American history unfolds in all its retro-kitsch glory on this journey that starts in Chicago and runs southwest through the state to St. Louis and on to California. Unplug from the modern everyday on a nostalgic, friendlier-than-a-front-porch journey along the Illinois stretch of Route 66.
Outdoor murals in Pontiac.
Outdoor murals in Pontiac
| Credit: Bob Stefko

At a little park in Joliet, Illinois, you'll find a selection of delights: a roadside path lined with honeysuckle; stands of red birches and white oaks casting shade; the Blues Brothers dancing on the roof of an ice cream parlor …

Well, about that. The park sits along Route 66, aka the Mother Road, born in the 1920s and ever since a neon-lit showcase of unique restaurants, quirky motor inns and kitsch. Like most National Scenic Byways, Route 66 today carries travelers more interested in the going than the getting there. The route symbolically begins at Chicago's Buckingham Fountain and continues for 300 miles southwest through Illinois (or about 435 miles if you take all the original side roads). It crosses the Mississippi River outside St. Louis and heads west to Santa Monica, California. Much of the Illinois section runs a few yards from Interstate-55. But in towns along the way, the road feels more like the two-lane sojourn that lives in memory—American and otherwise.

"We get people from all over the United States and overseas too—Britain, Australia, New Zealand," Bill Gulas says through the walk-up window of the Blues Brothers-topped ice cream shop Rich and Creamy on Broadway in Joliet. "One guy found a Route 66 sign, and he was having everybody sign it." (Why the dancing Blues Brothers? In the film, Jake served time in the Joliet Correctional Center.)

A big part of the Route 66 fun is the tribe you join en route. Because most people travel at about the same pace, you may run into the same folks over the course of several days—at restaurants, museums and motor inns—and end up swapping tips about must-see statues and diners and sharing stories about your experiences. One stop most drivers buzz about is Pontiac, where vintage-advertising-style murals burst with colorful images of old-time firefighters, trompe l'oeil antique storefronts (including a vintage service station), historical figures, even an irreverent soda-ad homage to Manet.

Illinois' stretch of Route 66 ends where the Chain of Rocks Bridge (with its famous 22-degree bend in the middle) crosses the Mississippi River outside St. Louis. Downriver, the Gateway Arch stands, an iconic monument to America's journey west, marking an iconic route that will still carry you all the way into the past.

Day 1

The journey begins with breakfast at Lou Mitchell's in downtown Chicago or lunch at Dell Rhea's Chicken Basket in Willowbrook. Stop at the Joliet Area Historical Museum's Route 66 Welcome Center to plan your trip and get the scoop on the route's Muffler Men. See if there's a show or tour at the refurbished 1926 Rialto Square Theatre, a mix of Greek, Roman and Byzantine architecture. Restored 1930s service stations remain at Ambler's Texaco Gas Station in Dwight and at Odell's Standard Oil Gas Station.

Route 66 in Illinois
Odell's Standard Gas Station
| Credit: Bob Stefko

Look for other roadside finds, such as a Dwight storefront with vintage Shell pumps. Comfort foods like pork chop sandwiches await in Pontiac at the fave Old Log Cabin.

Gas pumps, motel signs, photos and maps pack Pontiac's Route 66 Association Hall of Fame and Museum in an old fire station. At Livingston County War Museum, weaponry and war stories pay tribute to veterans.

Day 2

An often-changing lineup reveals cars like rare Oakland autos and Firebirds at Pontiac-Oakland Museum and Resource Center.

Route 66
| Credit: Bob Stefko

Pontiac's 23 outdoor murals showcase the local cultural scene, and three swinging bridges cross the Vermilion River to connect with parks.

Outdoor self-guided tours of Atlanta's 1904 J.H. Hawes Grain Elevator and Museum raise interest in agriculture.

The decor at Springfield's Route 66 Hotel and Conference Center includes gas pumps and motorcycles.

Day 3

The Million Dollar Courthouse in Carlinville proves interesting for its tales of corruption, as well as its architecture.

Ask to see the guest books of Route 66 travelers and sample the fried chicken at The Ariston Cafe, open on Route 66 in Litchfield since 1935.

In Livingston, a 1940s schoolhouse contains The Pink Elephant Antique Mall, where you'll find vintage clothing and furniture.

Thick pork chops or a cheesy Horseshoe Sandwich satisfy diners at Weezy's Route 66 Bar and Grill in Hamel.

World's Largest Catsup Bottle
Credit: Courtesy of Illinois Office of Tourism

In Collinsville, check out The World's Largest Catsup Bottle (actually a 170-foot-tall water tower).