A typical tourist can have a great time in Illinois, but there's more to the state than the spots everyone else is going to visit. Chicago is a thriving center with major sports franchises, incredible architecture, and amazing food. The state also boasts lovely natural features and plenty of historical sites, like the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln. If you want to find the coolest places in the state while you're there, a little inside information can go a long way toward making your vacation from basic to amazing. With a little guidance and your own sense of adventure, you can come away from your time in Illinois with great stories and memories. Immerse yourself in national history, dive into waterside fun at one of the state's many rivers, or check out the noteworthy buildings along Chicago's skyline!

01Visit the Chicago Symphony Center

The Chicago Symphony Center is more than just a great space for music lovers. You can also marvel at the building itself, built in 1904 by Daniel Burnham. The location was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1994 and, in addition to hosting major orchestral performances, it's star-studded past includes headliners like Harry Houdini and Amelia Earhart. Arranged tours allow you to take a close look at the stage itself, and even go backstage!

02Look Down on an Entire Skyline at Skydeck Chicago

Enjoy an incredible view at Skydeck Chicago in Willis Tower. The building's 103rd floor offers a 360-degree view that covers four states, a sight few places in the world can beat. The former Sears Tower is currently the second tallest building in the western hemisphere. You can even get a bracing experience on The Ledge, a glass structure that extends four feet outside the building.

03Hop on a St. Charles Paddlewheel Riverboat

When you find yourself in St. Charles, explore the Fox River! From May through October, visitors can take in some of the natural beauty with a classic, stylish riverboat tour. St. Charles Paddlewheel Riverboats hosts public tours, or, for a special occasion, you can arrange a private ride for friends and family. The scheduled trips include sunset tours and festive themed events.

04Enjoy a Medieval Experience at RavenStone Castle

RavenStone Castle is inspired by the architecture of the 16th century but was built in 2001 by Jose and Rose Michel. Tours of this physical love letter to the medieval castle are arranged by appointment. For those who want to enjoy a longer stay, themed rooms are available for rent — enjoy a bed and breakfast experience unlike any other! RavenStone Castle also hosts special events, including Halloween and Christmas celebrations.

05Enjoy History and Exercise at the Cahokia Mounds

The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site challenges fitness enthusiasts to a tough climb and lets history lovers explore the remains of early Native civilization. Cahokia was once home to an array of functional buildings and monuments and invites extensive archaeological study. Climb the concrete steps to the top of Monks Mound, roughly 100 feet high, to enjoy a great workout and a classic view.

06See Grosse Point Lighthouse

Grosse Point Lighthouse was constructed in 1873 to mark the approach to Chicago. Though no longer required today for one to get their bearings, the landmark remains a great spot for anyone wanting a beautiful view of the Lake Michigan area. The trek to the tower's vantage point is one hundred and forty-one steps, but it's worth the workout.

07Have Fun in the Sun at Chicago's Leone Beach

Chicago's Leone Beach is a great place to relax and enjoy the tranquility of Lake Michigan. The property is managed by the city and has lifeguards on hand, so swimming is permitted. In addition to taking in the scenery and enjoying the sun, bring the kids to a nearby playground or end your busy day with a cookout. Watersports enthusiasts can push off from the beach in a kayak or canoe and explore the Lake Michigan Water Trail.

08Take a Walk Through Anderson Japanese Gardens

While Illinois features an abundance of natural settings, the cultivated grounds of Anderson Japanese Gardens shouldn't be overlooked. Located in Rockford, the garden boasts ten acres of carefully developed landscape features, waterfalls, ponds, a tea house, and a guest house. Escape the stresses of everyday life while you wander the winding lanes.

09Stroll Down Galena's Main Street

Galena's Main Street is designated one of the best in the Midwest. In addition to serving up a picturesque throwback to the classic American main street experience, the area provides great shopping opportunities. More than one hundred storefront facades make this a great stop for fans of nineteenth-century architecture. Specialty shops are rich with antique goods, clothing stores, and more.

10Face the Flame-Breathing Kaskaskia Dragon

The Kaskaskia Dragon is a roadside attraction in Vandalia. This metal structure is a formidable thirty-five feet tall and sports a line of spines down its back, wings, and a stylish top hat. Like the dragons of ancient myth, this beast breathes flames! Purchase a special dragon coin to watch as the flames fly.

11Explore Picturesque Graceland Cemetery

CS_McMahon / Visual hunt

While it may seem like an odd tourist destination, Graceland Cemetery is celebrated for its natural settings and beautifully maintained landscapes. Many prominent architects, athletes, and other significant figures with ties to Chicago have their final resting places here. The space is considered both cemetery and arboretum, allowing visitors to enjoy eye-catching monuments and a serene escape from the trappings of the city.

12See the Leaning Tower of Niles

The Leaning Tower of Niles is a tribute to the Italian tower of a similar name. The replica took care to capture the infamous tilt of its European counterpart and acts as a fun tourist spot in Niles, just 30 minutes outside Chicago. While entertaining, the tower does have more than superficial ties to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Several bells housed in the American tower are hundreds of years old and were cast in Italy!