Near the northwest corner of Illinois is resilient little Galena, which wears its history as a badge of honor and foundation for tourism.
Galena got on the map as a lead-mining town, embraces as family nine Civil War generals (including President Ulysses S. Grant) and estimates 85 percent of the city is in a National Register Historic District.
After lead deposits neared depletion and railroad routes bypassed Galena, the area fell on hard times. “We were too poor to tear things down,” local historian Scott Wolfe told me a year ago, and so architecture didn’t change.
High water has compromised Galena too. The Mississippi River, three miles away, connects to the Galena River downtown. The city’s worst-ever flood saturated Main Street with five feet of water in 1937.
Now levees and floodgates prevent a repeat performance. Nearly all the thoroughfare’s 19th century buildings are filled with edgy boutiques, galleries, restaurants and watering holes.
The drive is beautiful because this is the same Driftless Area — unblemished by Ice Age glacier movement — whose gorgeous hills, rivers and ravines sweep through western Wisconsin.
You wouldn’t guess that Galena has only 3,500 year-round residents because of its vibrancy, especially at this time of year. Our Fourth of July visit included an overnight at the 1856 Alice Snyder House, a bed and breakfast inn that was a five-minute walk to Main Street and Grant Park’s splash of fireworks at dusk.
The city has no shortage of historic buildings to tour, but here’s what else caught my attention:
Blaum Bros. Distilling Company: Liquor made in small batches is not all that unusual anymore, but this distillery’s cocktail area is exceptional: roomy, plush and comfortable. Add flat-screen TVs, an industrial-chic bar and big windows to watch the distilling process. For more information, visit blaumbros.com.
Chestnut Mountain: The resort might be best known for downhill skiing, but there are good reasons for families to visit in summer too. An alpine slide speeds 2,050 feet downhill. The zipline, with a back rest built for two, zooms above the mountaintop. Or explore the property by guided Segway tour, a three-mile journey over 220 acres. For more information, visit chestnutmtn.com.
Galena Canning Company: Sample salsas, dips and more at two shops with the same name that are across from each other on Main Street. In one are the hottest sauces with the sassiest labels. Sweet and savory fare — fruit preserves to pasta pesto — fill the other shop. The Food Network has taken notice, more than once. For more information, visit galenacanning.com.
Galena Wine Tours: Relax and let somebody else navigate the turns, slopes and bluffs that lead to picturesque wineries with lovely views in rural Jo Daviess County. For beer lovers: Book an itinerary with Council Hill Station, a rural, 1854 railroad depot with 99 kinds of cold brews. For more information, visit galenawinetoursinc.com.
Gobbie’s Sports Pub: The sports bar has the TVs, bar food and drinks that you’d expect. Bases covered, but the biggest drawing cards are entertainment on weekends and a cushy outdoor patio. Being on Main Street makes the patio a prime spot for watching life pass by. For more information, visit gobbiesgalena.com.
Horseshoe Mound: At the end of a narrow and uphill gravel road near Galena is a nature preserve with miles-long views of three states. Notice the stone slabs, reminiscent of Stonehenge in England, that mark where sun sets. Walk mowed paths on the 40 acres; interpretive panels address geology, history, habitat. For more information, visit jdcf.org/properties.
Irish Hollow Road: Feel like you’re driving the lean and twisty countryside of Ireland on this nine-mile passageway south of Galena. Farmland, woods, hills and hollows are luscious shades of green during this time of year.
Log Cabin Steakhouse: No Galena restaurant has been around longer. Open since 1937, and hearty fare with Greek influences is the longstanding specialty. Examples: Greek wine, flaming cheese (saganaki), the option to order meats and seafood prepared with Greek seasonings. For more information, visit logcabingalena.com.
River Bend Gallery: One photographer’s work is at front and center here. He is Geoffrey Mikol, 24, whose shots of local landscapes and nature are exceptional, in part, because the artist was born with Down syndrome. The gallery already expanded once since opening in 2016. For more information, visit riverbendgalleries.com.
Woodstone Restaurant: Walls of windows show off The General, which is the biggest golf course at 6,800-acre Eagle Ridge Resort. Expect a meal — or cocktails — with dynamic views and lots of room to linger. A wood-fired oven is used to produce pizza, pretzels, pastas and one sweet s’mores skillet (think brownie, marshmallows, graham cracker crumbs). For more information, visit eagleridge.com.
For more information on Galena, visit visitgalena.org.
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