Chicago

8 Reasons to Drive to Galena, Illinois

You're just a short day trip from preserved-in-time architecture, pristine farmland, and singular history.

Shutterstock/Michael John Maniurski
Shutterstock/Michael John Maniurski
Shutterstock/Michael John Maniurski

In all its sky-scraping towers and equally¬†sky-scraping deep-dish pizzas, Chicago is a decidedly un-subtle city that tends to dominate the cultural conversation in Illinois, but beyond the confines of America’s third largest metropolis, there’s a whole world of pastoral prairies, rolling green hills, and charming towns that are well worth the cost of gas. Galena is one such place. Located on the northwesternmost corner of Illinois, near the Mississippi River and the Iowa border, it’s a breath-of-fresh-air town that’s basically the antithesis of Chicago. While only a three-hour drive, it feels more like a three-century drive with its preserved-in-time architecture, pristine farmland, and singular history covering everything from US presidents to Kraft Cheese. So the next time you need a break from the hustle and bustle of Chicago, and its tourist-snarled summer streets, here are 8 reasons why you should make the drive to Galena, Illinois.

VisitGalena.org
VisitGalena.org
VisitGalena.org

The town is like a time warp

A stark contrast to Chicago’s shiny towers and even shinier Bean, Galena is the town that time forgot-and we mean that with love. It’s nice to hole up someplace that feels of a simpler era-one filled with barn dances and ice cream parlours. The downtown area still looks the way it did in the 19th century, replete with brick walkways and buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Much of this is on full display along Main Street, where more than 100 businesses-from candy counters and wine bars to restaurants and toy stores-are nestled inside original buildings from the 1800s.

Beyond shopping and snacking, history is everywhere in Galena. This is particularly prominent with its Presidential lore, as the town was home to President Ulysses S. Grant, whose former abode is managed by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, and is available for tours. President Abe Lincoln also had Galena ties, including a famous speech he made from the DeSoto House Hotel. The Victorian-style inn is the oldest operating hotel in the state, and Lincoln impersonators still host old-timey dinner theater events on the property, complete with chicken Fricassee and apple pie. For more historic eats and sips, check out Mulgrew’s Tavern & Liquor Store, one of the oldest bars in Illinois (in operation since 1921), famed for its cheap beer, foot-long chilli dogs, and slot machines. Then there’s Council Hill Station, an 1850s general store-turned-saloon, with live music, country breakfasts, and summer barn dances.

Goldmoor Inn & Dining
Goldmoor Inn & Dining
Goldmoor Inn & Dining

Farm-to-table dining doesn’t get any purer

In general, for a town with a population of a few thousand, Galena’s dining scene impresses with its array of restaurants and its mix of old and new, from adorably dusty saloons to a newfangled queer-owned bakery slinging empanadas and Argentinian cheese bread. Considering the town is surrounded by bucolic farmland and fresh water, it’s not surprising that much of its restaurants are seasonally driven and locally sourced, like cedar-planked walleye and espresso steak at Fried Green Tomatoes, or artisan cheese plates and Illinois wines at Woodlands Restaurant & Lounge. The belle of the ball when it comes to local fine dining, though, is the Goldmoor Inn, a historic manor-like hotel that applies a modern interpretation to its farm-fresh fare. For the ultimate Galena foodie vibe, dine at the chef’s table overlooking the kitchen and feast on 10-hour sous vide pork belly, lamb loin with za’atar carrots and chorizo jus, and housemade agnolotti with morel mushrooms, candied hazelnuts, charred leeks, and dashi beurre blanc. In the morning, rise and shine at Galena Bakehouse, a contemporary cafe owned by husbands Geoff and Alex Arroyo-Karnish, who moved to Galena from Manhattan in 2019 to ply the town with a mix of scratch-made American pastries (e.g. muffins, cinnamon rolls, cupcakes) and well-travelled treats (empanadas, tres leches cake, and Argentinian cheese bread called chipas).

Flickr/Michael John Maniurski
Flickr/Michael John Maniurski
Flickr/Michael John Maniurski

Outdoor recreation abounds

In Chicago, outdoor recreation is typically limited to urban beaches and drinking cocktails on rooftops. In the quieter, wide-open terrain of Galena, however, outdoor activities are a bit more bountiful. Hiking and biking opportunities can be found throughout the town’s parks, forests, and prairies, including the nearly nine-mile long Galena River Trail, Apple River Canyon State Park, and Casper Bluff Land & Water Reserve, where you can traverse trails and theorize about ancient Native American effigy mounds in the Earth.

With waterways criss-crossing the region, there are plenty of aquatic options to choose from too, including fishing on Lake Galena (just be mindful that bald eagles might provide some competition, since Illinois is home to the second largest wintering population outside of Alaska). Or you can rent kayaks, canoes, and paddle boards from Galena River Outfitters, offering guided jaunts on the tranquil Galena River. After exploring Galena by land and water, it’s time to buckle up and hit the sky-Long Hollow Canopy Tours provides adrenaline-pumping zip line tours through Tapley Woods, at speeds up to 40 mph and heights that reach 75 feet.

Hoof It - Galena
Hoof It – Galena
Hoof It – Galena

You can commune with goats

Since literally any outdoor activity is improved by the presence of goats, Galena is a veritable paradise of cute outings with hooved critters. A company called Hoof It Goat Treks does exactly what their name promises, taking guests on leisurely guided hikes through prairies and forests with baby goats in tow. For adults, the company also provides goat trek/wine tasting combos, wherein hikers can stroll the forest with a glass of wine, followed by a tasting of wine and goat cheese (naturally). Even those not able to make it to Galena can get in on the goat action-in quite the pandemic pivot, Hoof It now provides “goat calls,” so you can have a goat join your Zoom business meeting.

Goat yoga is another popular local pastime, best experienced with Galena Goat Yoga on Silver Linings Farm. Each 45-minute session, the perfect combination of stretching and snuggling, provides yoga mats in an air conditioned studio. Or if you’d prefer something more relaxed, the studio offers hour-long coffee breaks in a furnished corn crib with pastries and about a dozen goats. The company also provides private goat events, in case you’d really like to take your bachelorette party to the next level.

It’s the birthplace of Kraft Cheese

It isn’t just goat cheese in Galena. If you prefer your dairy products with an unnatural orange hue and a curiously high melting point, then you’re gonna want to drive to Galena for the cheese alone, as the town is the birthplace of Kraft. Everyone’s favourite thinly sliced cheese product was born in the tiny suburban town of Stockton, and the company’s all-American lore is on full display at the Stockton Heritage Museum. The pint-sized museum tells the story of J.L. Kraft & Bros. Co., who opened their first cheese plant in the town and began delivering milk from local dairies to the facility via horse-drawn wagon. Nowadays, museum visitors can snap selfies with one of said wagons, gain inspiration from Kraft-inspired cookbooks, and learn everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the invention of Velveeta.

Chestnut Mountain Resort
Chestnut Mountain Resort
Chestnut Mountain Resort

The mighty Mississippi is teeming with activities

In terms of epic all-natural Americana, it doesn’t get much mightier than the Mississippi River. The iconic waterway traverses the western border of Illinois, along the edge of Galena and the state of Iowa, so naturally such a major body of water is going to provide some staggering scenery. Visit the riverside Chestnut Mountain Resort for a choose-your-own-adventure of Mississippi-adjacent activities, from the Soaring Eagle Zipline to mini golf courses and an Alpine slide that zooms down the banks of a forested palisade to the shores of the river. The resort also provides Mississippi River cruises, for an informative guided immersion into the river’s ecosystem and wildlife.

Chestnut Mountain Resort
Chestnut Mountain Resort
Chestnut Mountain Resort

There’s no shortage of family-friendly fare

As evidenced by the surplus of zip lines and baby goats, Galena is a wholesome wonderland for families and kids. For food and activities alike, most everything in this quaint town caters to visitors of all ages-except maybe the wineries and wine bars, of which there are surprisingly many. Galena is a sweet tooth paradise, teeming with old-timey ice cream parlours and candy shops, including the 50-year-old American Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor and Candy Carnival for all your taffy, popcorn, and mini donut needs. In terms of shopping, Gabby’s Gifts is a quirky spot filled with kid-friendly knickknacks like puzzles, toys, and childrens’ books, while the P.T. Murphy Magic Theatre is sure to be a hoot with its silly theatrics and close-up sleight of hand. One ongoing activity that’s fun for the whole brood is Live at the Plaza, held every last Thursday of the month at Green Street Plaza through September. The free events offer something for everyone and all ages-live music, food, extended hours in nearby shops, and other performances, all with different themes like diversity and inclusion, or Hispanic heritage.

Lacoma Golf
Lacoma Golf
Lacoma Golf

It’s a goldmine for golfers

In addition to paddling, hiking, and screaming for ice cream, golf is another mainstay activity in Galena County, as the lush region boasts some of the most meticulously manicured greenways in the Midwest. There are 11 courses in the area, ranging in size and scope from leisurely nine-hole courses to championship-level courses for the seasoned golf pro and/or masochist. Standout options include the Apple Canyon Lake Golf Course, with nine holes weaving by canyons, hills, and bluffs, and Lacoma Golf Course, a veritable Disneyland of golf that’s grown from a nine-hole course in 1967 to a 45-hole complex consisting of three different courses, plus a driving range, full practice facilities, a pro shop, and a bar. If you’re looking to try something a little more novel and a little less rage-inducing, try your hand (or your foot) at FootGolf, a soccer-golf hybrid at Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa. Essentially, it looks like a jumbo version of golf, with soccer balls in place of golf balls, and over-sized holes and flags to aim for.

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Matt Kirouac is a travel writer working on a memoir about the epic ups and downs from life on the road as a gay couple-and the lessons learned along the way. Follow him on IG @mattkirouacofficial.

Chicago

Robyn DaCultyre Is Doing It for the Culture

"The cool thing about Ohio is that there is literally a place for everyone."

Photo by Kayode Omoyosi
Photo by Kayode Omoyosi
Photo by Kayode Omoyosi

I was introduced to Robyn DaCultyre at an Untitled Queen show at C’mon Everybody in late January, and it was one of the most unique drag shows I’d seen in a while. Afterwards, I tracked down this self-described “drag creature” and video chatted about her drag origin story, the state of drag in her native Ohio, and the dual identities that make up her persona. Thrillist: I want to ask you about how Robyn DaCultyre came about and your point of view behind your performance.

Robyn DaCultyre: I’ve been travelling around the country from a young age in ministry and Christian studies. I moved to Chicago right after high school. Four years later, moved back to Columbus and decided I didn’t really want to do church anymore; that wasn’t where my heart was.

I had a really low point in my life and had a suicide attempt and then really found drag and started doing drag as a coping mechanism and way to let off steam. I started in July of 2019, and it was really a lot of punk and metal music. I created this drag creature of sorts and they were really out of this world and celestial and all of those fun alien type terms.

And then we went into a global pandemic and I had a lot of time to figure out who I wanted to be. Digitally I was still doing a lot of drag creature-esque numbers and all of that, but I had this moment where we’re on the front lines getting hit with pepper spray and rubber bullets and pepper spray-all of those lovely things. And I said, I have this platform and I need to start showcasing what’s happening.

Untitled [Queen] stepped in at the right time and messaged me and said, “I’m doing this show for Independence Day called Untitled in America with 52 different performers and I want you to be a part of it.” It was at that moment I was able to take the footage I had been recording on the front lines and incorporate it into digital content. I did a song called Black Like Me by Mickey Guyton that talks about white picket fences, but if you want to see how America is, then you should try being Black like me. The imagery of what’s literally happening in Columbus in that digital performance really spearheaded me into focusing on people who look like me.

Nina Simone is one of my biggest inspirations, and one of her quotes that resonates with me is that it’s the duty of the artist to resonate with the times. My art is politically charged. I like to entertain, but there will definitely be a time when you come to a show expecting to have your drink and be chill and that might not be the case.

How did the name Robyn DaCultyre come about?

I was smoking with Ursula Major, who was on season one of Dragula, and the first time I introduced myself to her I was Robyn Banks, which is my drag name originally. She said, “Well, do you just not want to be original at all?” [Laughs] And I sat with that for a couple of months, and I got really stoned one day and was listening to Janelle Monae, and she talks about doing it for the culture, and I said “I do it for the culture, too!” And the rest is history.

And you started a series called Melanated.

We started Melanated last February. I told the idea to my show director that there were no shows specifically run by Black people that only featured Black entertainers. I wanted to do this show for a night and she said, Why don’t we do it once a week for the whole month? The first show happens, and it’s a sold out crowd, and [my director] comes back and says we should do this every month. So I sucked it up and here we are a year later.

Melanated is the only fully Black show in all of the state. It’s a horrible marketing tool and not something I want to promote, but it is just a fact. It amazes me that we are the 13th largest city in America and there’s nothing here that’s fully focused on Black entertainers. The name also comes from Janelle Monae; she says she’s highly melanated and I said, that works.

Photos by Chay Creates LLC (left) and Bridget Caswell (right)
Photos by Chay Creates LLC (left) and Bridget Caswell (right)
Photos by Chay Creates LLC (left) and Bridget Caswell (right)

You refer to yourself as a drag creature, as opposed to drag queen or king…

This is actually the first time I’m making this public. I am in this place where I want to separate the alternative creature from who this melanated goddess or whatever is. DaCultyre is definitely the person who runs Melanated and then Robyn is this drag creature that is out of this world and really loves punk and alternative music. And both intertwine to make Robyn DaCultyre.

You also do pageants. Tell me about that.

In 2020 I was appointed by Nina West, who is from Columbus, as the representative from Ohio for National Entertainer of the Year in Louisville, Kentucky. I placed ninth out of 13 contestants and I really fell in love with the system and fell in love with the pageantry and loved the idea of reigning and being different. I want to show that we as alternative performers, as bearded performers, you can come into these systems and shake things up.

Is there a uniquely “Ohio” style of drag?

No, and I think that’s one of the things that makes it so amazing is that everyone has their own unique style, and it’s all pretty much accepted. I started as a performer and a drag creature and there was space that was afforded to me and I transitioned to more glamor and pageantry and that’s afforded to me as well. I’ve been a bearded entertainer for a year now. The cool thing about Ohio is that there is literally a place for everyone.

I think I have everything I need. Is there anything else I didn’t ask you about that you want to bring up, or‚Ķ

I don’t think so. Are there any generic questions you haven’t asked?

Generic questions‚ĶI think I asked all of them already [laughs]. I like to ask what you’d be doing if you weren’t doing drag?

It’s a great question. I have a day job that is very demanding so I need drag to get away. I’m also very creative and artistic. I used to do web design and all these other things to pull into my creativity. Drag is the longest thing I’ve stuck with in all parts of my life, so I don’t think it’s going anywhere anytime soon.

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John deBary¬†is a drinks expert and writer. His first cocktail book,¬†Drink What You Want, is available now, and his next book,¬†Saved by the Bellini, is expected in early 2023. He is also the co-founder and president of the¬†Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the lives of hospitality industry professionals through advocacy, grant making, and impact investing.

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