5 Reasons to Visit Williamson County, Illinois, This Spring
[infobox alignment=”right” title=”10 Things to See in Williamson County”]
17th Street BBQ
Bennie’s Italian Foods
Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge
Marion Carnegie Library
Rent One Park
Shawnee National Forest
Tower Square Plaza
Walt’s Pizza [/infobox]Venture to the southern tip of Illinois, and you’ll find an experience that’s night-and-day different from the Chicago metropolitan area. In Williamson County, a rural area comprised of nine cities and towns with a total population of around 67,000, you’ll find a slower pace of life, but plenty to explore. The area offers many reasons to visit, from nature to food to festivals to historical sites.
“We’re small town, big hospitality,” says Shannon Johnson, CEO of visitSI, the tourism bureau that services the county. “It’s a slower pace here. There’s a lot of beauty. If you’re used to the hustle and bustle, it’s a chance to unwind and discover some nature you don’t see a lot in the big city.”
1. Outdoor Offerings
Williamson County attractions begin with nature, and Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge draws approximately 300,000 visitors from around the world each year, according to visitSI. “At most national wildlife refuges, you aren’t able to fish, hike or hunt, and we have all of that available here,” Johnson says, of the 44,000-acre Crab Orchard. Indeed, the refuge has some of the finest hunting and fishing in the Midwest, with various hunting clubs available throughout the county, as well as educational classes and wildlife trails for kids to learn about butterflies, fish and other animals. For those who want to sleep under the stars, camping is available around the refuge, or you can book a log cabin at Olde Squat Inn for a rustic experience.
2. Feel-Good Dining
One thing that sets Williamson County apart from other areas is the high percentage of restaurants owned and operated locally. “That makes us unique from other towns where chains settle in,” Johnson says. Visitors can stop in for authentic Italian dishes at Bennie’s Italian Foods in Marion; score a slice of the famous double-decker pizza at Walt’s Pizza, also in Marion, started in 1977 by a Chicago native; or converse over coffee and pastries at Rise Above It Bakery & Café in Carterville. Marion’s 17th Street BBQ is another local favorite, known for its baby back ribs and Southern-fried dill pickles.
3. Historical Havens
In Marion, the county seat, Marion Carnegie Library opened in 1916 and is one of the landmark historical sites in the area. You can also explore the historic county jail and genealogy library at the Williamson County Historical Museum, and take in the sites around the town square (which also features free Wi-Fi). Goddard Chapel and the Veterans Memorial, located in a cemetery, is another unique attraction that doubles as a wedding venue.
4. Fun Festivals
For a rural area, Williamson County boasts a bevy of exciting events that draw thousands each year. Each April, for example, Marion hosts the Gem, Mineral & Jewelry Show. It’s also home to the Miss Illinois Pageant each June, where young women from around the state compete for a chance to progress to the Miss USA pageant. HerrinFesta Italiana, held in the town of Herrin each May since 1991, celebrates the rich Italian history of the area with, of course, lots of delicious Italian food.
5. New Happenings
To keep up with growing visitor demand, a TownePlace Suites hotel by Marriott is currently under construction, and the area’s hotel scene (currently with 23 lodging facilities, from cabins to hotels to motels) will continue to expand, Johnson estimates. In addition, craft brewing is starting to gain traction, with a brewery called 618 Tap House set to open in Marion soon. “Craft beer is really hitting the ground running here, so we’re looking for it to start to boom around this area,” Johnson says.
For more about what’s happening in Williamson County, go to visitsi.com.