When it comes to the US, there are a handful of “darlings” in the tourism world. States like New York and California and Florida get lots of love, as do regions like the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest. But do you know which region gets consistently overlooked by most travelers? The Midwest.
The American Midwest isn't known for mountains or beaches or Disney theme parks; it's known for farms and (former) industry, and for people who are really, really nice.
Maybe that doesn't sound as exciting as other parts of the country, but guess what? The Midwest is awesome, and you should definitely visit.
What is the Midwest?
Which states make up the American Midwest, you ask? Well, it sometimes depends. But, going by the most common division of the US into 4 major areas (the Northeast, the Midwest, the West, and the South), 12 states make up the Midwest.
The Midwestern states are:
- North Dakota
- South Dakota
I haven't quite visited every corner of the Midwest (I've been to all the states, but have spent more time in some than others), but I've seen enough of the region in recent years to know that the cities of the Midwest are not what they were 10 years ago.
Many Midwestern cities are having a bit of a Renaissance right now, with great food, craft brews, and family-friendly attractions popping up just about everywhere.
Add to this the unique history and beautiful landscapes of the Midwest (because, no, contrary to popular belief it's not all corn fields here!), and you have plenty of places worthy of a visit.
7 cities in the Midwest you should visit
It's always tough to put together a list like this, but here are 7 great Midwestern cities I think you should visit if you haven't already:
1. Cleveland, Ohio
Okay, so I'm a bit biased on this one since I only live about 30 minutes south of Cleveland and have lived in northeast Ohio my entire life. But hear me out: Cleveland is way cooler than you probably think it is.
Located right on Lake Erie, Cleveland's history dates back to the late 1700s. It experienced a population boom in the 1800s with the completion of the Ohio and Erie Canal, and it remained prosperous throughout the century. In fact, by 1920, Cleveland was the fifth-largest city in the United States. The city began a rapid decline in the 1980s, though, as the manufacturing industries that the city relied on crumbled.
Cleveland is often the butt of pop culture jokes, but Cleveland is not the same city it was 10 or 20 years ago; it's not even the same city it was 5 years ago! Now the city has great restaurants, dozens of craft breweries, a clean beachfront, and an impressive lineup of museums.
Three things you must do in Cleveland:
- Visit the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – It was in Cleveland in the 1950s that disc jockey Alan Freed coined the term “rock and roll” to describe a new type of music that he helped promote on the radio. The Rock Hall is a fabulous museum dedicated to rock music and its affect on culture worldwide. (Buy your tickets here.)
- Go to the West Side Market – Located in Cleveland's Ohio City neighborhood (currently hipster central in the city), the West Side Market is a food market that's been operating for more than 100 years. The market is also close to great Ohio City restaurants and the Great Lakes Brewing Company.
- Get cultured – The Cleveland Museum of Art is known for its diverse permanent collection of more than 45,000 works of art from all around the world; the Cleveland Orchestra is one of the “Big Five” orchestras in the US and is regarded as one of the finest in the country; and Playhouse Square is home to the second-largest performing arts center in the United States behind New York City's Lincoln Center.
2. Indianapolis, Indiana
I mentioned that Cleveland is having a bit of a food renaissance right now – but it's nothing when compared to the food scene blossoming in Indianapolis.
Usually most synonymous with the Indianapolis 500, Indy is, in fact, so much more than just fast cars. The city is bouncing back from economic hard times just like Cleveland, and is similarly rejuvenating various parts of the city to make them much more visitor-friendly.
I spent nearly a week in Indy one summer, and was pleasantly surprised by everything there was to do (and eat!) there.
Three things you must do in Indianapolis:
- Eat all the food – Yes, Indy's food scene is really hot right now and the city and its chefs keep winning awards and accolades. Some of my favorite eats include brunch at Milktooth, a farm-to-table lunch at Mesh, dinner at Bluebeard, and cocktails at Hotel Tango.
- Take a stroll at White River State Park – This public parks sprawls across 250 acres in downtown Indianapolis. It features canals, sculptures, a summer concert venue, and some of the best views of the city.
- Visit War Memorial Plaza – Fun fact for you: Indianapolis is second only to Washington, D.C. for the number of war memorials it has. War Memorial Plaza covers seven city blocks and includes some seriously striking memorials.
Where to stay in Indy: You can't beat the JW Marriott right next to White River State Park and within walking distance of lots of downtown attractions.
3. Traverse City, Michigan
There are lots of excellent places to visit in Michigan, but my favorite so far has been Traverse City in northern lower Michigan. This small town on Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay is probably the smallest “city” on this list, but I still think it deserves a spot here.
There's something very quaint and cozy about Traverse City itself, and nearby you can find everything from vineyards to gigantic sand dunes. Traverse City hosts the National Cherry Festival each July, but is also a great destination during the autumn if you're looking for some vibrant fall colors.
Three things you must do in Traverse City:
- Drive the Old Mission Peninsula – Chock full of wineries and great lake views, the Mission Peninsula is a must when in Traverse City. Chateau Chantal was my favorite winery to visit, and it's also worth driving out to the Mission Point Lighthouse.
- Shop in a former mental asylum – The striking Village at Grand Traverse Commons is now a hub for food, shopping, and living. But it used to be the Traverse City State Hospital, which served as a mental institution from 1885 until 1989. If you're into history, definitely sign up for a walking tour of the place.
- Take a trip to the Sleeping Bear Dunes – Located only 25 miles from Traverse City, the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore and its impressive sand dunes make a great half-day trip.
Where to stay in Traverse City: If you want to stay right downtown, my pick is the Bayshore Resort, which has its own beach on Lake Michigan.
Read more: Things to Do in Traverse City in the Fall
4. Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Chances are, if you know anything about Milwaukee, you know about its breweries. This Wisconsin city was originally settled by a French-Canadian, but by the mid-1800s large numbers of German immigrants we calling the city home – which probably accounts somewhat for Milwaukee's beer culture.
Like many other cities on this list, Milwaukee suffered a slight economic and population decline in the latter half of the 20th century (though not nearly as pronounced as those in “rust belt” cities like Cleveland). And, also like those other cities, Milwaukee has invested in revitalization efforts in recent years to preserve its historic neighborhoods and draw people back downtown.
Three things you must do in Milwaukee:
- Tour at least one brewery – There's no shortage of beer in Milwaukee, and there's also no shortage of fun brewery tours. The most popular is the one at Lakefront Brewery, which is known for being extremely funny. Find a list of other great brewery tours here.
- Marvel at the Milwaukee Art Museum – Milwaukee's art museum is a work of art in itself. Designed by Santiago Calatrava in his first American commission, this building is one you'll definitely want to see both inside and out.
- Visit the Harley-Davidson Museum – Milwaukee has a collection of cool museums, but the Harley-Davidson Museum is especially unique because it's the only one of its kind in the entire world. (And yes, you can absolutely enjoy this cool museum even if you don't ride a motorcycle!)
If you're in Milwaukee in the summer, you might also want to check out Summerfest, the city's annual lakefront music festival. It's one of the largest music festivals in the world!
Where to stay in Milwaukee: I can personally recommend the Hilton Milwaukee City Center, which is not only in a great central location, but also has a concierge dog named Millie who is pretty much the cutest hotel employee I've ever met!
5. Cincinnati, Ohio
I know I've already included one Ohio city in this post, but I'm going to include another. Because I can. And also because Cincinnati deserves a spot here!
Cincinnati's history is interesting. The city was settled in 1788 not long after America gained its independence, and quickly became a “boom town,” growing rapidly in both population and wealth. In fact, by the mid-1800s, Cincinnati was one of the largest and most prosperous cities in America. Like Milwaukee, Cincinnati eventually drew a large number of German settlers, which is still reflected today in neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine.
The boom years of Cincinnati faded after the Civil War, and the economic downturn that affected many other rust belt cities 100+ years later hit Cincinnati hard, too. But Cincinnati is on a comeback route, too (are you seeing a trend here??).
Three things you must do in Cincinnati:
- Visit the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center – The story of slavery in America is told at this fantastic museum right on the river in downtown Cincinnati. Cincinnati played a huge role in both abolitionism and the Underground Railroad during the Civil War, and you'll also find exhibits here on more recent forms of slavery.
- Go mural-spotting – An organization called ArtWorks was tasked by Cincinnati's mayor about a decade ago to create a mural in each of Cincinnati's 52 neighborhoods – and they are well on their way to doing that and more. You can book a mural walking tour, or just download a map of all the murals to see them on your own.
- Spend time at the American Sign Museum – This is one of the more unique museums I've ever visited; it takes visitors through 5 decades of sign-making in rooms absolutely plastered with big, bold, and usually lighted signs.
Where to stay in Cincinnati: My picks are either the historic Hampton Inn & Suites Cincinnati-Downtown for a walkable downtown location, or the Aloft Newport on the Levee (which is technically across the state border in Kentucky) if you want to save some money.
Read more: How to Spend 48 Hours in Cincinnati, Ohio
6. Rapid City / the Black Hills, South Dakota
I can't write this list and not show South Dakota (in my opinion, one of the most overlooked states in the US by travelers) some love. Even though it's usually regarded as a Great Plains state, South Dakota firmly falls into the list of Midwestern states, too.
And if you're only going to visit one part of this state, make it Rapid City in western South Dakota.
Rapid City itself has always been a tourist hotspot because of its proximity to attractions like Mount Rushmore, Deadwood, and even Badlands National Park. Rapid City is fairly small, but it has a growing craft beer scene and some fun sculpture projects around town (like the bronze statues of all the American presidents scattered around downtown).
But the real draw here is Rapid City's proximity to the Black Hills.
Three things you must do in the Black Hills:
- Visit Custer State Park – This 71,000-acre park is the largest state park in South Dakota. Highlights include the Needles Highway, the park's famous herd of free-roaming bison, and scenic spots like Sylvan Lake.
- See Mount Rushmore and/or the Crazy Horse Memorial – Mount Rushmore is pretty cliche (and a bit controversial since it's on disputed land), so if you want to avoid it you could visit the nearby Crazy Horse Memorial instead.
- Check out one more unique spot – Maybe you'll want to go to the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs (which contains the world's largest concentration of mammoth bones in a site they're still excavating), or maybe Deadwood with its Wild West-re-enactments is more your speed. If you head towards the Badlands, the famous Wall Drug with its kitschiness and 5-cent coffee is also a must-see.
Where to stay in Rapid City /Black Hills: If you want to stay in a non-chain hotel in the heart of Rapid City, check out the historic Hotel Alex Johnson.
7. Chicago, Illinois
Okay, so I can't talk about the Midwest and not mention Chicago. Chicago is the largest city in the Midwest, and the third-largest in the United States.
But, even though it's a big city, Chicago is still manageable to explore as a tourist. (And I'm not alone in thinking so – Chicago is consistently one of the most-visited cities in the US every year.)
Chicago's history dates back to the mid-1800s, and the city has always been an important transportation hub between the eastern and western United States. It suffered the Great Fire of 1871, but continued to prosper right on through the 1900s. Today, the city is home to more than 2.7 million people.
Let me just say that I LOVE Chicago. If I were ever going to move to a big city in the US, I'm 99% it would be this one. I've been to Chicago numerous times with different people (friends, family, significant others) and always find something to do.
Three things you must do in Chicago:
- Go up a tower – Chicago has two excellent observation decks: Skydeck at Willis Tower and 360 Chicago at the John Hancock Building. Both offer up excellent views out over the city. (Read about which one I like better here.)
- Take an architecture tour – Chicago is a city jam-packed with interesting architecture (fun fact: did you know that the skyscraper concept was “born” here?). If you visit during the summer months, book yourself on a boat tour with the Chicago Architecture Foundation. If you visit when these river tours aren't running, you can also do architecture walking tours – I did one with Chicago Detours (this one) and really enjoyed it.
- See an improv show – Home to skyscrapers, deep dish pizza, and improvised comedy – that's Chicago! Don't miss taking in a improv show in the city; some of the greats in comedy started their careers here at places like Second City. My favorite show by far is by the Improvised Shakespeare Company.
Chicago also has a collection of great museums. If you hit a rainy (or cold or super windy) day, my favorites are the Field Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Science and Industry.
Where to stay in Chicago: I really love the Raffaello Hotel, which is located a block from the John Hancock Building and Michigan Avenue. The hotel also has one of the best bars in the city (DrumBar) on its top floor.
Read more: A Couples' Weekend Getaway to Chicago
Now, I know this list is incomplete – there are so many other great cities and regions in the Midwest that I could have included, but I had to cut the list off somewhere!
I'd love to hear you suggestions of other great Midwestern cities in the comments. Or, tell me which of the listed cities you'd most like to visit!
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