Illinois may be known for Chicago and the bustling suburbs surrounding it, but there is much to explore without ever stepping foot into “Chi Town.”
The Central Illinois region (or “CI Region”) is the middle third of Illinois when divided north to south. In terms of terrain, the area consists mostly of flat prairie. It is from this landscape that Illinois gets it official nickname, “The Prairie State.”
The city of Chicago, located on the Indiana/Illinois border and along the shore of Lake Michigan, is not inside the CI Region.
But Springfield is, and it is here that you will find many of the historical attractions described below.
Springfield became the state capital in 1839 (at Abraham Lincoln’s insistence). Today, the city is home to roughly 116,200 people. It is located in the center of the southern third of the CI Region.
Other major cities in the CI Region include Quincy, Decatur, Champaign-Urbana, Bloomington-Normal, Danville, and Galesburg.
If you’re interested in visiting Central Illinois, you’ve come to the right place. Keep reading to learn more about the history of the region and what’s it like today.
Central Illinois: History & Trivia
Before the Europeans arrived, the lakes and rivers of Illinois were home to numerous Native American tribes (more on this later). The Central Illinois River Valley is still home to ancient sites, burial mounds, and settlements from these early inhabitants.
Central Illinois is divided diagonally by the Illinois River, a 273-mile waterway that once served as a vital trade route connecting the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River.
The area west of the river is nicknamed “the heart of Illinois,” and was originally a part of the Military Tract of 1812.
French pioneers arrived in the area during the late 1600s, and immediately started using the Illinois River as a trade route. Nearly 100 years later, in the late 1770s, Lewis and Clark claimed the Illinois region for the colony of Virginia.
In 1783, after America’s independence, this region became part of the Northwest Territory. Illinois achieved statehood in 1818, with the first capital in Kaskaskia (followed by Vandalia and then Springfield).
The state was named “Illinois” as a tribute to the Illinois Confederation (AKA Illiniwek), a group of Indian tribes living in the upper Mississippi River Valley.
Fast forward to the Civil War (1861-1865). Illinois was heavily involved in the conflict, sending 25,000 soldiers to fight for the North. General Ulysses S. Grant, who was influential in helping Abraham Lincoln lead the Union army to victory, is memorialized by the Ulysses S. Grant Home in Galena, Illinois.
President Reagan: Illinois is the birthplace of former president Ronald Reagan (born in Tampico, IL in 1911).
State Flag/State Motto: Illinois’ state motto is “State Sovereignty, National Union.” You will find these words on the state flag pictured at left. The shield the eagle is holding shows 13 stars and 13 stripes (representing the original colonies).
The two dates on the rock refer to the year Illinois became a state (1818) and the year the state seal was redesigned (1868).
Fun Fact: Happy hour was illegal in Illinois until July 16th, 2015. Click here to learn more.
With a population of nearly 13 million, Illinois is the 5th most populous state in America.
The Central Region is best known for agriculture, primarily soybeans and corn. Illinois hosts an annual State Fair (along with numerous county fairs) to promote agriculture as well as to offer entertainment.
In regards to manufacturing and service, Caterpillar Inc. (headquartered in Peoria) employs more than 15,000 employees in the region.
The military had a large presence in Illinois until the Chanute Air Force Base closed in 1993.
The Central Illinois Region is also home to several universities and colleges, both public and private. You’ve probably heard of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and their mascot, the Fighting Illini.
The small town America/ Midwestern culture of Central Illinois is directly connected to the state’s focus on agriculture.
When compared to Chicago, the rest of Illinois is relatively relaxed. Illinois is known as a tolerant, multicultural state partly due to Abraham Lincoln’s push to end slavery.
The Underground Railroad has deep roots in Illinois and has helped to shape the tolerant culture it enjoys today.
Much of Central Illinois’ value as a tourism destination is associated with Abraham Lincoln. Places to visit include:
- Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site
- Lincoln Home National Historic Site/ Lincoln’s Springfield home (pictured at left)
- Lincoln’s Tomb
- Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
Popular non-Lincoln attractions include:
- Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge.
- Old State Capitol
- Dana-Thomas House (one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterworks)
- Starved Rock State Park (voted the #1 attraction in Illinois)
- Funk’s Grove
If you’re hungry, you’ve come to the right place. Central Illinois has no shortage of gourmet comfort food and foreign favorites:
- D’arcys in Springfield: Authentic Irish pub with a relaxing beer garden. Try the famous “horseshoe” – a dish featuring Texas toast, your choice of meat/vegetables, fries, and creamy cheese sauce.
- Khoury’s Cuisine in Peoria: Award-winning restaurant featuring Greek and Lebanese dishes. Try the “Super Duper Gyro.”
- Happy Sushi in Springfield: Legendary sushi guaranteed to make you happy. Try the “French Kiss” roll.
- Maize Mexican Grill in Champaign: Authentic Mexican food with fresh ingredients (surprisingly affordable).
- Black Dog Smoke & Ale House in Urbana: You’ll smell it before you see it. Black Dog’s custom-made smokers make for excellent pulled pork, brisket, ribs, and more. Black Dog offers wonderful sides and lots of barbecue sauce options.
- One World Café in Peoria: A one-of-a-kind café famous for its chicken and waffles.
- Thanh Linh Vietnamese in Peoria: You don’t have to visit the “Windy City” for great pho. Thanh Linh’s has excellent Vietnamese dishes with big portions and fantastic service.
Best Resort in the CI Region
Whether you’re taking a road trip with the family or looking for a romantic getaway complete with golfing and spa treatments, Oak Terrace Resort (Pana, IL) is the place for you.
Oak Terrace Resort offers a variety of rooms ranging from standard hotel rooms to lakeside villas. The resort is great for relaxation and appropriate for families. The resort offers a restaurant and bar, full spa, fitness center, tennis courts, and golf.
The overview above is but a brief introduction of what the CI Region has to offer.
With recommendations on what to do, where to stay, and what to eat (as well as a few useful historical facts), you should be ready to start planning your trip to the Midwest.