Blake Walsh

20 Best Things to Do in Charleston, IL

  • Published 2023/03/29

Charleston is one of Illinois’ best-kept secrets, a small but culturally rich town in Coles County.

The city is home to Eastern Illinois University, a teacher’s college established in 1895.

It’s also the hometown of the iconic Jimmy John’s sandwich chain.

The city also has a rich history with multiple historical sites, including some places of interest to former US president Abraham Lincoln.

Here are the best things to do in Charleston, IL:

Go on a Scenic Hike at the Fox Ridge State Park

Mushrooms at Fox Ridge State Park

Daniel Schwen, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Just south of Charleston is the Fox Ridge State Park, another lush nature reprieve in the Charleston area.

The Fox Ridge State Park is known for its steep, thickly wooded ridges, lush valleys, and scenic hiking trails.

The park has over 2,000 acres of rolling hills, a sharp contrast to the flat prairie lands of this side of the state.

Visitors can hike the trails sprawled around the park, a highlight for visitors to Fox Ridge.

The stairs lead to Eagle’s Nest, one of the top vistas.

Climb over 144 steps to reach the top, rewarding you with a beautiful view of the rivers.

This park is also an excellent place for day picnics and camping.

It’s’ beautiful at any time of the year.

Don’t forget to put Fox Ridge State Park on your list in Charleston!

Immerse Yourself in Culture at the Tarble Arts Center

Within the campus of Eastern Illinois University is the Tarble Arts Center, a major cultural arts center.

Opened in 1982 as a division of the College of Arts and Humanities, the Tarble Arts Center’s founding purpose is to “take the arts to the people.”

The gallery offers free admission to the public.

Visitors can see the exhibitions, including works from local, regional, and international artists.

University students also showcase their works there.

The center also hosts performance art, theater, and folk performances.

The Tarble Arts Center is perfect for art lovers to relax and admire fine craftsmanship.

Learn Charleston History at the Lincoln-Douglas Debate Museum

Charleston was where Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas famously debated during their presidential campaigns in 1858.

The Lincoln-Douglas Debate Museum commemorates their seven debates, the history of the entire campaign, and their prior lives.

Visitors can see the memorabilia from these debates, from the statues at the entrance to signs and documents.

Admire Charleston Art at the Doudna Fine Arts Center

Located on the Eastern Illinois University campus is the Doudna Fine Arts Center, a top art and performance center in Charleston.

The Doudna Fine Arts Center is a premier destination for modern and contemporary art in central Illinois.

The center’s mission is to showcase creativity and dynamism in performance art.

Visitors can see performances from Eastern Illinois University students and community groups in the region.

Enjoy music, theater and dance, ballet, musicals, and live recitals.

Special events and visual arts shows also occur at the Tarble Arts Center.

Add a bit of culture to your trip to Charleston at the Doudna Fine Arts Center.

Have a Fun Outdoor Adventure at Lake Charleston

Southeast of the city is Lake Charleston, an idyllic nature retreat just a few miles away from the city center.

Visitors can enjoy a fun day in the water and savor the great outdoors with family and friends.

Multiple campsites around the lake’s vicinity are perfect for camping and hikes.

There are also biking trails for those who want to take more adventurous routes.

Visitors can also see the beauty of the lake by renting boats to explore its entirety.

Fishing is also a favorite activity here, a great way to relax and see the beauty of the landscapes from the lake.

Lake Charleston is a great place to explore a different side of the city on your visit.

Grab a Delicious Slice of Pizza at Pagliai’s Pizza

Opened in 1964, Pagliai’s Pizza is a proud Charleston establishment that has served fresh homemade pizzas for over 60 years.

Pagliai’s uses the freshest and highest quality ingredients to produce simple but delicious Italian fare.

Order a slice or an entire homemade pizza, with toppings including sausage, mushroom, and green olives, served with their signature tomato sauce.

Likewise, order some of their Italian favorites on the menu, like their spaghetti and tortellini.

You can also get these to go if you want to eat at home.

Take a slice of comfort at Pagliai’s Pizza to fuel the rest of your trip to Charleston.

Marvel at the McFarland-Dudley Houses

The McFarland-Dudley House is a historical and architectural marvel right in the heart of Charleston.

The house paints a picture of how the more affluent families in Charleston lived in the 20th century.

The house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.

It’s’ a well-maintained house featuring an old-world design with a wraparound porch with elliptical brackets.

It also features a lovely patio and a second-story porch.

Explore this architectural marvel and see this beautifully preserved building in Charleston.

Shop for Antiques at Copper Eagle

Copper Eagle is a great place to stop by for unique knick-knacks.

It’s’ also the largest antique mall in Charleston.

The shopping center spans over 4,000 square feet offering everything from antiques and collectibles to art and local homemade products.

Local Charleston artists do shop pieces.

Candle enthusiasts can also stop by the 1803 Candle Company to shop for hand-poured candles in various scents.

Explore and see over 30 vendors of cool and quirky antiques.

A visit to Copper Eagle is a unique experience you shouldn’t miss on a visit to Charleston.

Take a Walk at the Historic Downtown Square

To add to the city’s collection of architectural marvels, the Historic Downtown Square is another great place to explore in Charleston.

Formerly a courthouse in the late 19th century, the Historic Downtown Square adds character to the downtown skyline.

The building has also served as the seat of Coles County since 1835.

Enjoy exploring all the unique corners of the building.

Find downtown a few more blocks nearby, with multiple shops to explore, such as food and drink and local products.

Admire the Craft of the Alexander Briggs House

Located along Jackson Avenue is the Alexander Briggs House, another well-maintained architectural marvel in the heart of Charleston.

In 1894, prominent stonemason Alexander Briggs built the house.

It’s’ the only stone house still in Coles County.

The National Register of Historic Places added it to the record in 1980.

The design incorporates aspects of Italian and Renaissance revival styles, an unusual combination.

This contributes to the house’s quirk as an architectural gem.

It was built with local sandstone, marble and granite for the detailing.

Visitors can see these preserved structures’ beauty when in Charleston.

Play Baseball at Baker Field

Play America’s pastime at Baker Field.

Visitors can come to practice their swing and play a few games.

Watch games between local schools and teams.

It’ll be great fun to cheer them on as they swing for the home run.

It’s also a great place to relax and catch up with family and friends.

You’ll feel like you’re part of the community at Baker Field.

Drink and Dine at Roc’s Blackfront Tavern and Grill

Roc’s Blackfront Tavern and Grill is one of the go-to restaurants of locals when it comes to excellent food in a lively atmosphere.

They’re known for their meaty dishes here, most prominently their steaks and ribs, along with their juicy chicken fried steak.

Roc’s Blackfront Tavern and Grill is also known for their salad bar, giving you a lot of options whether it’s for lunch or dinner.

Of course, don’t miss out on their assortment of alcoholic beverages—they’re well-known for their beer, bourbon, and scotch.

Located along 6th Street, you can’t go wrong trying out Roc’s Blackfront Tavern and Grill.

Go Trekking at Woodyard Conservation Area

If you want to go to a more rustic and isolated area in Lake Charleston, Woodyard Conservation Area is one of the best options for you.

It’s relatively a hidden gem in Charleston because it’s brimming with wild plants that are home to a lot of critters and birds.

Hence, only go to this conservation area if you’re confident in your outdoor exploration skills, especially since there are some snakes here.

But if you’re a big enthusiast of the wilderness, this is a haven for wildlife and wildflower observation and photography.

You can access the Woodyard Conservation Area along Old State Road.

Have a Fun Time at Charleston Country Club

Charleston Country Club is one of the more well-rounded golf clubs in Illinois that you can enjoy as a guest.

Starting from their golf course—Charleston Country Club has amazing layouts and you’re guaranteed to play on well maintained greens.

The restaurant here is also neat, making it a great all-rounder if you want an intimate dinner with family or friends.

On top of these, Charleston Country Club has top-notch service that keeps customers coming back.

Visit this golf club along Country Club Road on the western part of Charleston.

Order a Coffee at Jackson Avenue Coffee

Another hidden gem in Charleston is Jackson Avenue Coffee—a cafe that’s a hit among university students from Eastern Illinois University.

The cozy ambiance, affordable drinks, and the friendliness of their staff and baristas is what make Jackson Avenue Coffee a great place to visit.

They even have board games and cards here that you can borrow, making it a nice stopover for a group of friends.

Of course, their coffee is no pushover as well—try their Mexican Cocoa, lattes, and the standard brewed coffee.

A great spot to enjoy a warm cup of coffee, you can conveniently find them along its namesake avenue, near the epicenter of Charleston.

Watch a Race at Charleston Speedway

Charleston Speedway is a great local race track that features amazing dirt track races.

The speedway is family-oriented, so you can definitely bring the little ones with you if they want to see the exhilarating local races.

The seating is great, offering great views of the wonderful dirt track that Charleston Speedway is known for.

There are also concession stands here, and there are plenty of events to catch year-round.

Located along Illinois Highway 16, this is a convenient addition to your itinerary if you want more family-oriented attractions.

Other Things to Do Nearby

Learn about the Lincolns at the Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site

Daytime view of the Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site

Daniel Schwen, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Drive south of Charleston to see the Lincoln Log State Historic Site.

Find it in Lerna, Illinois, 15 minutes from Charleston.

It’s’ a replica of a log cabin where Thomas Lincoln lived.

He was the father of former US president Abraham Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln himself never lived there, but many accounts say he visited and helped out his parents.

The entirety of the site contains three houses in two areas.

See the main cabin surrounded by a farmstead similar to one Abraham Lincoln helped keep after his father’s death.

Then, look for the Stephen Sargeant home.

Finally, check out the Reuben Moore home, the final meeting place of Abraham and his stepmother Sarah Bush-Lincoln.

Visitors can see the houses and farmsteads on-site, showing how the Lincolns lived in the 1800s.

Go Back in Time at the Amish Country of Illinois

The grounds of Amish Country of Illinois

Daniel Schwen, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Located a few miles outside of Charleston is the Amish Country of Illinois.

It’s’ in St. Arthur, Illinois, 35 minutes from Charleston.

Experience the Amish way of life in the different communities spread out in the county.

Start with a visit to Arcola, the “Broom Capital of the World.”

Arcola features several sites and attractions that should be part of any visitor’s list when visiting the country.

Downtown Arcola also features unique mom-and-pop shops selling everything from antiques and art to locally made goods and Amish furniture.

Go to Arthur, the heart of the Illinois Amish community, and see how over 4,500 Amish live in this area.

Arthur is also the largest and oldest Amish community in the state.

Sullivan is a more outdoorsy reprieve among all the communities, with beautiful Lake Shelbyville headlining the sights in this area.

Finally, see rustic Tuscola and check out the rural Amish community, complete with the old-school feel.

Visit downtown Tuscola to feel the community vibe and shop at locally-owned stores, from homemade candies to one-of-a-kind antiques.

The Amish Country of Illinois is a unique experience one can only enjoy on a trip to central Illinois.

Have a Sip of Wine at Cameo Vineyards

About a half-hour drive south of Charleston is Cameo Vineyards, a family-owned vineyard producing Illinois wines since 2002.

It’s’ in Greenup, Illinois.

The winery started as a dream when the family first planted over 70 grapevines in 1991.

There are over 4,000 French-American hybrid grapevines covering over seven acres.

The vineyard uses over 35 tons of grapes yearly, producing 14 varieties of reds, whites and roses.

Visitors can visit and try out their award-winning varieties, such as their 2016 Norton, a dry red with cherry notes.

Likewise, try the Afternoon Delight, a blend of red and white grapes, or the Day Drinkin, a sweet sangria.

Enjoy trying Illinois wine at Cameo Vineyards.

Go on a Safari at Aikman Wildlife Adventure

Between Arthur and Arcola, Illinois, is the Aikman Wildlife Adventure, a drive-through wildlife park at the Illinois inland.

It’s’ a 30-minute trip from Charleston.

It’s’ a unique safari experience where visitors can get up close and personal with the wildlife in the preserve.

Take the one-mile drive to see the animals roam free in the vast expanse of the parklands.

Visitors can also do a walk-through of a petting zoo to meet lemurs, peacocks and hyenas.

It’s an excellent destination for animal lovers and those looking for a unique experience in Illinois.

Final Thoughts

Charleston is a charming town full of history, from its architecture and culture.

It’s a place that blends old-world history with Illinois’ natural environments, giving visitors a taste of the city and rural life.

Start planning your Charleston trip today!

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