For many in Michigan, the Midwest is an unattractive vacation destination.
Michiganders often recognize the amazing beauty the Mitten possess, from incredible forests and lakeshores to the great cities — from Detroit to Marquette — full of awesome cultural attractions. But when we look beyond the state’s borders, we’re often blind to the assets of our Midwestern neighbors.
Depending how you define the Midwest, or the Great Lakes States, or however you want to divide the United States, there are dozens of great attractions within a state or two of the Michigan borders.
For the 2022 GR Magazine Midwest Travel Guide, we’ll focus on three incredible cities within a half-day’s drive of Grand Rapids. Ignore Chicago, which doesn’t fall into the blind spot we have. We all recognize Chicago is a high-quality spot to visit (Go Cubs!). Sure, Minneapolis, Minnesota, is a fantastic northern jaunt, Des Moines, Iowa, is an underrated Plains State gem, Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky, are delightful food and beverage hotspots and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is a rust belt renaissance story. But for the inaugural list, we’ll look a tad closer than all those amazing communities.
The 2022 Travel Guide includes: Cleveland, Ohio; Indianapolis, Indiana; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
These are suggestions of activities to pique interest, not definitive guides. All three of these cities offer so much more than these brief highlights. Explore the Midwest, it is an incredible place!
Ohio often takes a beating from Michiganders. The state is not fun to drive through and its capital, Columbus, is home to Ohio State University, which is enough to make Spartans and Wolverines alike wince.
But Cleveland is a city full of stunning architecture. Simply walking around Cleveland is a nice look into history, back when the Midwest was quite literally the heartbeat of America.
While the northern Ohio city did fall on hard times — the Cuyahoga River literally caught on fire! — it bounced back pretty quickly.
A stopover in Cleveland must include the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s touristy, sure, but the giant pyramid on Lake Erie is a fun look back at the world of music, the influence of which has spread across the globe.
As mentioned, an architecture walk is worth the steps. Take a stroll around town to see what you see, but stop by The Arcade, an 1890 building with four levels of balconies topped with a glass skylight. There’s also the Cleveland Trust rotunda, which is now home to a high-end grocer, but has a giant glass dome built in 1908 that is surrounded by murals from artist Francis Millet — who died on the Titanic.
The Cleveland Museum of Art, along with being its own architectural wonder, is worth a stop for its exhibits. But on the way to the museum, make sure to pause for the Cultural Gardens on MLK. Near the Museum of Art is the Cleveland Botanical Garden and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, close to Case Western University, all of which make up a nice cultural district.
Cleveland Metroparks circles the entire city with nearly 23,000 acres of greenspace in 18 separate spots. Also, if you’re up to it, check out the nearby Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which is an amazing Midwestern natural wonder and can be experienced through the 51-mile Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, which offers wine sampling (Grape Escapes) and beer tasting (Ales on the Rails) excursions.
One could spend days walking around, admiring the architecture and green spaces in Cleveland, or taking in the professional sports teams.
The city also has a hot food and beverage scene. Be sure to check out Fat Head’s Brewery, Market Garden Brewing and Great Lakes Brewing Co., among many more.
There also is an amazing theater district in the city, full of bright-light marquees. Throw a show on the itinerary if that strikes your fancy.
Another must stop: Brewnuts. The donut shop will make mouths water daily on Instagram and ensure you’ll take a drive down to Ohio.
If you’re thinking of a visit to Indy, don’t be afraid to plan it around the Indianapolis 500.
Whether or not a motorsports fan, the spectacle should be on everyone’s bucket list. The race itself is an awe-inspiring feat of manmade machinery. The people-watching is first rate, too.
If a late weekend in May doesn’t line up on your schedule, Indy still is a fun place to spend some time.
Big Ten sports fans probably already are well accustomed to the city — which features great venues for college basketball and football games. Take that a step further by stopping at the NCAA Hall of Champions.
A visit to Indianapolis would not be complete without a meal at St. Elmo’s Steakhouse. The meat is delicious the shrimp cocktail is a must. The cocktail sauce will clear any sinus of the most serious clog and an Elmo Cola might be required to recover.
Regardless of when you visit, make some time for a stop at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum to pay tribute to the race that helped put the city on the map. Afterward, head to the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields.
The Garage at Bottleworks is a very cool food and market hall with more than 25 vendors. It’s built in a redeveloped Art Deco Coca Cola bottling plant. For breweries, check out the dog-friendly Metazoa Brewing, Sun King Brewing, Daredevil Brewing or Guggman Haus Brewing.
White River State Park is a nice spot for an afternoon walk, while the Indianapolis Zoo and Children’s Museum of Indianapolis both are great for families looking to spend a day engaging in activities. The zoo has more than 230 species of animals and the property includes a park, botanical garden and aquarium on its 64 acres along in the White River State Park.
For literary fans, a stop at the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library is worth the time.
All three of the cities highlighted here are less than a five-hour drive from Grand Rapids. But Milwaukee potentially has the most exciting, unique and, in this case, quickest route. Drive up to Muskegon and take the Lake Express ferry across Lake Michigan. The trip is sure to be memorable and a tad more fun than the average road trip. The total trip is less than four hours, but be aware it is more expensive than the drive would be with a ticket coming in at $181 round trip for the classic cabin and $227 for the premier cabin. Guests also can pay $218 round trip to bring a car.
Once in Milwaukee, a great start is the Milwaukee Art Museum, situated on the lakeshore in a memorable sailboat-inspired building. The exhibits often offer mix of attractions for all ages.
For something more adult-oriented, check out the Harley Davidson Museum.
The Milwaukee River Walk is a great 2-mile trail that winds through downtown and has easy access to a plethora of retailers and restaurants. It’s a showcase of what an activated riverfront could mean for Grand Rapids in the coming years.
There is a nice array of food options in Milwaukee, from the innovative Great Lakes-inspired fine dining spot Ardent and longtime staple Lake Park Bistro to artisan restaurant and butcher shop Bavette La Boucherie. The reigning James Beard Best Chef in the Midwest, Dane Baldwin, serves up creative menus at The Diplomat.
Keeping in line with your Midwestern roots, grab a butter burger at Solly’s Grille, which earned the 2022 James Beard Foundation’s America’s Classic Award. There also are any number of establishments serving up cheese curds, sausages and frozen custard — you likely can’t go wrong.
Beer lovers have plenty to see in Milwaukee, from the MillerCoors Brewery — a great example of a major industrial brewery — and the historic Pabst Brewery and Mansion. Then there are the new breweries, like Lakefront Brewing Co., which show the industry has not left the city behind or stop by one of the great beer gardens in the city, like the Estabrook Beer Garden. In the fall there’s a great Oktoberfest celebration.
And before you leave, don’t miss the Bronze Fonz — a statue of Arthur Fonzarelli from “Happy Days.” You can’t get much more Midwest than that.