The city of Chicago tends to be the first thing that comes to mind for most people when they think about the state of Illinois. That is both completely fair — Chicago is the third largest city in the United States and is exceptionally rich in both culture and commerce — and a little bit of a shame as the city’s enormity casts a shadow over the rest of the state.
In Illinois, everything that’s not Chicago tends to get labeled as “downstate,” but it’s actually more appropriate to divide the state into thirds. Each region of the state has its own appeal. The north is characterized by its proximity to the Windy City, the south, by its association with, well, The South. However, flat, overlooked central Illinois, too, has charms of its own. It’s an area rich in history, nature and culture.
Here are five unique attractions to remind everyone that central Illinois is much more than just “fly-over territory.”
1. Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (Springfield)
Illinois is commonly known as the “land of Lincoln,” not because it was the 16th President of the United States’ place of birth, but because it is the state in which he grew the most as a person, a professional and a politician. No place better reflects this than the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, located in Springfield, Illinois, a city known equally as well for its history as its politics.
The museum, opened in 2005, is a 200,000 square foot complex, featuring both an expansive library whose books, documents, and artifacts detail the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln, and a museum designed for the 21st century. Its technological storytelling and elaborate settings makes you feel like you were transported back in time and creates an interactive experience for history lovers of all ages.
2. David Davis Mansion (Bloomington)
The Bloomington-Normal area is known primarily for the job-providing insurance giant State Farm Insurance — the company employs 12 percent of the area’s population — and its booming food chain industry. (Note: The diner chain Steak ‘n Shake was founded in Normal in 1934.) But the area also contains a neat slice of Illinois (and American) history. Visit the David Davis Mansion, the former estate of David Davis, U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Illinois Senator and close friend to Abraham Lincoln.
Davis and Lincoln were initially ideologically opposed but overcame their differences and became political allies. Davis served as Lincoln’s campaign manager in 1860 and was appointed to the Supreme Court by Lincoln in 1862. Lincoln’s family named Davis the administrator of the President’s estate after his assassination.
After this, Davis and his family built an Italianate mansion in Bloomington, the city in which he originally practiced law. David Davis resided there until his death in 1886. The Davis family continued to live there for three more generations until they donated it to the state of Illinois in 1960. It has lived on as a museum that holds tours and special events, such as the recent celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s 205th birthday.
3. Eureka College (Eureka)
However, Abraham Lincoln isn’t the only U.S. President worth studying and celebrating in central Illinois. Before he was a movie star and a politician, Ronald Reagan was a student at Eureka College. There, he was a member of a fraternity, a football player, a cheerleader, a budding actor and a participant in student government.
Now, his everlasting influence is noted by his ubiquitous presence on the campus. Visit Eureka and behold a piece of the Berlin Wall in the Reagan Peace Garden; Eureka, it should be noted, is one of three colleges and universities to showcase a piece on its campus.
Then, stop by the Ronald Reagan Museum and the Mark R. Shenkman Reagan Research Center to learn more about the 40th President. You can even step inside Eureka College’s chapel and see the spot where, in 1928, a young freshman made the first public speech of what would become a storied career.
4. Wildlife State Prairie Park (Peoria)
Lush prairies once covered the land of Illinois. That is no longer the case, but there have been efforts by many to preserve certain patches of the tall grasses, along with the animals that use them as their habitat. Located just outside of Peoria, the Wildlife State Prairie Park is home to 150 animals of 50 different species that are native to the state, including but not limited to “wolves, bison, waterfowl, black bears, elk, cougar, otter,” according to the park’s website.
Every trip is guaranteed to be as educational as it is enjoyable.
5. Amish Country (Assorted)
Central Illinois is also the home of various Amish communities, such as Arthur. Arthur is the home of 1,000 Amish families that have eschewed modern conveniences in favor of a simpler existence. There, you can take in sights that you’re unlikely to see in most rural areas, let alone suburbs or cities, like horse drawn buggies. You can go downtown and visit the gift shops, clothing stores, and even get to taste some homemade (and famously delicious!) Amish food.
It is one culturally immersive experience that you’re definitely not going to have in Chicago. The same, though, could be said for the region itself. A trip through central Illinois may not include the iconic sights and familiar skyscrapers of the state’s most famous city, but if it did, then it wouldn’t be unique.