Best of the Midwest: 9 must-see destinations worth a visit in 2019
Now is that sweet spot, after the holiday crush but before the new year picks up momentum — the perfect time to plot your next vacation. Better yet, vacations.
We’re here to help. Check out our list of Midwest getaways for 2019: Nine for ’19.
Most of the destinations are within a six-hour drive of Chicago. All of them are worth a visit, especially this year.
Take a look. See what you like. And start making plans while there’s still plenty of blank space in the calendar.
St. Paul, Minn.
Minneapolis got all the love in 2018, thanks to that little sporting event known as the Super Bowl, but the “other” twin city’s got game too, especially in the coming weeks. Bundle up for the 133rd installment of the Saint Paul Winter Carnival, Jan. 24 to Feb. 3, when hardy Minnesotans say whatevs to finger-tingling temps and take the party outdoors with parades, fireworks, ice bars and snow sculptures. The festival’s key events usually take place in Rice Park, but ongoing renovations mean the shindig has migrated this year to Kellogg Mall Park overlooking the Mississippi River. The hottest new attraction in the capital city (whose Capitol got a major makeover not long ago) is Keg and Case West 7th Market, a culinary/retail bonanza that opened in the fall on the historic grounds of Schmidt Brewery. Food options range from small-batch ice cream and 50-plus flavors of cotton candy to the fine-dining concept In Bloom, where all of the dishes — duck hearts, pheasant, trout, mushrooms — are cooked over a wood fire. The Bell Museum — part planetarium, part natural history institution — moved into its new home on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus last summer, and after a yearlong renovation, the Minnesota Museum of American Art — aka “the M” — came back in bigger and better digs as of December. A kicky $250 million soccer stadium, Allianz Field, onboards this spring.
Eau Claire, Wis.
A bit of a Brooklyn-Austin-Portland vibe flows through this university town at the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers. Hometown hero Justin Vernon, of indie folk band Bon Iver fame, helps up the cool quotient of this outdoorsy city 90 miles east of Minneapolis. The Grammy winner is part owner of the 30-room Oxbow Hotel, a hot spot for jazz sessions, vinyl-spinning DJs and tasty food in its Lakely restaurant, where a popular pick is the Scandinavian “koldtbord,” a customizable appetizer tray offering Wisco cheese, sausage, sauerkraut and pickled beets. The downtown hotel also makes a good jumping-off point to explore the area’s bike trails and waterways. Vernon is a co-founder of the summer music festival, Eaux Claires, where Chance the Rapper and Wilco rounded out the talent in 2017. Last year, organizers kept the lineup a secret until the day of the fest — an experiment that reportedly didn’t go over well. Eaux Claires is taking a break in 2019 to regroup but promises to be back with a vengeance in 2020. Until then, the city has no shortage of other events to keep festivalgoers occupied. Another draw: It welcomed an impressive new arts and performance venue, Pablo Center, in the fall. Pablo’s inaugural season lineup includes dance productions, family-friendly performances, and music and film events, and admission to the center’s multiple art galleries is free.
Motor City didn’t just land on this list; it also merited a spot on travel guidebook publisher Fodor’s Go List for 2019, rubbing elbows with the likes of Berlin and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Ever the fighter, Detroit emerged from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history and has been rebuilding at a feverishly fast clip. Old buildings are finding new life, especially in the form of boutique hotels, like the brand new, buzzy Shinola Hotel as well as Element Detroit at the Metropolitan and The Siren. The Siren transformed the once-decaying Wurlitzer Building into a hip place to stay and play — its millennial pink Candy Bar cocktail lounge is just one example of the city’s white-hot food and bev scene. Nearby, construction crews are turning the site of the former Hudson’s flagship department store into what will be the tallest building in the state, reaching 912 feet. The riverfront keeps on getting better; Atwater Beach, a “beachfront” park with a floating cafe barge, is slated to open this summer. Ghosts of Detroit’s glory days continue to be resurrected; the art deco Willis Show Bar recently returned as an upscale cabaret and cocktail joint after a 40-year hiatus.
A youthful, entrepreneurial energy has fueled a lot of changes in Ohio’s capital, a fashion design hub (you read that right) brimming with creative restaurants, craft breweries, distilleries and small-batch coffee roasters. Epicures will want to bring their appetite and check out newcomers Ambrose & Eve and the vegetarian eatery Comune, as well as the tasting menu-only Veritas, which moved about a year ago from suburban Delaware to downtown Columbus. That’s where it shares a swanky space in a former bank with the innovative cocktail lounge, The Citizens Trust. The region’s 40-plus breweries recently added a sour beer bar to the roster with Seventh Son’s sister brewery, Antiques on High. Wake up inside a brewery at the new DogHouse hotel, a 32-room property that’s part of BrewDog’s Ohio campus, about 15 miles from downtown. Coming in 2019: The historic Budd Dairy building in Italian Village will become a food hall and incubator for up-and-coming chefs. Italian Village is also where you’ll find the original location of Fox in the Snow, one of the best cafes in the Midwest. The husband-and-wife team of Jeff Excell and Lauren Culley — she’s a crazy-good baker — dish up custard-filled donuts, elevated egg sandwiches and artful cups of joe in an airy, renovated garage. Columbus also added a major new attraction last fall with the National Veterans Memorial and Museum. Situated on the banks of the Scioto River, the architectural stunner of a building is an $82 million tribute to servicemen and women from all branches of the military.
The city’s iconic Gateway Arch and its recently revamped grounds got a well-deserved upgrade to national park status in 2018. If you’ve never visited this landmark or it’s been a while, time to go. The landscape around Eero Saarinen’s soaring tribute to westward expansion is more accessible and attractive than ever, and the overhauled underground museum exploring Lewis and Clark, life as a pioneer and the nation’s growth, is straight-up fascinating — and free. Also downtown, the Soldiers Memorial Military Museum reopened shortly before Veterans Day following a $30 million face-lift. The much-anticipated St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station plans to make a splash this fall. Entertainment options abound in the Grand Center Arts District, where you can bed down in the new Angad Arts Hotel, a boutique property that aims to match guest-room colors with travelers’ moods — red for passion, blue for tranquility, etc. For a memorable dinner, indulge in the veggie-centric, Midwest-proud menu at Vicia, a sleek restaurant that’s been getting rave reviews since it opened in 2017 in the tech-heavy Cortex District.
Illinois’ Frank Lloyd Wright Trail
Fill up the tank for a road trip built around some of the famed architect’s greatest hits on a journey spanning from Rockford, a city on the rise, down to the state capital of Springfield. Illinois introduced its Frank Lloyd Wright Trail last spring, a year after Wisconsin rolled out its own version. The Prairie State’s iteration consists of 13 Wright sites open to the public, including his home and studio in Oak Park, a bank in Dwight, a chapel in Belvidere and a farmhouse in Hampshire. Visit the state’s tourism website, EnjoyIllinois.com, to find self-guided itineraries pegged to the trail, like a 110-mile trip from Chicago to Rockford, where you can tour the only building the prolific Wright ever designed for a client with a disability. While you’re in town, get some coffee at Rockford Roasting, food at Social Urban Bar & Restaurant and beer at Prairie Street Brewing Co., on the banks of the Rock River. On the southern end of the trail in Springfield is the stunning (and free) Dana-Thomas House, a showcase of Wright-designed furniture — more than 100 original pieces — and an even bigger inventory of his art glass windows, doors and light fixtures. Another abode worth visiting in the capital: the recently restored Governor’s Mansion, open daily for public tours 1-4 p.m.
Great Lakes Bay Region
A collection of half a dozen communities, this something-for-everyone playground is tucked away by a Lake Huron bay, where the thumb meets the rest of the Michigan mitten. In July, the popular Tall Ship Celebration returns to Bay City for the first time since 2016. If tall ships don’t float your boat, Bay City boasts killer antique shopping too. Continue your retail therapy in Frankenmuth, or “Little Bavaria,” home to what’s billed as the world’s largest Christmas store and a famed cheese purveyor that relocated to a bigger address last summer. The town of Midland is upping its game with the debut of an LPGA tournament in the summer and the recent addition of the country’s longest canopy walk in Whiting Forest of Dow Gardens. Opened last fall during prime leaf-peeping season, the quarter-mile long, ADA-accessible canopy walk hovers as high as 40 feet in the air, giving visitors vistas of pine trees, ponds and orchards.
Brew City has plenty of reasons to raise a glass in 2019, including the upcoming relaunch of America’s Black Holocaust Museum in a brand new building in Bronzeville. A lynching survivor named James Cameron opened the original museum in 1984, but financial woes forced it to close its doors in 2008. Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Bucks are settling into their new address at Fiserv Forum, a multipurpose arena that swung into action last summer. Potawatomi Hotel & Casino is betting more guests will head its way with the arrival of a new hotel tower this summer, and the Intercontinental Hotel is morphing into the artsy Saint Kate, complete with performance space, a gallery and an artist-in-residence program just like its sister property, the historic Pfister. The food hall trend shows no signs of slowing its roll. The East Side’s sleek new Crossroads Collective features barbecue, crepes, tacos and scoops of homegrown Scratch Ice Cream, and more than 20 local vendors are on tap to populate 3rd Street Market Hall when its doors open this fall. In a positive development for Sherman Park, a neighborhood that made national news in 2016 as the site of violent unrest following a fatal police shooting, an old bank has been turned into a cozy, creative hub for small businesses run by people of color. The growing list of tenants at Sherman Phoenix includes painting and yoga studios as well as purveyors hawking buffalo wings, gourmet popcorn and what are said to be the tastiest spring rolls in MKE.
Des Moines, Iowa
Skateboarding is on a roll; the fast-growing sport makes its Olympic debut in Tokyo in 2020. Des Moines is ahead of the curve, breaking ground on what will be the largest skate park in the Midwest when it launches downtown in 2019. In other sporting news, Drake University will host the first and second rounds of the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament. Moving on from sports to spirits and suds: A historic train car barn in West Des Moines has been repurposed into a sprawling food and beverage hall. The Foundry features 50-plus beers on tap, a rotating roster of food trucks and a distillery by the co-founder of Templeton Rye. Hopheads should download the new “Brew Moines” beer passport app for deals at breweries and taprooms in greater Des Moines. If you’re swinging by Iowa’s capital May through October, don’t miss the Saturday Downtown Farmers’ Market, whose nearly 300 vendors draw crowds as big as 25,000. That turnout seems downright intimate compared with the million-plus folks who flock to the ever-popular Iowa State Fair, Aug. 8-18. Whenever you visit, overnight at the recently refurbished Renaissance Savery Hotel, an 11-story structure that reigned as Iowa’s first skyscraper when it opened in 1919.
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