When giving the choice, I tend to visit small towns versus big cities. Chicago has the bustle, live theatre, and excitement, but Galesburg has a quiet charm, especially for train enthusiasts. So if you seek a respite versus a night on the town, Galesburg is the perfect choice.
Located almost 200 miles southwest of Chicago, it’s about a three-hour ride whether you drive or take the train. Amtrak’s Southwest Chief and Illinois Zephyr run daily between Chicago and Galesburg. So when traveling through Chicago on the Southwest Chief, I’ll often bypass a night in Chicago to visit Galesburg. Here are seven reasons why.
1. It’s A Friendly Town
Every time I’ve had a layover in Galesburg or visited for an overnight, I’ve always been impressed with the friendliness of this small town. In Chicago, the pace is rushed, and I would rarely feel comfortable asking someone for directions or recommendations. But in Galesburg, shop owners are helpful and suggest where to go and what to eat. Residents say hello as you pass on the sidewalk. This small-town friendliness is hard to find in big cities and, especially when I travel solo, leads to a welcoming and relaxing visit.
2. Affordable Travel
Skip the big-city prices in Galesburg. Whereas shopping along Chicago’s Magnificent Mile is grand -- and expensive -- Galesburg features a walkable downtown with mom-and-pop shops selling affordable gifts and souvenirs. Even the finest restaurants in Galesburg, such as the Landmark or Craft, won’t leave a huge dent in your travel budget.
There’s free parking downtown, and driving is less stressful than driving in Chicago (and I’ll admit, with the heavy traffic and impatient drivers, I’m a little frightened of the crosswalks in Chicago). In Galesburg, many activities are within walking distance, saving you the cost of a rideshare or gas. If you’d rather get around without a car, the Amtrak train drops you in the heart of Galesburg and no car is needed.
3. Plenty Of Nature
There’s plenty of nature to be found in the area, including walking trails, bike trails, parks, and lakes for fishing, kayaking, and paddleboarding. Nature is in the forefront in Galesburg, whereas the city parks in Chicago have to compete with the skyline for attention.
On the north side of town is Lake Storey Park. The park was constructed in 1929 so the locomotives would have soft water to run through them. Although it was originally named “Santa Fe,” the name later changed to Storey in honor of W.B. Storey, the president of the railway.
In October, the annual Knox County Scenic Drive will take you through the small towns of Knox County for a route of fall foliage, an 1832 log cabin, a covered bridge, and open-air markets with homemade treats on this self-guided tour.
4. Train Enthusiasts
Whether you arrive by train or not, train enthusiasts will enjoy visiting the centrally-located depot and museum. The Galesburg Railroad Museum was started by employees and railroad workers who thought to donate their railroad memorabilia to put it on display. You’ll find rare collections such as a historical Pullman car that was donated by the Burlington Northern Railroad. There’s also the oldest steam locomotive engine surviving today, a CBandQ Waycar 13501, and more.
After you visit the railroad museum, young kids will enjoy the Discovery Depot Children’s Museum across from the depot.
Pro Tip: Galesburg’s heritage and many ties to the railroad industry are celebrated each year with the Galesburg Railroad Days. The festival is held downtown and includes guided tours of the Galesburg Railroad Museum and railyard. The event also hosts the Train and Toy Show with 10 model railroad layouts and exhibits, plus hundreds of tables filled with related items.
Learn about the railroad history of the town, its Underground Railroad, and view more than 1,000 historic homes through town.
At Knox College, learn about the Galesburg Colony Underground Railroad Freedom Station with exhibits and documents about the Underground Railroad. Knox was also home to the Lincoln/Douglas Debate of 1858.
6. Local Shopping And Dining
Chicago may be known for its shopping and dining options (Chicago pizza and hot dogs, for sure), but Galesburg holds its own in quirky finger foods, and fine dining too.
Shopping local is easy as you walk the downtown area filled with quaint boutiques, artwork, handcrafted items, and antiques. On Seminary Street, you’ll find a plethora of antique shops including the Galesburg Antiques Mall, Attic Antique Shop, and The Junk Drawer, among others.
On one of my first visits to Galesburg, I had several hours to fill during a layover. It was a Sunday, and I checked my luggage in at the train station and headed across the street to The Packinghouse restaurant, housed in a 100-year-old packing plant. I was fortunate to arrive for their Sunday Brunch. It was like stepping back in time to Sunday dinner at Grandma’s house. Hot and hearty main dishes such as fried chicken and prime rib, loads of comfort foods such as macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and gravy, and cinnamon rolls, plus oodles of selections of luscious desserts. Maybe it was because a hot meal during a long train ride is always a treat, but it was one of the best buffet meals I’ve ever experienced.
For fine dining, this small town has two options on par with Chicago tastes: Landmark Cafe and Creperie, and Craft. At Landmark, be sure and try the Tuna Poke Bowl -- a delicious ahi tuna and onion is tossed with a togarashi spice blend and poke sauce and served with shredded carrot, roasted edamame, cucumber, radish, and greens, then topped with sesame-ginger vinaigrette and served over basmati rice.
7. Unique Events For All Sorts Of Enthusiasts
In addition to the Galesburg Railroad Days, you’ll find a variety of unique events in Galesburg. At the Stearman Fly-In, watch fly-overs, aerobatics, formation flying, and flour bombing, and take biplane rides and more. This year celebrates 50 years for the event and includes the opening of a new museum at the Tri-County Airport.
Heritage Days, “a pre-1840 early American colonial/frontier rendezvous,” hosts a fielded Civil War Battle encampment and re-enactment.
If you still want the glitz and glamour and find yourself with a layover in Chicago, here are nine things to do while you’re there.