There may be a more charming place to spend autumn than Galena, Ill., but we haven’t found it. Learn what’s new, what’s old and what’s going on now in this remarkable enclave near the Mississippi River.
It’s a rare combination of history and geography that makes Galena, Ill., a one-of-a-kind destination for visitors. But it’s the city’s artists, shopkeepers, chefs, vintners, brewers, entertainers, home-renovators, tourism gurus, history buffs and cheerleaders who keep fun-seekers coming back to check out what’s new. And there’s always someplace new to dine, sleep, see or learn about.
The city remains quaint yet sophisticated, historic but edgy, and the natural beauty of its surrounding landscape is reason enough to visit. In any ordinary week, there are scores of interesting things to do. But in autumn, there’s no such thing as an ordinary week, as the city rolls out one special event after another. If that’s not enough, Dubuque, Iowa, just 12 miles and one Old Man River down the road, also knows how to show visitors a good time, as do many country towns in the tri-state region.
“In winter, people south of here come for the snow,” says Celestino Ruffini, director of sales and marketing at the Galena/Jo Daviess County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “In spring, we have visitors from Minneapolis and points north, who come looking for an earlier springtime. And summertime here? Who doesn’t like that? But autumn is by far our biggest season.”
Indeed, the charming city, with its 19th century brick buildings, is at its best when autumn leaves drift through the air; harvest bounty shows up in farm-fresh restaurant dishes and open-air markets; wines from the year’s grapes are uncorked; and shopkeepers decorate with pumpkins and bittersweet.
“Mid to late October is when fall color peaks, but all of autumn is wonderful in Galena,” says Tonia Blair, director of marketing at VisitGalena.org. “It’s still warm enough to do recreational things, and there’s something to celebrate every weekend.”
Here’s a rundown of some of those special events, along with notes on what’s new in dining and lodging.
What to Do This Fall
43rd Annual Tour of Historic Homes, Sept. 25-26
Most communities appreciate their local history, but Galena (named for the lead ore once mined here) takes it to a new level. For one thing, the town just looks historic, because it went from a lead-mining boom town, in the early and mid-1800s, to a near-ghost town by the end of that century. The result was to freeze in time the mid-19th century architecture. Its halcyon days of being the premier northern Illinois city ended when the Gold Rush commenced, and when Chicago surpassed Galena in both size and shipping activity.
Galena also was home to President Ulysses S. Grant and eight other Union Army generals. All kinds of interesting people have left their marks on this city, hence this very interesting annual historic home tour organized by the Galena History Museum.
This year the tour features: DeZoya House, 1107 Fourth St., an 1838 Federal-style brick home built by a lieutenant in Napoleon’s army; Hunkins House (Annie Wiggins Guest House), 1004 Park Ave., an 1846 Greek Revival mansion built by a former superintendent of the Illinois Central Railroad; Telford House, 511 Park Ave., facing the Galena River, an 1845 Greek Revival which hasn’t been open to the public for several decades; Muchow Farmstead, 634 N. Pilot Knob Road, a 1931 Craftsman style with scenic vistas and bucolic charm; and Horton-Eustice House, 309 Park Ave., an 1870 Italianate home built by a prominent local contractor.
Call (815) 777-9129 or go to www.galenahistorymuseum.org
Fall Harvest & Arts Festival 2010, Sept. 25-26
Galena Cultural Arts Alliance and Galena Cellars Vineyard have teamed up to co-host this brand new festival at the vineyard, 4746 Ford Road, from noon to 6 p.m. both days. Along with a grape stomp and vineyard tour, there’ll be pumpkin painting, hay rides, live music and an art auction at 5 p.m. on Saturday.
Artists will demonstrate their talents from inside tents set up in the vineyard clearing; see watercolor paintings, pottery, textile arts and exotic wood crafts in the making.
“We think this partnership will create a great weekend for everyone,” says Toni Klingler, Galena Cultural Arts Alliance president. “Our artists participate in our shop ‘Hello Galena!,’ as well as in galleries, museums and art fairs throughout the year, but to be able to exhibit and sell in such a beautiful setting is a real treat.”
The Jo Daviess County Beef Association will grill steak and chicken for sandwiches, along with beef brats and hot dogs. Enjoy locally-produced cheeses and fruits and kick up your heels as the vineyard barrel room comes to life with music – rags, waltzes and hoedowns – from the Fever River String Band.
Admission is free; vineyard tours are $5 each and include a sensory tour and wine tasting. Go to www.galenacellars.com or call (815) 777-3235.
55th Annual Fall Old Market Day, Sept. 25
At this turn-of-the-century open-air market, ladies in period costume will hawk their wares. Interesting arts and crafts will be sold and heritage skills will be demonstrated. The location is Old Market Square, 123 N. Commerce St., right next to Hello Galena, a shop that’s stocked and run by local artists.
Green Fair, Sept. 25
Learn what’s new in renewable energy, energy savers, green building techniques and materials and local food sources. Get information about recycling, composting, clean indoor air, natural lawns and landscaping. There will be plenty for kids to do. Hours are 9 a.m.-4 p.m. A $5 bill gets you through the door of the Galena Convention Center, 900 Galena Square Dr. (815) 244-9444.
Oktoberfest, Oct. 2
Located on the eastside riverfront, this annual favorite is all the more special this year because of the recent opening of the Galena Brewing Co. It’s almost a re-opening of sorts, since owners Warren and Kathy Bell named their business after a Galena brewery of the early 1900s that closed during Prohibition.
With legions of thirsty miners, and the Mississippi River close at hand for transport, it’s not surprising that 1800s Galena once had more breweries per capita than any city in the nation, including Chicago and Milwaukee.
Galena’s Oktoberfest is all that you’d expect from the annual German celebration, and a little more, with live music, kids’ games, wiener dog races and lots to eat and drink. Enjoy a bean bag tournament, raffle drawings with prizes, polka dancing and lessons, the beer stein endurance contest, and the ceremonial tapping of the keg. Favorite Oktoberfest foods will be served by Benjamin’s Restaurant, Galena Elks and Extra Batch Bakery.
“The wiener dog race is especially popular at this event,” says Blair. “People just love watching those dogs.” About 2,000 people – and 70 dogs – attended the event last year. It’s sponsored by the Galena Lions Club.
“It may not sound like it, with all the beer being served, but this event is very family-friendly,” promises Blair. Hours: From noon to 11 p.m. Cost is $5 for adults, children 12 and under free.
Galena Country Fair, Oct. 9-10
By far the largest event in the autumn lineup, this fair in Grant Park gives more than 150 vendors a chance to show and sell their original arts and crafts. There’s fair food, live entertainment, children’s games and farmers’ markets brimming with locally-grown produce. Some of Jo Daviess County’s best bakers will be there to tempt visitors with homemade goods.
Live bands and Irish dancers perform each day, with a tribute to service men and women at 3 p.m. both days. There’s free remote parking and shuttle service from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Hours are Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. A $2 donation gets you in. The event is organized by volunteers and proceeds are returned to the community in the form of grants.
A word to the wise: Reserve a room soon if you’re planning an overnight visit to Galena on this weekend.
Twenty Dirty Hands, Oct. 15-17
This self-guided tour takes you through some of the interesting nooks and crannies along the Mississippi River, in and near Galena, and down some back roads otherwise easily missed. Some of the area’s best-known pottery and sculpture studios in and near Galena throw open their doors from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. For some, it’s the only time each year that visitors are allowed a peek at the forges, kilns and workspaces where exquisite pieces are produced. More information at www.twentydirtyhands.com.
Balloon Glow, Oct. 29, & Halloween Parade, Oct. 30
Visitors who attend the first event go home with unforgettable memories, because it’s not every day that one sees colorful hot air balloons lit from within at dusk, lined up along the banks of the Galena River. It happens from 7 to 9 p.m., weather permitting, and there’s no admission.
The next day, Saturday, one of the largest parades of its kind in the tri-state area steps off on Main Street at 6:30 p.m., with floats, costumes, prizes and treats for all ages. Adults can enjoy a free Halloween costume party with prizes and live entertainment at Benjamin’s, 103 N. Main St., Oct. 30.
Chocolate & Candlelight Progressive Dinner, Nov. 5
The progressive dinner begins at 6 p.m. in downtown Galena, at Chocolat′, a boutique offering fine domestic and European chocolates. Guests sample chocolates from Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland and Venezuela while sipping champagne. Next, they’ll enjoy the scenic rolling hills during a leisurely drive to the Goldmoor Inn. At this posh English castle-style country inn, perched on bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, an elegant meal will be served in the dining room. After dinner, guests return to historic downtown Galena for flourless chocolate cake accompanied by a glass of chocolate port at Fried Green Tomatoes, 213 N. Main St. The cost is $69 per person, including tip, tax and transportation. Call (800) 255-3925.
Chocolate, Champagne & Candlelight, Nov. 6
Yummy. Enjoy two lavish buffets offering chocolate plus a few non-chocolate desserts, at the historic DeSoto House Hotel, 230 S. Main St. This is a benefit for the Galena-Jo Daviess County Historical Society and Museum. The evening concludes with a silent auction of unique Galena items donated by local businesspeople. Held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., admission is $14, and reservations are recommended. Tickets include a glass of champagne.
Nouveau Wine Festival, Nov. 19-20
There’s a new twist on this old favorite this year, as the festival transitions from a Friday-only event sponsored by Galena Cellars, to a weekend-long bash that involves the whole town.
“We wanted to work with our community to create a longer event,” says Scott Lawlor, co-owner of Galena Cellars, which founded the Galena version of the French Nouveau festival in 1985. The dates correspond with the third Thursday in November in France, when the first wine, Beaujolais Nouveau, is released from that year’s grape harvest, at midnight.
Festivities begin at noon on Friday, when many restaurants serve French-inspired luncheon specials. Then, at 2:30 p.m., horses clip-clop down Main Street, pulling wagons laden with the special “guest” – Galena Cellar’s Nouveau wine, made from this year’s harvest.
The new release is distributed to area businesses. Following the parade, there will be wine and cheese receptions, with live entertainment, throughout the downtown, followed by Nouveau dinner specials. Hotels are offering wine-inspired packages, too.
The Grand Tasting during the Nouveau weekend takes place on Saturday at the Galena Convention Center, from 3:30 to 6 p.m. Cost is $35 per person at the door, $30 in advance, at www.nouveauweekend.com, or call (815) 777-3938. Enjoy a room filled with wine samples from around the world, plus cheese, bread, fruit and a keepsake wineglass.
“Wine and art always make good companions,” says Lawlor. For that reason, for the past 26 years, Galena Cellars has commissioned an artist to design a poster for the event. Many of them have become collectibles.
Where to Stay
“This county has more bed and breakfasts than any other in the Midwest,” says Ruffini. Indeed, there are 40-plus, each with a unique claim, from Italianate-style Belvedere Mansion, with its green drapes from the set of “Gone With The Wind,” to the Farmers’ Guest House, billed as the city’s only 19th century restored guest house.
And, of course, there’s historic DeSoto House Hotel, opened in 1855, the campaign headquarters of President Ulysses S. Grant. Today, it offers 55 rooms that combine Victorian décor with modern conveniences like wireless Internet. It has three restaurants and couldn’t be more conveniently located to the main Galena shopping and nightlife district.
The options don’t stop there. One is Goldmoor Inn, 9001 Sand Hill Road, a newer, upscale country inn with 12 suites, two log cabins and three cottages, all on a high bluff, with magnificent views of the Mississippi backwaters. It’s located about 6 miles from Galena’s downtown, off Blackjack Road, and its furnishings are sumptuous.
Off the same road, less than two miles from downtown, is eight-room Le Fevre Inn & Resort, 9917 West Deininger Lane, tucked into 100 acres of countryside, with wraparound porches that honor the spectacular, three-state view. Rooms are well-furnished and “pet guests” are welcome. The inn has a pond with a “floating gazebo” that’s often used for weddings.
There are two large resorts nearby. Eagle Ridge is an elegant, full-service championship golf and spa resort in the 6,800-acre Galena Territory, near the city. Guests may choose between the 80-room main inn and more than 300 spacious one- to -eight-bedroom villas and homes with various luxury features. There are several dining options, and activities range from horseback riding to tennis, fishing, swimming, cross-country skiing and even hot air ballooning.
Chestnut Mountain Resort is a family-friendly ski destination with plenty to do off-season. There’s disc and miniature golf; Mississippi River cruises; an indoor pool and sauna; and a 2,050-foot Alpine-style slide that provides an amazing three-state view. Visitors ride the ski lift back to the top.
Luxury chain hotels are at their best in Galena, such as the attractive Ramada Galena, with several acres of perennial gardens and a pond, as well as an indoor heated pool, on-site spa and salon, and an 18-hole golf course right next door. The hotel is five minutes from downtown Galena, on Highway 20.
Just across the Mississippi River from Galena is the exciting Port of Dubuque. With the Diamond Joe and Mystique casinos, the Smithsonian-affiliated National Mississippi River Museum &Aquarium, the historic Star Brewery Building and Alliant Energy amphitheater drawing visitors, lodging options there are abundant.
The Grand River Center, connected to the Grand Harbor Resort and Waterpark by an enclosed walkway, offers plentiful modern rooms, many with river views, and 25,000 feet of year-round water fun.
Nearby is the sophisticated Hotel Julien Dubuque, an historic downtown landmark that’s in perfect condition after a $30 million renovation. With a history that’s nearly as rich as its elegant furnishings – Abe Lincoln, Al Capone, Mark Twain and “Buffalo Bill” Cody all figure in – this hotel is a lesson in gracious luxury, with its Potosi Spa, Caroline’s Restaurant and Riverboat Lounge.
Where to Dine
The worst thing about eating out in the Galena region is deciding where to go. Along with terrific offerings in many of the hotels and inns, like the new Sunset Grille at Chestnut Mountain, with its giant deck overlooking the Mississippi River Valley, there’s a world of options right in downtown Galena.
The new Victory Café offers fast homecooking that’s easy on the wallet. The new Flying Horse casual fine dining restaurant, at 216 S. Commerce St., is quickly building a fan base, along with its Vines Bar; it offers patio dining, too. Fred and Karyn Grzeslo opened Fritz and Frites, a French and German-influenced bistro, on Main Street, in 2006, where both the atmosphere and the cuisine transport diners to Europe. Brand new is Campeche Restaurant, 230 N. Commerce St., which will begin serving fresh Mexican food this fall.
A husband and wife team have opened Galena’s first Japanese restaurant, Little Tokyo, at the corner of Main and Franklin streets, with al fresco dining available in its Japanese garden. It stocks a collection of small-batch and artisanal sake as well as menu favorites like sushi and sashimi.
A staple favorite on Main Street is Fried Green Tomatoes, owned by Fred and Mari-Kristin Bonnet, who lovingly transformed the historic building into a restaurant with abundant ambiance. It once housed a leather business owned by Jesse Grant, Ulysses S. Grant’s father, in the 1850s and ’60s. The Bonnets love to tell guests about all the colorful characters who’ve worked in the building, from iron workers to actors, grocers to saloon keepers. The menu is large, with Italian influence and emphasis on steaks, seafoods and freshly-made pastas. Locals particularly enjoy the Friday evening special of prime rib rubbed with seasonings from the Galena Garlic Co., served with au jus and house horseradish sauce.
One thing is true about the Galena region: You just can’t cover it all in one trip. Walking down Main Street is only the beginning. Tucked into the streets, hills and small towns around it are countless treasures worth exploring, because of the colorful people who once lived there, and those who live there today. ❚