Skip to Content

17 amazing things to do in Northern Illinois ( cities, activities, and more)

Looking for things to do in Northern Illinois? We’ve got you covered.

Northern Illinois is a unique crossroads of culture, nature, and history. With a mix of metropolitan and regional areas, Northern Illinois has found the perfect balancing point.

The area has amazing state parks, waterfalls, and hiking trails, as well as unique historic sites and museums.

Here we have some of the best things to do in Northern Illinois.

This post may contain affiliate links. If you click one of them, we may receive a small commission (for which we are deeply grateful) at no extra cost to you.

Northern Illinois attractions

Here we share a list of cool things to do in Northern Illinois.

Garrison Elementary School in Rockford Illinois
This is the Garrison School, the oldest school building in Rockford, which dates back to 1887

Explore Rockford

The city of Rockford is located on the Rock River in Northern Illinois. It is the second-largest city in Illinois after Chicago.

Despite having a primarily industrial past, the city has made great strides in preserving art and cultural sites and is often referred to as the Forest City for its many parks and gardens.

There are many amazing museums, including the Rockford Art Museum which has both static and rotating exhibits throughout the year and focuses on Illinois-based artists of various mediums.

There are also unique shopping areas, such as the Main Street Antique Mall, a collection of 15 different antique shops, all selling historical memorabilia.

Rockford is a great place to enjoy the highlights of art and culture while still having a relaxing, natural environment.

If you love visiting cities, check out this list of other amazing cities in northern Illinois.

The Altgeld Hall of the Northern Illinoios University
The Altgeld Hall of the Northern Illinoios University in DeKalb (photo credits: artistmac)

Visit DeKalb

DeKalb is the home to Northern Illinois University.

It is also one of the larger cities of Northern Illinois with beautifully preserved architecture and museums.

Many of the original buildings of DeKalb have been maintained in their original condition and serve as a unique way to view the changing styles of architecture over the years.

This includes buildings such as the Egyptian Theater, which first opened in 1929, and the Ellwood House Museum, a Victorian mansion first built in the 1870s and altered by the Ellwood family into the early 20th Century.

There are also many contemporary and art museums in DeKalb, including the NIU Art Museum and Pick Museum of Anthropology.

DeKalb is a great getaway spot for a taste of history mixed in with an appreciation for art and culture.

St. Louis Canyon in Starved Rock State Park
St. Louis Canyon in Starved Rock State Park

Explore a State Park

Northern Illinois is blessed with a range of large, well-preserved, and beautiful state parks.

It is home to Starved Rock state park, possibly the most popular state park in Illinois.

With over 13 miles of hiking trails as well as areas for fishing, boating, photography, and more, Starved Rock is full of possibilities for fun and interesting activities.

Matthiessen State Park is quite close to Starved Rock and is perfect for adding into a double-park trip. The park features a great variety of local flora and fauna with many local wildlife species calling the park home.

These include white-tailed deer and various bird species.

Rock Cut state park is also in Northern Illinois and is ideal for outdoor activities, including biking, horse-riding, winter activities, and of course, hiking.

For more information on the best state parks in Illinois, see our post here.

The colorful foliage in Autumn in Starved Rock State Park is a must-see when you visit Northern Illinois
An autumn hike in Starved Rock

Go hiking

Illinois is ideal for hiking with the abundance of unique nature and interesting scenery.

The many state parks in Northern Illinois make it the perfect location for a hiking holiday.

We already mentioned Starved Rock state park and its many hiking trails. The park will delight walkers of all levels.

One of the most popular trails is the Starved Rock and Sandstone Point Overlook Trail, which is considered a moderate trail, but still achievable for beginners. The loop trail takes hikers past several scenic outlooks and landscapes.

With beautiful canyons, waterfalls, and more, it is an ideal hike for visitors to Starved Rock.

Dells Canyon and Bluff Trail in Matthiessen state park is another great beginner trail and ideal for first-time visitors to the area. In about an hour you will pass several of the highlights of the park, looping through the canyon with various creek crossings.

To find out more about the best hikes in Illinois, check out our previous post here. If you are specifically looking for hikes in northern Illinois, click here.

Cascade Falls in Matthiessen State Park
The Cascade Falls in Matthiessen State Park

Discover waterfalls

There are many beautiful waterfalls in Illinois, making for amazing views while exploring the abundant nature of the state.

Several of those waterfalls are located in the Northern part of the state.

You will find many types of waterfalls ranging from impressive cascading falls through to gentle stepstone waterfalls.

This means exploring various waterfalls never gets repetitive.

Some of the most popular waterfalls include Cascade Falls of Matthiessen State Park, a large waterfall in an amazing amphitheater setting, and Giant’s Bathtub Falls, also in Matthiessen State Park, a smaller set of connecting waterfalls with a relaxing and peaceful pool at the bottom.

There are also many waterfalls in Starved Rock state park, including the French Canyon Falls, just a short walk from the visitors’ center, making it perfect for family trips, and St. Louis Canyon Falls, one of the highest falls in the park, located in a dramatic gorge.

For more information on the best waterfalls of Illinois, see our post here.

Stumble upon historic sites

John Deere Historic Site
The John Deere Historic Site is restored to look exactly how it was in the old days (Photo credits: Ivo Shandor)

John Deere Historic site

The world-famous company John Deere was first founded in Northern Illinois in the mid-1830s by blacksmith and repairman John Deere.

The company was revolutionary with not only the invention of the self-scouring steel plow but also the unique (for the time) business model of manufacturing products before sales.

The John Deere historic site commemorates this pioneer of the industry by preserving the original Deere family home, first built in 1836.

The house has been maintained with period household items to accurately portray how the family and their live-in apprentices would have lived.

There is also a working blacksmith shop on site. The site is an ode to pioneer living as well as the unique figure of John Deere.

There is also a gift shop for memorabilia available.

Heritage Farm Museum

The Byron Forest Preserve is a sprawling property of prairies and woodland located on the Rock River.

They aim to preserve open spaces and the natural woodland of the area while providing activities for the community.

In this space is the Heritage Farm Museum, a collection of farm buildings from the mid-1800s, preserved to display what early farm life in the area was like.

There are 5 different buildings, each displaying a different aspect of farm life.

These include a grout house, barns (complete with ‘residents’), and more.

While visiting the farm you can follow workshops learning how to make cornbread, churn butter, and (seasonally) maple syrup and honey production.

The Heritage Farm Museum is a great activity for families or history enthusiasts looking to learn more about the area.

The Ellwood House Museum is well-preserved and well worth a visit on a Northern Illinois road trip
The well-preserved Ellwood House Museum (photo credits: Andy McMurray)

Ellwood House Museum

The Ellwood House Museum is a well-preserved site consisting of three different historic buildings from the late 1800s and four beautiful gardens.

These include the Ellwood Mansion, originally built for entrepreneur Isaac Ellwood and his family, the Ellwood-Nehring House, and a once multi-car garage turned into an exhibit space.

The museum offers guided tours from 30 minutes to 1 hour that cover several buildings on the property. The tours end in the visitor center where detailed exhibits about the Ellwood family can be seen, including the role they played in the historic life in the DeKalb region.

Tours are offered Wednesday – Saturday at 1 pm and 2 pm with additional times being added during the tourist season.

Tickets for the tour must be purchased at least one day prior.

Old Settlers log cabin

The Old Settlers Log Cabin is another historic site, but this time largely dedicated to the early settlers of the area. It is located on the property that was once Fort Dixon, which was a military base during the Black Hawk war.

On the property, there is a statue of Abraham Lincoln at 23 years old when he served as a volunteer during the Black Hawk war.

This is the only known statue of Abraham Lincoln in military attire.

The cabin is open to visitors on weekends and during the Dixon Petunia Festival, which is held over the 5 days preceding Independence Day (4th of July).

The Petunia Festival is a small festival that takes place in Dixon showcasing a parade, fireworks, local bands, and of course the petunias of the area.

Lincoln Douglas Debate Square
Lincoln Douglas Debate Square played a major role in US history (photo credits: benet2006)

Lincoln-Douglas debate square

This site is a pivotal site in regards to the early politics of America and the creating of an environment that lead to the Civil War.

On this site the Freeport Doctrine, a statement regarding slavery and state rights of the time, was proclaimed by Stephen A. Douglas in 1858. This happened during the second of the famous debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.

It created a division in the Democratic Party between the North and the South and allowed Abraham Lincoln to win the 1860 election.

This divided atmosphere and Lincoln’s Presidential win ultimately led to the start of the Civil War.

The site has a number of waysides describing the events and issues surrounding the debate and how it fits into American history.

The site has a relaxed park setting with benches and walks to enjoy as well as the historical elements.

The Graham Ginestra House in Rockford
The Graham Ginestra House in Rockford (photo credits: Teemu008)

Graham Ginestra House

The Graham Ginestra House is a historic site located on the property of the Ethnic Heritage Museum in Rockford.

The house has been home to two influential families who ran businesses in the area.

It was first built by Freeham Graham in 1857, a businessman with a range of companies. It was later sold to Leonard Ginestra and his wife Mary who ran a mobile home park in the area.

The house has a Greek Revival, Italianate architectural style and has been maintained with appropriate historical items from the era.

This includes many pieces from the family themselves, including distillery pieces from Leonard Ginestra’s wine-making.

Tours are offered on Sundays from 2-4 pm and combined tours with the Ethnic Heritage Museum are available.

The Franklin Creek Grist Mill
The Franklin Creek Grist Mill is a historic mill that is still in operation today ((photo credits: Kenneth Spencer)

Franklin Creek Grist Mill & Interpretive center

The Franklin Creek Grist Mill and Interpretive Center operates as part of the welcome and education center of Franklin Creek State Natural Area.

It is a large 4-story reconstruction of the grist mill located on the site 150 years ago.

At the center, visitors can watch the 4-ton waterwheel turn and operate delicate historic machinery to grind corn as it would have been done in the past.

They are also able to learn more about historic construction techniques and the important role that the mill played in early colonial life in the area.

There are also educational exhibits about the flora and fauna of the Natural Area and advice on the hiking trails and scenic points to see.

For an overview of more historic sites in Illinois, click here.

The Discovery Center Museum
The Discovery Center Museum (photo credits: Discovery Center Museum)

Visit a museum

Discovery center Museum

The Discovery Center Museum is a fun and interactive children’s science museum spread over 2 floors with more than 300 different exhibits.

The exhibits focus on various science topics, including the human body, electricity, space travel, machinery, and light.

Many of the exhibits are interactive and hands-on, encouraging children to be involved in science and experience it for themselves.

Behind the museum, there is also a large Discovery Park, a multi-level science park with mazes, a water play area, and the popular dinosaur dig pit.

There are also various temporary exhibits throughout the year.

The museum is open from Wednesday to Sunday. Tickets must be reserved in advance, either online or via phone call. Visitors can choose to visit in the morning or afternoon.

The iconic North Shore Electroliner at the Illinois Railway Museum
The iconic North Shore Electroliner at the Illinois Railway Museum. It was completely rebuilt in 2019 and is now sometimes used on the 5-mile demonstration track of the museum.

Illinois Railway Museum

The Illinois Railway Museum has an interesting history in itself, as it was started in 1953 by a small group of men who came together to purchase and preserve Indiana Railroad 65, an interurban car that had been retired and would soon be destroyed.

Since then the museum has acquired many different historic railway pieces ranging from steam locomotives to more modern electric pieces.

Some of the highlights include the inspiration for Japan’s famous bullet trains, the Electroliner train, and the last surviving Green Hornet streetcar of Chicago.

The museum has a 5-mile demonstration railroad where visitors can experience riding historic trains.

There are many educational displays and immersive exhibits to encourage learning about the interesting history of railroads in the area.

Loveland Museum

The Loveland Museum in Dixon was founded in 1940 as a way to continue the Loveland family name, preserve the history of the area and honor the ‘father’ of the community of Dixon, John Dixon.

The community house part of the property can be rented for special events and creates a beautiful atmosphere.

The museum houses a range of historic items from the area’s history.

There are exhibits surrounding John Dixon, the founder of the community, The Black Hawk War and Civil War, and various other significant events in the area.

There are also exhibits focusing on local industry and attractions, the Truesdell bridge disaster, and President Ronald Reagan.

This museum is a great way to see the small and often-forgotten items and aspects of history.

For an overview of more Illinois museums, click here. 

Visit a historic mansion

Hegeler Carus Mansion
Hegeler Carus Mansion (Photo credits: Terence Faircloth)

Hegeler Carus Mansion

The Hegeler Carus Mansion is a unique landmark in Northern Illinois as one of the great Second Empire structures. It was designed in 1874 by renowned architect Boyington for the prominent Hegeler family.

In 1887, Hegeler launched the Open Court Publishing Company operating out of the 1st floor and hired Dr. Paul Carus, a German scholar.

From this location, Carus wrote over 70 books and countless other articles.

The 57-room mansion is virtually unaltered from its original appearance and offers a unique look into a part of history.

It is considered a great achievement of architecture and interior design and houses the oldest indoor gymnasium in existence.

Colonel Davenport Historic house

Colonel Davenport Historic House is the preserved home of George Davenport, an influential figure in the area’s history.

He was a prosperous trader and businessman who later also served during the Black Hawk war.

As his business continued improving, he built a home in 1833 which become a Centrepoint of industry in the area.

The house was considered a mansion for its time and is built using unique construction methods.

It is built in the Federal style and has been well-maintained over the years.

It now functions as an interesting look into business and industry in history.

The house is open from Wednesday– Saturday from 12 pm – 4 pm. There are guided tours available.

Ulysses S Grant home
The home of Ulysses S. Grant presented to him by the residents of Galena

Ulysses S. Grant home

The Ulysses S. Grant home was once home to the 18th President of the United States.

The house was a present to Grant from the citizens of Galena after his return from the Civil War in 1865.

It was designed by architect William Dennison and enjoyed greatly by Ulysses S. Grant. He described it as “a lovely villa exquisitely furnished with everything good taste could desire”.

Following his election, he didn’t spend much time in the house anymore but the house was always well maintained by caretakers in anticipation of his return.

The house is currently owned by the State of Illinois and was completely restored in 1995. During the restoration, it was returned to its 1868 appearance. Today visitors can see much of the furniture used by Grant and his family.

This is a great way to look into the presidential history of the time.

The house is open Wednesday – Sunday with 30-minute tours running regularly throughout the day.

The sun sets over the beautiful Galena Cellars domain
The sun sets over the beautiful Galena Cellars domain (photo credits: Galena Cellars)

Visit Galena wineries

In the northwest of Illinois, fall signals the start of the grape-stomping season among the many beautiful wineries in Galena.

There are 4 main wineries with each offering different and unique experiences.

Galena Cellars Vineyard and Winery has both fruit wines and hybrid grape wines and offers behind-the-scenes tours, overnight stays, and bike trails.

Massbach Ridge Winery has a range of whites, reds, and roses, and holds various events throughout the year, including the fall Massbach Stomp.

Rocky Waters Vineyard and Winery has a lodge-style tasting room and beautiful scenery and offers overnight stays for groups of up to 10.

Fergedaboudit Vineyard and Winery uses hybrid grapes to create Tuscan-style wine and participate in the Garlic Fest in August. Their tasting room is decorated like an old Tuscan village and is open year-round.

Visiting wineries is a great way to experience the rolling hills and landscapes of Northern Illinois, as well as the delicious wines and cuisine.

Here you can read more about the best wineries in Galena. If you prefer beer, check out this post in which we share an overview of the best breweries in northern Illinois.

Play a round of golf
Play a round of golf on the Prairie View Golf

Play Golf

Golf is a great day trip activity for visitors to Northern Illinois.

By visiting Prairie View Golf, you can take in the beautiful surroundings and natural landscape while enjoying some of the best golf experiences.

The course was designed to make minimal changes to the surrounding scenery, meaning it has retained the beautiful natural atmosphere.

Surrounded by prairie grasses, old oaks, and woodlands, the course has been designed to be played by golfers of all levels.

There is also an outdoor range for some simple practice, with lessons available if you’re really keen to improve your game.

There is an on-site pub, which is perfect for relaxing after a round.

Rates vary depending on the day of the week and season.

Visit the Blaum Bros Distilling Co.

Blaum Bros Distilling Co. was founded in 2013 by two brothers who found the only way they could avoid arguing was by drinking together.

They started creating new and unique whiskey blends.

This has now extended into other liquors, such as gin and vodka.

Visiting the company is a great activity as the staff offer friendly, laidback tours that feel more like visiting a friend than a business.

It’s possible to see all parts of the distillery, including the barrel room, and at the end of the 45-minute tour is a guided tasting.

The tour is a unique and enjoyable experience, but visiting the Blaum Bros Distilling Co. is also great for those who just want to enjoy a drink on vacation.

With their distinguished cocktail bar, Blaum Bros is a great place to relax.

The wooden American Eagle rollercoaster in Six Flags Great America
The wooden American Eagle rollercoaster in Six Flags Great America

Six flags Great America

Six Flags Great America is an ideal choice for the whole family.

It is a large amusement park now spanning 123 hectares. This makes it the largest theme park in the Midwest.

Originally opened in 1976 and known as Marriott’s Great America, Six Flags acquired the park in 1984 and improved it into its current form.

With four themed areas and over 45 various rides and attractions, a visit to Six Flags Great America is sure to entertain everyone.

There is also an attached water park, Hurricane Harbor, for some extra fun in the summertime.

There are seasonal events and live shows held year-round and multiple restaurants and cafes on site.

Tickets cost as low as $29.99 for a one-day ticket.

The Gurnee Mills shopping and outlet mall

Go shopping in Gurnee Mills

Gurnee Mills is a large shopping center and outlet mall located near Chicago, close to Six Flags Great America.

This makes it ideal for combining with a day trip to Six Flags, or as a standalone relaxing shopping day.

It is the third-largest mall in Illinois, receives a whopping 20 million visitors each year, and contains over 189 stores and services to enjoy.

These range from popular national brands to more locally-owned and operated stores.

There is also a movie theater and Ice Arena if you want to take a break from shopping.

There are also many great dining options available.

A day out at Gurnee Mills is a great way to experience the best of shopping in Illinois, with extra entertainment options along the way.

The Anderson Japanese Gardens

The Anderson Japanese Gardens were established in 1978 by John R. Anderson and were inspired by Anderson’s trip to the Portland Japanese Garden in Oregon.

They were designed by Hoichi Kurisu, the Landscape Director for the Garden Society of Japan from 1968 – to 1972 and designer of various other Japanese gardens in America.

The gardens are designed in a traditional Japanese style, as a walking garden (designed to be strolled around and enjoyed) with a pond in the middle.

The garden features all the key elements of a Japanese garden – water, stone, and plants, and also includes a number of secondary elements.

These include pagodas, stone lanterns, and bridges.

The garden has a number of iconic Japanese trees and plants as well as a traditional sukiya tea house.

The gardens have been officially recognized by the Japanese government for their efforts towards international friendship and cultural heritage.

Chestnut Mountain Resort

Chestnut Mountain Resort is a full-service resort just outside of Galena overlooking the Mississippi River.

In winter, the resort functions as a ski resort with 19 ski runs ranging in difficulty level.

There is also a ski center with a range of equipment for both skiing and snowboarding. Here you can find more info about skiing and snowboarding in Chestnut.

However, the resort isn’t limited to just winter sports. Rather, there are many amenities and facilities offering a range of activities year-round.

These include an alpine slide, ziplines, pools, saunas, river cruises, and various methods of exploring the property – bike rentals, Segway tours as well as hiking.

There is a top-quality grill restaurant on-site and the resort has a large event space for special occasions.

Spending a few days at the Chestnut Mountain Resort is a great way to get away from the daily hustle and bustle and enjoy being out in nature.

Skydiving is a unique experience and offers a birds-eye view of northern Illinois
For those who are not afraid, a skydive offers a unique birds-eye view of the state.

Go skydiving

For something a little out of the ordinary, why not try skydiving while on vacation?

After discussing all the beautiful landscapes, skydiving offers an opportunity to see it all from above and enjoy a truly birdseye, panoramic view of the scenery.

The Chicagoland Skydiving Center is one of many companies offering tandem skydiving in the area. It’s located in the city of Rochelle, around an hour out of Chicago.

This location makes for beautiful views when skydiving, as well as safer, less obstructed jumps.

Skydiving is a perfect activity for adrenaline junkies, those just looking to try something new, and visitors wanting the very best views of the Illinois landscape.

The Chicagoland Skydiving Center also offers courses for getting a skydiving license for those who might be in the area longer.

Hennepin Canal in Illinois

Go kayaking

Northern Illinois is home to some amazing rivers and canals that are perfect for kayaking.

Go paddling on the Illinois and Vermillion River near Starved Rock, the Kankakee River, the Kishwaukee River, Galena River, or the Hennepin canal.

Here you can find more info about the best places for kayaking in northern Illinois.


Northern Illinois has an amazing mix of culture, history, and nature all within the same region.

The area is a perfect destination for all types of travelers, as there is something for everyone.

This makes it ideal for mixed traveling groups, families, and groups of friends.

Here we have collated some of the best things to do in Northern Illinois to make your next trip even more enjoyable.

Here is an overview of more fun things to do in Illinois.

View the web story that accompanies this post.

Web Story 1

Web Story 2