The state capital of Illinois since 1839, Springfield is the second-largest city outside of the Chicago Metropolitan Area. It’s impossible to talk about this city without bringing up Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, who lived here from 1837 until 1861 when he left for Washington.
You’ll find out all you could want to know about this colossal figure in American history, at the house he lived in for 17 years, at the old state capitol where he argued cases as a lawyer and at his modern presidential library and museum.
Springfield’s appeal also extends beyond its most famous resident, and is home to the Frank Lloyd-Wright’s groundbreaking Dana-Thomas House and of course the present State Capitol, famed for its lofty zinc dome.
I’ve been visiting Springfield several times over the last years (it’s less than a 3 hour drive for me) and discovered much of its attractions and landmarks. Here are, in my experience, the best things to do in Springfield.
1. Lincoln Home National Historic Site
The only home that Abraham Lincoln ever owned is in Springfield. He lived at this Greek Revival-style house at the corner of Eight and Jackson Streets for 17 years before leaving for the White House in 1861.
During my visit I learned that the historic site is managed by the National Park Service and has been restored to its 1860 appearance. I suggest taking the tour, given by National Park Service rangers, which will reveal more about Lincoln the politician and president, but also the husband, father and neighbor.
After I made my way through the house’s various rooms, including Abraham’s bedroom, formal parlor, sitting room and dining room, I went out into the park. On the grounds are the Dean and Arnold Houses, both of which can be visited and there are various outdoor exhibits, including a string of exhibits focusing on Lincoln along Eight Street.
2. Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
Opened in 2005, the presidential library and museum for Abraham Lincoln is the most-visited institution of its kind in the country. This is also quite unlike any other presidential library, telling the life story of the 16th president in creative and surprising ways. I really liked that the exhibits are peppered with artifacts from Lincoln’s life and include the quill pen he used to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, his original hand-written copy of the Gettysburg Address and the gloves that were in his pocket when he was assassinated.
I also saw some intimate personal effects of Mary Todd, like her wedding dress, music box and porcelain items she had at the White House. These are from a collection that numbers in the tens of thousands and is constantly rotated to keep the displays fresh. The museography features detailed reproductions from key settings in Lincoln’s life, like his boyhood home, the White House as it was in 1861 and the presidential box from Ford’s Theater.
3. Dana-Thomas House
The great Frank Lloyd-Wright (1867-1959) was just entering his fabled Prairie period when he designed this sublime home for the lively heiress and socialite Susan Lawrence Dana (1862-1946). Ready in 1902, the Dana-Thomas House is considered the best-preserved Lloyd-Wright project from this time and an icon of American design.
The architect took control of the finest details, and the property retains more than 100 pieces of Lloyd-Wright oak furniture, 100 light fixtures and 250 examples of art glass, much of which features a beautiful sumac motif.
On my tour I marveled at the famous barrel-vaulted dining room and the 60-foot pergola hallway, above a billiard room, bowling lane and walk-in vault.
4. Lincoln Tomb & War Memorials
Abraham Lincoln’s final resting place can be found on the north side of the city at Oak Ridge Cemetery. This granite monument is suffused with symbolism, and made up of a single-story platform edged by a balustrade.
Placed on that terrace is an obelisk, 117 feet tall. Completed in 1874 after six years of work, the memorial was designed by Larkin Goldsmith Mead, and greeting you on a pedestal is a recast of Lincoln’s head from the bust installed at the United States Capitol crypt.
What I noticed was that the nose has been burnished by generations of visitors rubbing it for good luck. The marble-rich interior centers on a rotunda with 16 pilasters, one for Lincoln and each of the 15 presidents who preceded him.
The burial room is towards the rear of the monument, and is dominated by the 7-ton cenotaph, carved from reddish marble.
Oak Ridge meanwhile is the most visited cemetery in the country behind Arlington, and within a few steps of the Lincoln tomb are state memorials for Illinoisans who served and gave their lives in WWII, Korea and Vietnam.
5. Illinois State Capitol
As the state grew during the 19th century, Illinois required a new, sixth state capitol, begun in 1868 and completed 20 years later. The architecture blends the French Renaissance and Italianate styles, and is noted for its soaring dome, 405 feet over the city streets and 92.5 feet wide. As with the building’s other roofs, this is clad with zinc, which gives it an unusual sheen in the sun.
You can drop by the center of government in Illinois to admire some wonderful details, like the dome’s interior, which has a frieze depicting scenes from the state’s history, and a stained glass replica of the state seal in the oculus.
And when the legislature is in session you’ll be free to sit in and see politics in action from the balcony.
Further reading: Most Beautiful places to visit in Illinois
6. Illinois State Museum
You can get in touch with 500 million years of natural and cultural history at the state museum, which has a massive reserve of 13.5 million objects in its collections.
Across three floors, these are presented to the public in engaging exhibits, which include a lot of interactivity and audiovisual elements.
At Home in the Heartland documents domestic life in the state across 300 years, Peoples of the Past brings a Native American village to life, while Changes: Dynamic Illinois Environments is a hands-on journey through Illinois’ natural history, showing off the strange species that inhabited this region of shallow sea in the Paleozoic Era. I love that they take you through the geological history of Illinois.
Families with younger children will love the Mary Ann MacLean Play Museum, an interactive space where kids can dig for fossils, piece together a baby mastodont, explore a cave and much more.
7. Old State Capitol Historic Site
An obligatory sight on Springfield’s Old Town Square is the fine Greek Revival building that served as Illinois’ state house from 1840 to 1876. It was at this very place that Abraham Lincoln announced his candidacy for the presidency in 1858, as did Barack Obama in 2007.
Lincoln had pleaded cases in front of the state supreme court in this building since 1840, and made his epochal House Divided speech when he announced his candidacy in 1858.
In May 1865 his body was brought back to this same chamber to lie in state. Until the 1960s the building served as the Sangamon County courthouse, after which it was restored to its 19th-century appearance in time for the Civil War centennial. You can come for a 30-minute self-guided tour at regular intervals throughout the day, and staff are posted throughout the building to answer questions.
Tip: After our walk we took by the building, I visited the taproom at nearby Anvil Forge Brewing & Distilling, which is a must-visit if you’re into craft beer.
8. Washington Park
Landscaped at the turn of the 20th century, this rambling park on the west side of Springfield is on the National Register of Historic Places. Washington Park is spread over 150 acres and was initially conceived as a terminus for the trolley line that served the city at the time.
This space is bordered by grand houses in old neighborhoods, and a remarkable amount of features from the park’s original design have made it through to the present day. A must-see attraction within these borders is the botanical garden, growing more than 1,800 different plant species and boasting a conservatory with a 50-foot glass dome.
You can tour a rose garden with 5,000 plants, and come for seasonal displays of poinsettias, Easter lilies, orchids and Japanese bonsai trees. One landmark that I personally found very impressive is the 132-foot Thomas Rees Memorial Carillon looming over the north side of the park, one of the largest structures of its kind in the world and holding 67 bells.
9. Route 66
Remembered for migration west during the Depression years, and then the innovative roadside attractions and businesses of the post-war period, Route 66 continues to shine as a piece of Americana long after it was removed from the highway system in 1985.
At the Springfield Visitors Center you can pick up an Explorers Passport, which can be stamped at businesses imbued with the spirit of the highway’s golden age.
Some of these “Living Legends” are the Cozy Dog Drive In, which has a history going back to 1946, and the Maid-Rite Sandwich Shop (1921), which claims to have the country’s first ever drive-thru window.
10. Illinois State Military Museum
Close to the National Guard base and the Illinois Military Academy is a first-class military museum, established in 1878 and housed in a building that resembles an artillery fort. This is crammed with all kinds of curiosities, and charts the military history of the state from its early citizen-soldiers to the modern armed forces.
Among the standout pieces you’ll find Mexican Santa Anna’s (1794-1876) artificial leg and a target board used by Abraham Lincoln.
Elsewhere you can inspect a trove of uniforms, weapons, vehicles, flags, equipment and photography, and discover fascinating accounts by 19th-century citizen-soldiers, including Lincoln, John A. Logan and Carl Sandburg.
11. Illinois Governor’s Mansion
Springfield is home to the third-oldest continuously occupied governor’s mansion in the United States. This residence has been located in the city since the capital was relocated here in 1839, and the current Italianate building was completed in 1855, with Joel Aldrich Matteson (1808-1873) moving here in 1856.
Over the last 170 years the property has come through remodels, restorations and repairs in 1889, 1897, 1917 and 1971, the latter coming after a long period of disrepair.
The mansion was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, and stands as a symbol or leadership for the Illinois State Government but also a superb house museum.
The 19th-century interiors have been retained, and public tours take place between 1 pm and 4 pm most weekdays. Come during the holiday season and the entire mansion is opulently adorned with Christmas decorations.
12. Abraham Lincoln Memorial Garden
On the east shore of Lake Springfield, this 100-acre woodland and prairie garden is a living memorial first laid out in the 1930s by the landscape architect Jens Jensen.
The idea was to plant the estate in a naturalistic style to recreate the Illinois scenery that Abraham Lincoln would have known in his youth.
To that end, only plant communities native to Illinois, Kentucky and Indiana can be found here. There are more than five miles of trails to explore, in an environment that changes character with the seasons. Spring brings dogwood blooms, while the prairie is speckled with wildflowers in summer, and autumn brings stunning red and gold tones. There’s a map of the area near the entrance where we plotted our walk (also free parking).
13. Edwards Place Historic Home
The prominent lawyer and politician Benjamin S. Edwards (1818-1886) owned this palatial Italianate house, one of the two oldest in Springfield. In his long and distinguished career as an attorney, Edwards came into contact with the likes of Edward Dickinson Baker, Stephen A. Douglas and of course Abraham Lincoln.
This house became a venue for rallies and gatherings, and Lincoln himself gave a speech from a second story window. On a guided tour through the recently restored first and second floor I found elegant period decor and authentic Victorian furniture, much of which belonged to Edwards.
A compelling piece of genuine Lincoln memorabilia I saw is the “Lincoln Courting Couch”, from the home of Edwards’ father Ninian. This is where Lincoln and Mary Todd were married in 1842, and the couch is accompanied by a piano thought to have been played at the ceremony.
14. Knight’s Action Park
One of those family attractions that has a bit of everything, Knight’s Action Park has a history going back to 1930 and is now in its third generation.
The park’s first amenity was a driving range that remains open year round to this day. This is combined with seasonal fun, including a water park with eight slides, carnival rides like the Big Wheel, an 18-hole mini golf course, an arcade (also open all year), batting cages and go-karts.
One recent addition is the twin drive-in movie theater, screening movies and serving delicious snacks April through September.
15. Horseshoe Sandwiches
The Leland Hotel, at the corner of 6th and Capitol, and now an office building, is the birthplace of Springfield’s best-known culinary contribution. The Horseshoe Sandwich was invented in 1928 by the hotel’s chef, Joe Schewska and is now served at casual eateries across the city.
This is an open-faced sandwich, normally composed of Texas toast loaded with a hamburger patty, a rich cheese sauce and french fries. That cheese sauce is more sophisticated than you might think, and, a bit like Welsh rarebit, containing beer, Worcestershire sauce, mustard and cayenne pepper.
As you can tell from the ingredients, this is not a light meal (filled me up quite well), but if you’re in the mood for something hearty, Obed & Isaac’s Microbrewery (500 S 6th St) has one of the best takes on the Horseshoe in the city.
That’s it, but you can continue reading some of my other posts on Illinois: