IOWA CITY, IOWA
This storied city is a literary haven.
There’s no need to read between the lines in Iowa City. Its literary history is writ large, and it’s a pretty good reason to pay a visit to this charming town. Less than a two hour drive from Des Moines, (you can catch a bus between the two cities), it’s the only city in the United States to be designated a UNESCO City of Literature. (Reykjavik, Prague, Barcelona, Bagdad, and Edinburgh are just a few of the other distinguished destinations to hold that title.) The prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop, which has been operating for more than 80 years, is a big reason for the nod from UNESCO. Its graduates amount to a who’s who in American literature, from Flannery O’Connor to John Irving to Raymond Carver. Any literary pilgrimage here must include a stop at the Prairie Lights Bookstore. Arguably one of the country’s best, it’s a common stop on popular author tours and their regular readings, Live from Prairie Lights, is streamed around the world. You can’t leave without buying a book, and the Pedestrian Mall is a prime place to perch yourself and dive into your new purchase. A strip of restaurants, bars, shops, hotels and, of course, a library, it’s a stone’s throw from the University of Iowa campus where they have free events like the Iowa City Jazz Festival and Iowa Arts Festival each June. And this being a college town, you better believe there are creative places to eat and drink. Backpocket (just outside the city) and Big Grove are among the breweries to visit. Go to each for the beer, stay for a meal in their taprooms. River Power Restaurant, a low-key steakhouse overlooking the Iowa River, and, at the other end of the dining spectrum, Trumpet Blossom Café, a homey vegan eatery, are among the spots popular among locals. The Hotel Vetro, has sprawling rooms starting at $160.
DOUGLAS DESIGN DISTRICT in WICHITA, KANSAS
An abundance of art in the heartland.
Art animates Wichita’s city streets. The lively Douglas Design District is lined with murals and an increasingly popular pastime is spotting them along the three-mile strip of Douglas Street, which you can travel by foot of by the free Q-Line Trolley, which recently expanded here from Downtown. There’s even an app that has a map of where to find the frescoes, some of which adorn pillars under highway overpasses. But there’s much more to do than mural-hunting in this creativity-minded neighborhood, where block parties and other events are a regular occurrence. There’s a concentration of galleries and hundreds of locally owned businesses, especially places to eat. The Donut Whole, a coffee shop/music venue/gallery, is known for its creative varieties of from-scratch donuts, local art (which changes monthly) and 24-hour drive-up window. Wine Dive, a sophisticated but low-key eatery, has earned national recognition for its wine selection.
A city where nature lovers feel right at home.
As far as U.S. cities go, Duluth has an unlikely draw: wilderness. Lots and lots of it. With its hilly landscapes, elevated ridges, and expansive lake, mountain biking, kayaking, and hiking are just a few of the ways to spend a day here before heading out and indulging in the city’s many urban spoils at night. Black Water Lounge is a fine place to start. The sleek bar in a historic building offers a vast assortment of creative cocktails, globally-inspired eats, and live jazz. On the more casual end of things, OMC Smokehouse is a popular pick for house-smoked pork, brisket, chicken and more, plus an impressive array of lighter salads and sandwiches. Hoops Brewing, new to Canal Park, features a tap room where you can sample their diverse brews. Bringing in food from nearby restaurants is encouraged. Local pride extends far beyond Duluth’s culinary scene. Not to be missed is Frost River, a store and workshop where they make ultra-durable bags, luggage, and all kinds of outdoor accessories by hand.
The way to pay serious tribute to an iconic American humorist.
Hemingway buffs can pay tribute to their idol in Key West, fans of Dorothy Parker and the rest of the celebrated Algonquin Circle will have to make a pilgrimage to the storied Algonquin Hotel and other legendary Manhattan sites, but for the good humored Samuel Clemens (AKA: Mark Twain) enthusiasts, Hannibal, Missouri is where to go to see how it all started. Two hours north of St. Louis via Highway 61 (aka: the Blues Highway) and smack in the middle of rural and agricultural communities, American literary history comes alive at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, which encompasses several properties in addition to the museum’s main galleries. It features the author’s clothing and sundry paraphernalia, as well as Normal Rockwell paintings. There’s also the Mark Twain Cave, which inspired settings in five different novels, including "Adventures of Tom Sawyer." Draws here go beyond the novelist, though, but we’re sure he’d approve: there’s a winery and tasting room on the premises and campground with 99 sites. On the non-Twain side of things, Karlock’s Kars is an emporium of vintage automobiles and various throwback memorabilia. But back to Twain....his spirit lingers at the Twain Dinette, known for its homemade root beer and by-the-foot onion rings. After dinner, drop by Becky’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor for a sweet taste of what things might have felt like back when Twain was cranking out stories.
Quirky museums, homey eateries, and sports lovers everywhere.
Lincoln, Nebraska's state capitol, has no shortage of record-holding, highly trafficked famous sites to visit, what with the Capitol Building being the tallest in the world and the Sheldon Museum of Art, located on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s city campus and free to enter, earning accreditation from the American Alliance of the Museums, the highest national recognition in the USA, and Morrill Hall, also on UNL’s campus, is a science museum that showcases a captivating array of elephant fossils and a history of weapons throughout history. But when you wanna veer of that well-trod path, downtown’s Haymarket District has gone from warehouse and train depot to a hip hub over the past few years. A café culture has taken root here, with offerings like The Mill, a rustic-chic, cozy, longstanding coffee house. And there’s the Railyard, a big open space lined with bars and restaurants. On game days, Huskers fans gather here to watch college football on big open air screens and when the season ends and everyone has to wear jackets over their jerseys, they still come to the square, only this time it’s to ice skate on the public rink.
THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK, NORTH DAKOTA
The landscape that inspired the 26th president and conservation pioneer.
In the realm of conservation, Theodore Roosevelt was a true visionary. According to the Theodore Roosevelt Association, he provided federal protection for nearly 230 million acres of land (think: Maine to Florida), and set aside 150 national forests, the first 51 federal bird reservations, five national parks, and the first four national game preserves. And that’s just to name a few. It’s fitting, then, that one of the best ways to pay tribute to the environmentally minded president is a visit to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota. Covering 70,416 acres and encompassing miles of trails, expansive landscapes that make for scenic drives, and plenty of wildlife, the park has a wealth of things to do and see that’ll appeal to nature lovers, history buffs, and adventure-seekers alike. To wit: the 14-mile Scenic Byway through the park’s North Unit, which offers views of the “Grand Canyon of the North” as well as bison and plenty of other wildlife along the way; prairie dog towns, and Medora, an Old West Cowtown that sits at the gateway to the South Unit like a time capsule of the region’s cowboy era. Contemporary museums are here offering abundant bits of information and energetic, delightfully kitschy shows at its theater. In the off-season (late September to May) lodgings can be found for as little as $80. The season averages $140 to $220, so pack your Teddy bear and get going.
YELLOW SPRINGS, OHIO
State parks and nature preserves in a village setting.
About 20 miles east of Dayton sits Yellow Springs, home of Antioch College and Antioch University Midwest. A college town with a New Orleans vibe, its downtown offers a wide assortment of indie shops, chill cafés, and eateries that put a premium on locally sourced food. And in this city surrounded by farms and orchards, “locally sourced” is pretty much a requirement, not a choice. But there’s plenty more to do nearby once you’ve wondered the adorable downtown. John Bryan State Park, a 752-acre park featuring a gorge that’s a designated national natural landmark, and the Glen Helen Nature Preserve, which includes a museum-like visitors center, are must-sees for outdoorsy types. Also, the Little Miami Scenic Bike Trail, part of the country’s largest network of paved, off-street trails, sprawls out for over 70 miles along forests and fields. Lodging options range from the new and stylish Loft in the Springs to the quaint Mills Park Hotel, start around $120 per night.
MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN'S THIRD WARD
Where an indie spirit brews.
While Wisconsin is known for its legendary cheeses and college football, Milwaukee became a world-renowned city for its hometown beers. At one point, four of the planet’s largest breweries—Schlitz, Blatz, Pabst, and Miller—made their suds here. But a new indie attitude has taken hold in the past few years, particularly in the city’s Historic Third Ward, which is known today as the Arts and Fashion District. The longtime warehouse district is now a mecca of locally owned restaurants, spas, galleries, and shops. The enterprising spirit is perhaps best on display at the Milwaukee Public Market, where small artisan producers sell their breads, coffees, cheeses, wines, and loads more. A fantastic way to spend an afternoon is wandering the Third Ward Riverwalk, a strip along the Milwaukee River lined with historic buildings and more than 20 galleries and studios. But leave time to explore the many culinary treasures nearby, like Water Buffalo, which offers creative spins on classic fare and expansive waterside views. Bavette La Boucherie is known for its house-made charcuterie made the local cattle butchered here, Wisconsin cheese, and plenty more. And not to be missed is the Harley Davidson Museum, a tribute to American culture through the lens of a once-scrappy local company turned global monolith. Makes for great inspiration for the neighborhood’s indie operations.
SIOUX FALLS, SOUTH DAKOTA
Hiking trails, a sculpture trail, and water, water everywhere.
Sioux Falls is one of those you-gotta-see-it-to-believe-it cities. First of all, there’s the jaw-dropping Falls Park, where, locals will tell you, about 7,400 gallons of water drop 100 feet over the course of the Falls each second. The park covers 123 acres, which might not seem too gigantic of a size for a park in the sprawling, sparsely populated state, but consider this: it’s located downtown. There's about 20 miles of biking trails that snake through the city and the five-story observation tower offers an expansive view. The views are a lot of what makes Sioux Falls, South Dakota’s largest city, an exciting destination and the SculptureWalk is just one more of the lovely things to look at. Part of the statewide South Dakota Sculpture Trail, it consists of 56 sculptures that dot the downtown area. There's a broad choice of places to eat if you stay in the district. Most are local joints with small-town soul. The eco-minded Sanaa Cooks, for one, specializes in Middle Eastern staples, like kibbe and falafel, and has plenty of vegan and gluten-free options on offer. Area hotels range from $100 to $150 per night, so staying a few days is a reasonable plan.
A tiny town that makes a huge impression.
Ottawa is just under 13 square-miles, is proof that bigger is not always better. Located less than 90 miles southwest of Chicago where the Illinois River meets the Fox River, the small town is a destination for an array of events each year, like the Midwest Morel Fest each May, the 2 Rivers Wine Fest each June, and the carnival-esque Riverfest, a music festival, each August. It’s history looms large, with it having been the site of the first Lincoln/Douglas debate as well as a stop on the Underground Railroad. It’s home to quirky shops (custom glass sculpture, anyone?) and spots to eat. Lone Buffalo, Tangled Roots Brewing’s brewpub, is a local favorite. One of Ottawa’s best asset is its location. It’s close to the August Hill Winery, various state parks (Starved Rock, Matthiessen, Buffalo Rock), Hegeler Carus Mansion, a National Historic Landmark, and lots of places to kayak in the Illinois River.
WEST SIDE, GRAND RAPIDS, MICHIGAN
21st century creativity flourishes in a proudly old-school immigrant neighborhood.
Once upon a time, the neighborhood in Grand Rapids now known as the West Side was a standalone district, but when it was connected to the city's downtown in 1842, it became a vibrant, yet still quiet, enclave that German, Polish, and Irish immigrants called home. Today it's in the throes of a revitalization, which you might say hit its stride in 2015 when the neighborhood started welcoming three or four new businesses a month, up from three or four a year the prior years. Brewers aren't least among them. Greyline Brewing Company and New Holland Brewing's second location (a brewery/distillery/restaurant complex) are just a few of the neighborhood's highlights. They're also outposts that will get you stamps on the Brewsader Passport, a citywide program where you fill your "passport" with stamps at each brewery visit, then exchange it for a free t-shirt. Of course, where there's beer, there's food. Ferris Coffee & Nut Co., a family-owned cafe/roasterie/shop since 1924, and Lewandoski's Market, a classic German grocer, are just a few of the local faves.
A coffee lab, ethnic eats, and a yurt in the woods, with an indie music soundtrack to go along.
When you think about American music cities, you probably think Nashville, NYC, and New Orleans, but between its Indiana University student population (approximately 50,000) and its being home to Secretly Canadian, one of the most sensational and influential indie music labels, Bloomington is a fantastic music town and an incubator for emerging artists. The Near West Side neighborhood, where the label opened new offices in spring 2015, has become a center of cool with impressive speed. Now Bloomingfoods, the co-op grocery store that’s been around since 1976, is accompanied by the all-vegan Rainbow Bakery, a shop known for its emphatic support of equal rights, and UelZing Coffee, a funky, airy café known as the “coffee lab,” which offers everything from its popular cold brew to classes to comedy shows. And, of course, there are performance venues like The Bishop and The Bluebird where you can catch buzzed-about bands, up'n'coming talent and even step onstage yourself during an open mic night. The Near West Side is a quick walk or bike ride from 4th Street, a global restaurant row that’s home to over a dozen ethnic restaurants as well as the chill cafe/roastery Hopscotch Coffee and the award-winning Cardinal Spirits. But perhaps one of the coolest thing to see in town is where you’ll close your eyes. The Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center, founded by the Dalai Lama’s brother in 1979, rents out Mongolian Yurts, the perfect accommodation for anyone who wants to unplug and snooze under the stars in the woods, not to mention practice yoga with the monks.
A wonderland of natural wonders 60 miles from Nashville.
About 60 miles northwest of Nashville is Clarksville, a little less well known than the music capitol but no less worth a visit. It’s a veritable wonderland for outdoorsy types, what with a marina with ample fishing spaces and hiking paths galore. The city’s website lists 30 parks within the town’s borders. The Greenway Trail System features no fewer than six trails as well as a mile-long Riverwalk with a playground, picnic spaces, and the quaint As the River Flows museum, which chronicles the stunning Cumberland River’s history. Dunbar Cave State Park, a 110-acre expanse, is dappled with sinkholes and anchored by the namesake cave, which has a history dating back thousands of years. The Marina has fishing spaces and boats for rent. But the town’s history is America’s history, too. The Fort Defiance Civil War Park, the site of a Confederate troop fort that the Union captured in 1862, today features a sprawling Interpretive Center with exhibits about that time. The Customs House Museum and Cultural Center blends classical art, regional culture, history, and lots of interactive activities for kids in an historic late 19th-century building. Antique shops and artist coops are just a few of the other places to stop into when you take a break from the outdoors.
We're tracking down the 51 coolest affordable hot spots in the U.S. (one in each state, plus Washington, DC). Here, the fourth and final installment in our series, with uniquely awesome destinations in the Midwest that won't break the bank.