Illinois is the heartland of America’s mid-west and one of the more easily accessible of the states. It stretches from Lake Michigan in its northeast corner all the way to the Mississippi River in its southwest corner, a 390-mile north-south spread. While Illinois is described by some people as the “Prairie State”, its natural landscape is a little more diverse than this moniker. While vast farmlands do grace this 58,000 square-mile state, Illinois also boasts hills and valleys in its Ozarks region, sandstone canyons in the Starved Rock State Park, lush forest bluffs at Shawnee, limestone caves at Cave-in-Rock, along with more than 4,000 miles of coastal shore along Lake Michigan. All told, numerous rivers, lakes, rock formations, including more than 50 state parks and wildlife reserves, are scattered throughout. These natural beauty spots are excellent outdoor recreational areas that offer opportunities for fishing, hiking, boating, horse-back riding, mountain biking, mountain climbing, skiing, white-water rafting, and even eagle-watching.
Illinois is indisputably America’s bus stop. All points seem to intersect and converge in this state, largely due to its proximity to both the Grain Belt and Rust Belt of America. Lake Michigan not only serves as the shipping and waterway access to the Atlantic Ocean, but also the Mississippi River as it traverses all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Illinois is also the national hub of Amtrak with the most extensive railway network. Of all the states, Illinois also has the most primary interstate highways passing through it. And Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport is a hub for both American Airlines and United Airlines, handling more than 80 million passengers every year and making it one of the world’s busiest airports. Adding the 20 million annual passengers Chicago Midway International Airport serves and Chicago has the busiest duo of airports in the entire country.
As America’s crossroads, it is easy then to see why it is one of the most ethnically diverse states in the country, historically attracting escaping African American slaves and German, Mexican, Irish, and Polish immigrants. In the Greater Chicago area alone, more than 50 different languages are spoken. This all makes Illinois one of the more colorful states to visit.
Illinois was originally inhabited by the Iliniwek natives along the Illinois River. The first European explorers were the French. They established Fort Crevecoeur in 1678 and later Fort de Chartres in 1720, which they used as a fur trading post and military fort.
The British conquered Fort de Chartres in 1765, but lost the region to the Americans after losing the American Revolutionary War in 1783. Illinois became part of the Northwest Territory in 1787 and then the Illinois Territory in 1809. In 1820, Illinois was admitted as a state.
During the Civil War years, Illinois was an anti-slavery state, although not a convincing one as its legislature notoriously passed the Black Codes, prohibiting immigration from African Americans.
After the Civil War, Illinois saw rapid growth and industrialization. Its link to the Atlantic Ocean through Lake Michigan and its connection with the south via the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers made it a strategic center for America’s manufacturing base.
As manufacturing declined over the years, Illinois has withstood economic crises, relying on its agricultural production to sustain its economy. Even today, agriculture continues to account for the bulk of the state’s economic output, producing products like cheese, livestock, corn, and soybeans. But more and more, Illinois’ economy is shifting towards higher value-added services like finance, health care, and education.
Illinois is divided into five tourist regions: the north, central, east, west, south, and southwest. The northern region is full of small towns with thriving local arts scenes. The heart of this region is Rockford, which features the Rockford Art Museum and the Burpee Museum of Natural History highlighted by the dinosaur skeletons of Jane. Galena is another worthwhile town, known for its romantic Victorian bed and breakfasts and charming local shops and art galleries. The region also features the Starved Rock State Park and its waterfalls and sandstone canyons, which provide a perfect setting for hiking, biking, and horseback riding.
The central region is known as Amish country and alternatively as the land where Abraham Lincoln grew up. Many of the cultural sites related to the famous President are found in the state capital of Springfield as well as in Lerna and Petersburg. Arcola and Arthur are two towns that provide a window into the Amish way of life. Urbana, on the other hand, is one of the state’s main cultural and educational centers, famous for its University of Illinois and its Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
The eastern region features the state’s most popular destination, Chicago, and its suburbs. While you’ll find world-class museums, architecture, restaurants, and shops in the city, outside of Chicago you’ll find amusement parks like Six Flags Great America and Hurricane Harbor, the historic homes of Ernest Hemingway and architect Frank Lloyd Wright at Oak Park, and Illinois’ largest shopping complex at Woodfield Mall.
The western region of Illinois is traversed by the Illinois River and the Mississippi River, earning it the nickname of “River Country”. You’ll find a number of historic Mormon villages and towns full of Victorian-era architecture. The highlight of this region is the town of Peoria and its numerous registered historic sites.
Illinois’ southern region is the state’s wine country. At Shawnee Hills, you’ll find vineyards and award-winning wineries. You should also visit the Tunnel Hill State Trail if you are a mountain biker. The Cache River Wetlands are great for canoeing, and the sandstone cliffs of the Garden of the Gods offer a beautiful setting for hiking. Golfers are particularly drawn to the Southern Illinois Golf Trail and its five golf courses: the Gambit Golf Club, the Kokopelli Golf Club, the Crab Orchard Golf Club, the Stone Creek Golf Club, and the Hickory Ridge Golf Club.
The southwest region of Illinois offers numerous historic sites of interest, including the prehistoric Indian mounds at Chokia, the launching point of the Lewis & Clark expedition, and the remains of Fort de Chartres, which was the old stronghold of the French Military. At Pere Marquette State Park, you can also enjoy eagle-watching.