Galena Uncovered: Explore the Driftless Landscapes and Historical Treasures

Celebrity Hats in Galena

Day Trip to Galena from Rock Island Arsenal

Are you in search of an excellent road trip destination close to Rock Island Arsenal? Today, we’re embarking on a scenic journey to Galena, a quaint Midwest town that’s more than just a dot on the map. Nestled among rolling hills and historic landscapes, Galena offers a glimpse into a world where the past and present merge seamlessly. In this post, we’ll delve into the historic charm of Galena, from its picturesque farmhouses and shimmering silos to the quaint shops lining Main Street, showcasing why this road trip might just be the perfect retreat you’ve been looking for.

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Why Visit Galena?

A Driftless Community

Galena, Illinois, is a special place that really stands out in the Midwest because of its unique natural beauty and rich history. What makes Galena different is that it’s part of an area that glaciers didn’t flatten thousands of years ago, like they did with much of the rest of the Midwest.

This means Galena has lots of hills, valleys, and high cliffs that you don’t see elsewhere in the region. The area’s unique blend of plants and landscapes sets it apart from its surroundings because glaciers did not cover it. It’s a great spot for anyone who loves nature, history, or just wants to see a place that feels like stepping back in time. Galena has done a great job keeping its old buildings and natural scenery just as they are, making it a perfect place to visit if you’re curious about American history. Most of the buildings downtown are on the National Historical Landmark registry.

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Where to Go in Galena

Not knowing much else about Galena, we decided to start our exploration with a visit to the visitors center and a tour of the Ulysses S. Grant House, hoping it would be the jump-off point to exploring the rest of the town. We highly recommend both. The docent at the visitors center (an old train station) is a local and has a wealth of information about past and present Galena.

What we learned is that there are more than 125 art galleries, vintage boutiques, and antique shops. In addition, there are almost 60 eateries and 7 coffee shops in the downtown area. And you can visit most of them by walking up and down Main Street.

Ulysses S. Grant House

The Grant House sits atop a significant hill next to the visitor’s center. It offers a commanding view of the surrounding area. Although there are about ten parking spaces directly in front of the house, we opted to park in a more considerable lot near the train tracks. The walk up the hill from there was manageable and served as an excellent prelude to our day, whetting our appetite for food and adventure.

Did You Know this About President Grant?

Before the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant enlisted in the Army but eventually left to try his hand at various civilian pursuits, including working in the leather business, farming, and real estate. However, he struggled to succeed and establish a stable career in these fields. Financial difficulties and professional setbacks marked this period of his life.

Faced with limited options, Grant made the decision to rejoin the military. Upon his return to service, his fortunes changed dramatically. He quickly distinguished himself as a capable and effective leader. As the Civil War escalated, Grant’s talents as a military strategist and leader became increasingly evident. He rose through the ranks at a remarkable pace, eventually becoming a commanding general. His leadership and strategic decisions during the Civil War played a crucial role in the Union’s victory, cementing his legacy as one of America’s most distinguished military leaders.

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The Mansion, Grant Park, and Life After the War

The city of Galena gifted the mansion to General Grant. It is a large mansion with a commanding view over Galena. Despite this, the Grant’s did not employ servants or slaves. After Julia Dent Grant passed away, her four children transferred ownership of the mansion and all its contents to the city. The children made a request to turn the house into a museum.

A Treasure Trove

I just learned that the Grants took a vacation to Europe and ended up touring 30 countries, becoming guests of honor for more than 2 1/2 years. Presents from the governments of various countries fill their home.These gifts showcase the international esteem in which Grant was held. These countries include England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Egypt, the Holy Land (modern-day Israel/Palestine), Greece, Russia, India, Burma (modern-day Myanmar), Thailand, China, and Japan. The array of gifts reflects the wide array of cultures and nations that appreciated Grant’s legacy and contributions.

Many artifacts, like the two landscape paintings on the wall of the sitting room, are considered as valuable as the house itself. I enjoyed looking at the miniature size furniture– boy those people were tiny creatures in the 19th century.

Twenty-Minute Guided Tour

After touring the house and soaking in its historical significance, we dropped the suggested $5 each into the donation box. We explored the grounds including the Mrs. Butterworth’s statue (aka Julia Dent Grant) and descended the steps to Grant Park. The park is a serene spot overlooking the river, perfect for a leisurely stroll. We then crossed the picturesque bridge that leads directly to Main Street, setting our sights on finding a good spot for lunch. This route offered us a delightful transition from the historical ambiance of Grant Park to the vibrant life and energy of Main Street, illustrating the charming blend of past and present that Galena embodies.

It is early March, and I expected fewer people to be out and about in Galena. But crowds filled the place. I can only see the crowds during the summer and fall. I had several recommendations, but we chose Embe Eatery & Lounge.

Embe Eatery & Lounge

Embe Eatery and Lounge is a locally owned and operated restaurant and bar in Galena, IL, that has been serving customers since 2011. They offer homemade deli-style food, gourmet soups, sandwiches, and salads, specializing in from-scratch cooking using quality ingredients to bring their family’s delicious recipes to life. Embe boasts an enormous selection of regional and craft beers, specialty martinis, and other beverages.

The walls are decorated with musicians like Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, and Axl Rose. Multiple seating options include low table, high top, and bar seating. I highly recommend the Caryn (chicken, horseradish, and parmesan cheese) and the Corned Beef Brisket (thick slices of corned beef with homemade horseradish dijon mustard and chopped dill pickle. As always, Steven and split each sandwich down the middle and they were delicious and fulfilling.

Embe Eatery and Lounge is open daily, the eatery also features live music and events on Friday and Saturday nights, creating a vibrant atmosphere for diners opposite the Desoto Hotel balcony where Lincoln spoke. Both are located at the intersection of Main and Green Streets.

Desoto Hotel

Established in 1855, this hotel is known for its second-floor balcony, where Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech in 1856. The hotel was originally a five-story building, but economic challenges and concerns about fire safety led to removing the top two floors in 1880. The Desoto House has been a central figure in Galena’s social and political events, marking it as an important historical site

Great American Popcorn Company

There are so many cute stores to name here. You’ll find gift shops, culinary stores, clothing, jewelry, home decor, and snacks like the Great American Popcorn Company.

The Great American Popcorn Company, located in Galena, Illinois, was founded in 1994 by Dave Lewis and his wife, Cathie. This shop produces up to 50 different flavors on a daily basis. They have created more than 350 flavors since the store’s opening like salted caramel, white cheddar jalapeño, and cherry cheesecake.

The company emphasizes quality, using the best non-GMO popcorn sourced from American family farms, and crafts its gourmet popcorn in small batches daily. And because of it, the popcorn is not cheap. We bought two bags for about $20. The store also sells homemade chocolate. It is worth a visit because you can sample all the popcorn you want before buying.

Need to Know

Galena, named after the mineral mined there, can get pretty busy, there are tons of benches to for people-watching. Avoid holiday weekends or when the boy-scouts come to town– that’s exactly what I was told.

Some attractions are closed until a certain time, so do a little research. Stop at the visitor center for maps and specific tour information.

Parking is tight along main street. But I did notice at least one underground parking garage. You can also park in the large lot behind the visitor center along the Galena River and enjoy a 10-minute walk to the downtown area.

If you visit during peak season or on the weekend and want to eat in one of the restaurants, call ahead and make a reservation. And finally, wear comfortable shoes. Galena is best discovered on foot and there is some up and down in exploring it. Or take the trolley.


Setting off from the Quad Cities down Brady Street, we were immediately drawn to the sights along the road: grand Victorian mansions, an intriguing vintage furniture store, and a cozy hookah lounge, all of which merited a mental note for a return visit. Our journey, like many from this area, weaved through Illinois into Iowa and back into Illinois, with each bridge crossing adding a bit of intrigue to the otherwise flat landscape. As we neared Galena, the terrain transformed dramatically. The flat plains gave way to limestone cliffs and undulating hills that heralded our approach to this charming town.

Galena, with its endearing streets and friendly ambiance, quickly won our hearts, earning the title of our favorite town in the Midwest. We’re already making plans to come back this summer, eager to experience the Chestnut Mountain Resort sled, explore the historic Dowling House, and admire the grandeur of the Belvedere Mansion in full bloom. We would also like to visit the large Galena & U.S. Grant Museum on a hill overlooking Galena and stay overnight in one of bed and breakfast downtown.

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