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Beyond the Big City

From hills and history to hiking with goats, Galena serves up originality for meeting attendees

By Anne Nagro

Midwestern culture doesn’t get much more authentic than in a city such as Galena. Located in the northwestern corner of the state not too far from the Mississippi River, the city was a mecca for lead mining and river commerce in the mid-1800s. Back then, Galena was the wealthiest city in the state and was even larger in population than Chicago.

Today, Galena is a major tourism destination, attracting more than 2 million visitors each year. For meeting and event planners, it offers a memorable setting and unique experiences best suited for small- and medium-size groups.

Pastoral Appeal 

Galena’s rolling hills and deep valleys are a huge draw. The area wasn’t flattened by retreating glaciers thousands of years ago, like much of the Upper Midwest, leaving the steep, rugged terrain untouched. 

“The scenic beauty is what makes it really stand out,” says Tom Rynott, director of communications for Galena Country Tourism. “It’s an amazing backdrop for any event.” This scenic beauty is what initially attracted Julie Guy to Galena. She is a meeting planner for the Illinois Public Pension Fund Association (IPPFA), based in Elgin.

In 2022, Guy held a post-traumatic stress disorder retreat for about 40 first responders at Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa, located in the countryside about 15 minutes from downtown Galena. A key objective was to provide a safe, peaceful environment for attendees, away from the chaos of a big city. 

Festivities at Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa’s 2023 Winter Carnival || Courtesy of Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa

“It was fantastic,” Guy recalls. “It was mainly because of the resort. The staff there was fantastic to work with.” Based on the success of that event, she held IPPFA’s three-day annual conference for 275 members there this year as well—and attendees loved the location and the venue. “We will be back in Galena again in 2024 because it was so well received, and the conference was sold out,” says Guy.

In addition to large windows overlooking 6,800 acres, Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa has 15,000 square feet of meeting space, accommodating up to 300 people, as well as 80 guest rooms and 100 home and condo rentals with one to eight bedrooms.

In winter, the resort’s seven heated igloos are popular. “We have had small groups actually meet in the igloos,” says Colin Sanderson, the resort’s director of sales and marketing. “It’s great. When it’s snowing while you’re in there, it’s really cool.” Eagle Ridge also rents sleds and snowshoes for groups to enjoy as the snow falls.

Galena’s natural setting also appealed to de Novo Marketing, a company based two hours away in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Its annual two-day strategic planning and team-building retreat for 19 employees was held in September at Chestnut Mountain Resort, perched high on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River near Galena.

After a day of meetings in the 100-room resort, the de Novo team rode Alpine slides down the mountain, enjoyed a Mississippi River sunset cruise, and rode chairlifts back to the summit for a casual meal and bonfire. Skiing and snowboarding are favorite guest activities during wintertime.

“Everyone loved it,” says de Novo Operations Director Lydia Sax, who planned the event. “In fact, Galena and Chestnut Mountain might become our go-to places for our retreats. It’s hard to find something close and unique that is accommodating to our entire team, and Chestnut Mountain checked all the boxes.”

Historic Charm 

That being said, downtown Galena is not to be overlooked. Its 19th-century architecture is picture-perfect. Main Street is a vibrant half-mile stretch of historic buildings housing 125 art galleries, antiques stores, boutiques, and restaurants. More than 85% of the community is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Right in the center of it all is the DeSoto House Hotel, which opened its doors in 1855 and is the oldest operating hotel in Illinois. The Planning Center, a wealth management advisory headquartered in Moline, recently held an annual retreat there, bringing in participants from as far away as Alaska. “DeSoto House was able to accommodate our group all under one roof—from the sleeping rooms to the meeting space and meals,” says Client Services Specialist Marissa Feehan.

DeSoto House Hotel || Courtesy of DeSoto House Hotel

The hotel accommodates up to 120 people for meetings and banquets and has three restaurants and 55 guest rooms. 

Overnight guests can park in the hotel’s private garage, and attendees can easily walk to the Galena History Museum, visit the home of former President and Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant, jump on a narrated Galena Trolley tour, or enjoy the town’s many shops and restaurants.

Trolley on Galena’s Main Street || Courtesy of Illinois Office of Tourism

While private dining is popular at Log Cabin Steakhouse, Fried Green Tomatoes, and Galena Taphouse, it also can be catered at Turner Hall. This 150-year-old recently restored historic landmark is one block off Main Street and features a large open floor, stage, and balcony with 335 built-in seats. 

Janelle Keeffer, foundation and marketing director at Midwest Medical Center in Galena, has held several events at Turner Hall over the years, including fundraisers, donor luncheons, meetings, mixers, and concerts. 

“The community really has a lot of pride in Turner Hall,” says Keeffer, who once worked as the hall’s facilities manager. “It’s such a beautiful venue, and it’s so unique.” She says it is the ideal place to hold a dinner presentation or cocktail reception. The maximum capacity at Turner Hall is 300 to 500 people, depending on the seating arrangement.

Event at Turner Hall || Courtesy of Turner Hall

Enjoying the Galena dining scene was a highlight for the 70 employees of Per Mar Security who recently attended a three-day meeting at Irish Cottage Inn & Suites, located a mile from downtown. Newly renovated, the inn has a shuttle to take guests downtown, 76 guest rooms, flexible meeting space, a 3,000-square-foot ballroom, and a library. It has Irish decor and even a faerie ring for outdoor events. With employees in seven Midwestern states, Per Mar Security CEO Brian Duffy says Galena was centrally located and offered something for everyone, whether that was dining out, golfing, fishing, or going to the spa.

Another way to take in the town is through Galena Foodie Adventures. Up to 25 people can go on a private three-hour tasting tour that makes five stops for food and drinks. The cocktail adventure, accommodating up to 15 eventgoers, is two hours long and stops for three cocktail and food pairings. The walking tours run April to December and stop at restaurants, bakeries, wineries, and coffee shops. “You really get to taste your way through Galena on a tour with us,” says Devin Ganka, owner of Galena Foodie Adventures.

Authentic Experiences 

The full-service resorts in Galena are skilled at developing custom team-building and bonding activities for groups. Independent shopkeepers, artists, and farmers also offer a variety of authentic experiences that showcase the beauty and community of Galena. This includes the intimate P.T. Murphy’s Magic Theater, a popular attraction offering private shows, and Tacktics Galena, a team-building program that involves guiding horses through ground-based obstacles (no riding involved). “It takes team building to another level,” says Dan Sullivan, vice president of member relations at Iowa’s Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce, which has held events in Galena. “It’s incredible.”

Show at P.T. Murphy Magic Theater || Photo by Amy May Photography

Then there’s Hoof It Goat Treks, where groups walk with goats through forest and prairie, taking in incredible views on a 300-acre family farm. Hour-long treks occur year-round, weather permitting, and can incorporate food, wine tasting from a neighboring vineyard, a bonfire, and even live music.

Horse activities through Tacktics Galena || Courtesy of Tacktics Galena

A three-hour program about sustainability called “The Mill, The Maker, and The Goat Caper” explores how goats help maintain the forest so the farmer can harvest trees that the maker then crafts into beautiful everyday utensils. That maker, artist Paul Pendola—who owns Galena Spoon Co.—also hosts demonstrations and wood-carving classes where small groups learn how to make wooden spoons. “What we’re doing, sharing our land and passion for it, is authentic,” says Christine Eisbach, owner of Hoof It Goat Treks. “It’s part of who we are—it’s not just what we do.” 

Galena Spoon Co.’s “THe Mill, The Maker, and The Goat Caper” program participants || Courtesy of Galena Spoon Co.