Although known as the “Prairie State”, there’s more to the state of Illinois than just famous wetlands, farms, and vast fields.
While most people flock to the busy streets of Chicago when visiting this picturesque state, there are so many other cool places to explore – many of which have very little crowds, unique attractions, and great experiences waiting to be discovered.
Here is a list of 30 small towns in Illinois that you probably didn’t even know existed – but once you read about them, you’ll be ready to pack your bags and go!
Table of Contents
- 1. Galena
- 2. Galesburg
- 3. Woodstock
- 4. Bishop Hill
- 5. Princeton
- 6. Mount Carroll
- 7. Rockford
- 8. Nauvoo
- 9. Elmhurst
- 10. Ottawa
- 11. Quincy
- 12. Arlington Heights
- 13. Wheaton
- 14. Grafton
- 15. Fulton
- 16. Lebanon
- 17. Greenville
- 18. Elsah
- 19. Arthur
- 20. Bartlett
- 21. Oregon
- 22. Jonesboro
- 23. Lemont
- 24. Chester
- 25. Litchfield
- 26. Frankfort
- 27. St. Charles
- 28. Batavia
- 29. Naperville
- 30. Arcola
Considering it’s such a small town, it is surprising just how much Galena is overflowing with attractions, sights, and eateries.
Go for a walk on Downtown Main Street to really take in the small town charm, and spend some time wandering around boutiques, antique stores, and candy shops.
Book a night or just take a peek inside the DeSoto House Hotel to see Illinois’s oldest hotel still in operation.
Spend some time in nature by going for a stroll down the 6 miles of Galena River Trail where the thick greenery will make you feel like you’ve escaped to a lush forest.
Grab dinner at Galena’s staple restaurant, Fried Green Tomatoes, or have a few drinks at The Cornerstone, the best spot for nightlife in the area.
The small town of Galesburg isn’t on many people’s radar, so you’ll enjoy the lack of crowds while diving into the area’s rich history.
Check out the Carl Sandburg State Historic Site where you can walk through the well preserved family home of an acclaimed poet dating back to 1878.
Stop by the Galesburg Railroad Museum to learn more about the town’s history, admire ancient artifacts, and get up close and personal with historic train cars.
Go for a stroll down the paved brick streets of Seminary Street Historic District and stop in at some of the unique shops, tasty restaurants, and historic landmarks.
Woodstock is everything you’d hope for in a small town with its creative spirit, friendly locals, and perfect blend of quirky and historic attractions.
Book lovers won’t want to miss the opportunity to check out Read Between the Lynes Bookstore where you can mingle with the locals, find a new book, and try some book themed treats.
If you’re in town between May and October, head over to Woodstock’s Farmers Market to support local farmers and try some yummy artisan goods.
You’ll spend most of your time at the Woodstock Square Historic District, where you’ll find an abundance of restaurants, cafes, antique shops, and an art walk.
4. Bishop Hill
Established over 150 years ago by Swedish immigrants, the small town of Bishop Hill will make you feel like you’ve been transported to Sweden.
Indulge in some Swedish treats at the Bishop Hill Colony Store where you’ll find coffee, candy, preserves, and many other Swedish favorites.
Admire the paintings that tell the story of what life was like for residents living in Bishop Hill during the mid-19th century, at the Bishop Hill Museum.
When you’ve worked up an appetite, make your way over to the Bishop Hill Bakery and Eatery to try some Swedish inspired sandwiches, soups, and pastries.
Although the attractions are limited in the small town of Princeton, the few attractions that you’ll find are loaded with history.
Pay a visit to the Owen Lovejoy House, where you’ll learn about the life of an abolitionist and congressman during the mid-19th century.
Walk around the downtown area to check out some of the historic landmarks, like the famous monument at Soldiers and Sailors Park.
Walk or simply drive through the iconic Red Covered Bridge that still bares a sign warning residents not to haul too many horses at a time (or else pay a whopping $5 dollar fine).
6. Mount Carroll
Most people have never heard of Mount Carroll, but the few that have, know just how surprisingly wonderful it is. After a day here, you’ll be begging for more.
Pick one of the 75 training classes available at the International Preservation Studies Center and spend the day learning something new.
Visit the strange yet intriguing Raven’s Grin Inn for a haunted house experience that doubles as an art gallery of sorts.
Head downtown to check out the variety of antique shops, specialty gift stores, and lively bar scene. Local favorites include Charlie’s and Kallamezoo’s.
There is something for all kinds of travelers to enjoy in the town of Rockford, whether it be taking in the sights, relishing in the history, or simply sitting back and relaxing.
Stop by the Rockford Art Museum, which has been promoting local artists since 1913 by showcasing a variety of art pieces, both old and new.
Walkthrough some of the 155 acres that make up the Klehm Arboretum and Botanic Garden for a peaceful experience admiring the flowers, or opt for a guided tour to learn more about their roots.
Don’t think twice about grabbing lunch at the Stockholm Inn where you can enjoy a wide spread of authentic Swedish cuisine including pancakes and meatballs.
Nestled along the Mississippi River, the waterfront town of Nauvoo is not only a beautiful place to visit but also holds much historic significance.
The town was first established by Joseph Smith, creator of the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints, and remnants of his life (including the iconic church itself) pepper the town.
Go for a tour along the Joseph Smith Historic Site where you can learn about the not so sweet history that ultimately led to his death in 1844.
Walk through Smith’s old homestead, the Smith’s family cemetery, and (if you have time for a 30-minute drive) visit the Carthage Jail where Joseph Smith was killed.
Get ready to spend a day of museum hopping or spend some quality time with nature in the adorable little town of Elmhurst.
Stop at the Elmhurst Art Museum and enjoy the modern-day focus that makes its exhibits both strange and exciting.
Located within the historic landmark that is the Glos Mansion, the Elmhurst History Museum is oozing with (you guessed it) history, and provides insight into what life was like here in the early 20th century.
Just a few minutes away from downtown lies the 44-mile stream known as Salt Creek, where you can enjoy a day of kayaking, fishing, and swimming.
Nature enthusiasts will be happy to know that the small town of Ottawa is a gold mine for outdoor activities and boasts a variety of beautiful state parks.
Start your trip by admiring the scenic Illinois River Road that runs through the town and see the beautiful railroad bridge that sits over the flowing river.
Walk the streets of downtown to explore the shops, restaurants, and 8 historic murals scattered throughout that tell the story of the town’s past.
Head over to Buffalo Rock State Park, and don’t forget to bring your kayak so that you can paddle along the Illinois River while taking in views of the sandstone cliffs.
Take to the Starved Rock State Park on foot to enjoy a variety of trails filled with gorges, waterfalls, and canyons, or check out the lesser known Matthiessen State Park to bask in some alone time with nature.
A true hidden gem situated along the Mississippi River, the small town of Quincy will surprise you over and over again with its culture, natural beauty, and attractions.
Travel back in time as you walk through Quincy’s East End Historic District and admire a blend of homes with varying architecture that date back to the 1830s-1930s.
Take a tour of Villa Kathrine, a large castle with Moroccan architecture, that overlooks the river and provides a unique twist compared to other attractions in town.
Head over to The District when you’re ready for dinner, and do yourself a favor by ordering the rigatoni mozzarella from the Italian restaurant, Tiramisu.
After a few drinks, end the night by enjoying the vibrant light show put on by the Bayview Bridge over the Mississippi River.
12. Arlington Heights
Just a stone’s throw away from the bustling city of Chicago, Arlington Heights is often forgotten about – but that doesn’t mean it’s not overflowing with attractions.
Those who do know the town have most likely attended one of the races at the famous Arlington International Racecourse, which has been around since 1927.
Spend the day watching horse races while basking in the sun, enjoying snacks and drinks, and mingling with the locals.
Go for a walk along the 2-mile trail that circles the beautiful Arlington Lake, or grab your kayak and spend the day out on the water.
Downtown Arlington Heights is a lively scene comprised of unique stores, charming boutiques, piano loungers, highly acclaimed restaurants, and so much more.
Save some room for the Mitsuwa Marketplace, where you can enjoy authentic Japanese cuisine in the heart of Illinois!
The up and coming town of Wheaton won’t be small for much longer as it continuously expands and renovates its streets to attract more residents and tourists alike.
The newest editions to the town are the widened sidewalks of downtown, a communal fireplace to relax with friends, and a beautiful fountain in the center of the Martin Memorial Plaza.
Fall in love with the streets of Downtown that boast nearly 40 options for dining – including restaurants, candy shops, and everything in between.
Marvel in the gardens at The Morton Arboretum, learn about the town’s history at the Dupage County Historical Museum and explore the first infantry division at the First Division Museum.
Nestled between the Mississippi and Illinois River, the small town of Grafton is nothing short of beautiful – and you can enjoy its breathtaking views while partaking in a variety of outdoor activities.
- Go for a leisurely drive along the Great River Road and marvel at the wonderful waterfront views, tall standing trees, and towering limestone cliffs.
- Put on your walking shoes and spend the day relaxing along the historic riverfront where you can see the 2 mighty rivers meet.
- Admire the large sculptures of animals that line the path.
- Visit the iconic lighthouse that stands as a reminder of the tragic flood that struck the town in 1993.
If you’re visiting during the winter months, be sure to keep an eye out for American Bald Eagles that migrate here and usually spend a few months soaring around the area.
Get ready to spend the day in the great outdoors as you navigate through Fulton’s most popular outdoor attractions and activities.
Go for a stroll along the walking trails nestled in Cattail Slough Recreation Area and have a picnic under one of the many pavilions scattered throughout the secluded grounds.
Continue on your journey to the Great River Trail where you can walk, bike, or run along the paved road that borders the Mississippi River.
After a day of exploring, head over to the best restaurant in town, Keynotes, for a deliciously hearty meal followed by one of the many rich, made-in-house pastries.
You won’t find a town much smaller than the tiny town of Lebanon, but don’t let its size fool you: there’s plenty to see and do in the area.
Its main attraction is Horner Park, which spreads out over 50 acres and is home to ancient trees, a large 5-acre lake ideal for fishing, and a fine selection of fields for soccer, baseball, and tennis.
Go for a walk along the nature trail that circles the park and sit in one of the scenic pavilions to enjoy a peaceful lunch amongst the birds and flowers.
Take a tour of the Mermaid Inn to see the restored hotel that was built in 1830 and had the pleasure of hosting famous writer Charles Dickens in 1842.
Get a sense of the community by heading downtown and paying a visit to the Looking Glass Playhouse where locals have been coming together to create unique shows since 1973.
The small town of Greenville should definitely be on the radar for history buffs and nature lovers alike, as it boasts an abundance of museums and outdoor recreation.
Plan a visit to the quirky DeMoulin Museum, which is dedicated to the history of a small business that made a name for itself creating marching band uniforms – but be prepared to see a variety of diverse (and odd) exhibits along the way.
Another rather interesting place to visit is the Richard W Bock Sculpture Museum, which looks oddly like someone’s home – but once inside, you’ll see that it’s made up of a bunch of strange sculptures.
There’s plenty to do at Patriot’s Park, including fishing on the man-made lake, walking along the hiking trails, or sitting back while the kids play at the new and improved playground.
Voted as #1 for scenic places to visit in the state of Illinois, the small town of Elsah is quickly making a name for itself thanks to its natural beauty.
Everything about the town is oozing with history, but a fan favorite is the Farley’s Music Hall because it served as a turning point in the community by introducing a welcoming place for locals to gather in the late 19th century.
Learn even more about the town by visiting the Village of Elsah Museum where you can get some insight into the historical landmarks spread across town.
You’ll notice a few different sets of ruins throughout the town but the most remarkable of the bunch is the Ice House, which is the most intact to this day.
Known as the oldest Amish settlement in Illinois, the small town of Arthur is rich with history, and the Amish roots that developed the town can be seen everywhere you look.
The town is one of the best places to enjoy authentic Amish cuisine, and although you’ll have a wonderful selection of restaurants to choose from, you should steer yourself right in the direction of Yoder’s Kitchen. You’ll taste a variety of Amish dishes in a buffet style, but make sure to save room for dessert as it also sports a full Amish bakery.
Go for a horse-drawn carriage ride and get some insight into the Amish lifestyle at Green Meadow Farm or head over to the Shady Crest Farm Market to indulge in some local goodies.
The small town of Bartlett boasts a variety of diverse attractions that’ll have you feeling like you’ve been transported to different countries around the world.
The most interesting attraction is easily the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, which is a classic Hindu place of worship built with exquisite design and architecture you won’t find anywhere else in Illinois.
Go for a tour amongst the grounds and relish in the artistic touches including the marble sculpted fountains and bushes carved into majestic animals – but make sure to be respectful of those practicing their religion.
Walk along one of the hiking paths in Hawk Hollow to observe the wildlife that flourishes in the swampy marshland.
Nestled along the Rock River, the small waterfront town of Oregon has something to enjoy for everyone – whether it be an outdoor solo adventure or fun for the whole family.
If you’re visiting in the fall, you’re in luck. The town hosts two festivals, Autumn on Parade and Autumn on the Prairie, where you can hang with the locals, appreciate the colorful leaves, and try some local treats.
Curb your sweet tooth with a visit to the BerryView Orchard and spend time picking some of the sweet, juicy fruits that grow here like their famous Aronia berries.
Enjoy a free visit to the Billy Barnhart Museum and check out some ancient toys, watch for bison at the Nachusa Grasslands, and admire the concrete statue of Black Hawk- The Eternal Indian, which is the second tallest in the world.
Whether you’re looking to spend the day immersed in nature, stuff your face with local cuisine, or dance the night away, the town of Jonesboro has got you covered.
Pay your respects at the Trail of Tears State Forest and imagine what life was like for the Indians who were forced to leave their homes and embark on this tragic journey.
Enjoy a hearty meal of barbecue favorites at Dixie Barbecue or head over to Kelley’s Café for a more laid back setting with authentic, southern-style comfort food.
Start each day right at one of 3 local coffee shops serving up freshly brewed joe, and end each night with drinks and some live music at the popular Midtown Pun of Jonesboro.
The historic small town of Lemont is known for being one of the oldest communities in the United States, but has somehow managed to transform into a thriving bar scene without losing any of its old town charm.
Stop by the popular Pollyanna Brewing Company and take a tour of the facility to see how they create their highly acclaimed hand-crafted beers, before sitting down in the taproom to try samples of new experimental brews.
Kick back and relax at 3 Corners Grill & Tap where you can enjoy a large variety of local beers on draft paired with a tasty burger, and watch tv on one of 20 screens.
For something different, head over to the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago to relish in its unique architecture and grand overall appearance.
Tucked away on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, the small town of Chester not only boasts natural beauty but is also home to a large variety of artwork.
One of the most beautiful sights can be found at Segar Memorial Park, which was established to honor Elzie C. Segar, the creator of Popeye. In the heart of the park, you’ll come across a 6-foot bronze statue of the iconic sailor weighing nearly 900 pounds and overlooking the water.
You’ll also get sight of the breathtaking Chester Bridge, which was built in 1942 and is a staple to the town and its history.
If small town charm is what you’re after, look no further than the quaint town of Lichfield – where you can spend a day out on the water, check out quirky museums, and watch a movie at the drive-in.
The Litchfield Museum doubles as the Route 66 Welcome center and is jam packed with history about the area and knowledge about general transportation advances.
No trip would be complete without stopping at the oldest restaurant on Route 66, the Ariston Café, which is still open – and has even been listed in the Route 66 Hall of Fame.
Make the most of your time with nature and spend as much time as you can on the water by choosing from the many campgrounds around Lake Lou Yaeger.
Established in 1855, the small town of Frankfort has strong historic roots and has slowly been expanding with new and improved attractions as a way to invite more tourists.
Frankfort has a Crisis Room, which follows the concept of working as a team to solve puzzles with a slightly morbid theme to keep players on their feet.
Along those same lines, the Creepy Hallow Amusement Park provides a spooky twist on normal park attractions including a zombie paintball hunt and a ride that makes you feel like you are trapped in a coffin.
After a day of bizarre entertainment, head over to the Dancing Marlin Restaurant to enjoy some freshly caught seafood, and finish up with drinks at Jameson’s Pub.
27. St. Charles
Known for its lush parks, historic theater, and abundance of museums, St. Charles may be small in size but there’s no shortage of attractions.
Nestled along the Fox River, you’ll find Pottawatomie Park with its paved trails perfect for walking and biking and stellar fishing opportunities along the river.
Learn more about the town’s history through the artifacts, artwork, and historic documents that can be found throughout the St. Charles History Museum, or go for a ride on a historic trolley at the Fox River Trolley Museum.
The Arcada Theatre has been booming since it opened its doors in 1926 and is a great place to unwind, watch a creative play, and grab a drink at the Onesti’s Club Speakeasy hidden within it.
Located in the northeastern part of Illinois between two inlets of the Fox River, the quaint town of Batavia is bursting with charm and historic outdoor attractions.
The most notable attraction is located on the outskirts of town and is known as the Fabyan Villa Museum & Japanese Garden – where you can admire the handiwork of famous architects and writer, Frank Lloyd Wright.
The estate spans nearly 300 acres, and boasts a variety of interesting features including a Roman-style swimming pool, Dutch-style windmill, a lighthouse, and what was once a private zoo.
Aside from the intriguing architecture, the museum also has thousands of artifacts collected by the Fabyan from places all over the world, with a main focus on Asian culture.
Although the town has developed immensely over the years and has become a popular tourist destination, Naperville hasn’t lost any of its small town charm, and you’d be amazed at the abundance of things to do here.
The views along the Naperville Riverwalk are hard to beat, and you’ll be in awe as you walk the 2-mile path nestled along the DuPage River and its adorable bridges.
Explore the 12 acres that make up the Naper Settlement and learn about the town’s history as you walk through over 30 historic buildings.
Check out the Centennial Beach, which was created from the remnants of an old quarry in combination with efforts from the town to add sand, water slides, and lawn areas for guests to enjoy.
Established as a result of the Illinois Central Railroad in 1855, it’s no wonder that the small town of Arcola revolves around its historic train depot.
The Historic Illinois Central Train Depot doubles as the Arcola Welcome Center, and is filled with artifacts that vary from ancient train cars to a collection of Raggedy Ann dolls.
Like the name entails, the World’s One & Only Hippie Memorial, is in fact the only place in the world where you can enjoy the works of eccentric artist Bob Moomaw.