Top Secret Vacation Spots in Illinois

Illinois is known for many things: the Windy City, hot dogs, unique deep-dish pizza, rolling farmland, Wrigley Field and Springfield. However, this Midwestern state can still surprise even those who live here. Take a step off of the beaten path and discover some of the best hidden gems in Illinois. From idyllic green spaces in the city and sprawling state parks to historical landmarks and stately mansions, plan something a little different for your next Illinois vacation.

Natural Attractions in Illinois

First up on our list of hidden places in Illinois are some unusual natural attractions. You can visit an oasis in the heart of Chicago, the remnants of an ancient civilization and dazzling geographic features.

Alfred Caldwell Lily Pond

A stroll through Chicago usually brings to mind striking skyscrapers, like the Sears Tower (officially the Willis Tower, but always the Sears Tower to Chicagoans), or busy streets filled with Cubs fans. The notion of a hidden garden in this bustling city may seem a little odd, but that is exactly what you will find at the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool.

In the energetic Lincoln Park neighborhood, this lush space is a welcome change of pace from the concrete jungle. An unassuming entrance leads you to a National Historic Landmark that feels like it’s miles out of the city. Stroll along the tranquil waters of the pond shaded by a multitude of towering trees. The peaceful atmosphere and natural beauty of the pond make it one of the finest hidden attractions in Illinois.

Alfred Caldwell Lily Pond

Cahokia Mounds

Illinois might not seem like a seat of ancient civilization, which makes the Cahokia Mounds historic site all the more fascinating. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is the single biggest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico. You’ll find more than 100 mounds spread out over acres of land in Collinsville, just across the river from St. Louis, Missouri. The meticulously preserved archeological site is a window into our human past.

People of the Mississippian period lived at Cahokia from 800 to 1400. During your visit, you can take a guided tour to learn more about the ancient civilization. You can also mix your history with a hike. Cahokia Mounds has a 10-mile trail and a 6.2-mile trail for explorers who want to make their way through large swaths of the site.

Pomona Natural Bridge

Many of humanity’s modern creations are a reflection of the natural world. Instead of a wood or metal construction, the Pomona Natural Bridge is a sandstone formation in Pomona, Illinois, not far from the Cahokia Mounds. The 90-foot bridge arches over a ravine in Shawnee National Forest. An easy hiking trail will take you to the bridge. You can walk across it and under it, marveling at how time can carve such impressive geologic shapes.

It’s up to you how you’d like to enjoy this underrated spot. You can pack a picnic or take your leashed dog for a walk. If you are hungry for more time out in nature, you can hike miles and miles of other trails that snake through the national forest.

Garden of the Gods

Shawnee National Forest has more than one of the best secret spots in Illinois. The forest is also home to the Garden of the Gods, a natural attraction that more than lives up to its dramatic name. The Midwest has a reputation for being flat. Instead of mountains, we have miles of even land unbroken by mountains or hills. Yet, spaces like the Garden of the Gods are an exception. Here, tall rock formations and towering trees compete for space in your field of vision.

A favorite spot of photographers and sightseers, the Garden of the Gods is populated by formations like Anvil Rock and Devil’s Smoke Stack. Hike about 5 miles up to the Observation Trail for one of the best possible views, or try one of the other trails in the area. If you want to spend more time here, several campsites are available.

Anderson Japanese Gardens

The Anderson Japanese Gardens contain 12 acres of award-winning landscaping with features like koi ponds, raked gravel gardens and peaceful waterfalls. Stroll through the gardens on your own or during a tour to see how architecture and gardening come together in this stunning space. After your tour, grab a bite in the outdoor restaurant. You can find the Anderson Japanese Gardens in Rockford, about a 90-minute drive from Chicago.


The Anderson Japanese Gardens

State Parks in Illinois

Another way to change up the typical flat landscapes of Illinois is to visit one of its many state parks. This state has dozens of state parks ranging from beautiful lakes and forests to rocky canyons and wetlands. Here are a few of the highlights.

Starved Rock State Park

About 90 minutes south of Chicago sits Starved Rock State Park in the town of Oglesby. It’s one of the most popular attractions in Illinois, characterized by stunning canyons and waterfalls. Miles of hiking trails wind through the park, offering lofty views into the canyons and taking you down to the base of some of the park’s magnificent waterfalls. The waterfalls are at their most active during the spring, but Starved Rock is a beautiful outdoor spot to visit any time of year.

During your visit, you can catch a glimpse of wildlife, including deer and bald eagles. Casual day hikers can try the easier trails, while more advanced trails offer regular trekkers more of a challenge. You can stay at the park’s rustic lodge or in your own cabin. If you want to explore more of the area, you will be pleasantly surprised by the number of local wineries and breweries.

Starved Rock State Park

Matthiessen State Park

Matthiessen State Park is right next to Starved Rock, but it is the lesser-known of the two. Like its sister state park, Matthiessen is full of canyons and waterfalls and is a lovely hidden spot in Illinois.

For some of the best views of the unique rock formations and falling water, try the Matthiessen State Park Loop. The easy trail takes you past Lake Falls, Giant’s Bathtub and Cascade Falls. You will pass through a canyon and prairie, giving the trip a varied experience through one of the wilder parts of Illinois. This state park also has picnic grounds for hikers who want to fuel up before a walk or relax after a day of rugged exploration.

Illinois Beach State Park

Illinois may not be on an ocean, but it has miles of coastline, thanks to Lake Michigan. If you’re craving the ocean, these shores feel remarkably similar. Illinois Beach State Park is one of the ultimate secret vacation spots in Illinois. Located in the northeastern city of Zion, the state park sprawls across more than 6 miles of lakefront. The park’s sandy shores are complemented by hundreds of species of plants and trees.

Visitors can come to spend time out on the water and enjoy swimming or boating. If you prefer dry land, Illinois Beach State Park has trails for biking and hiking. The rolling dunes and marshland of this state park may make you feel like you’ve left the Midwest behind.

Johnson-Sauk Trail State Park

Johnson-Sauk Trail State Park may fly under the radar in Illinois, but it is one of the best outdoor spaces to explore in the state. It sits in Kewanee, a little over two hours west of Chicago. The park’s 58-acre lake is ideal for boating and fishing, while its hiking trails will take you through wooded areas and prairie land.

The park comes alive with the color of wildflowers in spring and the changing leaves in fall. During the winter season, Johnson-Sauk Trail State Park’s trails are perfect for exploring on cross-country skis. Hike one of the well-marked trails, or enjoy a leisurely bike ride through nature on the park’s 3.2-mile paved path.

Historic Landmarks in Illinois

As a cultural melting pot and home to one of the largest cities in the country, it’s no surprise that Illinois has a rich history. From landmarks to historic institutions, you can explore the past at these hidden gems in Illinois.

Adler Planetarium

Chicago’s historic landmarks aren’t exactly a secret, but the city has so many it is easy to overlook some of those most worth visiting. The impressive Adler Planetarium is one of these underrated cultural institutions. Located on the city’s Museum Campus, the planetarium is located behind the magnificent Field Museum and Shedd Aquarium.

The Adler Planetarium building is a noteworthy landmark. It was the first modern planetarium in the Western Hemisphere when it first opened in 1930. Today, the building’s beauty remains, and visitors can get close to the cosmos. The planetarium’s exhibits explore the moon, the stars and the rest of our vast solar system.

The planetarium’s location on Northerly Island offers another hidden gem. Behind the building, you can walk through restored prairie land on the Northerly Island Trail.

Adler Planetarium

The Leaning Tower of Niles

While it might not have as rich a past as its Italian counterpart, the Leaning Tower of Niles is a quirky roadside attraction in Illinois. It’s about 30 minutes northwest of Chicago in the Village of Niles, which is the sister city to the one and only Pisa, Italy. Completed in 1934, the half-size replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa is on the National Register of Historic Places and makes for a great photo op.

Currently, you can only look at the tower, but the Village of Niles is working on construction to open it for tours.

Grosse Point Lighthouse

Chicago may be one of the biggest tourist attractions in the state, but its suburbs have their own treasures. In the northern suburb of Evanston, you will find the Grosse Point Lighthouse overlooking Lake Michigan. Built in the 1870s, the lighthouse helped ships avoid disaster as they approached Chicago. Today, it is a national landmark that’s open year-round to curious visitors. Take a tour to learn about the maritime disasters that led to the lighthouse’s construction, and enjoy a stunning view after climbing the lighthouse’s 141 stairs.

Abraham Lincoln Home

Springfield is the capital of Illinois and the site of much of the state’s history. See why Illinois is known as the “Land of Lincoln” by visiting the president’s actual home. The Lincoln Home National Historic Site features the home where he and his wife, Mary Lincoln, lived for nearly two decades. The home is carefully preserved to look like it would have in the 1860s.

Beyond the house, you can walk through a neighborhood restored to reflect the same Lincoln era. During the summer, the national historic site holds “Living History” events, including reenactments of Lincoln’s famous speeches and day-to-day life of the time.

Abraham Lincoln Home

Mazon Creek Fossil Beds

You don’t often see fossils outside of a museum. Illinois’s Mazon Creek Fossil Beds, though, are so rich in archeological specimens that the area has achieved National Landmark status. You can test your fossil hunting skills at the Mazonia-Braidwood State Fish and Wildlife Area, just over an hour’s drive from Chicago.

From March until September, you can secure a day permit and spend the day searching for perfectly preserved flora and fauna. The outdoor space is also an excellent spot to fish and boat. While you are out on the water, keep an eye out for native wildlife.

Secret Vacation Spots for Couples in Illinois

If you want to get away from it all and enjoy some quality time with your partner, you’ll find several unique activities and vacation spots in Illinois. While the state parks and Chicago are great places to spend a trip, we’ve also compiled some of our favorite finds in Illinois for couples.


For a delightful stay on the Mississippi River, head to charming Galena. This small town has a colorful main street with historic architecture and over 125 shops and restaurants to stroll through with your partner. Throughout Galena, you’ll find a vibrant collection of vineyards, breweries and distilleries, along with a rich history from the American Civil War era. Ulysses S. Grant’s home is a must-see for history buffs.

Spend some time on the water, catch a performance or enjoy the town’s nightlife. For a winter getaway, head to Chestnut Mountain, which offers fantastic skiing and snowboarding right in the Midwest. After a long day on the slopes, cozy up in the resort for a romantic vacation in Illinois.

The Morton Arboretum

The Morton Arboretum in Lisle is a sprawling collection of meticulously cared-for plants and trees. Couples can come to stroll the 16 miles of trails that run through the arboretum and sit together for a meal at the Ginkgo Restaurant that overlooks Meadow Lake. You can also rent bikes and cycle on 9 miles of paved paths.

Explore the land as you choose, or you can come for one of the arboretum’s events. The Morton Arboretum hosts a Cider and Ale Festival during fall and other seasonal events that make for a unique date idea for couples.

The Morton Arboretum

Beall Mansion

Beall Mansion in Alton is a quaint and luxurious bed-and-breakfast with Victorian flair. This romantic getaway is just 20 minutes from St. Louis and has guest rooms with whirlpools, fireplaces and claw-foot bathtubs. During your stay, you can indulge in amenities like the 24-hour chocolate buffet and 24-hour hot beverage service. When you venture out of the comfort of your private room, Beall Mansion offers spa services, including full-body massages.

The bed and breakfast gives couples a respite from the rush of everyday life, but its location still offers plenty of things to do. The surrounding area has restaurants, wineries, live music venues and more. Treat yourself to an indulgent and luxurious vacation at this boutique BnB.

Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens

Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens in Rockford sits on the Rock River. Couples can walk through the warm, fragrant air of the indoor conservatory and outside along the Eclipse Lagoon. This underrated destination is home to a gorgeous collection of flora that includes rose gardens, orchids, tropical palms and more.

Couples can enjoy the grounds any day, but Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens also hosts adults-only events, like Whiskey on the Rock and Wine and Roses. You can also enjoy weekly Tunes on the Terrace performances, complete with food and drinks.

Grab a Slice After Exploring Illinois

Uncovering Illinois’s hidden treasures is hungry work. Whether you are a resident or a visitor, you likely know that the state’s love for a good slice of pizza is no secret. Whether you have spent the day hiking or visiting a historic site, finishing the day with deep-dish pizza is the perfect vacation treat.

Plenty of restaurants do deep-dish, but none quite like Giordano’s. We have nearly 20 different locations in Illinois, making it easy to find somewhere to eat while you’re exploring these hidden places in Illinois. Find the spot nearest your secret destination and indulge in something delicious.