Mention to friends that you’re going to Galena, Illinois, and they smile and nod their approval. It’s one of those places we all love to visit. Galena is my #1 favorite small town in the Midwest.
Lead mining put Galena on the map in the 1820s. Back then, the population was 10,000. (Today it’s around 3,500.) Later the city became an important steamboat hub, and by the late 1850s, the population had increased to 14,000. Then Galena started to decline and languished for decades until it was rediscovered by tourism in the 1980s.
Today Galena is a popular destination with a million visitors a year. Since 2004, the community has received numerous awards from travel publications including Conde Nast, Forbes, and Midwest Living.
I always look forward to the drive to Galena. Within a couple of hours, the scenery changes dramatically from flat corn and soybean fields to rolling hills and valleys. A visitors’ guide for nearby Elizabeth, Illinois announces, “Your vacation starts with our view . . .” Yes, indeed!
What to see and what to do
Galena has a whole range of activities so I divide them up into three parts. My travel companions determine how much I’ll do in each category.
- Historic homes and sites
U.S. Grant Home
Over on Bouthillier Street, President Ulysses S. Grant’s Home is a must-see. The furnished 1860 brick house was presented to General and Mrs. Grant by a group of local citizens in appreciation for his Union victory. Today, brochures describe the house as furnished with 90% of the pieces that belonged to the family. Knowledgeable guides will give you an interesting tour.
Re-enactors carry on the spirit of Grant and his soldiers.
The Belvedere Mansion is advertised as the largest mansion in Galena. It’s a beautiful house on the outside, but save your money and skip the tour of the inside. The rooms are full of clutter and most of it’s not appropriate to the home’s 1857 era.
2. Shopping and wine tasting
Galena’s Main Street has been recognized as a favorite for its shops, art galleries and boutiques, and for good reason. There are over 100 shops located in the restored 19th century store fronts. Near the flood gates is the Galena Cellars where you can do some wine tasting and buy extra bottles to take home.
3. Outdoor – hiking, kayaking, and alpine sliding
It’s fun to take the challenge of walking up those stairs to the upper streets. For your efforts you’ll be rewarded with a panoramic view of downtown Galena. (Fitbit later emailed that I had earned a badge for climbing so many steps, an added bonus.)
Once you’ve made it to the upper levels, stroll around and see all the historic homes.
The once busy Galena River is now the perfect place to enjoy kayaking, canoeing, or paddle boarding. Bring your own equipment or rent from the popular Fever River Outfitters.
Chestnut Mountain Resort is just a few scenic miles from downtown Galena, and there you can do some alpine sliding with the kids.
Where to Stay and Eat
The DeSoto Hotel, located on Main Street, makes the perfect home base for walking to all the sites, shopping, and restaurants. The DeSoto opened in 1855 and is the oldest operating hotel in Illinois. Former guests include Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas.
Galena has plenty of restaurants to choose from. During the warmer months, I enjoy outdoor dining, so a table on the patio at Vinny Vanucchi’s Little Italy is the perfect choice. I would highly recommend Fried Green Tomatoes, too.
There’s so much to enjoy in the small town of Galena – plan to visit soon!