The lighter side of real estate

The Top 10 Most Exciting Cities In Illinois

Looking for thrills in the Land of Lincoln? This ranking of the most exciting cities in Illinois is all you need.

Natalie Grigson

Staff Writer

155 articles, 0 comments

Let’s be honest here. When most people think of Illinois, apart from Chicago the word “excitement” isn’t exactly the first thing that springs to mind. Of course, that doesn’t mean Illinois isn’t a fine state—there are plenty of wonderful places there, but exciting?

As it turns out, yes, really. On our latest mission to uncover the most exciting places in the country, we headed to Illinois and found the 10 most exciting places in the state. Why? Because that’s part of what we do here on the Movoto Real Estate Blog.

Which place in Illinois was the most exciting of them all? Evanston, as it turns out. However, this city didn’t make its way to the top without some riveting competition. Here are the 10 most exciting places in the Prairie State:

1. City of Evanston
2. City of Woodstock
3. City of Rock Island
4. City of Chicago
5. City of St. Charles
6. City of Carbondale
7. City of Champaign
8. City of Edwardsville
9. City of Bloomington
10. Village of Downers Grove

We know what you’re thinking: Evanston is more exciting than Chicago—and Downers Grove made the top 10? Well, before you have a Butter Cow and head straight to the comments section, please note that we didn’t just pick these 10 places as the most exciting; the numbers did.

To find out more about the method behind this science, and just why each of these places made the top of our list, keep on reading.

How We Measured Excitement

Just like with any of our other Big Deal Lists, the first step was to narrow down a list of places. For a state the size of Illinois, where there are over 200 places with populations over 10,000 people, we went with the 100 most populous places, according to the U.S. Census (2010).

From there, we used Census data and business listings to collect data for the following exciting criteria:

  • Nightlife per capita (bars, clubs, comedy, etc.)
  • Live music venues per capita
  • Active life options per capita (parks, outdoor activities, etc.)
  • Fast Food restaurants per capita (the fewer the better)
  • Percentage of restaurants that are not fast food (the higher the better)
  • Percentage of young residents ages 18 to 34 (the higher the better)

If you’re not on the edge of your seat yet, you just hold onto your hat, Illinois, because there’s more. From there, we ranked each place from 1 to 100, according to the above criteria. Then, we averaged them for a final Big Deal Score with the lowest number being the best, or in this case, the most exciting.

If the anticipation is killing you and you just can’t wait, you can head down to the bottom of the post for a detailed ranking of the top 50 most exciting places in the state. Otherwise, put on your fun hat, because we’re heading to the most exciting place in Illinois: Evanston.

1. Evanston

Evanston, IL

Source: 27 Live Facebook

Evanston may be a suburb of Chicago, but as our analysis showed, it is perfectly exciting on its own, thank you very much—especially for anyone into music. That’s because with venues like Space, 27 Live, and the Pick-Staiger Concert Hall (just to name a few), Evanston ranked second on our list in terms of music venues per capita.

You know who loves live music? Well, most everybody, but college kids in particular. Evanston is home to Northwestern University, which is the main reason this city ranked so high in the young population category. Good news for Northwestern parents out there, Evanston also ranked well in the fast food category, meaning it doesn’t have that many compared to its overall selection of dining options. (So even your meals can be new and exciting.)

This seems to go hand in hand with the fact that Evanston ranked ninth in the category of active lifestyle, thanks in part to so many outdoor activities and parks like Dawes, James Park, Lawson Park, and more.

2. Woodstock

Woodstock, IL

Source: Woodstock Opera House Facebook

Whether you think of the bird, the concert, or the Illinois city, it turns out they’re all pretty exciting. Okay, maybe not the bird, but our analysis at least proves that Woodstock, Illinois is certainly worth getting excited about.

Befitting of its name, this Illinois city actually ranked No. 1 in the category of music venues per capita, with places like the Other Side and, yes, even the Woodstock Opera House. Of course, some larger cities have more venues total, but with a population of just 24,770, Woodstock is doing pretty well for itself.

Woodstock also came in among the top 10 in terms of its number of (non fast food) restaurants per capita. The chicken pot pie at La Petite Creperie is probably worth a thousand restaurants combined, and also—fun fact!—the restaurant was featured in many shots of the movie “Groundhog Day”, which was filmed in Woodstock.

3. Rock Island

Rock Island, IL

Source:Flickr user quillons

With a name like Rock Island, you’d better hope that your city is exciting. As it turns out, it really is. In fact, when it came to, well, rocking, this city put all others to shame.

That’s because Rock Island ranked No. 1 in nightlife locales per capita, and No. 6 in music venues per capita. Not only did this include the go-tos (bars, nightclubs, pubs, etc.), but it also included a ton of comedy clubs and off the grid venues; places like the Blacklist Theater Company, Hookah House, and ComedySportz Quad Cities.

Rock Island also ranked pretty well for its number of non-fast food restaurants per capita, including everything from Italian and French to more southern fare like Mexican, and some of the best barbecue in the area at Jim’s Rib Haven.

4. Chicago

Chicago, IL

Source: Flickr user Chad Magiera

Now that we’ve finished drooling over the ribs mentioned in our No. 3 place, we can move on to drooling about the deep dish pizza we’ll mention for this one, which of course means we’re talking about Chicago.

Whether you think Pequod’s Pizzeria is the best place for deep dish, or whether you’re just wrong, Chicago is known for this dish. It’s also known for its museums, culture, nightlife, day-life, shopping—you get the idea. It’s a thrilling place, and if it weren’t for its huge population of over two million people, it probably would have ranked even higher on our list.

Since we wanted to keep things fair, though, we used the per capita counts rather than totals. Even so, the Windy City blew the competition away when it came to nightlife, music venues, and non-fast food restaurants per capita. Being home to several universities like DePaul, Northeastern, and the University of Chicago, just to name a few, it also ranked really well (ninth) for the percent of its population between 18 and 34.

5. St. Charles

St. Charles, IL

Source: Wikipedia user G LeTourneau

Only 19.5 percent of the population of St. Charles is between the ages of 18 and 34, which, compared to a place like Urbana (where it’s over 56 percent), looks downright elderly. We assure you, however, this doesn’t make it dull. In fact, we’d venture to say St. Charles is exciting in a sophisticated way.

It ranked sixth for its number of non-fast food restaurants per capita, seventh for its lack of fast food restaurants, and it came in fourth for its number of music venues per capita; places like the House Pub, Arcada Theatre, and the Fox Valley Repertory at Pheasant Run Resort. So yes, St. Charles is exciting. It just doesn’t need a friend to hold its hair back while it does a keg stand.

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6. Carbondale

Carbondale, IL

Source: Pinch Penny Pub and Copper Dragon Facebook

Carbondale is a picturesque little city on the edge of the Shawnee National Forest. It’s beautiful, it’s progressive, oh, and over 60 percent of the population are from the ages of 18 to 34.

That’s because Carbondale is the home of Southern Illinois University’s main campus, and you know what they say about college towns, don’t you? We don’t either, but according to our analysis, it certainly seems to mean one heck of a nightlife.

In fact, Carbondale came in second overall, for its number of nightlife venues, activities, clubs, etc. per capita. There’s the Pinch Penny Pub, PK’s, The Blue Martin, the Cellar, and many, many more. Carbondale also ranked pretty well for restaurants like Newell House and Thai Taste; you know, non-fast food places.

However, it is primarily a college town, and with that comes fast food. With its high number of fast food restaurants per capita, Carbondale didn’t exactly ace that category, but hey, whatever it takes to satisfy those late night cravings in the dorm after all that… studying.

7. Champaign

Champaign, IL

Source: Flickr user Benjamin Esham

If we were awarding points for exciting-sounding names, Champaign would be at the top, right up there with Rock Island. Simply arriving here seems like it would be reason to celebrate. In looking in the numbers, it kind of is, especially for anyone from 18 to 34 who is into nightlife. In other words, students.

See, Champaign is home to the University of Illinois of Urbana-Champaign, along with its sister city, Urbana, which is why it placed sixth in our analysis for its young population. That’s also more than likely, why it ranked third for its nightlife per capita. After all, do you think places like the Tumble Inn Tavern, the Blind Pig Pub, Mike N Mollys, or Cowboy Monkey would exist if it weren’t for that younger demographic?

No offense, but if you’re over 35 and still frequenting these bars… well, maybe you should think about visiting St. Charles.

8. Edwardsville

Edwardsville, IL

Source: Global Brew – Tap House and Lounge Facebook

Edwardsville may not exactly have the name going for it like Champaign does, but think of it like that cool, trendy, young rocker who happens to be named Norton, Albert, or, well, Edward.

In fact, there are probably actually plenty of Norton, Albert, and Edward rockers in Edwardsville, because this city ranked seventh best in terms of music venues per capita, with places like Laurie’s Place and the Wildey Theater. Plus, there are probably plenty of young rockers to (black leather) boot, since 34 percent of the population is between the ages of 18 and 34, with Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in town.

9. Bloomington

Bloomington, IL

Source: Illinois Wesleyan University Facebook page

This city may be a part of the Bloomington-Normal metropolitan area, but Bloomington is anything but normal. This exciting city is young, it’s vibrant, and, according to our analysis, it has a ton of nightlife.

Places like Laugh, the comedy club, Rosie’s Pub, Entourage Lounge, and C II East Lounge are just a handful of what keeps things exciting in Bloomington. With both Wesleyan University and Illinois State University so close by, 27 percent of Bloomington’s population is between 18 and 34, which explains the nightlife… and music venues… and probably the existence of Ottodog, where you can get a Chicago style hot dog at 2 a.m. on weekends.

10. Downers Grove

Downers Grove, IL

Source: Flickr user Eric Schmuttenmaer

While Champaign and Rock Island sound like veritable amusement parks of magic, Downers Grove is somewhere beneath Edwardsville in terms of how exciting it sounds. Lucky for residents here, though, the name has nothing to do with how exciting it is.

With just 18 percent of the population being between the ages of 18 and 34, Downers Grove, like St. Charles, is a slightly more maturely exciting place. You may not be going to a frat party on a Friday, but you certainly can head to one of the many live music venues, or non-fast food restaurants like Taste, Los Dos, Borrowed Earth Cafe, the Chama Gaucha Brazilian Steakhouse, or many, many, many more.

Plus, with this village’s variety of active lifestyle options, you can feel free to get that one extra red velvet pancake with breakfast at the Baked Apple. Or maybe a couple.

Bringing The Noise To Illinois

Like we said up top, even though “exciting” may not be the first thing that comes to mind when most people think of the Prairie State, we hope our list has given you a different perspective—at least on these 10 sensational cities. So, if you happen to be in the Land of Lincoln—especially somewhere at the bottom of our top 50—drop by Evansotn and get ready for the time of your life.

Most Exciting Places In Illinois Ranking

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posted on: April 28, 2014
[views], 8 comments


  1. skokielover

    Looks like they got it wrong this time. Skokie should have made the list–as NUMBER 1!!!

  2. Paul

    La Petite Creperie’s building in Woodstock was in Groundhog Day, however the restaurant opened there long after the filming of the movie.

  3. Zack Widup

    The Tumble Inn in Champaign is not a place where people under 35 hang out. Champaign-Urbana has (and has had for decades) a music scene unlike anywhere else. The over-35 crowd usually goes to see live music at the Iron Post, Rose Bowl, Fat City, Memphis On Main, Huber’s, Bunny’s, Boomerang’s, etc. On any given weekend night 10 to 15 venues may have 12 to 20 different bands playing. It’s usually difficult to decide where to go!

  4. Bob

    La Petite Creperie was never shown in “Ground Hog Day” as it wasn’t even a thought in the owner’s mind at the time. What was featured (and built as a set for the movie) was the Tip Top Cafe, about a block east of there. Since “Ground Hog Day” it’s been a succession of various restaurants everything: from fine dining to a taqueria, which is the current iteration

  5. North Pacific Basin

    I would give this list some credence if Woodstock and Rock Island weren’t in between Evanston and Chicago. Rock Island more exciting than Chicago – please.

  6. Katrina Olson

    OMG! Finally a “Best of” list that includes cities/towns south of I-80. Miracles never cease.

  7. Rick

    I’ve lived for enough time in Chicago, Carbondale, Crystal Lake, Streamwood, and Woodstock, and I can say from experience – Above all, I would never wish upon any of my enemies that they would have to spend any time at all in Woodstock…

  8. Wendy

    We moved to Woodstock a year ago and have been absolutely floored by the massive number of things to do here. Nearly every single weekend in the summer there is a festival, beer tasting, live music, live theater, outdoor fair, plus the farmer’s market was rated the best mid size market in all of Illinois, too. This tiny town knows how to throw down and have some fun!


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