One of the most charming places in the Midwest, Galena, Illinois, offers something for everyone. Galena ranks as one of the best trending destinations on Tripadvisor and received a 2023 Traveler’s Choice Award.
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List of the top things to do and see in historic Galena, Illinois
Galena, Illinois is a perfect destination for girlfriend weekends, couples and emptynester getaways, solo travels, and family vacations. I traveled to Galena, Illinois with my cousins for our mini reunion recently. And definitely want to return with my husband as there’s so much to do and see in Galena, Illinois. We just ran out of time.
Here is a list of the top things to do in charming and historic Galena, Illinois.
Galena Trolley Tours – one of the top things to do in Galena, Illinois
If you’re a first-timer, I highly recommend taking the one-hour Galena Trolley Tour as your top thing to do in Galena, Illinois. This narrated trolley tour takes you throughout the historic district of Galena, Illinois. Your guide shares Galena’s history of its bustling lead-mining town, architectural details of gorgeous 19th century historic homes, the best views, and insider tips from a local.
While Galena Trolley Tours hosted me, opinions are always my own. Learn more about why you should add Galena Trolley Tours to the top of your things to do in Galena, Illinois. Check out my review: Best tours in Galena, Illinois: Galena Trolley Tours.
Another one of the best tours in Galena, Illinois: Galena Haunted Ghost Walk
The top-ranked tour in Galena, Illinois — especially during Halloween season — is the Galena Haunted Ghost Walk. A costumed master storyteller leads you by candlelight on this 90-minute walking tour. This tour is definitely one of the top things to do in Galena, Illinois. See my full review: Guide to the best haunted tour in Galena, Illinois.
While the Haunted Galena Tour Company hosted me, opinions are always my own. And I highly recommend taking the Galena Haunted Ghost Walk in season May through October. You can some other spine-tingling tours and performances in Galena, Illinois throughout the year, including:
- New! Haunted East Side Galena Ghost Walk – a two-hour haunted ghost walk by candlelight explores the east side of Galena, Illinois on select Saturdays
- Spirits & Spirits Tour – a haunted happy hour tour every Saturday year-round
- Murder & Mayhem in a Mining Town – indoor dinner theatre performance at the historic (and haunted) Desoto Hotel shows on select Saturdays ~October through March
Best historic home tour in Galena, Illinois: President Ulysses S. Grant Home
Galena, Illinois is home to nine U.S. Civil War Generals. And one of those generals was also commander in chief. You can tour the home of Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the United States in Galena, Illinois. Built in 1860, the restored brick house features much of the furniture Grant and his family used when they lived in Galena.
The home of President U.S. Grant is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This is one of the best historic home tours in Galena, Illinois. Tours run about every 15 minutes Wednesday through Sunday. You will need to wait outdoors so dress accordingly. While the Ulysses S. Grant Home tour is free, $5 donations per person are appreciated. You’ll find a small museum and modern restrooms next door.
Fun fact: Julia Dent Grant became the first President’s wife to be called First Lady. You will find a statue of First Lady Grant on the grounds of the U.S. Grant Home in Galena, Illinois.
Another one of the best historic home tours in Galena, Illinois: Dowling House
Do not leave Galena, Illinois until you tour the oldest home in the former lead mining capital of the world. The Dowling House is one of the best historic home tours in Galena, Illinois. Built in 1826, the Dowling House also served as the bustling frontier town’s trading post. We loved our Dowling House tour led by the charismatic Jules. She knows so much about Galena’s history and the Dowling House.
Your tour includes the restored trading post on the first floor and the home on the second floor. By day, the Dowling House didn’t give off any spooky vibes.
However, we returned that evening as the Dowling House is where our Haunted Galena Ghost Walk started. A very different experience at night especially with all the lights turned off. Check out my review of the Haunted Galena Ghost Walk to learn more.
Stay at the historic and haunted Desoto House
One of the other best things to do in Galena, Illinois is to stay or eat at the historic Desota House. The oldest operating hotel in Illinois features 55 rooms, gorgeous architect, and lots of history. In 1855, it was known as the largest hotel in the west. This beautiful hotel originally featured 225 guest rooms. Today, you can stay in one of the 55 hotel rooms at the Desoto House. Or eat at one of its three restaurants.
Desoto House served as U.S. Grant’s presidential campaign headquarters. Additionally, Abraham Lincoln spoke from the hotel’s balcony in 1856. Lots of history and a few haunted stories at one of the best things to do in Galena, Illinois.
Take a foodie tour of the Galena, Illinois restaurants
Galena, Illinois offers several restaurants in its historic district. During our visit, we enjoyed lunch at the historic Desoto House Courtyard Restaurant. One of the best places to eat dinner is at Vinny Vanucchi’s. Known as Galena’s Little Italy, this restaurant sits next to a charming cobblestone street. Their dishes feature homemade authentic Italian dishes.
If you’re looking for something sweet, stop in at the American Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor. They offer several flavors of ice cream with homemade waffle cones in a traditional ice cream parlor setting.
My cousin and her husband have visited Galena many times. They recommend several other restaurants as the best places to eat in Galena, including:
- Durty Gurt’s Burger Joynt
- Gobbie’s Sports Pub & Eatery
- Log Cabin Steakhouse
Stroll and shop the historic district downtown of Galena
Enjoy shopping and live street music as you stroll through the downtown historic district of Galena, Illinois. You’ll find more than 125 cool shopping places on the most charming Main Street in the Midwest. Shopping options include clothing, jewelry, art, antiques, toys, gifts, popcorn, baked goods, spices, and more.
Travel tip when shopping in Galena, Illinois: Many places charge an extra credit card
Take a self-guided walking tour of Galena, Illinois
If you like to explore on your own, check out Visit Galena’s self-guided walking tour. It’s a great way to experience and see some of the best things to do in Galena, Illinois.
Get your cardio on and climb hundreds of steps on Galena’s staircases
How many stairs does Galena, Illinois have? A lot. Hundreds and hundreds. I’m pretty sure.
I only walked one of the staircases from the historic downtown to one of Galena’s cemeteries. Technically, it was two staircases. You can rest and catch your breath before you catch the second flights of stairs.
It’s worth the climb as you’ll reach rewarding panoramic views of Galena from the bluffs and hilly areas surrounding downtown Galena, Illinois.
Next time I want to climb the Old High School Steps, which originated in the 1850s. Schoolchildren climbed up and down these steps every day to go to school.
Visit the second-oldest operational post office in America
Galena, Illinois is home to the second-oldest continuously operated U.S. Post Office – constructed in 1857.
Check out the flood gates in Galena, Illinois
I didn’t even notice the flood gates when we entered Galena, Illinois. Our guide on the Galena Trolley Tour pointed them out. They’re kind of hard to miss. Built in 1951 by the Army Corps of Engineers, the nearby levee and floodgates protect Galena from spring floods especially.
Visit the historic cemeteries of Galena, Illinois
The Galena-Jo Daviess County Historical Society hosts a cemetery walk annually. During this event, performers share the historic stories of early settlers.
Established in 1826, The Old City Cemetery features historic monuments with an estimated 2,100 burials until about 1857. After that, burials took place at the new cemetery – aka The Greenwood Cemetery.
Tour the largest mansion in Galena, Illinois: Belvedere Mansion
If you love historic homes and architecture, make sure to stop by the Belvedere Mansion. This home, built in 1847, is the largest mansion in Galena, Illinois. They do offer tours at Belvedere Mansion. But note that they are not timed and you may be waiting 30 to 60 minutes outside for the next tour to start. So if you’re short on time, I recommend stopping by for some exterior shots of the Belvedere Mansion and the gardens.
The Belvedere Mansion is filled from floor to ceiling with historical and beautiful pieces from many different eras. However, it’s my understanding that very few pieces are original to the home. While this tour was not my vibe (not enough historical background about the home), the Belvedere Mansion architecture is beautiful. And it features two really cool artifacts. They include a chair from the office of President John F. Kennedy and green drapes from the movie Gone with the Wind.
Editorial note: I’m not alone in what may be an unpopular opinion. Check out the mixed reviews of the Belvedere Mansion on Tripadvisor. You can make your own decision if it’s one of your top things to do in Galena, Illinois.
A list of more top things to do in Galena, Illinois
I’m all about the experience. And can’t wait to check out more of the top things to do in Galena, Illinois on my next visit. Would love to collaborate with any or all of the following organizations when I visit Galena, Illinois with my husband. We’re always looking to add activities to our list of the best emptynester destinations.
- Galena and U.S. Grant Museum
- Elihu B. Washburne House
- Old Blacksmith Shop
- Old Market House (currently closed)
- Hoof It Goat Treks
- Stay at one of the lovely bed and breakfasts in Galena
- Check out the wineries throughout Galena Country
- Go hiking and chase waterfalls in Galena Country
Galena, Illinois series of the top things to do
Check out my other blog posts in this Galena, Illinois series.
- Guide to the best haunted tour in Galena, Illinois
- Best tours in Galena, Illinois: Galena Trolley Tours