37 Best Things to Do in Southern Illinois (2024)

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Big things come in small packages! We were surprised by the number of things to do in Southern Illinois. Here’s a list of 37 family-friendly things to do in Southern Illinois, grouped by region. 

Three trees stand stand before a misty river and forestland in Southern Illinois.
Southern Illinois is a place of natural beauty. Image by Terry Priest.
An early American flag waves over Camp Dubois in Southwest Illinois. Historic Camp Dubois is one of 37 best things to do in Southern Illinois.
Southern Illinois is one of the most historic parts of the United States. Image by Chris Light / Wikimedia Commons.

How this Post is Organized

Southern Illinois is packed with attractions and options for families. Many of these stops are unique and could be just right for what you specifically need. Therefore, I’ve put my effort into describing the attraction instead of rating it. 

The list below is grouped by region, beginning with the very southern tip of Illinois. Scroll down to the region you’re in or read the entire post through to see all that’s available! And if you’re needing a place to stay, check out these Illinois hotels and vacation rentals.

We’ve put our feature stop at the very top of the list.

Old buildings still stand grandly in old Cairo, Illinois.
Historic Cairo, Illinois. Image by Paul Sableman.

Ilinois’ Far Southern Tip

Illinois’ Southern Point is quite a place. This region was born by two rivers—the Mississippi and the Ohio—which combine to form the State’s southernmost tip. Scenic landscapes, remarkable history, and plenty of fun can all be found here. 

#1 Save the Day!

Superman, Metropolis

My six children pose next to the enormous Superman statue in Metropolis, Illinois. Metropolis' Superman District is one of the 37 best things to do in Southern Illinois.
Just what the doctor ordered: a super-fun pit stop.

We chose to just have fun. It was the right choice after a week of Civil War battles and Civil Rights stops in the Deep South. So we gladly followed the Roadtrippers app to Metropolis, Illinois. 

I’ve been through my share of midwest towns but this one stole my heart. Metropolis is your typical river town with its own assortment of railroad tracks, tired brick buildings, and overgrown lawns. And then there’s Superman!

No, I’m not a Superman fan. It’s the town that make it so fun. The town is smaller than its grand name, but it doesn’t let that stop it from having a good time. You feel like that you’re visiting some silly grandpa who you can’t help but admire. 

Two of our children place their heads in Superman and Superwoman cutouts. Spiderman sits on the bench and watches.
Our family in Metropolis. Spiderman waits for his turn to be cool.

We happened to arrive just at the close of a local Comic-Con. Stands and rides were shutting down but there was still plenty to see. Costumed superheroes strolled the streets and posed for pictures. 

Superman dominates Metropolis’ downtown area. His enormous statue protects the city courthouse from any danger that may make its way down Market Street. The 2 ton bronze statue is nearly as tall as the building behind it.

My wife smiles in a big selfie beside Metropolis' Superman statue.

The Super Museum stands adjacent to its subject. The building is an attraction of its own, offering plenty of fun and amusement. We enjoyed the store which was packed with all things Superman, but passed on the museum. 

Various stores and some gift shops line Market street, and a number of businesses have fun with the Super theme. Lois Lane stands at the end of downtown, looking for facts on her next story. 

Our daughter pokes a Bob's Big Boy that was repainted into a Super Big Boy.

How to Find Great Roadtrip Stops Like Metropolis

We didn’t happen upon Metropolis by accident. In fact, if it wasn’t for the Roadtrippers App we would likely have driven right past this great town. The Roadtrippers App made it incredibly easy to find a unique stop on our long drive from Georgia to Missouri. You can get $5.00 off this worthwhile travel app with our link and code ( BTR5QTP ).

@dinkumtribe The Roadtrippers app was absolutely a perfect way to track and organize and plan all the stops on our epic month-long family road trip! #roadtrippersapp #roadtripperstravel #roadtrippers #familyroadtrip #familyroadtriphack #roadtriphacks #roadtripwithkids #roadtripwithfamily #roadtriptips #bestroadtripever #bestroadtrips #roadtripplanning #roadtripplanner @dinkumtribe @dinkumtribe @dinkumtribe ♬ original sound – DinkumTribe ADHD family travel

Metropolis was a great place for a family road trip stop. As I prepared this post I was struck by how many of our photos showed us smiling. This is the stuff that great road trips are made of. 

#2 Report to Fort Massac

Fort Massac State Park, Metropolis

Dressed reenactors stand for inspection at Fort Massac State Park. Fort Massac State Park is one of the 37 best things to do in Southern Illinois.
Military inspection at Fort Massac State Park. Image from NPS.

Fort Massac State Park is one of the coolest historic sites in Southern Illinois. For one, its history goes back several centuries. A Spanish fort may have been built in the area as early as 1540. 

The original Fort Massac served as an outpost of New France and was abandoned after the French lost their North American colonies in the French and Indian War. The native Chickasaw nation destroyed the complex sometime after 1763. 

Reconstructed Fort Massac and a palisade fence stands beside the Ohio River. Fort Massac is one of the 37 best things to do in Southern Illinois.
Fort Massac sits on the banks of the Ohio River. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Fort Massac is best known as a staging point for George Rogers Clark and his regiment of “Long Knives”. In 1778 Clark and his militiamen fought a campaign that won the Illinois country from British control. Important sites of the Illinois Campaign can be found all over Southern Illinois.

Today you can see Fort Massac as it would have looked around 1802, just before the arrival of Lewis and Clark. William Clark was the younger brother of George Rogers Clark, and was working with Meriwether Lewis to prepare their Corps of Discovery that would explore the Louisiana Purchase.

Illinois’ first state park sits on a beautiful stretch of the Ohio river. Be sure to look into the Fort Massac Encampment Festival and the interpretive programs held throughout the year. 

A signs marks the location of one of George Roger Clark's campsites during the Illinois Campaign.
George Rogers Clark is all over Southern Illinois.

#3 Prepare with Lewis & Clark

Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail, Southern Illinois

A full-size Keelboat stands at the visitor center at Lewis & Clark State Historic Site. The Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail is one of the 37 best things to do in Southern Illinois.
A replica of the Corps of Discovery’s Keelboat at Camp Dubois. Public Domain.

Illinois offers a great stretch of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. The trail follows two of America’s greatest rivers along the forested bluffs of the Shawnee Hills. Ancient indigenous sites and remnants of New France can be seen all along the route.

Nearby National Parks can add even more to your experience. Ste. Genevieve National Historical Park offers a glimpse of what Louisiana would have looked like in the days of Lewis and Clark.

Gateway Arch National Park gives a big-picture view of the significance of the Louisiana Purchase, the Corps of Discovery, and America’s westward expansion.

Illinois’  segment of the Lewis & Clark Trail follows the pair of explorers as they made preparations for their epic westward quest. Over a dozen historic sites demonstrate what it took to put together what would become the Corps of Discovery.

Forested bluff stand over the Mississippi River in Southern Illinois.
Lewis & Clark followed the Ohio and the Mississippi shores of Illinois. Image by bk1bennet.

#4 Canoe Among the Ancients

Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge, Ullin

Bald Cypress trees stand amid the wetlands of Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge. Cypress Creek NWR is one of the 37 best things to do in Southern Illinois.
Ancient bottomland forests at Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge. Image by USFWS.

Experience the wonder and beauty of the Cache River wetlands at this internationally recognized wildlife refuge.

Paddle amid 800 hundred year old bald cypress trees at Eagle Pond or enjoy flocks of migratory birds. See if you can catch a glimpse of the Indiana Bat, an endangered species that lives at this refuge.

Cypress Creek’s bottomland hardwood forests harbor both local wildlife and migratory waterfowl. The refuge is also one of the few wildlife parks to be located along the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail.

This natural space offers a way to travel back in time and consider centuries of natural, indigenous, and United States History.

Flocks of birds fly over wetlands at Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge.
Waterfowl abound at Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge. Image by USFWS.

#5 Trek the Trail of Tears

Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, Southern Illinois

Southern Illinois holds a unique stretch of America’s tragic trail. The Cherokee experienced extreme hardship as they made their winter journey across this region.

The Illinois segment of the Trail of Tears NHT includes several historic and natural sites.

Two men walk along the wagon swales of the historic Trail of Tears. Trail of Tears National Historic Trail is one of the 37 best things to do in Southern Illinois.
Image by NPS.

Gaconda saw the crossing of the Cherokee into the state of Illinois. Illinois is one of the few places where trail ruts can still be seen. Trail of Tears State Forest and Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge offer landscapes largely unchanged from the 1830s. 

Hamburg Hill is the chief Trail of Tears Landmark in Illinois. The Cherokee suffered in freezing temperatures as they waited for the Mississippi River to thaw. Local landowners refused to allow them to camp on their land or cut down wood for warmth.

Trail of Tears State Park lies just across the Mississippi in the state of Missouri. 

A map shows 8 National wildlife refuges that are located along the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. Cypress Creek NWR is the northernmost of these refuges.

Can You Name the 5 Best National Parks?

@dinkumtribe We have a great resource for planning your next road trip. Check the bink in lio and search “road trip printable” for our awesome cheat sheet! #roadtripplanning #roadtripusa #roadtripplanner #roadtripguide #roadtrippacking #printableplanner #printableguide #nationalpark #nationalparkservice #nationalparksusa #nationalparktrip #nationalparkroadtrip #adhdfamilytravel #familytravelcreator #familytraveltiktoker #oregonfamily #pnwfamily #pnwfamilies #oregonfamilies #familytravelvlog #familytravelblog #familytravelblogger #familytravelvlogger #familytravelinfluencer #travelwithkids @dinkumtribe ♬ original sound – DinkumTribe ADHD family travel

#6 Bike the Tunnel Hill State Trail

Tunnel Hill State Trail, Harrisburg to Karnak

A railway tunnel cuts through the Shawnee Hills on the Tunnel Hill State Trail. The Tunnel Hill State Trail is one of the 37 best things to do in Southern Illinois.
The Tunnel Hill State Trail in Southern Illinois. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Take in South Illinois’ scenic beauty via this 45 mile bike trail. The Tunnel Hill State Trail follows original railway paths to bring you through some of Illinois’ most beautiful countryside. The trail intersects the River to River Trail (see below), the Trail of Tears (see above), and the Cache River State Natural Area (#8).

Cyclists bike their way through Spring forestland on the Tunnel Hill State Trail.
Spring beauty on the Tunnel State Trail. Image by Jeff Sharp.

#7 Hike the River to River Trail

River to River Trail, Grand Tower to Elizabethtown

Looking for something epic? The River to River Trail challenges you to hike the distance between Illinois’ two great rivers. The 160 mile trail runs from the Mississippi River on the west to the Ohio River on the East.

Morning lights up the Garden of the Gods, one of the many landmarks of the River to River Trail. The River to River Trail is one of the 37 best things to do in Southern Illinois.
Garden of the Gods is the best known landmark along the River to River Trail. Image by Michael.

This trail guides you into remote areas of the Shawnee Hills, five nationally designated natural areas, and several state parks. Landmarks include Cedar Lake, Garden of the Gods, and several beautiful views of the Mississippi River. 

A wide range of wildlife can be spotted along the trail. Keep an eye out for bald eagle, armadillo, and red fox as you pass through the forests, grasslands, and wetlands that make up this remarkable trek.

Armadillos are native to Illinois Southern Tip. Image by Gigrantula / Wikimedia Commons.

#8 Discover Illinois’ Rich Ecosystems

Cache River State Natural Area, Belknap

A peaceful morning lights up autumn leaves at Cache River State Natural Area. Cache River State Natural Area is one of the 37 best things to do in Southern Illinois.
Ancient Cypress trees at Cache River State Natural Area. Image by Michael.

A wealth of natural wonder resides at Cache River State Natural Area. The 16,000 acre park is home to 113 rare and endangered species, ancient forests, and a gargantuan Cherrybark Oak Tree. 

The Park’s bottomland hardwood forest are composed of ancient, enormous cypress trees. Some of these trees are 1000 years old and one of them is the largest in the entire state. Explore this remarkable area via canoe, kayak, or the park’s 20 miles of hiking trails.

Golden leaves fill Cache River's forest canopy.
Beauty from all sides at Cache River State Natural Area. Image by Michael.

#9 Relax by the Water

Bell Smith Springs Scenic Area, Ozark

Water pours over sandstone rock formations in Illinois Shawnee Hills.
Image by Joseph Gage.

Enjoy quiet waters, lush greenery, and massive stone clefts at Bell Smith Springs. This scenic area has a reputation for beauty and tranquility.

The eight mile trail system allows for easy access to the area’s clear streams and bizarre rock formations including Devil’s Backbone, Boulder Falls, and a natural bridge.

Two young women sit on an enormous rock at Bell Smith Springs Scenic Area.
Bell Smith Springs has been a favorite destination for a long time. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

#10 Explore an Illinois Wilderness

Lusk Creek Canyon Nature Preserve, Eddyville

Hike the wilderness in a quiet corner of Illinois. Lusk Creek Canyon Nature Preserve encloses the large, scenic canyon of Lusk Creek, rare native plants, and local wildlife. At 4,796 acres, you’re sure to get some moments of quiet solitude.

#11 Experience the Shawnee Hills

Ferne Clyffe State Park, Goreville

Golden leaves fill forestland at Ferne Clyffe State Park. Ferne Clyffe is one of the 37 best things to do in Southern Illinois.
Autumn glory at Ferne Clyffe State Park. Image by MIchael.

Ferne Clyffe is a great place to experience Illinois’ Shawnee Hills. The 2,430 acre park has long been known for its secluded waterfalls, fern covered rock formations, and wide scenic views.

The Big Rocky Hollow Trail  makes an easy and rewarding hike for the family. You can enjoy Ferne Clyffe’s rugged beauty on this 0.7 mile trail.

Autumn colors emblazon forestland around a lake at Ferne Clyffe State Park.
Ferne Clyffe State Park in Southern Illinois. Image by MIchael.

#12 Plumb a Pirate Cave

Cave-In-Rock State Park, Cave-In-Rock

A historic photo of Cave-in-Rock, an infamous hide out for thieves and pirates. Cave-in-Rock State Park is one of the 37 best things to do in Southern Illinois.
Cave-In-Rock was a hideout for pirates and outlaws. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

A notorious cave lies at the very edge of southeastern Illinois. Cave-In-Rock State Park recalls a time when pirates and outlaws terrorized America’s rivers. The 55 foot wide cave inhabits a bluff overlooking Ohio River. 

Cave-in-Rock State Park has a lot to offer families.The Park includes a playground, eatery, cabins, nature trail. Swallows nest among the river bluffs and a ferry serves people who are ready to cross the river. 

A view of the tunnel like cave of Cave-In-Rock State Park.
A view from inside Cave-In-Rock. Image by Terry Priest.

#13 Search Out the Bluffs

Rim Rock National Recreation Trail, Findlay

The opening of Ox-Lot Cave peaks out from a sandstone bluff on the Rim Rock National Recreation Trail. Rim Rock National Recreation Trail is one of the 37 best things to do in Southern Illinois.
Ox-Lot Cave at Rim Rock National Recreation Trail. Image by Katie Tagtmeyer.

Wind about caves, crags, and clefts on this adventurous 1.7 mile trail. The loop trail follows the rim of a rock cliff before venturing down between tall, rock slabs.

Historic Ox-Lot Cave has hosted Native Americans as well as early pioneers.

Rim Rock National Recreation Trail includes a picnic area as well as vault toilets.

A wooden staircase descend amid the rock clefts of the RIm Rock National Recreation Trail.
Descend into the depths on the Rim Rock Nation Recreation Trail. Image by Curtis Albert.

#14 Behold the Garden of the Gods

Garden of the Gods Recreation Area, Herod

Morning sunlight gilds the Garden of the Gods in llinois' Shawnee National Forest. Garden of the Gods is one of the 37 best things to do in Southern Illinois.
The Garden of the Gods. Image by Daniel Schwen / Wikimedia Commons.

Don’t miss out on the most-loved landmark of the Shawnee Hills. The Garden of the Gods seems to combine the best of the Shawnee Hills into one place. Bizarre landforms and incredible views make this place an extraordinary excursion. 

A short trail and interpretive signs guide you through the natural history behind the Garden of the Gods.

Camping, hiking, horse riding, hunting, birdwatching, and picnicking are all welcome here. 

The sun peaks over the horizon as seen from the Garden of the Gods in Southern Illinois.
Daybreak at the Garden of the Gods. Image by Michael.

#15 Spot Some Wildlife

Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, Marion

Sunset paints the sky at Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge. Crab Orchard is one of the 37 best things to do in Southern Illinois.
Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge. Image by USFWS.

Watch river otters, white-tailed deer, and wild turkeys in action at this 44,000 wildlife refuge. Crab Orchard NWR holds an array of ecosystems including upland forests, bottomland hardwood forests, bushland, prairie, and wetlands. Nearly all of the refuge is officially designated wilderness.

It’s no wonder then that local wildlife abounds here. You’re likely to see one of the five pairs of eagles that dwell in this refuge.

Eastern bluebirds, indigo buntings, white-eyed vireos, and summer tanagers are only few of the bird species that frequent this natural haven. 

A river otter slides across packed snow at Crab Orchard NWR.
A river otter slides across the snow at Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge. Image by USFWS.

#16 Wander Through a Giant City

Giant City State Park, Makanda

Strange rock formations soar toward the sky at Giant City State Park. Giant City State Park is one of the 37 best things to do in Southern Illinois.
Strange and enormous rock formations at Giant City State Park. Image by Hammer.

Ready for something weird? Giant City State Park is one of the better-known natural wonders of the Shawnee National Forest, and a great place to get active outdoors. The Park takes its name from the enormous, fantastic sandstone formations found throughout the park.

Giant City Nature Trail is the park’s most popular hike. The easy, 1 mile loop trail guides you through the “Giant City Streets”, gargantuan blocks of rock. Fern, moss, shrubs, and wildflowers, and trees lend a gentle beauty to these ancient rocks.

Eroded sandstone makes strange and fantastic shapes at Giant City State Park.
Giant City State Park. Image by David Wilson.

Giant City Lodge has its own appeal. The historic lodge was build by the CCC in 1937 and still hosts guests today. Dine at the Bald Knob Dining Room, peruse the gift shop, and stay at one of the three kinds of cabins offered by the Lodge.

This wonderful park welcomes hiking, horseback riding, rock climbing and several other activities. 85 developed campsites invite you to stay in the park. Be sure to contact the Giant City Visitor Center to get all of the information you’ll need.

#17 Celebrate African American Heritage

African American Museum of Southern Illinois, Carbondale

Five African American boys sit on the front of a car in a historic, black and white photo. African American Museum is one of the 37 best things to do in Southern Illinois.
Illinois has a rich African American heritage. Public Domain.

Hear stories of heroism and determination at the African American Museum of Southern Illinois. This grassroots museum showcases outstanding citizens of African American History. You’ll find the museum in Carbondale’s University Mall near the Science Center of Southern Illinois.

#18 Build Your Scientific Knowledge

The Science Center of Southern Illinois, Carbondale

Here’s one of the funnest destinations in the area! The Science Center of Southern Illinois is a well loved educational powerhouse. This small-but-mighty museum is packed with educational exhibits and learning opportunities. 

This interactive, reasonably-priced museum has made a name for itself. Monthly events give children the chance to get hands-on experience in scientific study.

The Center also offers an impressive array of birthday party science activities.  

#19 Get Dramatic

McLeod Theater, Carbondale

Southern Illinois University's bell tower stand watch in the early evening moonlight.
The McLeod Theater is located at the University of Southern Illinois. Image by Nicole Davis.

Enjoy theatrical excellence at the McLeod Theater. Southern Illinois University’s well-rated theater performs a range of productions from Shakespearian works to hard-rock musicals. The McLeod’s stage is active throughout the school year and even continues over the summer months

#20 Play with a Dragon

Boo Castle Park, Carbondale

Here’s a stop that we just couldn’t leave out. Boo Rachman Memorial Park may be the greatest kid’s park in all of Illinois. Children can scramble over a life-size dragon, talk with wizards, and defend castles at this magical place.

This privately owned park was built in memory of Jeremy “Boo” Rachman, an artistic man who died in a tragic car accident. Boo excelled in fantasy artwork and many of the park’s features are taken directly from his works. 

Boo Castle Park welcomes the public to play and explore. No entrance fee is required, but donations are always appreciated.

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#21 Find the Little Grand Canyon

Little Grand Canyon, Pomona

Tree, ferns, and shrubs grow amid the crags and clefts of the Little Grand Canyon.
A glimpse of the Little Grand Canyon. Image by artistmac.

The Shawnee Hills host a tiny treasure. Wild flowers and rock formations make the Little Grand Canyon a favorite local excursion. A 3.4 mile loop trail offers an easy and scenic Illinois adventure.

Spring and fall are the best seasons for wild flowers in the Little Grand Canyon.

A trail winds through a forest in late-autumn at the Little Grand Canyon Trail.
A late-autumn scene from the Little Grand Canyon trail. Image by artistmac.

#22 Get Wet

Lakes of Southern Illinois

Placid waters reflect the evening sky at a beautiful lake in Southern Illinois.
Washington County Lake in Southern Illinois. Image by mcfst3.

Southern Illinois is has a lot to offer in the way of lakeside fun. The scenic beauty of the Shawnees and the quiet countryside make for ideal conditions. Southern Illinois is lovely enough to enjoy and overlooked enough to be empty!

Cedar Lake, Rend Lake, and Carlyle Reservoir are only three of the dozen of lakes found in Southern Illinois. Catch largemouth bass, canoe, and relax in lakeside solitude.

Black Eyed Susans stand in afternoon sunshine at Altopass, Illinois.
Countryside charm in Southern Illinois. Image by David Wilson.

#23 Dine at a Farmhouse Brewery

Scratch Brewing Company, Ava

Taste a new side of beer at a genuine farmhouse brewery. Beer was a home-made product for much of its history. Scratch Brewery offers an opportunity to experience beer that is both traditional and unconventional at the same time!

Old barns stand tall in the Illinois countryside.
Brewing was once a regular part of farmer’s livelihood. Image by James Jordan.

Scratch brewery plays with a variety of flavors and spices. A number of Scratch’s brews forgo hops for other spices and flavors.

All of their beers use locally farmed ingredients including elderberry, maple sap, hickory, juniper, and chanterelle mushrooms. This microbrewery’s drink list changes weekly and seasonally.

Scratch is well loved for its food and location as well. The rustic brewery is off the beaten path in a quiet corner of forestland.

The menu includes wood-fired pizza and a picnic plate built of locally sourced ingredients.

Southwest Illinois

My three small daughters and I look over a display at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. Cahokia Mounds is one of the 37 best things to do in Southern Illinois.
Our family loved visiting the ancient city of Cahokia.

Southwest Illinois may be the most historic region of the state. This region holds the ruins of an ancient metropolis, remnants of New France, Lewis & Clark’s Camp Dubois, and a historic state capitol!

Finally, St. Louis, MO is just across the river offering plenty of additional options to this fun part of Illinois.

A colonial map labels the midwest as the Pais Des Illinois, the old french names for this region of France's New World Colonies.
Southwest Illinois is the most historic part of the state. Public Domain.

#24 Be Inspired

Cedarhurst Center for the Arts, Mt. Vernon

Creative opportunities abound at Cedarhurst Center of the Arts. This highly-rated museum has several admirable qualities offered at an inexpensive price. 

Cedarhurst has a strong collection of works by American artists including Cassatt, Eakins, and J. Alden Weir. The beautiful Goldman-Kuenz Sculpture Park is one of the largest sculpture gardens in the midwest, featuring dozens of sculptures over the 80 lush acres.

The Cedarhurst Center of the Arts is best known for its events and activities. This is an art museum where children are welcomed and encouraged to explore the wonders of creative expression. Be sure to look into upcoming events and activities as you plan your trip to this delightful museum.

#25 Defend New France

Fort de Chartres State Historic Site, Prairie Du Rocher

A formidable stone gateway welcome visitors to Fort de Chartres. Fort de Chartres is one of the 37 best things to do in Southern Illinois.
Fort de Chartres, Illinois’ Colonial French fort. Image from Fortwiki.com.

Illinois and Missouri share a remarkable stretch of the Mississippi River. Vestiges of what was once New France still endure in small towns such as Ste. Genevieve, Missouri and Prairie du Rocher, Illinois. Fort de Chartres stands at the heart of this historic region.

This French Colonial fort began as a wooden structure but was upgraded to a stone fortification at around the outbreak of the French and Indian War (1754). 

French colonial buildings line a street at Ste. Genevieve National Historical Park.
Ste. Genevieve NHP is another French Creole treasure on the Mississippi river. Image by Andrew Balet / Wikimedia Commons.

The British won all of France’s New World colonies but quickly found that they couldn’t sustain their enormous new empire. Fort de Chartres was abandoned and fell into disrepair. 

Lewis and Clark noted the ruined fort in their journal as they traveled up to St. Louis in 1803.

Image shows the long main gate and long exterior walls of Fort de Chartres.
Fort de Chartres is a complete colonial fort located in Southern Illinois! Image by John Stanton / FortWiki.

Today you can inspect the French Fort at Fort Chartres State Historic Site. The reconstructed fort stands restored to the days when it served as the chief military base of the Pais de Illinois. Year-round events invite you to experience life as it once was three centuries ago. 

This remarkable state park has a lot going for it even on quiet days. It’s out-of-the-way location deters crowds. At the same time, the fort is surrounded by an array of historic French towns, buildings, and battles. 

Tall stone walls surround important parts of historic Fort de Chartres in Southern Illinois.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

#26 Explore a Prehistoric Metropolis

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Collinsville

My favorite Illinois historic site is the ancient city of Cahokia. This indigenous metropolis dominated the Mississippi Valley long before the founding of modern St. Louis.

Today you can still see the remnants of this mighty city at this UNESCO World Heritage site.

Cahokia's Birdman Tablet sits in a display case in the visitor center.
The ancient metropolis of Cahokia was a center of art and culture. Image by Paul Sableman.

Cahokia may be the best place to learn about the Mississippian Culture, an important part of North American indigenous history.

Cahokia was a sophisticated, organized city that sprawled across 6 square miles. Over 100 ruins still bear witness to the power and culture of this medieval metropolis.

Cahokia’s main features are the enormous earthen mounds found throughout the park. It’s difficult to not be impressed by the precision and planning that went into building this city.

Even today you can tell that the mounds were built with specific shapes, proportions, and placements. Cahokia’s structures held sacred, political, and memorial significance for its inhabitants. 

An artist's rendition of what Cahokia probably looked like at the height of its power. Groups of villages and a few ceremonial centers surround the large walled city complex.
A rendition of what Cahokia likely looked like at the height of its power. Image by Artanisan / Wikimedia Commons.

Monks Mound dominates the Cahokia complex. The 100 foot tall platform mound is the largest indigenous structure in the United States. The multi-level mound towers over the city’s central plaza. 

Cahokia’s visitor center is a great starting place for your visit to their remarkable site. Actual artifacts and historical reproductions help you envision what took place here. Be sure to also see Woodhenge, Cahokia’s astronomical observatory.

The massive Monks Mound rules over the open park area at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.
Monks Mound, the chief mound structure at Cahokia. Image by Northfielder.

Make the Next Vacation Count

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#27 Join the Corps of Discovery

Lewis & Clark State Historic Site, Hartford

Southwestern Illinois holds one of the most important sites of the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail. Camp Dubois was the starting point for the Corps of the Discovery. It was here that Lewis and Clark made their final preparations for their epic quest across the American West.

An early American flag flies over a replica of the fort at Camp Dubois.
Camp Dubois, the point of departure for the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Image by Kbh3rd / Wikimedia Commons.

Lewis and Clark State Historic Site is a great starting point for learning about the Corps of Discovery expedition. The visitor center is rich in educational exhibits including a life-size reconstruction of the expedition’s Keelboat.

Take a walk through the reconstructed Camp Dubois to learn about the men and preparations that built the Corps of Discovery.

Don’t miss the chance to get one of the best vistas in Southern Illinois! Confluence Tower provides a bird’s eye view of the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. The tower is only a short drive from the Camp Dubois visitor center. 

My three young daughters and I look over the items that were stored in the Corps of Discovery's Keelboat.

#28 Chill Out at a Historic Bar

Fast Eddie’s Bon Air, Alton

"BON AIR" lights up the night in Pink Neon at the entrance of Fast Eddie's Bon Air.
The legendary Fast Eddie’s Bon Air. Image by Aimee Knight.

Ok, here’s a great stop for the parents! Fast Eddie’s Bon Air is one of America’s legendary bars. The establishment was bought from Anheuser-Busch in 1921 and has become legendary for live entertainment, great food, and a retro vibe.

It isn’t hard to see why this place is highly rated. Fast Eddie’s provides great live music daily. Fast Eddie’s food is well known and well loved. In the words of one happy customer “their food is good, hot, and affordable.”

Fast Eddie’s menu is built of creative and delicious dishes such as Peel-n-Eat Shrimp and Big Elwood on a Stick, a shish kebab of marinated tenderloin and grilled peppers. This beer-focused bar has 400 seats as well as comfortable outdoor areas.  

That said, this is a bar. You must be 21 years or older to enter and they only accept cash. So this is a parents-only destination.

Neon signs, photos, and a collection of vanity plates decorates a wall at Fast Eddie's Bon Air.
A glimpse inside Fast Eddie’s Bon Air. Image by Aimee Knight.

#29 Follow Lincoln into Politics

Vandalia State House Memorial, Vandalia

The Madonna of the Trail Monument stands in front of the historic Vandalia State House. The Vandalia Statehouse is one of the 37 best things to do in Southern Illinois.
Image by Vicki Timman.

A place with a name like “Vandalia” must have something stately in it. You can tour Illinois’ fourth statehouse in this historic community. Vandalia was Illinois’ state capitol from 1836 to 1839 and saw Lincoln’s service as state representative.

You can explore the historic state house via guided or self-guided tours. Special events include a Lincoln’s Birthday Observance in February, The Grand Levee in June, and a Christmas Open House.

Vandalia holds another distinction in United States history. This city is the terminus of the National Road, the first major, interstate roadway in U.S. History. 

An old map insert shows the course of the historic National Road, also known as the Cumberland Road.
Image by Erica Fischer.

South Central Illinois

Shades of green, copper, and silver highlight the the Illinois' capitol's ornate dome.
Image by David Wilson.

#30 Make a visit to the Lincoln Family

Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Springfield

Abraham Lincoln owned only one house in his lifetime, and that home still stands today. Lincoln Home National Historic Site may be the best place to experience Lincoln as a man and an American. The quiet, two-story building has much to tell about Abraham as a spouse, a father, a friend, and a neighbor.

The two-story, tan home of Abraham Lincoln stands ready to welcome visitors. Lincoln Home National Historic Site is one of the 37 best things to do in Southern Illinois.
The Lincoln Home at Lincoln Home National Historic Site. Image by tinyfroglet.

This house also reminds us that Lincoln’s story doesn’t belong to him alone. He benefited from the support of his family, friends, and community. For example, Mary Todd Lincoln’s story is no less remarkable than that her husband. 

Mary was born in a rich Southern family and received an outstanding education. She bucked convention and family disapproval by marrying a commoner. These hardships would only increase with the onset of the Civil War. 

Late afternoon sun lights up autumn leaves in the historic neighborhood at Lincoln Home National Historic Site.
Lincoln’s home and neighborhood at Lincoln Home NHS. Image by Matt Turner.

The Lincoln home tells the story of the Lincoln family from their earliest years as family right up to the Lincoln presidency. It was here that their sons were born and here that three-year old Edward died of illness.

Additionally, each room provides insight into what it was to live in frontier America in the mid-nineteenth century.

Know Before You Go

Lincoln Home NHS provides free ranger-led tours of the Lincoln home. However, the tours do require tickets and these tickets are issued on a first-come, first-served basis.

Plan ahead and arrive early to ensure the best possible experience.

Replicas of 19th century photography equipment stand beside a boardwalk at Lincoln Home National Historic Site.
Take a walk through history at Lincoln Home National Historic Site. Image by Matt Turner.

There’s a lot more than one house at Lincoln Home National Historic Site. The park also includes the neighborhood surrounding the Lincoln home. Twelve additional historic houses yield a glimpse of what life was like in mid-nineteenth century America. 

Visit the homes of supporters and opponents of Lincoln, abolition activists, and personal friends of the Lincoln family. Even better, living history demonstrations take place throughout Lincoln’s historic neighborhood.

A bronze statue of Lincoln stands framed by his monumental tomb.
Lincoln’s Tomb is only a short drive from Lincoln Home NHS. Image by tinyfroglet.

Did You Know that Illinois has 5 National Parks?

A National Park Service sign says "Mississippi River."
Image by Leonardo Martiani / GPA Photo Archive.

We’ve put together a complete list of National Parks grouped by state. Check out Illinois’ National Parks at Dinkum Tribe’s List of the National Parks and Monuments by State.

#31 Walk a Mile in Abe’s Shoes

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum, Springfield

A dark hallway features a host of malicious political cartoons about Lincoln.
Get an inside perspective on what Lincoln endured as President of the United States. Image by History Faculty.

Springfield holds one the best museums in Illinois as well as one of the best Presidential Libraries in the nation.

You can experience the life and times of the 16th president through full size replicas of key moments of Lincoln’s lifetime at this world-class museum. Two galleries tell the personal and public story of Lincoln from his birth to his death. 

Additionally, the Museum’s Treasure gallery features noteworthy artifacts from the president’s lifetime and presidency. These exhibits are regularly changing in order to preserve the artifacts and allow visitors to see new artifacts every time they visit. 

This highly-rated museum also includes a variety of educational movies as well as a well-designed child play zone. Lincoln’s Attic allows children to enter into Lincoln’s America through a variety of hands-on activities.

Lincoln stand behind his desk, pondering an important matter, in a life-size reproduction at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum.
The Lincoln library and museum feature life-size depictions of important moments. Image by History Faculty.

#32 See Double at the Illinois Capitol

Current Capitol & Old Capitol Buildings, Springfield

How many state capitols hold two capitol buildings? Springfield allows you the chance to explore the Illinois capitol, past and present. 

Illinois stately capitol soars above fall foliage in Springfield, Illinois. Springfield's two capitols are one of the 37 best things to do in Southern Illinois.
Illinois’ magnificent capitol building. Image by artistmac.

Illinois’ current state capitol is historic in its own right. The ornate building was built in 1877 and crowned with a 405 foot dome. Visitors are welcome to watch sessions of the Illinois legislature from the capitol’s upper gallery seating. 

Springfield’s Old State Capitol is a reconstruction that was built during the Civil Rights Movement. This was Illinois’ fifth state house and the capitol that is is most associated with Lincoln’s service as a lawyer and lawmaker.

It was here that Lincoln uttered his famous “House Divided” speech.

Springfields Old State Capitol building stands behind an iron fence that say "Old State Capitol 1839-1876."
Springfield’s Old Capitol building, the site of Lincoln’s House Divided speech. Image by artistmac.

#33 Build Healthy Habits

Kidzeum of Health and Science, Springfield

Kidzeum is a children’s museum with a twist. This highly-rated museum uses interactive exhibits and fun activities to teach children what healthy looks like. The museum’s three floors invite children to learn what’s involved in a healthy world, healthy community, and healthy body. 

By far, Kidzeum’s biggest attraction is Active Alex, a three story play structure/exhibit. Your kids can explore health and body systems as they explore Alex’s 40 foot tall body. 

NOTE: Sensory children may have difficulty with the abundance of sights and sounds of this museum.

Southeast Illinois

#34 Learn Through Play

Children’s Museum of Illinois, Decatur

Explore an enormous eye, crack a case, and service a muscle car at the Children’s Museum of Illinois. This well-rated museum features numerous activities on its two floors.

The Children’s Museum of Illinois overlooks beautiful Lake Decatur and is located next to the Scoville Zoo and the Scoville Gardens. 

#35 Honor a Revolutionary War Hero

George Rogers Clark National Historical Park, Vincennes, IN

The sun sets beside the George Rogers Clark Memorial at George Rogers Clark National Historical Park.
George Rogers Clark National Historical Park. Image by NPS.

Here’s a remarkable National Park that’s just outside of Southeast Illinois. George Rogers Clark National Historical Park remembers one of the most important and most overlooked victories of the Revolutionary War. This park is a great place to learn about Illinois’ French Heritage, the Revolutionary War, and the Old Northwest.

George Rogers Clark NHP is built on the site of the most important battle of the Illinois Campaign. Clark and a contingent of French and American frontiersmen marched through the frigid, winter conditions to recapture Fort Sackville. Their landmark victory won the entire Northwest territory from the British, virtually doubling the United States. 

An ornate skylight lets light inside the George Rogers Clark Memorial at George Rogers Clark National Historical Park.
The George Rogers Clark Memorial rivals those of Washington D.C. Image by Sarah Stierch.

In spite of its name, George Rogers Clark NHP also pays tribute to the French leaders and soldiers who ensured an American victory. This contribution is evident both in the monuments as well as the visitor center. 

Here’s a fun fact: how many national memorials permit fishing? George Rogers Clark National Historical Park welcomes fishing from the Wabash River.

Also be sure to take advantage of the interpretive signs and historic weapons demonstrations that can be found at this battlefield park.

An interpretive plaque gives background on Fort Sackville, the victory that is celebrated at George Rogers Clark National Historical Park.
George Rogers Clark NHP stands on an important Revolutionary War battlefield. Image by NPS.

#36 Farm with the Lincolns

Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site, Lerna

Thomas Lincolns log cabin still stands today at Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site.
The frontier farm of Thomas Lincoln and Sarah Lincoln. Image by Daniel Schwen.

Visit the Illinois frontier at Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site. The park provides context for the life and times of Abraham Lincoln by preserving the home of his parents and neighbors. Thomas and Sarah Lincoln lived on this farm during Abraham’s years as Springfield-based lawyer. 

Additionally, this 86 acre, living history farm also includes two more historic homes. The Stephen Sargent Home sheds light on Lincoln’s legal practice in the Illinois frontier. The Moore home was the place where Lincoln bid his parents farewell before leaving to take his place as President of the United States.

Sheep and other animals can be found at the living history farm in Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site.
Children enjoy the farm animals kept at Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site. Image by Andrew.

#37 Take a World’s-Largest Treasure Hunt

Big Things Small Town, Casey

A building-size rocking chair towers over a park in Casey, Illinois.
One really big rocking chair. Image by Drew Tarvin.

No trip to the Midwest is complete without an off-the-wall, roadside landmark. So how about a town of off-the-wall landmarks? Casey, Illinois has more than two dozen oversized, everyday objects all over their town. Twelve of these items hold the distinction of being the “world’s largest” of their kind.

Casey owes its collection of giant things to Jim Bolin, a local business man who was looking for a way to give back to his home town. All but two of these giants were built by Bolin Enterprises, Inc. Take a tour of Casey, IL and see how fast you can find all of the big things in this small town.

The world's largest golf tee keeps watch at a golf course in Casey, Illinois.
This is how you tee up in Casey, Illinois. Image by Drew Tarvin.

Land of Opportunity

A bronze statue of Lincoln stands in front of Springfield's Union Station Train Museum.
So many great places in Southern Illinois! Image by Matt Turner.

Believe it or not, we actually have more stops than we can cover in this post! Stay tuned for even more great things to do in Southern Illinois. Happy traveling! 

My son flexes his muscles after adding a Metropolis bumper sticker to our quickly-growing collection.
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! Wait, it’s another bumper sticker!!!
Pinnable collage for best things to do in Southern Illinois
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About the author

Brian Warren is a native of California and has traveled extensively throughout the United States, Canada, and several other countries. He's husband to Jennifer, Dad of six children, and taught middle school history for several years. His special interests include craft beers, the American Old West, and geology. Brian is also an online marketing specialist and cofounder of Dinkum Tribe, a website dedicated to healthy, happy families. Feel free to send Brian a message at [email protected].


  1. The photos of the ducks and the sunsets are so lovely and I really loved the Superman connection. Really fun thing for kids to do. I was honestly surprised by just how much there was to do in Southern Illinois.

  2. We really have not spent much time in Illinois. So it was interesting to read more about the family friendly things to see and do. I will have to check out the Roadtrippers App for great things to do along the way. Lots of fun outdoor things to burn off energy and stretch your legs on road trips.

  3. Southern Illinois seems like a place with a lot of gems to discover, and a perfect autumn destination!
    it would be super cool to meet Superman and discover the architecture of the cities! Lovely guide!

  4. I love how many fun outdoor activities and parks there are here. The cave in Rock state park looks fun. Metropolis sounds like a really unique place, fun for the kids for sure

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