Located just an hour and a half from Chicago, Ottawa is is an all-American small city with a lot to delight travelers. The surrounding area, Starved Rock Country and the Heritage Corridor, is rich in stunning scenery and natural attractions to fit outdoor lovers, foodies, history lovers and those who enjoy discovering “hidden gems.”
Not to be confused with Ottawa in Canada, Ottawa, Illinois combines cozy and cool restaurants, fun outdoor adventure activities, vibrant arts and culture. We enjoyed time with local residents who introduced us to area golf, a surprising salt cave, hiking at state parks, canoeing on the Illinois River, zip lining and more. While our itinerary below is from warmer months, this is an area with year-round attractions, ranging from ice climbing to wine tasting. Consider timing your visit with Ottawa’s annual 2 Rivers Wine Fest, Oktoberfest or another special event.
Whether you choose to make a multi-day trip as part of a visit to Chicago or travel here to enjoy our itinerary below over several days, this Midwestern city and its surrounding offer lots to see and do.
Day 1- Heritage Harbor, Salt Tree Yoga and Cajun Cuisine
Enjoy the morning at Heritage Harbor, either boating, stand up paddle boarding, canoeing or just soaking in marina vibes by the Illinois River. Heritage Harbor rents boats, kayaks and canoes from their 32-acre marina.
Soak in the sun or shade during lunch by the water at Heritage Harbor at the Red Dog Grill, where tasty pretzels, burgers, steak salads and quesadillas can be consumed on the patio outside by the water or indoors.
Drive into Ottawa this afternoon to relax at Salt Tree Yoga. Make a reservation in advance to experience their spa amenities, including at Himalayan Salt Cave.
Dine tonight on Louisiana fare at Cajun Connection, where Ron McFarlain cooks up fabulous jambalaya, blackened alligator and more. Leave room for a homemade dessert. The pecan pie and keylime pie are really good.
Base yourself at Heritage Harbor for this trip, renting a cottage and enjoying life at the marina, where sunsets are stunning and can be enjoyed with a cool cocktail and cuisine at the onsite Red Dog Grill.
Day 2- Zip Lining, Golf, Pizza and Downtown Ottawa
Head over this morning about a half hour from Heritage Harbor to Zip Chicago. I’ve zip lined a lot previously, and found that even I was surprised by some of the lines, like the trust fall.
Not into heights? Choose to tee off at the Pine Hills Golf Club, which we also visited. This is a beautiful course that really showcases Starved Rock Country’s diversity. It’s owned by a family of entrepreneurs, Adrienne Pike Adelphia, along with her brother, father and mother, and each contribute something different to the business. The course itself was designed by a Scottish-American architect Thomas Bendelow and dates back to 1924. A naturalist, Bendelow is well known for designing Medinah, Olympia Fields and the Atlanta Athletic Club. The giant oak trees at Pine Hills are beautiful and this nine hole, 92 acre course can be a challenge for beginners and more experienced golfers.
Whatever you’ve done this morning, have lunch at Pine Hills, where the homemade pizza is really tasty.
This afternoon, head into downtown Ottawa and plan to spend some time walking around. Here are a few ideas:
- Go mural spotting! Murals throughout town depict everything from the day of the first Lincoln-Douglas senatorial debate to Ottawa’s earliest residents, the Native Americans, to the renowned Peltier Glass Factory, which provided glass to the Ford Motor Company in the early 20th century.
- Coffee House Visit: Coffee beans from Central and South America, Africa and Asia are roasted onsite at Jeremiah Joe. Housed in an old department store, it’s a gathering place for locals.
- Ottawa Bakery: Everything is baked onsite at the Ottawa Bakery, started by a local mom and baker who always wanted to have her own business. Opt for a sticky bun, and you will not be disappointed.
- The Cheese Shop: The Cheese Shop is owned by Marty Ruhland, who grew up in Ottawa and whose family has been in the dairy business for generations. In fact, The Cheese Shop is housed in an old factory run by Marty’s family from before World War II to the late 1980’s. Relics of the past line the walls and ceiling inside. If you have time, Marty will tell you a story or two, best served up with some Midwestern cheese or something more exotic.
- Stately Homes: Ottawa’s East Side neighborhood is nice for a short drive or bike ride. Historic homes represent architectural styles including Greek Revival, Italianate, Craftsman, and Revival-style houses from the early 20th century.
- Washington Square Park: Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Washington Square was the site of the first Lincoln-Douglas senatorial debate on August 21, 1858. Ottawa is known for its flowers and if it’s spring, this park will be very much in bloom.
- Beer Tasting: The Lone Buffalo and Tangled Roots Tap Room brews beer right onsite and has everything from double IPAs to Bavarian-style pretzels.
- B.A.S.H: Burgers and sushi? Yes, B.A.S.H. Burger and Sushi House has good food, but is also a hipper spot to visit during your time in Ottawa.
And yes, all of the above can be spread out during your time in Ottawa!
Day 3- Starved Rock State Park, Wine Tasting & American Cuisine
Get into nature at Starved Rock State Park with its cozy lodge, a National Historic Landmark. The lodge has a restaurant should you want to spend the day hiking, but also enjoy food onsite. There are a myriad of trails to explore, leading you to waterfalls, canyons and high views of the Illinois River. We hiked to St Louis Canyon, one of the most stunning canyons in the park. Consider including a Trolley Tour, which can be combined with hiking and other activities.
This afternoon, head to the August Hill Winery Tasting Room in Utica for wine tasting. Growing from just twelve vineyards in 1997 to over 100 today, Illinois wines are on the rise. Mark and Teri Wenzel, owners of August Hill Winery, have a sparkling wine brand, Illinois Sparkling Company, created using the same process that’s used for making Champagne in Champagne, France.
Dine tonight at Mark Allens American Kitchen in Peru, run by a husband and wife team. Mark is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and Ann is well known for her interactive art. You can get in on the fun and create art work while you dine here, whether its playing with logos or something more whimsical. The restaurant has a great vibe in general and their chocolate waffle with ice cream for dessert is amazing.
Day 4- Hiking, biking and hot glass
Take a short hike to get your morning started at Buffalo Rock State Park, where Native American history abounds and scenic trails wind alongside the Illinois River. You can also see this park’s sandstone cliffs from the water, picking up a boat from Heritage Harbor and motoring down to hang out at this popular spot.
Starved Rock’s influence is not just felt through the landscapes, it’s also seen in area arts. Entrepreneur and artist Laura Johnson of Starved Rock Hot Glass creates stunning works of hand blown glass, often hiking in Starved Rock State Park for inspiration. Her studio offers workshops to travelers, so you can take home a keepsake and work of art from your adventures.
Many area residents have strong connections to the Illinois River and Illinois & Michigan Canal, a 96-mile canal that was completed in 1848, linking the Great Lakes to the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. Take the time this afternoon to walk by the only I&M Canal toll house in existence, which offers a unique glimpse of what life was like in the 1800’s. Better yet, cycle along the I&M Canal tow path and downtown Ottawa. You can rent a bike from the Ottawa Bike Shop.
As usual, we pack a lot into our itineraries, so definitely use the above as a guide to pick and choose what to see and do on your trip. Enjoy your trip through the Midwest in Ottawa!