It’s been almost 10 years since I tried my first horseshoe — a hulking Springfield food assemblage that involves an open-face sandwich topped with a mountain of fries and covered in Welsh rarebit (aka cheese) sauce. It was as decadent, delectable and nap-inducing as it sounds. That was my first time in Illinois’ capital city, about 3½ hours south of Chicago, past tallgrass prairies, towering grain silos and sprawling cornfields. I’ve been back repeatedly since.
Those frequent visits mean ample opportunities to sink my teeth into a snack at Cozy Dog Drive In, which was once a Route 66 mainstay; to check out the famous butter cow at the Illinois State Fair; to pay a visit to the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Dana-Thomas House and to tour the former haunts of Abraham Lincoln, with whom the town is understandably obsessed. A visit to Springfield is a chance to immerse yourself in history and politics, explore Americana and try a few local specialties, which just might make you feel like you’re at a year-round fair.
Dana-Thomas House: The word “prairie” is used liberally around Springfield. The term takes its most artful form at this stunning example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie-style architecture. Wright designed the home in 1902 for Susan Lawrence Dana, an eccentric philanthropist and feminist. Today, the 12,000-square foot home, with its 35 rooms (and duck-pin bowling in the basement), is owned by the state and is known for being the most intact of all Wright homes, with its expansive collection of art glass and furniture designed by Wright. Daily tours shed light on Wright as well as the home’s former residents (1-217-782-6776, dana-thomas.org).
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum: Lincoln made Springfield his home from 1837 until 1861. Even non-Lincoln-buffs rave about the hologram show, aka the “Ghosts of the Library” production that gives form to Abe. Exhibits bring the past to life, from the replica of his boyhood log cabin to the revelation of the goosebump-raising last words. From the downtown location, you can plan your own Lincoln tour and walk to the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices, the Old State Capitol and the Lincoln Home National Historic Site (1-217-558-8844; illinois.gov/alplm).
Lincoln Tomb: Lincoln’s body rests in Oak Ridge Cemetery. The tomb’s towering granite obelisk grabs your attention from the entry of the cemetery, although more memorable is the bronze statue of Lincoln’s head in front of the tomb: His nose is so light in color it looks as if he’s wearing sunscreen. It’s become a tradition to rub the nose, presumably for luck. Visitors can step inside the somber burial chamber and pay homage to Lincoln, three of his sons and his wife, Mary. For protection from would-be robbers, Lincoln’s remains are kept in a concrete vault about 10 feet below the burial chamber. Thieves tried to remove the body in 1876 (1-217-782-2717, lincolntomb.org).
Route 66 Drive-In: Vintage Americana runs deep in Springfield, thanks to its location on the Mother Road, and that retro pride burns especially brightly at Route 66 Drive-In. Its two screens show double features April through October, with a mix of new and classic movies. Next door is Knights Action Park, an amusement park, water park, golf range and go-kart track. Make it a doubleheader and visit both (1-217-698-0066, route66-drivein.com).
Long Nine Junction: This small, chef-driven lunch spot sits at No. 20 on Yelp’s “Top 100 Places to Eat in the U.S. 2019.” The downtown restaurant is a natural addition to any Lincoln-themed outing: The name was the nickname for Abe and eight other tall Illinois legislators who argued to have the state’s capital moved from Vandalia to Springfield. The menu has a clever format — appetizers are “Opening Statements,” while sides are “Amendments” — for its globally inspired options, such as Tom Kha soup, the Cubano panini, and the comfort-food-innovation of all time: a grilled cheese on garlic bread (1-217-210-2400; restaurantportals.com/LongNineJunction).
Incredibly Delicious: It was dessert that drew me to this French-inspired bakery, in the form of the moneybags-rich flourless chocolate cake. The menu includes pastries, cookies, breads and, not to be overlooked, exquisite savory items such as soups and sandwiches. Pick a spot in the garden or opt for one of the rooms in this sunlight-drenched Victorian home and settle in for a couple of courses. There’s a reason for that name (1-217-528-8548; incrediblydelicious.com).
Cozy Dog Drive In: You know it as a corn dog. Springfield natives knows it as a Cozy Dog. While Cozy Dog Drive In wasn’t the first to enshroud a hot dog in deep-fried, golden corn batter it was, according to legend, among the earliest to put one on a stick in the 1940s. Part restaurant, part tribute to Route 66, just about every inch of the place is covered in corn dog art, license plates and memorabilia. The food is a bargain: You can get a half-dozen Cozy Dogs for about $12 (1-217-525-1992; cozydogdrivein.com).
D’Arcy’s Pint: As I mentioned already, there’s a Springfield creation called the horseshoe, and you’ll find a version of it at just about any self-respecting bar. You’ll also find people with very passionate opinions about who makes the best one. D’Arcy’s Pint, a laid-back Irish pub, is a great place for an introduction to the Springfield classic. Everyone must try one at least once, and unless your appetite is enormous, I recommend getting the smaller version — a pony shoe (1-217-492-8800; darcyspintonline.com).
Springfield Vintage: If the Brady Bunch had a go-to store, it might be like this one, where all things retro, bell-bottom and butterfly-collared are out in force. Play dress-up in the vintage duds and model some baubles and beads. Then, peruse the home decor and even musical selections, all while getting valuable fashion tips from the effervescent owner (springfieldvintage.com).
Where to stay
State House Inn: The hotel, part of Red Roof’s “Red Collection,” was recently renovated, and the rooms are spacious and clean, with a midcentury-modern vibe. The best part, beyond the reasonable rates, is it’s walking distance from all of the bars and restaurants of downtown, as well as the Lincoln Presidential Museum, the Old State Capitol, the Lincoln Home National Historic Site and a number of horseshoe options (1-217-528-5100; statehouseinnspringfield.com).
Inn at 835: The classic revival-style inn — listed on the National Register of Historic Places — has 11 guest rooms and two suites, each named for a flower and bedecked in antiques. Selecting your room is part of the fun: Would you like a canopy bed? A claw-foot tub or double Jacuzzi? A fireplace and private veranda? The inn invites guests to come together for complimentary wine and cheese and made-to-order breakfast. The staff is full of insider Springfield advice, and they’ve never led us astray (1-217-523-4466; connshg.com/Inn-at-835).