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14 Top-Rated Things to Do in The Midwest

Written by Anietra Hamper
May 29, 2020

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Whether you are just passing through Midwestern states or staying for a period of time, they each have famous and also obscure attractions that are fun to seek out and experience. The Midwestern states include Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas.

While some of the top tourist attractions, like Mount Rushmore, are located in specific destinations, you can enjoy other experiences, like a river paddleboat ride, in several states in the Midwest. From the famous Willis Tower Skydeck in Chicago to scenic drives to see the vibrant colors of fall foliage, check out our list of some of the top-rated things to do in the Midwest.

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1. Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore

One of the top tourist attractions in the entire country, not just in the Midwest is Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. The carved mountainside is an iconic American experience symbolic of the freedom and democracy that the country represents, and it is an unforgettable sight.

The Mount Rushmore National Memorial features the faces of four American presidents that are 60 feet tall carved into the mountainside. One of the best ways to experience the site is with a ranger-led tour through the park to learn more about the Black Hills in South Dakota and the history of the carving of Mount Rushmore.

While at the park, you can also visit the Sculptor's Studio to learn about the artist who created the work, and walk the Presidential Trail to get some of the most majestic views of the park from the Grand View Terrace.

Accommodation: Where to Stay near Mount Rushmore: Best Areas & Hotels

2. Fall Foliage

Fall colors in Door County, Wisconsin
Fall colors in Door County, Wisconsin

The Midwestern states are blessed with four distinct seasons, and one of the best times to visit is during the fall, when the colors change on the leaves.

There are a few outstanding must-see destinations for fall foliage tours and scenic drives: Marquette, Michigan has hundreds of miles of roads through forests that illuminate in the fall with colors of red, orange, purple, and brown. The fall colors are especially beautiful against the backdrop of Lake Superior.

The Hocking Hills region in southern Ohio is one of the best places to visit for fall foliage. You can book a cabin in the fall and enjoy hikes or even ziplining in the treetops to enjoy the colorful scenery.

North Shore, Minnesota near Duluth is another scenic spot for fall foliage in the forests that line the bluffs along Lake Superior.

Another scenic pathway for fall foliage is in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where you can walk on a 21-mile path along the lakeshore lined by the vibrant trees or take a boat tour and soak in the color from the water. Resorts in Lake Geneva offer a great opportunity for a weekend getaway.

3. Willis Tower Skydeck

Willis Tower Skydeck
Willis Tower Skydeck

One of the most exciting and fun things to do in the Midwest is at the top of the Willis Tower in Chicago. The Skydeck is the highest in Chicago and hands-down the best view of the city.

The Ledge is what most visitors travel up 103 floors of the tower to experience. The Ledge is in glass boxes that extend 4.3 feet out from the Skydeck landing. That means you are suspended 1,353 feet in the air with only glass beneath your feet. While the experience can take you to new heights, literally, you can always just look out the windows if nerves get the better of you.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Chicago: Best Areas & Hotels

4. Paddleboat Ride

Paddleboat in Cincinnati, Ohio
Paddleboat in Cincinnati, Ohio

Some of the best attractions in a few Midwestern states are paddleboat rides along rivers that historically served as important passageways for the distribution of goods. There are several states along major rivers that offer historic paddleboat rides that are well worth going out of your way to experience.

In Ohio, the cities of Cincinnati and Marietta have paddleboats that run along the Ohio River, and Cleveland has paddleboats that run on the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie. If you visit the Ohio Sternwheel Festival held the weekend after Labor Day each year in Marietta, you will see many sternwheelers converge on the Ohio River from all over the country.

Other Midwest states with paddleboat ride experiences include the Pearl of the Lake riverboats in Lake City, Minnesota, which run on the Mississippi River; the Spirit of Peoria in Illinois, which sails on the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers; and Lake Queen paddleboat cruises along Lake Taneycomo near Branson, Missouri.

5. Indy 500

Indy 500
Indy 500 | Carey Akin / photo modified

The Indy 500 takes place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway every Memorial Day weekend and is a bucket list item for most people who get the chance to experience it. There are pre-races and events in the days leading up to the main event, but even if you cannot make it to the race itself, the speedway is one of the best Midwest tourist attractions throughout the year.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum is a fun attraction for car racing enthusiasts that is open year-round. It is located inside the track and features exhibits and information about the history of racing and the Indy 500. You can also book an Indy Racing Experience to find out what it's like to be behind the wheel of an actual NTT IndyCar Series race car and drive around the famous track.

Accommodation: Top-Rated Hotels in Indianapolis

6. Northern Lights

Northern lights in Minnesota
Northern lights in Minnesota

You do not have to travel to Iceland or Norway to see the northern lights, when you can find several spectacular spots in the Midwest to fulfill that experience. Cook County, Minnesota is one of the places to see the aurora borealis on the shores of Lake Superior. One of the best spots to see them is in the Superior National Forest on Oberg Mountain.

The Upper Peninsula in Michigan is another spot in the Midwest where you can view the northern lights. You can stay in Marquette or plan a camping trip to catch the brilliant show from the Keweenaw Peninsula.

Door County, Wisconsin is another option to catch the northern lights in Newport State Park, which has a Dark Sky designation.

7. Historic National Road Yard Sale

National Road Yard Sale
National Road Yard Sale

If you have some spare days after Memorial Day weekend, you can join in on one of the most exciting things to do in the Midwest during the Historic National Road Yard Sale. This is comprised of several days of communities, individuals, shops, churches, and random roadside vendors selling their goods along 800 miles of Historic Route 40 that runs through the Midwest.

The actual sale stretches from Baltimore, Maryland to St. Louis, Missouri, and it is a festive environment through hundreds of small towns along the way as people search for yard sale treasures.

Even if you do not hit the annual National Road Yard Sale, Route 40 is the place to visit to find small antiques stores. Antique Alley in Richmond along Route 40 is one of the best locations, with a large concentration of antique sellers.

8. Work a Cattle Drive

Longhorn cattle drive in Kansas
Longhorn cattle drive in Kansas

If you have ever wondered what life is like as a cowboy, you can experience it for yourself in Kansas by taking part in an authentic cattle drive. There are several working ranches in the Kansas Flint Hills that let you try your hand at horseback riding and working a cattle drive through the tallgrass prairie.

Flying W Ranch near Cedar Point in Kansas and Moore Ranch near Dodge City have experiences that let you consider a range of jobs related to a cattle drive. You become a part of the working crew and see what life is like on the ranch.

9. Visit Amish Country

Amish man plowing fields in Ohio
Amish man plowing fields in Ohio

The Ohio and Indiana Amish County is a must-experience in the Midwest. No agenda is needed to explore the quiet back roads and simple way of life. The Amish communities in Ohio are located in the northeastern counties of Adams, Geauga, Holmes, Hardin, Wayne, and Tuscarawas. You will get the best experience by staying at a bed and breakfast, where you can start your day with homemade meals using locally sourced eggs and produce.

You will share the road with horses and buggies and see Amish workers in the fields. The fall is an especially beautiful and picturesque time to visit.

The Indiana Amish communities are connected by the Heritage Trail scenic loop, which goes through Elkhart, Middlebury, Goshen, Bristol, Shipshewana, Nappanee, and Wakarusa. You will see many small Amish-owned shops and clothing drying on the lines.

10. Climb Sand Dunes

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan

To experience one of the best natural attractions in the Midwest, you need to go to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore near Traverse City in Michigan. This is where kids and those who want to feel like kids again can climb the mountainous sand dunes that tower 450 feet above Lake Michigan.

The full sand dunes experience will take three to four hours as you go up and down the dunes for about 3.5 miles in a path to Lake Michigan. When you are worn out from climbing the dunes, you can relax on the 35 miles of shoreline and enjoy the breeze coming off the lake.

11. Mall of America

Mall of America
Mall of America | Drew Tarvin / photo modified

The Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota is one of the top tourist destinations in the United States because people have to see it to believe it. It is a massive shopping and entertainment complex with more than 520 stores, an aquarium, and a seven-acre amusement park all under the same roof. There are also more than 60 restaurants, so you have plenty of places to re-fuel as you make your way through the many levels.

The Mall of America is as much about the attractions inside as the shopping. There are many family-friendly attractions, like the Crayola Experience, which lets kids make their own personalized crayon, and the LEGO store. The Nickelodeon Universe amusement park has 27 indoor rides and attractions.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Bloomington

12. Sandhill Crane Migration

Sandhill cranes on the Platte River
Sandhill cranes on the Platte River

The Platte River in central Nebraska is one of the must-see places in the Midwest during the Sandhill crane migration every spring. This is when 500,000 cranes stop at the Platte River to rest during their migration. The cranes have been landing in the region for years, and now the massive migrating flocks have become a tourist attraction.

Seeing the cranes requires waking up before down to get to the perfect spots on the river, as the cranes make their appearance. There are a number of tours and guides in the area that can help make sure that you get to the right place at the right time for this once in a lifetime experience.

13. Visit a State Fair

The Minnesota State Fair
The Minnesota State Fair

There is no other experience comparable to visiting a State Fair in the Midwest. The wholesome fairs are important to the agricultural roots of the states, which is why you will find livestock competitions and contests for various types of produce. Activities at these state fairs range from learning how to milk a cow to watching concerts.

Each state has something that makes their fair unique. In Ohio, the design of the famous butter cow sculpture is anticipated every year. The Minnesota State Fair is known for its magnificent gardens. The Indiana State Fair is one of the oldest in the country and focuses on agriculture and quirky exhibits, like the world's largest popcorn ball.

14. Gateway Arch, St. Louis

The Gateway Arch illuminated in the evening
The Gateway Arch illuminated in the evening

The famous Gateway Arch in St. Louis is not only exciting to see from the ground but it's even more spectacular from inside. It is the tallest monument in the United States, and you can take a tram all the way to the top. Look out at the city from 630 feet in the air and have a new perspective of one of the most recognized symbols in the country when you return to the ground.

Besides taking a trip to the top of the Gateway Arch there is a nice museum with exhibits relating to American settlement. You will also find information about the creation of the arch and what it took to build it.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in St. Louis: Best Areas & Hotels

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imageMore Midwest Fun: If you are looking for other Midwest vacations you will want to review our stories on the top tourist attractions in Minnesota, and Illinois. Each of these has a long list of things to do in summer or winter. There are also some great things to do in Wisconsin, particularly in Milwaukee, Door County peninsula, and in the pedestrian-friendly capital of Madison.

imageExploring Ohio: Ohio has a range of getaways, from beaches along the shores of Lake Erie to the north and forested land popular for outdoor adventure to the south. Places like Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island are popular for summer vacations and spring break, but the backroads that run through small towns make for enjoyable, leisurely ways to explore the state.

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