As we sat in a restaurant near a large window that overlooked bustling main street in Galena, Ill., a light snow began to fall. When our lunch entrees arrived, the flakes got larger and fell in greater volume. For a brief moment, my wife and I worried that we might be stuck in town.
Then realizing where we were and enjoying the lovely scene, we starting cheering for the snow. For a winter weekend, there’s probably no better place to be stranded than Galena during its annual Night of the Luminaria and Living Windows festival, which will take place on Saturday, Dec. 9, this year.
Located in far northwest Illinois, Galena is nestled in the Driftless Area, so called because its rolling hills and carved river valleys weren’t flattened by retreating glaciers that typically leave “drift” — silt, clay, and other materials — in their wake. The beautifully sculpted landscape was a welcome sight after traveling through flat farmland for 350 miles from St. Louis, Mo., for a winter getaway.
Galena has become a year-round destination with two resorts, a zipline, golf, wineries, skiing, museums, a full calendar of events, and plenty of shopping. But the historical Victorian town shines during the winter, providing opportunities to enjoy outdoor experiences or cozy indoor diversions. The Night of the Luminaria offers both.
Light the Night
To welcome winter and the holidays, Galena hosts its luminary festival on the second Saturday of December each year. Although it takes place at night, there are plenty of things to do in the day and over the course of an entire weekend.
With Christmas right around the corner, a good place to begin is with shopping. Nicknamed the “Helluva Half Mile,” the downtown Main Street has more than 125 shops featuring antiques, décor, apparel, gifts, toys, kitchen items, art, and nearly anything else you could imagine. You could spend an entire day wandering through stores located in buildings that date to the 1800s. The town was once called the “outdoor museum of the Victorian Midwest” because of its collection of architectural beauties.
Once a prosperous mining town, the busy river port became a virtual ghost town in the early 20th century when trains replaced riverboats and steel supplanted lead. Chicago-area artists ignited a renaissance in the 1970s when they began transforming the buildings into studios and shops. Today, more than 75 percent of Galena’s buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places.
As shoppers make their way along Main Street in the afternoon on the day of the festival, they’ll notice more than a dozen shop windows come alive with holiday inspired vignettes. They might see Victorian dancers, children dressed as elves, artisans at work, and even Santa Claus himself in these Living Windows. A highlight is the Wedding in a Window, a real and all-expense-paid wedding for a couple chosen through an online contest.
The romance continues after the wedding with the Night of the Luminaria. Starting at about 6 p.m., more than 5,000 luminaries are illuminated on streets, steps, and sidewalks throughout Galena, giving the postcard-perfect town an enchanting and magical glow. Trolley and carriage rides offer great views of the spectacle.
Beyond the Lights
While seeing the Victorian town bathed in candlelight was the main reason we wanted to visit Galena, we discovered that its many other attractions are just as memorable.
For ski and snowboard enthusiasts, Chestnut Mountain Resort just south of Galena offers 19 runs and a 475-foot drop. Its seven-acre terrain park for snowboarders is the largest of its kind in the Midwest. Lessons are available, as are equipment rentals. There’s also an indoor pool, two restaurants, and 100 hotel rooms.
Known for its 63 holes of championship golf course during the rest of the year, Eagle Ridge Resort opens its Nordic Center in the winter. Visitors can skate on a frozen pond, explore seven miles of cross country skiing and snowshoeing trails, and sled down the course’s signature 18th hole. At the resort just southeast of town on Lake Galena, there’s also a spa; nearly 300 resort rooms, homes, and villas; several restaurants; a boat dock; and a horse riding center.
History buffs should visit the Ulysses S. Grant Home State Historic Site to step foot in a Civil War-era time capsule. After the war, prominent Republicans in town purchased the Italianate-style home and presented it to Grant for his heroic exploits. The two-story brick home is decorated and furnished to represent its mid-1860s appearance, and it includes some original Grant furniture.
For even more Grant history, stop by the Old Market House downtown. Constructed in 1846, the building was the focal point of community life where vendors congregated. The building today serves as the Galena Welcome Center, and visitors can pick up tourist information and enjoy the Grant exhibits and artifacts.
Where to eat and sleep
There are several hotels in town in addition to its resorts, yet Galena is known for its bed-and-breakfast inns. There are about three dozen bed and breakfasts, guesthouses, cottages, and inns. Many occupy 19th-century homes and mansions steeped in history but offering modern conveniences.
We settled into the Lamberson Guest House, which is perched on a terrace overlooking the town. Originally built in 1870, the home was completely renovated and opened as a bed and breakfast in late 2016. Guests will find carved woodwork, heart pine floors, leaded glass, and hand-carved mantles. The four thoughtfully appointed bedrooms have private baths, and guests enjoy a wine and cheese reception each night and cookies all day.
No detail is overlooked at this warm and welcoming inn, especially in the three-course breakfasts prepared from scratch. We enjoyed gingerbread muffins, a winter fruit salad, and an omelet torte rich with layers of red potato, sweet onion, ham, cheddar, and egg baked inside a puff pastry crust and topped with hollandaise.
The same variety in accommodations is mirrored in Galena’s dining options, with 30 restaurants that offer a range of culinary choices, including steaks at Log Cabin Steakhouse. Operating continuously since 1937, the iconic Galena institution serves a full menu, but it built its reputation on its sizzling, hand-cut steaks. Make sure to order the flaming saganaki appetizer served with a shout of “Opa!”
Also, Fried Green Tomatoes is located in a historical building that was once a leather store owned by Grant’s father. Diners enjoy American classics and Italian-inspired dishes, like Tuscan Mac ‘N’ Cheese with Italian sausage, roasted peppers, and pasta tossed with gouda and gorgonzola.
Other great choices include the Victory Café for breakfast and Fritz and Frites for brunch with its combination of French and German food. And The General’s Restaurant in the DeSoto House Hotel offers a selection of steaks, chops, seafood, and chicken.
We would have sampled even more delicious food in Galena along with the rest of its varied experiences, but the snow let up and we had to leave. We vowed to time our next escape to Galena during a blizzard so we can extend our stay and savor its candlelit and captivating charm.
Dennis R. Heinze is regional editor of AAA Midwest Traveler.
BEFORE YOU GO
For more information before your trip, contact VisitGalena at (815) 776-9200 or visitgalena.org.
To visit Galena, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, and TourBook® guides.