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Illinois is teeming with places to spend time with your family, and there’s also no shortage of history to learn about during pretty much any road trip around the state. We recently partnered with Chicago-based photographer and Instagramer Craig Hensel (@thecraighensel) and his family as they took a road trip around Central Illinois. Along the way, Craig caught some incredible photos as they learned more about Illinois Amish community, took part in some fall activities and learned a bit more about the history of Abraham Lincoln. Below you’ll find a brief look at Craig’s itinerary, as well as a Q&A session the Illinois Office of Tourism had with him upon his return.

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A map of Craig’s three-day, Central Illinois road trip.

ITINERARY

Day 1

The Great Pumpkin Patch, Arthur

The Great Pumpkin Patch has more than 300 varieties of pumpkins, squash and gourds from 30+ countries around the world; all grown on the farm at The 200 Acres. Amazing pumpkin towers, beautiful gardens and a petting zoo with goats, pigs, exotic chickens, rabbits, a llama and an alpaca, make this a great family spot.

Located in Arthur,  a town of 2,200 residents, the Great Pumpkin Patch sits  in the heart of Illinois Amish Country, with more than 1,000 Amish families living in the countryside. Established in 1865 by a handful of families, today more than 4,500 Amish live in the town and surrounding rural townships.

Aikman Wildlife Adventure, Arcola

Located between Arthur and Arcola, Aikman Wildlife Adventure is a drive-through park where you can get up close and personal with animals you’ve only seen on television or behind fencing at a zoo. Visitors have the opportunity to see and take pictures of animals walking around directly outside their vehicles while  driving the one-mile long path through the park. Aikman’s also features a separate walk-through adventure with kangaroos, cavies, wallabies and lemurs, and a large petting zoo area.

DAY 2

Marcoot Jersey Creamery, Greenville

Marcoot Jersey Creamery, a proud maker in the Illinois Made program, is a seventh-generation, family-owned farm that specializes in the handcrafted production of artisan and farmstead cheeses. At the creamery, visitors can take a tour and meet the cows, experience the milking parlor, and sample and purchase a variety of cheeses, ice creams and more.

DAY 3

Abraham Lincoln Sites, Springfield

History comes alive around every corner in Springfield, home to more Lincoln sites than anywhere else in the nation. Visitors can explore everything from the historic Old State Capitol to Lincoln’s home, tomb and  his must-see presidential museum.

To take a trip similar to Craig’s, or to plan an entirely new trip, check out our Trip Ideas.

Q&A

Here’s what Craig had to say about his favorite memories of the trip and some of the information he and his family learned along the way.

Q: What were you most looking forward to before beginning the trip?

Craig Hensel: I was most looking forward to my time on the trip with my family and exploring Illinois. As far as a place I was particularly excited to see, that had to be Arthur and the Amish community. That was really unique to me, and I enjoyed watching my kids experience things they’d never seen before.

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Craig’s daughter running towards a tower of pumpkins at The Great Pumpkin Patch in Arthur. (Photo by Craig Hensel)

Q: Was there anything that surprised you about the trip?

Craig Hensel: One thing that really surprised me in Springfield was when we went into this shop that had antiques from Lincoln’s days; like an old muzzleloader. I didn’t expect that to be in the town, and I was impressed that the shop had such old stuff.

The other thing that surprised me was our visit to Marcoot Jersey Creamery. Marcoot’s story is incredible – now run by the family’s seventh generation. You don’t see family businesses handed down from generation to generation like that very much anymore, so it was a really special experience for our family.

The big surprise was when we were driving home, we stopped at Lincoln’s New Salem site in Petersburg, and that blew our minds. We felt like we were walking back in time.

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Unique angle inside the Old State Capitol State Historic Site in Springfield. (Photo by Craig Hensel)

Q: After you got back to Chicago, had anything changed in your expectations of the trip?

Craig Hensel: I expected to see the rural towns, but I didn’t expect to see the diversity in the communities, like the Amish County in Arthur. What blew my mind was seeing the Lincoln sites through the historic lens. It was very impressive to learn so much about our state’s history. I felt a deeper understanding of what Illinois is and who we are.

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Craig’s wife, Jenah, was resting on Lincoln’s cabin at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. (Photo by Craig Hensel)

Q: Is there one specific memory or experience from the trip that’s going to stick with you?

Craig Hensel: The Lincoln museum was a big one for sure. The era of pioneer history is very attractive. Lincoln’s New Salem Site was probably the most memorable. We had time to walk through the woods and decompress as a family before heading back to the big city. Another good memory is from Marcoot Creamery. My daughter loves animals, and so here’s my kid in the middle of this little barn with about 25 calves that were just born. That visual memory of my kids is awesome. Also, when my daughter was picking up farm dogs and watching three or four dogs surrounding her. Those little memories in my mind are what will stick.

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An awesome close-up shot of a zebra at Aikman Wildlife Adventure in Arcola. (Photo by Craig Hensel)

Q: Any last advice for other Chicagoans looking to explore downstate?

Craig Hensel: I think people are missing out if people don’t take time to take a three-hour trip. There’s a National Park right in Springfield!

Going downstate, don’t be afraid to take the back roads. Don’t be afraid to follow the brown highway signs. The food and the hospitality are amazing, and anytime you can, take advantage of the farm-to-table dining. If you haven’t already, make a stop in Springfield to visit the Abraham Lincoln sites, and see for yourself what it was like to live back in the 1800s. Experience local restaurants and mom and pop restaurants, which probably have the best food in the Midwest. Try to drive Route 66 if you can and go through the small, historic towns.

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A beautiful rural road near the Great Pumpkin Patch in Arthur. (Photo by Craig Hensel)

– Illinois Office of Tourism

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The holidays are upon us and the spirit of the season can be felt throughout Illinois. A month-long celebration of holiday concerts, lights festivals, and plentiful holiday shopping can make even the biggest scrooge get into the spirit of the season. To help you celebrate, we’ve put together some of the must-see shows and holiday attractions from all around the state. Whether you’re looking for a unique date night or fun family experience, read on to plan out your holiday itinerary.

Chicago Date Night

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Photo by @ChicagoSymphony

It’s a Wonderful Life in Concert  

The grand Symphony Center on Michigan Avenue is home to the revered Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO). Founded in 1891, the CSO is consistently hailed as one of the greatest orchestras in the world and there is no better time to see them live than the holidays!  For a truly special experience, listen as they bring a holiday classic back to life during the live performance of It’s a Wonderful Life, December 9-11.

The Nutcracker at the Joffrey

The opening of the Nutcracker is one of the surefire signals that Christmas is coming. This year The Joffrey’s Tony Award-winning choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon, is reimagining the classic through the eyes of a child at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair. Take in an early show with your sweetie before dining out in one of downtown’s magnificent fine dining options like the recently opened Dearborn Tavern or grab a drink at LondonHouse.

Holiday Shopping

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Downtown Chicago

Holiday shopping can prove to be stressful if you don’t have a plan of action. Luckily the city of Chicago has made it easy on shoppers by centralizing some of the best shops in the world right along Michigan Avenue, between the Chicago River and Oak Street. This strip, better known as the Magnificent Mile, offers a combination of high-end and casual retailers, with some excellent dining options scattered in along the way.

Just a few blocks from the Magnificent Mile, State Street is another prime shopping destination. Block 37 offers five floors of impressive shopping and dining options including Zara, Anthropologie and Latinicity, which offers a delicious twist on Latin street food featuring 10 innovative kitchens, a tapas restaurant, coffee café, full bar, market and lounge.

Featuring popular retailers such as H & M, Nordstrom Rack, Urban Outfitters and Macy’s, the landmark State Street Retail Historic District is always abuzz during the holiday season. The flagship Macy’s on State Street pulls out all the stops during the holidays, bringing in a 45 feet tall Christmas tree and displaying its annual Holiday Windows.  Whether you stroll by as you shop or make a special trip, viewing Macy’s holiday décor has become a family tradition for many.

Outlets

Illinois is home to many stores for those holiday shoppers looking to save this season. Just outside the city, shoppers will find Rosemont’s Fashion Outlets of Chicago, including over 130 designer outlets.  While you’re there, be sure to experience “Frozemont” at MB Financial Park. Here you will enter a winter wonderland complete with ice skating, ice hockey, ice sculptures and more.

Another great option to satisfy holiday shoppers is the Chicago Premium Outlets in Aurora, which just saw a recent expansion to 140 stores including Calvin Klein, Theory, and Vera Bradley. To improve your shopping experience, you will also find many seasonal features like complimentary hot cocoa and lounge areas for a break while bargain hunting.

Check the links for more details.

Unique Shopping

For those of you looking for a unique touch to holiday gifts, try a more creative option like one of Illinois great craft fairs or holiday festivals. Julmarknad in Bishop Hill is sure to be a festive experience with plenty of one-of-a-kind artisan gifts. The always popular Christkindlmarket in Chicago is another great place for handmade gifts. Now open in Chicago’s Loop and the historic Naper Settlement in Naperville, this traditional German holiday market serves up tons of sweet treats and incredible crafts.

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Here’s a short list of additional unique Illinois holiday shopping options:

Holiday Fun for the Whole Family

Across the state, Illinois has plenty of festive experiences for families. Plan a trip to see the Nutcracker in Champaign, featuring the Champaign Urbana Ballet company and a few of its littlest ballerinas.  If you’re looking for a cultural experience this season, head to Christmas Around the World at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, to find more than 50 Christmas trees, each decorated in the style of a different international culture. As an added treat, children can also create their own holiday trinket to remember their visit.

The East Peoria Festival of Lights returns for its 32nd year offering a place for families to enjoy beautiful light displays without having to leave the comfort of their warm and cozy cars. The kids will love it and adults will definitely appreciate the holiday cheer.

Here are even more choices for family friendly holiday fun:

For more useful information to plan your holiday season check out the Enjoy Illinois Things to Do tab.

-Illinois Office of Tourism

 

 

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Autumn in the Midwest is a spectacular sight to behold and even better to experience up close. The plethora of pumpkin patches scattered across the state of Illinois gives residents and visitors alike an opportunity to really enjoy the season to its fullest. This week we asked you to show us your best pumpkin patch shots and you delivered! Check out a few of our favorite captures below. Be sure to follow us on Instagram for upcoming weekly challenges. Share your best photos with us by tagging #EnjoyIllinois and your photo could be featured!

For more unique Illinois destinations, events and attractions check out EnjoyIllinois.com.

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This looks like a shot straight out of an old book of fairy tales about pumpkins. Thanks for this amazing close up at Kroll’s Farm, @zophack.

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So many pumpkins, we lost track trying to count! Photo captured at Bengston’s by @jchirempes.

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Tiny pumpkins are often overlooked so we have to thank @lakes77 for spotting the rich colors and beauty of these smaller gourds at Bengston’s Pumpkin Farm.

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Some fly the W, others paint their pumpkins in support. We like both – go Cubs! Thanks to @chicagobotanic for the photo.

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Goebbert’s Pumpkin Farm knows how to greet folks in search of the perfect pumpkin. Cool shot from @msoma97.

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Gourds galore! Thanks for the photo @a_touch_of_b. Green City Market – (at) a_touch_of_b.png

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Instagramer @thechispy couldn’t pass up the chance to get a shot of these pretty pumpkins and we don’t blame her!

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Not one of these gourds is the same and we can thank nature for that. Great shot @mabblytribe!

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Come for the art, leave with a pumpkin, that’s our motto. Thanks for the cool photo in front of the Alexander Calder ‘Flamingo’ statue in Chicago’s Federal Plaza @ll_cool_j2!

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Football season is in full swing and that means one thing – tailgates! There is nothing quite like the anticipation of cheering on your favorite team with hundreds of other excited fans. Lucky for you, Illinois is home to big name schools that pull out all the stops for their game day celebrations. From pre-game fanfare to post-game grub, read on to learn about the hot spots on and off campuses across the state.

Northwestern Wildcats

Along Chicago’s North Shore you’ll find the Northwestern Wildcats, dubbed Chicago’s Big Ten Team. The Wildcats are coming off of a 10-2 regular season record last year and looking to continue that momentum, making the game day experience only more exciting for the fans.

Fuel up for the big game at one of Evanston’s many amazing restaurants. Stop for breakfast before an early game at Bagel Art or visit favorites like Edzo’s Burger Shop or Lou Malnati’s for a post-game meal full of local staples like Chicago style hot dogs, mouthwatering burgers and deep dish pizza.

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Photo courtesy of Edzo’s Burger Shop

Northwestern’s own Wildcat Alley is the place to get pumped up before the game. Open to the public for three hours before every home game, you can bring the whole family to find food trucks, live music, and a kid zone complete with face-painting, games and inflatables. At game time, follow the Wildcat marching band as they make their way into Ryan Field for another (hopeful) Wildcat victory!

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Northern Illinois University Huskies

Up in DeKalb, Northern Illinois University Huskies fans know how to have a good time! The winningest program in Illinois and in the MAC over the last decade, the NIU Huskies played in a record sixth straight Mid-American Conference Championship game in 2015 and have their sights set on a return this season.

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The NIU home game experience starts with The Yard. Located on the West Lawn of Huskie Stadium, you can enjoy free live music, grab food from one of several popular local vendors, or stop by the beer garden to have a drink with fellow fans. A giant video screen is set up to make sure you stay on top of games around the country while younger Huskie fans can check out the bounce house, climb a rock wall, or have their faces painted in the Kids’ Zone.

You will also get the chance to meet NIU student-athletes from the “team of the week,” find old friends in the Varsity Club tent, and learn what’s new at NIU. Don’t be surprised if the NIU cheerleaders, Victor E. Huskie and the Huskie Marching Band come by.

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If you want to keep the party going after the game, there’s no better spot than Fatty’s Pub, the official post-game headquarters of the NIU Huskies. Here you can gather with friends to chow down on all the burgers, fries and wings you can eat. When the weather is nice, you will find tons of fans on Fatty’s newly expanded beer garden.

 Illinois State Redbirds

Get ready to ‘Back the birds’ of Illinois State University as they ring that victory bell this season! The football field isn’t the only place to have fun at ISU. Tailgating lots open at 7:00 a.m. on game day and are quickly packed with excited Redbird fans. Bring your family, favorite food and your ISU spirit to hang out in the sea of red outside Hancock Stadium for pregame excitement.

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Don’t feel like grilling your own food before the game? No problem! ISU has no shortage of dining options right on campus. McAlister’s Deli in the Bone Student Center is a campus favorite. Medici and Firehouse Pizza & Pub are two other favorites just a short walk away in Uptown Normal, as are popular local bars Pub II and Maggie Miley’s.

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Photo courtesy of Instagram user @sarahkloo

University of Illinois Fighting Illini

Head to Champaign to catch another one of Illinois’ Big Ten Conference teams—the Fighting Illini! Tailgating before a University of Illinois football game has never been more fun since the addition of Grange Grove in 2015. This free, high-energy tailgating area opens at 7:00 a.m. on game days and is an area that fans of all ages will be able to enjoy. Grange Grove brings out big musical acts, kid’s activities, and the Marching Illini just before the team takes the field.

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Hungry after all the on-field action concludes? Stop by Black Dog Smoke & Ale House to try some of their award winning BBQ. If you’re looking for an iconic U of I bar, look no further than Legends Bar & Grill. Located in the heart of campus town, Legends is the cornerstone of Illini pride. Established in 1998, this bar pays homage to the legends of yesteryear with a range of U of I sports memorabilia on the walls, including an unparalleled life-size replica of Chief Illiniwek.

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Southern Illinois University Salukis

Bring your grill and gather your family and friends to post up along Saluki Row to cheer on Southern Illinois University! Before the game you can join other fans for food, live music and a chance to meet Gray Dawg himself. Saluki Pride runs deep in Carbondale, with fans of all ages headed out for this weekly tradition.

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No trip to Carbondale is complete without a burger from Fat Patties, named one of Illinois’ best burgers by Thrillist. Most of Fat Patties’ dishes are cooked with local veggies, beef from Lick Creek Beef and Bison from Bison Bluff Farms, ensuring that you have the freshest meal possible.

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For more ideas on where to attend live sporting events throughout Illinois visit EnjoyIllinois.com.

-Illinois Office of Tourism

 

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The first day of fall is days away, and that means changing leaves, savory fall flavors and, of course, sweater weather. So grab your PSLs (that’s short for Pumpkin Spice Lattes) because this week we’re gearing up for fall with a preview of the top autumn activities in Illinois so you can make the most of the season.

Pumpkin Patches, Corn Mazes and Apple Picking, Oh My!

It’s the time of year we’ve all been waiting for: Fall. The air is crisp, the skies are blue and there are endless corn mazes, pumpkin patches, apple orchards and fall activities for everyone to enjoy. But with so many options, where do you start? Fortunately, many of the fall farms in Illinois offer a combination of pick-your-own apples and pumpkins, corn mazes, hay rides, petting zoos and much more.

Take Richardson Adventure Farm in Spring Grove, for example. Known for having the World’s Largest Corn Maze, this year’s corn maze theme celebrates the 50th anniversary of Star Trek. If twisting and turning through 10 miles of maze isn’t enough, how about climbing the observation tower, bouncing around on giant jumping pillows, cheering on a pig race, or soaring through the air on a zip line?

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Richardson Adventure Farm’s 2016 Star Trek corn maze

Picking fresh fall produce is a seasonal staple. Jonamac Orchard, Royal Oak Farm Orchard, and Rendleman Farms are just a few of the top places around the state to get your fall flavor fix, including the must-have apple cider donuts. Hand pick a variety of apples and stop by the country store to stock up on preserves, pickles, baked goods and other specialty items.

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Photo of Rendleman Farm by Instagram user yoshifujiiceramics

Prost! to Illinois Beer Festivals

What happens when you combine fall and beer? You get Oktoberfest, of course! These classic German beer festivals are held all over the state. Champaign and Galena each host their own reputable Oktoberfest celebrations on October 1 to celebrate German heritage, food, beer, music and more.
Beyond Oktoberfest, fall beer festivals are happening all over the state. Say “cheers” to these celebrations this season:

  • Woodstock Ale Fest, October 1: Celebrate the three “B”s at Woodstock Ale Fest: craft beer, bacon and bluegrass!
  • Cock-A-Doodle Brew Fest, October 8: Aurora’s brew fest brings together local craft beers, finger-lickin’ good wings and a lineup of live music.
  • Festival of Barrel Aged Beers, November 11-12: Held in Chicago, this is the country’s largest celebration of wood and barrel-aged beers where you can taste some of the rarest beers, which may not be available commercially from breweries across the U.S.
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Wiener Dog Races are a highlight of Galena’s annual Oktoberfest. (Photo courtesy of Galena Oktoberfest)

Color Drives and Leaf-Peeping Hikes

Part of what makes this time of year so special is seeing the leaves change from summery green to fiery red, yellow and orange. There’s no better time to see the fall foliage than in September and October. Take a peaceful ride along the Great River Road in Alton or Grandview Drive in Peoria – the road President Teddy Roosevelt called the “World’s Most Beautiful Drive.”

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The Great River Road Scenic Byway in Alton

For those looking to get up close with fall foliage, enjoy a leaf-peeping hike through one of the state’s many parks. Starved Rock State Park and Shawnee National Forest make for two exceptional opportunities to see fall colors at their brightest.

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A canyon Starved Rock State Park as the leaves change colors

There are hundreds of fall events and activities happening this year. To find out more, visit EnjoyIllinois.com.

-Illinois Office of Tourism