“Family Travel” writer Amy Aquino lives in Chicago with her husband and three children. She loves taking family road trips to both new and familiar destinations.
Walking in Abraham Lincoln’s footsteps in Springfield, IL, had been on our family travel bucket list since our three kids were little. Time was ticking, so we hopped in the car for the three-hour drive from Chicago. We looked forward to soaking up the rich history of the many sites honoring our 16th President – the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Lincoln Home topped our list. We were surprised to discover that Springfield has so much else to offer.
One of the nicest surprises – and a boon for families with limited data plans – is the free Wi-Fi provided by the city. The “SpringfieldFreeWifi” service covers a 28-block portion of the downtown area and works best outdoors.
Our home base was the freshly renovated Crowne Plaza Springfield, just a few minutes outside the city. Our rooms were spotless and generously sized for a family of five. They included everything we needed for a relaxing stay: comfortable beds and seating areas, free Wi-Fi, and several charging outlets for all our devices. Our teens and tween enjoyed having their own adjoining room (and flat screen TV), while my husband and I appreciated unwinding in the peace and quiet of our suite. We were amazed that even though the kids’ TV was on the other side of our sleeping wall, we never heard it. My favorite part was the luxurious bathroom with a rainfall shower that made me feel like I was in a spa. And I loved the little extra touches: the packets of Temple Spa products and the chocolates shaped like Abe Lincoln heads with shiny new pennies on everyone’s pillow.
Although we didn’t have time to experience all of the Crowne Plaza’s amenities, such as the pool, sundeck or fitness center, we looked forward to coming back to our rooms each night to recharge before a full day of family fun in Springfield.
Pasta is a family favorite, so we visited Mangia Pasta Steak Seafood on our first night in Springfield. Located in the historic district and opposite the Old State Capitol, the atmosphere was as memorable as the food. As soon as we sat down we met a Lincoln portrayer at the next table who politely posed for photos with our kids. We later learned that the building is the site of the former (non-alcohol serving) saloon where Lincoln celebrated after learning he had won the presidency in 1860. “You are eating where President Lincoln ate. He celebrated and ate here,” the building’s owner, Claudio Pecori, said as he shared the history of the renovated building from his seat at the cozy and inviting bar. The Italian-American heritage of the restaurant’s owner, Shane Viele, was celebrated with vintage sheet music and prints of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Marlon Brando and others who shared wall space with Marilyn Monroe, giving the place a romantic, old Hollywood vibe.
We came to Mangia with hearty appetites and found perfect comfort food after a long travel day. The fried calamari appetizer was crispy and tender. Our kids loved their traditional Italian dishes. My husband thoroughly enjoyed his sausage and pasta, and I savored every bite of my halibut special served on a bed of Kumato tomatoes with truffle oil. For dessert, we went with our server’s recommendation of the cannoli trio of Mangia, butterscotch and traditional cannolis, and wished we had ordered extra to take back to Chicago. The friendly service, great food and charming decorations made Mangia perfect for our family dinner, but I would have been equally happy there on a date night with my husband. Next time!
We had a jam-packed schedule for our first full day in Springfield and started out with a stop at the Cozy Dog Drive In, a Route 66 destination famous for its hot dog on a stick. The original owners are said to have been the first to serve corn dogs on a stick. We had fun checking out the Route 66 memorabilia on the walls and in the gift shop. The hot dogs, grilled cheese and fries – which we couldn’t get enough of and had to re-order twice –sustained for a full afternoon of sightseeing.
Although we were eager to tour as many of the Lincoln sites as possible, we also wanted to sample some of Springfield’s other cultural venues. The Springfield and Central Illinois African American History Museum caught our eye. This small, carefully curated museum is located near Lincoln’s Tomb and celebrates local artists, past and present. One portion which stood out to our family was the New Philadelphia exhibit, which told the story of the first town founded by an African American. The town declined after a railroad cut through it in 1859, and shards of pottery and glass are all that remain. We were all mesmerized by the works of Preston Jackson and artist in residence Olu~jimi Adeniyi. We could not take photos of the artwork, but the rich, vibrant colors still dance in my mind. This museum should be on the itinerary of any art lover who visits the Springfield area.
Located in the Oak Ridge Cemetery, the Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site is beautiful and majestic. While the inside of the tomb is somber, touring the marble-lined passages leading to the vaults of the 16th President and his immediate family members would be fine for children of all ages. We didn’t understand why everyone was touching the gold nose on the Lincoln head sculpture in front of the tomb. Apparently, superstition has it that rubbing the gold nose brings good luck, making it the one untarnished spot of the sculpture.
We had a little time to kill before our next stop and wandered around a few of the downtown shops and cafes. My music-loving husband found Recycled Records, and we got lost looking through thousands of records, VHS tapes, CDs, DVDs and cassettes. Your kids have never seen this much vinyl in one place.
The 40,000-square-foot Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum was the highlight of our trip. I wish we had three additional afternoons to walk through the exhibits again. This was the most interactive, educational museum we’ve visited as a family. Even without the compelling facts of Lincoln’s life and death, the creativity and innovation of the exhibits would have kept everyone’s attention. The museum is set up with two distinct journeys: the first journey takes attendees through Lincoln’s early life, law career, family life and run for the presidency, while the second journey focuses on his time in the White House, the Civil War, signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and his assassination.
There is too much to cover this space, but here are a few of our favorite exhibits:
Mrs. Lincoln’s Attic: The hands-on activities hosted by site interpreters in this exhibit give the youngest children a glimpse of life during Lincoln’s time. Nineteenth-century toys, a replica of Lincoln’s log cabin, play food and cookware, and child-sized outfits keep younger children occupied while mom and dad take a breath.
Election 1860: Hosted by the late newscaster Tim Russert, this exhibit imagines what Lincoln’s presidential campaign would look like if it took place today. Multiple TV screens blast campaign news coverage and commercials for all four presidential candidates based on their actual platforms. Our family got a big kick out of this exhibit while learning about 19th century politics.
Ask Mr. Lincoln: Ask President Lincoln about his policies, views on marriage, even about his appearance. Visitors choose pre-selected questions from a list of topics, and the answers – taken directly from Lincoln’s writings or speeches – appear on a giant screen.
Ghosts of the Library: The special effects of this exhibit are captivating. As a live actor on a library stage talks about the importance of historical documents, ghosts of Lincoln, Mary Lincoln and Civil War soldiers materialize out of thin air through the magic of Holovision and interact with him. We could have watched this performance over and over. Keep tissues handy for the ending.
Emancipation Proclamation Illusion Corridor: More special effects illustrate the conflicting advice President Lincoln received from all sides as he considered signing the Emancipation Proclamation. Shadowy figures argue with each other and shout at Lincoln, and many of the words are tough to hear. This exhibit leads to the actual document in another gallery.
Our family thoroughly enjoyed our time in this museum. I highly recommend it for families with kids of all ages.
We were a little wiped out by the time we got to Obed & Isaac’s Microbrewery and Eatery for dinner, but the upbeat atmosphere of this English-style pub restaurant revived us immediately. Families played bocce and bags and sat at picnic tables in the outdoor bocce garden. It was a little cold for us to sit outside that night so we moved inside the restaurant. The restaurant is actually built out of a 150-year-old house, and its history is tied to the Lincoln family. It was the perfect spot to end our hospitality in Springfield.
Our server was friendly and attentive despite the large crowd that night. He guided my husband and son to the horseshoe, which is Obed & Isaac’s much bigger version of a local delicacy called the pony shoe. They both loved the sirloin, bread and seasoned fries smothered in a secret cheese sauce, while the girls feasted on giant harvest salads with grilled chicken, goat cheese and candied pecans. The Bavarian pretzel rolls and parmesan artichoke dip appetizers disappeared about five minutes after our server put them down.
Beer enthusiasts will linger over the microbrewery’s sampler flight of its homemade brews. I’m not a beer drinker, but the flavors sounded intriguing, especially the ditzy blonde and the silly pants stout. The manager took the time to explain their brewing process and the fact that the restaurant is always trying out new flavors, in addition to offering seasonal and special brews.
Our final stop before leaving Springfield was the Lincoln Home National Site, where Lincoln lived with his young family while working as a lawyer. Tours are free, but be prepared to wait about 30 minutes for your ticketed time. It was incredible to walk through Lincoln’s bedroom (two master bedrooms for him and Mrs. Lincoln) and see the living room rug where he stretched out every night in front of the fire after a long day at his law office. This was a quick but informative tour and best for older children who can resist the temptation to touch the delicate furnishings.
We’re glad we made it to Springfield before our oldest child leaves for college in the fall, and we will definitely be back to explore.