Ah, the Midwest. You know, the massive space of land that coastal dwellers think is nothing but pig farms and old pick-up trucks? They may be shocked to learn that there are actually a lot of incredible things to see in the Midwest. I should know. I’ve lived a good chunk of my life in the middle of America. While this list of things to do in the Midwest could be a mile long, I decided to select 20 of my most memorable midwest experiences that I think you’d enjoy on your next cross-country road trip.
1. Chase Waterfalls in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
Michigan is said to have about 300 different waterfalls! The majority of those are located in the state’s Upper Peninsula region. (Or “da U.P.” as locals tend to call it.) One of my most rewarding experiences from traveling through the midwest was spending an entire week trying to find as many of these waterfalls as I could. September is the best time to visit as the busy tourist season concludes and mosquitos won’t be as bad. I have an entire checklist of my favorite waterfalls on this site along with tips on how to plan an unforgettable visit.
2. Attend The Burning Beetle Festival in Custer, South Dakota
This annual tradition has locals marching through the streets of Custer with torches ablaze, shouting “burn beetle burn” as they march to a gigantic replica of a pine beetle. The event began in 2012 as a way to bring awareness to the infectious mountain pine beetle that had wrecked havoc on local forests. While the infestation has since been brought under control, the Burning Beetle Festival is now a can’t miss event that happens every January. The march concludes with fireworks and a downtown bar crawl with local bands.
3. See All of the Giant Things in Casey, Illinois
The tiny town of Casey in southeast Illinois is home to over 30 gigantic things (13 of which are “world records”) that leave you feeling like you’re in that movie Honey, I Shrunk The Kids. Walking down Main Street, you’ll be amazed at the world’s largest rocking chair, wind chimes, mailbox, and barber’s pole, and teeter-totter.
Take a drive around town and you’ll catch a glimpse of other giant things like a golf tee, Chevy truck key, pencil, pizza cutter, and mousetrap. The town is just a couple of miles off the interstate making it a perfect road trip stop.
4. Tour Paisley Park – Prince’s Home and Recording Studio in Minnesota
Prince built Paisley Park back in 1987 and lived here until his death in 2016. The former home and recording studio of the legendary singer is located outside of Minneapolis in Chanhassen, Minnesota. Prince himself requested that his home be open to the public after his death and now fans can tour the complex and see the studio where he recorded some of his biggest hits and the soundstage where he rehearsed for tours.
5. Eat Cherry Stuffed French Toast in Door County, Wisconsin
There are a lot of foodie fads that don’t really live up to the hype. And that’s certainly what I expected on a visit to The White Gull Inn in the Village of Fish Creek in Door County, Wisconsin. However, their famous style of french toast stuffed with Wisconsin cream cheese and fresh cherries was like heaven on a breakfast platter. It was so delicious that I couldn’t wipe the smile (or the locally produced maple syrup) off my face.
6. Stroll Through The Missouri Botanical Garden
Despite the drastic changes in climate, the midwest has quite a few botanical gardens worthy of a weekend stroll. However, none of them compare to the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. Known as a gold standard to botanists and horticulturists, the Missouri Botanical Garden is recognized as one of the top three gardens in the world. It’s also a major center for research and conservation. The 73-acre property includes a 14-acre Japanese strolling garden – one of the largest in the world. The garden’s iconic Climatron features more than 2,800 plants, many of which are rare species.
7. Visit The American Sign Museum in Cincinnati
There’s a reason I included this place in my book 100 Things To Do in America Before You Die – it’s amazing! The American Sign Museum is the largest public museum dedicated to the history of signs. You’ll be surrounded by beautiful neon and vintage signs that once lined the streets of America. Take a guided tour to learn how neon is produced and the history behind some of the iconic signs on display.
8. Explore Abraham Lincoln History in Springfield
Before he was President, Abraham Lincoln spent a good chunk of his life in Springfield, Illinois. You can still tour his house, see where he once practiced law, and pay your respects at his burial site. Don’t miss the Lincoln Presidential Library while you’re in town. It’s a terrific museum with rare artifacts and interesting exhibits about one of America’s most important and beloved leaders.
9. Watch Medora The Musical in North Dakota
Located near Roosevelt National Park in Medora, North Dakota – Medora The Musical has been entertaining audiences since 1965. I had pretty low expectations, bracing myself for a cheesy small-town production. Instead I was completely blown away at the quality of the performance and how much fun it was. The small town of Medora is classic Americana and the musical is a must-see if you’re planning to visit the National Park.
10. Discover The Historic Bridges of Madison County, Iowa
Let’s face it – the movie wasn’t really all that great. However, the actual bridges of Madison County that gained fame from the 1995 Clint Eastwood film are pretty cool. There are six different covered bridges to discover and you’re likely to meet people from all over the country, if not the world while you track them down. Be sure to visit downtown Winterset and explore the square that includes the Iowa Quilt Museum, John Wayne Birthplace, and the historic Iowa Theater.
11. Take A Ride Around The Indianapolis Motor Speedway
It’s home to the world’s largest sporting event and a sight to behold even if you aren’t a fan of racing. When events like the Indianapolis 500 aren’t running, visitors can tour the massive facility and even score an opportunity to ride around in an actual Indy car. Fun fact – the race track is so big eight major landmarks could fit inside of it at once – including the Vatican, Churchill Downs, Yankee Stadium, The White House, and the Roman Colosseum.
12. Explore Buffalo Bill’s Hometown in Nebraska
It may the least visited state in the country, but Nebraska was good enough for Buffalo Bill – one of the biggest entertainers in American history. William Cody once lived on a sprawling 4,000 acre property in North Platte. These days, his house is part of a historical park and the city is full of fun and amusing wild west history. Not convinced? Here’s a look at my visit to North Platte back in 2021.
13. Go To The Top of The Gateway Arch in St. Louis
The 630-foot high Gateway Arch makes the St. Louis skyline one of the most recognized in the world. Did you know that you can take a tram ride all the way to the top? Be sure to visit the renovated museum on the lower level that underwent a $380 million dollar renovation in 2018. Learn all about westward expansion and then take some time to walk around the beautiful grounds to take your own unique photograph of this iconic midwest gem.
14. Sing Inside Detroit’s Legendary Motown Studio
You’ve loved all of the great artists that came from Motown like The Temptations; The Supremes; Stevie Wonder; Marvin Gaye; and The Jackson Five. Now you can see where the songs were recorded and even sing a song yourself! Take a tour of Motown and see where the magic was born and enjoy a singalong with your tour group in historic Studio A!
15. See The Keeper of the Plains in Wichita, Kansas
Most people are stunned when they discover what a cool destination Wichita is. And at the end of your busy day exploring the great food, museums, and shopping in the city, be sure to stop by the 44-foot tall Keeper of the Plains sculpture. If you visit after the sun sets, you’ll get to witness the “Ring of Fire” – a 15 minute fire display between the two beautiful pedestrian bridges that meet over the Big and Little Arkansas Rivers.
16. Go On A Pizza Tour in Chicago
If you thought Chicago was only known for deep dish pizza – think again! The Windy City has a diverse offering of pizza styles and restaurants which can be discovered by taking a Chicago Pizza Tour. The tours give you the chance to visit several local restaurants, try different styles of pizza, and hear interesting stories and history. The only thing you have to worry about is pacing yourself so you’re not too full by the time you get to the final stop.
17. Brown v Board of Education Historic Site in Topeka
Tour the Monroe Elementary School in Topeka which now commemorates the landmark Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court case ending racial segregation in public schools. Monroe, which was one of four schools in Topeka, Kansas for black children is now part of the National Park Service and offers tours and educational lectures. You’ll also see artifacts like one of the Clark dolls used in a social experiment that became evidence in the Supreme Court case.
18. Stand Aboard An Air Force One in Dayton, Ohio
One of the most incredible museums in the entire country happens to be in the city of Dayton, Ohio. The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force has close to 400 military aircraft on display including a special presidential aircraft collection that includes Harry Truman’s “Independence” plane, FDR’s “Sacred Cow” aircraft, and the “Air Force One” plane that flew eight different presidents over 36 years. Visitors can walk through the interior of the aircraft including the spot where John F Kennedy’s casket was carried back to Washington D.C. after his assassination in 1963.
19. See Baby Clydesdales at Warm Springs Ranch in Missouri
The small town of Boonville is home to Warm Springs Ranch, the breeding facility of the world famous Budweiser Clydesdales. You’ll see adorable young Clydesdales and get an up-close look at how the horses are raised including the hitch they travel around the country in. This is also the place where many of the heart wrenching Budweiser commercials are filmed. The ranch is located about half way between Kansas City and St. Louis near Interstate 70.
20. Shop at the Dane County Farmers Market in Madison
The Dane County Farmers Market is so big that it literally stretches all the way around the Wisconsin Capitol building in downtown Madison. Shoppers all walk in one direction around the square to find their favorite fresh produce every Saturday morning from mid April to mid November.
Need other road trip ideas for the Midwest and beyond? Check out this site and consider picking up one of my travel guides in the online store!
Top 20 Things To Do in the Midwest
- Chasing waterfalls in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
- Attend Burning Beetle Festival in Custer, South Dakota
- See the Giant Things in Casey, Illinois
- Tour Prince’s Estate: Paisley Park in Minnesota
- Eat Cherry Stuffed French Toast in Door County
- Stroll Through the Missouri Botanical Garden
- Visit the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati
- Explore Lincoln History in Springfield, Illinois
- Watch Medora The Musical in North Dakota
- Discover the Historic Bridges of Madison County, Iowa
- Take a Ride Around The Indianapolis Motor Speedway
- Explore Buffalo Bill’s Hometown in Nebraska
- Go to the Top of The Gateway Arch in St. Louis
- Sing Inside Detroit’s Legendary Motown Studio
- See the Keeper of the Plains in Wichita, Kansas
- Go on a Pizza Tour in Chicago
- Learn at The Brown v. Board of Education Site in Topeka
- Stand Aboard an Air Force One in Dayton, Ohio
- See Baby Clydesdales at Warm Springs Ranch in Missouri
- Shop at the Dane County Farmers Market in Madison