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The Ultimate Midwest Bucket List

There are thousands of Midwest attractions worth seeing, but when you only get one lifetime to see it all, you’ve gotta be a little choosy. This list of 100 things to do features our top tips for unforgettable getaways.
  • Lake of the Ozarks

    Missouri

    Lake of the Ozarks (pictured) This central Missouri destination appeals to outdoor-lovers. The reservoir calls for days on the water. No boat? No worries: Rent one at the state park marina. On shore, two state parks (Lake of the Ozarks and Ha Ha Tonka) provide the perfect terrain for hiking, biking and horseback riding. funlake.com

    Branson The town’s main drag proudly keeps it old-school with country music shows and kitschy shops. Nearby, Silver Dollar City theme park has been beloved by generations. More recent additions like the Branson Landing shops and a classy new golf course are rounding out the southern Missouri experience. explorebranson.com

    Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park Rocks more than a billion years old form a natural water park of pools and falls north of Lesterville. mostateparks.com

    Kansas City barbecue People know KC for its culinary specialty, and fans from around the globe gather here in October for the American Royal World Series of Barbecue, the world’s largest BBQ contest. A few of our favorite spots for the good stuff: Fiorella’s Jack Stack BBQ, Q39 and Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue. visitkc.com

    The Gateway Arch The nation’s tallest monument rises 630 feet above the Mississippi River. Ride to the top in a Jetsons-like pod for views of the horizon beyond St. Louis. gatewayarch.com

  • Michigan

    Mackinac region The trio of Mackinac Island, the Les Cheneaux Islands and mainland’s Mackinac City make a soul-reviving escape. Stretching 5 miles across the Straits of Mackinac, the breathtaking Mackinac Bridge (pictured) connects Michigan’s Upper and Lower peninsulas. michigan.org

    Detroit There’s new energy powering the car capital of the world. But the Motor City has always been a reliable source for music and culture. Must-sees include the Detroit Institute of Arts, Motown Museum and Eastern Market, the nation’s largest public market. visitdetroit.com

    Isle Royale National Park Catch the three-hour ferry ride from Copper Harbor to experience this Lake Superior island of backcountry adventure: 165 miles of trails, 46 lakes and plenty of scalloped shoreline. nps.gov/isro

    Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Kayakers feel small near the 200-foot-tall mineral-stained cliffs along Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula. nps.gov/piro

    Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore West of Traverse City, some of the world’s largest freshwater dunes rise 400 feet above Lake Michigan. nps.gov/slbe

    The Henry Ford It’s pure Americana at this vast complex in Dearborn. The pioneering automaker collected memorabilia, including the bus in which Rosa Parks stood her ground. At the adjoining Greenfield Village, visitors ride in restored Model T’s past the Wright Brothers' Cycle Shop. thehenryford.org

  • Illinois

    Chicago The Windy City is, in itself, worthy of bucket-list status. Catch soaring views at Skydeck Chicago (pictured), walk among majestic architecture in Grant Park (also home to Millennium Park), explore the world-class Art Institute of Chicago, catch a Chicago Cubs game at legendary Wrigley Field and gush over a gooey slice of Chicago deep dish pizza…for starters. choosechicago.com

    Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum Immerse yourself in the 16th president’s world at this interactive museum in Springfield. A re-creation of a one-room cabin Lincoln lived in (with eight family members, no less) is fascinating. Kids like Mrs. Lincoln’s Attic, filled with dress-up clothes. presidentlincoln.illinois.gov

    Garden of the Gods In southern Illinois' Shawnee National Forest, a ¼-mile trail features towering sandstone outcroppings formed millions of years ago. www.fs.usda.gov/shawnee

    Starved Rock State Park This remarkable pocket of land 90 miles southwest of Chicago includes 18 sandstone canyons; 14 waterfalls, including some that freeze into glittering walls in winter; and abundant wildlife and birds. dnr.state.il.us

  • Ohio

    Cuyahoga Valley National Park A greenbelt glimmers in northeast Ohio: 33,000 acres all but hidden along the bustling industrial corridor linking Cleveland and Akron. Blue Hen Falls (pictured) is a favorite stop for photo ops. nps.gov/cuva

    Cedar Point Sandusky’s amusement park on Lake Erie thrills with 18 coasters, including the 42-story Top Thrill Dragster. cedarpoint.com

    Columbus neighborhoods Ohio’s capital city boasts two of the Midwest’s most colorful neighborhoods. Experience funky fun in the bohemian studios and high-end boutiques of the Short North Arts District. Bakeries, bookshops and delis line the narrow brick streets of the 19th-century German Village. experiencecolumbus.com

    National Underground Railroad Freedom Center This gripping Cincinnati museum celebrates liberty while exploring the history of slavery and the fight to end it. freedomcenter.org

    Hocking Hills State Park Located 60 miles southeast of Columbus, these hills are alive with the sound of shouting, thanks to exuberant families who listen for their echoes at Old Man’s Cave. There’s quiet, too, on wooded hiking trails or in indulgent accommodations nearby. ohiostateparks.org

    Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Rock fans make pilgrimage to this I.M. Pei-designed geometric masterpiece in Cleveland to spend a day honoring the genre’s evolution and the artists’ spirits, sounds and antiestablishment points of view. rockhall.com

  • Minnesota

    Brainerd Lakes With more than 450 lakes in the Brainerd region, summer vacations here are all about the water. But there’s fun on land, too. As kids approach a 26-foot-tall statue at Paul Bunyan Land (pictured), Paul greets them by name, scaring the pants off youngsters as easily as he did when the park opened in 1950. explorebrainerdlakes.com

    Aerial Lift Bridge Duluth’s famed bridge rises more than 20 times each day for boats—and skyscraper-size ships—traveling between Lake Superior and Duluth Harbor. A whistle responds to ships’ horns. visitduluth.com

    Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Several thousand lakes and streams lined by 1,500 miles of forested shoreline create endless canoeing, kayaking and hiking opportunities in one vast northern Minnesota adventureland. bwca.net

    Itasca State Park It’s tradition to walk across the headwaters of the Mississippi River near Park Rapids. Look for wildlife (even the occasional bear) and some of the more than 100 lakes on the Wilderness Drive. dnr.state.mn.us/itasca

    Mall of America It would take 86 hours to spend 10 minutes in each store. Kids love the Lego store and Nickelodeon Universe theme park at this Bloomington complex. mallofamerica.com

    Walker Art Center View contemporary art and media. The center includes the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, one of the largest urban sculpture parks in the country, but you'll have to wait a bit before snapping selfies there again: The garden is closed for renovation until June 2017. walkerart.org

  • South Dakota

    Mount Rushmore (pictured) The sculpting feat on the eastern edge of the Black Hills honors four presidents. Walk the presidential trail for up-close views of the sculpture. nps.gov/moru

    Badlands National Park Prairie and rolling hills lining Interstate-90 give way to rugged, otherworldly outcroppings about an hour east of Rapid City. Get out and see the geologic maze at almost a dozen stops along the 31-mile Badlands Loop Road. nps.gov/badl

    Buffalo Roundup at Custer State Park One of the region’s biggest wildlife sighting happens in the fall at this annual spectacle in Custer. As many as 14,000 people wait hours to hear, see and feel 1,300 bison thundering down the valley while they’re herded by dozens of cowboys on horseback. gfp.sd.gov

    Corn Palace Every year since 1892, Mitchell artists have decorated this building’s facade with corn and other grains. A redesigned interior and exterior opened in April 2015. cornpalace.org

    Crazy Horse Memorial A work in progress since 1948, the massive Black Hills sculpture of Oglala Lakota leader Crazy Horse astride a steed emerges more every year. His face alone stands 90 feet high. crazyhorsememorial.org

    Falls Park In Sioux Falls, the Big Sioux River drops 100 feet in a series of dramatic waterfalls. Take the elevator to the top of the five-story viewing tower for the best vistas. visitsiouxfalls.com

  • Kansas

    Flint Hills (pictured) Get knee-deep in one of the world’s most endangered ecosystems: tallgrass prairie. The Flint Hills Discovery Center is a sweeping introduction. During summer’s annual Symphony in the Flint Hills, the 85-piece Kansas City Symphony serenades thousands spread across the wide-open prairie in northeast Kansas. nps.gov/tapr

    Cosmosphere The largest combined collection of United States and Russian space artifacts—moon rocks!—is at this museum in Hutchinson. cosmo.org

    Dodge City Gun fights erupt twice daily all summer long on Front Street, part of Boot Hill Museum, a re-creation of the legendary cow town. boothill.org

    Kansas City thrills NASCAR races (at Kansas Speedway) and a state-of-the-art soccer stadium (Sporting Park) pump energy into the city. visitkansascityks.com

    Lawrence A raid led by the Confederate William Quantrill destroyed much of the town in 1863, but a handful of Victorian homes survived. Today, Civil War sites pepper this college-town blend of independent stores, restaurants and coffee houses about 40 miles west of Kansas City. visitlawrence.com

  • Wisconsin

    Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and Bayfield (pictured) The crashing of Lake Superior waves carves caves and arches from the stone bluffs outside the small town of Bayfield. Novice kayakers can take guided tours to the caves on the mainland; experienced paddlers might head toward one of the Apostle Islands. bayfield.org

    Door County On a northeast peninsula jutting into Lake Michigan, this one county contains 11 towns (and an island), plus cherry orchards, wineries, outdoor fish boils, art galleries, lighthouses, hiking trails and boating expeditions. doorcounty.com

    Lambeau Field Nosh bratwurst-studded Pac’n’Cheese while watching the Packers play in Green Bay. On nongame days, tour the Packers Hall of Fame. lambeaufield.com

    Milwaukee beer tours Sprecher Brewing Company, Lakefront Brewing Company, Milwaukee Brewing Co. and MillerCoors let visitors peek behind the scenes. visitmilwaukee.org

    Taliesin Frank Lloyd Wright’s estate overlooks the Wisconsin River in Spring Green. Visitors get an education on the architect famous for developing the Prairie style. Tours showcase Wright’s use of glass, stone and wood. taliesinpreservation.org

    Wisconsin Dells Known as The Water Park Capital of the World, the Dells doesn’t mess around when it comes to thrills. More than 200 water slides and one of the world’s only upside-down wooden roller coasters await 60 miles northwest of Madison. wisdells.com

  • Indiana

    Brown County (pictured) The many ways nature inspires art become obvious during a visit to Brown County, an hour south of Indianapolis. Explore the hiking trails and sweeping vistas of Indiana’s largest state park, then see how that scenery translates to artists’ work in galleries and studios. browncounty.com

    Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Rolling sand dunes are the backdrop to swimming, hiking and biking along Lake Michigan in the northwest corner of the state. indianadunes.com

    Indy 500 The roar of 400,000 fans cheering vies with engines revving to speeds above 220 mph at this Memorial Day weekend race in Indianapolis. indianapolismotorspeedway.com

    Northern Indiana Travel backroads to discover family-owned shops, colorful quilt gardens and horse-drawn buggies traveling rural landscapes. But this region is more than Amish. Trendy restaurants and shops ensure good times are au courant. amishcountry.org

    West Baden Springs Hotel A 100-foot-tall domed atrium crowns this restored 1902 hotel in West Baden. The air of elegance continues in the spa and fine-dining restaurants. It’s part of the French Lick Resort, with golf courses, horseback riding tours, and hiking and biking trails. frenchlick.com

  • North Dakota

    Maah Daah Hey Trail (pictured) These 143 miles of trails lead bikers and hikers over rolling prairie and rough badlands, from the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park to south of Medora. mdhta.com

    Enchanted Highway Seven sculptures tower along a 30-mile stretch between Interstate-94 and Regent. Figures crafted from scrap metal, oil-well pipes and tanks include grasshoppers, people and fish; most stand over 40 feet tall. ndtourism.com

    Fargo Classy restaurants, fun shops and a refurbished hotel that’s 21st-century hip headline this city made timeless by the Coen brothers’ cult-classic Fargo. Speaking of the film, don’t miss a fun photo op with the movie’s wood chipper prop at the Fargo-Moorhead Visitors Center. fargomoorhead.org

    International Peace Garden Hop back and forth across national boundaries at this 2,300-acre retreat spanning the U.S.-Canada border. A conservatory, flower gardens, chapel, bell tower and 9/11 memorial fill the grounds. peacegarden.com

    Medora Musical This 50-year-old show celebrates Teddy Roosevelt and America with song-and-dance routines. The Burning Hills Amphitheatre overlooks a badlands landscape that produces a spotlighted horseman in the closing act. medora.com

    Theodore Roosevelt National Park Explore some 70,000 acres of painted canyons and grassy trails along the western edge of the state. The busier South Unit Visitor Center has a museum and theater. Look for bison and prairie dogs in the more isolated North Unit (50 miles away). nps.gov/thro

  • Iowa

    Amana Colonies (pictured) The seven German villages of the Amana Colonies (20 miles southwest of Cedar Rapids) still evoke the self-sufficient philosophy behind their creation more than 150 years ago. Cruise the pastoral scenes of the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway to Fireside Winery in Marengo for a sip of Cordovan and warm Brie dip. amanacolonies.com

    Decorah This old-world Norwegian town draws visitors with its hillside vistas and activities along the Upper Iowa River. Discover more than 20,000 heirloom-seed varieties at the Seed Savers Exchange, and learn about immigrant life through the 12 historical outbuildings of the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. visitdecorah.com

    Loess Hills Wind-blown silt during the Ice Age created a ribbon of unique steep hills that follow the Missouri River in western Iowa. The 220-mile Loess Hills National Scenic Byway follows Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery and links towns, prairies, forests and overlooks. visitloesshills.com

    Maquoketa Caves State Park Hike amid lush greenery on your way to more than a dozen caves bearing names like Twin Arch, Rainy Day and Shinbone. A 6-mile trail winds past towering stone walls and limestone bluffs 30 miles south of Dubuque. iowadnr.gov/parks

    Okoboji A destination for generations, five glacial lakes form a chain in northwest Iowa. Ride The Legend, one of the world’s oldest wooden roller coasters, at Arnolds Park Amusement Park. vacationokoboji.com

  • Nebraska

    Scotts Bluff National Monument (pictured) In Gering, a steep walking trail leads to 90-mile views atop the bluff, a landmark to prairie-weary wagon trains. nps.gov/scbl

    Henry Doorly Zoo Omaha’s zoo is a big deal. Literally. Exhibits include the world’s largest indoor desert and largest indoor swamp. Wander the country’s largest indoor rainforest, explore a bat cave and walk the 70-foot tunnel beneath the ocean as sharks swim alongside—and above—you. omahazoo.com

    Lake McConaughy Pack your swimsuit for a trip to Nebraska’s largest reservoir (60 miles west of North Platte). Numerous campgrounds, wildlife areas and an estimated 100 miles of beach make this a no-brainer for families. ilovelakemac.com

    NCAA Men’s College World Series Fans from across the nation congregate at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha for about 10 days each June. Food and beer tents, sports bars and restaurants surround north downtown’s brick stadium. tdameritradeparkomaha.com

    Nebraska’s Wild West Badlands, big skies and a surprising spread of pine forests draw visitors through the Sandhills to the panhandle in northwestern Nebraska. outdoornebraska.org

    Sandhill crane migration Reserve a spot at Gibbon’s Rowe Sanctuary to see one of the world’s great remaining wildlife spectacles: more than 500,000 cranes landing at the Platte River in early spring. rowe.audubon.org

  • Architecture Tours

    Some of the Midwest’s most marvelous works of art aren’t hanging on a wall; they are the wall. And the windows. And the rooftops. Explore these architectural gems with immersive tours.

    Columbus, Indiana Pick up a map at the Columbus Area Visitors Center to guide you to the city’s standout structures, like Henry Moore’s 20-foot Large Arch sculpture (pictured). Or let someone else do the work. Air-conditioned bus tours with volunteer guides bring character to buildings and art around town. Bus tours operate Tuesdays–Sundays from March–November. columbus.in.us

    Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise Ninety-minute tours along the Chicago River explore the city’s history as told through downtown’s classic and brand-new buildings. Cruises depart daily, April–November. architecture.org

    Historic Milwaukee Inc. Volunteers lead walking tours, including a daily architecture tour that also covers the people and stories behind downtown buildings. Lean about territory disputes, the first white child (named Milwaukee) and the Polish immigrants who populated Brady Street in the 1800s. Tours operate from June to October. historicmilwaukee.org

    Summit Avenue Walking Tour This 90-minute stroll takes visitors past the 19th-century mansions on a spectacular residential street in Saint Paul. Guides discuss the social history and preservation of the neighborhood. Tours run every Saturday and Sunday from May to September. events.mnhs.org

  • The Great River Road near Stockholm, Wisconsin

    Great River Road

    Though the winding Great River Road covers an incredible amount of ground—2,000 miles along the Mississippi River from Minnesota to Louisiana—it's easy to enjoy pieces during leisurely weekend getaways. Here are five of our favorite stops along the Midwest stretch, listed from north to south.

    Buena Vista Park In Alma, Wisconsin, grab your camera and follow signs from State-35 along County-E, or walk from Second Street to reach a spectacular overlook. almawisconsin.com

    Minnesota Marine Art Museum Take in seascapes by Monet and Van Gogh at this classy Winona destination. The museum’s star attraction: Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware. mmam.org

    National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium The experience at this riverfront museum in Dubuque, Iowa, includes a touch tank of Mississippi snails, the chance to tour a 1934 steamer and views into six big aquariums full of river creatures. rivermuseum.com

    Quincy, Illinois Washington Park—home to a Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858—welcomes special events such as a Midsummer Arts Faire. Try the veal-stuffed cannelloni at Italian restaurant Tiramisu in the Historic Business District. seequincy.com

    Grafton Zipline Adventures Zoom across Mississippi River bluffs with fun guides in the southern Illinois town of Grafton. Enjoy the view as you fly on the 2,000-foot-long Soaring Eagle, one of nine thrilling zips. graftonzipline.com

  • Mural in Pontiac, Illinois.

    Route 66

    Unplug from the modern everyday on a nostalgic, kitschy, friendlier-than-a-front-porch run down the Midwest stretch of Route 66. Here are five stops you won’t want to miss, listed from north to south.

    Lou Mitchell’s Restaurant and Bakery Between towering Chicago buildings, the low-slung ‘50s-era hot spot gives diners free doughnut holes and Milk Duds; the menu lists diner classics. loumitchellsrestaurant.com

    Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum Museums like this one in an old firehouse in Pontiac, Illinois, are the watercoolers of the road, the place to meet fellow travelers and pick up tips on what to see. While in town, swing by 24 outdoor murals that showcase the local cultural scene. il66assoc.org

    Ted Drewes Frozen Custard For the full experience at this St. Louis stop, flip your cup upside down for a couple of seconds. Ted’s famed custard, thicker than even the city's summer air, won’t fall out. teddrewes.com

    Meramec Caverns Meramec was a longtime must-see on All-American road trips, and pop culture still lurks everywhere on the cave tour in Stanton, Missouri. Jesse James hid out along the underground river, and an episode of Lassie was filmed inside. americascave.com

    Munger Moss Motel You don’t stay at this Lebanon, Missouri, motel for premium TV channels or even an iron in your room. The Munger Moss (complete with vintage neon sign) is a perfectly preserved—and clean—road motel from decades past. mungermoss.com

  • Wine Country

    Winding roads pass tiny towns and rows of grapevines on these postcard-pretty drives. Linger with a glass of wine and drink in gorgeous landscapes on five toast-worthy trails.

    Shawnee Hills Wine Trail (pictured) Spend even just a little time among the 12 family-owned wineries nestled in Illinois’ Shawnee National Forest, and you’ll feel a welcome tug: Do you go home with bottles of wine in tow and start cooking, or do you sip a sweet red while watching the sun set over a vista stretching more than 35 miles? shawneewinetrail.com

    Ashtabula County, Ohio In fall, frosty whitecaps splash along the Lake Erie shore, sending visitors scuttling inland—just in time for leaf peeping and wine tasting. Two loop drives lead to 18 covered bridges, as well as many of the area’s 20-plus wineries. Make the Convention and Visitors Bureau’s color-coded map your guide. visitashtabulacounty.com

    Hermann Wine Trail Sip merlot and tour a wine cellar dug by hand before the Civil War on this winding, woodsy route past seven wineries in Missouri. hermannwinetrail.com

    Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail Rich soil and Lake Michigan breezes help more than two dozen vineyards flourish on northwest Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula. Follow a looping wine trail to tasting rooms where crisp Chardonnays complement waterfront views. lpwines.com

    Southeastern Indiana The Ridge Winery in Vevay and a handful of other vintners have revived one of the country’s original winemaking regions. Sample some of the Ridge Winery’s dozen wines while you watch the Ohio River flow lazily beyond the Tasting Room deck. indianawines.org

  • Culinary Tours

    Dig into tasty dishes served with a side of history on these five urban foodie tours.

    Twin Cities Food Tours Expect international flavors and Minnesotan history on this three-hour walk. Learn about Neapolitan-style pizza at Punch Pizza (pictured), then discover old-world Polish treats at Kramarczuk’s deli. twincitiesfoodtours.com

    Columbus Food Adventures Themed tours introduce foodies to interesting cuisines around the city. We love sampling authentic Mexican dishes on the taco truck tour. columbusfoodadventures.com

    Milwaukee Food Tours In addition to the popular Pizza Bus Tour, you can choose from a bloody mary brunch tour, eats on Brady Street (an Italian and Polish enclave) or several other neighborhood-focused outings. milwaukeefoodtours.com

    Savor Ann Arbor Guide Marcie Greenfield leads customized outings around this Michigan college town. Follow a suggested itinerary or talk with her to create your own, and walk your way through a gourmet meal. savorannarbor.com

    Taste of Kansas City Food Tours Get the lowdown on the Crossroads Arts District’s renaissance between bites of Philly cheesesteak pizza at Grinders and two kinds of bruschetta at Harvey’s at Union Station. The tour involves an easy 2-mile stroll. tasteofkansascityfoodtours.com

  • Photo by Jess Hoffert

    State Fairs

    The Midwest’s five largest state fairs (in terms of attendance) deliver nonstop entertainment and deep-fried delights.

    Iowa State Fair (pictured) Of the 200-plus food vendors at this Des Moines fair, more than 50 hawk foods on a stick. And more than 1 million people attend to see attractions like the 1,000-plus-pound Big Boar. August. iowastatefair.org

    Indiana State Fair Legendary grandstand performances at the Indianapolis fair have included two sold-out concerts by the Beatles in 1964 and a Jackson Five appearance in 1973. August. in.gov/statefair

    Minnesota State Fair Try beer gelato and shrimp dogs while catching concerts and livestock shows in Saint Paul. Late August–Labor Day. mnstatefair.org

    Ohio State Fair Get amped for fun at the Columbus fair’s Mountain Dew Midway. More than 60 rides appeal to everyone from little tykes to daredevils. Late July–early August. ohiostatefair.com

    Wisconsin State Fair The fair’s famous cream puffs, sold at the West Allis grounds since 1924, come in packs of three or six. Skip the lines: Order ahead on a hotline, or stop at the drive-up. August. wistatefair.com

Comments (2)

jimjoyce33 wrote:
I've been to those South Dakota sites and they're all good. We lucked into the buffalo roundup and it was fascinating. I know it's a commercial business but Wall Drugstore is worth a stop while you're in the area.
jimjoyce33 wrote:
The natural wonders of Wisconsin Dells have been spoiled (for me) by all the commercial enterprises. We visited Door county and it was a peaceful alternative. But that's been 40 years ago so it might not be as peaceful now!

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