Illinois at a Glance
The home of the world’s first skyscraper, the Blues Brothers and deep-dish pizza and — oh, yeah — the 16th president of the United States — Illinois may be the second-flattest state in the country, but its cultural contributions rise far above. Since the Land of Lincoln was admitted to the union in 1818, it’s become one of the nation’s major economic powerhouses.
You might say the state of Illinois is of two hearts — one agricultural and one industrial. Truth: The Midwest would be lost without them. The rich soils of the Prairie State made it a leader in soy, corn and wheat, as well as in pork and beef. Thanks to the rivers, railroads and the Great Lakes, the state’s biggest city — Chicago — became the nation’s third largest. This dominant transportation hub now supports major manufacturing operations, from fuel to food, as well as many other important business sectors.
With a low cost of living and the promise of great educational and job opportunities, Illinois has long been a beacon for immigrants, many of whom have settled in the diverse neighborhoods around the Windy City, which has a dynamic arts scene, incredible restaurants and is home to several important colleges and universities, including Northwestern and the University of Chicago.
Whether you’re moving to the big city, the suburbs or one of Illinois’ many small towns, you’ll find Midwestern charm wherever you call home.
What It’s Like Living in Illinois
Illinois is composed of several unique geographic regions, from the Quad Cities on the northwest border with Iowa to the southeastern farm towns near Kentucky and Tennessee, but there’s no getting around the elephant in the room: Chicago. As the biggest city in the Midwest, and the third largest in the nation, the Windy City is a major driver of the state’s economy and culture, one that helps to give the Prairie State a disproportionately large footprint in the national economy, as well.
Large Economy and Job Market
Illinois is the 5th-largest economy in the nation — ranking just behind much larger states like California, Texas, New York and Florida — and its GDP crossed the $1 trillion mark in 2022. The civilian labor force in the state has a whopping 6.1 million workers, which is nearly twice that of neighboring Indiana, and nearly two million more than Michigan’s.
The unemployment rate, which currently sits at 4.7%, has remained high for the times, but is still low by historic averages. Residents have a diverse choice of industries to work in, including manufacturing, professional services and education/healthcare and government. But trade, transportation and utilities are by far the leading segments. The area which has seen the biggest growth, though, is leisure and hospitality. This industry expanded by nearly 8% in the last year, possibly a continued rebound from pandemic-related contractions.
If you’re looking to make a shift in your career, it’s helpful to know that there are 35 Fortune 500s located in Illinois, including Abbott Laboratories, Allstate and State Farm Insurance. There are also several highly regarded universities and colleges in the state, including Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. These bring important cultural resources and health services to regions across Illinois, while also supporting the state’s economy with a well-educated workforce.
Cost of Living
The cost of living in Illinois is several points below the U.S. average, and income levels here exceed national averages. The median household income in the state is $72,563. Food and housing are two of the areas you’ll save on the most. Housing costs across the state have been on the rise, though, according to Illinois Realtors, with the median sales price for a home in 2022 at $260,000 – an uptick of 4% from the previous year. Property taxes in the state are also some of the highest in the country — the Tax Foundation actually ranks Illinois’ rates at the top of the heap.
Getting to and from that home to work, however, is what really might cost you. Despite having a robust system of public transport, Chicago is infamous for its traffic. The city is the second-most congested in the world, handily beating L.A for the honors. We’ll report more once when we get through this logjam in Bloomington/Normal.
Illinois has Four Distinctive Seasons
If you are looking and hoping to live in a state where you’ll see a true difference between spring, summer, fall and winter, Illinois fits the bill.
The state is known for its long, cold winters, particularly around Chicago, where an average of 28.1 inches of snow falls each season. In the winter, expect highs in the mid-40s °F in the southern half of the state but only in the 30s F in the north. Lows typically range from the teens to low 20s °F.
Summers are warm everywhere across the state, with heat waves that can be serious — even dangerous. Summer temperatures usually range from the 60s to the 80s °F, but the state usually sees at least 10 days above 90°F in the north, and far more if you’re in the southern half. Additionally, Illinois is prone to tornados, which peak between April and June. However, flooding is the greatest weather hazard— heavy rainfall in recent years has really strained the river systems and wreaked billions of dollars in damages.
Not to be overlooked, the “lake effect” around Chicago can cause a number of unpleasantries, including rapid accumulations of snow and rain, high wind and persistent cloudiness that locals unfondly call “Chicago battleship gray.” The one upside of the moisture that blows across this massive, inland sea is the cooling effect Lake Michigan has during the summer. Folks in the ’burbs may be scorched, but city dwellers usually get some relief. If you can handle the cold, you can always get in the lake, where water temperatures usually float around 62°F.
Early summer and early fall are usually the best times to visit or move to Illinois.
Largest Cities in Illinois by Population
Located on the southern shores of Lake Michigan, Chicago is the third-largest city in America — and, far and away, the largest city in Illinois and the entire Midwest. The City of Big Shoulders, as poet Carl Sandburg once called it, is one of grit, glamour and great hot dogs. Nearly 2.7 million people call Chi-town their home, but the greater Chicagoland area encompasses far more — close to 10 million, by some estimates. In other words, of the 12.5 million people who live in Illinois, most live in and around Chicago.
This gives the city critical mass for its vast cultural offerings. That includes hundreds of theaters, museums and parks, eight professional sports teams and 26 Michelin-starred restaurants. Meanwhile, the arts aren’t just entertainment here, they’re big business. There are over 13,000 film and TV jobs in the Second City. Chicago has launched the careers of some of the biggest actors of our time: Tina Fey, Jennifer Hudson and Bill Murray, to name a few.
Of course, dozens of other industries thrive in the Windy City, from financial services to manufacturing. The city’s population has held relatively steady over the past decade. Plus, housing costs are far below what you’ll find in comparable cities on the coasts. The median home value in Chicago is only $277,600 — slightly above the national average — as is the median gross rent of $1,209.
Just 35 miles southwest of the Windy City lies the fabled home of Blues Brother “Joliet‘ Jake”. The main industries in Joliet — a popular suburb — capitalize on its location on the Des Plaines River, which provides a strong economic base for the city’s casino gambling, tourism, shipping/transportation and manufacturing sectors. The city is also a hub for producing and transporting petroleum, steel, paper and chemical products. Amazon, Caterpillar and Harrah’s are just some of the large corporations with bases in the city.
At just under $205,000, the median home value in this popular suburb of Chicago is below state and national averages, and far below rates in other suburban Chicago areas. Meanwhile, rent averages $1,104 per month. As the third-largest city in Illinois, Joliet’s population has increased modestly over the past decade, with just over 150,000 residents now calling the city home.
The Joliet area has several cultural attractions to recommend it, including the Joliet Area Historical Museum, the Joliet Ironworks Historic Site and 1926 Rialto Theatre. This extraordinary architectural treasure opened as a vaudeville movie palace — and palace is no embellishment, here. It was modeled after Versailles. Today, the venue hosts top performers from around the world.
Made famous by SNL’s “Wayne’s World,” the western suburb of Aurora is a quiet, architecturally rich city of roughly 180,000 residents. Although the city is Illinois’ second-most populous, Aurora’s population has declined somewhat over the last 10 years.
The median home value in Aurora — $208,500 —lower than state and national levels. However, rent is disproportionately more expensive, averaging nearly $1,400 a month.
Aurora has a quaint downtown area along the Fox River, one that is highly walkable and filled with parks, restaurants and gorgeous buildings designed by famed architect Grant Elmslie. It’s also known as the home of the less architecturally exciting Chicago Premium Outlets — which provides essential retail therapy to the Chicagoland area and beyond.
One of Aurora’s largest employers is the Hollywood Casino, though other industry sectors are also important to its economy, including technical services, logistics, transportation and warehousing.
Unique Experiences in Illinois
There are many places to explore across the Prairie State, but the greatest concentration of cultural attractions in Illinois is most certainly within the city of Chicago. The architecture alone is reason enough to visit. Looking for one of the best ways to see and learn about? Hop aboard an architectural river cruise. This is one tour kids won’t have to be persuaded to see, because you get to ride in a boat!
One of the oldest draws to the city is the Art Institute of Chicago, which was founded in 1879 and underwent a major expansion in 2009. Its encyclopedic collection has nearly 300,000 works from all over the globe.
Another of the city’s many treasures is Millennium Park. This 24.5-acre attraction includes native gardens, a quarter mile-long skating ribbon, the Pritzker Pavilion — designed by Frank Gehry — and several works of public art, including Cloud Gate, a reflective sculpture by Anish Kapoor, colloquially called “The Bean.”
Other great attractions in Chicago include the Museum of Science and Industry, a hands-on, eye-opening, mind-blowing learning destination where the strong of the stomach can board a flight simulator or dissect a real cow’s eye. The less intrepid can see a tornado form indoors or watch a plastic toy to be machine-molded before their eyes. Other fan faves in the Windy City include the Ferris wheel at Navy Pier and the Shedd Aquarium. Learn more about where to eat, sleep and play — not to mention loads of under-the-radar gems — in our Chicago City Guide.
Most sport teams in the state are also based out of Chicago, which is where you can root for the Chicago Bears, Chicago Blackhawks, Chicago Sky, Chicago Fire FC and the legendary Chicago Bulls. Much like New York, Chicago is a divided baseball town, with loyalties split between the American League’s White Sox, who play on the South Side, and the National League’s Cubs, who play on the North Side. The Cubs’ greater rivalry may be with its southern competitor, though — the St. Louis Cardinals.
Just outside Chicago in the suburb of Glenview, the Kohl Children’s Museum is a family-friendly destination where the younger set can explore music, nature, engineering and art in 17 permanent exhibitions.
Though much of the state is flat and dedicated to farmland, it may surprise you that Illinois is an incredible place to explore nature. In the southern parts of the state, the river bluffs offer unparalleled views of nature and history. A fun new way to take in this scenery is on the new alpine coaster in Grafton, which takes riders on a thrilling solo glide through the hillside.
Hikers and horseback riders will also love the trails through the Shawnee National Forest, where the Garden of the Gods offers panoramic views of the sandstone rock formations and the surrounding hickory and oak forests. Another such destination not to miss is Starved Rock State Park, with tis gorgeous — and dramatic — bluffs and miles upon miles of forested hiking trails that reveal them. Designated as Illinois’ second state park in 1911, its 18 canyons feature vertical walls of moss-covered St. Peter sandstone. Visits are particularly spectacular in the fall when the leaves change color. Adding to its appeal, the area is well-developed for travelers, with a lodge and cabins, trolley and river tours and live entertainment.
Further south, Cahokia Mounds is a step way back in time. At this historic site of the ancient Mississippian culture, one of the largest and most sophisticated communities in the ancient Americas, visitors can climb to the top of Monk’s Mound — the largest earthwork on the continent. Here, you can see the remnants of Woodhenge, a physical calendar that corresponds to important celestial events, like equinoxes and solstices.
Just north of Chicago in Zion, Illinois Beach State Park is the perfect place to test the chilly waters of Lake Michigan in the summer or your cross-country skiing skills in the wintertime. Unlike other public beaches near the city, this park is surrounded by rolling dunes, marshland and forests, making it a prime spot of wildflower viewing and birding.
History buffs should make a stop in Springfield, the state capital, to see the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, which has interactive exhibits, living history performances and important artifacts. In the southern river city of Alton, you can take a two-hour guided shuttle tour to learn about the area’s important Underground Railroad sites. Just a few miles downriver, visitors can trace the footsteps of two of the country’s great explorers at the Lewis & Clark State Historic Site, which has a full-scale, 55-foot-long keelboat.
Like many states in the Midwest, the Prairie State is known for its hearty, stick-to-your-ribs concoctions, from the unpretentious pierogi to succulent pork cutlets fresh from a local farm. You’ll find state fair ribbon-winning venison chili on small-town dinner tables across the state and innovative, international fare in the cities. Wherever you roam, you’ll never go hungry.
If you can chew gum and talk out of both sides of your mouth at the same time, you might be from Chicago. That is, if it’s a stick of Wrigley’s, which was invented in the Windy City — so called because of its politics more than its weather — by William Wrigley Jr. in 1893.
Pay a visit to Wrigley Field, and you might be tempted to taste another of the city’s famous fare — the Chicago-style hot dog. If you’ve traveled more than a couple of blocks anywhere in the Chicagoland area and you have not seen a Superdawg, Wolfy’s or Portillo’s, have a professional check your eyes immediately. You might have deep dish in them.
Speaking of which … shall we describe the singular pleasure of the world’s most indulgent pie? Deep dish pizza is not just a food, it is an immersive, life-altering dining experience. The place that started it all is the appropriately named Uno’s, but you’ll also find unforgettable pies at Gino’s East, Pequod’s and Lou Malnati’s.
If you’re looking for comparatively lighter but still authentically Chicago fare, Italian beef is a must-eat on your Windy City bingo card. You can order dry, wet or dipped. The unorthodox may add cheese, though they can expect a side-eye from hard-nosed originalists. There are oodles of establishments to try them, but none of them superior to Mr. Beef on Orleans.
If you find your way to the capital (and, really, you should), treat yourself to Springfield’s signature dish, the Horseshoe. This deconstructed sandwich layers thick slices of toast with ham and French fries. Then, everything is generously drenched in homemade rarebit sauce. The original horseshoe was invented at Springfield’s historic Leland Hotel, but you’ll find a great version at Obed and Isaac’s as well. One sandwich might be big enough to satisfy your whole family.
Get Ready for Your Move to Illinois
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