Traveling the Midwest

The nation’s heartland is as diverse as it is sprawling, proved by the attractions of these 11 cities. And you can go out of Michigan without leaving your Midwestern comfort zone.
Traveling the Midwest
Biking along the lake in Chicago Photographs by Cindy Loose

1. Omaha, Neb.

// City leadership is in the midst of a major campaign to bring visitors to Omaha. But it’s more than just the new slogan. “O,” which replaces the stodgy and cryptic “Omaha: Rare, Well Done.” In fact, a $2-billion investment of public and private funds has given Omaha a major face-lift, including a new $90-million performing-arts center.

Sleep: The Cornerstone Mansion Inn B&B (; 888-883-7745) is an inn built in 1894 that was home to one of Omaha’s most prominent families, the Offutts.

Eat: You may run into Warren Buffett at Gorat’s Steak House, where he’s a regular. But the prices aren’t for billionaires only. Dinner for two can be had for less than $50. Also consider The French Café in the Old Market for an authentic Parisian feel.

See & do: Remember Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom?

Omaha took that fame seriously, and honors it with a first-rate wildlife kingdom that is the state’s No. 1 attraction.

Contact:, 866-YES-OMAHA.

2. St. Louis

// St. Louis has seen better times, but it still has lots to offer, including numerous historic sites and museums, the Mississippi River, and the Arch. You also can try to catch the Cardinals, the Rams, or the Blues. Oh, and don’t forget the museum for bowling.

Sleep: The Omni Majestic (; 314-436-2355) is a boutique hotel in a renovated building from 1913. It’s about five blocks from the Arch and other attractions. Outside of town, you’ll find luxury at the Ritz-Carlton in suburban Clayton.

Eat: For five-star fare in a formal setting, the place to go is Tony’s, where tuxedoed waiters deliver Italian haute cuisine.

• If it turns out you don’t like the cheesy substance called Provel that is popular on St. Louis pizzas, don’t mention it to the locals; they’re quite proud of it.

See & do: The city’s museums and historic sites include the St. Louis Art Museum, the American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog, and the Scott Joplin House.

Contact:, 800-916-8938.

3. St. Paul, Minn.

// Some may prefer St. Paul’s big sister and next-door neighbor, Minneapolis. But the smaller city is a great base for those who love historic buildings and the genteel pace of an earlier time. On Summit Avenue alone, 373 grand homes survive, and at least an equal number of Victorian, Queen Anne, Tudor, and Georg-ian Revival homes grace surrounding streets. The hometown of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, it was also once the place where Al Capone came for R&R.

Sleep: The St. Paul Hotel ( ; 800-292-9292) is a National Historic Trust property that has hosted gangsters and J. Edgar Hoover alike.

Eat: W.A. Frost & Co. was once a drugstore where F. Scott Fitzgerald sipped Cokes. It’s now an upscale continental restaurant.

• The Zander Café is a simple storefront restaurant that serves some of the best food in St. Paul.

See & do: Consider planning your trip to coincide with an evening when Garrison Keillor is in town taping Prairie Home Companion at the renovated Fitzgerald Theatre. Information:; 651-290-1221.

• To arrange a walking tour of Summit Avenue, where gracious old homes line pleasant streets, call 651-297-2555. Fans of F. Scott Fitzgerald can grab a city map and stroll past places that represent highlights of his life, including his drinking haunt, the University Club.

Contact:; 651-265-4900.

4. Topeka, Kan.

// From John Brown’s battle for the abolition of slavery to the 1954 ruling on Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka has been home to key figures. All are highlighted at various Topeka attractions. Throw in low prices for food and lodging and some family-friendly attractions, and Topeka could make for an intriguing weekend visit.

See & do: The Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site & Museum provides information about the suit that ended with the Supreme Court ruling that white- and black-only schools were unconstitutional.

• The First Presbyterian Church is worth visiting for the Tiffany stained-glass windows designed under the supervision of Louis Tiffany himself.

Sleep: Brickyard Barn Inn, ( ; 877-234-BARN) occupies a converted 1927 dairy barn with rooms furnished with English antiques. Breakfast — usually highlighted by a custard French toast, vegetable frittata, or three-cheese omelet — is included.

• The Woodward, ( ; 785-354-7111) has six separate historic inns on a single street in Topeka. The main building is a Gothic Tudor mansion built in 1923. Room rates include breakfast and evening dessert.

Eat: Boss Hawg’s Barbecue has won numerous state and regional awards. Its motto: “Horrifying vegetarians since 1995.”

• Drive up to Bobo’s Drive-in, where carhops take your order and deliver food to your auto. Recently featured on the Food Network, it’s known for homemade apple pies and onion rings, made fresh daily.


5. Milwaukee

// The investment of more than $2 billion in private and public funds over recent years has so completely transformed downtown Milwaukee that the old sitcom girls Laverne and Shirley would no longer recognize it.

The brick warehouses and aging piers along the river now house trendy restaurants along an attractive river walk. Yet, the city hasn’t abandoned its roots: Beer, sports, and motorcycles remain.

See & do: Even the outside of the Milwaukee Art Museum is dazzling. Internationally renowned architect/engineer Santiago Calatrava created an addition that features a pair of enormous, angelic white wings made of steel and concrete that open and close.

• The Harley-Davidson Museum tells the 105-year-old history of the world’s most famous and beloved motorcycle. Displayed Harleys include one owned by Elvis Presley.

Eat: For hip and trendy eats, there’s Roots Restaurant and Cellar, where organic, locally grown ingredients end up in beautiful-to-behold gourmet-quality entrees.

• Hearty German food can be found at the 106-year-old Mader’s. John F. Kennedy is among the presidents who’ve dined here.

• Consider trying authentic Serbian food at the down-home, offbeat Three Brothers. Stuffed cabbage, hand-rolled sausages and phyllo filled with meat, spinach, and cheese are served at 1950s-style kitchen tables.

Sleep: The Pfister (; 800-472-4403) was billed as the “Grand Hotel of the West” when it opened in 1893 as the most lavish hotel of its time. It routinely wins Four Diamonds from AAA.

• Iron Horse Hotel (; 888-543-4766) is opening soon in a 100-year-old renovated warehouse. The hotel will welcome all comers, but is built to accommodate bikers, with tough leather furniture, hooks for jackets, and covered parking.


6. Rapid City, S.D.

// This small city has long been a base for exploring famous attractions nearby, including Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, Wind Cave National Park, and the Crazy Horse Memorial. But in the last decade, Rapid City itself has become a good place to settle in before seeing the stunning landscape all around it.

See & do: The Journey Museum chronicles pioneer and Native American History. The South Dakota Museum of Geology focuses on prehistoric fossils that are plentiful in the area (the famed Tyrannosaurus Rex named Sue was found near Rapid City). Shopping treats include Buckin’ Pony Boutique, which sells Western-themed clothing and Native American crafts.

Eat: National food magazines have featured The Corn Exchange. Meals include local trout and artisanal cheeses.

• The Firehouse Brewing Co. occupies a former firehouse built in 1915 and features a sophisticated brand of pub food, including buffalo burgers.

• At Tally’s Restaurant, consider the breakfast special: pancakes wrapped around buffalo sausages.

Sleep: Hotel Alex Johnson (; 800-888-2539), built in 1927, is on the National Register of Historic Places. It combines a German Tudor style with touches of Lakota Sioux art and architecture, such as a tepee chandelier.

Contact:; 800-487-3223

7. Chicago

// Considered the finest city in the Midwest, no matter how many times you’ve been there, it’s worth another look.

See & do: Millennium Park is a $500-million public venue with sculptures, outdoor performance space, gardens, and a fountain area that includes two 50-foot glass-and-brick towers sheathed in giant LED screens.

• For a leisurely way to view the skyline, check out The Chicago Architecture Foundation’s two-hour architecture river cruises. (312-922-3432;

• Check to see what’s playing at the historic Auditorium Theatre. Designed by renowned architect Louis Sullivan, and opened in the late 1800s, the theater has some of the world’s best acoustics.

Sleep: If luxury is your goal, consider the Peninsula Hotel ( ; 312-337-2888), where doubles usually start at $550 a night.

• The Raffaello (; 888-560-4977) is a charming, small boutique hotel near the Magnificent Mile.

Eat: At Bistro 110, entrees are preceded by roasted heads of garlic that diners squeeze on warm, crusty bread. For Armenian cuisine, try Sayat Nova, just off the Magnificent Mile. A favorite haunt of famed Chicago icon Studs Terkel, Valois is a cafeteria-style joint with great corned beef and cabbage on Wednesdays.

• Chicago is famed for deep-dish pizza, but the newer craze is “skinny pizza.” At Spacca Napoli, you’ll find authentic Neapolitan thin-crust pizza popping from a wood-burning oven shipped from Naples.

Contact:; 877-244-2246.

8. Fargo, N.D.

// A Fargo “Renaissance Project” has re-energized the downtown with new condos, apartments, restaurants, and retail outlets, most of them locally owned.

See & do: The Red River Zoo specializes in rare and endangered species; it’s one of the world’s largest breeding facilities for Chinese red pandas. Two panda babies were born in June. The Fargo Air Museum features vintage war birds, and they all still fly, including the North American P-51D Mustang, World War II’s dominant fighting plane.

Eat: HoDo, inside the trendy Hotel Donaldson, offers a fun menu that includes bison tenderloin, mini lamb-and-mint burgers, and vegetable Wellington.

• Monte’s Downtown is locally owned and offers the best steaks in town, fans say, plus a great pecan-crusted walleye.

Sleep: The Hotel Donaldson ( ; 888-478-8768) has 17 suites, each showcasing work by regional artists.

• The Chez Susanne Bed and Breakfast (701-293-9023) is a Victorian house with spacious rooms, all with down comforters. Guests are greeted with a beverage and baked goods.


9. Des Moines, Iowa

// Des Moines isn’t what you would call a city with an exciting nightlife. But there’s a lot to
recommend, including many dining spots. There’s a growing arts community, adding variety to the city’s already well-established art museum.

See & do: The Fort Des Moines Museum and Education Center features a memorial to black and female soldiers, along with other historical exhibits.

• The Des Moines Botanical Center claims 15,000 plants at any one time, but who’s counting? You can get a scavenger-hunt pamphlet for the children so they can be on the lookout for specific plants.

Eat: The Waterfront Seafood Market & Restaurant is a long-established favorite that features potato-encrusted halibut, a salmon Alfredo pasta with baby peas, and a shrimp or scallop po-boy.

• During last winter’s presidential caucuses, the Raccoon River Brewing Co. was a favorite of the press corps because of the excellent variety of freshly brewed beer and an innovative menu.

• Waveland Café is the place for breakfast in Des Moines. Consider its Best Skillet: scrambled eggs topped with melted cheese on top of a concoction that includes ham, mushrooms, green peppers, and hot peppers topped over a layer of hash browns.

Sleep: The Renaissance Des Moines Savery Hotel (; 515-244-2151) is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

• Hotel Fort Des Moines (; 800-532-1466) has welcomed Presidents Kennedy and Nixon and aviator Charles Lindbergh.

10. Cleveland

// The Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame & Museum, which opened in 1995, drew an influx of tourists to the city. But there’s much more to the city, including the Indians, Cavaliers, Browns and a world-class symphony orchestra.

See & do: The I.M. Pei-designed Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame & Museum showcases exhibits that take visitors through the varying eras, styles, and milestones of rock ’n’ roll. Displays include Bruce Springsteen’s outfit from the cover of Born in the USA, Prince’s “Purple Rain” coat and Madonna’s “Virgin” bustier.

• The Cleveland Museum of Art is proceeding with its ambitious renovation and expansion. A special exhibition, Artistic Luxury: Fabergé, Tiffany, Lalique, is scheduled for October.

• Strolling around the Warehouse District at night is a pleasant way to experience the restaurants and music and comedy venues. Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood also has lots of restaurants and bars.

Eat: Melt Bar & Grilled makes dozens of combinations of grilled-cheese sandwiches using quality bread and cheese and some unusual supplements, including pierogies and walleye. Menus are printed on vinyl records.

• Crop Bistro & Bar operates a test kitchen that develops unexpected food combinations. Experimentation has produced chicken-fried duck with aged cheddar grits and black bean sauce, the Big Pile of Crop Pasta, and Cinnamon Pappardelle.

• Lola Bistro is operated by Michael Symon, of TV’s Next Iron Chef. Recent menu items have included gnocchi with pork ragu; roasted chicken with white beans, arugula, oven-dried tomato and salsa verde; and butternut squash ravioli with prosciutto, sage, and brown butter.

Sleep: The Ritz-Carlton Hotel (; 216-623-1300) has all the luxury features of the Ritz chain as well as being a  convenient location.

• The Brownstone Inn Downtown (; 216-426-1753 was built in 1874. It offers four rooms, a continental breakfast, and a glass of port or sherry at night.

11. Indianapolis

// If you’re a sports fan, you’re aware that Indianapolis is the home of the Indy 500, the Colts, and the Pacers. It also has a growing cultural scene that goes well beyond its venerable art museum. Indianapolis now has dozens of art galleries, as more artists make the city home. It’s also one of the Midwest’s most child-friendly destinations.

See & do: Get a sense of the excitement on race day by visiting the Speedway Hall of Fame at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Among the 75 race cars on display, 30 of them were Indy 500 winners.

• The Indianapolis Museum of Art is one of the country’s oldest and largest art museums. Along with lofty collections of African, American, Asian, and European art, it has more watercolors by J.M.W. Turner than any museum outside Great Britain.

• The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis has the Power of Children Gallery, which explores the lives of three children — Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges, and Ryan White — who faced major challenges and emerged as youthful heroes of the 20th century. Children exploring the exhibit can sign their own commitment on how they hope to make the world a better place.

Eat: Hollyhock Hill is the place for comfort food. A complete fried-chicken dinner served family style draws crowds.

• At GT South’s Rib House, ribs are the big attraction, but locals say you can’t go wrong with any of the barbecue items.

Sleep: The Canterbury Hotel (; 800-538-8186) is a European boutique hotel.

• The Stone Soup Inn B&B (; 866-639-9550) is housed in a 1901 mansion.

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