Best Budget Destinations in America 2018, Part II: The Midwest

We’re rounding up value trips across the U.S. (one in each state, plus DC) to inspire Budget Travelers to see more of America for less money. Here, the best of the Midwest

We like to think of travel a little like the movie industry: there are the blockbuster hits that everyone checks out, and then there are the under-the-radar gems that will wow you if you make an effort to seek them out. From emerging neighborhoods on the fringes of familiar cities to easily-missed small towns and lesser-known national parks, adventure destinations, and beaches, there are countless ways to see more of America at a price that won’t break the bank. We define a “Budget Destination” as a place that offers excellent food and drink, a variety of cultural options, a healthy dose of American history, quirky sites, or breathtaking natural beauty. Or all of the above. And, above all, it's a value proposition, with lodging well under $200 per night. Budget Travel editors spent much of the past year exploring and talking to locals to decide on 51 Budget Destinations 2018, one in each state, plus the District of Columbia. In the hopes of inspiring new bucket list journeys, whether you're committed road-trippers, weekend warriors, or travel junkies, here are the 12 Best Budget Destinations in the Midwest.

EAU CLAIRE, WISCONSIN

Wisconsin-EAU-CLAIRE-Tangled-Up-in-Hue-downtown-shop.JPG?mtime=20180412101911#asset:101401(courtesy www.VisitEauClaire.com)

In 2014, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary included “Brooklyn” as an adjective. Eau Claire, Wisconsin, is very Brooklyn. Often referred to as the “Indie Capital of the Midwest,” the college town with a decidedly collaborative spirit has become known as an incubator for emerging musicians. They’re even one of the many homegrown attractions at the weekly downtown farmers’ market. It all comes together at the annual Eaux Claires, a two-day music festival each July spearheaded by native son and indie darling Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Of course, there’s plenty to do every day of the year. The Sculpture Tour will orient you to the public art that dots the town and while Milwaukee may be home to colossal beers like Miller, Schlitz, and PBR, Eau Claire has a brewing community that is not to be scoffed at. 

SHAWNEE NATIONAL FOREST, ILLINOIS

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The Garden of the Gods is 3,318 acres of Instagram-ready wilderness where sandstone sits in jaw-dropping formations. The best view is from the quarter-mile-long Observation Trail, where signs explain the site’s unique geographic history. And that’s just one attraction of Shawnee National Forest, which sprawls across 10 Illinois counties. There’s enough in the Shawnee to warrant staying for more than a weekend. There’s swimming, fishing, and boating at Pounds Hollow Lake and along Rim Rock Trail you can make your way through two massive rock slabs to reach the hollow below. Add to that horseback riding, birding, and even a zipline through the lush forest, this landscape is an outdoorsy traveler’s paradise. Oh, and there’s a wine trail, too, with each of the 11 wineries more stunning than the last.  And when it comes to packing it in for the night, choose from the area’s motels, B&Bs, cabins, and even tree houses.

WINONA LAKE, INDIANA

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Indiana isn’t necessarily the first state to leap to mind when it comes to summer getaways, but that’s probably because you haven’t heard about Village at Winona. The lakeside destination is rich enough in history to earn it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, and it was once a fancy summer resort, then a hub of evangelical movements and activities, drawing up to 250,000 visitors in the early 1900s. Today, the Billy Sunday Home Museum pays tribute to that aspect of the area’s history, but these days the village’s main draws include hiking, biking, paddle boarding, boating, kayaking, fishing, and that’s to say nothing of the salt caves and charming boutiques, homey restaurants. But for those looking for something supremely eccentric that all of your Instagram friends will be jealous of, the Hallmark Ornament Museum is your stop.

PAWHUSKA, OKLAHOMA

Oklahoma-PAWHUSKA-Pioneer-Woman-Merchantile.JPG?mtime=20180412101907#asset:101399(Lori Duckworth/Oklahoma Tourism)

Ree Drummond is the prolific blogger at ThePioneerWoman.com, host of a Food Network show of the same name, and social media superstar (1.2 million Twitter followers), so little wonder that when she opened Pioneer Woman Mercantile, a store/restaurant/bakery, in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, near the working ranch she lives on and spotlights in all her work, fans flocked. And it’s safe to say that most are delightfully surprised at the number of other things to do and see here. The Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is the planet’s largest protected remnant of tallgrass prairie. Drive through it and you’ll marvel at thousands of free-range bison. That’s only part of the history of this region. The rest you’ll find on display at the Osage Nation Museum. There’s fishing, hiking, and row-boating at Osage Hills State Park and charming shops like Osage Outfitters, a go-to for bona fide cowboy boots, hats, threads, and gear, are among the various retail gems in the town square. And if all that running around doesn’t guarantee you a good night’s sleep at one of the many local B&Bs, most of which offer rates of under $100/night, a feast at Bad Brad’s Bar-B-Q will do the trick.

ROCHESTER, MINNESOTA

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Rochester is home to the world-renowned, historic Mayo Clinic—so historic, in fact, that you can spend time exploring its origins at sites that pay homage to the institution's early pioneering medical professionals on a Rochester Trolley tour. The company offers other themed hop-on/hop-off tours on its vintage vehicles, from a Frank Lloyd Wright tour to a trip through region’s Amish heritage to a journey along the microbrewery circuit. Situated 90 miles from the Twin Cities, the city, chock full of parks, playgrounds, and trails, has topped high-profile lists as far as livability, not least because of its commitment to healthy living. The Mayo Clinic is more than a hospital, as evidenced by the institution’s Healthy Living Program. The wellness center, which the public is welcomed to indulge in, recently unveiled Rejuvenate Spa. Rest assured, however, that there are plenty of options when you’re ready to fall off the wellness wagon. Local faves include Opa Opa, a traditional Greek eatery with a lively vibe, thanks in no small part to the “flaming cheese” presentation, and John Hardy’s Bar-B-Que is known for smoking its meats overnight. The Doggery is a modern speakeasy specializing in craft cocktails. 

ST. JOSEPH, MISSOURI

Missouri-ST-JOSEPH-Pony-Express-National-Museum.JPG?mtime=20180412101902#asset:101397(Courtesy Missouri Division of Tourism)

Missouri has quite a few claims to fame: the St. Louis arches, the origin point of Lewis and Clark’s expedition, the birthplace of ice cream cones, Anheuser Busch. But one thing that tends to fly under the radar, though it absolutely shouldn’t, is St. Joseph, a town on the Kansas border. With more museums per capita than Washington DC, each spotlighting a unique bit of Americana. The origins of the US Postal Service are chronicled at the Pony Express Museum and the life and times and possessions of the iconic American outlaw are on display at the Jesse James Home Museum, the place where he met his end. But that’s only one of the many historic home tours on offer. The Glore Psychiatric Museum at an old State Lunatic Asylum explores over a century of mental health history. And for a more interactive experience, head out of town on Highway 36, (AKA: the Way of American Genius) and stop along the way at sites that pay homage to native sons that shaped American culture, like Walt Disney and the inventor of sliced bread.  With an average nightly rate of $90 at the town’s hotels, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t plan a stay.

LOESS HILLS, IOWA

Iowa-LOESS-HILLS-prepcanyon.JPG?mtime=20180412104157#asset:101405(Courtesy Travel Iowa)

Unless you’re a geology nerd, you’d probably never guess what Western Iowa has in common with China. We’ll save you the suspense and tell you that the hills, which clock in at 200 miles long and 15 miles wide, were formed at the end of the last Ice Age by loess soil deposited there. The only place where Loess Soil sits at higher elevation is China. A National Scenic Byway cuts through the site, giving you a full view of this natural wonder and the diverse landscapes it’s comprised of. The area is home to nine artisan producers, from organic farms to an artist studio to nature center with an observatory to a creamery, all within 20 miles of one another. And speaking of creamery, if you're in the area, check out LeMars, about 30 minutes away. It's known as the Ice Cream Capital of the World and one visit to the Blue Bunny Ice Cream Parlor, an old-school joint with a marble counter, a columned wood back bar, and many unique flavors, will make you understand why. 

LAWRENCE, KANSAS

Kansas-LAWRENCE-Dole-institute.JPG?mtime=20180412101856#asset:101394(Courtesy Kansas Tourism)

There are college towns and there is Lawrence, Kansas. It’s home to the University of Kansas and to hear many native residents tell it, the students’ campus doubles as the local community. Campus events, like lectures and art events, are typically open to the public and entry to KU’s various museums are free. Those museums run gamut, so if you’re visiting with a family, you’ll likely find something to please everyone. One of the city’s biggest draws is the Allen Fieldhouse, an arena that houses the Booth Hall of Athletics, which includes the Kansas Athletics Hall of Fame and exhibits tracing the history of basketball, revealing why the city’s nickname is the Cradle of Basketball. The KU Natural History Museum features four flours of live animals, historic displays, and a veritable chronicle of the Great Plains’ microscopic life. The KU Biodiversity Institute covers many other aspects of nature, like plants and fossil materials. the Spencer Museum of Art, the state’s only comprehensive art museum, features over 45,000 art objects, film screenings, music performances, and more. Politics junkies can check out Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics, which houses an archive with the senator’s congressional papers and possessions, beams from the World Trade Center, and the world’s largest stained-glass American flag. The town counts itself as one of leading cities in the USA for advanced degrees per capita, but you certainly don’t need to be a student to get a well-rounded education here.

RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA

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Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, and Custer State Park will all astonish you with their majestic splendor, but in South Dakota, there are wonders to be found on a much smaller scale, too. Rapid City, often referred to as the “gateway to the Black Hills,” is an excellent center of operations if you’re visiting the region. In addition to its convenient location, (23 miles from Rushmore, 37 miles from Crazy Horse Monument, easy access to various trails) there’s a charming, lively town square that hosts everything from live music to arts and crafts festivals to seasonal activities, like outdoor movies in the summer and ice skating in the winter. Veer off the main square and you’ll find a lively arts community, best embodied by Art Alley. What started as a public art project in 2005 has morphed into something of a community gallery, with electrifying murals, many of which nod to the region’s heritage, adorning what would otherwise be nondescript urban backside exteriors.

ALPENA, MICHIGAN

Michigan-ALPENA-Thunder-Bay-River-Lighthouse.JPG?mtime=20180412101858#asset:101395(Courtesy Pure Michigan)

This town of about 10,000, which overlooks Lake Huron’s Thuder Bay, offers all the pleasures of a waterside destination—boating, scuba diving, kayaking, swimming, and canoeing in waters surrounded by a 500-acre wildlife sanctuary smack in the middle of a city—and a few that you can’t find elsewhere. To whit: The Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center sheds light on the region’s history of shipwreck. Or you can see actual remains in the lake on a cruise on a glass-bottomed boat. Seven historic lighthouses still stand. A portrait of quaint Small Town, USA, Alpena offers galleries, museums, locally owned boutiques and stores, and plenty of options for dining and drinking. Decades-old Connie’s Café is a local favorite for its indulgent breakfasts, and a stunning garden to relax in out back, the family-owned Austin Brother’s Beer Company is a popular hangout for local brews and comfort food, and Stoney Acres Winery, one of several in the area, stands out for its blackberry wine.

HOCKING HILLS, OHIO 

Ohio-HOCKING-HILLS-Lower-Falls-Old-Mans-Cave.jpg?mtime=20180412104200#asset:101407(Michael Shake/Dreamstime)

You already know Ohio’s many cities—Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dayton, Columbus. So next time you plan to visit the Buckeye State, remember that the great outdoors await. And southeastern Ohio is great, indeed. About 90 minutes from Columbus, tranquility and adventure meet in Hocking Hills. Secluded and rugged, you can fill the days with Segway rides and canopy tours--lots and lots of canopy tours. In fact, with over 60 ziplines, Hocking Hills is the Canopy Tour Capital of the Midwest, including kid-friendly options. And then there are the state parks, prehistoric caves. When it’s time to retire, there are camping sites and posher B&Bs as well as charming cabins galore. But before you go to sleep, take time to stargaze. It's one of Ohio's darkest night skies and John Glenn Astronomy Park's observatory is a perfect perch. If you need a city fix, or if you just find yourself short on beer, Athens, home to Ohio University, offers craft breweries, a beer hall and a cider house. You can make a day of it on the recently established Brewed on the Bikeway,” a two-wheel tour of the emerging beer scene. 

WATFORD CITY, NORTH DAKOTA

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With the impressive number of iconic destinations in western North Dakota (see: Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site, Fairview Lift Bridge and Cartright Tunnel) it’s easy to overlook Watford City. But it’d be a shame to pass by this all-American small town, which has recently been given a jolt of 21st century energy. Chalk that up to its “boomtown” status. As a result of the growing oil industry, Watford City’s population has grown to about 10,000 from 1,200 in just a few years. Now there’s Door 204, a stylish coffee shop that doubles as a mail center, a nod to the building’s prior life as a mail center. Stonehome Brewing, which opened in 2017, and Outlaws Bar and Grill are just a few of the nearly 20 new restaurants to open in the past few years. Fortify yourself then browsing in the downtown local shops. But the crowning jewel is the Rough Rider Center, an athletic facility and concert venue. And keep in mind that it's all set amid the backdrop of the breathtaking Badlands scenery.

DANNEBROG, NEBRASKA

In the late 19th century, there was an influx of Scandinavian immigrants to the US due to economic problems and overpopulation in their homelands. They settled in the Midwest and there are enclaves where the culture still runs strong. Dannebrog is a prime example. The community of merely 300 is known as the “Danish capital of Nebraska.” The flags of Denmark fly throughout town and murals pay tribute to the Viking legacy. And, of course, there’s the Danish Baker, which draws residents from surrounding towns for its bread, tasty desserts, and weekly pizza night. If you want to see the heritage in full effect, however, visit in June for Grundlovsfest, which marks the anniversary of Denmark’s freedom with food, performances, and art.

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