Heading west on U.S. 20 in northern Illinois, the road that had been straight and flat begins to wind through gently rolling farm fields as you near Galena. When church steeples and orange brick buildings come into view, you know you’ve reached your destination. A city with fewer than 3500 residents, Galena attracts over a million visitors every year. Visitors come for the history, the shopping, the dining or just to relax in an atmosphere that is like nowhere else in Illinois.
In its early days, Galena was a lead mining town of over 13,000 people, larger than Chicago at the time. But as the lead industry fell off and the Galena River silted in, diminishing it from its grand 350 foot width to its narrow 30 feet of today, the city suffered economically and people moved out. Fortunately, most of the original nineteenth century buildings were never torn down, because those buildings, now housing specialty shops and eateries, along with area mansions that have been converted to bed-and-breakfast establishments, are the main tourist attractions.
Galena produced nine Civil War generals, including Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union army and eighteenth President of the United States. You can tour Grant’s home, in which 90% of the furnishings were owned by the Grant family.
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In the Galena & U.S. Grant Museum, go upstairs to see Grant and Civil War artifacts, including the 9-foot by 12-foot original painting by Thomas Nast titled “Peace in Union.” On the main floor watch a hologram show featuring General and Mrs. Grant, portrayed by Scott and Peggy Whitney. Then move on to Galena history exhibits, where you can peer into an authentic lead mine shaft.
Hop aboard a Galena Trolley early in your visit for an hour-long overview tour of the city to get an idea of what you may want to return to.
For a glimpse into the paranormal side of Galena, take a ghost tour. Several different ghost tours are available, including the walking All About a Ghost Tour run by historian Steve Repp. Steve combines “history and mystery” for an intriguing look at the city.
You can spend hours browsing the more than one hundred shops along Galena’s Main Street, Find everything from a root beer store (over 30 kinds of root beer, plus cream soda and ginger ale) to an art store that specializes in upcycled metal sculptures.
You’re sure to find a restaurant to suit your taste with the myriad of eating establishments in Galena. Fried Green Tomatoes, located in the building that once housed the Grant family’s leather shop, offers fine dining with entrée options like cedar planked walleye and espresso encrusted filet mignon. You like French food but your dining partner prefers German? Not to worry. Fritz and Frites, which serves both French and German cuisines, will satisfy both of you. At the Courtyard Restaurant in the DeSoto House try the raspberry pancakes with white chocolate chips, or ask them to substitute semi-sweet chocolate chips for a decadent breakfast that tastes more like a dessert. On Sunday the Courtyard Restaurant serves a breakfast buffet.
By day visit the wine tasting rooms or tour Blaum Bros. Distilling Co., Galena’s top attraction. In the evening sip your beverage while listening to live music. Start your day with a cup of joe from one of several coffee shops. The Mean Bean roasts fresh beans and will even produce a blend that you design yourself.
Visit Grant Park
Take a walk beyond Main Street to Grant Park to relax a bit while taking in gorgeous views of the city and checking out the historic monuments and statues.
Where to stay in Galena
Galena is known for its bed-and breakfasts. The one we loved was the castle-like luxurious Goodmoor Inn, located on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River about seven miles south of downtown Galena. Check rates and reviews on TripAdvisor
Another option is the DeSoto House. Open since 1855, the hotel’s high ceilings and Victorian wallpaper send you back to yesteryear. Walk up the same winding staircase once used by Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and other notable historic figures. If you’re into the paranormal, this is the place to say. Many people say they’ve experienced paranormal incidents here. Located right on Main Street, you can park your car in the hotel’s private parking lot and not get into it again until you leave Galena and head back to the flat terrain that covers most of Illinois. Check rates and reviews on TripAdvisor
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the now defunct Examiner.com in 2013. It has been updated for current accuracy.
This article contains an affiliate link. If you book a room through the “Check room rates” links above, I will receive a small commission at no additional cost to you.
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