Small towns have a certain charm to them, and lucky for many of us, we don’t have to go too far to travel to them! There really isn’t a time of the year to visit them more than others, however, I don’t know about you, but the fall season just calls out the most to make the trek out and experience all the mainstreets, gazebo town centers, and historic districts.
I may have said this before, either here or on Instagram, but I am so grateful to be able to live in a place where I can actually tell the difference between all 4 seasons. As a California native born and raised, Illinois offers the beautiful colors of fall, but also, the quaint, beautiful, cozy factor that you’d see on a show like Gilmore Girls, which who doesn’t love??
Well, in today’s post, I thought I’d share my list of the prettiest small towns to visit in Illinois now as the leaves turn red/orange and the wind gets chillier. In this list, I’ll share the towns that evoke a cozy, warm, fall feeling that you may see in the movies but are actually real, and actually close by to us (local and adopted Illinoisians).
Let’s get started!
This pretty small town is located in northern Illinois and is most famously known as a filming location for the ever-popular movie, Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray. However, this small town has also been recognized with a few titles, as it has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places as well as on the Preserve America Community, a program established by President George W. Bush to help preserve the cultural heritage of various small towns across the U.S.
What to see here: take a stroll around the Woodstock Square Historic District (type that into Google Maps and it will take you straight there), and check out the small shops and locally crafted art!
A “small town with big city attraction” St. Charles is located about an hour west of the city and has just that. One of the most attractive qualities about the town is the Fox River that runs right across the town, and along the river, you’ll see parks and scenic trails that take you along the riverside, and woods. The downtown main street is full of historic buildings that house shops and top tier restaurants, so it’s definitely worth the drive to explore it for yourself, while you listen to the band playing in the summer, or you’re staring at the beautiful fall foliage in the autumn.
What to see here: check out a live vaudeville act or a silent movie at the Arcada Theater (originally opened in 1926) or simply walk along the Fox River on the scenic trails to get some pretty amazing views of downtown St. Charles.
Batavia is really big on creating community, and extending that to all it’s visitors that come out here. Also along the Fox River, you’ll find the town of Batavia that has recently added more attractions from local eateries to more retail options for it’s visitors. Additionally, one of the main attractions has to go to it’s bike trails and it’s world-class bike shops ready to welcome and assist visitors to explore Batavia on bike. The natural landscape of the area is a big draw for visitors and the pride for locals, so it’s definitely worth a trip out there!
What to see here: make sure to make a stop at the Red Oak Center, where you will see just what Batavians (people of Batavia) have to offer when it comes to nature around their village. As of now due to COVID, the facility building and its programs are not running now, however, the trails and grounds are open and free for you to explore. Check it out!
The town of Geneva has all you’re looking for in a quaint, pretty small town – beautiful victorian architecture, and abundance of local and small business and eateries, art galleries, and beautiful nature and parks to leisurely stroll, something truly for everyone. It’s attractions will surely make you see why Geneva has the appeal that it does. Here you’ll find 150 local shops and restaurants offering the best of Geneva, throughout its historic district, as well as a peak into Geneva’s history, as many of its buildings are conserved from its original founding, in the 1800’s. Also along the Fox River, you will be able to experience scenic walks of the town, as well as it’s public art that is displayed all throughout the city on the sidewalks and buildings.
What to see here: check out Fabyan Forest Preserve, and check out the iconic Dutch windmill, amongst the beautiful nature of the Japanese garden.
Not exactly a small town, in fact, Naperville is known to be Illinois’ fifth-largest city, however, its downtown has enough of the small-town feel and charm that I just had to add to this list! Naperville is known for a few things, a mix of old and new, world-class dining, its famous riverwalk, and offers something for everyone. Fun fact: In 2010, Naperville became the official sister city of Patzcuaro, Michoacán, México.
What to see here: One of its main attractions has to be the Riverwalk, first created in 1981 in honor of the city’s 150th anniversary. Considered to be Naperville’s crown jewel, the Riverwalk which is located off the DuPage River is just the place to sit and unwind for a bit, take a snack and take in the scenery of the iconic wood bridge, Fredenhagen Park, the clock tower, the Exchange Club Memories fountain, and more! Visit during any season, and you’ll see how beautiful the river illuminates the city.
Planning a trip to Naperville? Here are a few activities you can do while you’re there!
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Recognized by many publications including Travel + Leisure as one of America’s Greatest Main streets, and mentioned in blogs and videos all over the internet, I could not make this list and not add this iconic small town! To many Illinoians, Galena is a treasured city, as it’s one of the oldest in the state dating back to the 1800s! One of the many great things about this small town is its main street, referred to as Helluva Half Mile, which upon driving through it, you’ll notice the cobble street under the car, and the original red-bricked buildings dating back to the 1800s, and the beautiful hills surrounding the town and main street. In Galena, you won’t find any chain brand shop or restaurant, only locally owned, mom and pop shops, which will make you feel that you’re getting the very best that Galena has to offer.
What to see here: Check out a visit to the Ulysses S. Grant home, which as the name suggests, was the Civil War General and 18th U.S. President’s home, gifted by the town of Galena, in 1865. Today, it is open to the public, and according to their website, they are open to take visitors on a tour of the house. Also, a bonus thing to check out here is to visit this small town during the Night of the Luminaria on December 10th. On this day, the town is lit up with around 5,000 luminaries throughout its streets and sidewalks, and a time when shops are open later to accommodate visitors and holiday shopping. Truly a pretty site to take in!
Known as “the New England of the Midwest” due to its architecture with a taste of country charm, Mount Carroll is a small town with around 30 different historic sites to check out on a visit here! Located around 2 ½ hours west of the City, and 10 miles from from the Mississippi River, Mount Carroll, is known for and takes pride for it’s conservation of it’s buildings and overall look of their community. The town is known to look the same as it did 50 years ago, which they claim is not easy to find nowadays as life gets more modern and more connected. However in recent years, the small town has been growing in population and residents, as many people from all walks of life have begun moving here, adding a new type of charm that is just as homegrown as it’s original buildings.
Mount Carroll is on the way to Galena, so you may be able to make it a long weekend kind of trip, and check out both Illinois gems to take in their local and quaint beauty, not found in many other parts of the state.
What to see here: While taking a walk around the historic district of this small town to observe the perseverance of the buildings and overall town, By far, one of the most interesting attractions for many in this town has to be Raven’s Grin Inn. This is a 5-story Victorian-style house that was purchased in the ’80s and turned into an eclectic, spooky, Halloween themed haunted house that offers tours, or can be rented out for special events. The tour of the home is full of spooky stories, a physical juxtaposition of objects that give the mansion an eerie vibe. Unfortunately, it’s not open to the public due to COVID, however, it’s definitely a place to check out and support as soon as it’s possible to tour the space.
Arthur is a small town that will literally make you feel that you have traveled to a different point in time, as you begin to notice the horse-drawn buggies, the one-room schools, large gardens, and roadside stands selling homegrown produce – you’ll know you’ve entered Amis Country. Known as the heart of the Amish Country in Illinois, this small town has so much to offer such as wood shops, furniture shops, bakeries, quilt shops, and of course, produce shops offering their very best, organic produce. A stop to Arthur wouldn’t be complete without any of this, so make sure to make time to walk around, and explore the city on foot.
What to see here: Check out the Great Pumpkin Patch where the Amish display around 300 varieties of pumpkins, squash, and gourd from all over the world, grown there in the small town, along with mazes to enjoy and other fun pumpkin patch activities. Also, a stroll down the main street to see up close the best that Arthur has to offer, and enjoy the scenery of Amish country.
Brimming with Dutch heritage, Fulton is a small town with more than it’s iconic Windmill (which actually works and can be visited) and small town charm, as it is also beautiful nature and wildlife, due to its closeness to the Mississippi River and Heritage Canyon.
What to see: The obligatory stop is to see the working Dutch Heritage Windmill, that was preassembled in the Netherlands and then fully installed in Fulton with the help of the Dutch. Although closed right now due to COVID, you can still view it from the outside. Another stop must be Heritage Canyon, which is open to be explored by visitors. It’s unique 12 -acre wooded path will take you along and pass by buildings originally constructed in the 1800s.
Voted the number 1 most scenic spot in Illinois by The Telegraph, Elsah is a small town that is nestled next to the iconic Mississippi River and offers a picturesque vision of a simpler kind of life. What is very eminent is the beauty of its historic buildings, natural beauty and greenery, small-town charm, and an abundance of things to see from the ruins of the original homes, a visit to an authentic general store, and a stroll by the Farley Music House and the Elsah Museum (free entrance, but closed now due to COVID).
What to see here: Check out Pere Marquette State Park, especially during the fall season to catch some amazing fall foliage, or simply take a stroll around the downtown area, grab a bite to eat, and truly step into the Elsah way of life.
Originally called Quashquema by the Native Americans of this land, and today, mainly known for it’s Mormon history, culture, and natural charm, Nauvoo is located around 4 ½ hours west of the city and delivers quite a change in scenery and feel. The small town of Nauvoo has undergone a variety of phases when it comes to it’s people, influence, and what that looks like today, reaching back to the Native American tribes – Sauk and Fox Tribes, to then the European immigrants, Joseph Smith and his religious group, who gave the small town it’s name, and then French and German wave. Today, you can stroll its main street in the downtown area, and see the variety of architecture that dates back to those formative years. A small town with an interesting history stretching back to the 1800s, Nauvoo is a place to check out at least once, and see for yourself!
What to see here: A visit to the LDS temple is pretty much a must because of the prominent influence it had, and continues to have here, as well as other LDS sites around town (there are quite a few). However, the Nauvoo State Park is also a must-visit place for nature lovers as it sits on the banks of the Mississippi River. A place to surely go and absorb its peaceful quality and natural splendor.
If you’re ever on your way to Saint Louis from Chicago, make sure to add a bit of time to make a stop in Lebanon. This is a small town known for a couple of names, such as “The Brick Street” for it’s iconic brick street lined historic downtown area, where you’ll be able to see the row of local shops, eateries. “Little Egypt” is the other name not only Lebanon is known for, but the majority of Southern Illinois. The reason for this is because it was thought by European immigrants, that the Mississippi River and Ohio River created something similar such as the Nile Delta in Egypt, where the land was fertile and rich (Southern Illinois is known for a lot of farming). In fact, you’ll notice there are other towns such as Cairo, Palestine, New Athens, Sparta, and other towns with similar names if you take a look at a map of Southern Illinois, so they really went with this idea! Returning to why you should stop in Lebanon, the quaintness, charm, and historic details will give you a nice break from driving through hours of cornfields and lone barns on the road. Also, Charles Dicken made a trip here!
What to see here: A visit/stroll by the Mermaid Inn which welcomed Charles Dickens during his stay there in 1842, a stroll through “The Brick Street” to get that iconic IG photo, and a visit to Horner Park located in the heart of the downtown area.
Have you visited any of these small towns in Illinois? I would love to hear your experience, and if there are others you recommend on visiting! If you’re not from Illinois, or you’ve never been, I hope this list helps you consider a few extra day trips or weekend trips to take when you visit this midwestern state!
To many more local travels full of charm, wonder, and coziness,