Galena, IL
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Galena, IL

Visit mansions, mines, and Grant's home in this picturebook Victorian town.

Frozen in Time

Walking along the streets of Galena is like stepping into the colorful pages of a Mark Twain adventure. You'd almost expect ol' Huck Finn to pop in and say hello. In fact, reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with your children before or during your trip is a great way to set the mood for this living history experience in the lush farmlands of northwest Illinois.

copyright Galena, Jo Daviess County CVB

A former antebellum boomtown, Galena was at its heyday in the 19th century as the lead capital of the world. Back then, it was a busy Mississippi River port town with four times the number of today's residents -- among them, former general Ulysses S. Grant.

1857 IL Central Railroad Depot, copy-
right Galena, Jo Daviess County CVB

But the boom went bust in the 1850s, and by the end of the Civil War, Galena was a ghost town. Ironically, poverty is what preserved the town. Lack of funds meant no money to raze old buildings, which went untouched for more than a century.

Main Street, Galena, copyright
Galena, Jo Daviess County CVB

Then, in the 1960s, revivalists moved in and restored just about everything in town, including Queen Anne, Italianate, Greek Revival, and Romanesque Revival mansions. Today 85 percent of Galena, population 3,600, is listed as a National Register Historic District.

You can tour Galena on foot, by trolley, by stagecoach, or on horseback. Of course, the less conventional the mode of transportation, the more fun for your kids!

History That's Fun

While lessons about the past may evoke a snore among your young ones, living history is altogether different. So, when it comes time to learn about the Civil War in school, they can honestly say, "I've been there." Thankfully, many of Galena's museums appeal to short attention spans.

  • Galena/Jo Daviess County History Museum. Start your adventure at this museum tucked inside an 1858 Italianate mansion. Hourly audiovisual shows offer an overview of Galena's history.
  • Ulysses S. Grant Home State Historical Site. Take a 30-minute tour through the house that was given to Civil War hero Grant, upon his return to Galena. The home, which Grant's children later donated to the city, has been faithfully restored to its post-Civil War appearance. Many of the furnishings are actual pieces used by the former president and his family.
  • Vinegar Hill Historic Lead Mine & Museum. Your children will never forget this guided tour, which features a journey through a real mineshaft, created in 1822.

Skiing, Sleighing, and Shopping

Ski in Illinois? You bet! At Chestnut Mountain Resort, there's downhill skiing and snowboarding on 19 runs. Or you and your kids can hop on a wheeled sled, and careen down a 2,500-foot bluff all the way to the Mississippi.

Galena's backcountry offers hayrides, sleigh rides, and guided horseback trail rides. The Shenandoah Riding Center, located six miles east of Galena, is the place to embark on any or all of these outdoor adventures.

Don't leave town without picking up a handmade trinket. At the Green Street Emporium arts and crafts mall, more than 60 local artisans sell their wares. If money's burning a hole in your pocket, head to the Old Farm House. That's where you can drop anywhere from $15 to $3,000 for quaint farm toys, including pedal tractors. Remember, browsing never broke the bank.

If you're here between Thanksgiving and Christmas, don't miss the Country Christmas celebration. More than 200 downtown shops nestled in the Victorian Historic District dress up for the holidays. Kids will enjoy live holiday window displays as well as the weekend caroling and fresh Christmas cookie bake sales.

Touring the Old-Fashioned Way

Park the car and see this town from a new perspective. Galena Trolley Tours and Brill's Trolley Tours offer one-hour narrated excursions that are just enough for antsy kids. Depending on which you choose, you may swing by the U.S. Grant Home State Historic Site or the Belvedere mansion, one of the finest examples of Italianate architecture in the nation.


Type of trip: Historic, educational, and outdoor adventure Best ages: 9 and up Ideal trip length: Weekend Distance: Peoria, IL (160 miles); Chicago (162 miles); Milwaukee (176 miles) Best time to go: October for the brilliant fall colors; Christmas for holiday celebrations and skiing Weather: 62/40 degrees in October; 31/16 degrees in December

Side Trips

Crystal Lake Cave

No, it's not a science experiment gone wild. Explain to your little ones that the awesome stalactites and stalagmites at Crystal Lake Cave are Mother Nature's underground landscape. A 45-minute guided tour of this natural cave and lake, 13 miles west of Galena near Dubuque, will increase their understanding of this unusual geology. A geode from the gift shop makes a great souvenir. 7699 Crystal Lake Cave Drive off Hwy 52, 563-556-6451. Open May through October.


Turn the clock back 100 years with a visit to Stagecoach Trails Livery. A replica Concord Coach pulled by muscled Belgian draft horses follows a portion of the historic 40-mile stagecoach trail that links Galena with the town of Lena, IL. Afterwards, treat your hungry cowboys and cowgirls to a chuckwagon dinner. In winter months, when snow is on the ground, travel by sleigh. 22 miles east of Galena on the Stagecoach Trail, 203 Hickory St., Apple River, 815-594-2423. Reservations required.