(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2007)
Wherever we go, readers get straight to the point and ask for our tips on the Midwest’s best places to eat, things to see, drives to take. In 20 years of covering the region, we’ve found a lot to love, but if you want the short list of our all-time favorites, here it is.
GRAND MARAIS, MINNESOTA Lake Superior’s North Shore is home to the Grand Marais Art Colony, which dates to 1947, making it Minnesota’s oldest active artists’ colony (800/385-9585; grandmaraisartcolony.org).
BROWN COUNTY, INDIANA For more than a century, southern Indiana’s forested hills and hollows have inspired working artisans, who now number more than 100 in the area. Brown County is so definitive in this category, it has trademarked the phrase, "The Art Colony of the Midwest" (800/313-0842; browncounty.com).
SAUGATUCK AND DOUGLAS, MICHIGAN These Lake Michigan villages claim the highest number of art galleries per capita among Midwest small towns, and there’s no doubt it’s a popular regional destination for art-hungry travelers (269/857-1701;.saugatuck.com).
ZINGERMAN’S, ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN Exceptional local ingredients and sharp-witted approach turned this college-town landmark into a global mail-order business. Deli chef Rodger Bowser says, "We take local farmers market products and give them shock value. " When Midwest Living® staffers need to keep relatives happy at Christmas, we often rely on Zingerman’s staples, such as sour cream coffee cake (734/663-3354; www.zingermans .com).
SHAPIRO’S, INDIANAPOLIS For a century, the Shapiro family’s Reuben sandwiches have towered above the plate like monuments to great local eats (317/631-4041; www.shapiros.com).
MANNY’S, CHICAGO Politicians. Construction workers. Home-sick New Yorkers. They all flock to the Near South Side for Manny’s pastrami sandwiches, matzo-ball soup and potato pancakes (312/939-2855; www.mannysdeli.com).
MADISON, WISCONSIN Only Madison could assemble this bohemian rhapsody of local produce, entertainment, art and political activism on the state Capitol square. The Dane County Farmers Market is open outdoors each Saturday, April through November, and there’s a food-only Wednesday market in summer. It’s so popular, the wait to join the 300 vendors is about three years (608/455-1999; www.dcfm.org).
DES MOINES Even as Iowa’s capital is trading its farming image for a more metro personality, one of the city’s star attractions remains the May-through-October Saturday market. The 200-plus vendors are happy to serve up slices of Americana (515/286-4928; www.knowdowntown.com/events/farmersmarket).
CLEVELAND The world’s flavors meet four days a week under the clock tower at the West Side Market, founded in 1912. More than 100 vendors serve ethnic takes on produce, baked goods, meats, spices and more (216/664-3387; www.westsidemarket.com).
IRISH HILLS, MICHIGAN Seventy shops and hundreds of dealers line the "Antiques Alley" on US-12 along this 110-mile route southwest of Ann Arbor (800/536-2933; www.visitlenawee.com).
KANE COUNTY FLEA MARKET, ST. CHARLES, ILLINOIS Talk about one-stop shopping. The first weekend of each month brings up to 1,000 dealers to this far-west suburban Chicago fairground (630/377-2252; www.kanecountyfleamarket.com).
CHICAGO’S MICHIGAN AVENUE For shoppers, here’s the key Magnificent Mile stat: 460 stores. But this stretch also has famous window displays, more than 200 restaurants, seasonal festivals and more than 50 hotels. Add it up, and you could have a dream shopping experience without buying a thing. Yeah, right (312/642-3570; www.themagnificentmile.com).
KANSAS CITY’S COUNTRY CLUB PLAZA The Plaza is a must for shoppers who appreciate the historic roots of their passion. The concept of suburban shopping districts (yes, the first shopping mall) debuted here in 1922. Today, the 15-block district features more than 140 shops, dozens of restaurants, signature Spanish architecture and an impressive array of fountains and outdoor art (816/753-0100; www.countryclubplaza.com).
THE AMERICAN CLUB, KOHLER, WISCONSIN Golf and spa treatments top the list of amenities at the Midwest’s only AAA Five Diamond resort. The red-brick main building once housed workers at the Kohler bath fixture plant, but today, it’s all about luxury. Four Pete Dye golf courses draw pro events with TV-friendly holes along Lake Michigan. The palatial Kohler Waters Spa makes anyone feel like a movie star on holiday (800/344-2838 ext. 700; www.destinationkohler.com).
GRAND VIEW LODGE, NISSWA, MINNESOTA If anything can distract North Woods vacationers from walleye for a few hours, it’s Grand View. The star of the Brainerd Lakes area has a 1,500-foot sand beach, an Aveda spa and four golf courses, including one by Arnold Palmer. Grand View also offers great boating and fireside dining (866/801-2951; www.grandviewlodge.com).
BIG CEDAR LODGE, RIDGEDALE, MISSOURI Close to, but not in, Branson. That’s Big Cedar, which makes it an ideal Ozarks package for many travelers. The resort wraps around Table Rock Lake and features its own 10,000-acre nature park (417/335-2777; www.big-cedar.com).
MACKINAC BRIDGE, MACKINAW CITY, MICHIGAN This 50-year-old, five-mile bridge (including the world’s 10th-longest suspended section) rises 552 feet above the Straits of Mackinac, where lakes Michigan and Huron meet. Each September, about 60,000 people walk across it (906/643-7600; www.mackinac bridge.org).
AERIAL LIFT BRIDGE, DULUTH Few bridges compel people to line up and watch them like a passing parade. But in Duluth, visitors gather to see the center span rise to let freighters and sailboats alike pass between the harbor and Lake Superior (218/720-5260; www.lsmma.com).
Y BRIDGE, ZANESVILLE, OHIO Near this forked bridge, don’t be surprised to hear directions like, "Go to the middle of the bridge, and turn right." (740/455-0612; www.coz.org/about.cfm).
ROEBLING BRIDGE, CINCINNATI Designer John Roebling warmed up by building this landmark before going on to build the similar, but more famous, one in Brooklyn, New York (859/581-2260; www.cincinnati-transit.net/suspension.html).
ICHABODS, Washburn, Topeka, Kansas; STUDENT PRINCES, Heidelberg, Tiffin, Ohio; TROLLS—Trinity Christian, Palos Heights, Illinois; COBBERS—Concordia, Moorhead, Minnesota
ST. ELMO, INDIANAPOLIS What do we love most about this 105-year-old downtown icon? The perfectly prepared steaks? The sinus-clearing horseradish sauce on the shrimp cocktails? The celebrity-watching? All of the above (317/635-0636; www.stelmos.com).
801 STEAK & CHOP HOUSE, DES MOINES Grain-fed beef gets no finer than at 801, a clubby downtown haven where servers present available cuts like a fashion show before each meal. Prior to the pivotal Iowa caucuses in presidential election years, politicians and media types turn 801 into a power dining enclave (515/288-6000; www.801steakand chop.com).
JIM’S, PITTSBURG, KANSAS We’ll drive well out of our way for a dry-aged filet and sirloin tips at this nearly 70-year-old classic. And Jim’s onion rings? Don’t even get us started (620/231-5770).
OMAHA STEAKS, MAIL ORDER No list of blue-chip red meat is complete without this mail-order firm that has delivered choice cuts to Omaha, and eventually the world, since 1917 (800/960-8400; www.omahasteaks.com).
CENTRAL CANAL, INDIANAPOLIS Memo to cities developing river walks: This is how it’s done. Indy’s walk follows the canal through downtown to a vacationful of attractions, including the 250-acre White River State Park, museums, a zoo and even gondoliers (317/233-2434; www.discovercanal.com).
HARRIET ISLAND REGIONAL PARK, SAINT PAUL The Twin Cities’ historic bond with the Mississippi thrives along this promenade. Visitors stroll to riverboat landings, carvings of native flora and fauna and the Great Stairs, a perfect place to watch the river flow beneath the downtown skyline (651/292-7010; www.stpaul.gov/depts/parks/specialservices/harriet_island).
CHICAGO BOTANIC GARDEN, GLENCOE, ILLINOIS Although many Midwesterners may not know it, Chicago was incorporated with the words Urbs in Horto, or "City in a Garden. " So it's fitting that one of the nation's most-visited gardens is nearby. The Botanic Garden’s 385 acres offer 9,400 varieties of plants, 23 display gardens, nine islands that are worlds unto themselves and a nature-inspired peace that’s all too rare (847/835-5440; www.chicagobotanic.org).
MISSOURI BOTANICAL GARDEN, ST. LOUIS Founded in 1859, this National Historic Landmark not only is one of the nation’s oldest gardens, but one of the world’s best, with signature exhibits, such as a 14-acre Japanese strolling garden and the Climatron, a rainforest inside a geodesic dome (314/577-5100; www.mobot.org).
MINNESOTA LANDSCAPE ARBORETUM, CHANHASSEN Visitors who can’t tell an oak from a maple still love these 1,000-acre grounds just southwest of Minneapolis. The arboretum is filled with gardens, trails and a visitors center that channels the spirit of an English estate. Guests can join tours by tram and guided walks in the growing season (952/443-1400; www.arboretum.umn.edu).
Scenic drives :
GREAT RIVER ROAD, MISSISSIPPI RIVER FROM MINNESOTA TO LOUISIANA This nearly 3,000-mile drive passes from the trickling headwaters of the continent’s greatest river, along soaring bluffs, through the Twin Cities and St. Louis and ultimately to the Delta’s rich culture. Toss that Twain anthology on the dash and start driving (763/212-2560; www.mississippiriverinfo.com).
PETER NORBECK SCENIC BYWAY, BLACK HILLS, SOUTH DAKOTA After cruising through the mountainous stronghold of the Black Hills, you’ll understand why Native Americans hold them sacred. Tunnels frame views of Mount Rushmore. Plus, granite spires tower like sentinels along the 14-mile Needles Highway, once deemed impossible to build (605/255-4515; www.sdgfp.info/parks/regions/custer/index.htm).
NORTH SHORE, MINNESOTA’S LAKE SUPERIOR SHORELINE Tucked between dense northern woods and the world’s largest freshwater lake, State-61 runs for 154 miles between Duluth and the Canadian border. You may want to keep notes about the waterfalls and smoked-fish stands. You’ll see plenty (888/868-7476; www.exploreminnesota.com).
Surprisingly good museums:
SPAM MUSEUM, AUSTIN, MINNESOTA Even if you don’t know why people giggle at mentions of Vikings and Spam, you’ll enjoy Hormel’s free museum for its infamous canned meat. Starting with the foyer’s Great Wall of Spam, it’s a tasty blend of pop culture kitsch, self-deprecating humor and culinary history (800/588-7726; www.spam.com).
TOY & MINIATURE MUSEUM OF KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI Don’t worry; this isn’t your uncle’s miniature tractor collection. The 1911 mansion near the Plaza contains an enchanting array of dolls, scale-model houses and trains, making it an ideal side trip for Kansas City visitors (816/333-9328; www.umkc.edu/tmm).
DAUM MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART, SEDALIA, MISSOURI You wouldn’t expect to find works from Ansel Adams and Andy Warhol in a Missouri town of 20,000. That’s why we put this museum on this list (660/530-5888; www.daummuseum.org).
TRAVERSE CITY, MICHIGAN, REGION Roads stretched like grapevines along the Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas lead to 19 wineries. The region’s wine industry is only 33 years old, but area vintners already have gathered many honors for a variety of wines. Tours of the wineries, surrounded by outstanding views, make for a rich tasting odyssey based in Traverse City, the hub of an area noted for gourmet dining (800/940-1120; www.mytraversecity.com).
HERMANN, MISSOURI, REGION German heritage hangs heavily in the wooded hills along the 75-mile Missouri wine trail. It leads to about a dozen wineries near the Missouri River west of St. Louis. At many stops between the towns of St. Charles and Hermann, vineyard owners themselves pour tastings and lead tours (800/392-9463; www.missouriwine.org).
TAHQUAMENON, NEAR PARADISE, MICHIGAN At our version of Niagara, the distinctive, amber-tinted Upper Falls stretch 200 feet wide and plunge 50 feet. At the gentler Lower Falls, you can row a rental boat to the cascades (906/492-3415; michigan.gov/dnr).
SMITH, NEAR VALENTINE, NEBRASKA The 70-foot stream cascading past paper birch, aspen and ponderosa pine to the Niobrara River would grab attention anywhere. It’s downright shocking to find it in a prairie state. In fact, Smith is one of 90 falls around Valentine (402/376-1306; ngpc.state.ne.us).
GOOSEBERRY, NEAR CASTLE DANGER, MINNESOTA A total of five falls (falling 60 feet in places and some visible from the highway) makes this park a staple of North Shore drives. The falls’ bonus: They’re near Lake Superior views (218/834-3855; dnr.state.mn.us).
WALL DRUG, WALL, SOUTH DAKOTA Three-hundred miles of interstate billboards lead travelers to the Old West-style complex that has spread across most of a block of tiny Wall since 1931. You’ll find plenty of souvenir shot glasses and Western art, but the highlight is seeing families pose for photos by items such as the 6-foot-tall rabbit Mom and Dad saw on their own childhood trips (605/279-2175; walldrug.com).
DA YOOPERS TOURIST TRAP, ISHPEMING, MICHIGAN If you find humor in deer dressed as hunters, photo ops involving outhouses and 23-foot chain saws with V-8 engines, then stop at Da Yoopers (named for the woodsy caricature of Upper Peninsula residents) (800/ 628-9978; dayoopers.com).
MILWAUKEE ART MUSEUM It’s not like the 20,000-piece art collection here needed any help, but as the five-year-old Quadracci Pavilion’s enormous "wings" rise and lower each day, they help draw a whole new audience to the art scene (414/224-3200; mam.org).
ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO How do you define an elite museum? How about one so full of masterpieces that you might actually forget to see American Gothic while you’re there (312/443-3600; artic.edu)
CUYAHOGA VALLEY SCENIC RAILROAD, CLEVELAND This train from the 1940s and ’50s rolls along the Cuyahoga River, past historic canalways and through a surprising national park that lies within an hour’s drive of 5 million people (800/ 468-4070; cvsr.com).
BOONE SCENIC VALLEY RAILROAD, BOONE, IOWA History echoes in the fields and forest as the last commercially built steam locomotive chugs through the Des Moines River Valley. Two bridge crossings include the 156-foot-high Bass Point Creek High Bridge (800/626-0319; scenic-valleyrr.com).
1880 TRAIN - BLACK HILLS, SOUTH DAKOTA See the scenery Gunsmoke-style behind this steam locomotive straight out of the Old West (605/574-2222; 1880train.com).