Once home to Abraham Lincoln, Springfield played witness to Lincoln's rise from lawyer to politician to one of the most beloved and well-known Presidents in U.S. history. His roots are deeply planted and carefully cultivated in Springfield, making it an ideal trip back in time for families interested in all things “Land of Lincoln.” My suggestions for visiting Illinois' capital city will keep adults and kids busy from morning 'til night with excursions that are both exciting and educational.
1. Lincoln Home National Historic Site
A visit to Springfield wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the house where the Lincolns lived for 17 years. The stately Greek Revival house on the corner of 8th and Jackson Streets was purchased in 1844 by Abe and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, for $1,200. As their family grew, the the house was expanded to an impressive 12 rooms and two stories by 1855.
Beautifully restored to its 1860 appearance, to walk through the Lincoln Home National Historic Site is to touch the life of a legend. The home is filled with antiques original to the Lincoln family – a hatrack that held Lincoln’s famous stovepipe hat; small family room chairs that Lincoln would turn upside down and lean against since he was too tall to sit in them, Mary’s prized kitchen stove; and even the Lincoln boys’ stereoscope (think old-timey 80s Viewfinder) that allowed them to see 3D images; and the original banister, which the tour guides like to say is the closest we’ll get to shaking Lincoln’s hand.
Thirteen other homes within a four-block radius have also been restored to their 19th century appearance by the National Park Service, and small exhibits can be viewed inside many of them.
Though tours of the Lincoln home are free (Robert Lincoln, the Lincoln’s eldest son, made that a stipulation when donating the home to the state of Illinois), tickets are required. Pick them up at the nearby Visitor’s Center, but be sure to get there early. Once all the tours are filled for the day, that’s it.
Bonus: Put the kids to work earning their Junior Ranger badges. This special, self-guided privilege takes kids on an in-depth exploration of the Lincoln neighborhood. Through a series of scavenger hunts, mazes, essay prompts and more, kids learn about the underground railroad, native plants and Lincoln-centric history.
My kids had the opportunity to be “sworn in” on site by a park ranger and were proud to wear their badges for the rest of our visit.
Extra Bonus: Keep an eye out for Abraham Lincoln! The sixteenth president can often be spotted strolling throughout the streets of his hometown. My two couldn’t believe their luck when they came across him in his own backyard.
2. Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum
The state-of-the-art Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum houses an absolutely amazing curation of well-preserved artifacts (an original hand-written copy of the Gettysburg Address, the evening gloves in President Lincoln's pocket the night he was assassinated, the quill pen used to sign the Emancipation Proclamation); interactive displays (walk-through replicas of Lincoln’s childhood log cabin plus the store where he worked as a shopkeeper); and hi-tech exhibits (a complete waxwork of the entire Lincoln family and even a reproduction of a 1861-era White House). For close to five hours, my whole family was mesmerized and immersed in the Lincolnian world of gas lamps, hoop skirts, pen-and-ink speechwriting and slave auctions. Carefully designed to include every possible historical detail related to the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln, the campus acts as a virtual time capsule that will hold even the youngest child’s imagination captive.
The museum’s two holographic, multimedia theatrical productions should not be missed. They offer audiences dramatic action, ghostly adventure, and magical special effects. The first, “Lincoln’s Eyes,” gives a broad overview of Lincoln's life, focusing on the personal and political dramas and key issues of Lincoln's presidency, making it a good idea to see it first. The second, “Ghosts of the Library,” captures the mystery and exciting sense of discovery that comes with historic exploration.
In Mrs. Lincoln's Attic, children can play with turn-of-the-century toys, a model of the Lincoln Home-turned-dollhouse, try on period clothing, perform chores from the 1800s and even pose with life-size models of Abraham Lincoln as a boy and an adult, as well as with Mary Todd and the Lincoln children.
Tip: Bring quarters. The museum does not allow backpacks (our communal bag is a staple whenever we travel as a family), but it does offer pay-per-use lockers at a minimal fee for visitors.
3. Lincoln: From History to Hollywood
Housed in the historic Union Station just across the street from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, the small but unique Lincoln: From History to Hollywood exhibit brings together video presentations; key sets (Lincoln’s office, a vignette of Mary Todd Lincoln’s bedroom); costumes (period clothing worn by Daniel Day-Lewis, gowns and baubles worn by Sally Field); and a whole suite of props (Tad Lincoln’s tin soldiers, books, photographs and letters) from Steven Spielberg’s award-winning film, “Lincoln.” All of the items currently on display are on loan from Spielberg, in partnership with DreamWorks Studios.
4. Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site
A reconstruction of the pastoral village where Abraham Lincoln lived from 1831 to 1837, Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site is located about 20 miles northwest of Springfield. The half-hour drive through scenic countryside is a nice change from the urban sprawl of Springfield. With costumed “villagers” and farm animals dotting the acreage, the trip makes for a great way to spend a leisurely afternoon in the woods.
Head to the Visitor’s Center first to take in the well-curated exhibits that include Lincoln’s surveying instruments from his stint as a cartographer and surveyor; the 1821-Conestoga wagon built by Emanuel Custer (George Custer’s father); old photographs of the families who once populated the area; a model replica of the flatboat Lincoln sailed down the Mississippi; and a nine-foot bronze sculpture by Avard Fairbanks portraying a young Lincoln in the symbolic act of discarding his axe and taking up his law books. (Lincoln first started studying law while living in New Salem.) You can skip the short film about the six years Lincoln lived in the village.
Tip: Stop for a bathroom break in the Visitor's Center, put on plenty of insect repellent and fill up your water bottles before heading out to explore the village. There is another small block of restrooms on the far end of the village near the gift shop, but they’re a bit more rustic than those found in the Visitor’s Center.
Bonus Tip: Have lunch at the on-site cafe. The sandwiches and wraps are hearty and decently priced, but you’ll want to make sure you save room for the homemade cookie-batter brownies. Because priorities.
5. Lincoln Tomb
Local folklore says that rubbing Lincoln’s nose at Lincoln Tomb will bring you good luck, making it a fitting way to bring this trip to a close. A bronze bust of the president’s head is housed in Oak Ridge Cemetery (the largest in Illinois and the second-most visited cemetery in the United States after Arlington National Cemetery). Its shiny gold nose is proof positive that many a Springfield visitor has given it a good buffing over the years.
This is the final resting place for Abraham Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln, and three of their four children – Edward, William and Thomas (their oldest son Robert is buried at Arlington National Cemetery). The family is entombed in a 117-foot-tall monument made entirely of marble. Following a brief orientation given by an on-site guide in the rotunda, guests are asked to walk quietly down the winding corridors that lead to the impressive burial chamber. Along the way, be sure to stop and look at the many replica small-scale statues of Lincoln that can be found in other cities throughout the United States.
Once outside, see if you can find a plain grave marker on a gently sloping hill that notes where Lincoln was first buried while the mausoleum was being completed.
Honorable Mention: The Springfield Horseshoe
Walking around Springfield from sun up to sun down builds up a serious appetite. Stop into historic local restaurant, Obed & Isaac’s Microbrewery & Eatery, and order up a traditional Springfield Horseshoe made of Texas Toast and two char-grilled ground sirloin patties smothered in cheese sauce and French fries. Opt for the Ponyshoe (half a Horseshoe) for kids.
Created in the 1920s, the original Horseshoe – two thick-cut slices of toasted bread, a generous slice of ham (horseshoe shape), and rich Welsh rarebit cheese sauce all topped with fresh-made fries (horseshoe nails) – was served on a crazy hot metal plate (anvil).
Head back to Obed & Isaac’s on the weekend for brunch. It’s the only time they serve a Breakfast Shoe (buttermilk waffles piled high with fluffy eggs, savory sausage, crisp breakfast potatoes and rich maple syrup, sausage gravy or cheese sauce). It’s truly the stuff of dreams.
Have you ever explored Springfield, Illinois? Got any tips or questions? Let us know in the comments below!
A Note from The Nerdtastic Travel Mama: Many thanks to the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau for furnishing tickets to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum; and to the Hilton Springfield for providing a discounted rate for purposes of this post. As always, opinions and experiences are my own.