If you're going to wile away the summer on a front porch, why not go to the biggest one of them all, at Mackinac Island's iconic Grand Hotel? (Even if you don't want to pay for a room, at least walk by for a peek at this white-columned landmark.) Most visitors come to this no-cars-allowed island for leisurely carriage rides and fudge-munching, but if you leave the downtown area, you'll find yourself in one of Michigan's prettiest state parks, where a 70-mile trail network winds through woods and limestone outcroppings.
Bison, prairie dogs, elk and other creatures roam near (and often cross!) the Wildlife Loop Road at Custer State Park, about 45 miles southwest of Rapid City. But animals are just the beginning here. Scenic Needles Highway (left) winds through the park, hiking trails beg for exploration, and even rookie campers will feel at home at the park's Blue Bell campground.
The 100-step climb to the top of Cana Island Lighthouse in Bailey's Harbor rewards visitors with some of the best views of Lake Michigan's Door County shoreline. Walk along the rock-ledge shore for great photo ops of the 1870s-era lighthouse, or stack stones and leave a little statue behind (it’s tradition). All along the peninsula, roadside cherry stands, state parks and small towns keep visitors coming back. There's peaceful pleasure in wending along the hilly two-lane highways and pausing at gems like Hands On Art Studio in Fish Creek and Savory Spoon Cooking School in Ellison Bay. Sit under the stars and enjoy an evening production at Peninsula Players Theatre south of Fish Creek.
Sure, it's become the most cliched thing to do in downtown Chicago, but we still love staring at our reflections in Millennium Park's Cloudgate sculpture (affectionately known as "The Bean"). For the full funhouse effect, join the crowds walking under the sculpture, or stand back to see the whole skyline bent across the mirrored surface like a piece of taffy. Spend the rest of your day enjoying more of Chicago's top-notch free-admission destinations, which include Lincoln Park Zoo, Navy Pier, Garfield Park Conservatory, the Chicago Cultural Center and the National Museum of Mexican Art.
We have one answer for anyone who says the Midwest is flat: Ohio's Hocking Hills. Here, just 55 miles southeast of Columbus, cornfields give way to Appalachia. Hocking Hills State Park encompasses some of the best scenery, including Ash Cave, a rock shelf that soars 90 feet above the trail. Other outdoor adventures include a zip-line canopy tour, the 17-mile bikeway between Nelsonville and Athens and tube floats on the Hocking River.
Want a glam night out at the theater? Look no further than Minneapolis, home to more theater seats per capita than any city outside of New York. Our pick: The legendary Guthrie (left), housed in a spectacular complex on the Mississippi River. During the day, visit scenic Minnehaha Falls, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the 11-block Nicollet Mall, a downtown pedestrian thoroughfare featuring some of the city's best shops and restaurants.
We'll forgive you for thinking you've landed in Europe the first time you tour one of the seven wineries on Old Mission Peninsula. Tidy vineyards and orchards blanket lush green hills along the 20-mile-long peninsula north of Traverse City, and beyond them, Lake Michigan (or more precisely, Grand Traverse Bay) sparkles as blue as the Mediterranean. (But much more affordable!)
Stroll the brick-paved Old Market district (left), a complex of historic warehouses now housing shops and restaurants. Sunlight warms the animal exhibits in nearby Henry Doorly Zoo's Desert Dome to a toasty 80 degrees. Paths wind around sandy enclosures, where cacti sprout and cottontail bunnies scamper on hillsides. (Personally, we love the African Klipspringer, which look like toy-size deer.) You could spend an entire day exploring Omaha's museums, including the impressive Durham Museum housed in a gorgeous train station and the equally beautiful Joslyn Art Museum with its fine examples of Art Deco architecture.
Where better to celebrate the original "Rough Rider" than on his old stomping grounds? Medora Musical re-creates Teddy Roosevelt's cowboy days with singing, dancing and even fireworks, all under a night sky in the stunning North Dakota Badlands. You'll come away tapping your toes—and eager to check out nearby Theodore Roosevelt National Park, 135 miles west of Bismarck.
Got kids? Or grandkids? Or just a nice neighbor kid? Then get thee to The Children's Museum of Indianapolis. It's the Midwest's premier kids' zone, with hundreds of interactive exhibits, including a planetarium, a make-believe construction site and a water zone. Both pint-size visitors and their full-gallon guardians may never want to leave! (Although, if you do choose to explore, the gang will love the Indianapolis Zoo and the museums in White River State Park, too.)
Sure, Lake of the Ozarks attracts thousands of visitors to central Missouri, but early morning, you'll hear just three sounds: birdsong, water lapping and the put-put of fishing boats. By midday, the symphony grows to include speedboats, dockside restaurants and cannonballing kids. Come nightfall, quiet sets in again over the water, but laughter and conversation ring out from the edge of every cove.
A simple Kansas truth: You'll never see the same prairie sky twice. On a perfect autumn day, wispy clouds streak across a cerulean canvas. Come summer, storms arrive, and lightning zigzags through the thunderheads. But then the sun returns, rising above the horizon like a crimson dinner plate. The Flint Hills offer some of the Midwest's best bird-watching, but make sure to put down the binoculars and admire the biggest, prettiest sky this side of heaven. You can experience the Flint Hills along hiking, biking and driving routes; ranch bed and breakfasts offer trail rides, and two outfitters lead wagon treks through the grasslands.
Crowds gather every day at noon to see the Milwaukee Art Museum flap its 217-foot sun-shading "wings," like a mechanical bird silently taking flight. Check out the fine art collection, and then head to the funky Third Ward district for gallery hopping. Summer festivals happen almost every weekend, so complete your trip with live music, beer and a classic Wisconsin brat.
The preservation movement in this old lead-mining town has effectively defined the trend toward small towns reinventing themselves. Framed by northwest Illinois hills, the business district's century-old buildings now house more than 90 shops filled with antiques, home accessories and art. Some 50 inns and hotels welcome travelers, and restaurants serve seemingly every taste. If Main Street or the many festivals get too crowded, escape with a hot-air balloon ride, spa treatment or pottery class.
Many people come to Cleveland for one thing: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. And who can blame them? The Hall's collection includes Prince's "Purple Rain" coat, John Lennon's passport and Jimi Hendrix's guitar. But Cleveland also offers a world-class orchestra, a stunning art museum and revitalized historic neighborhoods such as Little Italy, where dainty cookies and authentic cannoli line the bakery cases.
Little pockets of this city of 383,000 feel like they somehow fell out of a movie set and into place here, whether it's a town from the Old West or an enchanting garden. Visitors eager for rustic cowboy life stop at the Old Cowtown Museum and explore an 1870s town complete with a saloon and a blacksmith's shop. Serenity envelops Botanica (left), a collection of 25 totally different garden styles. In one, beds laid out in English symmetry overflow with plants and herbs mentioned in Shakespeare's works. Other engaging escapes include the Kansas Aviation Museum in a revamped air terminal and the Wichita Art Museum, which boasts a large collection of historic and contemporary glasswork.
The giant Paul Bunyan statue greets visitors by name at Paul Bunyan Land (left), a kitschy amusement park that's entertained families since the 1950s. It's just one example of the outdoor playground of activities in this region. Whether you want to golf, boat or jump off the trampoline anchored in the lake, Madden's on Gull Lake near Brainerd offers guests plenty to choose from. Cycle Path and Paddle in Crosby rents bikes and kayaks for travelers eager to explore Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area, and Croft Mine Historical Park provides self-guided tours in a tunnel that's refreshingly cool on sticky summer days.
The state's oldest city, Dubuque shines with lively historical districts near the mighty Mississippi. Victorian buildings house unique shops, galleries and restaurants in a two-block area called Cable Car Square. Take the Fenelon Place Elevator (pictured) to the top of the bluff for a spectacular tri-state view. Nearby, the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium includes an immersion theater and 12 big aquariums full of river creatures. Drive 32 miles south on US-61 to explore more than a dozen caves at Maquoketa Caves State Park.
Family activities and fall color star in the hometown of Arbor Day founder J. Sterling Morton. The Frank Lloyd Wright-style Lied Lodge and Conference Center, with a stunning lobby and fireplace (left), offers an on-site arboretum and Olympic-size swimming pool. Known for its Sunday brunch, the hotel's Timber Dining Room is the town's best restaurant. Branch out to other local favorites including Arbor Day Farm, where historic barns, a market and a soaring tree house offer more than enough to fill a day. Unwind among 72 tree-filled acres at Arbor Lodge State Historical Park, which contains J. Sterling Morton's preserved mansion.
Some of the coolest stuff hides just beyond the downtown district of Ohio's capital city. Bakeries, bookshops, and delis line the narrow brick streets of the European-style, 19th-century German Village. The energetic Short North hosts a monthly Gallery Hop showcasing the work of local artists, eclectic boutiques and small yet sublime chef-owned restaurants such as Rigsby's Kitchen. Sweeten the day with scoops of luscious dark chocolate or spicy Bangkok peanut at Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams.