Sights in Town
History is at the heart of what this former steamboating and lead mining town has to offer its visitors — so much that you can tour Galena’s litany of historic sites on foot with a professional guide, or take a narrated trolley tour. You can also plan your own itinerary with the help of a self-guided downtown walking tour map from the Visitor Information Center at the Old Train Depot.
Historic Homes: The Ulysses S. Grant Home State Historic Site (815-777-3310) is the house the 18th U.S. president was presented upon his return from the Civil War in 1865. It contains many original furnishings and a number of Grant’s belongings. The Dowling House (815-777-1250), Galena’s oldest building, was constructed in 1826 as general store and residence. It can be toured together with nearby Belvedere House (815-777-0747), a 22-room Italianate mansion built in 1857 for the U.S. ambassador to Belgium that today contains eclectic pieces of history including items from Liberace’s estate and drapes used in the movie “Gone with the Wind.”
Museums: Descend into the depths of what was once a working mine at the Vinegar Hill Historic Lead Mine & Museum (815-777-0855), which displays tools, artifacts and samples of mined lead, and gives visitors a sense of the complicated underground labyrinths that once existed here. Learn more about area mining and see examples of Civil War-era clothing, furniture, toys and other artifacts at the Galena History Museum, housed in an Italian-style mansion from the 1850’s. Modern art lovers won’t want to miss the satellite location of the Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design where all the elements of good design, from urban planning and architecture to product design and graphics, come together.
Fans of the grape should head straight to Galena Cellars Vineyard & Winery, which offers tours and tastings. In the gift shop you can purchase some of the Midwest’s best-known local wines, including a best-selling reserve merlot and several varieties of dessert and port wines. There’s even a guest house and suite if you want to really immerse yourself a little more. (Serious oenophiles will also want to visit other nearby vineyards and wineries in the towns of Hanover and Elizabeth, IL.)
The Great Outdoors: Visitors take full advantage of the picture-perfect rolling hills in Galena, too. Seasonal hot-air balloon rides are launched twice daily from Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa for authentic bird’s-eye views of the lush landscape. Eagle Ridge is home to what many consider the premier golf course in the Midwest. It’s one of 10 courses in the Galena area, all lauded as much for their beautiful vistas as for their challenging terrain.
Out of Town
Hikers, bikers, snowshoers and skiers hit the trails at Apple River Canyon State Park, 20 miles east of Galena at the Wisconsin/Illinois state line. Limestone bluffs, springs, streams and all manner of wildlife make for ideal natural eye candy here.
Art galleries and studios dot the hillsides in Galena and the surrounding rural communities of Woodbine, Elizabeth, Stockton and Warren. Jewelers, potters, basket weavers, painters, and sculptors — inspired by their tranquil surroundings — display and sell their pieces, and some offer classes and workshops to the public. Get a map of spots to hit from the visitor’s center at the Old Train Depot, and check the online calendar of events at Galena.org for a list of classes, art fairs and shows, including popular annual events like the Galena Country Fair and the Twenty Dirty Hands Pottery Tour, both held every October.
Cross the water into Dubuque, Iowa for a visit to the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, which has six separate fresh-water aquariums filled with turtles, fish, reptiles, ducks and frogs, plus interactive exhibits and in-season eco-cruises down the Mississippi on pontoon boats.
It’s well worth the 75-mile drive to Spring Green, Wisconsin for a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s breathtaking summer home, Taliesin. Wright used the estate, which eventually grew to cover almost 600 acres, to experiment with his ideas of organic architecture. He schooled apprentices here and used them as the workforce to continually recreate the grounds, and he also brought in other artists involved in the Deco movement. The estate is only accessible via guided tours (April – November) that range from one to four hours via shuttle and foot. Advance reservations are the only way to go; these tours book up fast.
While you’re in Spring Green, take a side trip to the fabulously quirky House on the Rock, a complex 200-acre maze of streets, buildings and gardens stuffed to the gills with curiosities. You’ll see rare books, theater organs, dollhouses and finds like the world’s largest carousel, which has 269 handcrafted animals and 20,000 lights. The house is even more over the top at Christmas time, when the whole place gets decked out in a dizzying array of decorations. For something a little more refined in summertime, check out one of the Bard’s classics at the lovely outdoor American Players Theatre.
–written by Judy Sutton Taylor