Illinois doesn't begin and end at Chicago, but of course there is much to see in the Windy City itself and the great city enjoys several days of your time. From Lake Michigan to St Louis, Illinois has a huge variety of attractions, both natural and man-made. It's also brimming with civil war history, and was home to Abraham Lincoln. But Illinois is not stuck in the past by any means. There's a rich music and arts scene here, great new parks and monuments, sculptures and attractions. This small state has big appeal - with beaches and mountains, great cities and small towns.
1. Millennium Park, Chicago
A free of charge, public park designed to celebrate the Year 2000 new millennium, this is part of Grant Park. The park is often described as the Windy City's front lawn, sitting on the shores of Lake Michigan. Some 320 acres of parkland, sculptures and buildings have won awards for both their design, constructions and accessibility. Frank Gehry designed the centre piece - the Jay Pritzker Pavillion - which is a 4,000 seater venue for music concerts. Every year there is a free outdoor classical music series of concerts and this is the home of the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra. Stroll through the park lands to the AT&T Plaza to see the now famous 'Bean', formally known as Cloud Gate. This three-storey high sculpture is made from reflective steel and makes a great place for photos and is the US's very first public sculpture by world-renowned artist Anish Kapoor. There is so much to do in the park, from ice skating to the sensory delights of the Lurie Garden and Crown Fountain, in which you are encouraged to play. You can easily spend a whole day ... or more ... enjoying Millennium Park.
2. Navy Pier, Chicago
Chicago's most visited site, the Navy Pier juts out for over a kilometre into Lake Michigan. Opened in 1916, this is a waterside playground and the jumping off point for steamboat cruises across the great lake. Following a massive facelift in the 1990s, this is a place to gather, to be entertained and to people watch. A giant ferris wheel forms the centre point, with two museums, an IMAX Cinema, fairground carousel, maze, balloon rides and theatre. Stroll through the fifty acres of lawns, shops and restaurants and see the sculptures and fountains. It's a fun place to be for all the family and is home to ChicagoFest and other arts festivals which take place here throughout the seasons. It has an olde-worlde fairground and pier feel and is particularly pretty, and lively, in the evenings.
3. Starved Rock State Park
Over two million visitors a year come to the canyons of the Illinois River in this protected park in North Utica. People have lived in this unique location since 8,000 BC, so there are not just amazing natural landscapes to take in, but important archaeological sites too. No less than eighteen canyons form a stunning backdrop to this boating, fishing, hiking and camping park, with cascades in the spring and lush forests year round. Incredible rock formations include sandstone bluffs and, most famously, St Peter Sandstone which is over 425 million years old. Winters offer the chance of cross country skiing and great vistas of the frozen waterfalls. The park is about an hour and three quarters' drive south west from Chicago.
4. Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Springfield
Before becoming president, Abraham Lincoln lived here in Springfield for seventeen years. This was the only home Lincoln ever owned, and he is buried locally too. In this four block area, many homes have been preserved and restored in their nineteenth-century glory, so you can see exactly what the area would have been like in the most famous president's time. Springfield is about two hundred miles to the southwest of Chicago and the great lake. Tickets and guided tours are free of charge. The house is open every day bar Christmas, New Year and Thanksgiving.
5. Buckingham Fountain, Chicago
In Grant Park, on Lake Michigan's shores, Buckingham Fountain is a must-see in Chicago. Like some giant wedding cake, it is a rococo creation reminiscent of Versailles with statues, sculptures and lakes surrounding it. There are frequent shows involving the water and lighting, on the hour, and in winter the fountain is festooned with Christmas lights. In the middle of sweeping lawns, the fountain is an allegory for Lake Michigan, with four sea horses representing the four states that border the great lake. It's a genuine Chicago landmark, and signals the end of Route 66.
6. Lake Michigan
This is the US's very own great lake; the only one entirely within America, with no part in Canada. It's the second biggest of the five great lakes and borders not only Illinois but Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan. With 58,000 kilometres of surface area, it's the biggest by this measure wholly within one country and is pretty much an inland ocean. The lake is so big that it's tidal, but it still largely freezes over in harsh winters. You can visit from Chicago, of course, but also from nine other Illinois cities on the west shoreline of the lake and many smaller towns with beaches. The great lakes region is often referred to as America's third coast after the Pacific and Atlantic and there are hundreds of great soft white sand beaches. From Chicago, you can walk for almost twenty-five miles past the marinas, green parks and beaches along the waterfront. The possibilities for waterfront leisure are almost endless, with boating, cruises, great fishing, swimming and wildlife spotting. Though you wont be able to spot the opposite shores - it's that big!
7. Malcolm Martin Memorial Park, East St. Louis
For the best possible view of the St Louis skyline, especially at night, visit the MMMP. There are spectacular vistas of downtown, across the Mississippi River to the city, with the Gateway Arch and fountain in the foreground. The Gateway Geyser, as the fountain is known, is the second highest in the world at 630 feet. That's as high as the arch itself. The fountain plays from spring until late fall, every day at midday, 3.00pm and 6.00pm. At the other end of the park, the Mississippi River Overlook is a tiered structure standing some forty feet high. The MRO has great vistas over the park, both banks of the mighty Mississippi River, and the city itself. This city park was only designated as the MMMP in 2005, so is the new kid on the block, offering a fantastic urban park on the east side of the famous river.
8. Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum, Chicago
Back in sweet home Chicago, overlooking the great lake, is the oldest planetarium in the western hemisphere. Built in 1930, this museum and planetarium is on the national register of historic landmarks and has three large theatres and several shows running every day. The Adler is a great way to learn about space and science for all the family. There are 3D shows, planetarium style performances on everything from the Big Bang to space junk. A new Deep Space Adventure simulator ride puts you on the observation deck of a starship, on a virtual voyage through the galaxy. Short of joining NASA, there's no better way to get up close to space. You can walk to the Adler from Grant Park.
9. Shawnee National Forest
In the deepest south of Illinois, over 120 miles south of St Louis, lies a small but perfectly formed nationally protected forest park. Here in the Shawnee and Ozark hills conservation and replanting efforts have been going on since the 1930s. The park marks the southernmost edge of the ice sheet that covered the state some 100,000 to 300,000 years ago. The glaciers here shed huge chunks of ice and meltwater that carved out the little Grand Canyon ... again petite, but no less impressive. Over 200 feet deep, the bottom still contains plants left over from the Arctic type conditions that once prevailed here. Wildlife thrives in this peaceful, remote reserve and visitors are often surprised by the beauty of the forest in an area known for its flat farmland.
10. Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Springfield
Back in Springfield to the sixteenth president's former home, is the presidential library and museum, set in the heart of the preserved historic district. This award-winning attraction has won several awards and chronicles the life of Lincoln and the American Civil War. Here, you may well be able to see the original, hand written Gettysburg Address and numerous exhibits from Lincoln's young and married life. With dioramas and hands-on, interactive sessions, the museum and library is a great place for the family to see history come to life. The centre is open daily from 9.00am to 5.00pm and is on the corner of Sixth Street and East Jefferson Street.
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