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With a history as rich as the mineral deposits for which it’s named, Galena is a charming small-town getaway in the heart of the Midwest and the county seat of Jo Daviess County. Though it seems unimaginable now, Galena once rivaled Chicago in population. Back in the late 1820s, thousands flocked here to mine its namesake ore, which had long been used by Native Americans for burial rituals and trading. Even an American president has called Galena home: Ulysses S. Grant’s mansion, presented to him by the townspeople in the 1860s, is one of the town’s most popular tourist destinations. Many Chicagoans call Galena their second home. Galena’s main street, sometimes called the Helluva Half Mile (riffing on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile), is lined with Victorian-era storefronts and eateries. The rolling hills along the horizon draw visitors for skiing in the winter and hot-air ballooning during the warmer months.
Galena is equidistant from the major Midwestern hubs of Chicago and Milwaukee, each of which is a little less than a 3-hour drive away. Given the town’s small footprint, Galena isn’t served by public transportation, so having a car is a must for getting there and around. Walking around downtown Galena — including the charming half-mile Main Street — is a great way to get a feel for the area, but car travel is necessary to reach destinations beyond the town’s core. There aren’t many taxis in Galena, though a handful of rideshare options may be available in a pinch.
Galena rolls with the Midwestern weather patterns, which is good news for visitors. Perhaps the most beautiful times of year to visit are late spring, when the surrounding hills are in bloom, or autumn, during leaf-peeping season. Summertime in Galena is marked with outdoor bistro seating on Main Street, live music and festivals on the weekends, and strolling families wielding ice cream cones. Though winter is a little quieter (and can be quite cold), it has its own draws. Area resorts tucked into the hills host downhill skiers and snowboarders, and cross-country ski trails criss-cross through nearby nature preserves and Apple River Canyon State Park.
One of Galena’s best-known tourist attractions is also one of its most magnificent. Every third full weekend in June, weather pending, thousands come to marvel at a series of colorful balloon races across the prairie. The pros race at dusk on Friday night and at dawn on Saturday and Sunday. Meanwhile, amateurs can enjoy leisurely hot-air balloon rides with on-site rental companies.
Toward the south end of bustling Main Street, a pedestrian bridge stretches across Galena River to this stately Victorian-era park. True to the period design, the park’s paths lead under decorative arbors to the town’s Civil War monument and gazebo, and the formal fountain stands out as a landmark.
On the funkier side of Galena’s tourist attractions is this 2-acre park featuring metal sculptures of various scales. Ranging from rusted-out can contraptions to impressive postmodern art statements, the dozens of sculptures here are spread all over the park (including some in its trees), exposed to the elements, and open to visitors year round.