The 100-step climb to the top of Cana Island Lighthouse (pictured) 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.
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 (pictured)? (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 (pictured) winds through the park, hiking trails beg for exploration, and even rookie campers will feel at home at the park's Blue Bell campground.
On the western shore of Lake Michigan, the Midwest’s biggest city blends outdoor recreation and cosmopolitan luxuries. Millions visit each year to shop the Magnificent Mile, explore Millennium Park and cheer on one of the six pro sports home teams. Jazz clubs and theaters keep the party going into the night. You can view the city's bustle from the Ledge (pictured), a clear-glass case jutting out from the 103rd floor of Willis Tower. From here, plot out your gameplan for conquering the city, which could include a full day of exploring world-class museums like The Field Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Science and Industry. And don't forget about the city's legendary eats, from cheesy deep-dish pizza to refined white-tablecloth fare.
The state's largest city has way more to offer than its famed jazz and barbecue, but those are good places to start. Fill up on juicy BBQ at one of dozens of joints (some of our favorites: Arthur Bryants, Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbeque, Joe's Kansas City Bar-B-Que and Q39). Exhibits at the American Jazz Museum tap KC’s musical heritage. Other outstanding museums in the city include the Nelson-Atkins Museum with its 22-acre sculpture park (pictured), the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures.
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.
The larger of the Twin Cities does everything on a grand scale. It has more theater seats per capita than any city outside New York, it has the largest mall in America, and its miles of trails trace the second-longest river in America—the Mississippi. Minnehaha Park includes 10 miles of trails near the river, plus the 53-foot-tall Minnehaha Falls. Looking for a more bustling atmosphere? Head to downtown's Nicollet Mall, a 12-block pedestrian thoroughfare that balances big-city feel with eclectic hidden gems like Brit's Pub (with lawn bowling on the roof). From Brit's, it's a short walk to Target Field (pictured), where baseball fans cheer on the Minnesota Twins while savoring local fare like polish sausages from Kramarczuk's. Seven Yankee stadiums could fit inside the Mall of America, home to 520 stores, a Nickelodeon theme park and an aquarium.
When you pack your bags for this Lake Michigan harbor town, include your sense of adventure. Lively experiences—wine-country tours by bike, pub crawls by water and summer camp for grown-ups—color escapes. Spend a day in the sun at one of the city’s six public sandy spots. Popular Clinch Park sits downtown. Also downtown: amazing eats. Stone arches shelter diners enjoying traditional Italian cuisine at Trattoria Stella inside The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, which is also home to an art gallery, boutique shops and wine tasting room. You'll think 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.
Once the jumping off point for westward-bound pioneers, this major metro is a destination in its own right. Ride up The Gateway Arch (pictured) in a Jetsons-like pod for 30-mile views. Closer to the ground, explore sprawling Forest Park, which is larger than New York City’s Central Park. Free attractions within the park include a history museum, science center, art museum and zoo. If you're looking for eclectic, look no further than the City Museum, home to an Enchanted Caves area where kids and adults crawl through the nooks and crannies of a former shoe factory. And don't leave without a taste of the city's rich blues heritage. Chuck Berry performs monthly at Blueberry Hill, a music club and eatery in the Delmar Loop.
Politicians and 4-H'ers find plenty to do in Des Moines, home to both the gold-capped capitol (free guided tours available) and state fair (attracting more than 1 million visitors each year). High-end eats and fine art balance produce vendors at the farmers market and thrills at Adventureland, the state's largest amusement park. Twenty-eight modern sculptures valued at more than $40 million scatter across downtown's two-block John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park (pictured). View on your own or request a tour from The Des Moines Art Center, which curates the collection.
Stroll the brick-paved Old Market district (pictured), 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.
Sports are a big deal in the capital city—consider the Indy 500, the Colts and the NCAA Hall of Champions, to name a few. But pride extends to cultural destinations, too. View permanent European, Asian, contemporary and African collections on 152 sculpture-dotted acres at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (pictured). The ethnically diverse Broad Ripple Village has an array of cafes, art galleries, shops and brewpubs in cottages and pastel storefronts. We especially love Public Greens (Indy's first non-profit restaurant) and The Cake Bake Shop (a Parisian bakery serving macarons and cupcakes). Walk off meals at White River State Park, with paths leading past the Indianapolis Zoo, Indiana State Museum and the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians.
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.
Where better to celebrate the original "Rough Rider" than on his old stomping grounds? Medora Musical (pictured) 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.
Crowds gather every day at noon to see the Milwaukee Art Museum (pictured) 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 (pictured). 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.
As cowboys pushed the great cattle herds across Kansas' endless plains, they longed for a glimpse of Wichita on the horizon. Today, the city makes a great stop for travelers touring the nearby Flint Hills or heading south to Oklahoma City or Dallas. Hands reaching to the sky and feet anchored on a stone pillar, the Keeper of the Plains (pictured) pays tribute to the elements of life (water, fire, earth and wind) at the junction of the Big and Little Arkansas rivers. A 2-mile walk along the Arkansas river connects four museums and the 18 acres of Botanica, the Wichita Gardens, where displays showcase wildflowers, woodlands and glades. Other highlights include The Exploration Place, Wichita Art Museum and the Old Cowtown Museum, a re-created town with covered wagon rides and sarsaparilla tastings.
The Wisconsin Dells is still the water park capital of the world, a zany place where kids race go-karts through the belly of a Trojan horse. But it also holds a refined side. Dinner, live music and a shoreline stroll under lit torches are all part of the package during seasonal sunset cruises with Dells Boat Tours. Views of the Dells accompany specialties like pot stickers with sweet chili marmalade at High Rock Cafe. And you’ll talk for years about the luxury and service you encounter at Sundara Inn and Spa. Sundara nestles within a 26-acre pine forest; a meditation trail feels about as far from a water park as you could imagine.
A giant Paul Bunyan statue greets visitors by name at Paul Bunyan Land, 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 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, then unwind at the elegant Hotel Julien Dubuque (pictured), a former Al Capone hideout.
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 (pictured).
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 (pictured), 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.
From the top of the five-story viewing tower at Falls Park (pictured), visitors snap photos of the Big Sioux River plunging 100 feet over a series of pink quartzite ledges. From the park, the 26-mile Big Sioux River Recreation Trail loops the city, and the Phillips to the Falls walking-driving route lands you downtown. There, SculptureWalk creates the feel of an outdoor art gallery. Head to 8th Street on the East Bank where locally owned shops and restaurants reinvigorate a warehouse district. You’ll find regional art, vintage clothing, Turkish imports, fresh flowers and all manner of gastronomical delights.