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Illinois in Bloom

It’s time to experience Illinois in bloom.

From the skyscrapers in Chicago to the Mississippi River towns of the Quad Cities and the Abraham Lincoln sites in Springfield, Illinois has its share of high-profile attractions. But many people don’t realize that the Prairie State also has more than its share of gorgeous gardens.

This itinerary starts in Chicago, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Midwest, then makes a counterclockwise loop around to Rockford, the Quad Cities, Peoria and Springfield. From there, it’s an easy three-hour drive back to Chicago, or groups can continue south to other places.

You should plan at least five days and four nights for this Illinois gardens itinerary. Adding some extra time at destinations along the way will give your travelers more time to experience big-city attractions, Lincoln historic sites and other hallmarks of Illinois.

Chicago’s Urban Gardens

For a distinctive experience in the Windy City, consider looking below the skyline to discover some of the great gardens on ground level. There are enough notable gardens around the city that Choose Chicago has created a whole itinerary for tour groups that showcases its botanical beauty.

Many groups start in Lincoln Park, one of the city’s most notable green spaces, with a visit to the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool. Another important stop in the same area is the Lincoln Park Conservatory. This indoor garden features tropical palms, ancient palms, colorful orchids and plenty of other exotic plants. The conservatory hosts a flower show each year from late January through May.

Further afield of downtown, groups can enjoy the Osaka Garden, a Japanese garden in the Jackson Park neighborhood. There’s also the Chicago Botanic Garden, a 385-acre lakeside site with 26 gardens and nine islands.

While you’re there: No group should spend time in Chicago without visiting one of the three institutions at the Museum Campus. This 57-acre park sits on the Lake Michigan waterfront and surrounds the Adler Planetarium, the Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum, all world-class facilities full of fascinating exhibits and experiences for visitors.

A Japanese Sanctuary in Rockford

About 90 miles west of Chicago, Rockford has its own claim to fame in the gardening world. It’s home to the Anderson Japanese Garden, one of the finest Japanese gardens in North America.

The 12-acre garden is built in “pond-strolling” style, which means visitors walk alongside koi ponds, gentle streams and cascading waterfalls to see traditional gravel gardens as well as beautiful Japanese trees, shrubs, bushes and flowers. Groups can get private docent-led tours.

Another popular garden attraction in the area is Nicholas Conservatory and Gardens, which sits alongside a walking path on the banks of the Rock River. The outdoor gardens include colorful flowerbeds, a floral clock and an accredited rose garden. And the indoor conservatory features an 11,000-square-foot exhibit area with water features, sculptures and tropical plants. The conservatory features a spring butterfly exhibit and an orchid exhibit with varieties of this exotic flower from around the world.

While you’re there: The Tinker Swiss Cottage and Gardens preserves the 1865 home of Robert Tinker, who fell in love with Swiss architecture during his travels in Europe and wanted to build a Swiss-style cottage for himself in Rockford. The property also features a three-story Swiss barn and 27 acres of gardens..

Chocolate in the Gardens in Quad Cities

Continuing west and south from Rockford for about 120 miles, groups will arrive in Quad Cities, a destination comprising four cities on the banks of the Mississippi River in Iowa and Illinois. On the east bank, Rock Island and Moline offer a number of distinctive opportunities for visitors.

Groups exploring Illinois gardens can start their Quad Cities visits at the Quad City Botanical Center in Rock Island, which features outdoor gardens and an indoor conservatory. In addition to standard overview tours of the garden, groups can schedule special experiences, such as a chocolate tour. In this activity, visitors see chocolate plants in the garden, learn about how they are cultivated and finish with a chocolate tasting. Similar coffee tours are also available.

During December, the Quad City Botanical Garden hosts Winter Lights, a special holiday event that showcases the outdoor gardens decked out in thousands of twinkling holiday lights.

While you’re there: John Deere Pavilion in Moline introduces visitors to the history of John Deere, which is headquartered in Moline and has been making farm equipment in Illinois for more than 100 years. Visitors can see some notable John Deere machines and try driving a combine or a dump truck in a digital simulator.

Peoria’s Small-but-Mighty Garden

Gardens don’t need to be large to be significant. In Peoria, about 90 miles southeast of Moline, the five-acre Luthy Botanical Gardens will delight horticulture enthusiasts.

Established in 1951, Luthy Botanical Gardens has more than a dozen themed gardens, among them a woodland garden, a rose garden and a hosta garden. There’s also a conservatory for year-round cultivation of exotic plants. The conservatory plays host to four special shows throughout the year: the Spring Show, the Orchid Show, the Chrysanthemum Show and the Poinsettia Show.

In addition to the conservatory and outdoor garden areas, Luthy Botanical Gardens features a rotating sculpture exhibit. Many visitors also enjoy spending time in the garden gift shop, which has gardening books, accessories and tools, as well as garden-themed gifts, jewelry and collectibles. The garden staff also offers special educational programming for groups.

While you’re there: On the banks of the Illinois River, the Peoria Riverfront Museum introduces visitors to both local and international human and natural history. The exhibit galleries cover topics such as Peoria history and Illinois River ecology, and numerous interactive experiences are offered for visitors.

An International Greenhouse in Springfield

About 75 miles southeast of Peoria, Springfield is Illinois’ capital city and offers a host of group tour attractions, including several related to Lincoln. But garden lovers will also want to stop at the Washington Park Botanical Garden, which is part of the Springfield park system.

Washington Park features 20 acres of gardens with 1,800 species of plants spread throughout 10 garden areas, and a domed conservatory has 150 exotic plants. An on-site greenhouse features additional display areas, with plants from tropical Africa, the jungles of Asia and the rain forests of South America.

Groups will find different plants at the gardens depending on the season. Highlights include Easter lilies, poinsettias, orchids and Japanese bonsai. There is also a rose garden with 5,000 plants, the largest of its kind in central Illinois, as well as an iris garden, a monocot garden and a monocot collection.

While you’re there: Springfield is home to several Lincoln-related attractions, including the Lincoln Home National Historic Site and the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. The Illinois Governor’s Mansion recently reopened to the public after a privately funded $15 million renovation.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.