Galena, Illinois: Its past is our pleasure

Galena, Illinois is probably well-known to history buffs and those within a couple hundred-mile radius—but to someone from the southwest like myself, Galena was just another undiscovered small town in the vastness that makes up America.

Downtown Galena IL by MikesRoadTrip

Galena epitomizes what I look for from a road trip—a place off the beaten path, full of history and charm, intrigue and attractions. A place that was once lost to the past, but then rediscovered by those with a vision for what could be. Galena continues to attract visitors for its historical charm, as well as its nature-inspired beauty.

Galena road trip - photo by

Galena is a small community of only 3500, but has the attractions and amenities of a town much larger. Its downtown is one of the longest and most historically well-preserved areas I’ve ever seen.  As a matter of fact, 85% of Galena is on the Historic Register.  Most of the buildings have been wonderfully preserved, while some are in disrepair.  One of the challenges the community faces, is that when a structure is listed on the Historic Register, it must be renovated using the same materials and period methods. Most of the earlier structures in Galena were built out of Galena Bricks, a specially formulated building material that has not been manufactured in over 100 years. Therefore, when structures need to be renovated, they often sit idle since no bricks are available for repair. Building owners often have to wait to fix their structures until others collapse and can then be foraged.

Downtown Galena by

If it were not for a travel conference I had attended in Rockford, IL, I can safely say that Galena would not have been on my radar. As I entered the vicinity of Galena from the east, I encountered rolling hills with vast vistas showcasing a mix of farms and fields. The road was soon enveloped by trees lining both sides of the white stripes. Soon thereafter, as I neared Galena, the road opened up and I could see white steeples piercing the treetops reflecting the sun, while large brick buildings mottled the hillsides.  As I drove through downtown, I was struck by the sight before me, it was almost as if I had entered the set of a movie.  One after another, the historic buildings, some with ornate architecture, beckoned me to get out of my truck and explore up close.  Main Street, with its graceful bends, follows the adjacent snakes of the Galena River, making for a leisurely stroll past a plethora of specialty shops, galleries, restaurants, museums and historic sites.

Rolling hills near Galena IL by

After getting briefly acquainted with Galena, I checked in to my home for the next couple of days…the Aldrich Guest House B&B. Galena has a number of lodging options, however most seem to be of the bed and breakfast variety—which I personally prefer.  Galena bed and breakfastThe Aldrich Guest House is run by owners, Brian and Fran, both of whom are very knowledgeable about the area and happy to point guests in the right direction.  The Aldrich House dates to 1845 and actually played host to Abraham Lincoln, U.S. Grant, and, Grant’s good friend, Mark Twain.  Situated just down the street from Grant’s home, the Aldrich House is an easy walk to downtown.  I enjoyed being off the main road, but close enough to walk to everything.  Breakfast is served each morning at promptly 8:30, and is in the formal dining room…fine china and all.

Shortly after breakfast on my first day in Galena, I hopped aboard one of the historic trolley tours to get an idea of areas I would later want to revisit. I learned a great deal from the tour guide…from what initially drew people to the area in the early days, to its fifty-year blight, and then later, the beginning of its renaissance in the late 1960s. I also learned about the revered Ulysses S. Grant, aka U.S. Grant, our 18th President who once called Galena home. Back then, the Galena River (actually more of a canal in size today) used to span some 350’ across with massive steam ships transporting goods to and from Galena, which was a major shipping port.

With a bucketful of new historic knowledge, my next day was all about adventure, from kayaking down the river, to a bike ride along its banks.  After that, it was time to zipline.  No matter what your speed, there is something for everyone. Local outfitters can hook you up with a Segway tour, a paddleboard, or even a sunrise hot air balloon ride.  Couples can take a romantic horse-drawn carriage ride through town, or, perhaps refresh mind, body and spirit with a relaxing couple’s massage. Aficionados will enjoy wine or brew tastings. And, suds fans will appreciate this tidbit…Red Stripe, the beer we know to be from Jamaica actually originated in Galena. During prohibition the formula was sold to a company that began producing in Jamaica. The rest they say…is history.

The next day I switched lodging venues…a mere nine-mile drive took me to the solitude of the rural countryside—where I was enveloped by rolling hills and majestic farmland. I soon arrived at a lush and tranquil habitat called, Hawk Valley Retreat & CottagesGalena Hawk Valley Retreat b&b.  Hawk Valley is a bed and breakfast sanctuary, where you can truly escape the pressures of life and immerse yourself within the nature that surrounds the retreat. From its three guest rooms, to the four stand-alone guest cottages…comfort, relaxation and a peaceful night’s sleep welcomed this weary traveler.

The next day I made my way to Chestnut Mountain, which is just eight miles or so from town. I wanted to partake of one of their summer activities, such as the alpine slide, river cruise, or even their off-road Segway tour, but the day I visited they were closed. The drive was still well worth the trip though as the views of the mighty Mississippi are quite breathtaking.  I also enjoyed stopping along the way and taking photos of some of the old barns and silos.

The one area in which I felt a little let down in Galena was the restaurant scene. IMississippi River near Galena IL can’t tell you how many times I walked down the street reading the various restaurant menus, only to walk to the next one, which seemed even less impressive than the first. Don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of restaurant choices, although many are only open for lunch, or dinner (with some being closed on certain days of the week). My expectation for the area was that some top-notch Chicago chefs would have migrated to the area…bringing their culinary panache. Instead, I found most of the restaurants serving Midwestern comfort food.  While there was nothing wrong with the restaurants I visited, none interested me in returning. I personally enjoy cuisine a bit more on the refined side of the culinary palate.  The restaurants in Galena seem to lack inspiration, or even passion for the art of cooking.

The many times I strolled the streets of downtown Galena, I couldn’t help but wonder how many painters and photographers have been inspired by the unique scene. Galena is idyllic in ever sense of the word. If you find yourself in or near Illinois, take a road trip to Galena, I have no doubt you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.  It’s a place you’ll always want to return to, and, you’ll never want to leave.

Galena Barn by

If you’ve ever been to Galena, please leave a comment below and share what you enjoy most.

Mike Shubic

Mike Shubic is a seasoned road trip travel video blogger, traversing the byways of the world looking for those hidden gems of the road. From unique destinations, unexpected discoveries, creative cuisine, intriguing inns to exciting attractions…the road is his page. The experiences are his ink. And every 300 miles, a new chapter begins. Whether you live vicariously or by example, Mike will do the exploring so you can have an adventure.