7 Spots to Visit on a Spring Getaway to Vibrant Vandalia
Part of Fayette County in south-central Illinois, Vandalia harbors a rich history. The town is best known for its former statehouse, a historic site that’s also the oldest surviving capital building in Illinois. Vandalia served as the state capital from 1820 to 1839 and was the spot where Abraham Lincoln took his very first political office. Vandalia also grew in fame for its location along the National Road, once referred to as the road that built the nation, connecting parts of the United States that were largely still unsettled. Today, it’s known as U.S. Highway 40, and in downtown Vandalia, you can visit the National Road Interpretive Center to learn about its impact on American history. But while the past plays a major role in attracting visitors to Vandalia today, the small community also strives toward progression.
“Our downtown area has been revitalized in the last few years, so that’s our growing area,” shares Jessica Hampton, tourism director for the city. “We’re a historic place with a modern twist.”
Read on for must-visit spots in Vandalia this spring.
Call ahead to book your spot on guided tours, which take place at select times throughout the week. As you explore the large entry hall and rooms representing the former offices of auditor, treasurer, secretary of state and the supreme court chamber on the first floor, “you’re literally walking in Abe Lincoln’s footsteps,” Hampton says. (The president served in the Illinois House of Representatives.) Take time to read the informational plaques and to see the original hardwood flooring on the second level. Then, head outside to view the Madonna of the Trail statue. One of 12 in the nation, it depicts a pioneer woman with two children and serves as a memorial for pioneers of the covered-wagon days.
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A few blocks from the State House, this renovated six-room, mid-1800s home represents one of the finest examples of simple Italian-style architecture in the U.S. that currently exists. It’s filled with period pieces, from candlesticks to engravings and steamer chests from descendants of Ferdinand Ernst Colony members – remnants from an era when Vandalia served as the capital. Book a tour ahead of time through the Vandalia Historical Society.
This two-story building located on Main Street and Kennedy houses that tell the surrounding area’s history. Special exhibits change regularly, but wartime artifacts – from the Civil War, Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, and the Vietnam and Korea conflicts – are always on display. Outside, visit the home site of Robert McLaughlin, Illinois’ first state treasurer, and admire the surrounding gardens as flowers begin to bloom in spring.
No trip to Vandalia is complete without a visit to the town’s very own fire-breathing dragon. This 35-foot roadside structure, fueled by propane, was initially built for a Halloween parade, but moved in 2008 to its permanent spot off Veterans Avenue. Purchase $1 tokens at Kaskaskia Supply across the street to get your own 10-second fire-breathing show from the metal monster. “It doesn’t matter what time of day or year, if you drive by, there’s somebody out there taking a selfie with the dragon,” Hampton says.
You can dine at this hip restaurant and bar, inspired by the days of Prohibition, while taking in beautiful views of the State House and accompanying statue. Blind Society is open for both lunch and dinner, and patrons may choose from delectable homemade soups, sandwiches and salads around noon, or visit in the evening to feast on chimichurri steak, champagne chicken or bourbon salmon. Signature cocktails are a crowd favorite too.
Vandalia’s first craft distillery, Witness Distillery, opened in late 2020 across the street from the State House. Every step of the distilling process here is local, from the locally grown corn and other grains to nonchlorinated, nonfluoridated water from a nearby spring. The leftover mash even returns to the farm for the cows. Tours of the distillery are held on Saturdays, and you can sample flights and purchase bottles of its fine whiskies and rums.
Located 4 miles northwest of the city, this 660-acre lake is a haven for fishing, boating, camping, swimming and picnicking. In late spring, camping begins to pick up, and the area is very family-friendly. Bring your own fishing boat to the marina to cast a line, as the lake is stocked with large-mouth bass, catfish and bluegill. Be sure to get your boat permit and fishing license ahead of time at City Hall.
To plan your trip to Vandalia, visit vandaliaillinois.com.