Midwest Living's Best of the Midwest Winners 2021
Drumroll, please. … We’re excited to announce the winners of our inaugural Best of the Midwest awards. See who our editors named as top in the categories of wellness, travel, food and culture.
Wellness—Bike Trail: Maah Daah Hey Trail System
Medora, North Dakota Even more fun to ride than to pronounce, the almost 200-mile Maah Daah Hey trail system connects the two units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Watch for mule deer, coyotes, golden eagles, bighorn sheep, bison and antelope. Steel yourself for some tough but worthy climbs on the 19-mile Buffalo Gap Trail around the park’s south unit. Pro tip: April to October is the best time to go.
Wellness—Spa Experience: Kohler Waters Spa
Kohler, Wisconsin You already know they’re going to have good faucets. (Yep, it’s that Kohler.) What you may not know is that this spa next to The American Club—the Midwest’s only AAA Five Diamond resort—delivers therapeutic water treatments and other ahh-inducing delights. Dip in the immaculate pool or rise above your earthly worries on the enclosed rooftop deck with a hot tub and fireplace.
Wellness—Hike: Temperance River State Park
Schroeder, Minnesota Choosing a top trek along Lake Superior’s wild and woodsy North Shore is like trying to find the prettiest pebble on one of its beaches. Eight state parks deliver big on waterfall and lake vistas, but Temperance River is our pick for max SPF (scenery per foot). Clamber over rocks as you trace the roaring river up a ravine to its more placid beginnings—and then to a birch glade that looks lifted from a van Gogh.
Wellness—Places to Paddle: Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
Bayfield, Wisconsin A layer cake of red, black and gold sandstone bluffs forms this stretch of Lake Superior shoreline in northern Wisconsin. But it’s not until you hop into a kayak that the real treasure unfolds: its sea caves. Paddle through these soaring, echoing beauties formed by millions of years of wave action. We recommend basking in awe for a minute or two before whipping out the camera.
Wellness—Winter Recreation: Boyne Mountain
Boyne Falls, Michigan Hit the slopes on Boyne Mountain’s 60 ski runs with a wide spread of beginner to expert options. Downhill skiing not your jam? Fat biking, cross-country skiing and designated snowshoe trails—plus zipline routes and a tubing park—make this northern Michigan resort the ultimate crowd-pleaser.
Travel—Icon: Gateway Arch
St. Louis The space-age luster of Eero Saarinen’s 1965 marvel has never faded, down to the fun new retro video you watch before riding in golf-ball-like capsules to the top. A $380 million revamp in 2018 refreshed the subterranean museum, which provides the historical foundation you need to feel truly moved by the view of the Mighty Mississippi from 630 feet in the air.
Travel—Family Attraction: Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium
Omaha Even at a cheetah’s pace, it’s hard to cover this zoo in a day. More than 900 species of animals live in immersive environments, including the world’s largest desert dome and zoo aquarium. See an Amur tiger prowl among the foggy landscape of the Asian Highlands; spot gators while strolling the boardwalk of a dimly lit indoor swamp; and ride the Skyfari chairlift to see rhinos, gibbons and ostriches from above.
Travel—National Park: Badlands National Park
South Dakota An hour east of Rapid City, ancient buttes, pinnacles and canyons form a dramatic shift in the prairie landscape. Drive the popular 39-mile Badlands Loop Road for an overview (and a good chance for encounters with bison, bighorn sheep and deer). Step out of the car and climb the Notch Trail’s wooden ladder for a panoramic view.
Travel—Small Town: Galena
Illinois Like a vintage record player, this 1826 town is old as heck but somehow gets cooler every year. More than 100 shops and restaurants line Main Street, an astounding achievement for a town of 3,200 people. Tack on the history (Ulysses S. Grant lived here), outdoor rec in the surrounding bluffs and a few spirits (both the distilled versions and ghostly ones), and you’ve got a winner.
Travel—Midsize Town: Fargo
North Dakota This best-kept secret is becoming known for more than just a cult-classic film. Now, it’s one of the fastest-growing cities in the Midwest. Snag a room at the HoDo (the cool name for Hotel Donaldson) and make a plan for the next day: divine sips at Twenty Below Coffee Co., lunch at Jewish-Scandinavian deli BernBaum’s, or supporting local makers at trendy Unglued market.
Travel—Large City: Detroit
Michigan Quit calling it a comeback. The Motor City never lost its can-do spirit, fueled by diverse leaders and creatives who have launched eateries, breweries and cultural experiences, like an urban beach. And let’s not forget the classics: Motown, the river island park of Belle Isle, and Diego Rivera’s murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Grit, style and the will of a survivor—there’s no other city like it.
Travel—College Town: Lawrence
Kansas Jayhawk basketball fever fuels the home of the University of Kansas, along with an ever-growing rush of independent restaurants and shops along Mass Street. Our playlist of musts includes petting the cats while perusing mystery novels at The Raven, indulging in a decadent pastry from 1900 Barker and exploring the creative works for sale at Phoenix Gallery.
Travel—Beach Town: Saugatuck
Michigan A hand-crank ferry shuttles beachgoers along the Kalamazoo River from downtown’s art galleries and restaurants to the golden sweep of Oval Beach on Lake Michigan. The tallest dune, Mount Baldhead, provides a romantic sunset-viewing perch for many LGBTQ+ couples who let their rainbow flag fly in this exceptionally welcoming town.
Travel—Sports Town: Indianapolis
Indiana The Indy 500 is an institution on its own, as are the Colts, Pacers and the city’s NCAA Hall of Champions. But it kind of blew our minds when we found out there are actually 13 pro sports teams in town, including the Fever (WNBA) and the Intensity (MLQ). What’s MLQ, you ask? Major League Quidditch. It’s apparently a thing, and we’re here for it.
Travel—Holiday Town: St. Charles
Missouri Along Main Street’s fairyland of white lights, cobblestone streets and independent shops (gift ideas FTW!), a cast of strolling characters appears a few evenings each week through the season. You’ll be able to spot Father Christmas, Tiny Tim, carolers in top hats and even a capped gent roasting chestnuts. It’s easy to feel like part of the show in this historic town 25 miles northwest of St. Louis, and that’s part of the magic.
Travel—Dog-Friendly City: Kansas City
Missouri If it’s summer in KC and you don’t bring Fido to dine with you on a dog-friendly patio, you’re in the minority. Leading the pack is Bar K, a restaurant and bar with an off-leash dog park and shipping container interiors. Locals also love taking puppers for walks at Shawnee Mission Park, where dogs roam free in a 44-acre section of the park and are allowed to jump in the lake. Whee!
Travel—Road Trip Destination: Upper Peninsula
Michigan The three largest Great Lakes (Huron, Michigan and Superior) lap against the shores of the upper arm of Michigan, where life spreads out and the world becomes blissfully quiet. Marquette, the UP’s largest city at less than 21,000 residents, makes a perfect base for paddling at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and hiking the wilderness. Stay fueled with meaty pasties, a Yooper specialty.
Travel—Revitalized Neighborhood: East Village
Des Moines The gold-leaf-painted dome of the Iowa Capitol used to be the only beacon on this side of town, but now it's glistening above a full slate of shops and restaurants. The revitalization began in the aughts and just keeps going. Check out Raygun for sassy souvenirs, Gong Fu Tea for teas and teaware, Permanent Collection Letterpress + Design Studio for cards and posters, and Bellhop for punchy tiki drinks.
Travel—Urban Neighborhood: German Village
Columbus, Ohio Redbrick homes, shops and restaurants line narrow brick-paved streets in one of the city’s first neighborhoods. Settled by German immigrants in the early 1800s, the area feels as if history comes to life around every gaslight-illuminated corner. Lose yourself in the 32 rooms of The Book Loft—or in the macarons and croissants at Pistacia Vera.
Travel—Family Getaway: Big Cedar Lodge
Ridgedale, Missouri Just beyond Branson, you’ll find this nature-inspired theme park of a resort with cabins in the woods and three hotel-lodges on Table Rock Lake. Check out Fun Mountain for indoor and outdoor family attractions: a ropes course, rock wall, go-karts, miniature golf, laser tag, bowling and oodles more. While the kiddos play, be sure to find time to sneak off to chill in Cedar Creek Spa’s Ice Room. (The cold never bothered you anyway.)
Travel—New Hotel: The Lytle Park Hotel
Cincinnati Two early 1900s buildings in the heart of an urban park underwent a complete transformation to create this marvel with a vaulted glass ceiling, a crown-shape bar and the Queen City’s only four-season rooftop. From there, it’s an easy walk to the Taft Museum of Art, riverfront parks and The Purple People Bridge crossing the Ohio River.
Travel—Summer Resort: Madden's on Gull Lake
Brainerd, Minnesota Loon calls. Fishing rods. Campfire s’mores. These rhythms of daily life in the Brainerd Lakes region have drawn families for generations. Madden’s delivers all of that, in addition to four golf courses, tennis courts, a full-on armada of watercraft rentals and a day camp for kids.
Travel—Historic Hotel: Grand Hotel
Mackinac Island, Michigan As you take the 15-minute ferry ride from the mainland to this car-free isle between Michigan’s two peninsulas, the Grand Hotel’s 660-foot-long front porch dominates the landscape. The 1887 property delivers the finest of bygone bougie without a hint of stuffiness. After all, you deserve that horse-drawn carriage ride and a formal dinner and dance accompanied by a live orchestra.
Travel—Boutique Hotel: The Charmant Hotel
La Crosse, Wisconsin They won us over with free truffles during check-in, but that’s just an amuse-bouche to the sweet touches inside this retired 1898 candy factory along the Mississippi River. Framed vintage peppermint tins hang on bedroom walls, and the French-leaning restaurant makes a killer chocolate torte with espresso shortbread crust.
Travel—Unique Stay: Kinnikinnick Farm
Caledonia, Illinois How to describe Kinnikinnick? Well, you’ll sleep in a canvas-walled cabin, drawing water for your dishes with a hand pump. You’ll hop aboard a wagon to help feed the chickens. You’ll eat really well, whether frying eggs for breakfast al fresco or joining other guests for a legendary pizza night. And your family will earn bonus grandparents in owners David and Susan Cleverdon, who greet every child by name.
Travel—Fall Drive: Brown County
Indiana Nestled 60 miles south of Indianapolis, the county’s woodsy topography prevents looking too far ahead on roads or trails— making the payoff even sweeter when you round a bend and spot a covered bridge or top out at a vista transformed by autumn’s brush. Stretch your legs by hiking or mountain biking through Brown County State Park, or wander around the artsy village of Nashville.
Travel—Wildlife Experience: Sandhill Crane Migration
Kearney, Nebraska As the March sun slides below the horizon in south-central Nebraska, the birds begin to arrive. A few lone cranes grow to dozens, to hundreds and soon to a crowd of thousands lining the banks of the Platte River as they take a multiweek layover on the journey between Mexico and Canada (or even Siberia). Catch the annual spectacle through the Crane Trust or Rowe Sanctuary. (May be limited or virtual in 2021.)
Travel—Spring Destination: Adams County
Ohio A manageable day trip east of Cincinnati, this rural county is wildflower central and has more than a dozen parks and preserves (including the aptly named Edge of Appalachia). By late March, the first migrant birds arrive: Louisiana water thrushes, blue-gray gnatcatchers and black-and-white warblers. Come April, trout lilies and hepatica bloom on hillsides; twinleafs and trilliums star when the blooms hit their peak.
Culture—Public Art Collection: Pappajohn Sculpture Park
In 2009, this instantly iconic green space transformed a bland patch of downtown with more than 20 diverse sculptures, curated into separate “rooms” by swooping grass berms. Stand inside Jaume Plensa’s Nomade to look at the sky through an alphabet soup (pictured), or bring a picnic and perch on the slopes at dusk to watch the sculptures light up around you.
Culture—Photo Op: Wall Drug
Wall, South Dakota The question isn’t whether to take a photo at this billboard-hyped kitsch factory off Interstate-90 (where, yes, the coffee really costs only a nickel). The question is where to start. The giant Jackalope out front? A miniature Mount Rushmore? A roaring T. rex? All solid options for the ’gram. If your phone always eats first, be sure to snap a photo of the cafe’s famous donuts before digging in.
Culture—Art Center: The Art Institute of Chicago
Chicago Grant Wood’s American Gothic. Claude Monet’s Water Lilies. Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. You get the picture of what you'll find at The Art Institute of Chicago. Chase your tour of global art history by visiting the mind-blowingly intricate Thorne Miniature Rooms and special exhibitions. Don’t miss the excellent family resources if you have kids with you.
Culture—Theater: Karamu House
Cleveland Langston Hughes grew fond of this theater while living in Cleveland, as it was a platform where Black playwrights and actors could shine. The oldest-producing African American theater in the country has never strayed from that mission. The stories Karamu House shares feel more timely than ever, and the theater has admirably adapted shows for digital viewing during the pandemic.
Culture—Botanical Garden: Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park
Grand Rapids, Michigan Hey, Grand Rapids, would you rather have one of the best gardens in the United States or 300 sculptures? “We’ll take both,” they said, “with a top-notch lineup of concerts and other programs on the side.” Stroll through a tropical conservatory, five indoor theme gardens and 158 acres of outdoor plantings dotted with art.
Culture—Live Music Venue: First Avenue
Minneapolis When Prince passed away in 2016, his death only elevated the legendary status of the downtown venue where Purple Rain was filmed. Until it’s safe to jam indoors to live indie rock concerts again, peruse the jet-black exterior’s painted silver stars showcasing the names of groups that have gigged here. (You’ll recognize quite a few.)