For me, the word ‘Springfield’ is loaded with Americana.
Yes, it’s the name of the fictional hometown of The Simpsons. But did you know it’s also the most common place name in the US? There are a mind-boggling 34 settlements across 25 states that share the moniker.
But Springfield, Illinois is a town with its own clear identity. And it’s one far, far removed from its fictional, and more unremarkable, namesakes.
This Springfield, with its modest population of 118,000, has been a state capital since 1839 – and was once home to the iconic Abraham Lincoln.
Although the 16th President of the United States was born in a one-room log cabin in Hodgenville, Kentucky, he lived in Springfield from 1837 until 1861 and pursued a legal career. It was also here that he was buried, after his assassination in Washington, D.C. on 15 April 1865 at the age of 56.
As such, Springfield is synonymous with this amazing man, commonly voted the greatest American president ever. And you can feel his presence as soon as you arrive. The American dream hangs heavy in the air; it’s breathable.
Sure, his face is everywhere you look. On the bobble-headed statues for sale in half the shops, for example. But the patriotism on display isn’t a touristic inauthenticity. It isn’t garish or off-putting – it’s fully contextulized. And it was there in the spirits of the proud, friendly locals I engaged with, who’ve probably had to endure the same conversations about Lincoln 100 times over.
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Springfield is perfect if you’re looking for a US town of manageable size, potent with history. It’s also great for a weekend trip, or as an add-on to a more established touristic destination like Chicago, 179 miles away, or three-hours’ drive. (It’s accessible via the famous Route 66.)
I enjoyed a pleasant stay here last year, after a mad couple of days in Chicago, Illinois’ largest city. I’ll now never think of one without thinking of the other. Even closer is St. Louis in Missouri at 86 miles and Indianapolis, Indiana, at 185 miles.
Here’s our mini guide to what to see, and where to stay and eat in this most fascinating of underrated American travel gems…
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Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
A museum for people who don’t like museums. At 200,000 square feet, it’s one of the biggest attractions in Springfield. Visitors are greeted by eerily lifelike replicas of the Lincoln family and other important players in the President’s life and career.
Elsewhere there are two excellent, engaging theater presentations, complete with impressive special effects. ‘Lincoln’s Eyes’, tells his story through the eyes of an artist painting his portrait, while ‘Ghosts of the Library’ is a child-friendly exploration of the question ‘Why does history matter?’ I was enthralled.
The only home #AbrahamLincoln ever owned is right in the heart of #SpringfieldIL! @lincolnhomenps is open daily for guided tours! #AlwaysLegendary #springfieldpix #FindyourPark #EnjoyIllinois #springfieldillinois #landoflincoln #LincolnHome #nofilter
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The only home Lincoln ever owned is now a National Historic Site. It’s a far cry from the White House. But so too is it a departure from the aforementioned wooden cabin in which he was born. (A model of which is on display in the Presidential Library and Museum.)
A tour of this petite property (12 rooms, two storeys) lasts around 20 minutes, but it makes a massive impact. It’s humbling to imagine the man himself living here, forming the values and attitudes that made him an legend. My favourite Lincoln quote is: ‘Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.’ I couldn’t help but wonder if such a thought occurred to him as he gazed at trees from the windows of his home.
This is his final resting place, and that of his wife Mary Todd Lincoln and three of their four sons. It’s a suitably grand tomb, found in Oak Ridge Cemetery. It’s preceded by a large bronze bust of Lincoln’s face: the nose remains shiny due to visitors rubbing it for good luck. The cemetery itself is lovely.
After a few days of intense Lincolniana, a leisurely stroll around the gorgeous home of late socialite Susan Lawrence Dana will be the perfect palette cleanser. Inside and out, this perfectly-preserved prairie-style property – designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright and built in 1904 – has the look and feel of a giant, intricate jewellery box.
Across 35 rooms, 12,000 square feet, three main levels and 16 levels in total, you’ll find beauty in every corner of this ‘house museum’. Charming stained glass windows, curious murals, handsome oak furniture and opulent ornaments abound.
Where at stay
At 107m tall, the Wyndham Springfield City Centre, formally the Hilton Springfield, is the tallest building in town. My stay here was comfortable, although the interiors were a little drab. However, this was more than made up for by the charming views, especially from the Pinnacle Club Lounge on the 30th floor.
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Where to eat
Springfield has over 200 restaurants; we tried two of them, and both were excellent. For lunch, head to Obed and Issac’s microbrewery by Lincoln’s Home for tasty ales and a hearty menu (try the famous Horseshoe open sandwich, the Bavarian pretzel rolls and the goats cheese stuffed dates).
For dinner, head to American Harvest Eatery for traditional, seasonal meals made with fantastic local produce (I had the best sprouts of my life here; if I was going tonight, I’d opt for the adobo braised pork collar with pozole broth, hominy and shaved spring vegetables).
For more information about Illinois, visit enjoyillinois.com, home of the Illinois Office of Tourism.
All pictures by Pixabay and Wiki.