garden

Both locals and visitors enjoy traveling to the Washington Botanical Garden to enjoy its peaceful natural surroundings and scenic greenery.

Here you’ll find vibrant flower beds, blooming rose gardens, and over 1800 species of plants and trees on the garden’s twenty acres of land.

This includes large exhibits and an indoor greenhouse showcasing a variety of plants from warm climates.

Starhill Forest Arboretum

If you’re in Menard County, Illinois, Starhill Forest Arboretum is a beautiful stop to admire the area’s natural beauty.

The property is over fifty acres of preserved forestry that is privately owned by the Sternberg family since the year 1976.

The family has dedicated their lives to studying and protecting the wide variety of tree and plant species found on site, while also making their land the official teaching and research arboretum of Illinois College as well as a place of enjoyment to the public.

George L. Luthy Memorial Botanical Garden

The Luthy Memorial Botanical Garden was established in 1951 in Peoria, Illinois in Glen Oak Park.

Its 4.5 acres offer a tranquil destination to view fifteen themed gardens, exhibits, classes, floral shows, and a tropical conservatory.

Some of the shows and themed gardens include the Orchid Show, Poinsettia Show, Rose Garden, and Woodland Garden to name a few.

Dana Thomas House (photo credits: Randy von Liski)

Tour a historic mansion

Governor’s Mansion

The Illinois Governor’s Mansion is not your average governor’s residence.

Its 1855 construction makes it the third oldest in the country and the oldest in the Midwest.

It was originally designed by John Mills Van Osdel and underwent changes over time.

For example, the original red brick was painted in order to more closely resemble the White House, and in 1898 the mansion was renovated in the Classical Revival Style.

Dana Thomas House Foundation

The Dana Thomas House is the architectural masterpiece of renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the most complete example of Wright’s “Prairie” home design.

Not only does the house feature wright’s unique craftsmanship through original glass doors, elaborate murals, and terracotta creations, but it also showcases the vast wealth of socialite Susan Lawrence Dana whom the house was designed in the year 1902.

Inside you’ll find 12,000 square feet of space and thirty-five rooms, each filled with original fixtures and furniture, including a lamp worth more than 2.5 million dollars today.

The home belongs to the Illinois Tourist Board which oversees its preservation and organizes tours for the public.

David Davis Mansion
David Davis Mansion

David Davis Mansion

David Davis was a dear friend, professional mentor, and dedicated campaign manager to President Abraham Lincoln who went on to appoint him as US Supreme Court Justice in 1862.

Davis’ three-story house, also known as Clover Lawn, is a stunning display of mid-Victorian style featuring Italianate and Second Empire architectural features designed by architect Alfred Piquenard.

The tour takes you through thirty-six rooms that house original furniture.

Outside there’s also the carriage barn, stable, and flower garden.

See giraffes in Peoria zoo

Head to the zoo

Going to the zoo is one of the most kid-friendly things to do in Central Illinois that parents and teens will enjoy as well.

Luckily, Central Illinois has many zoos to choose from!

Peoria Zoo

The Peoria Zoo is a historical institution with a mission to provide an enriching connection with the animals through conservation, excellent animal care, and educational programs.

Dating all the way back to the late 1800s when a herd of elk was donated to the Peoria Park District, over time the “zoo” took on a more professional approach.

Today the zoo has over 230 different animals ranging from exotic birds to African lions.

Address: 2320 N. Prospect Rd, Peoria, IL 61603

The rainforest exhibit at the Miller Park Zoo
The rainforest exhibit at the Miller Park Zoo (photo credits: Taylor Studios inc)

Miller Park Zoo

Miller Park Zoo is located in Bloomington, Illinois, and began when a circus cub was found on a local farm in the year 1900.

Since then, Miller Park Zoo has grown to become a premier zoo with additions like the Woodland Wing, a Tropical Rainforest Exhibit, a Wolf Exhibit, the Wallaby Walkout, Animals of Asia, and Zoolab.

It also happens to have the most animals in Central Illinois totaling over 638 animals.

Address: 1020 S Morris Ave, BloomingtonIL 61701

There are 4 cheetahs in Scovill zoo and they are named after the characters in the movie Guardians of the Galaxy.

Scovill Zoo

Hop aboard the Z.O&O Express Train, enjoy a family picnic, and learn about over 400 animals from around the world at Decatur’s Scovill Zoo.

Scovill is not only home to both domestic and exotic species, but you’ll also have the chance to enjoy a number of additional unique features, such as the Scovill Sculpture Park, the horticultural displays and gardens, and numerous educational programs.

Address: 71 S. Country Club Rd. · Decatur, IL 62521.

Soderstrom castle
Soderstrom castle (photo credits: Soderstrom castle)

Go to see a castle

Soderstrom Castle

“The Castle” is the work of prominent architect L. Eugene Robinson who went to work in 1929 to design the perfect European-style castle for the Lusk family.

Located in Peoria, Illinois, the landmark castle is a unique combination of medieval turrets, gothic arches, huge stone fireplaces, and undeniable character and charm.

This charm is especially true around Halloween where a long tradition of unique goodies, live music, and entertainment has withstood multiple owners.

If Soderstrom Castle seems like a fun thing to do in Central Illinois, make sure to check out even more castles found throughout the state on our post.

Illinois State Museum
Illinois State Museum

Visit a museum

Whether you’d like to learn more about the state and its history or you’re looking for interesting things to do in Central Illinois in the winter, there’s a huge variety of museums in the region.

Illinois State Museum

Dive into the unique history of the State of Illinois’ Springfield Museum where you’ll learn about its land, people, art, and culture.

Its location just a block away from the Illinois State Capitol makes for a perfect day for immersing oneself in Illinois history.

Some of the exhibits you’ll find inside include the dioramas of Native American Life, and archeological and ethnographic artifacts from different historical periods.

Address: 502 South Spring Street, Springfield, IL 62706

Krannert Art Museum
Krannert Art Museum

Krannert Art Museum

Located in Champaign, Illinois, Krannert Art Museum is 48,000 square feet of fine art that serves the University of Illinois.

As one of the top things to do in East Central Illinois, Krannert offers a rich collection of programs, exhibits, and over 11,000 pieces from across the globe that date back as far as the 4th century BCE.

Expect to find an inspiring number of masterpieces ranging from modern contemporary media to diverse works from numerous cultures.

Address: 500 East Peabody Drive, Champaign, IL 61820

Peoria Riverfront Museum

Downtown Peoria’s public riverfront museum features art, science, history, and technology.

You won’t find another multidisciplinary museum like this one anywhere else in the country. Committed to inspiring lifelong learning, the Peoria Museum offers interactive galleries, a dome planetarium, a giant screen theater, major exhibitions, and more.

Each of these unique aspects combines to create over one million different experiences throughout the museum, all the while offering stunning views of the Illinois River.

Address: 222 SW Washington St, Peoria, IL 61602

The Caterpillar Visitor Center
The Caterpillar Visitor Center (photo credits: Janet Tarbox)

Caterpillar Visitors Center

If you’re thinking this is a butterfly-related museum, think again.

As a Midwesterner would know, Caterpillar is a leading manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, and their bright yellow machinery can be spotted across the globe.

Since the company knows a thing or two about machinery, you’re in for a unique museum experience.

Begin with a virtual ride in the bed of a 2 and a half story mining truck before testing out their simulators and putting your engineering skills to the test with your very own designs.

This is guaranteed to be a one-of-a-kind experience you won’t want to miss.

Address: 110 S.W. Washington Street, Peoria, IL 61602

Do you love exploring museums? Check out this list of the best Illinois museums. 

Grab a bite to eat

Motorheads

Motorheads is a landmark restaurant off Route 66 serving hearty American breakfast classics in the morning and traditional pub-style meals throughout the day.

Beyond the delicious food, Motorheads has a truly unique atmosphere, designed with car and racing enthusiasts in mind as well as an appreciation for the historic area and the generations that have dined at Motorheads.

The space is littered with nostalgic memorabilia as well as an entire museum filled with automotive artifacts, collectibles, and memorabilia from Route 66 and Springfield. 

Sign for the Cozy Dog Drive-In
The iconic Cozy Dog Drive-In along Route 66 (photo credits: Tydence Davis)

Cozy Dog Drive-In

The Cozy Dog Drive-In offers a trip down memory lane in its memorabilia-laden, 50’s style diner.

This famous spot along Route 66 has been serving its famous corn dogs since 1946 when Ed Waldmire Jr. and his wife opened the family business after inventing the original hot dog on a stick.

Today, the restaurant, décor, and long counter remain largely unchanged, a relic of the past, and it has also stayed in the family, as Ed’s grandson continues the family tradition.

Play a round of golf
Play a round of golf

Play golf

If you’re looking for cool things to do in Central Illinois, why not head to the golf course. This region is filled with a diverse range of courses.

If you’re an experienced golfer, Coyote Creek in Bartonville and Weaver Ridge Golf Club in Peoria are both championship-caliber golf courses with high USGA ratings and fantastic facilities. Other notable courses include Lick Creek in Pekin and Newman in Peoria.

If you’re simply looking to get a tee time or you’re a beginner, Pine Lakes in Washington is a public course suitable for all skill levels due to its generous fairways.

Not to mention, the views are pretty stunning and it’s a great place to grab a drink after a long game.

The Devil Ray in Knights Action Park (photo credits: Knights Action Park)

Visit a water park

Knight’s Action Park in Springfield is a 65-acre water and amusement park. It features 8 water slides, a splash playground, a wave pool, and plenty of other activities that the whole family can enjoy.

This has become the main attraction for waterparks in Central Illinois.

Here is a list of more amazing waterparks in Illinois.

Lake Springfield, one of the best lakes to Kayak in Illinois
Lake Springfield (photo credits: straightedge217)

Go Kayaking

Central Illinois is home to some amazing rivers and lakes that are perfect for kayaking.

Go paddling on Lake Springfield, Lake Decatur, or Lake Shelbyville, or visit Moraine View State Park for a kayaking weekend,

Here is an overview of the best kayaking spots in central Illinois.

Conclusion

Central Illinois has a huge range of outdoor, adventure, historical, and cultural activities fit for every traveler of all ages.

Our wide range of suggested activities guarantee a unique travel experience and an in-depth local experience of Central Illinois.

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