Best Things to Do in Galena, Illinois: 8 Reasons to Drive to

In all its sky-scraping towers and equally sky-scraping deep-dish pizzas, Chicago is a decidedly un-subtle city that tends to dominate the cultural conversation in Illinois, but beyond the confines of America’s third largest metropolis, there’s a whole world of pastoral prairies, rolling green hills, and charming towns that are well worth the cost of gas. Galena is one such place. Located on the northwesternmost corner of Illinois, near the Mississippi River and the Iowa border, it’s a breath-of-fresh-air town that’s basically the antithesis of Chicago. While only a three-hour drive, it feels more like a three-century drive with its preserved-in-time architecture, pristine farmland, and singular history covering everything from US presidents to Kraft Cheese. So the next time you need a break from the hustle and bustle of Chicago, and its tourist-snarled summer streets, here are 8 reasons why you should make the drive to Galena, Illinois.

The town is like a time warp

A stark contrast to Chicago’s shiny towers and even shinier Bean, Galena is the town that time forgot—and we mean that with love. It’s nice to hole up someplace that feels of a simpler era—one filled with barn dances and ice cream parlors. The downtown area still looks the way it did in the 19th century, replete with brick walkways and buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Much of this is on full display along Main Street, where more than 100 businesses—from candy counters and wine bars to restaurants and toy stores—are nestled inside original buildings from the 1800s.

Beyond shopping and snacking, history is everywhere in Galena. This is particularly prominent with its Presidential lore, as the town was home to President Ulysses S. Grant, whose former abode is managed by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, and is available for tours. President Abe Lincoln also had Galena ties, including a famous speech he made from the DeSoto House Hotel. The Victorian-style inn is the oldest operating hotel in the state, and Lincoln impersonators still host old-timey dinner theater events on the property, complete with chicken Fricassee and apple pie. For more historic eats and sips, check out Mulgrew’s Tavern & Liquor Store, one of the oldest bars in Illinois (in operation since 1921), famed for its cheap beer, foot-long chili dogs, and slot machines. Then there’s Council Hill Station, an 1850s general store-turned-saloon, with live music, country breakfasts, and summer barn dances.

Goldmoor Inn & Dining
Goldmoor Inn & Dining

Farm-to-table dining doesn’t get any purer

In general, for a town with a population of a few thousand, Galena’s dining scene impresses with its array of restaurants and its mix of old and new, from adorably dusty saloons to a newfangled queer-owned bakery slinging empanadas and Argentinian cheese bread. Considering the town is surrounded by bucolic farmland and fresh water, it’s not surprising that much of its restaurants are seasonally driven and locally sourced, like cedar-planked walleye and espresso steak at Fried Green Tomatoes, or artisan cheese plates and Illinois wines at Woodlands Restaurant & Lounge. The belle of the ball when it comes to local fine dining, though, is the Goldmoor Inn, a historic manor-like hotel that applies a modern interpretation to its farm-fresh fare. For the ultimate Galena foodie vibe, dine at the chef’s table overlooking the kitchen and feast on 10-hour sous vide pork belly, lamb loin with za’atar carrots and chorizo jus, and housemade agnolotti with morel mushrooms, candied hazelnuts, charred leeks, and dashi beurre blanc. In the morning, rise and shine at Galena Bakehouse, a contemporary cafe owned by husbands Geoff and Alex Arroyo-Karnish, who moved to Galena from Manhattan in 2019 to ply the town with a mix of scratch-made American pastries (e.g. muffins, cinnamon rolls, cupcakes) and well-traveled treats (empanadas, tres leches cake, and Argentinian cheese bread called chipas).

Flickr/Michael John Maniurski
Apple River Canyon State Park | Flickr/Michael John Maniurski

Outdoor recreation abounds

In Chicago, outdoor recreation is typically limited to urban beaches and drinking cocktails on rooftops. In the quieter, wide-open terrain of Galena, however, outdoor activities are a bit more bountiful. Hiking and biking opportunities can be found throughout the town’s parks, forests, and prairies, including the nearly nine-mile long Galena River Trail, Apple River Canyon State Park, and Casper Bluff Land & Water Reserve, where you can traverse trails and theorize about ancient Native American effigy mounds in the Earth.

With waterways criss-crossing the region, there are plenty of aquatic options to choose from too, including fishing on Lake Galena (just be mindful that bald eagles might provide some competition, since Illinois is home to the second largest wintering population outside of Alaska). Or you can rent kayaks, canoes, and paddle boards from Galena River Outfitters, offering guided jaunts on the tranquil Galena River. After exploring Galena by land and water, it’s time to buckle up and hit the sky—Long Hollow Canopy Tours provides adrenaline-pumping zip line tours through Tapley Woods, at speeds up to 40 mph and heights that reach 75 feet.

Hoof It - Galena
Hoof It – Galena

You can commune with goats

Since literally any outdoor activity is improved by the presence of goats, Galena is a veritable paradise of cute outings with hooved critters. A company called Hoof It Goat Treks does exactly what their name promises, taking guests on leisurely guided hikes through prairies and forests with baby goats in tow. For adults, the company also provides goat trek/wine tasting combos, wherein hikers can stroll the forest with a glass of wine, followed by a tasting of wine and goat cheese (naturally). Even those not able to make it to Galena can get in on the goat action—in quite the pandemic pivot, Hoof It now provides “goat calls,” so you can have a goat join your Zoom business meeting.

Goat yoga is another popular local pastime, best experienced with Galena Goat Yoga on Silver Linings Farm. Each 45-minute session, the perfect combination of stretching and snuggling, provides yoga mats in an air conditioned studio. Or if you’d prefer something more relaxed, the studio offers hour-long coffee breaks in a furnished corn crib with pastries and about a dozen goats. The company also provides private goat events, in case you’d really like to take your bachelorette party to the next level.

It’s the birthplace of Kraft Cheese

It isn’t just goat cheese in Galena. If you prefer your dairy products with an unnatural orange hue and a curiously high melting point, then you’re gonna want to drive to Galena for the cheese alone, as the town is the birthplace of Kraft. Everyone’s favorite thinly sliced cheese product was born in the tiny suburban town of Stockton, and the company’s all-American lore is on full display at the Stockton Heritage Museum. The pint-sized museum tells the story of J.L. Kraft & Bros. Co., who opened their first cheese plant in the town and began delivering milk from local dairies to the facility via horse-drawn wagon. Nowadays, museum visitors can snap selfies with one of said wagons, gain inspiration from Kraft-inspired cookbooks, and learn everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the invention of Velveeta.

Chestnut Mountain Resort
Chestnut Mountain Resort

The mighty Mississippi is teeming with activities

In terms of epic all-natural Americana, it doesn’t get much mightier than the Mississippi River. The iconic waterway traverses the western border of Illinois, along the edge of Galena and the state of Iowa, so naturally such a major body of water is going to provide some staggering scenery. Visit the riverside Chestnut Mountain Resort for a choose-your-own-adventure of Mississippi-adjacent activities, from the Soaring Eagle Zipline to mini golf courses and an Alpine slide that zooms down the banks of a forested palisade to the shores of the river. The resort also provides Mississippi River cruises, for an informative guided immersion into the river’s ecosystem and wildlife.

Chestnut Mountain Resort
Chestnut Mountain Resort

There’s no shortage of family-friendly fare

As evidenced by the surplus of zip lines and baby goats, Galena is a wholesome wonderland for families and kids. For food and activities alike, most everything in this quaint town caters to visitors of all ages—except maybe the wineries and wine bars, of which there are surprisingly many. Galena is a sweet tooth paradise, teeming with old-timey ice cream parlors and candy shops, including the 50-year-old American Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor and Candy Carnival for all your taffy, popcorn, and mini donut needs. In terms of shopping, Gabby’s Gifts is a quirky spot filled with kid-friendly knickknacks like puzzles, toys, and childrens’ books, while the P.T. Murphy Magic Theatre is sure to be a hoot with its silly theatrics and close-up sleight of hand. One ongoing activity that’s fun for the whole brood is Live at the Plaza, held every last Thursday of the month at Green Street Plaza through September. The free events offer something for everyone and all ages—live music, food, extended hours in nearby shops, and other performances, all with different themes like diversity and inclusion, or Hispanic heritage.

Lacoma Golf
Lacoma Golf

It’s a goldmine for golfers

In addition to paddling, hiking, and screaming for ice cream, golf is another mainstay activity in Galena County, as the lush region boasts some of the most meticulously manicured greenways in the Midwest. There are 11 courses in the area, ranging in size and scope from leisurely nine-hole courses to championship-level courses for the seasoned golf pro and/or masochist. Standout options include the Apple Canyon Lake Golf Course, with nine holes weaving by canyons, hills, and bluffs, and Lacoma Golf Course, a veritable Disneyland of golf that’s grown from a nine-hole course in 1967 to a 45-hole complex consisting of three different courses, plus a driving range, full practice facilities, a pro shop, and a bar. If you’re looking to try something a little more novel and a little less rage-inducing, try your hand (or your foot) at FootGolf, a soccer-golf hybrid at Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa. Essentially, it looks like a jumbo version of golf, with soccer balls in place of golf balls, and over-sized holes and flags to aim for.

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Matt Kirouac is a travel writer working on a memoir about the epic ups and downs from life on the road as a gay couple—and the lessons learned along the way. Follow him on IG @mattkirouacofficial.

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