The oldest permanent European settlement in Illinois, Peoria is perched atop a bluff overlooking both the Illinois River and Peoria Lake. Once derided as the Average American Town, its residents are rightfully proud of what the city has to offer with some even saying its sights make it a smaller, cheaper Chicago.
Named after the Native American people that inhabited the region, the strategic riverside area was settled by French explorers in 1691. Its prominent port meant Peoria became a major center of agriculture, trade and shipping for the Midwest. Its steady growth and quiet comfortable life saw it viewed as the archetypal US town and the famous figure of speech ‘Will it play in Peoria?’ coined.
While demographic changes mean it is somewhat less representative of Midwestern mainstream culture now, the city is sure to offer up plenty of surprises to those who visit. With plenty of things to do in Peoria, a hip riverfront district and the ‘World’s Most Beautiful Drive’ to explore, this overlooked gem is well worth checking out.
In this post, we'll cover:
12. Wildlife Prairie Park
A fun place to visit, the wonderful Wildlife Prairie Park has over 150 animals to spot, roaming around in a natural setting. Often ranked among the best attractions in Illinois, it lies nestled just twenty minutes drive northwest of town.
Sprawled across a massive area, it encompasses vast forests, rivers and meadows. First opened to the public in 1977, it now protects around sixty species native to the state with bobcats, bears, bison and wolves all on show.
Aside from taking wildlife watching tours and learning more about the elk and otters, you can hike, bike and kayak about its diverse landscapes. Playgrounds, picnic areas and campgrounds are also on offer as are a railroad, sculpture walk and disc golf course.
11. WeaverRidge Golf Club
Whether you are a complete newbie, enthusiastic amateur or even a professional, the WeaverRidge Golf Club is a gorgeous place to play a round. At the championship course, you can either tee off amidst stunning scenery or try out a cool golf simulator.
Open to the public, the eighteen-hole course is very lovingly landscaped with its pristine greens and sandy bunkers set amid sweeping valleys and forested hills. Despite dramatic elevation change and long distances involved, its five sets of tees mean it is suitable for all ages and abilities.
Besides playing at one of the top-rated courses in the country, guests can dine at its lavish clubhouse or outdoors on the restaurant deck. There are also golf classes available, an on-site shop and the fun simulators if you don’t fancy ambling about the green outside.
10. Tower Park
If you’re after one of the best views in town, make sure to head to Tower Park in the Peoria Heights part of the city. From the top of its dark red water tower, you can bask in phenomenal panoramas of the enormous Illinois River Valley stretching almost endlessly away before you.
Instantly recognizable, the 200-foot-tall tower has three lofty observation decks from which visitors can gaze out over Grandview Drive and all its historic old mansions. Weather permitting, it is open from April through October with autumn being a particularly special time to visit due to all its fiery fall foliage.
On top of enjoying its incredible vistas and snapping some pics, you can also stroll about the small park’s paths with playgrounds, public sculptures and a pavilion dotted here and there.
9. Luthy Botanical Garden
Full of colorful plants, flowers, trees and shrubs, the lovely Luthy Botanical Garden can be found tucked away in Glen Oak Park. An absolute treat to wander around, its delightful grounds lie alongside both Peoria Zoo and the Playhouse Children’s Museum.
Home to fifteen fabulous themed gardens, numerous sculptures and a tropical conservatory, it was established in 1951. Since then, it has amassed an impressive collection of flora from all around the globe with some sections focusing on herbs and perennials and others on roses and orchids.
While spring sees thousands of bulbs bloom, its blazing autumnal colors make for just as striking a sight. The garden is also known for its super seasonal shows with the Poinsettia Show in November and December being by far the most popular of the lot.
8. Peoria Riverfront
One of the most happening parts of town to hit up is the lively Peoria Riverfront, which is packed with shops, restaurants, art galleries and music venues. Thanks to its wide variety of establishments and entertainment options, it is arguably the best place to shop, dine and go out in Peoria.
Lying alongside the Illinois River, its bustling blocks have now been at the center of life in town for centuries. While some people come for the Contemporary Art Center or to see the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, others shop til they drop or check out the countless cafes, restaurants and breweries.
Its numerous riverside parks and viewpoints are other popular drawcards, as are the Peoria Riverfront Museum and Caterpillar Visitors Center. The constant concerts, cultural events and festivals taking place only add to the area’s appealing ambience.
7. Peoria Civic Center
If you want to enjoy a top-class concert, play or comedy night when in town, then the Peoria Civic Center is certainly the place to go. Located right by the trendy Riverfront district, its enormous arena, theater and exhibit halls have a jam-packed calendar of exciting events to check out.
Since 1982, the colossal complex has put on thousands of shows, conventions and events that have been attended by millions. While its theater is the home of both the Peoria Symphony Orchestra and Peoria Ballet, Broadway shows also regularly take the stage.
At the multi-purpose Carver Arena, you can instead watch thrilling basketball games and ice hockey matches or catch a big-name act. Over the years, everyone from the Eagles and Elton John to Cher, Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean, have performed with Disney on Ice and WWE shows also sometimes passing through.
6. Forest Park Nature Preserve
A peaceful and picturesque place to explore is the Forest Park Nature Preserve. Set just half an hour’s drive north of downtown, its winding nature trails and shady woodlands lie just inland from the Upper Peoria Lake.
Very calm and quiet, its scenic confines are a haven for local wildlife with large herds of deer and cute chipmunks and squirrels often spotted amidst the trees. The terrain is just as diverse as its well-maintained trail system that takes you through pretty meadows and ravines, up hills, over ridges and down steep bluffs.
It also has an outstanding nature center to stop by which features interesting exhibits on the region’s fauna and flora and provides more information on all its tantalizing trails.
5. Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum
Also located in Glen Oak Park is the excellent Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum. Full of fun play areas and hands-on displays, its colorful exhibits encourage younger ones to embrace their imagination and learn through touch and play.
Only established in 2015, the museum covers everything from fossils, farm life and vaudeville to forces and motion, gravity and geology. Besides building things and making music, kids can dig for fossils, roll balls down ramps and even milk a fake cow.
Wooden climbing frames and water stations are also dotted about with most parents raving about its extensive activities and the quality of learning provided. What’s more, the staff are very friendly, welcoming and eager to ensure that your child has the best experience possible.
4. Peoria Zoo
Another firm favorite with families is the adjacent Peoria Zoo, which houses a hugely impressive menagerie of exotic and endangered animals. While some sections focus on species native to the state, others transport you as far away as Africa, Asia and even Australia.
Founded back in 1955, its spacious enclosures now contain about 250 animals, birds and reptiles of more than a hundred different species. Consequently, guests can see not just adorable meerkats and wallabies but fierce lions, rhinos and tigers too when wandering around the zoo.
As well as watching live feeding sessions and even giving some giraffes some grass to eat, its series of keeper chats teach you all about its spider monkeys, snapping turtles and takins.
3. Grandview Drive
Lined by prestigious historic houses, picturesque parks and phenomenal viewpoints; Grandview Drive is definitely one of the most scenic roads in the States. Meandering its way up the left side of the lake, it offers spellbinding panoramas of its sparkling waters and the sweeping valleys off in the distance.
Stretching two and a half miles in length, it was proclaimed the ‘World’s Most Beautiful Drive’ by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1910. As you cruise along slowly, you’ll pass grand estates exhibiting exquisite architecture and enticing nature spots for you to stop off at.
Aside from hiking and biking the surrounding parkland, you can picnic at its viewpoints while drinking in the divine scenery before you. A particularly pleasant time of year to visit is autumn when the fiery colors of the trees make everything even more stunning.
2. Peoria Riverfront Museum
Home to an impressive array of artifacts, exhibits and artworks, the ever-popular Peoria Riverfront Museum lies right in the heart of the hip area. Besides perusing its diverse collection and galleries, visitors can also catch shows at its giant screen theater and dome planetarium.
The only multidisciplinary museum of its kind in the country, it was opened in 2012 as a successor to the Lakeview Museum of Arts and Sciences. Its gigantic modern building displays fine art and vintage vehicles while temporary exhibits cover various subjects like bioluminescence, American revolutionaries and space exploration.
After enjoying an educational and entertaining science show in either its planetarium or theater, you can always stroll about the sculpture garden outside. Mostly made by Illinois natives, their abstract shapes and silhouettes make for some very interesting viewing.
1. Caterpillar Visitors Center
Next to the museum is the city’s other standout sight: the superb Caterpillar Visitors Center. At its state-of-the-art site, you can see massive trucks, diggers and yet other heavy machinery and learn about the history of the world-conquering company.
Founded in 1925 following the merging of the Holt Manufacturing Company and C. L. Best Tractor Company, it now sells its machines, engines and equipment in over 190 countries around the world. The interactive exhibits detail its founding, development and evolution with old makes and models and video installations dotted about.
The highlight though is of course hopping in its iconic yellow trucks and diggers and seeing just how big they are from up close. Visitors can also take a virtual ride in a towering two-and-a-half storey truck before picking up some gifts in its on-site store.