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Six days along Illinois’ Great River Road

Some of the prettiest pockets of the Great River Road lie in Illinois. Take a leisurely road trip starting in the northwest corner of the state.

Galena Main Street Shops
Credit: Illinois Office of Tourism

Day 1: Galena

The heart of Galena’s shopping district—home to more than 200 unique stores and restaurants—stands along Main Street. Galena Garlic Company’s savory scents draw customers into this olive oil shop. Find wood barrels filled with saltwater taffy and trays of chocolates at Galena’s Kandy Kitchen. In a casual, European-style bistro, Fritz and Frites’ split-personality menu consists of French and German favorites. On the “frites” side, there’s escargot, baked brie, pâté, quiche and mussels. “Fritz” fans load up on schnitzel, sauerbraten, sausages and spaetzle.

In the afternoon, a tour of the 19th-century Italianate Ulysses S. Grant Home gives insight into post-Civil War life. Grant’s father once owned the building that houses Fried Green Tomatoes, an elegant Italian restaurant. Retire to luxury suites with river views at the Goldmoor Inn.

Day 2: Galena

Dine on Goldmoor Inn’s gourmet breakfast or grab banana bread French toast and veggie-goat cheese omelets at Otto’s Place. For a relaxed and close look at the bluffs and wildlife along the river’s backwaters, embark on a cruise at Chestnut Mountain Resort (or if you want a more thrilling look at the scenery, slide down the resort’s 2,050-foot-long/625m alpine slide). Sip on sweet whites and dry reds at Galena Cellars Vineyard and Winery, and Rocky Waters Vineyard & Winery in nearby Hanover.

With three acclaimed 18-hole courses and one nine-hole course, Eagle Ridge Resort and Spa draws large numbers of golfers, but there are plenty of other reasons to visit. Outdoor enthusiasts choose from horseback riding, kayaking, hiking or bicycling. And those needing pampering relax in the spa.

Day 3: Moline and Rock Island

Both tropical plants and plants native to the Quad Cities area flourish at the Quad City Botanical Center in Rock Island. At Schwiebert Riverfront Park, stroll among art sculptures along a jog path, catch a concert by the river, and let your kids splash through the fountain or play on the digital playground (which combines outdoor play and digital game technology). Indulge in hot fudge sundaes, banana splits, ice cream sodas and chocolate-covered toffees at Lagomarcino’s Soda Fountain in Moline. Even city slickers enjoy a hands-on look at the farm experience at Moline’s John Deere Pavilion, where you can test your skills in a farming simulator.

Live music entertains guests on the Celebration Belle riverboat as they learn about the history along the river and enjoy views of wildlife on a cruise down the Mississippi. This 800-passenger excursion riverboat in Moline has a mix of shorter scenic tours, themed cruises like the Fall Foliage or Oktoberfest cruises, and daylong and overnight trips with meals included. Photos of the old Quad Cities hang on the walls at family-friendly River House Bar and Grill in Moline. The menu includes thick burgers and Reubens slathered in sauerkraut and dressing.

Day 4: Nauvoo and Quincy

Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, named the town of Nauvoo in 1839; it continues to preserve Mormon history and faith. The Historic Nauvoo Visitors’ Center provides free horse-drawn wagon tours of Old Nauvoo; arrive early to claim a spot. Learn about the church founder at the Joseph Smith Historic Site, which includes walking tours of the homestead. Only LDS members are allowed inside the towering Nauvoo Temple, but anyone can snap photos of the striking exterior. Peek into shops like the Temple House Nauvoo Art Gallery, then take advantage of free tastings and self-guided tours at Baxter’s Vineyards, the oldest winery in Illinois.

Head an hour south to Quincy, where Washington Park—home to a Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858—welcomes special events, such as a spring Dogwood Festival and the summer Midsummer Arts Faire. Take a leisurely stroll through the city’s East End Historic District, a pretty neighborhood with restored 1800s homes. In the Historic Business District, try the veal-stuffed cannelloni at the Italian restaurant Tiramisu.

Day 5: Grafton

Finish your trip in the Great Rivers & Routes region of southwest Illinois, the only place in American where Route 66 meets the Great River Road.

For a morning thrill, Grafton Zipline Adventures provides eye-opening views of the Mississippi River valley. Then lower your heart rate and get in tune with Grafton’s laid-back Jimmy Buffett-style atmosphere with a stop at family-owned Grafton Winery and Brewhaus to sample from 15 wines (and several beers) made in-house. Dine on upscale pub fare: pork chops, lamb and burgers.

After hiking some of the 12 miles of trails in Pere Marquette State Park, stay at the Pere Marquette Lodge and Conference Center. The 72 guest rooms have cozy beds, soft towels and squeaky-clean bathrooms. Not ready to call it a night? The Loading Dock has cold beer and a big deck on the riverbank.

Day 6: Elsah and Alton

Head south on the Meeting of the Great Rivers Scenic Byway for spectacular views of the Mississippi River and its limestone bluffs. Tiny Elsah is a step into the 19th century, with stone cottages and Greek Revival buildings housing quaint shops. Alton, 11 miles (18km)  south, welcomes shoppers looking for antiques and art. My Just Desserts serves lunch classics plus delicious homemade pie—its signature is Mrs. Ledbetter’s chocolate. Browse several classy antique stores, including Country Meadows Antiques and Prairie Peddler Antiques. Also in the area, Alton Stained Glass Works and Mississippi Mud Pottery showcase the owners’ handmade wares. An aquarium and tours of the locks make the National Great Rivers Museum a must-see. Upscale Gentelin’s on Broadway has beautifully plated dinners. A concierge email asks how you like your coffee when you book a room at Beall Mansion. Additional amenities include a 24-hour chocolate buffet and in-room spa services, plus guest rooms with spacious bathrooms (many with a whirlpool tub) and feather beds.