SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — I’ve probably stopped in Springfield several dozen times on my way to Chicago or destinations to the north. There is a gas station I like there that serves good sandwiches and those yogurt bowls in which you add whatever toppings you like, right along Interstate 55.
I am ashamed to say that until recently I had never stayed to take in what the city has to offer. I had assumed it to be a medium-sized Midwestern town full of Lincoln kitsch and attractions less inviting than what St. Louis offers — so why bother?
But even if you go to Springfield just for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, it is worth the trip. It is a national museum of the highest caliber, made for what many believe is the greatest American president. So you had better believe it alone is pretty spectacular.
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
This tour de force is an immersive experience. Begin in the rotunda with a quick intro from a guide, then step into young Abe’s cabin and learn about what early life was like for him. Sneak out the back door to see images that shaped his early life — slave markets, mercantile stores. Then travel on to the night he met Mary Todd (signs around the exhibit direct you to the places in Springfield where you can find the very home where that and other events happened). Then move along in time to learn about public office, the Lincoln-Douglas debates and political campaigns. Exit this part as you learn he’s won the White House.
The next part of the exhibit takes you into the White House. At first beautiful gowns greet you, then nasty political cartoons, then a sick child, then the Emancipation Proclamation, followed eventually by Ford’s Theatre and a funeral. Somehow, the creators of this museum have managed to take the sights, sounds, lighting and mood and turn it into emotions, raw and full of meaning. You may want to take a few tissues.
Step out of 1865 tragedy and into the world of music. The museum is hosting a temporary exhibit (through January) called “The State of Sound,” highlighting the music of Illinois, from Muddy Waters to Cheap Trick.
(The museum is $15 for adults. The library, across the street and used mainly for research purposes, is free. The museum also operates historic Union Station across the street, but it is closed for renovations. presidentlincoln.illinois.gov)
The Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site
Atop a hill in the beautiful Oak Ridge Cemetery is the majestic Lincoln Tomb. Inside is the final resting place of Abraham Lincoln, his wife, Mary, and three of their four sons: Edward, William and Thomas (known as “Tad”). Their eldest son, Robert, is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, at the request of his wife. The outside structure itself, 72 feet square and 117 feet tall with four bronze sculptures representing Civil War military services — infantry, artillery, cavalry and navy — seem to stand guard over the bronze statue of Lincoln, a reproduction of Gutzon Borglum’s marble head of Lincoln, which is displayed in the U.S. Capitol.
Inside the tomb, marble hallways lined in quotes from the Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural address meet scaled-down versions of famous statues of Lincoln as you approach the burial chamber.
Get ready to step back in time and explore not only Lincoln’s re-created home but also his neighborhood. The National Park Service acquired four blocks around the home where Abraham and Mary Lincoln raised their family in Springfield. The park service’s intention was “to provide some buffer for Lincoln’s home so you wouldn’t risk any development directly on it and even provide some barrier for the modern world,” says site superintendent Tim Good, who gave me a little tour.
Where possible, he said, the houses around Lincoln’s have been restored to their 1850s appearance. On our tour he pointed out that although Lincoln did well for himself, he never moved out of the modest neighborhood, though he did build a second story onto the house. He also noted that though the house looked immaculate (its mismatched tapestries, however, were, um, interesting), it probably didn’t look that way in the Lincolns’ everyday life with a houseful of boys.
(Free but tickets are required; nps.gov/liho/index.htm)
Part architectural wonder, part museum and part historical site, this house is a must-see, and not just for fans of Frank Lloyd Wright. Built in 1902-1904 for wealthy suffragist Susan Lawrence Dana, she had found a kindred spirit in Wright. Her Prairie Style house was the biggest and most expensive he designed, said Justin Blandford of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which runs the site and gives tours. It would take hours and hours to discover all of the home’s wonders — from a secret icebox that held frozen treats for neighborhood kids to a duckpin bowling alley in the basement. But a simple tour allows you to take in the gorgeous stained glass in nearly every room, Japanese-inspired influences, an indoor fountain, and an outdoor reflecting pool that perhaps foreshadows some of Wright’s later works.
The house features more than 100 pieces of custom furniture and over 250 works of original art glass. It also includes unique features Wright enthusiasts come from all over to see, including two of only three barrel ceilings he created (they are spectacular — and yet not perfect). “But this was a house with a purpose,” Blandford said. He described how Dana used the open spaces to host events for the movers and shakers of the state in hopes of advancing women’s rights. “She used her wealth — her home — for good.”
Visit a local microbrewery: While waiting for a coffeehouse to open, I spoke to a woman who came to Springfield for a weekend of enjoying the microbreweries the town had to offer. Indeed the day before, I had a Ditzy Blonde and an Upside Down Brown Coffee Ale at Obed and Isaacs (obedandisaacs.com), whose downtown beer garden is hopping on the weekends with bocce ball and even a little dog park. Other microbreweries to check out include Anvil & Forge (anvilandforge.com) and Buzz Bomb (buzzbombbrewingco.com).
Ride along Route 66: The famed Route 66 goes through town, and fans can see signs directing them along its path. Visitspringfieldillinois.com has a list of iconic destinations along the way, but we might suggest fans get their kicks at the fun Route 66 Motorheads Bar, Grill and Museum, where you can grab a beer, pizza and Springfield’s most-famous food, a horseshoe, among some cool dècor — and slot machines. (66motorheads.com)
Eat a horseshoe: Legend has it that Springfield’s most-famous dish was created by a dishwasher (or perhaps a chef coaching a dishwasher) at the Leland Hotel in 1928. It’s basically an open-faced sandwich with a thick piece of bread, toasted, served with your choice of meat (ground beef seems traditional), a secret cheese sauce and fries. A smaller version is called a pony shoe. Both are amazing and served at probably half of the restaurants in town.
Or eat a fancy dinner: Yes, Springfield has some fabulous restaurants. Take Vele, for example, which moved from downtown to a suburban strip mall during the pandemic, but its décor, bar and food are not cookie-cutter. Grab a chair at the bar, order a Pink Lady (rhubarb gin, lemon juice, maraschino liqueur, rhubarb bitter and egg whites), chat up a bartender and try hamachi crudo, oysters on the half shell or beef tenderloin bites. You won’t be sorry. (velerestaurant.com)
Visit a megastore: A North Dakota-based sporting goods chain named Scheels offers another chance to see presidents (mannequins you can pose with). You can also take a whirl on a 65-foot Ferris wheel inside the store, grab some fudge, shop for outdoors gear or spend time admiring the fish in the 16,000-gallon aquarium. (scheels.com)
Knights Action Park: This family-owned amusement park has been a part of Springfield for nearly 90 years. In summer, people flock to it for waterslides, go-karts, a wave pool, a spray playground, batting cages and a driving range. Prices vary. (Knightsactionpark.com)
Drive-in theater: Keep that Route 66 feeling going by heading to the Route 66 Drive-in theater, where you can catch a new feature such as “Black Widow” and stay for “Cruella” for $32 for a carload. With no drive-in super close to my St. Charles home, I really wanted to do this, but alas, the lure of a hotel bed with cable, a luxury I don’t have at home, kept me inside. Next time I’m in Springfield, though, I will make it to the drive-in. (route66-drivein.com)