The scenery alone could sell it. Fall in Galena inevitably means balmy Indian summer days and winding drives that crest small hills and open up into a Grant Wood-like panorama of small farms nestled in green valleys, golden seas of cornfields and dairy cows dotting the hillsides. A turreted clock tower watches over the town’s white church steeples and Federal-style buildings along the Galena River. Got a camera?
For generations, travelers have come to this town of 3,500 simply to admire the fall foliage and browse charming shops. But Galena is so much more than leaves and Main Street shopping. Tiny businesses selling handmade furniture, organic blueberries and cool home decor tuck into the hills around town. Hikes explore sacred Native American spaces, river cruises ply storied waters, and new (and newly renovated) restaurants help redefine an autumn weekend in Galena.
Click ahead to read 7 reasons we love Galena. A detailed trip guide is on slides 9, 10 and 11.
The best-kept among them: the 90-minute Mississippi Explorer River Cruises run by Chestnut Mountain Resort. Glide along 2-mile-wide stretches of the river in a 45-passenger pontoon boat while naturalists point out eagles’ nests and turkey vultures and reveal how those man-made islands came about. Views of the forested bluffs, alight with fall color, are simply the most breathtaking in a region with many spots vying for that title.
Hardy hikers trek up Casper Bluff, once home to war chief Blackhawk, for commanding views of the Mississippi River. A self-guided tour of the 85-acre plot of land reveals numerous burial mounds, a 1,000-year-old Thunderbird effigy mound and migrating birds, making it an ideal early-morning spot for history lovers and nature fans alike. And just 10 minutes east of town, you can pick your own blueberries at the Wooded Wonderland Country Store and Sawmill. Located at the end of a gravel road off of US-20, this 40-year-old blueberry farm (organic long before the word became cool) also sells handmade furniture.
An inviting deck at Chestnut Mountain Resort offers 1,400 square feet of alfresco dining with a sprawling view of the Mississippi River Valley (and the food impresses, too!). New scooter tours run by Fever River Outfitters let wine lovers get the wind in their hair as they head 12 miles east to Galena Cellars Vineyard for tastings and tours (a shuttle brings you back to town, so you don’t have to drive).
If you’d prefer to stay in your car for a pretty self-guided tour, pick up the 40-mile Stagecoach Trail at the north end of Main Street and follow it through rolling farmland until it intersects with US-20 and loops back to town.
For cool river-level pictures of the Mississippi, follow State-84 to Mississippi Palisades State Park. When you arrive, the road runs along the riverbank. Head farther into the park to find bluff-top lookout points that breed Lewis and Clark-like moments of discovery.
For many, the lure of Galena is all about the boutiques lining historic Main Street. In addition to a handful of antiques stores, you’ll find a varied selection of clothing and gift boutiques, art galleries, gourmet food shops, toy stores and an excellent used book shop. AJ’s Copper Garden sells handmade metal art (automotive paint keeps them from fading). Galena Garlic Company, with a seemingly endless variety of infused olive oils, offers tastings and more than 160 rubs and seasonings. A world market of clothing, jewelry, housewares and other items made in developing countries fills Earth’s Treasures. Upcycled goods become fun and funky affordable accessories (like a recycled Coke can bag for $12.98) at Beyond the Horizon.
Longtime favorite Fried Green Tomatoes, tucked into a building once owned by President Grant’s father, still serves as a reliable date-night stop, with mostly Italian dishes and its signature pan-fried appetizer. In a Parisian-style bistro, Fritz and Frites dishes French and German flavors, including homemade liverwurst, sauerkraut and a tender Hungarian goulash, as well as roasted chicken and mussels in a cream-Champagne sauce. Charming Otto’s Place serves breakfast all day in a building dating to the 1800s. Try the cheddar, broccoli or bacon omelet or baba ghanoush (eggplant spread) with hummus and tabouli. The Great-American Popcorn Company, the American Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor and the Galena Kandy Kitchen all are great stops for snacks, too.
Main Street is a marvel of preserved and restored architecture, and touring the Galena and Ulysses S. Grant Museum east of the river is a must-do for history fans. Save time for tours of the Old Market House, once Galena’s center of commerce, and the Washburne House, built in 1843 by a U.S. congressman who advised President Lincoln and served as ambassador to France. Downtown, the small museum-gift shop Gateway to History sells locally made, history-inspired souvenirs.
Tastings and tours at Galena Cellars Vineyard draw folks out of downtown. But in town, you can break up your time shopping with visits to Massbach Ridge Winery and Tasting Room, Galena River Wine and Cheese, and Jamie’s Wine Studio of Galena, all located on Main Street.
Eagle Ridge Resort and Spa continues to offer high-end hotel rooms, villas and vacation homes on a picturesque property outside of town. Guests can enjoy golf, a spa, restaurants and activities. The spacious rooms at the Irish Cottage Boutique Hotel don’t feel particularly Irish, but the on-site pub is warm and inviting. Yet-to-be-renovated rooms at Chestnut Mountain Resort offer a great place to stay for travelers on a budget. The plush two-bedroom vacation rental property The Cottage on Lake Galena has a full kitchen and a year-round outdoor hot tub looking out over yet another amazing view.
AJ’s Copper Garden A display of copper flowers and dragonflies awaits shoppers at this unusual art gallery. (815) 777-4000; ajscoppergarden.com 
Beyond the Horizon Find Celtic jewelry and Kenyan soapstone artwork. (815) 777-0190; shopbeyondthehorizon.com 
Casper Bluffs See burial mounds and an 1,000-year-old effigy on a self-guided tour. (815) 858-9100; jdcf.org 
Earth’s Treasures Handmade jewelry, artistic clothing, and rocks and minerals line the walls. (815) 777-9005
Fever River Outfitters Tour Galena on water or on wheels with kayak, bike and motor scooter rentals. (815) 776-9425; feverriveroutfitters.com 
The Galena and U.S. Grant Museum Visitors learn about Galena’s history and President Grant’s years here. Admission charged. (815) 777-9129; galenahistorymuseum.org 
Galena Cellars Vineyard and Winery Visit the vineyard for tastings and tours, then catch the shuttle back to town. (800) 397-9463; galenacellars.com 
Galena Garlic Company Savory scents draw customers into this olive oil shop. (815) 777-9625; galenagarlic.com 
Galena River Wine and Cheese Find a wide array of wines, cheeses, foods and beers. (815) 777-9430; galenawinecheese.com 
Jamie’s Wine Studio of Galena Jamie hand selects every bottle and creates customizable gifts. (815) 777-0207; jamieswinestudio.com 
Massbach Ridge Winery and Tasting Room Try five wines for $3 at the winery’s two locations. Ask for a tour. (815) 291-6700; massbachridge.com 
Mississippi Explorer River Cruises Tour guides detail the history of the river, its wildlife and geology. Admission charged. (815) 777-1320; chestnutmtn.com 
Mississippi Palisades State Park This multiuse park caters to picnickers, campers and extreme hikers. (815) 273-2731; dnr.illinois.gov 
Old Market House The historic former city market showcases changing local-history exhibits. Donations suggested. (815) 777-3310; illinoishistory.gov 
Ulysses S. Grant Home History buffs will marvel at the home of the president and Civil War hero. Donations suggested. (815) 777-3310; illinoishistory.gov 
Washburne House Learn about Elihu Washburne, a congressman and political adviser to Lincoln, at this historic home. Seasonal. (815) 777-3310; illinoishistory.gov 
Wooded Wonderland Country Store and Sawmill Pick your own blueberries, and browse handmade furniture and antiques at this organic farm. (815) 777-1223; woodedwonderland.com 
American Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor Keep an eye out for the black-and-white awning to find the old-fashioned specialty dessert shop. (815) 777-3121
Fried Green Tomatoes Dine on unconventional Italian dishes like a smoked Gouda-Gorgonzola mac and cheese with sausage. (815) 777-3938; friedgreen.com 
Fritz and Frites A quaint European cafe serves a full menu of both French favorites and traditional German dishes. (815) 777-2004; fritzandfrites.com 
Galena Kandy Kitchen Find wood barrels filled with saltwater taffy and handmade chocolates at this legacy candy shop. (815) 777-0241; oneelevenmain.com/kandy-kitchen.asp 
The Great American Popcorn Company Flavors include Freakin’ Hot, Louisiana BBQ, Kitchen Sink and Cinnamon Toast. (877) 777-5676; greatpopcorn.com 
Otto’s Place Away from the hustle of downtown, Otto’s has a small menu highlighting fresh ingredients. Locals rave about the biscuits and gravy. (815) 776-0240; ottosplace.com 
Chestnut Mountain Resort Warm-weather activities include an alpine slide (a sled that goes down 2,050 feet of track) and river cruises. From $79. (815) 777-1320; chestnutmtn.com 
The Cottage on Lake Galena Custom-built log cabins combine cottage coziness with modern amenities. From $290. (608) 723-7099; scenichideaways.com 
Eagle Ridge Resort and Spa This resort is a community of its own with more than 200 villas and 80 inn rooms, year-round activities and on-site restaurant. From $199. (800) 892-2269; eagleridge.com 
The Irish Cottage Boutique Hotel A classic Irish-style pub stars. Spacious rooms and an on-site spa add to the experience. From $109. (866) 284-7474; theirishcottageboutiquehotel.com 
For information: Galena/Jo Daviess County Convention and Visitors Bureau (877) 464-2536; galena.org 
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® September/October 2012.)