Springfield, Illinois is full of American history – and Americana. And it’s just a stone’s throw away from Champaign-Urbana.
by Tara Burghart
I’ve always been a big fan of our 16th president, which is a good thing, since I grew up just outside Springfield, Ill. Many of my grade-school classmates used to roll their eyes at yet another Lincoln-centric field trip. But all that history makes Illinois’ capital city a wonderful spot for an economical and family-friendly weekend getaway.
The Abraham Lincoln National Library and Museum (212 North Sixth St., 800-610-2094) has attracted more than 4 million visitors since the dedication of its museum portion in 2005. Billed as the first “experience museum” of its kind, it has technological innovations that should wow even the most jaded of tweens.
Make plans to spend at least three hours there, and don’t forget the camera: You’ll want a portrait of your family posing with the life-sized replicas of the Lincolns in front of the White House. (It would make for a great holiday card!) This is definitely better for older kids, depending on your child; 8 and up is a good rule of thumb. If you are bringing a stroller, an umbrella version would be best — this place can get crowded, and some of the spaces are a bit narrow.
In my opinion, nothing beats walking in Lincoln’s steps in the only home he ever owned. It’s been meticulously restored to its 1860 appearance, and some of the furniture inside actually was used by the Lincolns. Now called the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, you’ll want to stop at the Visitor Center at 426 South Seventh Street soon after your arrival in town to collect your (free!) timed tickets to tour the home in the company of a National Park Service ranger.
The Park Service advises visitors to arrive as early in the day as possible to receive the tour tickets. While the last tour begins at 4:30 p.m., all the tickets will likely be snapped up before then on busy days.
The home tour lasts 20 to 25 minutes. After the tour, or while waiting for it to start, you can explore the surrounding four-block historic neighborhood, also restored to how it looked in 1860, the year before the Lincoln family left for Washington D.C.
All the above Lincoln sites are in Springfield’s downtown, which has been revitalized by the opening of the national museum and library. However, it’s still much easier to find a place to eat downtown if you’re there on a weekday. A favorite of mine is The Feed Store (516 E. Adams, 217-528-3355), famous for its sandwiches, pies and homemade soups. Try the Pork Barrel sandwich (as the menu says, “In the tradition of Illinois politics, it has something for everyone”) and a cup of beef barley or Wisconsin cheese soup.
If you don’t mind a bit of a drive, a site that is great for active youngsters is Lincoln’s New Salem (15588 History Lane, Petersburg, 217-632-4000), a historical village that seeks to recreate the tiny town about 20 miles northwest of Springfield where Lincoln lived as a young man. During the tourist season (generally May through October), you’ll likely encounter historical interpreters dressed in period clothing. It also features picnic areas, hiking trails and playground equipment. Make sure to check the hours of operation before making the drive to Petersburg.
If your family can handle even more history, other Lincoln spots in Springfield worth checking out include the Old State Capitol (Old State Capitol Plaza, near Sixth and Adams streets, 217-785-7960) where he served in the Illinois House of Representatives and delivered his “House Divided” speech. The scenic Greek Revival-style building is also where former President Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president and the choice of Joe Biden as his running mate.
At the Great Western Depot (10th and Monroe) Lincoln began his inaugural journey to Washington D.C. by telling a small crowd of family and friends: “To this place, and to the kindness of these people, I owe everything.” He returned to Springfield in a coffin, and his final resting place is in Oak Ridge Cemetery (1441 Monument Ave., 217-782-2717). The tomb is incredibly moving and impressive. This seems like it might be something to skip, but it’s very memorable.
Another site worth visiting, depending on your timeline: the State Capitol complex. Home to the Illinois State Legislature since 1877, the Capitol’s 361-foot high dome – 74 feet taller than the U.S. Capitol – is an impressive site. It was renovated in 2011, so if you haven’t been there since then – you might not recognize the place. You can walk in (be prepared to go through security) and look around on your own; or visitors can take a free, 30-minute guided tour of the building, which highlights its numerous paintings and sculptures as well as visits to the galleries of the Senate and House of Representatives.
Note that the Illinois State Legislature is in session between January and May, when you can watch government in action from the balconies. There’s not much info online about the tours, oddly enough. Tours are available Mon-Fri: 8am-4pm Tours every half hour except 12-1pm; Sat: 9am-3pm; Tours every half hour except 12-1pm. This may change seasonally, so call first when in doubt. 217-782-2099.
If you’re looking to spend some time outdoors, Lincoln Memorial Garden & Nature Center (2301 E. Lake Shore Dr., 217-529-1111 ) seeks to represent the landscape Lincoln would have encountered growing up in Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. Designed by famed landscape architect Jens Jensen (he designed NYC’s Central Park), the garden features six miles of trails, footbridges and wooden benches inscribed with Lincoln quotes.
But if you’re ready for something non-Lincoln or state government, architecture buffs will appreciate the Dana-Thomas House (301 E. Lawrence St., 217-782-6776), designed in 1902 by Frank Lloyd Wright for a wealthy heiress seeking to overhaul her family home. (One especially neat feature: a room that belonged to the original fussy Victorian house remains untouched, surrounded by Wright’s elegant Prairie design.) Tours are available daily; there is a suggested donation of $10 for adults, $5 for children and $15 for families.
When your family needs a break from learning and touring, a laid-back outdoor option is the lovely Washington Park (at South Grand Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard). It features a carillon, a number of gardens, a great playground and a lovely duck pond.
If you want to go shopping and still get a dose of Lincoln, don’t miss a trip to Scheel’s. We’ve written a whole article about why this is one of the most unique stores we’ve ever been to (indoor Ferris wheel, anyone?) and while it’s a great place to shop, it’s an even better place to gawk. And bonus: the animatronic presidents, including Abe Lincoln reciting the Gettysburg address.
When it comes to food in Springfield, your best choices are going to be greasy and cheap and very kid-friendly. Route 66 passes through Springfield and you can get your kicks at the Cozy Dog Drive In (2935 S. Sixth Street, 217-525-1992), where the owners lay claim to inventing the first “hot dog on a stick” in 1946.
When my Uncle Jim visits from California, he boards the plane headed back west laden with frozen quarts of chili from Joe Rogers’ Original Recipe Chili Parlor (820 S. Ninth St., 217-522-3722). Finish a bowl of the “firebrand” and you can put your name on the wall.
And your kids will be sure to get their daily allotment of sugar at one of Mel-o-Cream Donuts’ four locations (3010 S. Sixth St., 1953 W. Monroe St., 525 N. Grand Ave. East, 227 E. Laurel St.)
But no discussion of Springfield food would be complete without a mention of the horseshoe – a layered, delectable, calorie-packed Springfield creation that starts with two pieces of open-faced toasted bread laying side by side on a platter. On top of that is some kind of protein (I prefer ham) and french fries, with a yellow or white cheese sauce smothering the whole thing.
Several restaurants in Springfield serve horseshoes; the ‘shoe at D’Arcy’s Pint (661 W. Stanford Ave., 217-492-8800) is probably most renowned, although it will likely come with a wait for a table. Other places where you’ll find horseshoes include The Barrel Head (1577 Wabash Ave., 217-787-2102), Charlie Parker’s Diner (700 North St., 217-241-2104) and the Dublin Pub (1975 Wabash Ave., 217-793-6871.)
As for accommodations, staying in a hotel downtown will allow you to walk to many of the Lincoln sites. However, meal options on the weekend might be limited, as most places are closed Sunday, if not Saturday. Wherever you choose to stay, you’ll never be more than about 15 minutes from downtown, where parking is inexpensive and easy to find. The Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau offers a searchable index of hotels, beds and breakfasts and campgrounds.
Where: Springfield, Illinois
Why: Lincoln, Lincoln and more Lincoln. Plus horseshoes — the kind you eat, not the kind you pitch.
When: Most of the must-see attractions are indoor, so Springfield makes for a fine year-round destination in all but most frigid of weather.
How to Get There: Springfield is less than 90 minutes away from Champaign-Urbana. Take Interstate 72 west and you’ll run right into it.
For more info: The Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau (109 North Seventh St., 800-545-7300)
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Springfield-area native Tara Burghart is a former Champaign-Urbana resident and University of Illinois graduate. She loves all things Lincoln so much that she considered naming her first child Abraham. Luckily for her marriage and for the child, the baby was a girl.