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Lonely Planet Writer

Midwest travel ideas: 8 under-the-radar destinations to visit in America’s Heartland

Flyover Country, no more! The Midwestern United States may not be as flashy as their high-profile East or West Coast counterparts, but they prove their vacation value through accessibility, friendly hospitality, surprising attractions, natural beauty and affordability. Here are just a few fantastic Midwest travel ideas you might want to consider for your next heartland getaway.

Aerial of Milwaukee skyline with Lake Michigan in the background; Midwest travel ideas
On the shores of Lake Michigan, multi-faceted Milwaukee maintains a diverse music scene that celebrates all genres © JMKE Photography / Visit Milwaukee

The music of Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Are you ready to rock? Multi-faceted Milwaukee is home to the world’s largest outdoor music festival, not to mention 88Nine Radio Milwaukee live studio sessions, a notable club scene and the character-rich historic Pabst and Riverside Theaters.

Summerfest blows into town for a two-week stretch each June and July, attracting some 800,000 attendees all told with more than a dozen stages, 800 performers and big-name headliners spanning a gamut of genres.

Music of a different tune, the throaty roar of Harley-Davidson motorcycles is an iconic part of Milwaukee’s cultural soundtrack; catch live musical performances during the Bike Nights summer concert series at the Harley-Davidson Museum.

High fashion in Columbus, Ohio

Ohio’s trendy capital city has emerged in recent years as a formidable fashion hub thanks to its winning combination of cutting-edge design schools, flashy showcase events, chic boutiques and major retail headquarters. Fun fact: Columbus is home to more resident fashion designers (including several Project Runway contestants) than any other city in the United States except New York and Los Angeles.

Populated with high-end retailers, sophisticated restaurants and upscale entertainment venues, the open-air Easton Town Center earns comparisons to Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive and Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, while the eclectic Short North Arts District buzzes with fun boutiques and vintage shops to browse.

A close up shot of bright red cherries growing on a tree with a vast lake in the background
The 'Cherry Capital of the World,' Traverse City, Michigan puts its signature crop to use in plenty of delicious ways © Traverse City Tourism

Sweet life in Traverse City, Michigan

Traverse City’s bread-and-butter crop, sweet and tart cherries pop up at farm stands all across the Up North region through late summer, and in Traverse City Whiskey Co. cocktails, Grand Traverse Pie Company slices of pie; and sweet and savory Cherry Republic products all year long.

Acres of idyllic wineries and orchards dot the rolling hills of the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas for breathtaking seasonal scenery perfectly paired with the Caribbean-blue bay waters and gorgeous Lake Michigan vistas from nearby Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Summer is high season, but the Traverse City area also boasts enviable skiing terrain, fat-tire bike trails and snowmobile routes, making it an attractive destination for winter recreation as well.

Read more on Traverse, Leelanau and Sleeping Bear Dunes

Fly high in Wichita, Kansas

Wichita touts a proud aviation heritage, producing 35 percent of the world’s general aircraft and home to one of just two known airworthy B29s left in the world. The Kansas Aviation Museum educates and entertains with B-47 and B-52 jet bombers on display, flight simulators and interactive exhibits; and the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum offers a deep dive into the lives of local flight innovators.

Visitors can drive — or fly — in for breakfast, lunch or dinner at the Stearman Field Bar & Grill to enjoy Southern-style fare as private planes take off from and land on a runway just 20 yards away.

Cap off your Wichita trip with a craft beer toast to the city’s high-flying accomplishments at Aero Plains Brewing.

A boy feeds a giraffe at a zoo; midwest travel ideas
The 40-acre Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo wows with animal encounters throughout recreated African, Indonesian and Australian habitats. © Amy Lynch / Lonely Planet

Family fun in Fort Wayne, Indiana

The second-largest city in Indiana brims with year-round family fun. Housed in the historic former City Light and Power Plant, STEM-based Science Central features more than 200 interactive displays and touring exhibits for visitors of all ages to get their hands on.

The ‘aw!’-inspiring Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo wows with live animals across recreated African, Indonesian rainforest and Australian habitats, while the expansive new Promenade Park on the downtown riverfront proposes water activities, a tree canopy trail and an amphitheater for outdoor shows.

After researching your family tree at the Allen County Public Library’s Genealogy Center, feast along the Fall Apple Trail (this is Johnny Appleseed territory, after all), or treat yourself to gourmet truffles, caramels and creams at DeBrand Fine Chocolates any time of the year.

Intellectual pursuits in Iowa City, Iowa

Bookworms, writers and literary types gravitate to Iowa’s original state capital, awarded a UNESCO City of Literature designation in 2008, where the University of Iowa (go Hawkeyes!) hosts the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop residency program – the town is infused with a unique creative energy.

You might spy resulting tomes on the shelves at Prairie Lights Bookstore, famous for its author appearances, in-store readings and expansive inventory. For even more inspiration, read all about 49 different Iowa-connected writers with a leisurely self-guided tour of the ground-level bronze panels that comprise the downtown Literary Walk.

A large windchime stands over pots of flowers, with dark clouds in the sky beyond; midwest travel ideas
The tiny town of Casey, Illinois is home to a handful of Guinness-recognized World’s Largest items, including this 56-foot-tall windchime © Amy Lynch / Lonely Planet

Quirky Casey, Illinois

This tiny town just off I-70 at the halfway point between Indianapolis and St. Louis makes a big impression on pit-stoppers. Populated with a handful of Guinness-certified “World’s Largest” items — wind chimes, a rocking chair, a (working) mailbox, knitting needles, wooden shoes, a pitchfork and a golf tee — along with a whole bunch of other randomly supersized features, including a pencil, a yardstick, a spinning top and an ear of corn, Casey serves up a fantastic free-to-visit collection of photo ops. A local business owner devised the promotion as a way to encourage visitors to pull off the highway and explore the town. Mission accomplished.

Marvelous museums in Kansas City

Straddling the state line where Missouri meets Kansas, the 'City of Fountains' commemorates history, art and culture with a diverse assembly of museums to discover.

A respected local landmark since the Great Depression, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art displays from an encyclopedic collection that spans more than 34,000 pieces and 5,000 years.

The National WWI Museum and Memorial serves as a moving repository for personal objects, documents and stories of the brave American soldiers who fought in this global conflict, and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum offers a meaningful multimedia examination of the African-American baseball experience throughout the league’s lifespan from the Civil War era through 1960.

Currently undergoing renovations with plans to reopen in 2020, the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum honors the life and legacy of the only American President to hail from Missouri.

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