Fleeing persecution in Missouri, Joseph Smith and his followers, known as Latter-day Saints, arrived in southwest Illinois in 1839. Smith named the town Nauvoo, hoping it would live up to its Hebrew meaning of a "beautiful place" to rest. More than 10,000 Mormons called Nauvoo home until 1844, when persecution arose again, spurring their migration to Utah. Today's living-history sites bring the Mormon era to vivid life.

By By: Megy Karydes
July 17, 2017
Nauvoo Temple, Nauvoo. Photo: Jason Lindsey
Nauvoo Temple, Nauvoo. Photo: Jason Lindsey

A day in this town of 1,200 people along the Mississippi River provides a glimpse into the roots of a homegrown American belief system. Key events in the early days of Mormonism, a religion now counting about 15 million followers worldwide, played out in this frontier village. At the visitors center, travelers browse through historic artifacts and displays, including a relief map of Nauvoo in 1846. Guides driving horse-drawn wagons take visitors on free 30-minute tours past more than 30 historic sites downtown.

Horse-drawn wagon tours. Photo: Alex Alexander/Courtesy IOT
Horse-drawn wagon tours. Photo: Alex Alexander/Courtesy IOT

At the Joseph Smith Historic Site, a guided walking tour begins with a short film and continues through the Joseph Smith Homestead and Mansion house. The Red Brick Store, once the epicenter of community life, still operates as a general store selling old-fashioned games and other goods representative of items found on the same shelves in 1842–44. The tour passes the Smith Family Cemetery and Nauvoo House, a boarding house now available as a rental.

Amid downtown's restored shops, homes and public buildings from the 1840s, look for monuments honoring Smith and other figures. At the Webb Brothers' Blacksmith Shop, watch demos and leave with a hand-forged iron ring hammered from a horseshoe nail.

The Nauvoo Family Living Center offers kids hands-on experiences from the 19th century as they learn to make rope and candles, watch tour guides weave rugs from rags, and taste bread from a brick oven.

The luminous Mormon Nauvoo Temple towers on a bluff overlooking a bend in the Mississippi River. Built in 2002 as a replica of the 1840s original destroyed by arson, the temple is open only to Latter-day Saints, but the public can tour the grounds.

Nauvoo Temple, Nauvoo. Photo: Jason Lindsey
Nauvoo Temple, Nauvoo. Photo: Jason Lindsey

Lodgings and Restaurants

Aromas from decadent cinnamon rolls waft though the eight upstairs rooms at Hotel Nauvoo, tempting guests from their four-poster beds to join the breakfast buffet.

Across the street, Grandpa John's Nauvoo Cafe and Soda Fountain serves home-style breakfast and lunch.

Enjoy a glass of wine amidst 145-year-old trees and take in the vineyards surrounding the historic Nauvoo Grand Bed and Breakfast. Baxter's Vineyards and Winery, Illinois' oldest winery, offers free tastings and self-guided tours daily.

Free horse-drawn wagon tours take visitors past historic sites, including the Nauvoo Post Office.

Nauvoo Post Office, Nauvoo. Photo: Alex Alexander/Courtesy IOT
Nauvoo Post Office, Nauvoo. Photo: Alex Alexander/Courtesy IOT

4 More Stops Along the Great River Road

Galena More than 130 specialty shops line Main Street of the 1826 town. Be sure to take time to hike, paddle the Galena River and sip local wines.

Moline Test ag skills in a construction simulator at the John Deere Pavilion, then hop aboard a Celebration Belle riverboat.

Quincy Washington Park-site of a Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858-hosts a spring Dogwood Festival and summer Blues in the District.

Elsah The town of 673 residents feels like a step into the 19th century, with stone cottagesand Greek Revival buildings housing quaint shops.