We were recently in Springfield, Illinois for another event and managed to squeeze in some sightseeing as well. This state capital is full of history and attractions. Even better, many of the things to see and do are free!
The biggest draw here is the huge collection of buildings and museums related to Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln made his home in Springfield for 17 years before becoming president of the United States in 1861. The downtown area is full of various sites related to his time in this city.
Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum
We didn’t make it to the museum on this trip, but I have visited in the past and it is simply amazing. The attention to detail and the displays really bring Lincoln’s story to life.
Visitors can view displays about his journey from childhood to the White House. Incredible models of the White House rooms are available to walk through along with actual artifacts from Lincoln and his family. Adults and kids alike will marvel at the Holovision Ghosts of the Library production. There is a children’s area, but it is currently under renovation.
Hours: 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. daily
Admission: $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and students over 15, $10 for military, $6 for children 5-15, free for 4 and under. Tickets must be purchased online.
Union Station and Union Square Park
Located across the street from the Lincoln Museum, this building and park is a must see for train and history buffs. The building itself first opened in 1898 as a train station. The last train departed the station in 1971.
While the building is not currently open inside, the park in front of the depot is a lovely spot to explore. The park features a gazebo, lovely landscaping, and several Abraham Lincoln statues. The life size Lincoln statue resting on a bench is perhaps the most popular.
Officially known as the Great Western Depot, this is the train depot where Lincoln departed to start his presidency in February of 1861. He gave an impromptu farewell address as he left his home city of 17 years.
The depot was renovated in 2013 and now houses a law office on the second floor. The first floor is a small self guided museum.
Hours: 10 – 4 p.m. Monday-Friday
Lincoln Home National Historic Site
The Lincoln Home Historic Site is a must see spot downtown. This National Park site preserves the only home the Lincoln family ever owned. The site also has preserved the entire small neighborhood of homes surrounding the Lincoln home.
Walk the streets to imagine life in mid-1800s or take a free tour of the Lincoln home. Other exhibits highlight the history of various neighborhood residents. A Visitor’s Center is located on the site with more information and exhibits. Kids can participate in the Junior Ranger program.
Hours: The neighborhood and outdoor exhibits are open dawn to dusk. The Visitor’s Center and other indoor exhibits are open 8:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. daily. Lincoln’s home is open 9:00 – 4:30 daily. You must get a free ticket in the Visitor’s Center to go inside Lincoln’s home.
Admission: Admission to the site and Lincoln’s home are free. Parking in the lot next to the Visitor’s Center is $2 per hour.
The Lincoln Tomb is a State Historic Site that serves a the final resting place for Lincoln. his wife, and three out of four of his sons. Tours are available for the inside. Outside, you can see a large bronze head of Lincoln. Somewhere along the way it became a tradition to rub Lincoln’s nose when visiting.
Hours: The cemetery is open 7 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. September through March and 7 a.m. – 8 p.m. April through August. Tours are available 9:00 – 5:00 daily.
Admission: Free. Free parking is available in a lot next to the tomb.
Old State Capitol
The Old State Capitol is an impressive site downtown. It is a reconstruction of Illinois’ statehouse from 1840 to 1876. This is the spot where Lincoln gave his famous “House Divided” speech. The courthouse is normally open for tours inside, but is closed through summer due to renovations. It is still a beautiful building to view from the outside.
Hours: Currently closed to visitors inside. Normally, tickets are available online for tours at 9:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 2:00 p.m., and 3:30 p.m
Illinois State Capitol
The Illinois State Capitol building is hard to miss downtown. This impressive structure towers over the adjacent buildings. The inside features a grand dome and murals. The site has reopened to visitors after being closed for COVID. Even if you can only visit the outside, walk around to admire the intricate architecture. You can also see a statue honoring firemen located behind the building.
Hours: 8:00 – 4:00 weekdays, 9:00 – 3:00 weekends. Tours normally run on the half hour.
Admission: Free. Limited free parking is available off Edwards stree. Additional metered street parking is available. (Meters are free on weekends.)
Illinois State Museum
The Illinois State Museum is a hidden gem. I had not heard of this museum before and it was wonderful and free! There are three floors of galleries including both permanent and temporary exhibits. The Changes gallery explores Illinois’s natural history. The exhibit was designed to be highly interactive. While many of the interactive features were closed off, the displays and information were still impressive. Our family especially enjoyed the intricate animal dioramas.
Another gallery features the history of the people who have made Illinois home over the years. Visitors can view the dramatic changes in homes and lifestyles over the pass 300 years.
Our kid’s favorite area was the The Mary Ann MacLean Play Museum. This area features a variety of engaging activities for children to learn about history. They can drive a Jeep, build a mastodon skeleton, and explore items under a microscope.
Hours: Tue-Sat: 10:00 – 4:00. The Play Museum is open 11:00 – 3:00
Admission: Free. Free parking in the lot one block away on Edwards St. metered street parking available. (Free on weekends.)
Henson Robinson Zoo
The Henson Robinson Zoo first opened its doors in 1970. Over 80 species of native and exotic animals now live here among naturalistic exhibits. The zoo participates in scientific research studies and conservation efforts in addition to providing a fun and educational environment for people of all ages.
While the zoo isn’t huge, it’s smaller size makes it better walking for little legs and easier to view the animals. Our kids especially enjoyed the big cats, red wolves, penguins, and small primates. There is also a nice playground and fun mini train ride.
Hours: April 17 through October 31 10-5 daily. November 1-22 and March 20-April 16: 10-5 weekends.
Admission: Adults $7 Children 3-13 and Seniors: $5. Under 3 Free
Washington Park Botanical Gardens & Carillon
The Botanical Gardens in Springfield are another hidden gem. Located in historic Washington Park, the gardens include both indoor and outdoor displays. The park features more than 1800 species of plants over 20 acres.
The parks also features the Rees Memorial Carillon. This unique structure features an instrument consisting of 67 cast bronze bells range in weight from 22 pounds to 7½ tons with a total bell weight of ~85,000 pounds. The bell creates a musical concert several days a week. Tours are also available to climb inside for a closer look and a view from the observation deck.
Hours: The park and outdoor gardens are open dawn to dusk. The indoor tropical gardens are open Monday through Friday Noon – 4:00 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday Noon – 5:00 p.m.
The Carillon is open for tours Wednesday-Sunday on the half our 5:00-7:00 p.m. The concert occurs at 6:30 Wed-Sun with an additional 2:00 concert on weekends.
Admission: Free for botanical gardens. $4.50 for adults and $3.00 for children 5-15 for the carillon tour.
This newer and beautiful park features a variety of things to see for all ages. The park features 2.5 miles of trails, a lake for fishing, five sensory gardens, and an event building. There is also a unique giant sunflower and two arches that create a light show in the evenings.
Kids will love the two playgrounds, one of which is designed to be fully accessible to children of all abilities. A splash pad is located right next to the accessible playground.
Hours: Dawn – 10:30 p.m.
Lake Springfield is a 4,200 acre reservoir. The lake features several parks and a marina with boats, canoes, and kayaks available for rent. Following Lakeshore Drive around the lake offers a short and scenic drive. Watch out for deer, we spotted over a dozen one evening.
Center Park is near the bridge over the lake and across from the zoo. It features a great nature inspired playground and lake views.
On the northeast corner of the lake is Tom Madonia Park East and West. Both sides have small and older playgrounds. A nice wooden boardwalk connects the two parks across the water. Geese were present in large numbers in these parks when we visited.
Cozy Dog Drive In
The Cozy Dog Drive In has been feeding Route 66 travelers since 1949. This restaurant is home to the original hot dog on a stick, dipped in batter and fried. The menu features not only cozy dogs, but burgers, sandwiches, and even breakfast, all at great prices.
Hours: Monday- Saturday 8 am – 8 pm
Looking for even more ideas? Kidzeum Museum of Health and Science is reopening July 3rd. Knights Action Amusement Park and Water Park has been entertaining families for 90 years. You can catch a movie at Route 66 Drive-In. Lincoln’s Memorial Garden offers over 5 miles of trails to explore. If you are up for a drive, check out Lincoln’s New Salem Historic Site 20 miles away from Springfield
Have you visited Illinois’s state capital before? If so, what was your favorite stop?