New York. Los Angeles. Miami. Des Moines?
Some of the best places to visit in the United States aren’t on the east or west coast. They’re right in the middle of everything. If you can’t name any places to visit in the Midwest, then we need you to think again.
If you’re stumped for vacation ideas, keep reading. Soon, you’ll see why the best coast is no coast.
1. Minneapolis, Minnesota
For decades, Minneapolis was best-known for snow, the Mall of America, and the Coen brothers’ accents. Perhaps the Midwest’s best-kept secret, the city is also a thriving cultural destination with museums, an incredible food scene, plenty of local brewers and distillers, and gigs on every night of the week.
Think Minneapolis can only be one kind of cool? Think again. Just ask Prince, who called the Chanhassen suburb his home for nearly his entire career.
2. Detroit, Michigan
Motor City is on its way up, which is why they call its America’s Great Comeback City.
The joy of Detroit is that you won’t run into tons of tourists, as you do in Chicago.
It’s easy to slip in and enjoy the city like a local. The vibrant city is full of food and culture, and you can spend a perfectly happy long weekend exploring the delights of downtown – no rental car required.
Make sure you check out the Dime Store, a brunch hotspot located in downtown’s Chrysler Building.
3. Cleveland, Ohio
Detroit may be the comeback kid, but the city of transformation is Cleveland. If you first visited the city ten or twenty – or even five – years ago, you won’t recognize the place it is today.
Of course, there’s the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, but the revitalized downtown area is perhaps the heart of the city. Gordon Square is now the city’s arts district and full of fantastic restaurants and both cinema and theater experiences.
4. Traverse City, Michigan
Traverse City is the first traditional tourist town on our list. Located on the dunes of Lake Michigan, it remains a popular vacation destination for Michiganders and Midwesterners alike.
The region also boasts the Midwest’s answer to Napa Valley. It turns out that the soil around Lake Michigan is perfect for growing wine grapes, which means there are vineyards up and down the entire coast.
Traverse City is also an excellent base for an active vacation. Whether you love hiking, swimming, or cycling, you’ll find amazing trails and facilities here.
5. Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Milwaukee isn’t famous for much because no one can decide what it should have a notoriety for. The city is best described as random, but renewed interest in revitalization (and Chicago’s ever creeping borders) means it is also fast-changing.
Milwaukee brings together the money of the Beer Barons with the farm-to-table charm Wisconsin you associate with Wisconsin. Plan your visit around one of Milwaukee’s festivals; there’s one on every weekend.
During the summer, you can check out:
- Polish Fest
- Milwaukee Highland Games
- Festa Italiana
- German Fest
- Irish Fest
- Milwaukee Dragon Boast Festival
- Bastille Days
- Mexican Fiesta
- Bronzeville Week
And that’s just during the warmer months!
6. Kansas City, Missouri
Kansas City is best known for its barbeque joints. And that’s the end of this entry.
But while the barbeque is an excellent and sticky reason to visit this corner of the Midwest, there’s still more to explore.
The city’s art museums are worth a visit alone. The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art and Kemper Museum of Contemporary are both worth whiling away an afternoon (or longer). Don’t forget to visit the American Jazz Museum, which celebrates the city’s musical district and legends. Be sure to return in the evening to visit the Blue Room, which is the city’s premier jazz club.
7. Des Moines, Iowa
Iowa? Yes, Iowa.
The road less-traveled brings you through the Bridges of Madison County and directly into the state’s capital, Des Moines.
Des Moines is one of the best places in the Midwest for a long weekend that doesn’t feel like a marathon. Pick a few great restaurants (and don’t miss the breakfast burritos at Taqueria 3 Hermanos), a couple of watering holes (try Hessen Haus), and shop the boutiques dotted around town (including Raygun).
Don’t forget to get out of town and visit Waterworks Park and visit the local wineries (Jasper Winery is on the city limits).
8. Grand Marais, Minnesota
Grand Marais is the outdoor capital of the Midwest. It combines both hiking culture and hippie culture in one tiny town on the shores of Lake Superior and the edges of the northern forests.
There’s not much here, but that’s the point: the whole area is your playground. Hiking, kayaking, and even surfing (brr) are all possible here. During your stay, check out local favorites including the Angry Trout Cafe and the Crooked Spoon.
9. Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri
The Lake of the Ozarks tourism website is “funlake.com,” and we have to agree. It beats out Branson’s casino resort town and offers an endless amount of things to do from boating and fishing to shopping.
Why Lake of the Ozarks? The accommodation here is fantastic. You can rent a vacation home, stay in a resort, or rough it in a tent and all three options provide an equally good time.
10. Clear Lake, Iowa
A return to Iowa brings us to our last lake destination: Clear Lake.
If you want a real “lake-cation,” skip the big resort towns in Michigan and Missouri and visit northern Iowa. Accommodation here has a small-town vibe, but so does everything else including its bicycling culture and shopping streets.
The biggest attraction in Clear Lake is the Surf Ballroom Stage. It’s an unlikely candidate for a piece of rock n’ roll history, but it packs a punch. As the first ballroom in Iowa to bring on the rock n’ roll, its hosted greats from The Everly Brothers to Little Richard to Buddy Holly. From the 70s on, the calendar featured acts like Lynryd Skynyrd, BB King, The Doobie Brothers, and REO Speedwagon.
What Are Your Favorite Places to Visit in the Midwest?
These cities range from up-and-coming to well-established to not-quite cities, and all are worth a visit. As it turns out, you don’t need to fly to New York or LA to get your fill of culture or beaches. You can find them all in the heartland.
What are your favorite places to visit in the Midwest?
Get more vacation ideas in my Cities Less Traveled archive.