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Destinations

 

Nestled squarely in the heartland, Illinois is a travel destination that offers something for everyone, whether it's the excitement of one of the largest cities in the U.S. or the serenity of miles upon miles of rolling farmland. Opportunities to explore history, culture, cuisine, arts, recreation, and nature are around every corner, making The Prairie State an ideal choice for your next group tour. Follow our suggested trail, which comes from recommendations by top regional experts, taking the guesswork out of where to go and which route to take.

Champaign County, just south of Chicago is the perfect jumping off point. Known for being the home of Illinois State University, it's also filled with varied experiences that, as they say in the area, are "Outside of Ordinary." Hardy's Reindeer Ranch is a favorite group attraction, offering a Reindeer Experience Tour, a Texas BBQ lunch, and opportunities to shop and wander the vast property. Allerton Park & Retreat Center is another popular stop with woodlands, meadows and hiking trails, plus formal gardens and a mansion where guests can enjoy a peaceful overnight stay. To get a view into a slower-paced lifestyle, head over to Amish Country of Illinois, where the streets are filled with horse-drawn buggies and bicycles, and visits with locals and shopkeepers are welcomed.

Before breezing into the Windy City, spend some time in Chicago Southland. Get adventurous with rock climbing, crate climbing, and a high ropes course at Irons Oaks Environmental Learning Center; watch the fascinating art of glass blowing at Lotton Art Glass Gallery & Studios; or peruse the sculptures and grounds at Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park—a free outdoor museum. Pullman National Monument is also a point of interest, with interactive exhibits and tours of the factory grounds and Pullman homes. Finish the day at Wild Blossoms Meadery & Winery. Learn about bees, honey, and mead; take a class; or order a tasting flight. Reservations are recommended or required for all of these activities.

The city of Chicago proper has enough attractions that an entire trip could be spent there. But, with Illinois offering so much more, groups can take in some of the highlights suggested by Choose Chicago and still feel sated. See the metro area and beyond from 1,353 feet in the air, on the glass-enclosed "Ledge" at Skydeck Chicago in Willis Tower. Or, enjoy the views from the water on a boat tour with one of the area's many sightseeing cruise lines. A stop at the Art Institute of Chicago and a stroll in Millennium Park are also musts, with obligatory photo-ops at "The Bean." Shopping along the Magnificent Mile, a comedy show at The Second City, and a Wrigley Field tour are also loved among visitors. Not to be missed is a stop at Wrightwood 659, an intimate gallery space in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. Dedicated to architecture and socially engaged art, it presents a number of contemplative exhibits and engaging programs.

Take your motorcoach onward and upward to Lake County where hidden treasures abound. Spend an afternoon in the charming, historic village of Long Grove (and make sure to stop at the Sock Monkey Museum); catch a performance of the renowned Tempel Lipizzan Stallions; and marvel at the Gold Pyramid House. There's also the Volo Auto Museum with 30-plus unique exhibits of cars, machines and more, along with the Chicago Botanic Garden, featuring 30 gardens and natural areas. The Shanty, featured on "Diners, Drive-ins & Dives," is an excellent option for dining, thanks to its large banquet space specifically built to accommodate groups.

Rockford, near the border of Wisconsin, is a northern Illinois gem. Take a moment to breathe at Anderson Japanese Gardens, a 12-acre oasis filled with koi ponds, waterfalls, streams and pathways. Plan accordingly, as it's open from May through the end of October. Continue your respite at Nicholas Conservatory, situated on the shores of the beautiful Rock River, or Klehm Arboretum and Botanic Garden, a living museum with hundreds of diverse trees, shrubs and cultivars. Both are open year round. Then, prepare to be wowed with a show at Coronado Theater, an iconic, ornately bedecked movie theater, concert venue, and performance hall. Complete your Rockford visit with a stop at Frank Lloyd Wright's Laurent House—a Usonian home that is exemplary of both form and function.

It's time to venture south to Quad Cities, located on the Mississippi River at the intersection of Illinois and Iowa. There's plenty to do and see in the "QC," from the Black Hawk State Historic Site and Rock Island Arsenal to the John Deere Pavilion and Boetje's Mustard Factory. Take a themed lunch or dinner cruise on the Celebration Belle riverboat while listening to live music and a narrated history of the area or try your luck at Bally's Quad Cities Casino & Hotel, where guests can game Vegas style, enjoy a 100% smoke-free environment, and stay in a luxury hotel with onsite dining. Groups can also get creative with make-and-take opportunities at Argow's House of Hope or Buttercupp Candle Bar, both featuring locally-made home and bath products.

To ensure you traverse the entire length of the state, make your way to Greater Metropolis, the adopted "Home of Superman" and maker of many a bucket list. In addition to being a destination for comic book fans, it's also known for its picturesque location on the Ohio River and its Southern Illinois hospitality. Harrah's Casino and Hotel is another big draw for groups, as is Fort Massac State Park. Nearby Shawnee National Forest provides a bit of respite amid 289,000 acres of wetlands, forests, canyons and ridges. Garden of the Gods, within the forest, is a space of exceptional scenic beauty and one of the most photographed locations in Illinois. Don't forget to hit The Super Museum and get a pic next to the Superman Statue!

Cap off your trip by heading back north to Effingham, not far from your starting point in Champaign. The downtown area is packed with boutiques and eateries, as well as a historic courthouse museum and the Sculptures on the Avenues exhibition. There's also the 200-foot-high Cross at the Crossroads, a popular landmark and engineering curiosity that attracts millions of travelers every year. For a fun bonding experience, try to crack the code in one of the challenging escape rooms at Bent Key Escape. Then, celebrate your victory with a tasting at Tuscan Hills Winery or a meal at Niemerg's Steakhouse, a friendly, local hotspot.

Written by Allison Kay Bannister, Contributing Writer for Groups Today.

This article originally appeared in the Sep/Oct '22 issue of Groups Today.

 

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