The Peoria skyline. (Jerry Milam photo)

Will You Play in Peoria?

It’s a vibrant, welcoming city, where there are plenty of attractions to visit. Discover the authentic experience of this weekend playground.

The Peoria skyline. (Jerry Milam photo)
The Peoria skyline. (Jerry Milam photo)

The vaudevillians may have been onto something when they famously asked, “Will it play in Peoria?” They realized Peoria’s strength as a miniature portrait of America.

While the vaudeville acts today are long gone, this city is still a vibrant, welcoming place, where new entertainment and new ideas thrive. It’s home to world-class corporations, a Division I university, numerous attractions and constant celebration. As a weekend playground, it offers a genuinely refreshing getaway from the familiar haunts of northern Illinois.

“We like to say it’s those authentic experiences of Peoria, because you’re not going to find those anywhere else,” says Lelonie Luft, marketing manager for the Peoria Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Experiences are one-of-a-kind here.”

Peoria’s vibrant, skyscraper-filled downtown is a good starting point, but its real gem is the riverfront. The latest stop is the Peoria Riverfront Museum, a Smithsonian-affiliated institution that opened in October 2012.

One interactive gallery celebrates the Illinois High School Association, with activities that allow kids to test their skills against the state’s high school athletic record-holders. Stargazers will marvel at the planetarium and its high-definition, fiber-optic display system, the local history room and a theater with a screen that stands five stories tall. The first all-digital theater built in the U.S., it offers both entertainment and educational possibilities.

“We had a physician come to us and say, ‘Can I perform a live surgical procedure through Skype, have you showcase it, and have my colleagues in the audience asking questions?’” says Nikki Cole, the museum’s vice president of development. “That’s the capability that this theater provides, being completely digital.”

Visitors will find many sustainable features, including local-sourced popcorn, on this LEED-certified museum’s “green tour.”

Next door is the newly opened Caterpillar Visitors Center, an interactive exhibit of massive earthmovers designed and built by this global company with its world headquarters in Peoria. Play inside real equipment, explore a life-size replica of the 2.5-story 797F mining truck and see how this massive equipment is designed and manufactured.

“We wanted to give back to the community and show them what we’re doing,” says Autumn Wickenhauser, marketing and communications manager for the visitors center. “We wanted to have a place for everyone to see the equipment we build. We have so many employees here who don’t get to see the final product that their work impacts every day.”

At night, Peoria’s downtown and riverfront come alive, inside intimate jazz bars and cozy pubs. Most weekends, people gather at outdoor events along the river, or inside the 110,000-square-foot civic center, a complex that includes an arena, conference center and performing arts center under one roof.

During warmer months, the Spirit of Peoria riverboat, an old-fashioned paddle wheeler, travels the Illinois River on themed cruises, sightseeing tours and overnight trips. Sometimes, out-of-towners prefer the river itself – and its non-native Asian carp.

“We have them jump all over the boat,” says Capt. Alex Grieves. “It’s almost become a new tour attraction. We have people call them Illinois’ freshwater dolphins, because it’s like a dolphin show.”

As it always has, Peoria embraces its art scene. Downtown, the Contemporary Art Center of Peoria (CAC) combines gallery display areas, musical performance space and rentable art studios on the second and third floors of a renovated, turn-of-the-century warehouse. The center houses 20 resident artists.

The CAC is one place to see nearly 70 artists during the city’s First Friday events every month. Toraason Glass, owned by glassblower Hiram Toraason, welcomes visitors and tour groups alike to a renovated industrial building, located near the warehouse district. Toraason’s gallery is filled with sunlight, and he hosts demonstrations here.

“I just did a glassblowing class for someone’s birthday, and her friends said to her, ‘Wear jeans, shoes and cotton clothing, we’ll pick you up at 11,’ and they showed up here,” says Toraason. “My professor taught me that if you can bring people into the studio and show them glassmaking, even if they’re not going to buy anything, they’ll walk away with the experience.”

The area’s best collection of unique dining is at Peoria Heights. Along three blocks of this small northeast suburb, foodies will find everything from critically acclaimed, local-sourced dining at June, to upscale finger food served up at Salt and cozy pubs such as Publik House. Quaint shops, with everything from home décor to coffee and books, are mixed in between.

If you haven’t guessed it yet, Peoria loves its locally owned businesses. There’s a growing revival of storefronts along Main Street, between Bradley University and North Street, where new life is coming to a once-blighted neighborhood. The Main Statement, owned by two recent Bradley alums, sells colorful, eclectic gifts handcrafted by local artists.

“I always wanted to have a business,” says co-owner Danielle Auth. “I had moved to Austin [Texas] and saw so many businesses there that were owned by young people, so I came back to Peoria and started this.”

The outdoor enthusiast has plenty to enjoy, in a town that boasts one of Illinois’ largest park districts. Peoria Park District’s 9,000 acres include large forest preserves with bike trails, five public golf courses, neighborhood parks and a small zoo. Several privately owned golf clubs are open to the public.

On the western outskirts, along Route 8, Wildlife Prairie State Park preserves Illinois’ native flora and fauna. Set on 2,000 acres, the park is home to 50 species of animals indigenous to Illinois, from cougars, wolves and bears to deer, elk and otter. A large meadow sustains a bison herd.

“And there are miles of guided trails to walk,” says Molly Waller, the park’s director of development. “I think that’s a huge selling point right now with families, to continue to have our young people learn how much fun it is to be outside, and to learn, and to walk. We want to get all of our children away from the screens and have an authentic outdoor experience.”

The Olde English Faire returns to the park this June 21-23. Visitors are encouraged to wear costumes, as they experience re-enactors, authentic medieval food, a troupe of jousters and a Saturday gala fundraiser.

Also on the outskirts of town are three locally owned wineries: Mackinaw Valley, Willett’s and Kickapoo Creek. The latter has 10 medal-winning wines and is a popular place for social events, including about 50 weddings a year.

Back in town, visitors enjoy sweeping river vistas around Grandview Drive, a bluff-side road that Theodore Roosevelt called “the most beautiful drive in the world.”

Along the riverfront, baseball fans enjoy the St. Louis Cardinals-affiliated Peoria Chiefs. And every winter, future hockey stars take the ice at the Peoria Civic Center, with the St. Louis Blues-affiliated Peoria Rivermen.

Fans can also see future sports stars at the city’s many high school state tournaments, which include finals in basketball, softball and baseball.

This is a city that knows how to make its own fun. Today, it’s not so much a question of whether a show will play in Peoria. It’s more like, will you play in Peoria?