Things to Do in the Midwest to Complete Our American Bucket List
With the Great American Bucket List, we bring you the best of the United States by naming the one thing you must do in each state during your lifetime. This edition: things to do in the Midwest. (See our picks for the South, the East Coast, and the West.)
ILLINOIS | Chicago River Architecture Tour
The skyscraper was invented in Chicago, and the city has been a leader in architectural innovation ever since. Guided architectural boat tours along the three branches of the Chicago River take you past downtown marvels built by Mies van der Rohe; the firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; and a slew of other starchitects. You’ll learn a lot about the city’s history, too.
- Thing to bring: Your camera. Photo ops are plentiful.
- Best time to go: Any time but winter. This is Chicago we’re talking about.
- Where to stay: The River Hotel sits right along the waterfront.
INDIANA | The Indy 500
Hundreds of thousands of fans pack into Indianapolis Motor Speedway for what’s arguably the racing event of the year. Since the first Indy 500, where the winner drove a measly 75 miles per hour on average, the event has become a real spectacle: 200 miles per hour is par for the course.
- Best time to go: Memorial Day weekend (when the race happens). If you miss it, you can still see the first car that won—a bright-yellow Marmon Wasp—in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum.
- Things to bring: Sunscreen, sunglasses, and tickets
- Where to stay: Wingate By Wyndham Indianapolis Airport-Rockville Rd., just 3 miles from the speedway
IOWA | The Iowa State Fair
Though Minnesotans and Wisconsinites love their state fair food, Iowa may have the best in all the Midwest. Ranked a top-10 state fair by Fodor’s, Country Living, and the Travel Channel, Iowa’s August festival in Des Moines is renowned for gluttonous food like double-bacon corn dogs.
- Best photo op: The fair’s unofficial mascot is the Butter Cow, a 600-pound sculpture made with Iowa butter.
- What to eat: You can find just about anything fried here, including Twinkies, Snickers, and even butter.
- Where to stay: The Embassy Suites Hotel Des Moines Downtown is about a 10-minute drive from the fairgrounds.
KANSAS | Strataca – Kansas Underground Salt Museum
The Kansas Underground Salt Museum museum in Hutchinson is a surprisingly fun museum and hidden gem—possibly because its most interesting exhibit is 650 feet underground. Learn about the state’s history of salt mining while exploring a maze of creepy abandoned mining passages (with a guide, of course).
- Salt-safari tips: Eat beforehand and wear comfy shoes since the tour involves a more than two-hour trek underground.
- Save time: Making a reservation will decrease your wait time.
- Where to eat: Get authentic Kansas-style barbecue at Roy’s Hickory Pit BBQ, 6 miles from the museum.
MICHIGAN | Mackinac Island
A 20-minute ferry ride transports you from Michigan’s mainland to this charming isle in Lake Huron. There are no cars allowed on the island, so you’ll want to rent a bike or hail a horse-drawn carriage to explore its colorful Victorian streets. Listen for cannon blasts from Fort Mackinac as you stroll the quaint downtown and hike in the state park.
- Thing to bring: A pair of comfortable shoes
- What to eat: The island’s signature sweet is fudge; sample standard chocolate or varieties such as maple pecan.
- Where to stay: The lakefront Island House Hotel, one of Mackinac’s oldest
MINNESOTA | The Chain of Lakes
You can’t visit the Land of 10,000 Lakes and skip the lakes. The Chain of Lakes in Minneapolis is a collection of four of the city’s largest, and a trip around them just might be the best way to see the area.
- Best time to go: Early summer for swimming or fall for prime leaf peeping
- Where to eat: Head to Tin Fish on the shores of Lake Calhoun for fresh seafood and great views.
- Ways to explore: Rent a canoe or kayak or bike 13 miles of trails that wind around all four lakes.
MISSOURI | City Museum
The only thing dull about City Museum is its name. The enormous facility in Saint Louis—more a public art space than a museum—is organized around the principle of play. Visitors are encouraged to climb on, tunnel through, and otherwise meddle with whatever they find here, including an outdoor jungle gym made of industrial salvage, a carnival midway, a shoelace factory, and much more.
- Safety tip: Kids are very welcome, but keep an eye on them around all that industrial equipment.
- What to eat: Memphis-style barbecue at Pappy’s Smokehouse
- Where to stay: The centrally located Renaissance St. Louis Grand Hotel
NEBRASKA | Niobrara National Scenic River
Nebraska’s all just cornfields, right? Not so. Its dusty west contains the Scotts Bluff and Chimney Rock formations, and the north has the Niobrara River, a winding waterway surrounded by dense forests, golden prairies, and impressive bluffs.
- Best photo op: The stretch of the Niobrara that flows through Smith Falls State Park, home of Nebraska’s tallest waterfall
- Best time to go: You can have the river nearly to yourself in spring, autumn, or any day but Saturday, when 80% of its visitors arrive.
- Off the river: Have a romantic dinner in the riverside town of Valentine.
NORTH DAKOTA | Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Theodore Roosevelt fell hard for North Dakota’s starkly beautiful badlands in the 1880s. You can visit the former president’s Elkhorn Ranch on the grounds of his eponymous park, one of the country’s most beautiful national parks. Even Teddy takes a backseat to the top draw here—herds of buffalo roaming the plains.
- Safety tip: Buffalo may look cuddly, but keep your distance—they’re super grumpy.
- Best photo op: The bison population is largest in the park’s South Unit, where you have the best chance of getting a good pic.
- Best time to go: Visit in spring or summer; some portions become inaccessible during icy winters.
OHIO | Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum
Everyone already knows that Cleveland rocks, but a look inside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum shows just how much. The lakeside building—designed by acclaimed architect I.M. Pei—houses everything from Michael Jackson’s glittering glove to Janis Joplin’s funky Porsche.
- Best photo op: In front of Elvis’s famous jumpsuit so you can airbrush his ghost in later
- Cocktail hour: Grab a classic cocktail at the Velvet Tango Room, about 3 miles from the museum.
- Where to stay: The Glidden House, a former mansion turned boutique hotel
SOUTH DAKOTA | Badlands National Park
With canyons, spires, and prairies stretching as far as the eye can see, South Dakota’s Badlands just beg to be captured with a camera or a paintbrush. The park’s winding roads will take you to several scenic overlooks, but you’ll want to lace up your hiking boots to see everything up close.
- Best time to go: Early spring or early fall to avoid extreme heat
- Best photo op: Cruise along the Sage Creek Rim Road to spot bison, prairie dogs, and bighorn sheep.
- Where to stay: Cambria Suites, located about 55 miles northwest of the park in Rapid City
WISCONSIN | Milwaukee Brewery Tours
We’re all about watching the Packers in winter and taking the kids to Wisconsin Dells in summer. But the thing that makes this state great all year? Beer. Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery boasts what might be the best brewery tour in the nation.
- Money-saving tip: Like you need one. For $8, you’ll get the Lakefront Brewery tour, 24 ounces in beer tastings, and a souvenir pint glass.
- Feeling ambitious?: With some planning, you can visit four other Milwaukee breweries in the same day.
- Where to stay: The InterContinental Milwaukee. All that separates this hotel from Lakefront Brewery is a 20-minute walk along the Milwaukee River.
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