n Illinois, you’ll have a hard time figuring out what not to do. Whether you’re an outdoors enthusiast, avid foodie or anything in between, there is an adventure waiting for you in the middle of everything Illinois has to offer.
COVID-19 brought unforeseen changes to the planet, and Illinois’ leisure and hospitality sector was no exception. Due to widespread travel restrictions, the state saw 198,000 job losses throughout the industry in 2020, accounting for nearly half of all jobs lost in the state, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security. As of June 2022, the industry had seen a resurgence in jobs with a 15.9% increase over the past 12 months. Now, there are 582,800 leisure and hospitality employees in the state, 212,600 more than in June 2020.
Before the pandemic, the state was bringing in over 110 million visitors each year, generating billions of dollars for local economies. Illinois has made several investments over the past two years to ensure that business keeps moving. Notably, that came in the form of the Illinois Back to Business grant and the Business Interruption grant, totaling a combined $540 million disbursed to hotels, restaurants, entertainment and other small businesses across the state.
Last year, Gov. JB Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) created a $10 million Tourist Attractions and Festivals Grant program to develop or enhance attractions throughout the state. In April 2022, Pritzker announced a $30.3 million tourism campaign, “The Middle of Everything,” starring Illinois native and actress Jane Lynch. The campaign serves to highlight the history, outdoor adventure, food and culture the state has to offer.
Visitors can plan their stay by logging onto www.enjoyillinois.com. The Illinois Office of Tourism offers a detailed list of places that fit anyone’s tastes.
Honey, Grab Your Hiking Boots
There is nothing quite like the adventure of the great outdoors. Shawnee National Forest, nestled in southern Illinois, can be explored by foot, horseback or air as you zipline through the tree canopy. Rim Rock Recreational Trail holds 403 miles of lush landscape and vibrant waterfalls. For an unbeatable and highly Instagram-able view, head to the Garden of the Gods. Mother Nature displays her best at the Devil’s Smoke Stack and Camel Rock, and gives hikers an unforgettable glimpse of sprawling Midwestern rock formations and cliffs. More adventurous types can head to Giant City State Park to rock-climb steep bluffs and sandstone walls. Finally, you can round off your Shawnee National Forest visit with a guided horseback ride at Giant City Stables. The 3.2-mile ride on private trails provides a relaxing view of the countryside.
“The world-class dining, the natural wonders and attractions are really the same things that make Illinois a great place to live, work and do business.”
—Sylvia Garcia, Director, Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
Heading north of Shawnee National Forest, visitors can explore along the Illinois River at Starved Rock State Park in Oglesby. Hikers can enjoy 15 miles of trails showcasing 18 sandstone canyons including Ottawa and Kaskaskia, as well as picturesque waterfalls. If you want to cool off during your summer visit, Starved Rock offers a variety of scenic river cruises on the Illinois River. For those who enjoy a more interactive experience, climb into a kayak and tour the Vermillion River as you paddle through the deep canyon.
Only In Illinois
Illinois holds a rich history of culture, arts and food that make for a unique experience for tourists.
History buffs can step back in time as they explore the Land of Lincoln, Cahokia Mounds, Nauvoo and Amish Country. The Lincoln Tomb monument in Springfield holds the remains of the former 16th president, his wife Mary Todd Lincoln and their four sons. Continue to Bicentennial Plaza, which connects Lincoln’s only home to the Illinois Governor’s Mansion and state capital building. As you head out on Route 66, grab a bite to eat at The Cozy Dog Drive-In, where the corndog was invented in 1946.
Traveling upstate on Route 66, you’ll find yourself in Chicago. By foot, bike or boat, a tour of Chicago’s architecture and art is unbeatable at any angle. Visitors can spend the day exploring the Windy City and snap a glimpse of the public art and skyscrapers with no tour guide needed. From Millennium Park’s Cloud Gate (also known as “The Bean”) to 360 Chicago’s TILT experience, iconic sights like these can only be found downtown. As night falls, end your day with a Cubs game at Wrigley Field or grab a deep-dish pizza from Giordano’s on Navy Pier.
Wherever you are in Illinois, when it’s time to eat you’ll know you’re in good hands. From Michelin five-star dining to local diners, you’ll find the state knows a thing or two about good cuisine. Home to the deep-dish pizza, brownies and the Chicago-style hot dog, the Second City keeps innovation at the forefront of its culinary tradition.
Illinois also puts great focus on local small businesses through the Illinois Made program, which highlights small businesses such as restaurants, breweries and bakeries as destinations unto themselves.
In short, you won’t need to Google your way around to find something to do in Illinois. There is something waiting for you at every turn.