If you’re considering a move to Illinois, you probably want to take a look at what it has to offer.
To help you narrow things down, we’ve evaluated its biggest cities, focusing on the cost of living, leisure activities, career opportunities, and education.
To make sure everything is well-rounded, we’ve also included notes on each city’s drawbacks so that you can be sure you are making a well-informed choice.
Without further ado, check out this list of the 10 biggest cities in Illinois so you can choose the one that suits you best.
Table of Contents
The Biggest Cities in Illinois
Established in the 1830s, Chicago is Illinois’ best-known and largest city. It is also the third-largest city in the United States, with about 2.7 million residents.
Today, Chicago is a major hub for industrial, commercial, and transportation industries. It is popular for its museums, amazing architecture, and incredible food scene.
The cost of living in Chicago can be quite high, however, once you leave its immediate downtown area, you’ll find lively, affordable neighborhoods brimming with character that are just a short bus or train ride away from anything you could need.
Located in Kane County and 41 miles west of Chicago, Aurora is the second-largest city in Illinois with a population of less than 200,000.
It was founded in 1843 and is often referred to as Chicagoland since it’s also a part of the Chicago metropolitan area.
It is known as the 14th most diverse city and is named the Best City for Living the American Dream in the United States.
As one of the pioneers of having electric street lights, the city is recognized as the City of Lights. Aurora is rich in unique historic architecture and is one of the most diverse cities in Illinois.
It’s a great place to live with its abundance of job opportunities, great neighborhoods, and quality education.
Naperville is the richest city in the Midwest and is located in Will County, Illinois. It’s a Chicago suburb that covers an area of nearly 40 square miles.
The city garnered several titles and ranks including being the Best City to Raise a Family, the Best City to Live in Illinois, and the Best Places to Live in the United States.
It was named after Joseph Naper who founded the city in 1831. Over the years, there has been major growth in several industries including retail, residential, and research.
It is considered one of the safest cities to live in, having the lowest crime rates compared to others.
4. Joliet: 147,344
Located in Will County and Kendall County, Joliet is the fourth most populated city in Illinois and the 182nd most populated in the United States.
It has a total population of 147,433 covering a total land area of 65.09 sq mi.
The city was founded in 1833 and got its current name from Louis Jolliet, a notable non-native explorer and discoverer of the upper Mississippi River.
Joliet is nicknamed the Prison City because of the Old Juliet Prison, which has now become a famous tourist attraction for visitors.
Also called the City of Steel, Joliet is one of the pioneers of building the country’s early steel mills. The city is also home to several industries including manufacturing and entertainment.
Today, its tourism industry is booming because of its well-known attractions including NASCAR racetracks, Rialto Square Theatre, and casinos like riverboat casinos and the Hollywood Casino and Hotel Joliet.
5. Rockford: 145,609
Founded in 1834 and previously named Midway, Rockford is the fifth-largest city in Illinois with an estimated population of 152,871 living in a total land area of 65.39 sq mi.
Moreover, it is ranked the 171st largest city by population in the United States.
Rockford is a city outside of the Chicago Metropolitan area, located in Winnebago County, specifically in Rock River. In 1837, the city officially changed its name to its current name, Rockford.
The city is also known as the Forest City, mainly because of its many landscape attractions including Atwood Homestead County Forest Preserve and Rock Cut State Park.
The city used to be a manufacturer of machines and furniture but later transitioned to aerospace and healthcare.
The majority of the population are Catholics, while the minority practice diverse religions including Islam and Buddhism.
Rockford boasts its many historical attractions including the Burpee Museum of Natural History and the Laurent House.
6. Springfield: 114,230
Located in Sangamon County, Springfield is the seat of Sangamon County and the capital of Illinois. With a population of 116,250, it ranks the sixth-largest city in Illinois and the 266th largest in the United States.
Springfield is considered one of the most affordable cities in Illinois where the median rental cost averages $800 a month and the median house value averages $133,400.
Moreover, the average household income is $77,473.
The city is known for being the place of residence of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States.
As a result, some of the popular attractions of the city are linked to Abraham Lincoln, including the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and the Lincoln Home National Historic Site.
Today, the city boasts its many famous historical attractions including Dana-Thomas House, Old State Capitol, and Illinois Governor’s Mansion.
Tourists can also visit gardens and parks such as the Washington Park Botanical Garden and Margery Adams Wildlife Sanctuary.
7. Elgin: 108,849
Situated in Kane County and 61 km west of Chicago, Elgin is the seventh-largest city by population with 108,188 residents.
It is a diverse city with a racial makeup of 61.82% White, 22.43% other race, 5.89% Black or African American, 5.86% Asian, 3.24% more than two races, 0.75% Native American, and 0.01% Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.
Elgin was established in 1835 and named after a Scottish hymn by the Gifford brothers.
The city was popular for being the Butter Capital of the World and the manufacturer of fine watches by the Elgin Watch Company.
Today, the city is teeming with attractions for entertainment and recreation including Elgin History Museum, Lords Park, Elgin Fire Barn No. 5 Museum, and the Hemmens Cultural Center.
Despite modernization, Elgin still retains its natural landscapes with parks and reserves such as Poplar Creek Preserve, the Shoe Factory Road Prairie, the Bluff Spring Fen, and Trout Park.
8. Peoria: 110,417
Peoria is the county seat of Peoria County and is the largest city on the Illinois River. It is located 119 km south of Springfield with a total land area of 48 sq mi.
The city’s economy thrives from several industries including agriculture, shipping, and manufacturing.
In the past, the city used to be the global headquarters for Caterpillar Inc. before moving to Deerfield, Illinois.
The presence of Caterpillar Inc. still remains, and tourists can visit the Caterpillar Visitor Center and Museum which features eight galleries about the company.
For more museums, Peoria has the Peoria Riverfront Museum and the Pettengill-Morron House Museum.
When it comes to parks and recreation, Peoria does not disappoint as it is home to many such as Laura Bradley Park, Forest Park Nature Center, and Peoria Zoo.
9. Champaign: 89,909
Founded in 1855 and incorporated in 1860, Champaign sits in ninth place with about 89,909 total residents.
It covers a total area of 22.98 sq mi with a population density of 3,876.81 people per sq mi.
It is one of the oldest and biggest cities of Illinois located in Champaign County. The city used to be named West Urbana but then changed it to its current name in 1860.
Champaign is home to several educational institutions including the University of Illinois and Parkland College.
Moreover, Fortune 500 companies are also situated in the city such as IBM, Caterpillar, and Abbott.
To witness the city’s art and cultural scene, visit the historic Virginia Theatre, Campustown, and several museums such as Krannert Art Museum and Orpheum Children’s Science Museum.
10. Waukegan: 86,075
Located in Lake County on Lake Michigan, Waukegan is the tenth most populous city in Illinois with a population of 89,078.
It is one of the oldest cities in Illinois, having been incorporated as a city in 1859. Waukegan was once known as the Little Fort before renaming it to its current name.
This big little town is home to many historical and architectural sites including the Genesee Theater, Bowen Park, and Waukegan History Museum.
For parks and recreation, visitors can have fun at the famous theme park, Six Flags Great America, or relax at the beautiful shoreline in Illinois Beach State Park.
The city also hosts several festivals and events such as the annual Polar Bear Plunge in Waukegan and Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine Fine Arts Festival.