Queen of the River

Once the steamboat Mecca of Illinois, Galena still reigns in historical significance and holiday charm

Galena is more Europe than Illinois: red-brick buildings line a curvy Main Street, more people walk than drive, stores flaunt their wares with customized hanging signs. The picturesque city of 3,400 used to be a steamboat mecca, luring in businessmen, elites, and politicians with its abundance of lead. Today, people come for its relaxed atmosphere and old-world charm—especially in December, when fresh snow and twinkling lights make Galena sparkle like the locally mined mineral for which the town was named.

To really experience Galena, park the car, bundle up, and take to the sidewalks. There’s locally made wine to be sampled at Galena Cellars and beer growlers to be browsed at Peace of the Past. Thousands of socks featuring everything from ponies to college mascots line the walls of For Bare Feet. The majestic DeSoto House Hotel, the oldest operating hotel in Illinois at 156-years-old, proudly occupies the corner of Main and Green Streets. A couple steps farther lies Galena Canning Company, a two-store condiment heaven bursting with every type of sauce, salsa, jelly, and jam imaginable—all locally made. Stop in between meals to snack on the dozens of samples (but steer clear of the ghost-pepper hot sauce if you value your tastebuds). At Main Street’s north end is Vintaj Earth, a rustic shop that displays its one-of-a-kind necklaces and earrings amid antique furniture and repurposed tree branches.

All the shops look their holiday best come December, when even the lampposts sport candy-cane stripes and wreaths. In fact, every weekend offers something new: the Mistletoe Ball at Turner Hall, living-window displays in Main Street’s shops, free gift wrapping at the DeSoto House. But the grandest of Galena’s winter traditions is also the simplest: the Luminaria.

On the third weekend in December, light bulbs are switched off and thousands of candles are lit, illuminating every street, step, and stoop in Galena. As a golden glow settles over the town, history and present day become momentarily indistinguishable, creating an atmosphere that’s at once nostalgic for days gone by and hopeful for memories to come. And, in that moment, Galena once again reigns as Queen of the river. 

MNMO’s Guide to Galena


Farmers’ Guest House, a 19th-century bakery/market/boarding house. Take time to roam: the walls are full of antiques, photos, and other eclectic treasures. From $125, 334 Spring St., 815-777-3456, galenabedandbreakfast.com


For a meal with a view, grab a hummus-and-roasted-veggie sandwich at Otto’s Place (100 Bouthillier St., ottosplace.com). Bringing Europe to Galena is Fritz and Frites, a bistro offering seriously good salads plus classic German and French dishes (317 N. Main St., fritzandfrites.com). Enjoy a locally sourced sit-down dinner at One Eleven Main (111 N. Main St., oneelevenmain.com).


Get to know Galena on a trolley tour, which includes a look inside Ulysses S. Grant’s home (galenatrolleys.com). Back downtown, sample your way through the hundreds of locally produced goodies at Galena Canning Company (galenacanning.com). Then check out the handmade jewelry at Vintaj Earth, full of creatively displayed one-of-a-kind pieces (vintajearth.com).