It is no surprise to those who know me that I freaking LOVE the Midwest. I didn’t even go there until a few years ago, but the flyover states have won my heart. I’m always amazed by my travels to Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, and most recently, Michigan. If you are looking for a much-overused “off the beaten path” vacation idea, I’ve got 9 Midwest cities to visit that are sure to satisfy you.
#1 Wichita, Kansas
Starting with the best, Wichita, Kansas, won my heart over at first glance. I love the world-class museums, cultural diversity, and fun things for people my age to do. I’ll use the term “adult hipster” because I think that is an excellent fit for generation X’ers traveling to Wichita.
Recommended Wichita attractions are Keeper of the Plains (nightly ceremony with fire pits on the river), Mosley Street Melodrama ( includes dinner and performance), and the Mid-America All-Indian Center(learn about Native American history here). The kids’ favorites will be the Old Cowtown Museum and Tanganyika Wildlife Park (animal encounters including sloths and penguins).
The Wichita restaurant you cannot miss is the Doo Dah Diner, where the Triple D Breakfast Sampler will blow your mind. It is the best breakfast I’ve had in my life with portions of Corned Beef Hash, Eggs Benedict, and Banana Nut French Toast, all made from scratch and delicious!
#2 Fort Wayne, Indiana
Fort Wayne is a large city, the second-largest in Indiana, and chock full of cool things. I love Fort Wayne’s Vera Bradley annual outlet sale and the amazing Genealogy Center in the Allen County Public Library, with the most extensive database in the world and staff to help you track your relatives and family history.
Shop until you drop at the Vera Bradley sale, where 700,000 items will pass hands and generate a huge amount of income for the city of Fort Wayne. Barbara, co-creator of Vera Bradley, recently opened a boutique hotel called The Bradley. I cannot wait to stay there.
The most exciting thing in Fort Wayne right now is the amazing Promenade Park and Riverfront, which is excellent for kayaking, watching concerts and special events, or just walking around a beautiful setting. Other great points of interest include the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, and catching a Mad Ants basketball game.
Get a fantastic meal (vegan or vegetarian fare, too) from Hop River Brewing Company, followed by a delicious beer flight. The Caramelized Onion Dip and Vegan Mexican Sloppy Joe are both phenomenal!
#3 Manhattan, Kansas
Manhattan, Kansas, is a college town with lots of offerings for everyone else in the grand scheme of things, too. Manhattan is a feather in the Kansas cap, from high-end restaurants, world-class bakeries, and donut shops to boutique shopping and immersive museums.
A museum must is the Flint Hills Discovery Center, where children and adults can learn about the diverse landscape of the beautiful Flint Hills and the Midwest’s gifts. Watch the 15-minute “Disney-like” film before you start your museum adventures. Kids will love the interactive exhibits and hands-on space. Be sure to take photos from the rooftop patio, a coveted spot for a birds-eye view of the city.
After all that educational material, sip a glass of wine from Liquid Art Winery & Estate with an equally impressive hard cider.
Manhattan is bursting with excellent eateries. I’m recommending anything and everything from Radina’s Bakehouse, with wonderful homemade bread, quiche, pastries, and great coffee.
#4 Mason City, Iowa
Boy was I blown away by the extensive offerings in this small Iowa town. Mason City is home to The Music Man creator Meredith Wilson, the recipient of the first Grammy award for a musical. You can stroll down a life-size movie set from the award-winning film and Broadway show and visit the iconic movie footbridge and boyhood home of Meredith Wilson.
Frank Lloyd Wright was also a star in Mason City when he was commissioned to build a home and hotel in the area. The Stockman House is available for tours (no photos allowed), while the Historic Park Inn Hotel is where you will want to stay for at least a night. The Historic Park Inn is the only remaining Frank Lloyd Wright Hotel in the world.
Even more famous than the Music Man and Frank Lloyd Wright in my book is the Northwestern Steakhouse. It’s hard to imagine how popular this restaurant is and how delicious the food is. There are no stylish digs to attract customers or a colossal menu offering trendy menu items; Northwestern Steakhouse serves about seven menu items, each perfect.
The Filet Mignon (broiled and super juicy) and Greek spaghetti (with juice from the steak, parmesan cheese, and butter) are incredible; perhaps why I devoured them like a ravenous dog.
#5 Mackinac Island, Michigan
Go back in time and feel like you are in another country when you step foot onto Mackinac Island, Michigan. This unique vacation destination is full of charming offerings from art to history and upscale hotels to the fudge capital of the world.
Being a history lover, my favorite thing about Mackinac Island is touring Fort Mackinac at the Mackinac Island State Park. This former British and American military outpost, decommissioned in 1895, is magical, with costumed interpreters to help tell the story. There are reenactments, too. Don’t miss the photo-ops and amazing views from this address.
Explore the magnificent island by horse-drawn carriage on tour with Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, in business since 1948. Arriving by ferry to Mackinac Island is noteworthy, too, and a first for this Southern gal.
The best meal I had at Mackinac Island was at Chianti (Northern Italian) inside the Mission Point Resort on Lake Huron. Start with a gorgeous antipasti platter with imported meats and cheeses, then dive into a homemade pasta dish.
Two I would order again and again are the Pumpkin Gnocchi with browned butter sauce and the Fettuccini Carbonara with crispy pancetta and egg-cream sauce. OMG, it doesn’t get much better than this.
#6 Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Oklahoma City is so darned fun. You’ll find a wealth of things to do there, and the city just keeps growing. Bricktown is an old warehouse district that has been refurbished to include entertainment venues, high-end dining, and great shops. I also loved eating at Mickey Mantle’s Steakhouse for dinner and an exceptional evening.
The Oklahoma City Museum of Art dazzled me, especially with the Dale Chihuly collection and a massive towering glass piece in the lobby window. Shopping and sightseeing around Automotive Alley were cool. The area’s 1920s brick buildings, once Model T car dealerships, now have new life breathed into them as they have become local boutiques, trendy restaurants, and upscale offerings.
It is hard to visit the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing Site (National Memorial Museum), but it deserves a visit to remember the horrific historical tragedy and pay respects. There will not be a dry eye once you walk through the setting that April 19th morning and experience the sounds that the 168 victims would have heard and see the empty chairs that sit outside as a reminder of each life lost. A memory wall has the names of the 168 etched for remembrance.
Another family-friendly activity in OKC is the fantastic Oklahoma City Zoo, with nearly 2,000 animal species. My friend and I participated in the Wild Encounters behind-the-scenes program, where we saw sea lions, grizzly bears, and Galapagos tortoises up close and personal. Watching the elephants have their spa day and get groomed was one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever witnessed.
Then there is the pancake flight. Hip, hip, hooray! Hatch Early Mood Food is bright and cheery, with a welcoming ambiance. My trio featured one each of Bananas Foster (the fave!), Blueberry Streusel, and Famous PanOKCake with bourbon maple and bacon pecans.
#7 Springfield, Missouri
If I had counted how many times I’ve told people to visit Springfield, MO, I’m sure it would be in the thousands. Springfield really impressed me. Starting with the food, I was shocked at the clever, upscale eats around town(Aviary Cafe was my fave), the excellent breweries (Mother’s), and the distilleries that provided hours of fun for me and some friends.
Springfield is home to The Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium, a unique dual-venue created by Johnny Morris of Bass Pro Shop fame. The crystal clear aquariums, which allowed for amazing pictures, were incredible and had excellent marine life specimens.
Since Missouri is “The Cave State,” you should include a visit to Fantastic Caverns, a one-of-a-kind caving system. Board a jeep-drawn tram for a 50-minute tour to explore America’s only drive-through cave, complete with soda straws, draperies, and plenty of photo-worthy sceneries.
Another fun attraction in Springfield is the Route 66 Car Museum, with dozens of unique cars spanning every decade. Some of the vehicles were in films and movies, such as Batman’s Gotham Cruiser and the 1991 Ghostbusters Cadillac.
#8 Toledo, Ohio
Holey Toledo, I had a blast visiting Toledo last year and was blown away by the immaculate and well-appointed Metroparks. This Midwestern industrial city may be one of the most shocking for those first-time visitors. The botanical gardens, fat bike trails, and treehouse lodging at these parks are only three of the incredible offerings in the nearly 25 park system.
Then there are the museums. Toledo was the nation’s King in the glass industry and the Glass Capital of the World. The sector is immortalized in the Glass Pavilion, a 74,000-square-foot space with all types of glassware, glass blowers, and a collection that Edward Drummond Libbey would be proud of.
Steps away is the Toledo Museum of Art, which reminded me greatly of the Detroit Institute of the Arts. Admission is free to the savvy museum that houses 45 galleries. You’ll find works of art from Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Degas, and Rubens, to name a few.
Toledo sits on the shores of Lake Erie so getting outdoors is always a great thing to do. Also, pencil in seeing the city’s incredible murals, sampling the coffee shops, dining in Toledo’s iconic eateries, and visiting museums, including Imagination Station and the National Museum of the Great Lakes.
Maumee Bay Lodge & Conference Center is a primo place to stay in Toledo for rest, relaxation, and family fun.
#9 Lincoln, Nebraska
There are lots of cool things to do in Lincoln, Nebraska, not only a fun Midwestern college town but also the state capitol. Lincoln has a thriving downtown area known as Haymarket Square. I recommend walking around, shopping, eating at the Indian restaurant, and seeing the art alley all lit up at nighttime.
Then, you will want to see Lincoln’s world-class museums and attractions, such as the Lincoln Children’s Zoo. This walkable zoo is home to elephants, tigers, meerkats, and much more. It is a perfect family day trip. Then there is the International Quilt Museum. Even if you are not a quilter, you will enjoy this museum that showcases talented artisans and impressive quilt works.
Sunken Gardens, built in 1930, could be one of the best free gardens in the Midwest. You will find strolling paths of themed gardens, lily ponds, trees, and vibrant blooms. I love that the flowers are well labeled, and I learned quite a few new plants on my visit. A fountain and gazebo add a bit of zen to the fabulous garden. Sunken Gardens made National Geographic‘s “300 Best Gardens to Visit in the United States and Canada” publication.
The Graduate in Lincoln is a beautiful hotel to stay at on your visit. Decorated in Cornhusker’s memorabilia and even fabric and wallpaper, this stylish hotel is as comfortable as cool.
Wake up and take your coffee from The Mill Coffee and Tea, with freshly roasted coffee drinks, Italian sodas, and a delicious breakfast. I chowed down on the tasty quiche, but the pastries and muffins were really tempting.