Galena offers a variety of indoor and outdoor adventures year round
By Greg Seiter // Photography submitted by Galena Country Tourism
Quaint cobblestone paths meander past historic red-brick structures along Main Street in Galena, Illinois, a town rich in antiquity and natural beauty. In fact, while Victorian architecture dominates the cityscape, it’s not at all uncommon for Civil War-era re-enactors dressed in day-period garb to be spotted mingling with townsfolk while helping create an atmosphere reflective of the mid-nineteenth century; Galena’s heyday, in some ways.
Much has changed since that time when Galena was a bustling, lead-mining metropolis and the largest steamboat hub north of St. Louis, but the area still embraces its ability to provide a picturesque glimpse at what life was like back then. The difference, however, is that today, Galena also boasts a robust shopping and dining district, nightlife options and year-round indoor and outdoor adventures. In fact, whether in search of a couple’s weekend retreat, a mini family vacation spot or a retiree getaway, visitors of all ages totaling nearly one million annually are discovering and re-discovering the area now commonly referred to as Galena Country — 11 unique locations within Jo Daviess County that are interconnected historically and geologically.
But Galena’s small-town charm and historical relevance make it the tourism focal point.
Less than a six-hour drive from central Indiana and positioned in the northwest corner of Illinois, just 16 miles east of Dubuque, Iowa, Galena is commonly known as “The city that time forgot,” thanks in part to its yesteryear atmosphere and the fact that approximately 85 percent of its downtown buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Though certainly not an afterthought today, Galena seems to have been simply overlooked by land-flattening glaciers that mercilessly sculpted much of the surrounding region, well before lead miners discovered the area’s natural resources. As a result, many now describe the Mississippi River Valley area as one of the most scenic in the Midwest. Obviously, hiking, water sports and outdoor activities are plentiful during the warm-weather months but an increasing number of visitors are also realizing that Galena is equally appealing when temperatures start to drop.
“In the winter months, you’ll find history, outdoor adventure, shopping and magical holiday events for the whole family,” said Emily Tepper, content marketing manager for Galena Country Tourism. “Whether you want to zoom across the landscape on a pair of skis overlooking the Mississippi River or cozy up by the fireplace with a glass of locally-made wine, Galena Country is loaded with a wonderland of happenings.”
At Chestnut Mountain Resort, ski enthusiasts and snowboarders can take advantage of more than 220 rolling acres and a 475-foot vertical drop. In all, the facility is home to 19 ski trails and a seven-acre terrain park, known as The Farside, which features no less than 25 rails and structures for snowboarding fun. By the way, don’t worry if Jack Frost fails to produce actual snow while you’re in town. Resort personnel take care of visitors by producing their own version of powdery white ground covering, courtesy of Mississippi River water.
Other options, such as ice skating and snowshoeing, can be found at Nordic Center, located at Galena’s Eagle Ridge Resort and Spa.
You can even enjoy a snowshoeing excursion through native prairie and forest trails at Hoof It Goat Treks, where both baby and adult goats wander freely and may decide to keep you company along your journey.
There are many nature preserves nearby, too. Casper Bluff Land and Water Reserve provides scenic views of the Mississippi River but the 85-acre site, known for its hiking trails, bird-watching opportunities and Native American archeology, also features 51 burial mounds from the Aiken Mount group, a culture that lived nearly 3,000 years ago.
Cross-country skiing can also be enjoyed at the Galena River Trail.
Galena traditionally kicks off the holiday season with an early December “Holiday Fire in the Sky” fireworks show in the downtown area. Another repeating favorite, typically near mid-December, is the “Night of the Luminaria and Living Windows” event, which more than 5,000 candlelit luminaries line the streets, steps, sidewalks and store windows of downtown Galena.
Eagle Ridge Resort and Spa even hosts an annual Winter Carnival, typically in early February.
With your dentist’s permission, you may want to embark on Galena’s once-per-year “Snowflakes and Sweets Stroll” in December, during which ticket holders can pick and choose a limited number of specialty items such as cookies, candies and drinks from local bakeries and chocolatiers, while strolling down the town’s Main Street blocks.
Luckily, anyone who misses the festival will still be able to satisfy sweet-tooth cravings.
Chocolat’ 229, a charming candy store on Main Street, features a collection of European chocolates imported from Belgium, France, Germany and Switzerland. Galena’s Kandy Kitchen, also on Main Street, has been producing caramels, assorted chocolates and creams, chocolate panned raisins, double dipped peanuts and marshmallow delights since 1974.
For patrons who favor popcorn over chocolate, the downtown area’s Great American Popcorn Company offers more than 50 gourmet variations including French Vanilla, Spicy Italian, Amaretto Almond, Baileys and Cream, Border Grill, Butterfinger and Caramel Apple, just to name a few. You may even want to set aside a couple of hours for a popcorn and movie session. If you do, local residents may recommend award-winning 1989 sports fantasy drama Field of Dreams, since some of the movie’s scenes were filmed in Galena.
Dining is a delight in Galena, and there are tastes to be had from all around the world, including farm-to-table facilities with made-from-scratch dishes, cozy bistros, unique eateries and upscale restaurants.
The Galena Bakehouse is a grab-and-go bakery that features gourmet pastries, cupcakes, coffees, and empanadas, a type of baked or fried turnover consisting of pastry and filling. Big Bill’s Sandwich Shop and Coffee Bar is another popular stop. There, patrons have access to a full coffee bar, breakfast items, pastries, sandwiches, soups and salads.
If a quiet breakfast or brunch is on your agenda, stop by Otto’s Place for unique omelets, breakfast burritos, egg tacos or biscuits and gravy.
For a mid-day meal, try Galena’s Paradise Bar and Grill for specialty burgers, salads, pizza and wraps.
Craving classic south-of-the-border eats and a margarita or two for dinner? Campeche Restaurant on N. Commerce Street is a good choice. Feel like going Greek? The Rigopoulos family has owned and operated The Log Cabin Greek Steakhouse for more than 40 years. For an appetizer, be sure to try the Flaming Saganaki (OPAA!).
Those hoping for dinner and a show might want to check out Amelia’s Under the Lamplight Dinner Theater, which combines a three-course meal in a unique Supper Club atmosphere with professional entertainers and their comedic and musical performances.
However, no matter how much of a foodie you may be, it’s hard to look past Galena’s numerous historical gems.
The Ulysses S. Grant Home State Historical Site is open for public tours while the Galena and U.S. Grant Historical Museum, housed within a historic mansion that was built in 1858, contains several exhibits on the history of the region and its people, including an authentic 1830s lead mine shaft discovered during construction of an addition to the museum.
The Dowling House, located on Diagonal Street, is Galena’s oldest house. Built of native limestone in 1826 as a trading post and residence, it is furnished with primitive items and a collection of Galena pottery.
Of course, narrated walking and trolley tours of Galena’s historic sites are also an option.
After a day filled with sightseeing and outdoor adventure, you’ll probably be ready to relax and unwind. If so, consider visiting Massbach Ridge Winery or Galena Cellars on Main Street. Both have tasting rooms.
Located minutes from the downtown area, Blaum Bros. Distilling Co. offers tours along with the ability to enjoy a cocktail and restock your home liquor cabinet, all in one location.
Craft beer lovers will be happy to know that Galena Country is home to multiple craft breweries including Galena Brewing Co. on Main Street.
Looking for a unique place to stay while visiting Galena? How about the DeSoto House, located in the heart of downtown on Main Street. With 55 oversized Victorian-style rooms, the DeSoto House is the oldest operating hotel in Illinois, having first opened its doors in 1855. President Abraham Lincoln spoke from its Main Street balcony July 23, 1856 in support of John Freemont’s bid for presidency.
Nearby, off U.S. Highway 20 W., the Belle Aire Mansion Guest House, a bed and breakfast inn built in 1836, is surrounded by eight peaceful acres and features a cozy antique-filled interior.
Another downtown option is 305 North, housed in a historic 1845 building that’s conveniently located near restaurants, shops and historic sites.