Tucked into the northwest corner of Illinois is the historic Mississippi hillside town of Galena. Its gorgeous fall color draws visitors from mid-September to Halloween, so if going then, book your stay now (weekdays are better).
But the shops, the mid-to late 1800’s structures, charming inns and good food make Galena a fun break in the routine pretty much any time of year. (Folks come here to ski Chestnut Mountain even if not every shop is open)
An easy three-hour drive from Chicago on I 90, the vacation begins when turning before Rockford onto US 20, General Ulysses S. Grant Highway when the four-lane expressway becomes a scenic two-lane road.
As you wind through the hills of Stephenson and Jo Davies Counties, you may realize you are on a ridge with grand vistas of lush valleys.
Although you can continue north through Galena to cross the Mississippi at East Dubuque into Iowa (and go the The Field of Dreams baseball movie destination), Galena is a getaway destination, itself.
Go back in time
Indian tribes roamed the area. then it was settled by French traders and explorers. However, the town flourished in the early 1800s when galena ore (lead) boats plied the Mississippi River. It then became a gateway west when Ulysses S. Grant’s family lived and worked here in the mid-1800s.
Galena was on the stage coach route (there still are some stage coach signs). Then by 1854, the rail line went through making it a natural stop for Abraham Lincoln who used the balcony of the Desoto House Hotel on Main Street to campaign for John Fremont in 1856. The Desoto House was also the campaign headquarters for Grant. Go in to see its staircase and ask about a tour.
A couple of other good stops are the old railroad depot on the south side of the Galena River. It houses the Galena Area Tourism Bureau. Also on that side of the river is Gen US Grant’s home built for him as the town’s favorite son.
Ask about walking tours when at the depot. The Galena Historic District covers about 85 percent of the city and includes some 800 properties that were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969.
Think food, boutiques and quirky shops when strolling downtown Galena’s Main Street.
When pulling onto the street from US 20 I spied the cheese and wine store that I knew was there. But the unknown treasure was Red’s Iron Yard and Wholesale Barn a few stores down. I loved the roosters and birdhouses in front. My husband was drawn to the antique toy trucks in back.
Another fun store was Celebrity Hats on the other side of the street. Go in. Find your style.
Among the taste treats on the street were two chocolate stores and a patisserie that also did cocktails and sandwiches. Really. Called Bread & Vine, it did good macarons, lovely desserts and yummy sandwiches including a Croque Monsieur and savory croissant with smoked salmon.
There are a couple of chains but most of the stores are unique.
Some folks journey to Galena just for the Fried Green Tomatoes restaurant. You do need a reservation. The place is that popular. I made ours before leaving town. It is known for its steaks but we chose seafood because we know everything there is well prepared and we had meat before we left. The front of the restaurant is on Main Street but its outdoor space is behind it where people park. This end of the street is blocked off for outdoor, curb and street side tables.
Also good is the historic Desoto House. It has three restaurants that are open at different times of the day. For lunch we did the Green Street Tavern where I had the best garlic French fries ever tasted with a delish pulled pork sandwich. My husband had an apple and mixed berry salad with walnuts and a raspberry vinaigrette .
Our dinner the night before we left was at Frank O’Dowd’s Irish Pub & Grill at the Irish Cottage where we were staying. I liked their beer battered cod and seasoned Irish chips. My husband liked the traditional corned beef.
Galena has several B and Bs. Check the Galena Country tourism stay/site for ideas. We liked the Irish cottage for its first-floor patio suites but there were several other places that also looked good including the Goldmoor Inn which is a Select Registry on the road to Chestnut Mountain and the Chestnut Mountain Resort. Both have good views and friendly service.
Eagle Ridge Resort and Spa about six miles outside town has now reopened for golf, events and regular tourist traffic.