Want to leave Illinois without actually setting foot out of the state? Head west.
As you approach the Mississippi River, the flat plain slowly falls away and the landscape begins to undulate, rolling up and down before dropping into the river basin in breathtaking fashion.
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“It’s just so different,” said Chris Lain, a former Lincoln Square resident so charmed by Savanna, a small river town 150 miles from Chicago, that he and his partner, Jube Manderico, dropped everything and moved there five years ago.
In a historic building on Main Street downtown, the couple opened the Savanna Marketplace, a gift shop, and the Blue Bedroom Inn, a bed-and-breakfast above the store. They made friends and established themselves in the community, and then even entered local politics—Lain was elected mayor a year ago in a landslide, a gay liberal from a solid blue city in a town that had gone for Trump in the last presidential election.
But Savanna is overshadowed by its neighbor a half hour’s drive to the north. Galena, already a tourist site known for its antique stores, only stands to get more popular this year after the release of Ron Chernow’s new biography, Grant, which follows his best-selling bio of Alexander Hamilton, the inspiration for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster musical Hamilton. Galena belongs to Ulysses S. Grant, and the town won’t let you forget it—he’s everywhere. Yet the story of Grant—who failed at several endeavors and in middle age was all but written off as a drunk before rising to serve as the commander of the Union forces in the Civil War—is as relatable and charming as it is ultimately humbling. The house the city fathers gave him upon his return from the war is Grant House, a lovely little redbrick structure with a view of the Galena River, but it pales next to the 160-year-old Belvedere Mansion down the hill and closer to the river.
In Galena, the landscape doesn’t roll so much as it juts up and down, like a little Pittsburgh, but the architecture on all levels is remarkable, a mix of elements brought in from all over as the town enjoyed a mining boom in the mid-1800s. You’ll see mansions with a French balcony half hidden behind Ionic columns, Italianate mansions with towers—a familiar feature in river towns, added so the residents could scout for ships—and a wealth of Victorian buildings. Galena is extremely well preserved, with most of the town declared part of a national historic district.
On a business trip there recently, my travel companion and I stayed at the DeSoto House, which boasts of being the oldest operating hotel in Illinois—in fact, it was Grant’s presidential campaign headquarters in 1868. It got an $8 million restoration in the 1980s, and its rooms are named for famous people with a connection to Galena, however slight. (We were in the Herman Melville room; apparently in his somewhat wayward youth the author of Moby-Dick stayed briefly with a relative in Galena before hitting the seas on a trip that would provide the material for his first two novels.) We also took advantage of a package that both discounted the room rate and offered a $50 credit in the Generals’ Restaurant. (Yes, that’s plural and possessive, named not just for Grant, but for the no fewer than nine Civil War generals that came from the region.) As we waited in the bar, a server carrying a tray of steaks wafted the aroma at us, looking to tempt us, but he needn’t have bothered—we were already planning on ordering them. We dined like kings and, with the credit, the bill was under $50, drinks included.
The DeSoto House is said to be haunted by a “Lady in Black” who comes knocking at doors in the middle of the night, but we didn’t hear anything of the sort. When we complained about it while checking out the next day, the woman at the front desk said we’d have to phone ahead next time and arrange for her to stop by.
If Galena is a known quantity, Savanna, just to the south along the Mississippi, is a hidden jewel. Who even knew Illinois had a Savanna? And it’s just a two-and-a-half-hour drive straight west of Chicago. On your way from the city, stop at the Nachusa Grasslands, a 3,600-acre spread of natural prairie restored by national nonrprofit the Nature Conservancy over the last three decades. A herd of wild bison was brought in a few years ago, and about 130 now graze in fenced-off areas separate from the five hiking trails running through the preserve. The bison can typically be seen from a new visitor center.
Find your way west from there on Routes 52 and 64, and the landscape will again begin to roll as it heads toward the Mississippi. Along the way, round about dusk, we spotted a 12-point buck and a few does. The latter highway drops you right into Main Street in Savanna, which declares itself a sportsman’s paradise. There’s a marina on the river, and just to the north is Mississippi Palisades State Park, which has a series of trails, a magnificent vista at Lookout Point and, according to Lain, some decent natural rock climbing.
The rolling highways in that part of the state also attract bikers, and by that I don’t mean cyclists (although there’s a bicycle path along the Great River Road running alongside the Mississippi). Savanna heartily welcomes them at the Iron Horse Social Club and Hawg Dogs, both along Main Street. Despite lacking our own hogs, we were welcomed quite heartily at the latter.
But if you visit Galena for Grant and architecture, head to Savanna just to relax. I can recommend the mayor’s own Blue Bedroom Inn, which has four cozy bedrooms surrounding a communal area, and a kitchen with a big shared breakfast table.
Lain says the 30-mile drive along Route 20 between Savanna and Galena is perhaps the most beautiful scenery in the state. That just may be: the landscape offers some spectacular vistas. You could almost imagine being in the Appalachians or even the Rockies, only without those pain-in-the-ass mountains blocking the view of the sky. This is a part of the Prairie State that no one but a local would recognize as Illinois. v
Ted Cox is editor of One Illinois, a nonprofit news website.