Six “hidden gems” of Greater Peoria…
Nestled in the heart of flyover country and overshadowed by larger Midwestern cities, the Peoria area is often overlooked as a tourist destination. But with its riverfront setting, industrial heritage, growing arts community and diverse array of recreational opportunities, the region has a lot to offer. While mainstays like Wildlife Prairie Park, Peoria Riverfront Museum and Caterpillar Visitors Center are top of mind, what about some of our less-heralded treasures? Though perhaps lesser known, they are no less noteworthy. We asked the Peoria Area Convention & Visitors Bureau to list some of these “hidden gems,” then set out to gather their stories. Whether you’re from out of town or a tourist in your own backyard, here are a few destinations off the beaten path… but well worth checking out.
Blazing Trails for Adventure
When Peoria was ranked among the country’s 100 Top Adventure Towns a few years ago, National Geographic cited “killer mountain biking” as a prime reason. In particular, the Peoria Area Mountain Bike Association (PAMBA) was acknowledged for its “trailblazing efforts” (quite literally) in creating a regional hub for the sport. The organization maintains more than 50 miles of trail—considered among the best in the Midwest—and its passionate and committed members average more than 2,000 hours of volunteer service each year: building and maintaining trails, patrolling official events, and assisting and educating trail users.
PAMBA was organized in 2000 to represent mountain bikers in a debate over trail access at Jubilee College State Park and Farmdale Reservoir, where “rogue” trails had been built without consent. Fifteen years later, it’s a trusted partner of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Metamora Park District, Wildlife Prairie Park and Pekin Park District, which manage six major trail systems across the region.
While Wildlife Prairie Park is not exactly a “hidden” gem, its relatively new bike trail may be, with nearly eight miles of singletrack flowing across rock and shale left over from the land’s strip-mining past. Nearby, Jubilee College State Park is home to the area’s largest trail system, offering a little bit of everything for beginners and experts alike. Across the river, Black Partridge Park features trails built by PAMBA and Metamora Park District volunteers, including more than eight miles of singletrack, while Farmdale Reservoir in Washington mixes fast, open stretches with winding singletrack, gravity dips and ravines across 15 miles of trails. It also hosts numerous runs and races, a freeride/stunt section, and PAMBA’s annual fall festival.
In Pekin, the trails at Dirksen Park offer steep climbs, dirt jumps and tight, 180-degree singletrack, and in Marquette Heights, Independence Park features a dozen miles of pure singletrack for hiking and biking, with challenging hills and plenty of natural obstacles. Thanks in large part to the efforts of PAMBA volunteers, Greater Peoria can boast of a nationally-recognized, world-class trail system. For detailed trail maps or to learn more, visit pambamtb.org.
History on Wheels
While its roots can be traced as far back as 1839, the Peoria Historical Society (PHS) was officially incorporated in 1934 to collect, preserve and display items relating to Peoria-area history; support historical research and education; and promote public interest in the region’s fascinating history. Among the ways the organization brings history to life is through its popular Historical Trolley Tours and their professional, certified tour guides.
From June through the end of October, the PHS offers a half-dozen tours that shine a light on Peoria—the oldest continuously-settled site in Illinois, former Whiskey Capital of the World, and proud home of Caterpillar world headquarters—and each has a different theme:
- Roll Out the Barrel Tour—highlighting the city’s whiskey-making era from 1850 to Prohibition, when it supplied nearly half of the federal government’s entire revenue;
- Naughty to Nice Tour—exploring Peoria’s days as a “wide open town” of gambling and gangsters—and how it became a four-time All-America City;
- River City Tour—a look at the city’s Native American and French heritage, its grand mansions, river bluffs, and much more;
- Grandview Drive and Springdale Cemetery Tour—exploring the “World’s Most Beautiful Drive” and the state’s oldest chartered cemetery, where you’ll learn about the city’s founding fathers and mothers;
- Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War Tour—following our country’s 16th president through Peoria and hearing stories of its Civil War veterans; and
- Haunted Peoria Tour—exploring the city’s darker side, including strange sightings, legendary deaths and more.
You’re certain to learn something new about Peoria’s past on each of these tours—so don’t miss them! This summer, the trolleys depart from Harp & Thistle in Peoria Heights at 11am on Thursday and Friday mornings; on Saturdays, they leave Kelleher’s Irish Pub in downtown Peoria at 11am and 1:30pm. Reservations are recommended—and private and group tours are available throughout the year upon request. Call the Peoria Historical Society at (309) 674-1921 or visit peoriahistoricalsociety.org for complete details.
Oasis in the City
Covering just over five acres in Glen Oak Park, the George L. Luthy Memorial Botanical Garden is an oasis of serenity in the heart of the city. Established in 1951 and open year-round, it’s home to nearly 6,000 plant species, with more than a dozen themed gardens surrounding a 2,500-square-foot conservatory, which houses an extensive collection of rainforest plants, succulents and orchids. The Garden’s namesake, George L. Luthy, was a longtime bank president and trustee of the Peoria Park District, well-known for his collection of roses.
Luthy Botanical Garden is a leader in conservation practices and an invaluable community resource, hosting a range of gardening classes and sharing its expertise via on-site landscape consultations. It’s also a spectacular backdrop for weddings and other special events—offering a distinctive ambiance that can’t be found anywhere else in the area.
In addition to its seasonal floral shows and holiday candlelight walks, Luthy hosts numerous festivals and annual events, from the ever-popular Rhythm in the Rainforest jazz concert to the Rhapsody in Bloom Art Festival. This fall, it will become “Hogwart’s Garden of Botanical Wonders” for four weeks, as its annual Chrysanthemum Show adopts a Harry Potter theme.
Open daily from 10am to 5pm, admission is just $2.50 for adults, and free for Garden members, Peoria Zoo members and children under 12. (Zoo visitors also receive free same-day admission.) On your way out, stop by the gift shop for a variety of unique gifts and accessories, and don’t forget: Luthy is part of a nationwide Reciprocal Admissions Program, entitling members to free entry at nearly 300 gardens throughout North America and the Cayman Islands.
With the grand opening of the Peoria Playhouse imminent, the combined attractions of the children’s museum, Peoria Zoo and Luthy Botanical Garden are sure to make Glen Oak Park a daylong destination for families from all over the region. Visit peoriaparks.org/luthy-botanical-garden or call (309) 686-3362 for more information.
Peoria’s arts scene has come a long way in recent years. The creation of the First Friday studio tour by CIAO (Central Illinois Artist Organization) in 2011 was one catalyzing force; another was the renovation and makeover of an unused, 1930s-era warehouse into a buzzing epicenter of creative activity. Developed by local businessmen Jon Walker and Steve Rouland, the 22,000-square-foot Sunbeam Building houses numerous retail stores—from vintage goods and antiques to quality used office furniture and more—as well as Studios on Sheridan. With more than 20 spaces for artists, a large gallery, and a contemporary, loft-style atmosphere, Studios is flourishing—and not just on the first Friday of the month!
Located near the Sheridan and Main intersection, Studios on Sheridan has been a linchpin in the inspired transformation of Peoria’s West Main neighborhood, alongside the Art Garage, Costume Trunk, Blue, Broken Tree Coffee and other nearby businesses. In addition to First Fridays, it’s been the setting for a range of special events—including car cruise-ins, fashion shows and pop-up markets—featuring live music, vendors and artist demos, as well as regular shows in the gallery.
From fine art to jewelry, ceramics, photography and more, it’s all about variety at Studios on Sheridan. Jeremie Draper’s ever-popular glass studio features regular classes and “hot glass” demonstrations, while Artsy Fun Creative Studio allows you to create—and take home—your own wearable art. Check out Dana Baldwin’s unconventional fiber art at The Sheared Edge, indulge in the eclectic boutique experience of Moon Dancer, discover “shabby chic” at Restoration, and scour the array of antiques at Urban Artifacts. This July, the building will again host its summer vintage market—and stay tuned for more events to come later this year. Find business hours at sunbeambuilding.com, look for Studios on Sheridan on Facebook, or call (309) 251-0340 for more information.
Five miles west of The Shoppes at Grand Prairie, one of the region’s unsung shopping destinations can be found tucked away in (and around) a 19th-century Kickapoo farmhouse. After a decade spent running a similar operation in Pennsylvania, owner Jim Kightlinger returned to his native central Illinois and opened Kightlinger Antiques & Collectibles. Now in its 11th year of business, the shop features a range of antiques, lamps, home accessories and repurposed furniture in its two main buildings at the corner of Jackson Street and Route 150.
From handcrafted Amish farm tables to vintage stepback cupboards, Kightlinger sources most of his inventory from private estate sales—he’s always on the hunt for high-quality pieces, ensuring something unique for return visitors. When it’s nice outside, the inventory spills onto the lawn, where a well-tended garden and sizeable investment in flowers make it a prime spot for wedding and prom photos.
But nothing compares to the holiday season, when Kightlinger Antiques is transformed into central Illinois’ largest Christmas ornament shop. It takes a month and a half of work into the wee hours of the morning, but by mid-October, it’s ready—just in time for the annual open house, which sees upwards of 3,500 visitors! With the antiques safely resting in storage, 50 themed, decorated trees fill the space, and 300,000 ornaments of all kinds hang from every nook and cranny, underneath the warm glow of 10,000 holiday lights. It’s by far the largest selection of ornaments in the area—and it gets a little bigger each year.
Whether you come for the antiques, the ornaments or both, this small business is an essential stop for visitors from all over the Midwest. Kightlinger Antiques is open every day of the week, from 10am to 6pm. For more information, call (309) 589-0820 or find them on Facebook.
Learning to Eat Well
After a 30-year career in manufacturing sales and management, Bill Turney had grown tired of the grind. A lifelong passion for cooking led him to take a class at Illinois Central College and later, enroll in its full-time culinary program. Before he had even graduated, Turney opened From the Field Cooking School in Morton, where he has shared his passion with others for the last decade.
At From the Field, anyone at any skill level can sign up for a one-time class, whether a demonstration class—watch someone else do the cooking—or a hands-on one: learn by doing. You can even book a private class with friends and design your own experience! Turney will show you the ropes, including food prep, cooking techniques, kitchen safety and sanitation, food history, and the science behind it all. Each class runs about three hours, with dozens of topics from which to choose.
A recent sampling of classes include: a four-part Healthy Cooking course; Homemade Pasta & Sauces; Upscale Sandwiches; Show-Stopping Desserts; Sushi 101; and classes on Thai and Cajun cooking. Grind, mix and stuff your own sausages at Sausage Making at Home, or make your own fresh mozzarella at Cooking With & Making Cheese. In July, there’s a four-week cooking camp for kids, and don’t forget the monthly Couples Night! From the Field also offers a customizable catering menu, commercial kitchen rental and corporate teambuilding outings—a great way to get out of the office and build rapport with coworkers.
Later this year, Turney plans to hand over the reins of his business to Ellen Vega, a baker and educator at Heartland Community College, who will ensure From the Field’s continued success. Visit fromthefieldcookingschool.com for an updated schedule of classes, or call (309) 263-6020 for more information. iBi