Right after we got our second dose of our COVID-19 vaccines this spring, we took our first vacation that wasn’t related to visiting my family in over a year. I had heard wonderful things about a state park in Central Illinois and figured we’d give a new spot a try. Almost all of our travels to Illinois have been to Chicago, so it was a first to drive to a destination outside of the urban core. We were so pleasantly surprised by the friendly people, the beautiful natural amenities and the excellent variety of things to do in downtown Ottawa.
Tips for Visiting Ottawa
- Where to stay: We rented an Airbnb just outside of Downtown Ottawa, but it ended up being not my favorite place we’ve stayed because it was quite close to a rail line that ran freight trains late at night. Live and learn! If we ever make a return trip, there are few cute bed and breakfasts right along the river, as well as the Starved Rock Lodge right inside the state park. There is a waterfront community called Heritage Harbor outside of downtown that was really cute, as well, and they offer vacation rentals for short-term visitors, too. This would be perfect if you’re traveling with your boat. Check out the lodging search tool from the Visit Ottawa website.
- How to get there: Ottawa is about four hours from where we live in Wisconsin, but only about 90 minutes outside of Chicago or Rockford. You definitely need a car to get around once there as the area is fairly suburban.
Where to Eat in Ottawa
We were super impressed by the diversity of the dining scene in Ottawa. For a community of less than 20,000 people – they have a really amazing downtown area and a number of unique restaurants. I highlight some of the places we ate and a few we heard great things about but missed on this trip:
- Tangled Roots Brewing Company: The restaurant (Lone Buffalo) and taproom in downtown Ottawa features upscale pub fare and their full line of beers. The gorgeously restored historic building houses their brewing operations (behind glass so you can see the brewing action behind the bar) and is next door to a large vacant department store that the ownership team is restoring next. Tangled Roots prides themselves on their ‘farm to foam’ beers, which are brewed using hops from their own hop farm. We’ve been to a number of breweries, but this is the first one we’ve ever visited that supplies their own hops. I loved the Vermillion River Weiss and my husband was a big fan of the Winter Porter.
- B.A.S.H. (Burger and Sushi House): This concept is bizarre, but it works. B.A.S.H. features sushi, burgers and macaroni and cheese. These have nothing in common, but are served side by side, by side, on the same menu. The open concept building has a big, open / industrial feel – but you have your choice of table seating, bar seating or omakase seating (where sushi is prepared in front of you). They also have a large patio. We liked having the ability to order a drastically different starter and entree from the three distinctive menu sections. The cocktail list and beer lineup are really fun, as well – we saw many girls night out groups and a few bachelorette parties enjoying their frozen cocktail lineup. One feature I loved was their extensive list of seven custom crafted mocktails. I love when bars make the effort to be inclusive of those who are not drinking alcohol to feel included in the fun.
- Cats Eye Wine Bar: This was such a great find and I’m so happy we made time to stop here. Cats Eye has a large selection of wine and craft cocktails and a small lineup of craft beers. We stopped in on a Sunday evening and were the only ones there. We had the nicest time catching up with the friendly bartender and she was able to make recommendations on cocktails based on our taste preferences. She also recommended a handful of other things to do and places to dine while we were in town.
- The Ottawa Bakery: This downtown spot was one we stumbled upon while walking around the downtown shopping district. The Ottawa Bakery has a large variety of scratch-made baked items from cookies to bars to cakes and scones. The owner was super friendly and served our coffee and cupcakes with a smile. She made a point to ask where we were visiting from and to ask us to sign her guestbook. They have a limited amount of indoor seating and outdoor seating on a busy downtown corner (great for people watching).
- A few places that we didn’t make it to, but heard rave recommendations for:
- Corner 230: Tapas bar in the downtown area
- Red Dog Grill at Heritage Harbor: Waterfront bar with pub fare, pasta, seafood. This place was on our list but had a sold out concert the night we planned to go. We heard great things about their menu!
- Steve’s Bakery: a 35+ year legend in Ottawa, Steve’s Bakery is famous for their doughnuts. Steve’s is cash only.
- Aussem Dogs: a street cart in the downtown area serving Chicago style hot dogs. This spot is owned by the owner of Awesome Ottawa Tours who we met on a tour. He’s an incredibly nice person and a tremendous advocate for the Ottawa area!
- The Veranda at Starved Rock Lodge: this is a dog-friendly spot, however, when we went right as COVID-19 restrictions were lifting, it was not. This spot has great overlooks of the park and Illinois River.
What else to see and do in Ottawa
There are three state parks in the Ottawa area that are a major draw for the area. We visited two of the three and intended to visit the third (Mathiessen) but the rain thwarted our plans.
- Starved Rock State Park: This state park features 18 canyons and 13 miles of hiking trails. After large rain events and in the spring, there are a number of waterfalls you can easily hike to within the park. Illinois State Parks are free to enter and we were told that this park is full to capacity (you are turned away) on the weekends due to its popularity for daytrippers and picnickers.
- Buffalo Rock State Park: Buffalo Rock was far less crowded than Starved Rock and offered a very different landscape for hiking. Unlike the canyon hikes at Starved Rock, Buffalo Rock is atop a bluff and features an up close look at burial mounds and a beautiful look down at the Illinois River. There are three American bison living in the park in a fenced enclosure visible from the parking lot.
- Mathiessen State Park: We did not make it to this park because the day we intended to go it was quite rainy, but we heard many good things from the locals. This has similar canyon and waterfall features to Starved Rock, but is less busy.
- Awesome Ottawa Tours: You simply can’t take a trip to Ottawa without taking a tour with Tom Aussem. Tom is the tour guide and community advocate behind Awesome Ottawa Tours (and also owns Aussem Dogs listed above). We booked the Tangled Roots Brewery Tour with Tom and I immediately wished we’d booked some of his other tours. Another trip we will have to! He leads informative tours on Ottawa’s local history including historic architecture, general local history, and a popular tour on the Radium Girls of Ottawa. The Radium Girls is an incredibly sad story of the many women who died from radium poisoning after working for the watch dial and clock industry in Ottawa. His tours honor local history while making it accessible and fun. You can learn more about the Radium Girls of Ottawa here.
- Ottawa Mural Tour: Book a tour to learn more about the history of the large number of murals in Downtown Ottawa, or stroll around downtown and find them on your own. Information on the murals and their locations is linked at the link in the title.
- Illinois & Michigan Canal State Trail: The I&M Canal State Trail is a pedestrian / bike path that runs 80 miles between LaSalle and Lemont. It is paved in some areas and crushed gravel in others. You can rent bikes from the bike share service along the trail (see the link in the title for more info) and there are recommended segments based on which community you’ll be near. There are also a number of bike shops that rent bikes for trail riders, as well.
- River Run Dog Park (at Heritage Harbor): This dog park was a wonderful find during our stay. Whenever we travel and don’t have the luxury of a fenced-in yard to let our dog run, we try to find an area dog park that allows for day use. This dog park is free and is mainly utilized by locals. We stopped by each day we were there and met a number of friendly residents and hung out for an hour one morning chatting while our dogs played. River Run is free to use (also a rarity) and has both a small dog and larger dog area.
- August Hill Winery: There are a number of wineries in this area, and many specialize in fruit wines. We bought a few bottles of August Hill to bring home with us and really enjoyed their drier varieties. You can buy in their tasting room or their wine is available in local liquor stores for purchase.
- Walk the Downtown area! Ottawa has a tremendous downtown area with beautiful historic architecture, wide sidewalks with outdoor dining and planters and the history of Abraham Lincoln everywhere you look. Lincoln had his first debate with Douglas in Downtown Ottawa and the heritage of that event is captured in art (sculptures, murals, etc.) throughout the City.
- Downtown Shopping: There are a number of shops ranging from gifts to clothing to antiques in Downtown Ottawa. A few not to miss include…
- Heartland by Hand (handmade gifts by local artisans)
- Deja Vu (unique gifts and home decor)
- Prairie Fox Books (a wide selection of books and gifts)
- Rock Paper Scissors (toys, games, books for kids of all ages)
- Starved Rock Hot Glass (glass art)
If you’re planning a trip to the Ottawa area, be sure to use the visitor resources on the Visit Ottawa website or (if you’re visiting the greater area) on the LaSalle County Visitor Site or Heritage Corridor CVB site. We had such a wonderful time and couldn’t recommend a weekend away in Ottawa more highly!