Nauvoo, Illinois, sits right alongside the Mississippi River, across the border from southeastern Iowa. While this little river town is tiny, it packs a true wallop when it comes to religious significance and cultural history. This is the place where Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints, brought his faithful followers in their trek for a permanent home. At one point, Nauvoo teemed with thousands of people. Later, after Smith was killed and his group left for Utah, the town became home to other settlers, including a French utopian society.
No matter your own faith tradition, there’s a lot to experience in Nauvoo, and it makes for an easy road trip from many Midwestern cities. Here are eight incredible things to do in this historic town.
1. Trace Joseph Smith’s Past
Smith first established the town in 1839 after he and his church were run out of nearby Missouri. Much of the area was swampy, but Smith organized his followers (also known as Mormons) to dig a massive canal, which drained the water and allowed them to build homes, homes, shops, schools, and the group’s temple. In 1840, Smith changed the town’s name from Commerce to Nauvoo, a Hebrew word meaning beautiful. Thousands of faithful streamed to the new town, but life didn’t remain beautiful. Local residents and the church members routinely scuffled. Eventually, Smith declared martial law, and in turn, Illinois’ governor called for him to surrender. Smith did just that, but several days later, a mob broke into the jail where he was held, shooting and killing Smith and his brother on June 27, 1844. Two other men were injured. The skirmishes between the church and local militias continued, until the group’s new leader, Brigham Young, decided to evacuate Nauvoo and head west, eventually settling in Salt Lake City.
Today, the Joseph Smith Historic Site includes a visitor’s center with exhibits and artifacts that tell the story of the early religious settlers. Joseph and Emma Smith’s home, their homestead, the town’s Red Brick Store, and the Smith family cemetery are all additional stops during guided tours. A half-hour drive southeast of Nauvoo is the town of Carthage. The Carthage jail, where Smith was held and ultimately killed, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s a sacred spot for the church, which operates free tours there.
2. Take In The Temple
While the temple you’ll see in Nauvoo today is certainly grand — built into a bluff overlooking both the river and the town — it is not the original. Mormons began construction on the first temple in 1841, and the Greek Revival style building — crafted from local limestone — quickly became the town’s spiritual center. After the Latter-day Saints left Illinois, the temple was set on fire, and what was left was further damaged by a tornado. Eventually, the temple was demolished.
Fast forward to 1937. That’s when the church was able to purchase the original block where the temple once stood, and it quickly became a place for the faithful to visit. In 1999, church elders announced the Nauvoo temple would be rebuilt, and the new structure was dedicated in 2002.
While tourists are not allowed inside the temple — unless they are church members — you may certainly explore the grounds at the gorgeous building, which can be seen from nearly every area of town. It was clearly designed to resemble its predecessor, and you can imagine how imposing the first temple must have been when first built.
3. Experience 1840s Life
While Nauvoo was clearly heavily influenced by the Mormons, there were other settlers in this area as well. To get an overarching idea of what life was like here during the town’s boom days, head to the Rheinberger Museum, located in Nauvoo State Park. This home gives visitors a feel for what Nauvoo was like when it was a frontier boomtown, far larger and much more prosperous than Chicago to the north. First built by the Mormons, the home was later renovated by the Icarians, a French utopian society that settled here for a time after the Mormons headed west. It’s full of artifacts that bring to life Nauvoo’s early days, including antiques, quilts, and a room dedicated to the Icarians and their history.
The museum also features a wine cellar and is situated next to what is thought to be Nauvoo’s oldest vineyard. It’s here you’ll also learn about the town’s once world-famous export: Nauvoo Blue Cheese. The museum is open May to mid-October.
Many of the homes and shops built by original church members are also still in existence, and they truly serve as time capsules. Some even offer demonstrations of trades, including leatherworking, blacksmithing, and printing. These buildings are located throughout the Nauvoo National Historic District, the entirety of which is designated a National Historic Landmark. There are far too many to mention individually, but the church has a complete list — with details on each — here.
4. Hitch A Ride
If you’re looking for an old-fashioned way to take in all of Nauvoo’s historic sites (and there are a lot of them), consider hitching a ride on one of the town’s horse-drawn carriages or wagons! Visitors can board about every 40 minutes, and guides will give information and context about the town during the half-hour ride. The wagon tours are free, but tickets are required and can be picked up at the Family Living Center, which is also a great spot to learn more about frontier life in Nauvoo — especially if you’re traveling with younger family members!
5. Sit In On A Performance
Nauvoo truly shines when it comes to its pageants and live performances. In the summer, the Nauvoo and British Pageants come alive. These two full-scale productions tell the story of the church in Illinois, and the faithful who emigrated from England. The events are free, and tickets aren’t required, but many people will reserve their own seats early, roping them off with string or tape. In addition to the pageants, a number of performances also take place throughout the summer months. These range from brass band concerts to dramatic vignettes and variety shows. While they are all free, a number do require tickets, which can be acquired at the visitor’s center.
6. Hike Nauvoo State Park
When you’re ready to get a few steps in and get a bit of fresh air, head to Nauvoo State Park just south of town. The park’s main hiking trail — an easy 1.5 miles — winds around the park’s manmade Lake Horton and through some wooded areas, as well. The park is also a terrific place to picnic, with easily-accessible tables and restrooms.
7. Visit The Vineyards
With its location right on the river and within the surrounding bluffs, the land around Nauvoo is actually quite suited to grow wine grapes, and has done so for years. Today, the town has two wineries: Baxter’s Vineyards and Winery within city limits and Press House Winery directly to the south.
Baxter’s is the oldest winery in the state of Illinois, established back in 1857. Emile Baxter came to the area with the Icarians. Eventually, he and his wife established their winery, which still harvests its own grapes and crafts its own wine.
Like Baxter’s, Press House is also family-owned; its Koechle Vineyards have been farmed and in operation for generations. Both wineries have tasting rooms, so you can choose your favorite vintage and raise a glass (or two!) to Nauvoo’s wine-making heritage.
8. Shop The Historic District
Nauvoo’s Mulholland Street is its main thoroughfare, and it’s here where you can fit some retail therapy! The street is lined with many shops and boutiques where you’re sure to find the perfect souvenir for your trip. Antiques, art, books, and even custom-crafted leather goods and footwear can be found in the downtown district. A few blocks south of Mulholland, the Red Brick Store stocks gifts and home goods inspired by the church; the store was first built by Joseph Smith in 1842, and he operated the mercantile. Upstairs, the church council gathered and other meetings were held.
If you find you can’t cram all of these terrific activities into a single day, no worries. There are plenty of places to hang your hat in Nauvoo, including some charming bed and breakfast and self-catering options. The Willard Richards Inn offers elegant accommodations in a stately home dating back to the 1840s, steeped in early Mormon history. The Old Stone Church, right in the center of town, dates back to before 1860. Once used as a Methodist church, then a VFW hall, today it’s a luxe, renovated space with plenty of amenities for visitors. And the Woodruff Hotel, with its fascinating, 140-year history, 21 guest rooms and suites, and enviable location right across from the Nauvoo Temple, is also a favorite for visitors.