Charleston, Illinois is downstate Illinois’ biggest secret, a college town in a friendly historic rural setting. It is home to Eastern Illinois University which offers world class arts and cultural events. Charleston is known for its public art and performing arts venues. The city has nine murals, many of which are downtown. They depict scenes from history, including Lincoln’s last train ride to Charleston and the Charleston Riot of 1864. Charleston’s downtown square features late 19th-century architecture, unique, local shops and restaurants, and sets the backdrop for the large-scale murals depicting the city’s past. Charleston is the home of the first Jimmy John’s restaurant that opened in 1983 near the corner of Fourth Street and Lincoln Avenue. The establishment of an enterprise zone on the northern edge of Charleston has helped attract some manufacturing and industrial jobs. For outdoor enthusiasts there are beautiful state parks and Lake Charleston, which has hiking and biking trails.
1. The Dudley-McFarland House
The Dudley-McFarland House, located in Charleston has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the US Department of Interior. It was built in 1892 by the architect Charles D. Mitchell, a native of Charleston and a prominent architect of buildings ranging from Queen Anne style to the Prairie style. Surrounded by tall oak and hickory trees, the Dudley House is one of a few Queen Anne style frame residences that still exist in Illinois. It was the dominant architectural style in American residential homes in the late 19th-century. The Coles County Historical Society uses the Dudley House as a museum and meeting center. Some museum artifacts are stored there, including period furniture, art, and fixtures.
The Dudley House
Address: 895 7th St, Charleston, IL 61920
Website: The Dudley House
2. Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site
Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site, part of the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area, preserves the 1840s home of Thomas and Sarah Bush Lincoln, father and step-mother of America’s 16th president. Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer living in Springfield by the time his parents moved here, but his burgeoning law practice often brought him to Charleston and the farm, especially during the 1840s. The site includes a working, living historical farm developed around a two-room cabin and a second historic farmstead, that of Stephen and Nancy Sargent, has been moved to the site to help broaden visitors’ understanding both of life in the 19th-century and Lincoln’s legal practice in the community. The site also includes the Moore Home, where Lincoln bid farewell to his family in 1861 before leaving to assume the Presidency, and the gravesites of Thomas and Sarah Lincoln at the Thomas Lincoln Cemetery.
Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site
Opening Hours Wednesday-Sunday 9:00 am-5:00 pm, closed Monday and Tuesday
Address: South 4th Street / 400 South Lincoln Highway Road, Lerna, IL
3. Lincoln-Douglas Debate Museum
Ten minutes from the Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site is the site of the fourth Lincoln-Douglas debate, which took place September 18, 1858. A museum now occupies the site of the fourth debate. Twelve thousand people heard the two candidates for the United States Senatorship discuss the question of slavery in American politics near the museum location. The museum is the only one in Illinois that retraces the senatorial debates of 1858 between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. The museum addresses the significance of the debates, what the issues were and how these important dialogues affected the country. Using exhibits, interactive displays, audio selections, artifacts and photos, the story of the Lincoln Douglas Debates is told in a compelling way. The museum also includes a Children’s Hands-On Area, a Gift Shop and a life-size sculpture of Lincoln and Douglas.
Lincoln-Douglas Debate Museum
Opening Hours Sunday-Saturday 9:00 am-4:00 pm
Address: 126 E St, Charleston, IL 61920
Website: Lincoln-Douglas Debate Museum
4. Fox Ridge State Park
Outdoor lovers shouldn’t miss Fox Ridge State Park, with its rolling hills, lush valleys and scenic hiking trails. Located south of Charleston on State Route 130, Fox Ridge State Park sits along the wooded bluffs of the Embarras River. Its history dates back to the 1600s. Arrowheads and artifacts have been uncovered in the park, testifying to its early in-habitation by Native Americans including the Piankashaw and Illinois tribes. Hiking the trails is a popular activity. The staircase to Eagle’s Nest climbs 144 steps to a deck overlooking the river, providing wonderful views. There are many other activities to experience in the park such as canoeing, cross county skiing, equestrian trails, fishing, and hunting. Reservations can be made for more than 40 campsites and two rustic cabins. Picnic tables, cooking grills, drinking water, toilet facilities and a sanitary dumping station are available to campers. Day use picnic areas are located throughout the park and picnic shelters can also be reserved. There is a large outdoor pavilion which can be reserved as well.
Fox Ridge State Park
Address: 18175 State Park Rd, Charleston, IL 61920
Website: Fox Ridge State Park
5. Lake Charleston
The Lake Charleston area is primarily a hiking and fishing venue. Picnicking areas are also available. There are five hiking/biking trails with a total of just over nine miles (14.4 km) total on the Lake Red Trail, Yellow Trail, Blue Trail, Green and Orange Trails. Boat ramps are available for anglers who can expect to catch a variety of fish including Black Crappie, Bluegill, Channel Catfish, Hybrid Striped Bass, Largemouth Bass, Spotted Bass, White Crapie and Yellow Bass.
Address: IL Rt. 130, Charleston, IL 61920
Website: Lake Charleston
6. Historic Downtown Square
The late 19th-century Richardsonian Romanesque courthouse that sits at the center of the downtown square dominates the downtown skyline. Charleston’s Downtown Square has been the site of the Coles County seat since 1835. As a young lawyer, Abraham Lincoln practiced law in a previous version of the courthouse. Historic buildings display stunning architectural details and serve as home to current professional offices, unique shops, and restaurants. Beginning in June, Farmers Market on the Square begins with local farmers bringing their produce to sell. Items available include baked goods, sweet corn, tomatoes, strawberries, pumpkins, garden produce, bracelets, jewelry, flowers, soap and handcrafted items such as pottery. The first weekend in December the city hosts Christmas in the Heart of Charleston, a free family-friendly community event. A parade kicks off the event and Santa is in City Hall to take Christmas wishes from children.
Historic Downtown Square
Address: 7th and Jackson Avenue, Charleston, IL
Website: Historic Downtown Square
7. Charleston Alley Theater
The Charleston Alley Theater is one of America’s leading non-profit theaters. Opened in 1968, it has been recognized for their wide ranging repertoire and innovative productions of classics, neglected modern plays and premiers. Home to a Resident Company of actors, the Alley’s All New Festival each season presents workshops and readings of new plays and musicals in process. They were the recipient of the Special Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre. The Alley has brought productions to Broadway, 40 American cities including New York’s Lincoln Center and internationally to Berlin, Paris, and St. Petersburg throughout its 70 year history.
Charleston Alley Theater
Address: 718 Monroe Ave, Charleston, IL 61920
Website: Charleston Alley Theater
8. Grab a local cup of joe at Jackson Avenue Coffee
Charleston, Illinois is not the biggest town, so getting around on foot and exploring the local history can possibly be done in a day or two. After all, that walking comes the exhaustion and when traveling to a quiet and toned downtown like Charleston, a good R&R during your trip is a must to comply. You can’t say you’ve been to Charleston without having a cup of coffee at Jackson Avenue Coffee. One of the state’s pride coffee houses, this Charleston staple isn’t just a coffee house, they’re also a pizzeria. This cafe is also an avid promoter of local art and talent, in fact, the cafe hosts monthly art exhibits in the front room. There’s also a blues night for musicians, and an open mic night for aspiring comedians alike.
Jackson Avenue Coffee
Address: 708 Jackson Ave., Charleston, Illinois
Opening hours: 7:00 am to 10:00 pm, Mondays to Thursdays; 8:00 pm to 10:00 pm, Fridays to Sundays
College town in a historic, rural setting
Charleston, Illinois is home to Eastern Illinois University and as with any university town, brings cultural and artistic events and opportunities. Charleston has been called central Illinois’s biggest secret and for a small town, they have a lot to offer.
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