Hidden Gems in Illinois
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Illinois’ Best Kept Secrets: 22 Hidden Gems to Add to Your Bucket List

Illinois is known for its iconic landmarks and bustling cities, but a treasure trove of hidden gems waits to be discovered in charming small towns, rolling hills of the countryside, and breathtaking natural wonders off the beaten track. Get ready to venture off the tourist trail and unearth the hidden gems that make Illinois a captivating destination for those willing to seek out its secrets.

Anderson Japanese Gardens-Rockford
Anderson Japanese Gardens | photo via jarrett_heck

Anderson Japanese Gardens | Rockford

One of the highest-quality Japanese gardens can be found in northern Illinois and offers a slice of tranquility to visitors of all ages. Visitors can take peaceful strolls past gentle streams, koi ponds, gravel gardens, cascading gardens, and 16th-century architecture, unwinding from the stress of life, if only for a little while.

Cahokia Mounds | Collinsville

An Ancient Native American city in Southern Illinois? That’s exactly what visitors will find at this site — the largest Pre-Columbian site north of Mexico. The site covers over 2,000 acres and 72 of the civilization’s remaining 80 mounds, providing a fascinating glimpse into ancient North America.

Cache River State Natural Area | Belknap

Renowned for its ancient cypress swamps, Cache River is a nature lover’s paradise — home to over 100 endangered species and nearly a dozen state-champion trees that have stood tall for centuries. Visitors can enjoy bird watching, hiking, and canoeing, and bikers can explore the riverfront via the Tunnel Hill State Trail.

Garden of the Gods-Herod
Garden of the Gods | photo via elexia_schramm

Dickson Mounds | Lewistown

History buffs looking to dive even deeper into ancient Illinois history will love this archaeological museum that offers insights into Illinois’ indigenous tribes. The museum features a variety of artifact displays, hands-on activities, events, and multimedia to present a 12,000-year journey of tribes in the Illinois River Valley. 

Garden of the Gods | Herod

Short hikes, unique rock formations, and great views? That’s what visitors will be rewarded with after a quarter-mile hike in the Shawnee National Forest. Arriving at the Garden of the Gods, visitors can gaze upon the unique geological structure of the forest and appreciate a view of the forest that seems to go on forever.

Matthiessen State Park | Oglesby

While Starved Rock State Park is one of Illinois’ top outdoor attractions, Matthiessen State Park is no less scenic. Families can follow beautiful trails to see the rushing waters of Lake Falls, Cascade Falls, and Giant’s Bathtub Falls (which is actually the smallest in the park). Keep your eyes peeled for abundant plant and animal life and round things out with a family picnic.

Super Museum-Metropolis Illinois
Super Museum | photo via dustinisgoingplaces

Kaskaskia Dragon | Vandalia

One of the best things about Midwest hidden gems is their uniqueness and the Kaskaskia Dragon is certainly unique. Constructed in 1995, this 25-foot metal monster actually breathes fire and has glowing red eyes each time a Dragon Coin is dropped into a special slot — coins are purchased onsite at a self-service coin box. Pull off of US Highway 40 and see this firebreather for yourself!

Bishop Hill | Henry County

Founded in 1846 by Swedish immigrants, the Bishop Hill Colony is now a historic site that invites visitors to take a step back in time. The site includes four buildings of historical significance, including the Colony Church and the Colony Hotel. The village also includes a museum that features numerous works by self-taught artist Olof Krans.

The Super Museum | Metropolis

The “official” hometown of the Man of Steel is home to The Super Museum, a super-sized shrine to Superman. Situated right next to the town’s gigantic Superman statue, the museum is a delight for visitors of all ages. Fans can see mementos for Superman shows and movies, props (including Superman glasses), costumes, and more. Don’t forget to stop by the gift shop for some awesome souvenirs.

Black Hawk State Historic Site-Rock Island
Black Hawk State Historic Site | photo via adityapple

The Great River Road | Alton to Cairo

Hit the open road and enjoy a scenic drive along the Mississippi River in southern Illinois. The nearly 3-hour journey offers the chance to do a little bit of everything from exploring small towns and visiting historic spots to taking a paddleboat cruise, experiencing a taste of Illinois wine, and digging into a delicious ice cream treat. It’s a fun way to choose your adventure!

Black Hawk State Historic Site | Rock Island

Many of Illinois’ best hidden gems are rooted in history and Black Hawk invites visitors to explore one of the “7 Wonders of Illinois” — an area where Sauk warrior Black Hawk is said to have lived. Visitors can walk multiple trails, hike, picnic, and visit the Hauberg Indian Museum, which features exhibits on the Sauk and Meskwaki tribes.

The Historic Auto Attractions | Roscoe

Fans of classic cars and pop culture will definitely want to stop here. Visitors can explore Gangster Era vehicles and memorabilia, Elvis Presley artifacts, the world’s largest collection of Presidential and world leader limos, and classic TV/movie cars like the Batmobile, and the DeLorean from Back to the Future.

The museum also houses multiple rooms of artifacts pertaining to the West West, ancient Egypt, NASA, the Kennedy Family, and other areas of interest, so take your time exploring every nook and cranny.

The Baha'i House of Worship-Wilmette
The Baha’i House of Worship | photo via naaahmad

Fabyan Villa Museum and Japanese Garden | Geneva

This historic home, known as Riverbank, was the centerpiece of a sprawling country estate and was remodeled by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Visitors can see it up close on guided and self-guided tours. The grounds of the estate include a scenic Japanese garden, which dates back to 1910 and allows visitors to enjoy a moment of connection with nature as they admire Japanese gardens.

The Baha’i House of Worship | Wilmette

Nestled on the Lake Michigan shoreline, this house of worship is the oldest surviving Baha’i temple, the only one in North America, and only one of seven such temples in the world. Surrounded by well-maintained fountains and gardens, the temple is known for its stunning architecture and as a peaceful place that welcomes people of all faiths.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Dana-Thomas House | Springfield

Wright designed dozens of unique homes in his lifetime, but the Dana-Thomas House stands as one of the famous examples of his early Prarie Period. The home features more than 100 pieces of furniture designed by Wright, dozens of glass light features, and a dining room and gallery/ballroom that are among the most photographed spaces of Wright’s work. Tours are available daily as well as virtual tours.

Pomona Natural Bridge-Pomona
Pomona Natural Bridge | photo via hemerocallisheart

Volo Auto Museum | Volo

Much like Roscoe’s Historic Auto Attractions, the Volo Museum is a wonderland for all ages. The museum has over 50 exhibits, 10,000 mechanical marvels, a mini golf course, and a vintage ice cream parlor, and the fun doesn’t stop there. Plan on spending at least a few hours here because you won’t want to miss classic cars, exhibits of vintage Americana, and so much more.

Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park | University Park

This open-air “Museum on the Prarie” on the Governors State University campus is open 24/7, 365 and admission is free. It features nearly three dozen large-scale contemporary sculptures. Highlights include works by renowned artists at their creative peaks and several works from Chicago-based artists.

Pomona Natural Bridge | Pomona

One of the most wonderous of Illinois’ natural wonders can be found on a quick hike in the Shawnee National Forest. This 90-foot land bridge is made entirely of sandstone and is just over 8 feet wide at its widest point. The trail to get there is about 1/3 of a mile long, making it a scenic and kid-friendly landmark to appreciate the sheer power of nature.

Lincoln's New Salem-Petersburg
Lincoln’s New Salem | photo via visitspringfield

Morton Arboretum | Lisle

With more than 220,000 live plants spread out over 1,700 acres, the Morton Arboretum is the perfect spot to get away from the everyday hustle and bustle. Visitors can take casual strolls over 16 miles of trails, and enjoy an array of plants and wildlife. Visitors can also enjoy guided tram tours, lose themselves in Morton’s Maze Garden and youngsters can enjoy playing in the Children’s Garden, making the arboretum perfect for family outings. 

Lincoln’s New Salem | Petersburg

The Midwest — and especially Illinois — is a Land of Lincoln where 16th US President Abe Lincoln’s Midwestern roots can be traced and appreciated. In New Salem, visitors and history buffs alike can see the reconstruction of the village where Lincoln spent some time as a youth, splitting rail, serving as postmaster, and growing into early adulthood.

White Pines Forest State Park | Mount Morris

Situated in the Rock River Valley, White Pines is the perfect place for a family getaway. This scenic haven invites visitors of all ages to explore colorful forest trails, stroll past beautiful streams, and enjoy the sights and sounds of nature. With space to hike, fish, camp, and picnic, there’s no better place to retreat and relax.

Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum-Pontiac
Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum | photo via illinoisroute66

Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum | Pontiac

The Mother Road — Route 66 — runs all the way from Illinois to California and the Hall of Fame and Museum is one of the best spots to soak up the history of this great highway. Visitors of all ages can marvel at historic photos, and thousands of pieces of memorabilia, and maybe even hear a tale or two about Route 66’s heyday.

Explore the Best Hidden Gems in Illinois

If you’ve seen all there is to see in Chicago and other big cities, head off the beaten path and start checking Illinois’ hidden gems off your bucket list. From ancient Native American sites and quirky museums to scenic natural wonders and well-maintained gardens, the Prarie State presents something for everyone to discover and enjoy.