Illinois – Family holiday guide

Fly into O’Hare Airport from the UK, and the view of Chicago on descent is awe-inspiring. Even if the great city was all Illinois had going for it, it would be enough. But the state where Route 66 starts, is easy to get about and makes amazing family holidays all over. Go west for Mississippi riverboats, wine country, haunted towns, and eagle-packed state parks. Visit Amish Country and Lincoln’s home city right in the heart. Or travel to the far south to play (and stay) in Shawnee National Forest, home to the Garden of the Gods, Jackson Falls and world-class natural climbing walls.

Explore Illinois

Why go on holiday to Illinois?

  • Direct flights from UK

    Direct flights year round from the UK to Chicago take just under nine hours.


  • Chicago

    Third largest city in the US, one of the greatest waterfronts in the world, and the reason most families visit Illinois.


  • Lake Michigan beaches

    Over 26 miles of beach trim Lake Michigan in Chicago. Use them like a local for everything from water sports to picnics, cycling, running and walking.


  • 1000s of Bald Eagles

    Illinois has 73 State Parks, including Pere Marquette: the best place to see Bald Eagles outside Alaska, in January and February.


  • Presidential connections

    Illinois is the Land of Lincoln, and Chicago’s Barack Obama’s hometown and where he announced his run for the 2008 presidency.


  • Amtrak travels all over Illinois

    Amtrak have dozens of trains from Chicago to south and west Illinois. A great, and inexpensive, way to see the state with kids.


  • The world’s largest T-Rex

    Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History has the largest, and most complete, Tyrannosaurus skeleton in the world on display.

Where to go and stay in Illinois




Chicago might not be the state capital, but it is a great reason to visit Illinois. The third largest city in the US, after New York and Los Angeles, there’s always something to do here. It’s the start of Route 66, if you’re heading out of town. But if you’re staying for a while, do Chicago neighbourhood by neighbourhood, don’t miss out any family events, see as many museums as you can, and don’t forget to chill lakeside now and again.

  • Chicago’s Magnificent Mile is the heart of Downtown and the district for hotels, hundreds of the city’s most glamorous shops and acres of restaurants.
  • Chinatown Chicago is one of the world’s biggest and not to be missed.
  • Explore South Loop for Lake Michigan’s shoreline and the Museum Campus.
  • Streeterville is the district for Navy Pier and outdoor adventure on Ohio Street Beach – don’t miss Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art.
  • Global business congregates in Chicago’s legendary Loop, but it’s also the district for Millennium Park, iconic street art, Chicago Riverwalk, and ‘The Bean’.
  • Don’t miss: Sears Tower Skywalk; Shedd Aquarium; Lincoln Park Zoo.


Abraham Lincoln’s hometown, heart of the Land of Lincoln, and capital of Illinois: Springfield’s a city where they believe in keeping history alive and highly entertaining. From Honest Abe’s tomb, the Lincoln Presidential Library and his home on S. Seventh Street, there are more Lincoln monuments here than anywhere else in the state. Not convinced kids will warm to the legacy? Take one of the family tours and they could surprise you. If not, Springfield’s haunting heritage night walks are worth a try.

  • Don’t miss: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Dana-Thomas House; Henson Robinson Zoo; Adams Wildlife Sanctuary; Illinois State Museum; the Capitol Complex.


Great Rivers Country

Western Illinois is bounded by the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, earning the collective title, Great Rivers Country. The area’s made for touring, and home to quite a few of the state’s prettiest towns. It’s also known for charming wineries and breathtaking scenery, particularly in spring and autumn.

  • Galena is a beautifully preserved 19th century town with, ‘the best main street in the Midwest’.
  • Historic Alton is where to board classic Riverboats and cruise the mighty Mississippi with kids.
  • Don’t miss: bald eagle spotting; Grafton Bluffs; Pere Marquette State Park; Galena & US Grant Museum; Great Rivers wineries; Galena Popcorn; National Great Rivers Museum.

Shawnee National Forest

Over 400 miles of hiking and riding trails wind through 270,000 acre, Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois. It’s the state’s great outdoors at its greatest, and an any-season adventure with kids. Tucked between two rivers, the landscape mixes lakes and creeks, cliffs, hills, immense swathes of woodland, and enchanting waterfalls.

  • Explore the phenomenal rock formations in Shawnee’s Garden of the Gods.
  • Visit in spring or summer and stay in Shawnee’s forest cabins or guesthouses.
  • Don’t miss: hiking the Rim Rock Trails; Garden of the Gods; Jackson Falls; the town of Ozark; Hidden Spring cliffs.

What to do and see with kids in Illinois


  • Galena Guided Ghost Tour, Galena
    The charming 19th century town of Galena in Great Rivers Country has almost as many hauntings as historic homes.
  • Shawnee National Forest, Southern Illinois
    270,000 acre Shawnee National Forest is a fantastic wilderness adventure with kids, it’s also a fun place to stay in summer.
  • Six Flags Great America Park, Chicago
    The state’s biggest amusement park and one of the best in the country, Six Flags is good for family events and serious white knuckles thrills.
  • Raging Waves Waterpark, Chicago
    There are no waterparks even close to the size of Raging Waves in Illinois. Chicago’s hot summer’s were made for this type of aquatic action.
  • Starved Rock State Park,
    Just over an hour’s drive from Chicago, Starved Rock’s the state’s most visited park, home to 18 canyons, and dozens of heritage experiences.
  • Mississippi River Cruises, Alton
    You can’t be this close to the Mississippi and not go full Mark Twain on a classic paddle steamer.
  • Lollapalooza, Grant Park, Chicago
    One of the world’s greatest music festival is where August starts in Chicago, and Kidzapalooza is almost as exciting as the main event.
  • Navy Pier, Chicago
    The Windy City’s famous waterfront district has everything from markets and restaurants to funfairs, festivals and world-class museums.
  • The Art Institute of Chicago
    One of the world’s largest art museums is right in the heart of Downtown Chicago, and has free entry for under 14s.
  • North Branch Bike Trail, Chicago
    Hire bikes and cycle all, or a bit, of the 33 mile trail which takes in Chicago River, the Skokie Lagoons and Chicago Botanic Gardens.

Educational value for kids

  • Route 66 starts in Chicago and runs right across Illinois. It’s 301 miles of classic Americana and the ultimate family road trip with teenagers.
  • New Salem is where Abraham Lincoln spent his young adult life. Just outside Petersburg, it’s now a meticulously restored heritage village and one of the ‘Land of Lincoln’ top attractions.
  • Visit Museum Campus, on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive for Shedd Aquarium, the Field Science Museum and Adler Planetarium.
  • Chicago’s 319 acre Millenium Park is right in the heart of the city and packed with art, performance, events and family activities year-round. Selfies with ‘The Bean’ are a rule.
  • Take Chicago’s Architecture River Tour and find out in 75 minutes, why the city claims to be the birthplace of the original skyscraper – and much more.
  • Illinois ratified the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution on 1 February 1865, making it the first state to abolish slavery. Ride the Amtrak Lincoln Service from Chicago to Springfield and explore the home city of the president who led America through its Civil War and preserved the Union.
  • Arthur is the town at the heart of Amish country. Visit for local craft businesses, farm tours, pumpkin festivals, and horse drawn buggies. It’s just an hour east of Springfield and the visitor centre’s excellent.


Getting about with kids in Illinois

Use public transport in cities – Chicago’s ‘L’ is a visitor attraction in its own right. Trains go everywhere in Illinois and Amtrak’s range of family tickets, visitor tours and services make rail a good option, especially with younger kids. Driving across state is a fantastic adventure, the roads everywhere are excellent and competition between rental companies is fierce, so car hire is definitely worth thinking about too.