A Journey to the Past and Future in Peoria

Since long before French explorers settled the banks of the Illinois River, the Peoria area has beckoned to the adventurous. From native tribes to whiskey stills, vaudeville performers and giant earthmoving equipment, this city’s rich history is baked into its culture – and its top destinations.

(Jerry Milam photo)

Since the first French explorers settled in Peoria – and thousands of years before them – this spot on the Illinois River has been a destination for the adventurous.

Over the centuries, it’s been called the “whiskey capital of the world” and a must-stop for vaudevillians. It’s where some of the first gas-powered automobiles were produced, and then a local earthmover, Caterpillar, became an international success.

These days, the Peoria area is enjoying a resurgence of activity, earning a reputation as a place just waiting to be discovered once again.

“A lot has been done here, and we’ve always been resilient,” says JD Dalfonso, President/CEO of the Peoria Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We’re optimistic through some of the toughest times we’ve ever seen, because we’ve always persevered and we’ve always gotten through it. So, I think we pride ourselves on being able to apply experiences that tie back to our own history.”

Indeed, many of Peoria’s most authentic experiences and destinations maintain a close link to this city’s rich history. New and time-tested attractions combine for intriguing possibilities.

Peoria Riverfront Museum hosts a live sound stage in its new GUITARS exhibit and a 3-D replica of Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit in the front lobby. The Spirit of Peoria riverboat cruises the Illinois River for short daytime trips and longer, multi-day excursions. The Warehouse District, located just south of downtown, is coming alive with new businesses, including coffee shops, distilleries and homegrown retailers.

Downtown Peoria

The journey begins in the heart of Peoria, in a downtown district filled with buildings that reach toward the sky and overlook the mighty Illinois River. This busy business district is where you’ll find major corporate headquarters mixed in with a minor-league baseball stadium and the Peoria Civic Center – which boasts a sports arena, convention center and theater all under one roof.

Start off on Water Street to explore the scenic Riverwalk. Parking is easy, and you’ll find both dynamic river views and unique restaurants.

This is also where you’ll find the Peoria Riverfront Museum, a family-friendly attraction that combines a science museum, art museum, sports museum and history museum into one hangout.

The giant-screen theater and planetarium are open again, yet it’s the 30-foot guitar that really has people talking. It’s part of the newest exhibit, GUITAR: The Instrument that Rocked the World. The traveling exhibit, on display through Jan. 10, explores the science, sound and history of this ubiquitous instrument. It features the world’s largest playable guitar and more than 70 instruments dating as far back as the 1800s.

Check out the exhibit on the Golden Voice Recording Studio and learn about the recording studio in a South Pekin cornfield that hosted numerous musicians in the 1960s and ’70s.

Also inside the museum is a 13-foot diameter illuminated moon and a 3-D printed reproduction of Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit. Plan to return next year and see a collection of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns’ quilts and the first road stop for an exhibit on Tyrannosaurus Rex.

A few blocks away from Peoria Riverfront Museum, the Peoria Marriott Pere Marquette hotel provides a sophisticated place to rest overnight. The historic, 14-story downtown hotel has been renovated and thoroughly modernized.

As you’re exploring downtown, wander south of the Illinois Route 40 overpass and check out one of the latest up-and-coming areas: Warehouse District. These gritty blocks were once a busy hub for the city’s whiskey industry, back when Peoria distilleries were churning out product. Now, these classic structures are finding a new life. Get a taste of bourbon at J.K. Williams Distillery, then sample locally roasted coffees at [CxT] Roasting Co. and check out the all-American, adventure-inspired gear at Rambler.

Something Truly Authentic

Where’s the adventure in sticking only with the ordinary and familiar? Peoria’s most authentic experiences allow visitors a closer look at this city’s true character and culture.

The brand-new Keller Station preserves Peoria’s history while providing a surprising new amenity, one that’s more familiar to big-city markets. Built at a once-abandoned transportation building, Keller Station evokes the feeling of a nascent, open-air version of Milwaukee Public Market. Early tenants include a burger joint, boutique retailers and a coffee roaster. An outdoor market and a drive-in movie event have been big hits this summer.

From Keller Station, navigate toward Grandview Drive, where you’ll find some of the city’s best views overlooking the Illinois River Valley. This winding, scenic roadway was once described by President Theodore Roosevelt as “the world’s most beautiful drive.” It’s not hard to see why, as it passes lovely historic homes and lookouts where it’s easy to grab a picnic dinner or watch the spectacular colors of sunrise or sunset.

“It’s common no matter the time of year to see someone grab something from a restaurant and picnic at the lookouts on Grandview Drive,” says Dalfonso. “There’s this amazing 2- or 3-mile stretch that the public can enjoy.”

Descend the bluffs and get a personal view of the river aboard the Spirit of Peoria riverboat. This re-created paddlewheel boat serves up themed tours around Peoria and multi-day travels to places like St. Louis and Starved Rock.

The Spirit of Peoria riverboat is a re-created paddlwheel boat that travels up and down the Illinois River.

The Great Outdoors

Peoria offers a true mixture of rural and urban adventure, and while there’s much to explore in the city, locals also treasure the adventures waiting just outside.

About 10 miles west of Peoria, visitors can get a true sense of the Prairie State at Wildlife Prairie Park.

The 1,800-acre wilderness retreat is home to more than 120 animals, all of them native to Illinois – including herds of bison and elk that roam expansive pastures. Explore the wildlife and woods on 25 miles of groomed hiking trails, or bring your bikes and explore 24 rugged miles of biking trails.

Overnight accommodations make for a truly special way to enjoy the park. After all, how many people can say they spent the night in a caboose? These converted Santa Fe cars sleep four to five people and feature modern comforts. Reservations fill up fast; luckily, the park also has luxury cabins, classic cabins and tent camping on site.

Explore miles of biking trails at places like Sandridge State Forest and Jubilee College State Park, or hike the Illinois River Bluff Trail, which connects several local parks across a rugged 7-mile path.

One of the newest outdoors destinations has just debuted upriver at Sankoty Lakes. This four-season wilderness retreat in Spring Bay features three spring-fed lakes right off the Illinois River, where you’ll find fishing, hunting, hiking, kayaking and more.

There’s a unique, mile-long trout stream that’s ideal for fly fishing, and there are plenty of overnight accommodations at the luxury “glamping” tents, cabins and RV lots.

Shopping Adventures

Big-name retailers abound in Peoria’s most-coveted shopping districts. Find a wide selection of familiar names at Shoppes at Grand Prairie, an outdoor mall in far northwest Peoria. Northwoods Mall is welcoming more experience-based activities, including Round1, which features a bowling alley, arcade games and other entertainment for the family.

East Peoria’s Levee District, located just across the river from downtown, features more shopping opportunities including a Bass Pro Shop.

Big names aside, some of the best adventures await at the unique, locally owned retailers hiding around Peoria.

Head to the Warehouse District and glimpse the changes happening at Whiskey City Architectural Salvage. The crew has saved and repaired everything from old woodwork to furniture, in many cases repurposing it for a new life. The showroom is temporarily closed, in preparation for a big move.

Studios on Sheridan at the Sunbeam Building brings more than a dozen local artists under one roof. These days, they’re keeping the arts alive and well with periodic events. The studios’ location at Sheridan and Main streets puts it in the middle of another up-and-coming district with kitschy local retailers.

Take a quick tour outside Peoria and find even more shopping opportunities at the quaint downtowns of Pekin, Morton, Chillicothe, Washington and East Peoria’s Levee District. Each is thriving with unique stores and restaurants that truly reflect small-town America’s charm.

Food & Drink

A trip to Peoria isn’t complete without a taste of the local cuisine, and there are options to meet every palate. Look for some of the best assortments around downtown and the village of Peoria Heights.

Out in “the Heights,” an array of locally owned restaurants rim a former Pabst beer factory on Prospect Street. Top picks include Cayenne, The Publik House, Hearth and Joe’s Original Italian & Martini Bar.

The appropriately named Cayenne serves up tacos made-to-order – with a little twist, of course. Publik House serves food and drinks in a cozy, English-style pub. Hearth has been called a top date-night destination with a focus on local ingredients. Tap into the extensive whiskey bar, inspired by the owner’s long service in the liquor industry. Classic Italian fare is the highlight at Joe’s, which serves up generous dishes of hearty Italian cuisine.

Meanwhile, in downtown Peoria, locals can’t say enough about Ardor Breads and Provisions. Chef Cody Scogin translates Old World philosophies into mouthwatering selections of bread, pastries, sourdough appetizers and daily specials. The French-inspired bakery has become a fast favorite at local farmers markets.

“I think it’s had the reputation of selling out of its bread by noon, due to its popularity,” says Dalfonso. “Especially with farmers markets on Saturdays, it’s a hot commodity that sells out quickly.”

On the opposite side of downtown is Obed & Isaac’s microbrewery, where the constantly rotating beer and food menus are only part of the experience. The brewery and restaurant are set inside a towering stone church that dates to 1889. The views inside don’t disappoint, as visitors are treated to a bar in the middle of the old sanctuary and great views of the stunning stained-glass windows. The bocce beer garden outside kept busy this season with 24 beer taps, fire pits and outdoor games.

And speaking of outdoor games, Industry Brewing takes its outdoor entertainment pretty seriously. The microbrewery and restaurant on Peoria’s north side is going all in for an expanded outdoor season. Book a session with Rocket Axe Throwing while you’re at it.

“They’ve established fire pits at every dining area, so warm weather or cold weather, you have an opportunity to stay distant and eat out and enjoy some great food,” says Dalfonso.

Also Worth a Closer Look

There’s so much to do and experience in Peoria that it’s hard to fit it all into one trip. That’s OK, because there’s still plenty to anticipate.

The Doug Oberhelman Caterpillar Visitors Center, in downtown Peoria, remains on temporary closure due to COVID-19, but there’s a virtual experience you can access at home. This hands-on museum features many interactive exhibits as families get up close and personal with Caterpillar’s earthmoving equipment.

Similarly, the hands-on Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum is closed, but it’s a favorite among families who want to expose children to science, nature and history. It’s located right by the Peoria Zoo and the Luthy Botanical Gardens, both tourist attractions in their own rights.

All-American Destination

Visit Peoria for yourself and see why it’s a four-time winner of the All-American city award. It’s a community on the rebound, where adventures of all kinds await.

Now is as good a time as any to enjoy an adventure in a town that’s full of surprises.

“Throughout this time of COVID, we’re seeing we can really rediscover our backyard,” says Dalfonso. “We encourage anyone to come visit and discover what we’re seeing in our own backyard.”