Culture

The 10 Most Underrated Destinations in the Midwest

cincy

10. Cincinnati, OH

Cincinnati may be in the Buckeye State, but its southwestern corner placement often keeps the worst of brutal winters away and instead offers hills, history and much else. The Queen City is home to numerous universities and museums, baseball’s oldest team, great architecture, a vast riverfront overlooking the Kentucky Commonwealth and, of course, Skyline Chili. 

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9. Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Chesterton, IN

This hidden gem is the state’s only water port. It offers beachfront joy for 25 miles along Lake Michigan, surrounded by the largest dunes in America. A vital manufacturing area during World War II, visitors not only enjoy the sea, but can find swamps, forests and cross-country skiing, all close enough to still lend views of Chicago to the west on a clear day.

Cleve

8. Cleveland, OH

Covered at length earlier this month on this very website, first-time visitors often notice Cleveland isn’t what they imagined or were told by the media. Yes, it has the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and splendid sports stadia, but the Forest City also boasts a fantastic waterfront on Lake Erie, cultural centers, good food and drink, along with dozens of metro parks and even a national park in the Cuyahoga Valley just south.LincolnSpG

7. President Lincoln History, Springfield, IL

Illinois may be a fiscal disaster thanks to Chicago-style policies, but 200 miles to the southwest, the state capital long ago invested to spruce up downtown and honor the Great Emancipator. Among many options, one can tour the only home Lincoln ever owned, the old capitol building, where he announced his presidential candidacy in 1858, and the cemetery where Honest Abe was buried weeks after his 1865 assassination.

The highlight of your day is a visit to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, which opened less than a decade ago, and is absolutely fabulous, informative and creative. As a bonus, Springfield is conveniently located close to Chicago, Indianapolis, St. Louis and elsewhere across the Midwest.

Louville

6. Louisville, KY

Known as the “northernmost Southern city and southernmost Northern city in the United States,” Louisville is actually a Midwestern town, in appearance and weather. Situated at the historic Falls of the Ohio River across from Indiana, The ‘Ville has a easily accessible downtown and riverfront, the Louisville Slugger Factory, fine dining, a Civil War cemetery and serves as the jumping-off point to the lush hills of the Bluegrass State.

KC

5. Kansas City, MO

Long-known as a metropolis in Middle America, Kansas City keeps getting better each visit. The National World War I Museum is one of the finest in America, and the view from Liberty Tower is a must. Also in downtown, one finds the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, which resembles its Sydney counterpart. K.C. also houses quality art, transportation and sports museums, as well as great views of the Missouri River from its bluffs.

In a city with more fountains than anywhere not called Rome, you can find many in the near-century old Country Club Plaza, designed after Seville, Spain. Fans of President Harry Truman can tour his museum and home in nearby Independence, his haberdashery shop downtown and family farm to the south in Grandview, Missouri. For my money, Kansas City also features the best barbecue on the planet, from high-end to small joints in off-the-beaten-path areas. 

Indianapolis

4. Indianapolis, IN

The rapidly growing capital city of the fiscally sound Hoosier State is known as a basketball mecca, but the “Crossroads of America” is so much more. Headquarters of the American Legion, more war memorials and monuments to the common soldier exist in Circle City than anywhere outside Washington, D.C. Easy to navigate, Indy has hosted Final Fours, Super Bowls and myriad conventions due to quality amenities downtown, including top hotels, fine steakhouses, interesting museums, parks, a beautifully restored canal, and a surprising array of ethnic food. As a resident for more than five years, I’ve never met anyone who’s not been impressed after visiting.

Mackinaw

3. Mackinac Island, MI

This majestic creation must be witnessed in person to believe. A 35-minute catamaran ride from Mackinaw City transports you to this resort area of fewer than 4 square miles. Motorized transportation is prohibited. Visitors from around the world ride horses, bikes or amble by foot around the circular paradise. Cottages, churches and historic edifices dot the perimeter, as do vast lawns, fudge shops and intimate hotels. It’s truly a relaxing retreat.

Due to the island’s strategic location between Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsula, there’s also a ton of history — from fur trading and the French-Indian War to a 230-year-old fort, the American Revolution and War of 1812. Mackinac Island and the pristine areas to its north and south are the most scenic spots in the Midwest. They offer beauty, relaxation, summer sunlight until 10 p.m. and great retreats for families of all types.

Pitt

2. Pittsburgh, PA

If you haven’t visited the area once known as Fort Duquesne at the source of the Ohio River in the past 20 years, you haven’t seen Pittsburgh.

Any discussion of this city should pay attention to what The ‘Burgh always had: a visually striking location, divided by three rivers and nearly 500  bridges, surrounded by hills, including Mount Washington, which provides arguably the best urban panorama in America. Pittsburgh is the only American city with an “entrance,” via the Fort Pitt Tunnel.

The erstwhile Steel City’s recrudescence, which began in the 1990s, centered around four new sports facilities, a small subway system, dozens of nearby universities, unique museums, a revival of urban neighborhoods (most bars per capita in the nation) and more. The preservation of two inclines overwhelms the long-discarded smokestacks, as steel, aluminum, shipbuilding and petroleum production was replaced by software engineering, energy research, banking and medical opportunities.

Superior

1. North Shore, Lake Superior, MN

Drive along the western edge of the world’s largest freshwater lake and you won’t be disappointed. Diverse shops, small excursions, steep cliffs, scenic waterfalls and secluded beaches dot the east side of Minnesota State Highway 61 with mountains and forest to your west.

Comparable to California’s Pacific Coast Highway or even Hawaii on a smaller scale, the 150-mile journey from Duluth to the Canadian border is well-regarded by locals as the most breathtaking route in the region. If history or business is your cup of tea, rail lines and factories that produce and ship iron and taconite are frequently seen along the coast.

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All photographs by the author.