Best of the Midwest Awards Winners 2023
Not every river can claim six ecosystems and 200-plus waterfalls, but the Niobrara can. Pumping through Nebraska's Sandhills region, 76 miles of the Niobrara are a designated National Wild and Scenic River. Paddle your own kayak or canoe or book a guided tour through an outfitter to see spots like Berry Falls and Brewer Bridge.
Just southwest of Chicago, The Forge's adventure course offers a big dose of adrenaline, with 300 elements of varying difficulty levels, including high ropes, rock walls, rappelling—and a thrilling 1,000-foot-long zipline over a repurposed quarry. The park also has axe throwing, water sports, archery, trails and scavenger hunts. The complex is free to visit and pay to play, so the calmer set can tag along with the adventure junkies.
Located near the covered bridges of Parke County, Indiana, are the looming sandstone cliffs and quiet hemlock groves of Turkey Run State Park. Of the 11 trails, our favorite is Trail 3—a rugged 1.7-mile trek that traces a riverbed. You'll see rock formations, waterfalls and glacial potholes before climbing out of the canyon via wooden ladders. One tip: Wear shoes you don't mind getting wet.
Excelsior Springs, Missouri
Harry S. Truman once stayed at The Elms Hotel and Spa, where he indulged in a treatment including a salt rub and massage. Last fall, the historic hotel unveiled a full renovation of the spa, complete with a salt cave, outdoor zen garden, and a mud bar where guests can exfoliate and experience the healing properties of the area's mineral-enriched mud.
As you pedal over Iowa's High Trestle Trail Bridge, the geometric metal structures overhead seem to rotate around you, like a deck of cards fanning out. Part of the High Trestle Trail, the bridge has become a stopping point for riders and pedestrians along the 25-mile route— which takes you past many a restaurant and bar too!
Find your zen at this 12-acre Japanese garden, once the personal treasure of Rockford businessman John Anderson. To problem-solve a swampy area of his backyard, Anderson hired landscape architect Hoichi Kurisu. Utilizing the three elements of a Japanese garden— stone, water and plants—Kurisu designed a haven that is now a beautiful nonprofit oasis.
When a group of 13 Kansas parents spoke out against a racist school system, they'd forever change history. Monroe Elementary School, one of Topeka's four previously segregated schools, is now a designated historic landmark. Walk the halls and view exhibits in its former classrooms, then take a stroll down the street to see a mural painted by Kansas City artist Michael Toombs with the help of the community.
Dalí, Matisse, Renoir, Gauguin, Warhol, Pollock— The Cleveland Museum of Art has the usual suspects. But where it really excels is in its accumulation of Asian art. Regarded as one of the best collections in the U.S., the museum displays a vast selection of works from China, Japan, India and Southeast Asia spanning the Neolithic era through today. Plus, its setting on a lagoon in Wade Park can't be beat.
Sunset Hills, Missouri
At Laumeier Sculpture Park, you don't have to choose between taking a hike or admiring art. More than 70 public art pieces are scattered throughout the grounds of this free outdoor museum in a western St. Louis suburb. Choose from three trails: The Central Pathway is a short paved loop, while the Art Hike Trail and Western Woodland Trail lead to sculptures in the forest.
Spring Green, Wisconsin
American Players Theatre nestles in the rolling green countryside of Wisconsin's Driftless Area, a setting nearly as dramatic as the productions unfolding on the outdoor stage. This world-class facility—one of the best classical theater companies in the country—puts on nine shows each season, many by Shakespeare. Picnicking outside the theater is a preshow tradition.
Tod Swormstedt, an industry vet, calls this museum his midlife crisis project. It's a trip through 100 years of retail signage history, from early pre-electric signs adorned in gold leaf, through decades of glowing neon and today's plastic- face versions. Famous names include Howard Johnson's, Phillips 66 and McDonald's—including a vintage Speedee, the fast food giant's original mascot.
Iowa City, Iowa
Indie icon Prairie Lights sprouted in 1978 amid the fertile literary ground of The University of Iowa and its famed Iowa Writers' Workshop. It's grown to several floors, with a coffeehouse where Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes and E. E. Cummings met with the local literary society in the 1930s. The store hosts the long-running TV series Live from Prairie Lights, spotlighting established and up- and-coming authors. Watch in-person or stream it.
A ghostly assemblage of gray metal rises along State-87—nearly 40 old automobiles (some standing on end, partially buried) arranged to mimic Stonehenge. Jim Reinders and his family built Carhenge in 1987 as a memorial to his father, who lived on this site. Reinders, an engineer, studied Stonehenge while living in England and took great care to copy its design and dimensions.
Garden greener when you shop (in person or online) at Prairie Moon, home to the largest retail collection of native plants in the U.S. As the staff here will happily tell you, native plants support ecosystem restoration, clean air, healthy soil and invasive species control. (And they'll attract oodles of pollinators to your yard.) Prairie Moon grows the bulk of its offerings on-site from high-quality seed.
The Flint Hills come alive with the sound of music each summer when the Kansas City Symphony performs as darkness falls on a prairie pasture. Thousands gather on a hillside for this finale to a daylong celebration of the region's ecology and culture. Come early for prairie walks and covered wagon rides. Stay late for stargazing and dancing. This year's event takes place June 10 near Eskridge (about 40 minutes southwest of Topeka).
Food + Drink
If a scoop shop makes its sprinkles from scratch, you just know the ice cream will be good. Inventive-but-not- zany seasonal flavors (like, say, Sweet Corn) utilize local ingredients. And don't miss their take on Butter Brickle, a Nebraska fave first served at Omaha's Blackstone Hotel.
At The Aviary, each cocktail is designed with every sip in mind—the first to the very last. From the brains behind famed restaurant Alinea, this sleek lounge in the Fulton Market district crafts drinks that are works of art. (For example, mixologists only use ice or frozen elements that add to the flavor, rather than watering it down.) Opt for the guided tasting experience, which pairs five cocktails with small bites.
Milwaukee's dining scene has long existed in the looming shadow of nearby Chicago. But now it's stepping out. The city had a record nine James Beard Award semifinalists in 2022. Three went to the finals for best chef Midwest, and one won: Dane Baldwin from The Diplomat. With high-end tasting menu restaurants like Ardent, historic Italian delis slinging sammies, and a trendy food truck park serving Venezuelan arepas and sushi burritos, Milwaukee has earned its seat at the table.
Sean Sherman, known as The Sioux Chef, was the first chef in the U.S. to open a restaurant offering decolonized Native cuisine, elevating him to national prominence. At Owamni, he doesn't use any ingredient introduced by colonizers or not naturally found here, including dairy, wheat, beef, chicken and pork. The menu features Indigenous ingredients in dishes like Red Cliff Lake Trout and White Bean Spread, Choginyapi Corn Sandwiches, and Duck Sausage.
Kansas City, Missouri
Baba's Pantry proves you don't need to be fancy to be the best. This tiny, counter-service Palestinian deli was inspired by the food that Yahia Kamal ("Baba") missed when he came to the U.S. in the 1970s. Run by the Kamal family, Baba's serves bowls of velvety hummus topped with kebabs, crispy falafel with sumac onions, and vegan jackfruit shawarma. To take the taste home, buy one of the signature condiments to go.
Even on a Monday morning, Indianapolis' Milktooth restaurant is buzzing. The breakfast-lunch menu is short and sweet, but what it does, it does extremely well. Sweet and savory Dutch baby pancake toppings change seasonally. A large latke is a perfect shareable. Raclette grilled cheese with hot honey warms the soul. And syrup-drenched sourdough waffles abate a sweet tooth..
Drinking beer in the school gym is no teen fantasy at this craft brewery and restaurant in old Whitestown High School, just outside Indianapolis. The owners, who started brewing in a barn, hang their awards (for brews like Moonlite cream ale and German-style Follow The Lederhosen) à la championship banners. Additional fun touches: repainted basketball court markings, backdrops from old school plays, and wood from bleacher seats with scratched-in initials.
Credit ancient glaciers for ideal grape-growing conditions—similar to France's Burgundy and Bordeaux regions—in southwest Michigan. But raise a glass to the Dablon crew for hand- planting vines and hand-nurturing the 17 varietals they craft into more than 30 wines, including some unusual to the area (such as Malbec and Petit Verdot). The indoor tasting room uncorks a warm vibe, and a shady outdoor area overlooks the vineyards. Live performances top off weekend tastings.
Owner Matt Knio's path to patisserie includes working on a cocoa bean plantation in Africa and learning from a master pastry chef in Paris. But the third continent's been the charm: Knio has wowed metro Detroit with his breads, cakes and French pastries for 20 years. And it's not just the harmony of textures and flavors— it's the artistry. The eclairs and macarons look too good to eat. Well, at least not right away. The phone always eats first.
Opened in 1954 on Lake Michigan, Hobnob epitomizes classic supper club ambience. You've got mid-mod decor (including exotic vases and artwork collected by the world-traveling founders), a playlist of upbeat oldies, and a steak-centric menu (with a fish fry on Friday). Even the name is perfect: This is a place to mix, mingle and drink sociably—like with a Brandy Alexander.
Des Moines, Iowa
Pair the nonalcoholic buzz of coffee with the finesse of cocktail making, and you get Horizon Line Coffee. Baristas at this stylishly minimalist downtown Des Moines spot use top-quality, ethically sourced beans and teas in drinks like Americanos and cappuccinos, plus seasonal sips like salted tahini lattes, fizzy espresso fig tonic and honeydew matcha. And as an eco-bonus, to-go drinks come in lidded glass jars that you can reuse or return.
The Twin Cities
OK, technically this is two cities—but when you visit Minneapolis and St. Paul, you get a two-for-one deal. Double the amenities, double the food, double the fun. While the Twin Cities checks all the cultural boxes, the area really excels in connectivity. An extensive bike path system runs loops around urban lakes. A light rail takes you to the Mall of America. And institutions like the Walker Art Center and Minneapolis Institute of Art hover around a central, walkable district—close to plenty of great eats.
Spring shows up in Kansas City earlier than most other parts of the Midwest. Time your trip with the blooms at the regal Ewing and Muriel Kauffman Memorial Garden, cheer on baseball's return at a Royals game and book a swing-set table for boozy snow cones on J. Rieger distillery's patio.
Tracing Lake Superior along Minnesota's North Shore is a Midwest must-do. Start in Duluth, a thriving lakeside city, and make your way up to the artsy town of Grand Marais via scenic Highway 61. Don't rush! Pit stops and hiking spots to plug into your GPS include Betty's Pies, Gooseberry Falls, Iona's Beach, Split Rock Lighthouse, and Temperance River and Cascade River state parks.
Fargo, North Dakota
This boutique lodging takes the spirit of a pioneer town, amps up the aesthetic and infuses it with a little Nordic flair, especially at its restaurant, Rosewild. Named after Fargo's third mayor, the hotel took the space of a drab parking lot to bring fresh energy into Fargo's lively downtown.
East Tawas, Michigan
Protruding like a hook in Lake Huron, Tawas Point State Park hugs Tawas Bay. Located on the quieter east shore of Michigan, the coastal park has hiking trails, a campground and a pet-friendly beach. Watch the sunrise cast its pink glow on the Victorian-era light station and lighthouse.
Did you even go to Chicago if you didn't take a selfie in the mirrored curves of The Bean? Formally known as Cloud Gate, this sculpture has been a must- see since its installation in Millennium Park in 2004. The silvery statement piece reflects a different skyline view from each angle and at every time of day.
Vintage roadside motels are having a moment. Just look at South Wind Motel in Columbus' charming German Village. A slick renovation has breathed new life into the 1959 relic, with retro-chic rooms that feature locally roasted coffee and walnut furniture custom made in Ohio. And let's hear it for their sustainability efforts: solar panels, less-waste bath products and EV charging stations.
In western South Dakota, the prairie gives way to the dramatic canyons and mineral- striped buttes of Badlands National Park. Explore them on one of several short and easy hikes, like the Door and Window trails. Drive the 39-mile Badlands Loop Road and you're likely to see bison, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep and deer.
South Haven, Michigan
Glamping is always a unique experience. Glamping on a blueberry farm? Next level. A stay at The Fields of Michigan in South Haven yields an ultraluxurious experience—we're talking rain showers in en suite bathrooms and coffee makers in tents. Three times a week, guests have an option to join the chef's dinner, a five-course meal crafted from locally sourced ingredients.
A huge, interactive "flying" pig. A serene labyrinth. A colorful dancing fountain. What do these have in common? They're all elements of Smale Riverfront Park, a downtown gathering space built as a series of terraces with the environment in mind. After you've had your fun, relax on a porch swing overlooking the Ohio River.
Horicon Marsh in southeast Wisconsin is a favorite stopover for migrating birds. Feathery friends flock to the country's largest freshwater cattail marsh to rest and refuel. Spring offers the chance to see bald eagles, osprey, peregrine falcons and Canada geese. Visit in May for the annual Bird Festival.
Taming the world's longest wooden roller coaster, The Beast, has been a rite of passage for young thrill seekers since the 7,361-foot- long monster's opening in 1979. During the park's 50th anniversary last year, The Beast's first drop became a few degrees steeper, and the Cincinnati- area wonderland continues to expand with Adventure Port, a colorful realm of dizzying rides and Mexican dining, opening in the shadow of the park's replica Eiffel Tower this year.
Get in touch with your inner Dutch when you visit this delightful town founded by immigrants from Holland. Spring brings Tulip Time's explosion of color, summer draws beachgoers to Lake Michigan at Holland State Park (home of the beloved Big Red lighthouse), and the tidy downtown beckons shoppers to blocks of boutiques in Victorian buildings. De Zwaan windmill, looking spry for centuries old, still grinds grain. During the holiday season, look for Sinterklaas and shop for unique gifts at the open-air Kerstmarkt.
If Major League Baseball's Cubs and White Sox weren't enough, the Windy City has three other iconic sports franchises: the Bears, Bulls and Blackhawks. Add the WBNA's Sky and Major League Soccer's Fire and it's an all-star lineup—each franchise has won at least one championship. Minor league and college teams abound too. Whatever the sport, Chicago fans are Über-passionate, and venues like Wrigley Field and the United Center (the house Michael Jordan built) offer unmatched game experiences.
We're going with the flow on this, since it's not technically a neighborhood but packed with enough vivacity to be one. Kayaks and tour boats glide along this 1.25- mile stretch of the Chicago River as guides point out architectural gems like the wavy St. Regis Chicago (the tallest structure in the world designed by a woman). Take breaks at Sweet Home Gelato or City Winery before seeing Art on theMART, the world's largest video art projection, on theMART's facade.
On an isthmus between lakes Monona and Mendota, Madison claims the cultural high ground. It's a state capital and university town with great food and music. But for all its sophistication, the city exudes a small-town feel. It's walkable (especially State Street), bikeable (great lakeside trails), and, well, edible— with more than 100 downtown restaurants, plus the nation's largest producer-only farmers market.
Instead of cherry- picking a fave, we're giving the nod to all of Door County's Lake Michigan towns—a necklace strung with wineries, orchards, galleries, lighthouses and trails. Sturgeon Bay is the anchoring pendant. Farther north, Egg Harbor and Baileys Harbor hum with cafes and breweries. Fish Creek is home to Peninsula State Park; Sister Bay's strip draws families; and Ephraim, long a dry village, now has wine and craft beer options.
In the old streetcar suburb of Windsor Park, the trolley may be gone, but the buzz is back. Artists and small businesses fill the Circle City Industrial Complex, a repurposed auto parts factory. Nearby, a reimagined Coca-Cola plant houses the boutique Bottleworks Hotel and The Garage Food Hall. Massachusetts Avenue is the main thoroughfare, and the Indianapolis Cultural Trail and Monon Trail offer direct bike and pedestrian access.
Rapid City, South Dakota
One day before construction started on Mount Rushmore in 1927, South Dakota railroad exec Alex Johnson began to build his own monument, a 143-room downtown hotel that's now part of Hilton's Curio Collection. The Presidential Suite has hosted six POTUSes— Coolidge, FDR, Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford and Reagan. Interior decor honors the region's Native American peoples. Drink in Black Hills views from the rooftop Vertex Sky Bar.
The name sounds James Bond-ish, but this road is for espying, not spying. It meanders from Manistee to Traverse City in the northwest corner of the Lower Peninsula, passing through peaceful countryside and paralleling the Lake Michigan coast—a terrific tour of the Leelanau Peninsula's vineyards, orchards and resort towns. In fall, blazing hardwoods create a cornucopia of color against a backdrop of cobalt water. You'll be stirred, not shaken.
Football fans blitz South Bend in fall to cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame, but there's plenty to do year-round. Tour campus to see the famous Golden Dome, Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes and Hesburgh Library (with its "Touchdown Jesus" mural). In town, the Studebaker National Museum, Morris Performing Arts Center and South Bend Museum of Art merit stops. Return to campus to order a drink and chat with legendary bartender Murf at Morris Inn.
It's the largest downhill ski resort in the Midwest—and the region's only true mountain ski experience, some say. Four interconnected North Shore peaks (Eagle, Ullr, Mystery and Moose) power 90-plus runs spread across 1,000 acres overlooking Lake Superior. It's not all about downhill skiing, though. There's cross- country, snowboarding and snowmobiling too. And you can ride the red Summit Express Gondola to the summit of Moose Mountain year-round.
Come December, the Stillwater Lift Bridge over the St. Croix River wears a string of lights, a sure sign of the holidays in this town outside the Twin Cities. Weekends mean Santa, live reindeer and Victorian carolers downtown, plus BierCycle Caroling Tours on a bicycle built for 13. For teetotalers, the historic Lowell Inn hosts Holiday Tea, and the Twinkle Party is really lit—folks dress dazzlingly for the town tree lighting.