Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, I had always heard about Galena, Illinois. I knew it was a small town somewhere out near Iowa but that’s about it. Conversations about Galena were often accompanied by terms like ‘vacation home’ and ‘long weekend.’ Luxuries my younger self was not privy to. I wrote Galena off as expensive and boring.

It’s funny how we take the places around where we grew up for granted. I put places like Galena, the top of the Sears Tower, and that Thai restaurant in downtown Wheaton into a box. The box of things that have always been there, so I subconsciously assume will always be there and therefore don’t pay them any attention. Yet when I’m traveling, I get geeked over visiting a small town in The Netherlands, seeing the Eiffel Tower lit up at night or dining at a whole in the wall sushi joint in Brisbane.

In fact, last fall I was on the northern coast of Friesland with my friend Lisa and her family. In awe of the cold, rainy, gray beach scene I spent the day photographing seagulls and sand dunes. My friend’s niece, who doesn’t speak any English, asked in Dutch with a quizzical look on her face, “doesn’t she have seagulls in her own country?”

The nine year old’s question stopped me in my tracks. Yes. Yes I do have seagulls in my own country. Why did I look at that gray day on a remote beach in the Netherlands with admiration, yet stick my nose up to similar experiences at home?

That’s when I realized I need to look at everywhere I am, even home, through the eyes of a traveler.

Welcome to Galena, Illinios!

In addition to seeing my home state through traveler’s eyes I am here to spend quality time with loved ones. Therefore, when invited to spend the weekend in Galena with a group of people for a friend’s 30th birthday, I was eager to attend.

Ten of us rented a beautiful house through Eagle Ridge Resort and Spa. The house, located in the Galena Territory, had two master bedrooms each with a king size bed, two smaller bedrooms each with two queen sized beds, a formal dining area, a living room, billiard room, four bathrooms and a hot tub on the back porch!

We arrived late on Thursday night and didn’t do much other than unload the car before going to bed. One of my favorite things to do when I go somewhere new, is to arrive after dark. That way my surroundings are a total surprise come daylight. It’s like Christmas morning for adults.

Downtown Galena, Illinois

I didn’t even realize it was morning when I woke up in the shadowy basement bedroom at almost 10am on Friday. It’s as if the sun never fully rises in November in Illinois. Upstairs I was greeted by a picture window looking out onto a forest full of yellow and orange fall foliage. Ahah, the Christmas morning like surprise I was hoping for!

We managed to kill the better part of the day sipping vanilla coffee, chatting about nothing and watching the leaves fall. By late afternoon we decided to go into Downtown Galena for food. We all agreed that throwing on boots and coats over our sweats and undone hair was appropriate attire.

My friend grew up going to Galena and highly recommended Durty Gurts Burger Joynt so that’s where we went! Bomb! Afterwards we strolled down Main Street. The red brick buildings are kept up to look like they would have during the Civil War. Although now they are filled with boutiques and restaurants and bustling with tourists. The birthday boy said, “this would look so much cooler if there were no cars and everyone was wearing top hats.” True story.

Although no battles were fought there, Galena has ties to the Civil War- it was home to general Ulysses S. Grant. We didn’t visit the Ulysses S. Grant Museum but I would have liked to to compare it to the Civil War Museum I visited in Franklin, Tennessee. Next time!

Before heading back to the house we stopped in Devour Cafe, a boutique coffee shop on Main Street. I ordered the Mayan Mocha, a dark chocolate, cayenne pepper and espresso drink. It hit the spot.

For dinner we had pizza delivered to the house from Cannova‘s. Chicagoans are always skeptical of pizza when we are away for the city but this place is exceptionally delicious! Even after waiting almost two hours for delivery!

Fall leaves surrounding a Galena cabin

Running, Writing, Gin and the Hot Tub

The next morning, the marathon runners of the group went on a late morning run. I am not one of them so I stayed back wrapped up in a blanket by the window writing. The only actual plan we had for the weekend was to visit Blaum Brothers Distilling Co., a bourbon, gin, vodka and moonshine distillery. So that’s where we went that afternoon.

The bar area is large and open with big comfortable leather couches and chairs. There are dart boards on the walls and giant checker boards on the tables. A large window to the right of the bar looks onto barrels in the distillery. Its chic but also has a rustic barn like feel to it. It feels especially country when you see the brown and white cat walk through like he owns the joint. The cocktails are unique and tasty. The one I tried was infused with lavender.

We spent our last evening in Galena back at the house. Everyone had pitched in for groceries bringing all the ingredients necessary for a full service taco bar! After dinner and singing happy birthday several of us braved the freezing temps for a dip in the hot tub. I swear hot tubs have some kind of intoxication power. We didn’t have much to drink that day but were laughing and playing around in the water like slap happy little children.

The memories made on this trip to Galena are ones I’ll cherish forever. And to think, I may have never gotten the chance to make them if a nine year old didn’t remind me I have seagulls in my own country.

Window to fall leaves in Galena

Photo Credit: All photos were taken by Alex Harnisch, a fellow member of the Galena weekend crew and leader of the hot tub shenanigans!