To see a city for its true worth, sometimes you need to explore it like a tourist. With a fresh perspective, everyday sights take on new meaning; obvious destinations become marvels all over again. Earlier this year, the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau named the following 10 destinations (in no particular order) as Greater Peoria’s top attractions for visitors. If you live in the area and haven’t already visited these spots, be sure to make them a priority on your summer to-do list. And if you’re new to Peoria: welcome! Loving where you live is easy—if you make the effort. Here’s a primer to some of the places that make this region great. One word of advice: the more willing you are to explore, the more Peoria will open its arms…
Peoria RiverFront Market/Festivals
Open since 2004 and growing every year, the Peoria RiverFront Market features a vast selection of Midwestern-grown fruits and veggies, locally-produced meats and cheeses, and local arts and crafts in a European-style, open-air market. This year, the market extended its season—having opened in May—and runs through September, with local musicians each week and chef demonstrations at 10am on the first and third Saturdays of the month. Seasonal recipes are available for sampling on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month, highlighting available produce.
Down on the riverfront, Peoria’s many festivals are a popular option throughout the spring, summer and fall. Each June, the Steamboat Sports Festival, held in conjunction with the Steamboat Classic, attracts athletes from around the world. Other top festivals include the Louie Louie Parade and Festival, River City Jazz Festival, India Fest, Erin Feis, Oktoberfest and the Fine Art Fair.
- RiverFront Market attendance averaged nearly 3,000 people each week in 2014.
- Martini’s On Water Street began serving bloody marys and mimosas to market-goers when the market moved to the River Station parking lot last year. Watch for an expanded drink menu this summer!
- Oktoberfest is organized by the German American Central Society—an 87-year-old organization, which also hosts the Kriskindlmarkt, Hickory Grove Sommerfest and Bratfest, and weekly German dinners at the Lindenhof.
- The Peoria Art Guild’s Fine Art Fair is nationally recognized, ranking among the top fine art fairs in the country each year.
The Peoria RiverFront Market is open on Saturdays from 8am to noon through September. For more information on riverfront events and activities, visit peoriariverfront.com.
Seeking to create connections that inspire an appreciation for the natural world, the Peoria Zoo is home to more than 100 species of animals. Now celebrating its 60th year, the zoo is located within the natural setting of Glen Oak Park, with exhibits organized by continent. Africa!, a simulation of African grasslands, features six species in an open format surrounding the Zambezi River Village and Lodge—a unique event space. In the Australia Walk-About, black swans, emus, kookaburras and wallabies roam, while the Asia Trail features the Amur (Siberian) tiger among others. The zoo’s Conservation Center educates visitors about endangered species and threats to animal habitats around the world—and at home—through programs like the Alligator Snapping Turtle Reintroduction, a partnership with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to reintroduce the endangered species to strategic state watersheds.
- Peoria Zoo’s animals live long lives! At 38, its resident two-toed sloth, Dustin, has lived well past the 15.2-year median life expectancy for his species. The female spider monkey has also far surpassed her 24.4-year median life expectancy—at 43 years young!
- The Peoria Zoo is the only zoo in North America to exhibit the Giant Zambian Mole Rat—a distinctive African mammal with short limbs, a cylindrical body and huge incisors perfect for navigating and excavating through narrow burrows.
- The arbors over the pathways to the Africa! exhibit were constructed from the bars of the zoo’s original 1955 large cat exhibit.
- A bronze plaque set in stone commemorates Peoria Historical Grove—a group of 28 trees descended directly from celebrated U.S. historic spots. Among the original trees planted in the late ‘30s was a mulberry from Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, a walnut tree from the birthplace of George Washington, and an oak from the home of General Robert E. Lee.
The Peoria Zoo is open daily from 10am to 5pm. Adults (13 and over) $9; children (2-12) $6; seniors (65+) and military $8. For more information, visit peoriazoo.org.
Par-A-Dice Hotel Casino
Par-A-Dice Hotel Casino, a riverboat casino located in East Peoria, features more than 1,000 slots and table games, a 202-room hotel, fine dining at Boyd’s Steakhouse and casual dining at Options Buffet, Rocks Bar & Restaurant and Nelson’s Deli. Owned and operated by Boyd Gaming, Par-A-Dice incorporates a European theme across the riverboat’s four decks—making for a fun vacation getaway close to home.
- The Par-A-Dice Hotel Casino is one of only three riverboat casinos in the country that maintain U.S. Coast Guard certification, and the last remaining riverboat casino that still cruises once a year to prove its seaworthiness.
- Par-A-Dice Hotel Casino was named after the Paradice Club—an East Peoria gambling establishment opened in 1941 by Joe Rafool.
- In 2015, Par-A-Dice will donate than $400,000 to local charitable organizations. (It also contributed more than $400,000 in 2014).
Par-A-Dice Casino is open daily from 8am to 6am. Admission is free. For more information, visit paradicecasino.com.
Wildlife Prairie Park
Founded by the late philanthropists Bill and Hazel Rutherford in 1978, this 2,000-acre zoological park is home to over 150 animals, including 50 species native to Illinois: wolves, bison, waterfowl, black bears, elk, cougar, otter and more. Serving nearly 140,000 annual visitors in its mission of conservation, education and recreation, the park features more than 20 miles of mountain biking, hiking, trail running, XC skiing and snow shoeing trails, prime fishing spots, animal viewing areas, scenic train rides via a volunteer-operated railroad, the Adventure Trek—an open-air, interpreter-led bus ride through the park, and unique lodging options like cabooses and teepees, as well as traditional cottages and cabins.
- Park founder William Rutherford was an attorney by trade and never planned on developing a nationally recognized park at the age of 60. But through his ties with the Forest Park Foundation and its partnership with Brookfield Zoo, he dedicated himself to the plan for WPP “to offer what big zoos could not.”
- One of the park’s most popular attractions is its resident river otters. First listed as a state-threatened species in 1977, the otter population in Illinois dipped below 100 in 1989. Recovery efforts since the early nineties have been very successful, with otter estimates in the tens of thousands today.
- The Prairie Zephyr Express train, operated by dedicated park volunteers, offers visitors a unique half-hour, two-mile scenic loop of the park.
Wildlife Prairie Park is open daily from 9am to 4:30pm. Adults (13+) $9; seniors (65+) $7; youth (3-12) $6. For more information, visit wildlifeprairiepark.org.
Spirit of Peoria
Owned and captained by G. Alex Grieves with co-captain Harold Breithenbach, the Spirit of Peoria is a staple of downtown Peoria, offering visitors a variety of short and overnight excursions up and down the Illinois River. Designed by architect Alan Bates, the riverboat was the first paddleboat vessel to be built at the Walker Boat Yard in Paducah, Kentucky. The paddleboat, capable of traveling up to 15 miles per hour, is proudly powered by twin Caterpillar 3412 diesel gen sets, which drive two traction motors to turn the paddlewheel.
- The paddlewheel is the Spirit’s sole means of propulsion—no props or thrusters! The boat typically does two- to five-day overnight cruises to Starved Rock and St. Louis, but has traveled as far as Minneapolis/St. Paul and Cincinnati.
- The ramps on the front of the boat, called stages, are used on overnight cruises to load and unload passengers and cargo.
- Eight painted glass light boxes on the first deck of the boat depict local river towns between 1889 and 1910.
Ticket prices vary by departure and length of trip. For a current schedule of events, visit spiritofpeoria.com.
Some of the state’s finest wineries exist along the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway, stretching from Ottawa in the north to Havana in the south. Just eight miles west of Peoria in Edwards, Kickapoo Creek Winery rests among 250 rolling acres. Owned and operated by Dr. David Conner and his son, Rory Conner, Kickapoo Creek prides itself on doing everything by hand—from picking each grape to hand-bottling each of its 25 wines. The winery also features a full-sized commercial kitchen, with a full-time executive chef on site. Over in Tazewell County, Mackinaw Valley Vineyard’s tasting room overlooks a 30-mile view of valleys, farms and vineyards. The proud creator of 25 table wines, it’s also well known for summer events, like its Saturday-evening outdoor concert series and August’s Grape Stomp and Harvest Festival.
- Kickapoo Creek Winery has been recognized with bronze and silver medals at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, Illinois State Wine Competition and Mid-American Wine Competition. It was also named the 2014 People’s Choice award winner for “Favorite Local Winery” in the Peoria Journal Star.
- Mackinaw Valley Vineyard’s Alexander’s Conquest, a popular red table wine, was named Best Red Wine and Best Wine Overall in the 2003 Illinois State Fair Wine Competition.
Kickapoo Creek Winery is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11am to 6pm, and Sunday, noon to 5pm. For more information, visit kickapoocreekwinery.com. Mackinaw Valley Vineyard is open Monday through Saturday, 11am to 6pm, and Sundays, noon to 5pm. Visit mackinawvalleyvineyard.com for more information.
Caterpillar Visitors Center
Located in downtown Peoria adjacent to the Peoria Riverfront Museum, the Caterpillar Visitors Center offers a thorough look at Peoria’s top employer and its fascinating history, from the company’s very first tractor to its present-day achievements as a Fortune 50 company. Full of interactive displays and engaging exhibits, the museum features simulators that offer a firsthand look at what it’s like to operate heavy equipment, a journey through time in the Caterpillar Heritage Gallery, and a theater inside a life-sized 797 truck.
- The Cat® 797F Mining Truck theater is a 1:1 scale replica of a real 797F mining truck, with seats for more than 60 people in the truck bed.
- The simulators on the Center’s product floor are shorter versions of the same simulation program used to train Cat operators.
- Including color options, there are nearly 90 possible combinations of five pieces of equipment in the “Design Your Own Machine” interactive exhibit.
- About 50 percent of visitors are Caterpillar employees, retirees, dealers or customers; the other half consists of the general public.
The Caterpillar Visitors Center is open 10am to 5pm, Monday through Saturday. Adults $7; seniors (55+), veterans and active military $6; veterans and active military (55+) $5; children (12 and under) free. For more information, visit caterpillar.com/en/company/visitors-center.html.
Peoria Riverfront Museum
In its mission to inspire lifelong learning by connecting art, history, science and achievement, the Peoria Riverfront Museum allows visitors to explore the world from their own backyard to far-off galaxies. As the only downstate museum to be affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, the PRM features national and international rotating exhibitions, in addition to its permanent collection of art and artifacts; exhibits like the Illinois River Encounter, IHSA Peak Performance Peoria, and The Street—featuring a local history of Peoria; and the Dome Planetarium and Giant Screen Theater.
- The Zeiss Powerdome Planetarium System uses the world’s most advanced Skymaster ZKP4 star projector and a Spacegate Quinto full-dome digital projection system, with a database of two million planets, moons, stars and galaxies. The system was acquired with a NASA grant from German optical systems manufacturer Carl Zeiss Inc.
- The Giant Screen Theater screen extends five stories wide and seven stories high!
- The Museum’s outdoor Sculpture Garden features several works of art by Peoria artist Nita Sunderland, as well as other regional artists.
- The Riverfront Museum Store features unique gifts like locally-made art glass and gifts, books on local history, and wacky science kits for geeks of all ages!
The Peoria Riverfront Museum is open 10am to 5pm Tuesday through Saturday, and noon to 5pm on Sunday. Adults $10; seniors (60+) $9; youth (3-17) $8. For more information, visit peoriariverfrontmuseum.org.
Bass Pro Shops
Located on the East Peoria riverfront, Bass Pro Shops is a 150,000-square-foot outdoor sports and recreation store with an impressive collection of mounts and antiques, and a two-story lobby with grand murals depicting the Illinois landscape from Starved Rock to the Garden of the Gods. In addition to the visual dynamics, the store features fish feeding demonstrations in a massive 26,000-gallon freshwater aquarium showcasing a variety of native fish, such as crappie, long-nosed gar and an 80-pound blue catfish. It’s also home to an underwater-themed bowling alley and a full-scale restaurant and bar.
- The bar at Uncle Buck’s Fishbowl Restaurant is centered around a 5,000-gallon saltwater aquarium featuring several exotic fish species.
- Look out for the massive, eight-foot grizzly bear standing upright near the freshwater aquarium!
- The General Store features over 300 kinds of fudge, homemade by specially-trained staff on site.
- The Fishing Department alone has over 40,000 individual SKUs.
East Peoria’s Bass Pro Shop is open Monday through Saturday from 9am to 9pm and Sunday from 10am to 7pm. For more information, visit basspro.com.
Newly relocated to downtown Peoria, Running Central (RC) was named one of the four top running stores in the country last year by Competitor and Running Insight magazines. Dedicated to the highest level of customer service and expertise, RC strives to provide customers with proper footwear, apparel and accessories custom-fit for each individual’s walking and running goals. The fitness solutions company features a variety of top brands and a unique “Fit Philosophy” with a focus on thoughtfully engaging with customers and their individual needs, as well as finding the perfect fit through sizing and a thorough walk evaluation.
- Running Central is the largest specialty-run store (by square footage) in the United States. Since taking over the store in 2007, owners Adam and Marie White have moved the location twice and expanded three times. Sales have grown over 400 percent and the staff has gone from five employees to more than 30!
- The mural over the shoe wall was once a painting that hung in Adam’s grandfather’s dental office. The original painting was lost in the November 2013 tornado, but a digital copy was saved by Technicraft and enlarged to complement the store’s ambiance inside the 112-year-old riverfront building.
- RC has the largest selection of children’s shoes in central Illinois—over 200 styles—including sandals, play shoes, school shoes and dress shoes, as well as running shoes. The store offers a free shoe-tying clinic for kids at 10am on the first and third Saturdays of each month.
- RC employees offer a variety of training programs and free clinics on topics from “Running 101” to advanced marathon training led by veteran runners.
Running Central is open Monday through Friday 10am to 7pm, and Saturday from 9am to 6pm. For more information, visit runningcentral.com. iBi