History is the hallmark of the “Land of Lincoln,” with Springfield being a former home of the country’s 16th president. But there is also a virtual treasure trove of rich heritage and historic sites to uncover throughout the state of Illinois.
From the DuSable Museum in Chicago to the Dawes House and Pullman Historic District in the Chicago suburbs and Rock Island Arsenal in the Quad Cities, Illinois has historic activities and attractions that fulfill every taste.
Chicago Holds Many Cultural Delights
“There are plenty of wonderful historic sites in the city that visitors should consider as part of their Chicago experience,” said Marc Anderson, executive vice president of Choose Chicago.
“The Cultural Center is one of them,” he added. “Formerly the city’s public library, this building now serves as ‘The Peoples Palace’ offering free daily programs and exhibitions covering a wide range of the performing, visual and literary arts presented by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs.”
The city boasts many one-of-a-kind venues, including the McCormick Bridgehouse and Chicago River Museum, located in the southwest tower of the Michigan Avenue Bridge.
While visitors will naturally be drawn to the citywide views, they can’t resist watching the massive gears inside the bridgehouse as they power the moving bridge. Planners can utilize many spaces inside the five-story facility for meals and events, including a private plaza along the river’s edge.
The attraction is an easy walk from the Ambassador Chicago, a historic boutique hotel built in 1926. The property offers 286 rooms, two restaurants and available programming for the complete Chicago experience.
On historic Wacker Drive is the LondonHouse Chicago, Curio Collection by Hilton, which offers 452 rooms and suites, 25,000 square feet of event space and a full floor dedicated to health and wellness with a state-of-the-art fitness center and full-service spa.
“With all the activity by the Chicago River, a stroll by where Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue meet is the site of the first non-native settlement by Haitian trader Jean Baptiste Point du Sable. It’s also a highlight on Chicago’s famed architecture river cruises,” Anderson said.
Attendees can learn more about the founder of Chicago at the DuSable Museum of African American History, an institution that has collected and preserved more than 15,000 items showcasing the rich heritage, culture and art of African-Americans. More than 400 years of history is illustrated through powerful exhibits like Red, White, Blue and Black, an exhibit which highlights African-Americans’ contributions to the military, from the Revolutionary War to the Vietnam War.
Chicago Cultural Center, Credit: Eric Holubow
Chicago also opened a new museum in 2017 dedicated to the work and lives of authors. The American Writers Museum, the first of its kind in the country, features exhibits and interactive activities, like the Writers Room where visitors can add a line to an ongoing story, play literary games and more. The museum also features a gallery of Chicago-based writers, from Saul Bellow to Roger Ebert. The Readers Hall is available for group rentals and can accommodate up to 250; the museum can also provide programming for an event.
If planners want an outdoor event, Chicago has that covered as well.
“Grant Park is also a historic site worth exploring,” Anderson said. “Known as ‘Chicago’s front yard,’ this expansive green space dates back to the founding of the city. Iconic Millennium Park is now part of the northern end of Grant Park and also includes Buckingham Fountain and Museum Campus to the south.”
Within the historic 315-acre Grant Park, groups can enjoy the 18-mile Chicago Lakefront Trail, do some rock climbing at Maggie Daley Park, hold an event at Hutchinson Field or shake off the cobwebs with a quick tennis game at the South Courts, which are free to the public.
Chicago’s Suburbs Are Rich With History
Along the shoreline of Lake Michigan are the towns of Chicago’s North Shore, an area rich in history. Historic sites and group-friendly activities are plentiful here, from group tours of the Gross Pointe Lighthouse, the only lighthouse in suburban Chicago, to the home of a former vice president.
“We have the Charles Gates Dawes house in Evanston,” said Gina Speckman, executive director of the Chicago North Shore CVB. “He built a mansion on the lakefront, and now it is the Evanston History Center. It’s really cool when you go in, because it looks exactly like it did back in the day.”
The three-story house is now a National Historic Landmark and contains various collections related to Evanston, including books and speeches by Dawes, who was a Nobel Peace Prize recipient and vice president of the U.S. under Calvin Coolidge. The center offers group tours as well as a variety of walking tours examining the town’s architecture, lakefront heritage and historic buildings.
Dawes House, Evanston
Another top historic attraction is the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, which features powerful stories of the Holocaust told through more than 500 artifacts and photographs, along with an immersive holographic exhibit. The museum also offers meeting and event space.
For some soothing peace of mind in the great outdoors, groups can head to The Grove, a 145-acre park that was once home to horticulturist Dr. John Kennicott and his son, Robert, whose plant and animal specimen collections were showcased at the Smithsonian Museum.
Now a National Historic Landmark, The Grove is a place to reconnect and learn about nature, from the Natural Science Classroom at the interpretive center to quiet exploration on its nature trails.
Workshops and hands-on programs are available, along with event space at the 1929 Redfield Estate house, complete with stone pavilion.
The Chicago Southland area offers up plenty for groups to enjoy, like the Pullman Historic District. It was created as a model town in 1880 and designed to meet the industrial worker’s every need, so there would be less reason to strike against Pullman’s Car Company.
Now revitalized, groups can take walking tours of the district and peruse exhibits in the visitors center. More of the area’s train heritage awaits with a stop at Flossmoor Station Restaurant and Brewery, which is housed in the original 1906 station. Visitors can enjoy gourmet pub food and award-winning craft beer, or head out to the patio where they can find gelato served out of a restored caboose car in warmer months.
When it comes to the town of St. Charles, a river runs through it; the Fox River provides outdoor fun with canoeing, kayaks and pedal boat rentals.
But a more fun, historic way to see the area is with a cruise aboard one of the St. Charles Paddlewheel Riverboats, according to Lynne Schwartz, marketing manager for the Greater St. Charles CVB. Each 65-foot, old-fashioned paddlewheel boat can accommodate up to 100 people, and private cruises are available for groups.
The downtown area also boasts a new self-guided walking tour, and planners can host events at the 1926 Arcada Theatre or the 1928 Hotel Baker, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The hotel’s famed two-story Rainbow Room, where Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey and Guy Lombardo once played, is available for events and meetings.
Northern and Central Illinois Feature Historic Fun for Groups
When it comes to history, the Quad Cities are guaranteed to please. On the Illinois side of the Mississippi River are the cities of Rock Island and Moline, both featuring historic fun for groups.
Perhaps the best known historic site for the Quad Cities is Rock Island Arsenal, located on Arsenal Island. The island has played an active role in supplying troops from the Civil War to today and is still a working military facility. Groups can arrange for a driving tour, see the National and Confederate cemeteries and visit the Arsenal Museum, which is the second oldest Army museum in the U.S.
Also on the island is the Mississippi River Visitor Center, where groups can watch boats pass through Lock and Dam 15 as machinery manipulates the mighty river.
In Moline, the site of the first John Deere factory, attendees can tour the John Deere Pavilion and factory with a docent in the character of John Deere himself.
There are also some fascinating cultural experiences in the area as well, according to Jessica Waytenick, public relations and marketing manager for the Quad Cities CVB.
“It’s Greek to Me is a group event hosted by the Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in East Moline that features a meal consisting of Greek cuisine and activities for attendees to learn more about Greek culture and customs,” she said. “Also, Ballet Folklorico expresses the Hispanic culture through dance and music.
"The beautiful group of dancers in colorful dress can add great energy to an itinerary," Waytenick added.
History also abounds in the town of LeClaire. Groups can eat lunch at the Crane & Pelican Cafe, located in a former river pilot’s home overlooking the water.
“These river pilots built their homes in LeClaire because they had experience getting steamboats safely through the treacherous Rock Island Rapids in the late 1800s that started where the town is located,” she said.
Planners can arrange a driving tour of other river pilots’ homes and visit the Buffalo Bill Museum to see the Lone Star Steamer and memorabilia from Buffalo Bill Cody, who was born in LeClaire, Waytenick added.
In Springfield, the pulse of government beats throughout the city’s historical attractions. The Illinois Governor’s Mansion and State Capitol building are available for tours, and groups can travel further back in history with visits to the Old State Capitol building, where Abraham Lincoln served when he was a state representative.
Other top picks for groups are the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, which features priceless artifacts from family photos to his own personal briefcase, and the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, where visitors can tour the only home Abraham Lincoln owned
With so much history, the Springfield CVB is ready to assist planners in constructing a tailor-made experience, according to Scott Dahl, executive director.
“We work directly with convention planners on specifics to their needs when it comes to helping them with their cultural or historical activity requests,” he said.
CVB CONTACT INFORMATION
Chicago’s North Shore CVB
Chicago Southland CVB
Greater St. Charles CVB
Quad Cities CVB