If you’re planning a trans American road trip or just thinking about Midwest travel in general, you’ve found the right blog post. If I’m being honest, I contacted some fantastic fellow bloggers for their Midwest travel expertise because I know I’ve woefully neglected that part of the US on my travels. And I wanted to get suggestions from travellers who either live in the areas they’ve written about here, or have visited enough times to know what they’re talking about. Now I feel like I can plan my own jaunts to the Midwest equipped with the knowledge I need.
13 MIDWEST TRAVEL HOTSPOTS
Listed here in no particular order, are 13 of the best cities, towns and attractions that you can pack into your Midwest travels. Be they a weekend taster, a stop along your road trip or maybe a week or two. Here’s what we’ll cover in this post:
- The North Shore of Lake Superior, Minnesota
- Detroit, Michigan
- Dubuque, Iowa
- Silver Lake Sand Dunes, Michigan
- Cleveland, Ohio
- Minnehaha Falls, Minnesota
- Belle Isle, Detroit
- Eastern Market, Detroit
- Milwaukee, Wisconsin
- Grand Rapids, Michigan
- Cuyahoga Valley National Park , Ohio
- Navy Pier, Illinois
- Mackinac Island, Michigan
Lake Superior (North Shore), Minnesota
Did you know that Minnesota has more than 90,000 miles of shoreline? That’s more than California, Florida and Hawaii combined! Some of the most treasured shoreline in the state is along the beautiful North Shore of Lake Superior.
The city of Duluth is the gateway to the North Shore. Along the shoreline is a series of state parks, quaint towns and expansive wilderness that stretches all the way to Canada. It’s truly an outdoor adventurer’s paradise!
Minnesotans get outside in all four amazing seasons. In summer, enjoy hiking, camping, kayaking, and mountain biking. During winter, try cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing and more. Do you love autumn? The North Shore is quite possibly my favorite place to experience the fall colors.
From Duluth, drive the North Shore Scenic Drive along Lake Superior for more than 150 miles. Along the way, stop at Gooseberry Falls, Split Rock Lighthouse, Temperance River and Tettegouche State Parks.
A trip to the North Shore isn’t complete without a stop at the popular Betty’s Pies in Two Harbors. I’m not even a dessert person, but I’ve always got room for a slice of Betty’s Apple Crunch pie. Come fall in love with Minnesota on the North Shore!
Detroit, Michigan is the city that brought us Motown and the American automobile. Detroit has definitely had its fair share of troubles and it retains a bit of edge that I love. In recent years the city has seen a growth in small businesses that are giving people reasons to visit the city again.
The midtown neighborhood boasts a number of unique restaurants, cafes, shops, art galleries and museums that are bustling during the weekend. Additionally, Eastern Market holds weekly farmers markets year round; offering local produce and other goods (more on Eastern Market below).
For the sports fans, Detroit is the only city I know where all major professional sports are located within the city limits, and a five minute walking distance between stadiums! In fact, one of my favorite ways to spend a Saturday was with breakfast at the Midtown favorite, Avalon Bakery, followed by a bike ride through downtown, passing all of the stadiums and Art Deco architecture. Then riding along the riverfront waving high to Canada, up the Dequindre Cut for a look at the street art, and finishing at Eastern Market.
If you’re willing to overlook the bad news about Detroit you’ll find a Midwest gem that is sure to surprise you.
Dubuque lies on the Mississippi River, at the point where Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois meet. There is so much to do in this river-side town! The Downtown area is home to many colourful murals, the Fenelon Place Elevator (the shortest and steepest scenic railway in the world), the Millwork District with fancy coffee shops and breweries and the National Mississippi River Museum!
The historic Hotel Julien is said to have connections to the gangster, Al Capone, who used to use the hotel as a hide out when things got tough in Chicago! On the outskirts, hikers will love the Mines of Spain with 10 hiking trails and the ‘castle like’ Julien Dubuque Monument that overlooks the Mississippi River.
Adventure seekers should check out the Crystal Lake Caves, go zip lining with Skytours and learn about the history of Union Park (an early 1900’s amusement park!) from a unique perspective and if traveling in the winter, head to Sundown Mountain ski resort, yep you can ski in Iowa!
Silver Lake Sand Dunes, Michigan
Also written by Kylie Neuhaus, from Between England and Iowa. She knows her stuff!
Silver Lake State Park is a completely unexpected surprise in the Midwest! It’s a large area of sand dunes that wouldn’t look out of place in a desert. The dunes are divided into three sections; a pedestrian area for hiking and sand boarding, an ORV (off road vehicle) area for a little adrenaline kick for drivers of various types of vehicle from ATV’s to dune
buggies to jeeps, and an area for a passenger dune rides for those that’d like to experience the dunes from an off road vehicle without having to self drive!
The dunes are sandwiched between Lake Michigan and Silver Lake, so water sports can also be enjoyed or you can climb to the top of the Little Sable Light Station. There are plenty of accommodation options in Silver Lake, along with other fun activities such as slick track go karts and mini golf. Make sure you stay and watch the sunset!
Cleveland, Ohio isn’t typically one of the first places that comes to mind when considering visiting the United States. Ohio in general isn’t typically real high of people’s bucket lists…. But that’s what makes it the perfect hidden gem. There’s lots to do and discover, and it likely won’t be crowded.
Start by heading over to Playhouse Square, the largest performing arts center in the United States outside of New York. On the street outside, you’ll find the world’s largest permanent crystal chandelier hanging over the intersection. Next, head over to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame where you can learn all about the top musical performers over the years. Kids can have fun and get hands on at the Great Lakes Science Center.
If that’s not enough to do, you can also check out some of the beautiful Cleveland Metroparks, indulge in the oldest indoor/outdoor market space in Cleveland at West Side Market, go shopping at Tower City, take a stroll through the Cleveland Botanical Garden, and so much more!
Minnehaha Falls, Minnesota
Minnehaha Falls is one of the most iconic spots in Minnesota, and maybe the Midwest in general. It’s located right in the city of Minneapolis (no hiking required), and surrounded by Minnehaha Park – a vibrant space full of nature and history. In addition to the view shown here, you can also climb onto a ledge behind the falls for a whole different perspective.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll want to visit in the summer, when the park is green and the falls are gushing from recent rainstorms; but there’s actually a pretty good reason to visit in the winter, as well. Subzero temps are common, which means the water often freezes and forms a giant curtain of plunging icicles. It’s quite a spectacular sight to behold. (Almost spectacular enough to make you forget you’re standing outside in the middle of Minnesota winter.)
Belle Isle, Detroit
Belle Isle is an absolute gem in the city of Detroit. The small island is located in the Detroit River between the United States and Canada, though it’s only accessible from the Michigan side. Belle Isle is full of recreational opportunities, from picnicking at Sunset Point with a view of the skyline and Ambassador Bridge to swimming at the beach to wandering through beautiful conservatory gardens.
There are several opportunities for playing sports, with cycling the island’s main road being a top choice, and several soccer fields, baseball diamonds, and a driving range available. Visitors looking to have an educational experience can visit the Dossin Great Lakes Historical Museum to learn about the history of the Great Lakes shipping industry, a small nature center, or one of the oldest aquariums in the United States – all for free! Belle Isle is the perfect place to visit for a city break from Detroit and should be on everyone’s must-do list in the Motor City.
Eastern Market, Detroit
People think of Detroit as being a harsh, grey city—but that couldn’t be farther from the truth at the city’s Eastern Market! On the weekends, you can visit the enormous farmer’s market and buy handcrafted jewelry, but any day of the week you’ll definitely want to explore the area’s amazing street art.
Every year, they commission artists to add to the already impressive range of murals, so the scene is constantly evolving. Murals cover just about every flat surface surrounding Eastern Market—the hard part isn’t in finding them but in deciding which one’s your favorite.
When you need a break from wandering the streets, stop for a coffee at the café Germack, where they roast their own beans, or buy letterpress posters and postcards at the community printer Signal-Return. You’ll never overlook Detroit again!
When you hear Milwaukee, you probably think of the amazing musical performances of Summerfest, epic Bloody Marys or possibly even That 70s Show (that’s Green Bay and not Milwaukee, but alas I digress!). This bustling city has plenty to offer, including a number of natural areas.
If you’re looking for some quality time with Mother Nature, look no further than Grant Park. While it has a number of soccer fields, tennis courts and even a golf course, the true jewel is the Seven Bridges Trail. This picturesque hiking trail takes you tall forests and across beautiful ravines while offering amazing views. You’d hardly think you’re just south of the largest city in Wisconsin! Enjoy the sights as you meander through the trees and along the shores of Lake Michigan. Be warned though – rumour has it the place is haunted so be careful if you plan on exploring after dark!
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Head to the US Midwest to visit one of the world’s most breathtaking gardens that few people even know exists. You’ll find the eight-acre Richard and Helen DeVos Japanese Garden hidden away inside Grand Rapids on the western edge of Michigan. Because Japanese culture relies on three essential elements to create harmony in all gardens–water, rocks, and plants–you’ll notice an abundance of each featured along every path and corner.
You’ll find Japanese maples, bonsai, bamboo, and cherry blossoms. A Zen-Style Rock Garden sits tucked inside a small pagoda to promote relaxation and quiet reflection. Pretty art sculptures border narrow garden paths, and a zig-zag bridge cuts through a tranquil pond lined with softly cascading waterfalls.
In a nearby authentic teahouse, you can even watch a traditional tea ceremony and sample a cup of green tea on select days throughout the year. It’s a unique experience you won’t want to miss, and I highly recommend a visit to the Richard and Helen DeVos Japanese Garden to anyone considering a trip to the US Midwest.
[Ed’s note: Did you know that Grand Rapids was named one of the top 20 places to live in the US? Find out why.]
Cuyahoga Valley National Park , Ohio
Cuyahoga is not only the most fun-sounding National Park name to pronounce, but it is also the destination to get your outdoors on in northern Ohio. Cuyahoga Valley National park holds two important titles: Ohio’s one and only National Park, and home of Ohio’s most stunning waterfalls! So in a land dominated by Cleveland’s, Columbus’s, and Cinncinnati’s, don’t forget about Cuyahoga! Cuyahoga Valley National Park is located in northern Ohio, on the outskirts of Akron, and within a thirty minute drive of Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. The convenience of this little gem gets even better, because the entrance fees are free! Set in an unassuming urban area, Cuyahoga can be best enjoyed as either a several days long jaunt, or as a short, road trip stopover destination! Cuyahoga offers a deceptively dynamic depth of variety, with thick forests, wetlands, and rocky cliffsides all waiting to be explored. But its showstoppers are its waterfalls!
Arguably the most beautiful waterfall in Ohio, if not the entire region, is the stunning Brandywine Falls! Easily accessible, with multiple viewpoints, this was my personal favorite hike of Cuyahoga. I accessed this hike from the parking lot off Highway 271, followed the boardwalk past the rocky cliff sides for several tenths of a mile, to the overlook of Brandywine Falls. The depths of this fall are quite surprising and literally have a way of sneaking up on you through the trees. After soaking in the magic of the falls, you can continue on to finish the loop trail, which takes you over several small elevation gains, water crossings, and thick foliage.
Length: 1.5 mile loop
Navy Pier is one of the most iconic landmarks encompassing the Chicago skyline. Covering 50-acres along the banks of Lake Michigan, Navy Pier offers visitors and locals alike with entertainment for all ages including a children’s museum, live music, restaurants, bars, shops and much more. Want a 360-degree view of both the beautiful lakeside and sprawling city? Then catch a ride on the Centennial Wheel, a 200-foot Ferris Wheel positioned right on the pier itself. Even on the coldest of Chicago winter days, the wheel can be enjoyed inside the warmth of enclosed gondolas.
Not only is the pier a fun stop during a visit to Chicago, but it also plays a prominent role in shaping the city into what it is today. Opened to the public in 1916, it was first named “Municipal Pier” and built under the architects who developed the ‘Master Plan of Chicago.’ However, eleven years later, the pier was officially renamed to Navy Pier to pay tribute to the military personnel who were housed there during WWI.
Mackinac Island, Michigan
The well-preserved Victorian homes, quaint shops, and beautifully landscaped gardens that line the streets make it feel as though you’ve stepped back in time. Nature enthusiasts will love the 140 miles of hiking trails through forests, fields, and coastline.For the ultimate luxury experience, visit the historic Grand Hotel for an elegant afternoon tea or high-class luncheon. Be sure to venture onto the hotel’s expansive wrap-around balconies for incredible views of Lake Michigan.
Personal motor vehicles are banned from the island, so the main modes of transportation are bicycles, horse-drawn carriages, and good old fashioned walking. Frequent carriage tours around the island’s key sights, including Arch Rock and Fort Mackinac, will help you make the most of your day trip.
The best way to reach Mackinac Island is to drive across the 26,000 foot Mackinac bridge, park in St. Ignace, and take the ferry across Lake Michigan.