Updated: Feb 19, 2020
Springfield, Illinois –
What? You thought it was Chicago?
You’re in good company; my unscientific estimation is that 6/10 non-Illinoisans queried would agree with you. Alas, the capital of Illinois is Springfield – but it might as well be named Lincoln (sorry, Nebraska), because Springfield is All. About. Abe. Honest.
Young country lawyer Abe Lincoln moved to the big city of Springfield all the way from his log cabins in Kentucky and Southern Indiana and married a fancy hometown girl, Miss Mary Todd. He practiced law, ran for and won a seat in US Congress, ran for and lost a seat in US Senate, was elected President of the United States, was mortally wounded by an assassin’s bullet and returned home via funeral train… and this whole circle starts and ends in, that’s right: Springfield. Therefore, nearly every main attraction in the capital is related in some way to Illinois’ pride in being known as the “Land of Lincoln.” Bonus points if you can claim he “slept here.”
Generations of kids educated in Illinois also equate Springfield to the pinnacle of achievement in academics. Many a Young Author’s Contest, Illinois History Awards, State Science Fair, State Spelling Bees and the like forced parents to drive north from the St Louis metro area and south from the Chicago suburbs to ensure their little plaque recipients received proper honors in the state capital. (Inevitably, there was some type of Abe-related tourist stop associated with such trips.) Girl Scout? Boy Scout? You went to Springfield. Basically, if you were a public-school kid, there was no escaping at least one Lincoln-fest bus trip to the state capital. Springfield also drew the jocks, with several high school sports tournaments, particularly the state soccer championships (Go, ’89 Warriors!). (Ironically, most of these championship finals are actually hosted in Chicago now.) And…raise a glass if you played club baseball or soccer and stayed at the Springfield Holidome! Without parents! And drove there with five of your BFFs in the family Buick! Listening to Madonna or Guns-n-Roses! A true rite of passage for many an Illinois kid from anywhere south of Decatur and north of Carbondale; a slightly redneck version of a John Hughes film, if you will.
Springfield is also known for hosting the proud farming state’s annual fair each August. This means it’s also known for hosting a State Fair summer concert series featuring “Are they still alive?” throwback acts like Cheap Trick, as well as the dichotomy of Reba and Snoop Dog performing on back-to-back nights. (This actually happened. Thank you, 2019.) Additionally, if your parents really want you to marry a lawyer or a doctor, Springfield is not a bad place to hang out. Both the Southern Illinois University medical school campus and the presence of well-heeled professional lobbyists (often commuting from St Louis or Chicago during the legislative session) provide good prospecting.
Finally, it’s worth noting Springfield’s mid-point location in the state makes it the geographical ground zero for the one of the fiercest of all Illinois controversies: Cards? Or Cubs? This question of St. Louis v. Chicago baseball loyalty has divided generations of Illini, so much so that the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum actually dedicated an entire educational exhibit to this rivalry, alongside many excellent exhibits related to that “other” North vs South conflict.
(Final Pixie Point: It’s Cards. Obviously. Cheers! This Bud’s for you.)
Pixie Picks: Springfield, Illinois (2020)
Sleep: President Abraham Lincoln Springfield Doubletree by Hilton is newly renovated and your most “luxe” choice of a downtown hotel chain; it’s walking distance to many attractions and connects to the convention center. Moderately priced (i.e., Drury Inn) and budget chain hotels are also walking distance to many tourist sites. The Flagg Farmstead B&B, listed on the National Register of Historic Homes and located on the north edge of town, receives high marks from travelers. Tragically, Springfield’s iconic ‘80s “Holidome” has been replaced by a Holiday Inn Express & Suites. BYO Bartles & James.
Eat: If you’re traveling with kids and/or into Route 66 nostalgia, make a pit stop at Cozy Dog Drive In (and sit-down diner), which claims to have originated the corn dog on a stick. (Note: It does not claim to have originated the best tasting corn dog on a stick.) In between Lincoln sites, stop at The Feed Store for a tasty, affordable soup/sandwich combo. Central Illinois is heavily agrarian, so it’s no surprise that the Farm to Table movement is strong here and features an excellent range of meat and produce. Try American Harvest Eatery or Engrained Brewery & Restaurant if you like this style of cuisine. Of course, every state capital must have a steak & cigar white tablecloth joint. In Springfield, it’s Nick & Nino’s Penthouse Steakhouse, which sits 30-stories over the capital city at atop the Wyndham Springfield Hotel.
Drink: Ready to go Drinkin’ w/ Lincoln? Beer is a good choice. Specifically, at Craft Beer Bar downtown. For a traditional cocktail menu, try The Gin Mill (also located downtown). If you’re looking for a side of live country music with your whiskey, head to Boondock’s Pub, a warehouse, SRO-type venue that was awarded the 2016 Nightclub of the Year Award by the Academy of Country Music. This should not be confused with Boones Saloon, a western-themed burger/beer garden located in a charming brick building near the capitol. If all else fails, go to the nearest liquor store and by a bottle of Boone’s Farm (Strawberry Hill, natch) and a package of Dixie cups. Java lovers will like Three Twigs Bakery (which also serves gluten-free and vegan pastries).
See: Honest Abe’s greatest hits, including: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum (very well done for all ages; it is a must, particularly for those interested in Civil War history); Lincoln’s Tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery (President and Mrs. Lincoln plus three of their sons are buried here; it’s a tradition to rub Abe’s nose on the bronze bust in front of obelisk); Lincoln Home National Historic Site (the only home Abe ever owned; he lived here directly before moving into the White House); and the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices State Historical Site (Abe practiced law on the third floor; it is located across the street from the Old State Capitol). Downstate Illini will appreciate the Edwards House, owned by the son of Edwardsville, Illinois’ namesake and first territorial governor of Illinois, Ninian Edwards. Ninian’s son, Benjamin (a major catch back in the day; he was the first-ever citizen born in Illinois to graduate from Yale) was married to Mary Todd Lincoln’s sister. Yet another historical house museum, this one focuses on the social and domestic life of Lincoln’s political era; its most well-known piece is the “kissing couch” where Abe first courted his wife. Die-hard Lincoln enthusiasts (and 8th graders held captive on school field trips) often venture about 20 miles north of Springfield to Lincoln’s New Salem Historic Site, a reconstructed village that serves as a walkable attraction built to look as it did 200 years ago when a pre-elected official Abe lived there splitting rails, serving as postmaster, and clerking in a store, among other things. Finally, one more historic home – and, surprise! – it has nothing to do with Lincoln, but everything to do with one of the Prairie State’s (another Illinois nickname) most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. The Dana-Thomas House was Wright’s first “blank check” commission; he designed the 1902 home with 35 rooms over three levels of 12,000 square feet of living space; original Wright stained art glass and furniture are on display.
Play: Parents, you’re welcome in advance. If you are driving south back home from Springfield, take a 15-mile detour off of I-55 into the middle of cornfields to the outdoor play space of Knights Action Park. Waterslides, a lazy river, mini golf courses, batting cages: there is something appealing to every age group, and an hour or so here will release all of the good behavior stress built up from museum after museum. Bonus: It will help “tucker out” kids (as we say in Central/Southern Illinois) before the car ride home. In terms of greenspace closer to town, both Washington Park (with a lovely carillon tower) and Lincoln Memorial Garden and Nature Center are popular choices. In August, it’s all about Abe PLUS the Illinois State Fair, complete with amusement-park style rides and entertainment.
Buy: You really have to ask by now? Anything with Abe Lincoln’s face on it: socks are my personal favorite for a slightly off-beat gift. A strap-on Abe Lincoln beard proved weirdly popular for both genders in our family. And, yes, I own Abe Lincoln band-aids. And I use them when injured. If you need a shopping mall in a pinch, try The Gables. The Jos. A. Banks and/or Talbots located there will get you through any last-minute business meeting at the Capitol. Wild Rose (downtown) is a unique local artists' collective that sells jewelry, home goods, gifts and vintage-type apparel, like "upcycled" flannel and denim, plus offers arts & crafts classes. For the truly time-pressed and/or cheap, spit shine a copper penny (with Lincoln’s face on it: duh) and bring it home to your kid as a souvenir. (He's on the $5 bill, too, if you're willing to spend up.)
Wear: Unless your work necessitates business dress, denim and any type of business casual will suffice. It’s often hot in June-August when many families visit in an attempt to kill a day or two over summer break; shorts are acceptable at the various tourist attractions. Pack a swimsuit for hotel pools (Midwestern kids get a big thrill out of indoor pools in winter months) and/or for Knights Action Park (see “Play” above).
The Fine Pixie Print: Review as of 1.17.2020. As with all other “Capital Pixie Travels” reviews, this is a list of personal recommendations by a 40-something, moderately-adventurous, single female tourist and has NOT been recently verified for any closures, changes of address, hours of operation, good or bad fashion trends, weather phenomenon, political dust-ups, or any other logistically important data points. Trust, but verify. Safe travels! #makememories #alwaystakethetrip