One of the oldest European settlements in the state, Peoria occupies a pretty location on the Illinois River 170 mi/275 km southwest of Chicago. Begin your visit down by the water, at the Riverfront Visitors Center downtown. It's housed in the Powell Press Building, a pre-Civil War structure that was relocated to the riverside and refurbished. Another vintage building worth a visit is the Pettengill-Morron House, a Victorian mansion that dates to the late 1800s.

Peoria museums include the Wheels O' Time Museum (a collection of cars, clocks and model trains); the African-American Hall of Fame Museum (focusing on black culture); and the Lakeview Museum of Arts & Sciences (folk art, children's science center and a planetarium). Glen Oak Park is where you'll find the city's zoo and conservatory.

The Par-A-Dice Riverboat Casino is permanently docked on the Illinois River. Peoria also has a (nongambling) steam-powered paddle-wheel riverboat, The Spirit of Peoria. It offers short sightseeing cruises, but it also makes overnight excursions up the Illinois River to Starved Rock State Park. This beautiful state park is filled with sandstone rock formations and canyons that look as though they were lifted from Colorado or Utah. Its name comes from a local legend about a group of Potawatomi that trapped a band of Illiniwek atop the 125-ft/39-m mesa in the center of the park, eventually starving them to death. Today, the park is a great place to hike, boat and enjoy the beautiful scenery. The riverboat trips from Peoria (which usually depart on Monday and Tuesday May-October) include entrance to the park and accommodations at the 1930s-era Starved Rock Lodge or in restored cabins. Although the park is not traditionally a winter destination, you can spend a frigid day there photographing beautiful icefalls and snow-covered terrain.

Other day-trip options from Peoria include Dickson Mounds State Museum (about 40 mi/65 km southwest), which contains excavated homes of Native Americans, and Wildlife Prairie State Park (west of Peoria), where native animals such as bison and cougars live in a natural setting. (On our visit there, we were followed by wolves—an unnerving experience, even though they were on the other side of a fence.)

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