I was dragged to Peoria in 1980 kicking and screaming, an immature 13-year-old who was bound and determined not to make this city my home. My dad was a Cat man, and Peoria was his next stop in an impressive 40-year career with the Big Yellow. "It's Better Here" was definitely not my motto.
Over time, I slowly warmed up to the city, its people and its offerings. After high school, I left for my college experience, and after a short career stint in Milwaukee I found myself right back in the River City. Marriage, a child, 10 months in Leavenworth (my ex-husband was in the Army) and a couple of years in Chicago solidified what I had been tossing around in my head for years - I wanted to go "home".
Since then, I've become an advocate of this "big, small town", if nothing else for the fact that I don't have to plan my travels around the morning and afternoon rush hour. I can pretty much get anywhere in the city in 20 minutes (when War Memorial and I-74 aren't under construction, of course). There's an abundance of activities for kids, oodles of options for a girls' night out, and plenty of places for a great date night.
No, we're not Chicago with a Navy Pier, Museum of Science and Industry, or Water Tower Place. But we're less than 3 hours away from these amazing points of interest. What Peoria does offer is true family experiences, unique venues, and a taste of the big city with small town hospitality. Here's a short list of my favorites:
Arts and Sciences
Lakeview Museum - When the family-friendly exhibits come to town, there's nothing better to do with the kids on a wintry or rainy day. Perusing the gift shop is even an adventure in eclectic and interesting toys and games. The planetarium is a sight to behold as well. A family membership is ridiculously reasonable, and with that you get great discounts to museums all over the country.
Peoria Art Guild
For an amazing art experience, visit the oldest and largest resource for contemporary art in Central Illinois. The Art Guild is one of the few galleries in Central Illinois that regularly features living artists, and are the sponsors of the Fine Art Fair, which has been ranked as one of the top 100 art fairs in the country.
Wildlife Prairie Park - Come on, seriously. WHERE ELSE can you find a place like this? Not only is it a gorgeous way to spend the day among animals you normally would not be able to ever see in their natural habitats, it promotes education, exercise and excitement for kids and adults alike. Memberships are reasonable, the Sunday brunch is incredible, and you can even spend the night in one of their rustic cabins. Now that's a true family day and a great way to spend a "stay-cation".
The Riverfront - For kids: Start at Joe's Crab Shack for lunch on the deck, then take a walk and watch the boats (and the debris) float down the river. Check out Preston Jackson's sculptures along the way, then let the kids dip in the fountain on the square. Continue on down to the Riverplex and expel some energy on their awesome playground.
For adults: Enjoy a casual dinner at a variety of restaurants on or near the Riverfront, followed by a listen to one of the awesome bands that play seasonally on the CEFCU stage or at Martinis in the old River Station building.
On Saturdays from June to September, check out the Farmer's Market - more than just fruits and veggies, by the way. Cap off your shopping with a tasty coffee at Water Street or Cafe 401 and take time to stroll through the shops in Waterfront Place including the Illinois Antique Center.
What city of nearly 115,000 (and that's just the city proper) has a minor league baseball team in a state of the art stadium, an AHL Hockey team, as well as fiercely followed basketball and soccer teams? There's not a month that goes by in this town that there's not some sort of sporting event to attend with your family, your kids, the guys or the gals.
Wine and Dine
The Central Illinois area continues to surprise me with its food and drink options. Two wineries I have had the pleasure of visiting, Kickapoo Creek Winery and Mackinaw Valley Winery, are both beautiful locales to kick back and pretend you're in the vineyards of California.
If beer is your poison, check out some of the local pubs like Kelleher's (offering 18 micro and import drafts and 90 bottled beers) or Sullivan's (great menu, great bartenders and the best Bloody Marys on the planet). Fabulous food is in abundance in Peoria, from the Vietnamese Thanh Lihn (recently highly recommended) to the culinary excellence of June, to the Peoria staple, Avanti's.
Now that's definitely the short list, and I'm thinking after writing this that I'd really like to become a reviewer of "All Things Peoria". So if you have your own jewel to add to my list of gems here, please comment below. After being back in the River City for going on 10 years, I think it really is "Better Here", and getting better all the time.