Top 25 New Places to Stay, Eat and Play: 2012
Central Iowa: High Trestle Trail
If Iowa tallied how many pictures visitors took of a single attraction last year, this bridge would surely win. Opened last spring, the 25-mile paved trail between Ankeny and Woodward stars a beautifully lit 13-story-tall trestle bridge over the Des Moines River. Artist David B. Dahlquist, inspired by Iowa's coal-mining history, created the bridge's giant square arches of steel that glow blue at night (515/795-3930; hightrestletrail.info).
Click through the next slides to see more of our picks for the Midwest's top new attractions, restaurants and lodgings -- places to find outdoorsy fun, engaging history, cultural kicks, unique eats, exceptional stays and more.
- Photo Courtesy of Dark Sky Park
Mackinaw City, Michigan: Headlands International Dark Sky Park
An unbelievable blanket of twinkly stars draws visitors to a 600-acre county park alongside Lake Michigan that, last year, became the world's ninth International Dark Sky Park.
Years without development kept the sky free of light pollution; now, it feels like an outdoor planetarium. At free programs alongside a bonfire, you'll hear cool tales likely to leave you wondering just what those ancient Greeks were drinking (231/348-1704; emmetcounty.org/darkskypark/).
- Photo Courtesy of the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau/Chris Holloway
Jefferson City: Missouri State Penitentiary Ghost Tours
We certainly can't call a prison that opened in 1836 new, but the ghost tours that started here last year have pushed the interest in this creepy complex to a stratospheric level.
In November, the SyFy channel's Ghost Hunters aired its paranormal trek through what was once was the world's largest prison, luring even more curious travelers eager to hear former wardens share their horror stories. Admission charged (866/998-6998; missouripentours.com).
- Photo Courtesy of Conner Prairie
Fishers, Indiana: Conner Prairie's 1863 Civil War Journey: Raid on Indiana
When visitors cross a classic covered bridge, they leave behind a world of instant info delivered via Wi-Fi and realize how desperate Hoosiers were for news during the Civil War. This new experience at the living-history park just north of Indianapolis seamlessly blends traditional storytelling techniques (costumed townspeople in character) and new ideas (video screens where doors and windows should be) to share how people responded when Confederates raided their homes and businesses in July 1863. Admission charged (800/966-1836; connerprairie.org).
- Photo Courtesy of Indianapolis Museum of Art
Columbus, Indiana: Miller House and Garden
Ever wondered where the conversation pit got its start? You'll find out at this modernist home that opened for public tours last year.
Known for its amazing architecture, Columbus offers another must-see gem with this one-story marble and glass showplace built in the 1950s (the first house to be named a National Historic Landmark while its original owners still lived there). The highlights: the groundbreaking conversation pit, the tulip chairs surrounding the white marble dining table, and the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the grounds and the Flat Rock River. Admission charged (800/468-6564; columbus.in.us).
Chicago: Block 37
It's taken 140 years and seen many manifestations, but this development at State and Randolph in the Loop finally seems ready to complement the shopping along State Street.
Higher-end boutiques and chain stores mix with locally owned shops and quick-serve restaurants. Magnolia Bakery opened in the fall, and a bigger restaurant should arrive later this year. Curious about the district's name? Long-ago city planners called this area Block 37. We love the tribute to Chicago's roots (312/261-4738; block37.com).
- Photo by Tim Hursley
Kansas City, Missouri: Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts
We knew when we heard the lineup for the grand-opening performances that this new $413 million home to the Kansas City Symphony, the Kansas City Ballet and the Lyric Opera of Kansas City would be a national destination. Diana Krall? Itzhak Perlman? Placido Domingo? They were there, wowing audiences inside a downtown building that reminds some of Australia's famed Sydney Opera House.
More than 50,000 Kansas Citians turned out for the free open house of the two theaters (one seats 1,600; the second seats 1,800) and a peek inside the limestone lobby, where soaring windows overlook Union Station and the city's skyline. Yo-Yo Ma will take the stage for three performances in January, and the Broadway show Million Dollar Quartet (about a 1956 recording session with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins) launches a six-day run in March (816/994-7222; kauffmancenter.org).
- Photo Courtesy of Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts/Michal Daniel
Minneapolis: The Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts
The grand opening last fall drew the best-dressed, most multicultural crowd we've ever seen in the Twin Cities, and that's sayin' something in a city known for its depth and breadth of theaters.
The 500-seat venue connects the bones of the transplanted Shubert Theater with the 1888 Hennepin Center for the Arts, creating an intimate space celebrating both old and new. And the dancing? The opener's original mix of Native American, modern and ballet left us craving more (612/206-3636; thecowlescenter.org).
- Photo Courtesy of the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau
Omaha: TD Ameritrade Park
In 2011, the NCAA Men's College World Series left its home at Rosenblatt Stadium. We miss the small-town feel of that historic park by the Henry Doorly Zoo, but we must admit, the event's new 24,000-seat $131 million brick home next to the CenturyLink Center is pretty sweet.
The giant scoreboard screens invite passersby to take a peek at the action, and nearby bars and restaurants bolster the stadium's celebratory atmosphere. The seats offer a panoramic view of both the diamond and downtown -- not to mention plenty of legroom (402/546-1800; tdameritradeparkomaha.com).
- Photo Courtesy of Livestrong Sporting Park
Kansas City, Kansas: Livestrong Sporting Park
Whether you follow professional soccer or just want to take in a concert, this $200 million stadium in the Legends shopping, dining and entertainment area is worth a stop.
The venue says good-bye to steep staircases and cramped aisles and hello to arching canopies over every seating section. The largest high-def video board in the world (25x84 feet) shows a close-up view of what's happening on the field. A portion of all proceeds goes to the Lance Armstrong Foundation. There's even a bright yellow chair in the stands, and at each game, someone affected by cancer gets to sit in that seat of honor.
A venue that's comfortable and charitable? Definitely worth a visit (913/912-7525; livestrongsportingpark.com).
- Photo Courtesy of Explore Minnesota Tourism/Paul Stafford
Ironton, Minnesota: Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area
Last year, this mini Boundary Waters in the Brainerd Lakes region opened its long-promised mountain bike trails, all 25 miles of them, wearing names like Little Sidewinder, Easy Street, Roly Poly and Bob Sled. In Crosby, you can rent bikes at Cycle Path and Paddle then catch the paved Cuyuna Lakes State Trail and join the fairly easy mountain biking Boot Camp trail for an 8-mile round-trip (218/546-5926; dnr.state.mn.us).
- Photo Courtesy of Autumn Shoemaker/ Manhattan Convention and Visitors Bureau
Manhattan, Kansas: Flint Hills Discovery Center
Just one hour inside this $24.5 million attraction will make you want to spend many more among the Midwest's native tallgrass prairie. A 67-foot-wide movie screen immerses visitors in the region's thunderstorms and bucolic landscapes, and a simulated prairie fire sprawls across the curved interior space while volunteers lead hands-on activities. Admission charged (785/587-2726; flinthillsdiscovery.org).
- Photo Courtesy of Kings Island
Kings Island, Mason, Ohio: Dinosaurs Alive!
Short of a time machine, this new animatronic area at the famed amusement park north of Cincinnati is the closest you'll get to seeing these amazing creatures.
A walking path winds past dozens of dinos that are tucked into the woods, creeping out of creek beds and growling when visitors trip off nearby sensors. They may look a little rubbery to adults, but to kids, the dinosaurs all seem thrillingly real. Separate admission charged, but it's worth it (513/754-5700; visitkingsisland.com).
- Photo Courtesy of the Children's Museum of South Dakota
Brookings: Children's Museum of South Dakota
For adults, a Saturday afternoon spent changing tires and working an ice cream shop would be a drag, but the kids visiting this new hands-on playland can't get enough of the dozens of learning-disguised-as-fun chores here.
The Our Place on the Prairie exhibit offers a uniquely Midwestern experience, letting kids play in a sod house, stand in a tepee and harvest potatoes from a realistic farmstead. And after a little while, the adults who brought their little ones end up finding the same kind of joy in these simple moments. Admission charged (605/692-6700; prairieplay.org).
Davenport, Iowa: Hotel Blackhawk
A symbol of elegance during the Roaring '20s, this Mississippi Riverfront boutique hotel reopened in December 2010 after a massive renovation that added a touch of both the classic and the contemporary.
A fire pit, cobblestone driveway, doormen and piano player welcome guests to the 11-story downtown property, where luxurious touches (including pillow-top mattresses, glass-walled showers and TVs in the bathroom mirrors) compete with the best hotels in the region. From $149 (563/322-5000; hotelblackhawk.com).
Omaha: Hotel Deco XV
We've longed for a high-end hotel in downtown Omaha, and now we have one. The 89 rooms in this restored 1930s building blend Art Deco elements with sleek neoclassical touches in a silver, black and white palette.
Located across from the Orpheum Theater, Hotel Deco XV has a retro-hip vibe—you can easily imagine Tony Bennett having a postshow cocktail in the Encore lobby lounge. Valet parking, Wi-Fi and an overnight shoe shine are complimentary. The mattresses are comfy, the bathrooms have eight-spray European shower panels, and the Zin Room restaurant serves beautifully plated comfort food. Bring on the pampering! From $200 (866/475-3326; hoteldecoomaha.com).
- Photo Courtesy of The Dinner Table
Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin: The Dinner Table
Affordable fine dining and daily menu changes draw diners to this North Woods spot with leather furniture and high ceilings. The chef offers three or four entrees a night, such as a watermelon-barbecue pork chop with sauteed zucchini. Whatever you order, save room for dessert: Key lime pie surrounded by blueberries or bananas Foster served with fiery tableside flair (715/543-8909; thedinnertablerestaurant.com).
Bloomington, Illinois: Station 220
We tried the previous restaurant (Central Station) in this former fire house a year earlier and came away disappointed, but new management, a new chef, a new menu, new decor and a new name have infused this cool dining space with memorable flavor. Pulled pork with cracklings seemed untoppable until we tried the corn bread with spinach and radishes. Our new verdict: This is destination dining in central Illinois (309/828-2323; station220.net).
Omaha: The Grey Plume
You know the food is fresh when a restaurant doesn't own a walk-in fridge. This green eatery, led by a young James Beard Foundation Award semifinalist, offers an ever-evolving organic menu with ingredients from Iowa and Nebraska farms (and herbs grown on-site).
A floor of recycled barn wood and tabletops made of reclaimed hickory lend warmth to this contemporary Midtown Crossing spot, where the Nebraska bison burger oozes with juicy flavor and artful presentation (402/763-4447; thegreyplume.com).
Columbus, Ohio: Rivage Atlantique
Suburban Worthington isn't the first place we'd look for Atlantic seaboard dining. But that's what we found in an upscale strip mall. Entrees include shrimp and grits and cedar-planked salmon stuffed with lobster, basil and Brie. The sauces are rich with butter; balance your entree with a light starter, and you'll have an enjoyable dinner visit to the coast (614/505-7779; rivageatlantique.com).
- Photo Courtesy of Bistronomic
It feels like the best of two worlds: a Cheers bar atmosphere with impeccably prepared French food. Chef Martial Noguier, previously at lofty Cafe des Architectes, chats with customers in his little Gold Coast dining room as if he's known them for years. The gourmet grilled cheese, country pate, Amish chicken and filet of beef au poivre satisfy American palates without losing authenticity. Salut! (312/944-8400; bistronomic.net).
Mandan, North Dakota: Harvest
Carnivores head to this churrasco-style restaurant for perfectly seasoned meat delivered on huge skewers. The Parmesan pork alone is worth the trip, but also try the Brazilian rice and beans. Sangria adds a fruity flourish to this all-you-can-eat extravaganza. Our dinner for two cost nearly $100 with tip. Spendy for North Dakota? Yes. Good for a special occasion? Absolutely (701/751-4393; harvestbraziliangrill.com).
Minneapolis: In Season
The name of the restaurant hints at the menu, and we were delighted to find this kind of curated fine dining on a block shared with a greasy Chinese place and gas station. Our expertly served meal -- lime-tinged couscous salad with chickpeas and fava beans, wild salmon wrapped in smoky speck ham, and seared foie gras with strawberry bread pudding and local honey -- was a pleasing bouquet of late-spring flavors (612/926-0105; inseasonrestaurant.com).
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brewery Vivant
The mix seems a little bizarre: an American craft brewer specializing in Belgian beers operating in the chapel of a former funeral home that has become a certified-green dining room. But it all works, and the pub's exposed ceiling timbers, stained-glass windows and Gothic-style arches enhance the Belgian feel.
As for the brews, Farm Hand is a rustic, unfiltered beer, while Vivant Brune has chocolate touches. Vivant Tripel is classically Belgian: golden and sweet, with a creamy head. Can't decide? Try an $8 flight, along with a charcuterie board of bread and sausage, Yesterday's Soup (soup is always best the next day), white-bean cassoulet or steak frites from the evolving menu (616/719-1604; breweryvivant.com).
Le Claire, Iowa: Mississippi River Distilling Company
A commitment to using local ingredients drives this sophisticated yet earthy craft distillery near the Quad Cities. Every gin, bourbon, vodka and seasonal whiskey produced here features products grown within 25 miles. Visitors learn about the grain-to-glass philosophy on free tours, culminating with a tasting in a room overlooking the Mississippi River. Even the room's decor is local, using reclaimed barn beams and area artists' work.
No need to call ahead, just show up on the hour (noon to 4 p.m.) and prepare to cheer for the two brothers who started it all in December 2010 (563/484-4342; mrdistilling.com).
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® January/February 2012.)