It’s been almost 10 years since I tried my first horseshoe — a hulking Springfield food assemblage that involves an open-face sandwich (it could be beef, a buffalo chicken patty, portobello mushroom, fish or other protein or veggie option) topped with a mountain of fries and covered in Welsh rarebit (a.k.a. cheese) sauce. It was as decadent, delectable and nap-inducing as it sounds. That was my first time in Illinois’ capital city, about 3
Those frequent visits mean ample opportunities to sink our teeth into the aforementioned horseshoe or, if we’re in the mood, a snack at Cozy Dog Drive In , which was once a Route 66 mainstay; to check out the famous butter cow at the Illinois State Fair ; to pay a visit to the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Dana-Thomas House and to tour the former haunts of Abraham Lincoln, who lived in Springfield for 24 years before becoming president, and about whom the town is understandably obsessed. A visit to Springfield is a chance to immerse yourself in history and politics, explore Americana and try a few of the local specialties, which just might make you feel like you’re at a year-round fair.
The word “prairie” is used liberally around Springfield. It is the capital of the Prairie State, after all. The term takes its most artful form at the 1Dana-Thomas House 1Dana Thomas House Address: 301 E. Lawrence Ave. Website: dana-thomas.org 217-782-6776 , a stunning example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie-style architecture. Wright designed the home in 1902 for Susan Lawrence Dana , a fascinating woman who was a philanthropist and feminist known for being a bit eccentric. Today, the 12,000-square foot home, with its 35 rooms (and duck-pin bowling in the basement), is owned by the state of Illinois and is known for being the most intact of all Wright homes, with its expansive collection of art glass and furniture designed by Wright. Tours offered daily shed light on Wright as well as the home’s former residents, including Dana and, later, Charles Thomas, who used the house as the office the office for his publishing company .
Vintage Americana runs deep in Springfield, thanks to its location on the Mother Road and that retro pride burns especially brightly in one spot. 2Route 66 Drive-In 2Route 66 Drive-In Address: 1700 Knights Recreation Drive Website: route66-drivein.com/ 217-698-0066 is home to two screens that show double features April through October, with a mix of new and classic movies. (It should go without saying that the best drive-in movies to see are scary.) Bonus: Next door is Knights Action Park , an amusement park, water park, golf range and go-kart track owned by the same family as the drive-in. Make it a heartland-of-America doubleheader and visit both, if you can.
Lincoln made Springfield his home starting in 1837, when he was an attorney serving in the Illinois General Assembly, until 1861, when he moved to Washington as president. You can’t make it through Springfield without passing some Lincoln lore, and it’s displayed especially well at the 3Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. 3Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum Address: 212 N. Sixth St. Website: illinois.gov/alplm 217-558-8844 Even non-Lincoln-buffs rave about the hologram show, a.k.a the “Ghosts of the Library” production that give form to Abe to help a historian tell his tale. All around the museum, exhibits bring the past to life, from the replica of his boyhood log cabin to the revelation of the goosebump-raising last words he uttered in the District’s Ford’s Theatre. From the downtown location, you can also plan your own Lincoln tour and walk to the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices, the Old State Capitol and the Lincoln Home National Historic Site , where he once lived.
Lincoln’s body rests in the 4Lincoln Tomb 4Lincoln Tomb Address: 1500 Monument Ave. Website: lincolntomb.org/ 217-782-2717 in Oak Ridge Cemetery, about two miles from where he lived in Springfield. The tomb’s towering granite obelisk grabs your attention from the entry of the cemetery, although more memorable is the bronze statue of Lincoln’s head in front of the tomb: his nose is so light in color it looks as if he’s wearing sunscreen. It’s become a tradition to rub the nose, presumably for luck. Visitors can step inside the somber burial chamber and pay homage to Lincoln, three of his sons and his wife, Mary. (Robert, their oldest son, is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.) Abe trivia: For protection from would-be robbers, Lincoln’s remains are kept in a concrete vault about 10 feet below the burial chamber. Thieves tried to remove the body in 1876.
Since opening in 2017 in a former Quiznos, 5Long Nine Junction 5Long Nine Junction Address: 5 W. Old Capitol Plaza Website: restaurantportals.com/LongNineJunction 217-210-2400 has developed a cult following among locals. So much so that in January, the small, chef-driven lunch spot was at No. 20 on Yelp’s “Top 100 Places to Eat in the U.S. 2019.” (It came in ahead of any Chicago places, to the delight of Springfield.) The downtown restaurant, owned by a husband-and-wife team, is a natural addition to any Lincoln-themed outing: the name, Long Nine, was the nickname for Abe and eight other notably tall Illinois legislators who argued, successfully, to have the state’s capital moved from the town of Vandalia to Springfield. The menu has a clever format — appetizers are “Opening Statements,” while sides are “Amendments” — for its globally inspired options, such as Tom Kha soup, the Cubano panini, and the comfort-food-innovation of all time: a grilled cheese on garlic bread.
It was dessert that drew me to 6Incredibly Delicious 6Incredibly Delicious Address: 925 S. Seventh St. Website: incrediblydelicious.com 217-528-8548 , a French-inspired bakery, in the form of the moneybags-rich flourless chocolate cake. That very cake is the reason for this bakery’s being: It was going to be a mail-order business peddling that product. The menu expanded to include pastries, cookies, breads and, not to be overlooked, exquisite savory items such as soups and sandwiches. Pick a spot in the garden or opt for one of the rooms in this sunlight-drenched Victorian home and settle in for a couple of courses. There’s a reason for that name.
You know it as a corn dog. Springfield natives knows it as a Cozy Dog (which is a fortunate change from what it was called in its earliest days here: a “crusty cur ”). While the owners of 7Cozy Dog Drive In 7Cozy Dog Drive In Address: 2935 S. Sixth St. Website: cozydogdrivein.com 217-525-1992 weren’t the first to enshroud a hot dog in deep-fried, golden corn batter they were, according to legend, among the earliest entrepreneurs to put one on a stick back in the 1940s. Part restaurant, part tribute to Route 66, just about every inch of the place is covered in corn dog art, license plates and memorabilia — some of which you can purchase in the form of mugs, hats, postcards, T-shirts, keychains and kitsch. Oh, and the food is a bargain: You can get a half-dozen Cozy Dogs for about $12.
As I mentioned already, there’s a Springfield creation called the horseshoe, and you’ll find a version of it at just about any self-respecting bar. You’ll also find people with very passionate opinions about who makes the best one. 8D’Arcy’s Pint 8D’Arcy’s Pint Address: 661 W. Stanford Ave. Website: darcyspintonline.com 217-492-8800 , a laid-back Irish pub, is a great place for an introduction to the Springfield classic. (A quick review of the ingredients: toast, protein or veggie topping, a french fry mountain and cheese sauce cascade.) Everyone must try one at least once, and unless your appetite is enormous, I recommend getting the smaller version — a pony shoe.
If the Brady Bunch had a go-to store, it might be a place like 9Springfield Vintage 9Springfield Vintage Address: 215 S. Fifth Street Website: springfieldvintage.com/ 217-652-8413 , where all things retro, bell-bottom and butterfly-collared are out in force. Play dress-up in the vintage duds — there’s lots to try on for both men and women — and model some baubles and beads. Then, peruse the home decor (trigger warning: lots of golds and oranges) and even musical selections, all while getting valuable fashion tips from the effervescent owner. This stylish store is as eclectic as they come, with a little bit of everything from days gone by. Plus, it’s downtown, so you can walk to a number of shops and historical sites and make a day of it.
On a visit to the boutique-with-a-heart 10Simply Fair 10Simply Fair Address: 2357 W. Monroe St. Website: simplyfairtrade.com/ 217-679-0591 , you might find jewelry from Kenya, coffee beans from Costa Rica, handmade dolls from Thailand and handmade dresses from Armenia along with conversation pieces galore from about 40 countries. (Oh, and coffee to sip and chocolate to taste, and sometimes a few other treats for while you shop.) As the name implies, it’s all fair trade, meaning those who made the items weren’t children, and they were paid fair wages and worked in safe conditions. Many of the items here were made by women from around the world, including the United States, who have limited opportunities but have found work — and hope — as artisans.
Every trip needs a soundtrack, and 11Recycled Records 11Recycled Records Address: 625 E. Adams St. Website: recycledrecords.com 217-522-5122 has your back. On a recent excursion, my husband and I picked up a wide-ranging stack of CDs including Jimmy Buffett and Dr. Dre, which made for a much more interesting singalong on the drive home to Chicago. The shop has been around since hair metal was in, and it’s easy to lose an hour or so digging through the stacks of inexpensive vinyl and CDs. Like any good record store, the wares aren’t just limited to music. Some of the knickknacks for purchase: neon beer signs and vintage Playboys.
The exterior, neon-green paint in an otherwise staid area is enough to catch your attention, and the wares at 12Cardologist 12Cardologist Address: 627 E. Adams St. Website: facebook.com/The-Cardologist-239866892802201/ 217-525-4121 will keep you coming back. This downtown gift shop is the kind that every town should have. It’s the perfect place to go for an irreverent card, hilarious socks (so many socks!), cheeky coffee mugs and any other souvenir or trinket you could possibly want — including Ruth Bader Ginsburg dolls and other RBG ephemera. Whether your sense of humor is highbrow or low, you’re in the right place.
When we visit Springfield, price and location are our decision-makers, and that generally leads us to the 13State House Inn 13State House Inn Address: 101 E. Adams St. Website: statehouseinnspringfield.com/ 217-528-5100 . The hotel, which is part of Red Roof’s “Red Collection,” was recently renovated, and the rooms are spacious and clean, with a midcentury modern vibe. Plus, there’s complimentary breakfast and parking along with a small gym. The best part, beyond the reasonable rates, is the central location. It’s walking distance from all of the bars and restaurants of downtown, as well as the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, the Old State Capitol, the Lincoln Home National Historic Site and, of course, a number of horseshoe options.
Springfield is the land of large hotel chains. If we want to stay somewhere smaller and filled with character, we go to 14Inn at 835 14Inn at 835 Address: 835 S. Second St. Website: connshg.com/Inn-at-835 217-523-4466 . About a five-minute walk from the Dana-Thomas House, the classic revival-style inn — which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places — has 11 guest rooms and two suites, each named for a flower (“Gladiolus Suite,” “Hyacinth Room”) and bedecked in antiques. Selecting your room is part of the fun: Would you like a canopy bed? A claw foot tub or double Jacuzzi? A fireplace and private veranda? The inn is decidedly social, inviting guests to come together for complimentary wine and cheese in the evening and made-to-order breakfast in the morning. The staff is full of excellent suggestions for local restaurants and other insider Springfield advice, and they’ve never led us astray.
15Downtown 15Downtown Google Map: North – Madison Street/ South – Lawrence Street / East – 9th Street / West – College Street aside, Springfield isn’t an especially walkable city. There, you can walk in the steps of Abraham Lincoln, past the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices, the Old State Capitol where he gave the famous “house divided” speech and the home where he lived. Nearby, Lincoln comes to life — in the form of that hologram — at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Markers and statues throughout the area fill you in on Springfield’s rich history. Mix it up with some modern-day exploration at the many shops (like Recycled Records and Cardologist), visit the Old Capitol Farmers Market on Wednesday and Saturday mornings during the warmer months and pop into Obed and Isaac’s Microbrewery & Eatery to order up a horseshoe for a true taste of the town.
Back in the day, millions traveled along 16Route 66 16Route 66 Google Map: Highlight Business Route 55 and these locations along it: Motorheads Bar & Grill (600 Toronto Rd.), Cozy Dog Drive In (2935 South 6th St.), Maldaner’s Restaurant (222 South 6th St.), Maid-Rite (118 North Pasfield St.) — the “Main Street of America” — from Chicago to Los Angeles. Along the way, it cut right through downtown Springfield. The route has long been decommissioned, and there are faster ways to get from Illinois to California. But for those interested in taking a bite of Americana, there are some Route 66 relics that are still alive and well in Springfield, and you can get to them by traveling along what’s now Business Route 55. Heading north to south, it’s also called Fifth Street; south to north, it’s also called Sixth Street. Starting from the south, Motorheads Bar & Grill (600 Toronto Rd.) is home to a small, Route 66 themed museum called the Motorhead Museum. Maldaner’s Restaurant (222 S. Sixth St.) has long served the masses who traveled the route. And another place worth stopping is Maid-Rite (118 N. Pasfield St. ) for a loose-meat sandwich, which tastes better than it sounds. This fast-food spot, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and lays claim to opening the nation’s first drive-through window, has been operating since 1924. There’s also a franchise by the same name that started in 1926. Order some fries and a root beer, and think of simpler times.
Silver is a writer based in Chicago. Find her on Twitter: @K8Silver.