Daniel Day Lewis as LincolnIt may not be Daniel Day Lewis walking the streets of Springfield, Illinois, but there’s likely someone who looks a lot like him. OK, it will be someone who looks a lot like Daniel Day Lewis when he looks a lot like Abraham Lincoln.

Lewis, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Lincoln, spent some time in Springfield researching his character. If you’re looking for a summer vacation idea that will help your kids really understand who Lincoln was, central Illinois is the place to go.

This is the where you can walk where Lincoln walked, learn about his life and times, and, during the summer, talk with the 16th president and his contemporaries in the form of costumed “interpreters” who answer questions as though it’s still the 1800s–always a great way to bring history alive for kids.

Lincoln in Springfield

Springfield has more Lincoln sites and artifacts than any other place in the world. The best of the bunch: the fabulous Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, where kids can play dress-up in Mrs. Lincoln’s Attic and imagine themselves reading before a fire just like Abe did growing up in Kentucky and Indiana.

The other half of the museum, which offers a graphic look at the horrors of slavery, can be a bit intense for younger kids, but is a powerful lesson in America’s not-so-happy history for tweens, teens and adults. Not to be missed is the room that puts the four-way 1860 presidential campaign in the context of modern presidential election news coverage, with the late, great newscaster Tim Russert at the anchor desk.

Spooky Lincoln HomeA few blocks from the Lincoln Museum is the Old State Capitol Building where Lincoln uttered the famous Civil War-era words: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” There’s not much to entertain kids inside, although the restoration is beautiful. It helps if you arrive when there is a costumed interpreter who can answer kids’ questions about Abe and his climb to the top of the political heap.

If you are a real history buff, or your kids need a more intimate meeting with history, consider taking the Abe Lincoln Ghost Tour led by Garret Moffett, proprietor of Springfield Walks. The stories are less about ghosts and more about the legends and lore of Lincoln and his bride, Mary Todd, who held séances in the White House. But it’s worth $14 per person to hear Moffett recite Lincoln’s words and explain why the president’s coffin was opened five times after his death.

Walk Where Lincoln Walked

Another way to get a glimpse into Lincoln’s life is to tour The Lincoln Home, the only house Abe and Mary ever owned. It’s now a national park, which means admission is free. But you have to pick up a ticket for a timed entry, so head to the visitors’ center first thing the morning. Tickets do sell out, especially since the movie revived interest in Lincoln’s life.

Spectrograph XboxThe rangers who conduct the tours know how to talk to kids. They point to the Spectrograph on the table in the Lincolns’ parlor and tell kids it’s the Lincolns’ xBox.

Next, walk a few blocks to the Lincoln-Herndon law office. There’s not much to see in the law offices themselves, but the first-floor post office is worth a look. Show your uber-connected kids a “cross-hatch” letter  in which the sender composed a one-page letter, then turned the paper a quarter turn and wrote a second full page of news—a way to save money at a time when postage was very expensive and charged by weight.    

Beyond downtown Springfield    

Now it’s time to head to the Lincoln Tomb on the north side of town. Lincoln arrived at this somber place only after 14 moves, one attempted grave robbing, and five coffin openings to ensure the president was actually inside the coffin (a fact we learned from Mr. Moffett on the ghost tour and confirmed with the docent at the tomb).    

The last must-visit Lincoln site is 25 miles northwest of Springfield near Petersburg. Lincoln’s New Salem is a reconstructed pioneer town made to look much as it did when Lincoln arrived in 1831 (with the modern addition of paved paths and ramps that make much of the site wheelchair-friendly). Most days during the summer and on weekends the rest of the year, costumed volunteers pose as teachers, weavers, blacksmiths, and shop keepers and demonstrate how such jobs would have been performed in Abe’s time.

There also are kid-friendly Lincoln sites in Indiana and Kentucky.

If you haven’t seen it already, rent the movie before you go. It will help put the sites and experiences in context and give the whole Illinois Lincoln experience more meaning for you and your kids.