At the confluence of the Illinois and Fox rivers (about 90 minutes southwest of Chicago), Ottawa opens doors to compelling history and natural beauty.

By Gary Thompson
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Due to possible coronavirus-related travel restrictions, please check destinations' websites for the current status of attractions, events, restaurants and lodgings.

What to do

Ottawa is the northeast gateway for the Illinois River Road, a National Scenic Byway that follows the water for 150 miles southwest to Havana.

A spectacular lift-style railroad bridge crosses the river in Ottawa near the Old Town business district (Allen Park offers a great view).

Downtown, eight building exteriors wear large murals depicting local history, including Native Americans, the Lincoln-Douglas debate, Civil War soldiers, and the Illinois and Michigan Canal.

Ottawa Mural
Bob Stefko

Sandstone bluffs overlook the Illinois River, which make for a scenic paddle adjacent to Buffalo Rock State Park. 

Buffalo Rock State Park
Jason Lindsey

Just seven miles east of Buffalo Rock State Park, Starved Rock State Park and neighboring Matthiessen State Park draw visitors who want to explore sandstone canyons, gorges, creeks and seasonal waterfalls.

Back in Ottawa, stroll through Washington Square Park, where statues of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas recall their first senatorial debate, held at the park in 1858.

Washington Square Park
Jason Lindsey

Bike the route of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, an 1800s commercial waterway-turned-recreational corridor. A 15-mile stretch links Ottawa and LaSalle. The Bike Shop in Ottawa has rentals.

Across from Washington Square Park, the Reddick Mansion offers a glimpse of 1800s-style luxury living, including a sofa that Lincoln reportedly used.

Where to eat

The Cheese Shop ’n’ Deli offers more than 30 kinds of sandwiches, as well as scratch-made soups, fish baskets, pastas and desserts.

Tangled Roots Brewing Company
Kevin J. Miyazaki/Redux

Overlooking the marina at Heritage Harbor, The Red Dog Grill serves seafood, gourmet burgers and more.

Visit Tangled Roots Brewing Company for beers like the Devil’s Paint Box, an American IPA named after a colorful rock at nearby Matthiessen State Park.

Where to stay

Sleep in the bookish Lincoln Bedroom or the frilly Mary Todd Bedroom at River House Bed and Breakfast, an 1890 Queen Anne set high on a bluff overlooking the Illinois and Fox rivers.

River House Bed and Breakfast
Courtesy of River House Bed and Breakfast

At Fox River Bed and Breakfast, stay in the room where famed aviator Charles Lindbergh spent the night in 1926 (after his mail plane crashed on the property).

Rent a charming river-view guest cottage at Heritage Harbor Ottawa. The recently built units include kitchens and laundries and provide access to a pool, bar, restaurant and the marina.

Heritage Harbor Ottawa
Courtesy of Heritage Harbor Ottawa

For more information visit pickusottawail.com