48 hours in Ottawa, Illinois

There’s more to this Starved Rock Country small town than meets the eye.
Heritage Harbor
Courtesy of Getty Images
Heritage Harbor

“What the heck are you doing in Ottawa?” my Uncle Kirk asked before we even sat down for lunch at B.A.S.H. Burger and Sushi House. He and my Aunt Amy live in nearby Princeton, Illinois, and they met my mom and me for lunch in the small town where the Illinois and Fox rivers meet. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely confident Ottawa was a destination worth the just over two-hour drive from Madison, either.

But after 48 hours in what tourism pamphlets call “the heart of Starved Rock Country,” I have a much better answer for my uncle, and Ottawa now ranks very near the top of my list of hidden-gem small towns, and not just because of its proximity to Starved Rock State Park.

Where to Stay

harbor inn

Courtesy of Harbor Inn

The far and away winner for best lodging options in Ottawa is Harbor Inn, a waterfront vacation rental resort near Heritage Harbor marina. At first glance, the tightly packed vacation homes featuring screened-in or double-decker porches make you think of San Francisco’s Painted Ladies, which some may know from the “Full House” title sequence. But instead of a city skyline in the background, Harbor Inn’s retreats are nestled between a quiet wooded area and a calm stretch of the Illinois River. When my mom and I arrived on Friday night, we caught an incredible sunset. When we woke up, we watched massive barges move west down the river. We had the three-bedroom rental home, Eddie’s Hideaway, to ourselves and enjoyed sipping coffee and wandering around the resort property, which felt like a mini neighborhood with a pool and walking paths down to the river.

Historic Sites

LaSalle County Court House

LaSalle County Court House (Courtesy of Ottawa Visitors Center)

Ottawa is a great example of how a charming downtown can undergo smart revitalization that allows old and new elements to live in harmony. The remodeling of downtown storefronts to create spots for new boutiques and eateries has preserved many timeworn and history-filled features, like original tiling, flooring, exposed brick and tin ceilings. At the center of the 15.5-square-mile city is Washington Square Park, a green space and historic site where the first senatorial debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas took place on Aug. 21, 1858. Life-sized bronze statues of Lincoln and Douglas stand in the middle of a large fountain in the center of the park. About 12,000 onlookers crowded into the square that day 164 years ago, and some stood on the steps of the Reddick Mansion, which still offers public tours. At the corner of West Jefferson and Clinton streets, a small memorial pays tribute to the Radium Girls — young women who worked at a factory in Ottawa in the 1920s painting glow-in-the-dark numbers onto watch dials. In one of Ottawa’s biggest tragedies, more than 50 of those women died due to radium poisoning. Another remnant of a bygone era is an old-school marquee that lights up the word “ROXY” above what was originally the Gayety Theatre in 1910, renamed the Roxy Theatre in 1932. As you continue to explore Ottawa’s walkable downtown — you can’t miss the LaSalle County Court House built in the early 1880s — you’ll come across many large murals that tell stories of Ottawa’s canal town history through the decades.

Dining and Drink


CatsEye Wine Bar (Photo by Andrea Behling)

Ottawa’s dining scene is crowd-pleasing but impressive. Tangled Roots Brewery and its companion restaurant, Lone Buffalo, are clear favorites for locals and visitors. Order an entree from the chef-driven food menu and a flight of “farm-to-foam” beers — Tangled Roots’ hops and barley are grown down the road from the downtown brewery, where you can see two big copper brew kettles and other on-site brewing machinery behind the bar. For your morning joe, pick up a quick latte at Jeremiah Joe Coffee, and then walk four minutes to The Ottawa Bakery for a slice of the daily quiche or a sausage, egg and cheese bomb, which is a just-right-sized breakfast bite wrapped in flaky croissant dough. If you’d rather do a liquid breakfast, grab a bloody mary at Court Street Pub, a casual neighborhood bar. B.A.S.H. Burger and Sushi House is an of-the-moment lunch spot that’s sure to have something on the menu for everyone — not just burgers and sushi. My mom ordered a caterpillar roll, my uncle went with mac and cheese, I tried the lobster roll steamed buns and my aunt got the spicy chicken sandwich. Ordinarily I’d say a restaurant that offers that many options is doing too much, but everything worked in this case. Red Dog Grill is an ideal spot for casual bar food or a pizza lunch al fresco (and it’s within walking distance of Harbor Inn). For a more elegant experience, The Beach House is the place. The seafood-focused menu matches coastal decor in this cozy corner restaurant. For a drink before or after dinner, I’d suggest three spots, depending on what you’re in the mood for: Pull up a chair at the round bar at JJ’s Pub for a beer, watch giant fish swim under your drink at A’Lure Aquarium Bar or end your evening with a nightcap at CatsEye, a wine bar that has what may be the most inventive cocktail list in town.

Get Outside

small waterfall

Starved Rock State Park (Getty Images)

A 15-minute drive from Ottawa will get you to Starved Rock State Park, a popular spot featuring great trails for people (like my mom and me) who are looking for a short morning hike. The park’s namesake Starved Rock, which offers gorgeous views of the Illinois River, is less than half a mile from the visitors center. It’s about the same distance to the French Canyon, and Lover’s Leap is 0.7 miles away. The longest trail will take you 4.7 miles to Illinois Canyon.

Downtown Shopping
My mom and I are Shoppers with a capital S. We perused Prairie Fox Books and flipped through a few cake cookbooks (my latest baking obsession). At City Folk Urban Decor, my mom almost bought an anatomical heart sculpture as a gift for the doctor she works with. Then we hit up home decor and women’s clothing boutiques, including Deja Vu, which is a dreamy little gift shop from the inside out; Lady’s & Gent’s, a women’s clothing boutique with great prices; A Mess of Things, which focuses on vintage, repurposed items that make “shabby chic” look good; and Thymeless Home Decor and Design, a hot spot for farmhouse favorites.

Take a Pause

interior of SaltTreeYoga

Photo by Andrea Behling

I experienced my first salt cave at SaltTreeYoga, and it was the highlight of the trip. More than 6 tons of pink Himalayan salt covered the floors, caked the walls and filled the air. It’s said to boost your immune system and help detoxify your skin and lungs (among many other things). SaltTreeYoga owner Diana Carlson invited my mom and me into the quiet room, where we leaned back in chairs for 45 meditative minutes. My mom — who seldom has a chance to unwind from her demanding work as a nurse practitioner in a cardiology unit — says she had an out-of-body experience. We both agreed it was something we’d do again, and it was a great way to start our day of exploring. SaltTreeYoga also hosts yoga classes and offers foot detoxes, dry hydrotherapy, body vibration therapy, thermamassage and a full-spectrum infrared sauna.

Must-Attend Event
Even in March, locals were already talking about the much-anticipated Kites in Flight event on May 15. Colorful kites will fill the skies above Heritage Harbor marina, where there will also be food, kids’ activities and other entertainment.

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