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Iconic Illinois road trips

Kitschy, awe-inspiring, quirky, colorful, beautiful and unforgettable. You'll see Illinois' top roadside attractions on these fun drives.

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site Interpretive Center Exhibit Colinsville
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site (Credit: Illinois Office of Tourism)

When it comes to planning an unforgettable road trip adventure, Illinois’ scenic byways are the place to start. Itineraries for the outdoor enthusiast, culture hound or history buff are all possible. With so many sites and stories, the Illinois Scenic Byways provide plenty of detours and distractions sure to make a lasting impression.

A super time awaits along the Ohio River Scenic Byway

The Ohio River Scenic Byway meanders along another famous American river and the southeasternmost border of Illinois. Be sure to make a stop at Cave-in-Rock State Park. The park is famous for its eponymous landmark, a cavern steeped in the history of a time when river pirates threatened those transporting goods along the waterway. A lodge perched atop the overhanging bluffs offers spectacular views of the river, and cabins and camping areas make it a great spot for an overnight detour.

Farther along the byway, in the city of Metropolis, Superman fans will want to stop for a photo with the 15-foot-tall statue of the superhero located in Superman Square—an ode to the city’s claim as the Hometown of Superman. Across the street, the Super Museum showcases rare Superman memorabilia and various superhero souvenirs.

Don’t miss: The Superman Celebration, an annual event in Metropolis that attracts Superman fans from all over the world to show off their costumes and meet celebrities from comics, movies and television. Read more about the Superman Celebration and more in 11 Amazing Festivals You’ll Only Find in Illinois.

Route 66: Where the journey is more than half the fun

Route 66 was built in 1926 and connects the heartland of the Midwest with the beaches of the Pacific. Businesses erected quirky attractions along the route to attract drivers to local towns, ranging from quirky landmarks to restaurants and even a rabbit ranch.

Relive history at the many historical landmarks along Route 66. The Standard Oil Gas Station in Odell was built in 1932 and represents the classic architectural style of its era. You’ll feel like you’ve stepped into an Edward Hopper painting. If you’re a classic car buff, you’ll want to check out the Oakland Automobile Museum in Pontiac, showcasing Pontiac car models from the turn of the 20th Century.

In Collinsville, you’ll discover the Brooks Catsup Bottle. This giant bottle once served as a water tower for the catsup maker and is a prime example of roadside American kitsch.

Stop in the state’s capital to admire the two Springfield big boys, the Abe Rail Splitter Statue depicting a clean-shaven, young Lincoln wielding an axe, and the patriotic Lauterbach Tire Man waving his flag. Also near Springfield, Doc’s Soda Fountain and Deck’s Pharmacy Museum is sure to charm history buffs and vintage enthusiasts alike. A drugstore built in the late 19th century, you can enjoy a sweet ice cream treat while examining pharmacy artifacts dating back to 1884.

Don’t miss Route 66’s iconic muffler men. The Gemini Giant stands outside the Launching Pad restaurant in Wilmington, south of Joliet. And in Atlanta, you’ll find the towering Paul Bunyon Hot Dog Statue (yes, it’s spelled that way on purpose).

The road that built the nation

The Historic National Road Scenic Byway, which extends 164 miles (264km) from Marshall to East St. Louis, was the first road completely built using federal funds, setting a precedent by which the country’s highway system was eventually mapped out. For this reason it is often dubbed “The Road that Built the Nation.”

Built in 1806, the original path of the road brought it to Vandalia, the state capital of Illinois from 1819 until 1839. Enjoy guided tours of the statehouse and walk the same halls once occupied by Abraham Lincoln during his time serving in the Illinois House of Representatives.

The Lincoln Highway: Combining culture and history

Running east-to-west across Illinois from Lynwood to Fulton, the Lincoln Highway was among the first, successful transcontinental highways in the country. To commemorate its legacy, the Lincoln Highway Coalition created 35 beautiful interpretive murals along the road. Each mural is 10 feet by 20 feet (3m by 6m)  and designed to convey—both visually and through text—the fascinating true stories of Lincoln Highway history. The murals serve to educate, inspire, and offer a great backdrop for photos!

In Joliet, we step back in time to the 1920s at the Rialto Theatre. This Jazz Age gem known as “the Jewel of Joliet” is considered to be one of the most beautiful theaters in the nation and an architectural masterpiece. It premiered as a vaudeville theatre and continues to host a variety of performances today.

Just before the Lincoln Highway terminus in Fulton, road trippers will want to snap a photo in front of the impressive De Immigrant Dutch Windmill. The windmill was prefabricated in the Netherlands and erected in the U.S. by Dutch craftsmen. It sits on the flood control dike in the heart of Fulton.

An adventure along the Mighty Mississippi

The Great River Road in Illinois parallels the Mississippi River, beginning in Galena, one of Illinois’ most charming historic towns. Before setting off on a journey south, it is worth taking the time to shop along Main Street and admire the well-preserved 19th century buildings that line the road.

The history of famed frontiersmen Lewis & Clark can be experienced all along the Great River Road. The Lewis & Clark State Historic Site in Hartford is the first landmark along the National Lewis and Clark Heritage Trail. Exhibitions include a 55-foot (17m) full-scale replica of the keel boat used by the pair as they journeyed westward, among other artifacts.

Close to where the highway crosses the state line lies one of Illinois’ most awe-inspiring landmarks and the state’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site: the Cahokia Mounds. In A.D. 1250, the city of Cahokia was one of the greatest in the world and larger than London. Today, the mounds are a preserved, 2,200-acre (890 hectare) historic site that pays homage to Cahokia’s sophisticated prehistoric culture. Annual events throughout the year celebrate the Native American culture.

This scenic drive along the Mississippi is worth a week-long getaway all its own. Set your itinerary with 6 Days Along Illinois’ Great River Road, our guide to a leisurely road trip from Galena to Alton.

Did you know that Illinois’ section of the Great River Road also intersects with Route 66? Visit the Great Rivers & Routes region of southwest Illinois to discover incredible activities along the Mississippi River, unique history and iconic attractions along Route 66, and charming Great River Road cities like Alton and Grafton.