Cities Journal

Top 13 Small Cities in Illinois

Photo credit: danxoneil / Flickr

From the Windy City skyline to Abraham Lincoln’s historic hometown, Illinois is an interesting, thriving state that has always been the true heart of the American Midwest. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Chicago makes up almost a quarter of the state’s entire population, and hundreds of suburbs crowd around this hub.

Six other cities have between 200,000 and 100,000 residents, but the majority of Illinois is composed of rolling plains, lush cornfields, and the suburbs, villages and rural communities tucked between and around them. The “small cities” on this list range from the downright tiny to the ever-growing and bustling, but most exude a quintessentially Midwestern mix of small-town hospitality and open-minded, urban sensibilities.

1. Elmhurst

Carl Sandburg is a Chicago poet who carved out a niche for the city in modern American literature.

However, much of Sandburg’s life was spent in the little cities; he was actually born and raised in Galesburg, and when he returned to Illinois as a young man, he did what thousands of Americans still do every year: he chose to raise his kids in Elmhurst.

According to the Elmhurst Historical Museum, which recently displayed the prodigious poet’s photos and archives in an exhibit, Sandburg moved his family here in the 1920’s. That was a period of huge growth for Elmhurst, when according to the City its population nearly tripled throughout the decade from a modest 5,000 to more than 14,000.

There’s little doubt that Sandburg absorbed some of the historical significance of this suburb’s quick transformation; he spent these years writing Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, the biography for which he’d ultimately win the first of three Pulitzer Prizes.

According to Margaret Franson Pruter’s account in Richard A. Thompson’s DuPage Roots, Elmhurst’s very first property owner was an enterprising lawyer named Thomas Barbour Bryan, who built a house that he called the Byrd’s Nest in Cottage Hill in the early 1850’s.

By the end of the decade, the area’s population had grown to 200 as wealthy artists, real estate moguls, and businessmen followed in Bryan’s footsteps and established their own estates throughout the York Township alcove. Today, Elmhurst still offers easy access to the city and an excellent public education system.

According to the public school’s own website, York Community High School has enough resources to offer extracurricular perks such as an award-winning drama department, an annual ski trip and a fitness center.

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  • Lee Estill

    all the cities in chicago area guess the rest of the state doesnt exist. probably
    chosen by a freaking chicagoan

    • Susan

      I hear ya there! Kinda thinking the same thing.

      • Dianne

        Ottawa, Savannah, lots of places. Anything but stupid Chicago suburbs! I live in a Chicago suburb, so that’s the last place I want to see. Mount Carroll is the only “downstate” town, and it is indeed a very pretty little town.

    • Bernard Ashley

      What would be your choices?

      • sakss

        Try Alton, Illinois! A drive up the Great River Road along the Mississippi River, eagle watching, antique shops galore! Then there’s Belleville, Illinois! I’m sure other posters could add to this list. Not everything revolves around Chicago.

      • Ronda Evansco-Brooks

        Makanda (South of Carbondale, Jackson County, Rt. 51), DuQuoin (not really “small”, though), Anna, Vienna, Golconda, Shawneetown, Ava, Metropolis, Metro East suburbs (minus East St. Louis), Murphysboro, Pinckneyville, Tamaroa, Rosiclare, Olney…I can go on and on. I live in Marion (Not much here to see, but it’s ok.)

    • buggy

      Please provide an example of a better choice.

    • Illinois Resident

      Mount Carroll (#9) is not near Chicago– it’s located close to the Iowa border.

    • Anthony Herrell

      Mount Carroll is not in the Chicago area. I grew up there and love that little town. It has less than 2000 people and is pretty quiet. Great little town and the towns around it are great too. You know your in a small town when there is only 1 stop light in the whole county…lol.

  • Jon Gallagher

    I would invite you to drive south of I-88. There’s about 300 more miles of Illinois down here that you don’t seem to know about.

  • Netwerks

    This should have been titled “Top 13 Small Chicago Suburbs”

  • Cyberdad

    In 33 years of business travel, I’ve covered 48 states. including almost every inch of Illinois. I can say with complete comfort and certainty that there’s more “lovely” and charm to my home state than just the upper-middle class suburbs of Chicago. Not to take anything away from any of the suburbs mentioned (I’m a suburban guy myself), but the article presents a very xenophobic view of our great…and often under-appreciated state.

  • Richard Ingels

    Being part of the Chicago megalopolis is not a small town.

  • Matt Fitzgibbon

    There is a surprisingly large amount of habitable (and civilized) land outside the Chicago area. Typical of the Chicago attitude that the rest of the state is simply corn fields and a source of tax money for their corrupt political system.

  • Little Egyptian

    I am very happy all of the chosen few were from the Chicago area. Southern Illinois really is a miserable place to grow up, live, or visit. I would highly encourage anyone North of I 64 to not come down here. It is really unpleasant down here and the people down here really do not want you to be uncomfortable. It is really hot and humid in this part of the state. Therefore, please stay out. You will not fit in with the peons here. We do not share your values, even though you will come down here and try to convince us that you are one of us(although much more intelligent because you are “street smart::” and we are just dumb hillbilly’s). You will do this because land is not as expensive as that within sight of the Sears Tower (sorry some other conglomerate just bought it). Most of us down here get along with our neighbors be they white, black, brown, or of some other race or creed. Why, because we all share the same problem, we are just all poor, ignorant, lazy Egyptians (Hillbillies) who bow down to the superiority of our rulers of the North. Unfortunately we have a very distinct accent as do you. We are really different as are you. We wear our guns outside our pants, unlike you. Please stay up North as you simply will not feel welcome down here in Little Egypt.

    • TransplantToSoIL

      Then why do you live there?

    • Otto

      Besides that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

  • TheHotRod

    Yep, all in chicago, that is why they all flock to places like Pontiac and Morris every chance they get lol…

  • Downstater

    Ditto Lee Estill’s comment. Seriously? Couldn’t drive south of I-80 to find a few “downstate” cities for the list? Isn’t it enough that our “downstate” taxes pay for your road improvements and prison expenses for your corrupt politicians?

  • Nathan Cross

    This should be retitled small town living in Chicago. None of these towns are even south of Intersate 80!!

    • buggy

      Well the article is titled “Small Cities”, not towns.

  • Lethe

    Jeez, why all the suburban sprawl? Go look around the state, why don’t you?

  • Kyle Peach

    For those of us living in that small geographic region in Illinois south of Chicago…. where the vast majority of small towns in the state are located… we can simplify your list down to one “small” town… we call it suburban Chicago! What a joke!

  • BobB59

    Naperville is small? The population is over 140,000. Nice city, but the fifth largest in the state.

  • Rachel

    I’m still waiting for the small cities to show up on the list. Over crowded, over priced and generally miserable suburbs do not qualify as charming, quaint or interesting.

  • Yowsers

    Well, how disturbing is this list? It further confirms that the view of many is that Illinois comprises only those cities in and around Chicago!

  • Kim

    Well they all look nice as long as your prepared to bend over for Illinois politics. And just think the governor will personally make your license plate! It is embarrassing to put an Illinois address on my return mail! And absolutely no mention of Galena, Illinois which truly is a gem!

  • Nancy

    I don’t actually think the picture of Bartlett is actually in Bartlett. But, hey, Go BARTLETT!


    YEA St. Charles! And to think everyone in school would talk about how boring our town is….

  • AKM

    I cannot wait to move out of Illinois. Signed, a 618er.

  • EGV resident

    If Elk Grove Vlg is the 3rd top place to live in IL, this state is worse off than I thought! This is a town plagued by its proximity to O’Hare Airport, has very few eating establishments worthy of the word “dining”, and floods constantly in certain midtown areas.
    Obviously, those who made these choices come from the Chicago area, and have totally missed the wonders of other parts of the state.

  • Steven C. Douglas

    They’re all part of Norther Illinois/Chicago Area

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