Come on, feel Illinois: From the Windy City to Geneva and Galena
There's more to Illinois than Chicago, Eimear Rabbitt discovers on a whirlwind tour of the Windy City and Prairie State
Chicago could be regarded as the heart of Illinois - a bustling metropolis in a state known for its rich history and rolling hills. However, as I found out on a six-day trip to the Midwestern region - nicknamed the Prairie State - the draw of Illinois reaches far beyond the city limits.
But first, Chicago.
My adventure began in the Windy City - a place big enough to be the third most populated city in the US, but accessible enough to allow you to throw on comfortable shoes and walk your way around. Which I duly did.
Anyone who's been to Chicago will know there's plenty to see, from wandering around Millennium Park (and taking selfies at Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate sculpture, AKA 'The Bean') before digging in to the city's famous deep dish pizza. I had mine at the 50+year-old Gino's East (ginoseast.com), founded by two taxi drivers and their friend, and would recommend it in a heartbeat. As I would a cocktail taking in the views from a vantage point of your choice.
London House (londonhousechicago.com) was mine. Both rooms and rooftop here allow a bird's eye view of the city skyline, including the Chicago River - a big draw for Irish tourists who are looking for somewhere to stay during the city's enthusiastic St Patrick's Day celebrations... and to watch the river turn green, of course.
Want to do a lot during a short break? The Chicago City Pass (citypass.com/chicago; $108/€85) is a good option. It's valid for nine days and allows you to skip queues into some of the city's biggest attractions - including the 360 Chicago observation deck (360chicago.com), located 1,000 feet above the famous Magnificent Mile, itself home to the city's high end stores and definitely worth a stroll.
While up there, if you are in a daring mood, give the thrill ride Tilt a go - it will literally tip you onto the city itself as you hang onto the bars for dear life.
Boasting more than 7,000 restaurants, Chicago is a food lover's paradise, and you can't leave without treating yourself to dinner at the Tortoise Supper Club (tortoisesupperclub.com) and one of their top quality steaks (my choice was the super-juicy Chicago Ribeye). Throw in a side of their indulgent mac and cheese and, like me, you will probably have a meal you won't forget.
While in Chicago, you spend a lot of time looking up at the neck-straining sky scrapers, but there's also plenty of history to soak up. We did just that on a private 90-minute walking tour with the Chicago Architecture Centre (architecture.org). The tour offers insights into Chicago's colourful past, including a peak inside at the opulent interiors of the landmark Palmer House Hotel.
The Odyssey Chicago River cruise (odysseycruises.com) was another highlight of my short stay in the city. With a three-course meal as well as live entertainment, you can sit back and take in the city from the comfort of a new, glass-enclosed vessel - introduced last October - while also stepping onto the deck if you fancy some fresh air, or an Instagram worthy snap of the skyline.
It's enough to drum up yet another appetite, and I finished my city break by devouring a dish you definitely wouldn't find in Ireland - fried chicken and waffles in the hugely popular Lou Mitchell's diner (loumitchells.com) - on the go for nearly 100 years. They give you Milk Duds to get your day off to a sweet start. Enough said.
So what's to see in Illinois beyond Chicago? For city slickers who may be looking to add some downtime into their trip outside of the bustling city, there are plenty of options just a short train ride from the city centre.
One such place is the town of Geneva, which is reachable in just an hour via public transport, but gives you the feel that you have visited an authentic American town outside of the modern cosmopolitan bubble. Not long after stepping into its Herrington Inn & Spa (herringtoninn.com), I was relaxing in large rooms and giant bath... not to mention the balcony directly overlooking the river.
Geneva also offers its own unique food experience - the All Chocolate Kitchen (allchocolatekitchen.com). As you might have guessed, the restaurant caters for all of your sweet tooth desires with chocolate creations by three-time Guinness World Record holder, chef Alain Roby. The restaurant also boasts a treat for your eyes... in the form of its own life-size chocolate sculptures.
Geneva is a different experience to the hustle and bustle of Chicago, but the food is top-class, with vintage joint The Burger Local (theburgerlocal.com) a good lunch option, while the belly-busting steaks on offer at the Patten House (124 Sth 2nd St.) - an historic building dating back to 1857 - rivalled the quality in Chicago.
After Geneva's mix of quaint Americana and laid back modernity, our next stop was Galena, a small town in northwest Illinois, and a trip completely back in time.
Steeped in history, the main street of Galena, with its red-brick buildings and traditional storefronts, gives you the impression of stepping into the middle of a 19th century Western. The town is full of interesting tales, including that of the supposedly haunted Desoto House Hotel, once visited by President Abraham Lincoln.
The town also honours it's most famous resident - Ulysses S. Grant - the Civil War general who went on to become the 18th US President. While Grant died in 1885, he still manages to pull himself together for an hourlong walking tour of Galena's main street (portrayed by an actor in costume, of course).
More than three hours outside of Chicago, tourists would need to rent a car in order to visit the town - part of the Great River Road. But if you have the time, one of the main reasons for a visit in my view is the unique and extremely luxurious Jail Hill Inn (jailhillgalena.com) - rated by TripAdvisor as the best B&B in the US this year, and second-best in the world.
The 135-year-old, four-story brick building served as the county jail for nearly 100 years before being transformed into luxury accommodation. A night's stay is not cheap, at around $345/€270, but with the individually decorated suites oozing relaxation and decadence, this is worth splashing the cash if you're in Illinois to celebrate a special occasion.
Another experience authentic to Galena is a tour of its own distillery - the Blaum Bros Distilling Co. (blaumbros.com) - a whiskey business set up by two brothers in 2013. If whiskey isn't your tipple of choice, they also brew other spirits - including their own gin. On a similar note, you may enjoy a guided tour and tasting at Galena Cellars (galenacellars.com).
Nowhere was the contrast between bustling Chicago and peaceful Galena more prominent than the Eagle Ridge Resort and Spa (eagleridge.com) - tucked away among the Galena territory's 6,800 rolling acres. You can relax here at the resort spa, but there's also a long list of adventurous activities available, including horse back trail-riding, which I decided to give a go and enjoyed immensely - mainly because I managed to stay on my horse.
My final destination in Illinois before I boarded a plane home was not one unique to the state or indeed to the city, but the deals on offer at the Fashion Outlets of Chicago in Rosemont (fashionoutletsofchicago.com) - just a stone's throw from O'Hare - couldn't be passed. As if I hadn't spent enough already... but a browse definitely made my final few hours in Illinois!
Eimear was a guest of the Illinois Office of Tourism. For more info on what to see and do in the Prairie State, visit enjoyillinois.com.
Eimear flew to Chicago with United Airlines (united.com).
In Chicago, Eimear stayed at Claridge House (claridgehousechicago.com). In Geneva, she stayed in the Herrington Inn & Spa (herringtoninn.com) and Desoto House Hotel (desotohouse.com).
When to go
Illinois weather differs vastly from the heat of summer to the Fall foliage and the snowy cold of winter and early spring. Plan carefully, especially if driving. Milder weather is more likely in late spring, early winter and in autumn... and lots of festivals take place at those times.