Vacations with Midwestern charm
From national parks to the Great Lakes, iconic cities like Detroit and Chicago to historic small towns, the places you travel to for great food (and beer) to those you visit to get away from it all, the Midwest is a varied and beautiful place. While it’s often overlooked as a “flyover” region as travelers head to West or East Coast vacations, this area is home to some amazing hidden Midwest vacation spots that are just waiting to be discovered.
Those in know can score great deals at these under-the-radar locales, whether you’re looking for affordable mini vacations, a girls’ weekend getaway, romantic weekend getaways, or the best road trips to take with the family. Accommodations are just as varied, with everything from all-inclusive resorts in the United States that include golf or skiing to boutique hotels, cheap Airbnbs, and even pet-friendly hotels. Check out our list of the best Midwestern destinations to head to this summer—or any time of year.
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Best for music lovers
One of America’s most historic cities is also a town that’s made a comeback: Detroit went through a rough patch but has blossomed again in recent years. Downtown is packed with fine-dining restaurants, swanky cocktail bars, and trendy hotels and casinos. Visit the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation for a look back at the city’s automotive history, and stop in the Detroit Institute of Arts to see a collection that spans the globe. After a renovation scheduled to be completed by summer 2022, the Motown Museum, otherwise known as Hitsville USA, will be ready for music lovers. And try to catch a show at one of the city’s historic theaters. There is no shortage of good food in Detroit, but Buddy’s Pizza, the famous Detroit-style, four-corner deep dish, is a classic, as is Slows BBQ.
Stay at the Shinola Hotel, a boutique hotel from the city’s watch and leather goods company that draws on classic Detroit architecture.
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Best big city
Recently named the best city in the United States, Chicago is packed with activities for any type of traveler. Families love the Shedd Aquarium, Lincoln Park Zoo (it’s free!), and Field Museum. Groups of friends can laugh the night away at Second City and other improv comedy clubs, or go dancing at one of the many historic jazz clubs, like the Green Mill Lounge. From Chicago hot dogs to Michelin-starred restaurants, there are dining options for every palate and budget. Of course, the third-largest city in America is famous for its skyscrapers, and an architecture tour along the Chicago River is one of those touristy things that’s very worth doing. Save some time to walk along the Lakefront Trail, where gorgeous skyline views meet Lake Michigan. In the summer, you can even go to the beach. With so much to do, it’s easily one of the best Midwest vacation spots.
Stay close to the lake and major attractions at the W Chicago Lakeshore, where you can see fireworks from Navy Pier on Wednesday and Saturday nights in the summer.
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Best college town
Wisconsin’s capital city sits on an isthmus between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona, and it’s home to the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus and multiple Frank Lloyd Wright–designed buildings. Tour the inside of the domed capitol building and proceed down State Street, where you’ll find coffee shops, vintage stores, and restaurants. At the end of the street, you’ll hit the university campus, a beautiful complex of historic buildings and walking trails along the lake and up Bascom Hill. Stop at the Memorial Union for a Spotted Cow and cheese curds. Families can also check out the Madison Children’s Museum, one of the best family travel destinations in the city.
Stay at the Edgewater Hotel, a historic resort with wonderful restaurants located right on Lake Mendota.
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Best farm-to-table restaurants
While in the winter Minneapolis hits frighteningly cold temperatures, in the summer it’s one of the best Midwest vacation spots, thanks to dozens of lakes, parks, and the Mississippi River. It’s also one of the most affordable U.S. cities, and there are endless outdoor activities, such as visiting Minnehaha Falls, biking numerous trails, and visiting the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory. The city is obsessed with Prince, the iconic singer from Minneapolis, and music is very much a part of the culture. Take in a concert at one of the many historic small theaters; in warmer months, keep an eye out for music in the parks. Like most of the Midwest, farm-to-table is easy here, so make sure to dine on farm-fresh Midwestern produce at one of the many local restaurants.
Stay at the Hewing Hotel in the Warehouse District, a stylish hotel with custom furniture and lots of local artwork.
Traverse City, Michigan
One of the most underrated American cities, Traverse City is a popular Midwest destination for those in the know because of its charming town center, boutique shops, proximity to the Traverse Bay, and farm-fresh food. Michigan is the country’s leading producer of cherries, mostly from this area, so make sure to try a cherry pie or cider. It’s also the Midwest’s biggest wine region, where excellent Riesling is made. Spend a day taking a tour of the area’s vineyards and wineries.
In the summer, Traverse City is a hot golf destination, and the golf course at the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa was named the best in the Midwest by Golf magazine and Golf Digest.
Best for historic charm
Mackinac Island, Michigan
Mackinac Island is a great Midwest vacation spot for those hoping to get away from it all, and it’s one of the most romantic island destinations in the entire country. Motorized vehicles aren’t allowed on the island, which is known for its beautiful limestone rock formations and coastal bluffs. There’s not much to do except relax, walk along the beach, take a carriage ride around town, browse the boutiques, indulge in a spa treatment, or enjoy a meal in one of the historic restaurants. It’s the place to go if you’re searching for a Midwest vacation with old-world elegance.
The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island was built in the 1800s and looks straight out of Europe. It has the world’s longest wraparound porch, perfect for sitting with a cup of tea and a good book.
Best for natural beauty
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
When people from outside the Midwest see photos of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, they often guess the photos are from northern California or the Caribbean. The sparkling blue water and multicolored rock formations are harder to get to than other places in the Midwest but are very worth the trip. Take a glass-bottom boat tour or kayak along the coast, where you can take in the sandstone formations up close and look down on remnants of Lake Superior shipwrecks.
Visitors can camp or stay in nearby Munising, where there are plenty of dining options. In Munising, the Sunset Motel is right on the bay and has in-room kitchenettes, so you can do your own cooking.
Best national park
Indiana Dunes National Park
Indiana Dunes National Park is one of the country’s newest national parks, designated in 2019. It features massive, nearly 200-foot-high sand dunes along the shore of Lake Michigan. The park is an excellent spot for sighting rare birds, especially during spring migration, and a great location for viewing wildflowers. There are more than 50 miles of hiking trails covering the dunes, wetlands, prairie, and forest.
While you could stay in a hotel in Gary or Michigan City, the park is so picturesque that it’s nicer to stay in a cottage or other vacation rental nearby.
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Best for museums
Cleveland’s most famous attraction is the Rock Roll Hall of Fame, where visitors can learn about the history of rock music through the ages and get up close and personal with items like John Mellencamp’s motorcycle, Johnny Cash’s Fender guitar, the Supremes’ dresses, and more. But it’s not the only museum worth checking out. Visit the Cleveland Art Museum to view Egyptian and European artifacts—and more. Then head to the Cleveland Natural History Museum to see “Lucy,” the skeletal remains of one of the earliest known human species. Cleveland is a major city, home to large sporting events, dozens of fantastic restaurants, breweries, parks, and more, making it perfect for a summer weekend getaway.
The Hyatt Regency Cleveland at the Arcade is built inside the old Arcade shopping center, so walking to your room feels like walking through a historic department store.
Best small town
Galena was home to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, and today visitors can tour his home as well as the DeSoto House, a historic hotel where President Abraham Lincoln once spoke from the balcony. The entire downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places for its Italianate, Victorian, and Greek Revival homes. Architecture enthusiasts even call it the “outdoor museum of the Victorian Midwest.” Stroll one of the most beautiful main streets in America, with antique stores and shops that feel like a blast from the past, including an old candy store and diner. Nearby Chestnut Mountain is a popular ski hill in the winter and offers hiking trails in the summer.
Stay at the Goldmoor Inn, which overlooks the Mississippi River and allows guests to reserve their own private cabins.
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Grand Rapids, Michigan
Grand Rapids is known as Beer City, USA, for its large number of breweries, including Founders Brewing Co., Atwater Brewery, and Brewery Vivant. But it’s not all about the beer. Head to the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum to learn about the country’s 38th president, who grew up in the city. Then visit the beautiful Frederik Meijer Gardens, a botanical garden and sculpture complex. Walk down Wealthy Street and stop in the numerous boutiques, bakeries, and restaurants, or wander through the Heritage Hill neighborhood to marvel at the gorgeous homes. Don’t miss the Downtown Market, an indoor market full of food purveyors and other sellers of wares such as homemade soaps and jewelry. The locals love their town, as it’s one of the best places to live in the country.
The Amway Grand Plaza is the city’s most historic and grandest hotel, and it’s within walking distance of most attractions.
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Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
The adorable resort town of Lake Geneva was once where wealthy Chicagoans flocked to get away from the city in the summer. Now, it’s an affordable beach destination. Gilded Age mansions still line the lake, many of them now bed-and-breakfasts. In warm-weather months, visitors can walk around the entirety of the lake, rent boats or kayaks, and picnic in the many parks. In the winter, the lake is used for ice skating, and the town hosts a Christmas market. Lake Geneva is also known as a spa and golf getaway, and many of the hotels double as luxurious wellness retreats.
The Grand Geneva Resort Spa sits on 1,300 acres and has its own ski runs and golf courses. There are also indoor and outdoor pools and, of course, a luxurious spa.
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Best year-round destination
Door County, Wisconsin
The Door County peninsula in northern Wisconsin is one of the prettiest Midwest vacation spots and certainly one of the most gorgeous peninsulas in the United States any time of year. In the winter, you can snowshoe across hundreds of miles of trails or try your hand at ice fishing; in the spring, the wildflowers are in full bloom; in summer, you can truly embrace being on Lake Michigan and Green Bay with water sports and beaches; and in the fall, it’s one of the best places to see colorful leaves. Sister Bay, Fish Creek, and Sturgeon Bay are the most popular towns on the peninsula, each with boutiques, art galleries, historic inns, and plenty of restaurants. Whether you’re looking for outdoor adventure or a weekend of shopping and spa treatments, Door County has something for you.
Stay at White Gull Inn in Fish Creek, a historic bed-and-breakfast with the best fish boil (a Door County tradition) on the peninsula.
Best for families
Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin
Wisconsin Dells is the perfect family getaway. The city sits on the Wisconsin River in the Driftless Region, an area of Wisconsin that was never covered by glaciers and that now features rugged sandstone cliffs and lush state parks. Spend a day or two hiking the trails and enjoying the beaches, then head to the downtown area, where you’ll find a mock-up Swiss village and other kitschy but fun attractions. Noah’s Ark, the largest waterpark in the country, is a blast, as is amusement park Mt. Olympus. There are endless restaurants of all kinds, fudge and candy shops, ice cream stores, and more along the main drag.
Stay at the Kalahari Resort, which includes one of the best indoor waterparks in the country as well as an outdoor waterpark and other kid-friendly activities.
Wisconsin’s largest city is known for its breweries and proximity to Lake Michigan. Take a brewery tour to learn about the history of beer in the region, dating back to when Germans first came to the area. Unsurprisingly, Milwaukee also has great bratwurst and other German specialties as well as excellent Friday night fish fries. This is a city that is very into eating and drinking, but if you need a break, visit the Milwaukee Art Museum, one of the largest art museums in the world. It’s housed in a gorgeous building designed by famed architect Santiago Calatrava. You can also visit the Harley-Davidson Museum or the 200-acre Milwaukee County Zoo.
Stay at the Brewhouse Inn Suites, a hotel in the original Pabst Blue Ribbon Brewery, which has been remodeled but retains historic elements like brick walls and steel beams.
Originally Published: May 30, 2022