21 Things Illinois is Known and Famous for

Illinois, a great state bound by waterways linking the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, has sat at the crossroads of the United States for centuries. Presidents and artists have blossomed from its fertile floodplains and towering skyscrapers.

As the sixth most populous state in the nation, Illinois’ millions of residents contribute every day to its influential legacy. Check out these 21 things that make the Land of Lincoln unique among the union.

Illinois is famous for the metropolis of Chicago, an abundant railway network and the indigenous Cahokia Mounds. Illinois is also known for its vivacious music scene, its agriculture and nuclear energy.

Dive in for the full list.

1. Cahokia Mounds

The largest earthen mound in North America, aerial view of Monk's Mound at Cahokia.

Illinois is famous for the Cahokia Mounds, the largest indigenous archaeological site on the continent north of Mexico.

Designated as a national historic landmark, Cahokia consists of earthen mounds similar to pyramids that performed many different functions nearly 1,000 years ago.

Over 15,000 people may have lived there during its peak, making the city the center of a flourishing culture that inhabited the site for almost five centuries.

2. Presidents

Abraham Lincoln statue in front of the Illinois State Capital Building in Springfield, Illinois

Illinois is known for being the home to several presidents.

Three heads of state have been elected while living in Illinois — Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and Barack Obama. Though Ronald Reagan’s political career was mostly in California, he was a native of the Prairie State.

The state is proud of its presidential legacy. You can see an effigy of Lincoln on their license plates, along with the slogan “Land of Lincoln.”

3. Confluence of Ohio and Mississippi Rivers

cantilever Cairo Ohio River Bridge in fall scenery with river barges in backgroiund, it provides river crossing between Wickliffe, Kentucky and Cairo, Illinois

The small but mighty town of Cairo sits on a small spit of land at the southwest corner of Illinois. There, the great Mississippi and Ohio Rivers converge, uniting two of the largest waterways in the nation.

The confluence has served an important role throughout history as both a strategic point during the Civil War and a route for trade in the country’s interior.

On a geological technicality, the Mississippi River actually flows into the Ohio River at Cairo. Of course, as an Ohio native raised along the river, I think the name should be changed to fit the science. A trip to Cairo might be in my future to set things straight.

4. Nuclear Energy

Nuclear power

Because the state has a high capacity for generating electricity with reactors, Illinois is known for nuclear energy. The history of nuclear research and power generation in Illinois runs back to the Manhattan Project of the 1940s.

Today, 11 nuclear plants operate across the state. The controversial energy source provides over 50 percent of the electricity generated within Illinois’ borders, more than any other state.

5. Little Egypt

Shot of a rail viaduct over US Route 51 as it enters Cairo Illinois.
Editorial credit: Dawid S Swierczek / Shutterstock.com

The geography of southern Illinois, a lush region of fertile floodplains along a great river delta, has earned it the nickname “Little Egypt.” Great earthen mounds at Cahokia reminded early European settlers of the Pyramids of Giza, further cementing the connection.

Today, you can find a number of town and city names inspired by the classical comparison — Themes, Cairo, Goshen, Lebanon, Palestine and more. No mummies can be found in elaborate tombs, but that doesn’t take away from the verdant charm of southern Illinois.

6. Transportation

Illinois, circa 1880

Illinois is famous for its transportation, as it sits at the crossroad of many natural and constructed networks. In addition to sitting between the east and western parts of the United States, the state is linked to the Great Lakes system and the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

The strategic location has allowed the state to play an important role in commerce, trade and exploration in the modern era. Indigenous history shows that before European arrival, the lands now known as Illinois have long been a crossroads of cultures.

7. Railroads

Passengers arriving at the Winnetka station on a Metra Union Pacific North commuter rail train from Chicago.
Editorial credit: On The Run Photo / Shutterstock.com

But just how have people and goods been transported through Illinois? Since the 1800s, an extensive railroad network has crisscrossed the state. Freight trains haul goods into, out of, and around the state, but Illinois is also well-connected by passenger rail.

Metra is the commuter rail system that carries tens of millions of people across the Chicago metropolitan area each year. Many interstate passenger lines also pass through Chicago from nearby states like Michigan, Indiana, and Missouri.

The Windy City is, in fact, the biggest railroad hub in North America for both passenger and commercial trains. Various projects have been proposed to improve the city’s passenger rail connections across the Midwest.

8. Canals

Path along the historic I and M Canal on a beautiful afternoon. LaSalle, Illinois, USA.

Historically, those railroads have linked with the Illinois and Michigan Canal and other constructed waterways. The canal, which opened in 1848, connected the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes and beyond. As a result, it revolutionized Illinois’ economy.

Half a century later, the canal was partially replaced with another system, and then stopped operation when the Illinois Waterway was completed in the 1930s. The latter still operates today, a system of locks, canals and lakes through which flow commodities and agricultural products.

9. Agriculture

Country Farmhouse and barn in a cornfield, Illinois, USA

Like much of the interior states, Illinois is a breadbasket of farmland. Due to its geological history, it is ranked as the state with the third-best prime farmland in the nation.

As over 75 percent of the land in Illinois is used for agriculture, it’s no wonder Illinois is known as the Prairie State.

Its leading products are corn, soybeans and swine, but the rich land is also prime for cultivating other cereals, fruits and vegetables, as well as ideal for raising livestock. Agriculture is critical to both rural and urban areas, the latter being centers of processing and manufacturing.

10. Illinois foods

Chicago Style Hot Dog with Mustard, Pickle, Tomato, Relish and Onion

What’s a state without its own iconic dishes? Illinois is famous for culinary classics like the Chicago-style hot dog and deep dish pizza. But it doesn’t stop there.

Because the state has been a hub for the movement of cultures and ethnicities across history, residents have devised many unique dishes and flavors not found elsewhere.

The state menu includes options from the hyper-local Southern Illinois Chowder and unique spins on popcorn — Illinois’ official state snack — to the open-faced, fries-topped Horseshoe sandwich and pierogies.

The Land of Lincoln offers a wide variety of tastes for the open-minded foodie.

11. Lake Michigan

The Chicago Harbor Lighthouse on Lake Michigan.

Illinois only shares a small bit of Lake Michigan’s coastline, but it is no less impressive. Trust me when I tell you the view of the lake at sunset from the viewing deck of the Willis (formerly known as Sears) Tower will leave you speechless. The lake, so vast it looks like the ocean, reflects the sky as it shifts from day to night.

Much of the Lake Michigan coast stretches along Chicago. The iconic Lake Shore Drive stretches nearly 16 miles along the urban shoreline. Parks, cultural sites and institutions along the coast commemorate the city’s joint legacy with the lake.

12. Chicago

chicago skyline

The third biggest city in the United States, Chicago is the shining jewel upon the shores of Lake Michigan. More than 65 percent of Illinois’ residents call the metropolitan area home. The city’s population is composed of people from all over the nation and world who have had enormous influence on the culture.

Known for towering skyscrapers, world-class cuisine and diversity of culture, Chicago is definitely worth visiting. International and wholly Midwestern at the same time, Chicago offers visitors and residents alike endless opportunities for one-of-a-kind experiences.

Sites like Navy Pier, the Chicago Bean and Lincoln Park ring familiar in the ears of many, but Chicago has much more than that. You can find both underground and popular music, sports, theater, comedy and art across the city. The efficient rapid transit system — known as the “L” for having tracks elevated above the cityscape — carries you to every corner of the metropolis

Whether you’re kayaking on the Chicago River, shopping on the Magnificent Mile or exploring the hidden corners of the Windy City, Chicago is certain to leave you enchanted and impressed.

13. Music — rap and house

Common performs at The Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island.
Editorial credit: Carl Beust / Shutterstock.com

Illinois is famous for Chicago rap, a style that originated from the metropolis and has shaped music tastes across the country.

Originating in the city’s South and West sides, Chicago rap came about as the nation was more focused on the East and West coast styles in the 1980s and 90s. Rappers like Twista, Common, Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, Noname and Chance the Rapper use poetic lyrics to comment on the Black experience in Chicago and, more broadly, America.

Parallel to Chicago rap is the development of house music. Principally pioneered by queer Black and Latino artists in the city’s Southside nightclubs, the sounds of house are essential to electronic music as we know it.

Both rap and house music have had enormous influences on global genres. By means of Chicago, Illinois has left its mark on music.

14. Music — jazz and blues

Blues Music house on North Halsted Street
Editorial credit: Rico Markus / Shutterstock.com

Music in Chicago does not end nor start with rap and house. Both musical styles find their origin in the Great Migration of Black Americans from the South to northern cities like Chicago at the beginning of the 20th century.

Musicians in Chicago experimented with the already-established sounds of blues to create their own style. The well-known Chicago blues had a significant influence on the origin of rock and roll. The culture of blues continues today across Illinois, with annual festivals occurring in Chicago and Peoria.

Chicago jazz is marked by substituting instruments like the guitar and the string bass for others more common in Southern styles. The style also incorporates faster tempos, which some attribute to the influence of the urban hustle-and-bustle on the musicians.

15. St. Patrick’s Day

Various boats cruise along the Chicago River that has been dyed green in celebration of St. Patrick's Day in downtown Chicago.
Editorial credit: pics721 / Shutterstock.com

The Irish holiday is celebrated across the world, particularly in English-speaking countries, but no place does it quite like the Irish diaspora in Chicago.

On the 17th of March every year, thousands of people gather to pour green dye into the Chicago River. The recipe for the dye mix is kept secret by a local plumber’s union, but its result is for the world to see.

16. Museums

Abraham Lincoln House in Autumn in Springfield, Illinois

Museums are bountiful in Illinois, especially in Chicago. All across the state you can find curious museums exploring local history, global events and natural science.

Explore world-famous exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago or dive into the interactive wonders of the Museum of Science and Industry. The museum impressed me so much that I want to return every time I visit the Windy City.

True to its nickname, Illinois is known for its museums honoring Abraham Lincoln. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in the capital of Springfield explores the president’s life and legacy.

While in Springfield, you can also explore Lincoln’s personal life at the only home he ever owned, which is commemorated as a national historic site.

17. Sports teams

Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs
Editorial credit: Susan Montgomery / Shutterstock.com

Most of Illinois’ major league sports teams are based in Chicago, like the Chicago Bulls of the NBA, the Chicago Sky of the WNBA and the professional hockey team, the Chicago Blackhawks. Illinois is famous for the rivalry between the Cubs and White Sox, Chicago’s two major league baseball teams

However, the state boasts a number of minor league professional teams in sports like baseball, basketball, ice hockey and ultimate Frisbee. The minor league teams unite communities, provide rookie athletes opportunities to advance in their careers and expose Illinoisans to new sports.

18. Pumpkins

many pumpkins at the field before the harvest

If you live in the United States and you’ve ever carved a pumpkin (I find painting them to be easier) or eaten a pumpkin pie (I’ve eaten many), it’s possible that pumpkin came from the Land of Lincoln. Illinois is known for producing more pumpkins than any other state.

Humans have been growing pumpkins in Illinois since the first indigenous peoples populated the land. Nowadays, the state’s pumpkin industry is booming. Around 90 percent of processing pumpkins — that is, pumpkins used for eating — are grown there.

19. McDonald’s

A replica of the first McDonald’s restaurant stands on its original site in Des Plaines, Illinois
Editorial credit: James Kirkikis / Shutterstock.com

Believe it or not, the original Mcdonald’s fast food restaurant as we know it opened in Des Plaines, Illinois in 1955. The building pioneered the iconic golden arches and red and white tile style that is now known across the world.

It’s technically not the first McDonald’s ever, but the Des Plaines location was the beginning of the late CEO Ray Kroc. After investing in the restaurant, Kroc catapulted McDonald’s into the global fast-food empire.

20. Colleges and universities

University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (UIUC), Illini Union, view from main quad

If you’re looking to further your education, Illinois is a great place to consider. The state boasts over 20 four-year universities.

Schools like the University of Chicago, Northwestern University and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign are among the Midwest’s finest academic institutions and are renowned internationally.

Smaller liberal arts colleges dot the state’s urban and rural reaches and offer an alternative to university-style education. Illinois also supports dozens of high-quality, affordable and accessible community colleges.

WIth the scholars, scientists and politicians that Illinois has produced, it’s no surprise that Illinois is a front-runner in American education.

21. Nature

Twin waterfalls crash into Tonti Canyon on a spring day at Starved Rock State Park

Illinois is famous for its diversity of natural spaces, many of which are protected at the state or federal level. Illinois is a lush, riverine state with dramatic ridges, sandstone bluffs and sprawling forests. If you’re tired of the charming towns and cityscapes, dive into the abundant nature within the Land of Lincoln.

Fascinating geologic formations can be found at state parks like Starved Rock and Giant City. Cypress trees rise from lurid green swamplands in Cache River Natural Area and Illinois Beach State Park boasts crystalline lakeshore. All sorts of natural gems are hidden between the farmland and railroad lines, sure to satisfy the most intrepid of nature-lovers out there.

That’s it for the Prairie State. If there’s something you want us and your fellow readers to know about Illinois, leave us a comment below.

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