Travel

7 Unexpectedly Great Midwestern Cities For a Weekend Visit

It's high time we stop calling it "flyover country."

GIAN LORENZO FERRETTI PHOTOGRAPHY/E+/GETTY
GIAN LORENZO FERRETTI PHOTOGRAPHY/E+/GETTY
GIAN LORENZO FERRETTI PHOTOGRAPHY/E+/GETTY

It might surprise you to learn that everything you need for a memorable, culture-packed getaway is smack dab in the heart of the Midwest. In cities like Toledo, Minneapolis, and Madison, you’ll find charm in spades alongside emerging art scenes, cool craft breweries, and increasingly renowned restaurants.

Weather can run the gamut; at various times of the year, you’ll experience rain, thunder, snow, and polar vortices. But when you’re hunkering down with stick-to-your-ribs regional specialities-St. Louis-style pizza, Cincinnati chili, and Minneapolis Juicy Lucys, to name a few-you won’t mind too much. After all that beer and food, opportunities abound to work it off, as nature’s never too far out of reach.

Suffice to say, Midwest is best, and these seven cities prove they’re worth the trip.

THE WISCONSIN UNION
THE WISCONSIN UNION
THE WISCONSIN UNION

Madison, Wisconsin

This down-to-earth state capital has everything from lakefront views and countless nature trails to beloved cult beers and a farm-to-table food scene. Stay as close to the Capitol building as possible; all the action is right here in the heart of the city, with walkable streets radiating outward from the square. Grab tickets for a comedy show at Comedy on State, which draws acts from across the nation. You can take a bike ride around the lake, or for the extra outdoorsy, camp at New Glarus State Park, which, like all Wisconsin state parks, allows alcohol on-site-major plus. It’s also a convenient walk from New Glarus Brewing Company, where one of the country’s largest craft breweries produces perfectly balanced beers like Spotted Cow and Two Women, all sold exclusively in Wisconsin.

Must eat & drink: Restaurants like Heritage Tavern boast locally sourced-almost too easy in these farm-filled parts-and craftily prepared fare, while bars like Camp Trippalindee and Paul’s Club deliver tasty cocktails with a side order of kitsch. Finish up with brunch at Sardine, where the lakefront views are superb.

Don’t leave without: Visiting the Chazen Museum of Art, the University of Wisconsin’s free art museum. Pieces like the worn, canyon-wrinkled “Ethel Long,” by American painter Arthur Byron Phillips, and an appropriately eerie David Lynch work leave lasting impressions, while string quartets and other music acts fill the galleries on Sunday afternoons. Temporary exhibitions often highlight the works of university alumni.

TOLEDO MUSEUM OF ART
TOLEDO MUSEUM OF ART
TOLEDO MUSEUM OF ART

Toledo, Ohio

Downtown Toledo is in the midst of a renaissance, with Adams Street looking to make itself known as a cultural corridor. House of Dow vintage shop and Handmade Toledo are overflowing with quirky, colorful finds, but it’s also a good spot to spend a night out-particularly since it was designated open to public drinking, in full Bourbon Street style. Start off at Carlos’ Poco Loco for Cuban staples like succulent ropa vieja and massive (decidedly not Cuban) margaritas, then meander to nearby watering holes like The Attic on Adams.

The Toledo Mud Hens have been a point of pride for the Glass City (named for its early history as a blue-collar town of glassmakers) for over a century, and the Minor League team’s downtown ballpark has become the epicenter of Toledo’s entertainment district. Dubbed Hensville, the area around the ballpark offers a summer concert series and great sports bars like Ye Olde Durty Bird and Fleetwood’s Tap Room.

Must eat & drink: The craveable, Hungarian-style hot dog from Tony Packo’s, Toledo’s signature dish. No restaurant is as admired in Toledo as the long-established Lebanese-Italian Byblos, where you’ll find pungent chicken shawarma and lamb-stuffed grape leaves served alongside pizza and spaghetti studded with steak. The Byblos family’s next generation also runs the small-plates gem Poco Piatti.

Don’t leave without: A free visit to the Toledo Museum of Art, acclaimed for its stunning Glass Pavilion. Glimpse familiar sights like Monet’s water lilies alongside modern artists like Chuck Close, while keeping your eyes peeled for temporary exhibits from renowned artists like Kehinde Wiley and Mel Chin.

SURLY BREWING COMPANY
SURLY BREWING COMPANY
SURLY BREWING COMPANY

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Yes, it’s the farthest north we’ll send you, but oh, is it worth it-if anything, just to try the signature Jucy Lucy burger. Besides its vibrant arts scene, the City of Lakes’ community of chefs tempt both the James Beard crowd and locals alike, making for a gastronomically delightful getaway. Walk off your food baby with a visit to the enchanting Minnehaha Falls-deemed the state’s most photographed spot-and the surrounding park, or visit the thriving Northeast Minneapolis Arts District, where hundreds of artists and galleries open their studios to visitors eager for a glimpse. When you’re ready to hit the town, check out First Avenue for up-and-coming music acts, or go get your culture on at the Guthrie Theater.

Must eat & drink: Pick up something (anything) sweet from Rose Street Patisserie, home to one of the world’s top pastry chefs, John Kraus. New Nordic cuisine has blossomed in this Scandinavian-leaning metropolis (early settlers are rumored to have found it quite warm), with the American Swedish Institute‘s FIKA Cafe and, on the upscale end, Spoon and Stable. The massive Surly Brewing is home to a beer hall serving up creative charcuterie boards and tempting dishes like mole short-rib chili, a dog-friendly seasonal beer garden and a New Haven-style pizzeria. Of course, you ought to try the city’s best-known delicacy, the Juicy (or Jucy) Lucy cheese-stuffed hamburger, but there are two major competitors for the title of creator: Matt’s Bar and the 5-8 Club. Just to be safe, better sample both.

Don’t leave without: Checking out the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, a sprawling collection of endless curiosities, from an iconic Robert Indiana LOVE sculpture to a Theaster Gates concept piece titled Black Vessel for a Saint.

LEIGH TRAIL/SHUTTERSTOCK
LEIGH TRAIL/SHUTTERSTOCK
LEIGH TRAIL/SHUTTERSTOCK

Urbana-Champaign, Illinois

The quaintest of Big 10 cities, Urbana-Champaign (or Champaign-Urbana) is a college town anchored by the hyphenated cities, with enough going on to satisfy a student body of 50,000. Case in point: swing by Exile on Main Street and the adjoining Daisies Vintage for the type of eclectic records and old-school cool threads you could only find in such an idyllic college town. A walk through the University of Illinois campus quad is the perfect way to relive the glory days. Make your way to the Japan House and its gardens for tranquil scenery and public tea ceremonies, while concerts at Foellinger Auditorium (past performers range from Father John Misty to Janelle Monáe) are a chance to actually enjoy sitting in a college lecture hall.

Must eat & drink: Don’t skip the Diner Stack-a mound of hash browns topped with cheese, sausage patties and eggs and smothered in gravy-found at Merry Ann’s Diner, a classic old-school cool diner that never closes. Black Dog Smoke & Ale House, a spacious and tasty barbecue joint, has locations in both of the twin cities, while Jupiter’s Pizza provides not only delicious pies, but also some very chill pool tables for a two-for-one casual date night.

Don’t leave without: Bibliophiles should expect to spend a few hours at Jane Addams Book Shop, which has amassed a collection of 70,000 (very reasonably priced) titles in its 35-year history as an independent bookstore. Wander through three floors of shelf after shelf stuffed to the gills with historical tomes, children’s books, fiction and every other imaginable genre.

ZINGERMAN'S
ZINGERMAN’S
ZINGERMAN’S

Ann Arbor, Michigan

Downtown Ann Arbor, with all its Main Street USA charm, is a perfect place to start your visit. Wander from hip chains like Fjallraven to local shops like Literati Bookstore and Himalayan Bazaar. Keep heading west until you reach the University of Michigan campus, which is surrounded by blocks of retail, casual eateries, and two historic theaters: The State and Michigan Theater. Both are hosts to new movie releases, concerts, and other special events.

Half the fun of Ann Arbor is found in the nooks and crannies, exhibited by both Nickels Arcade and Kerrytown Market & Shops, where you’ll find spice merchants, Fustini’s Oils & Vinegars and vintage finds. Enjoy a delicious meld of Indian and French cuisine at Dessous, featuring seasonal samosas and mashups like avocado naan and green chile chicken with French-baked rice. It’s perfect for a fancy night out, which could then continue at The Last Word, a lovely cocktail bar with thoughtfully reimagined Prohibition-era sippers.

Must eat & drink: Everyone will tell you this, but only because it’s true: You must eat at Zingerman’s. The Ann Arbor institution boasts dozens and dozens of massive, irresistible subs-a personal favorite is the Aubrey’s Milk & Honey, featuring hot sopressata and Zingerman-made goat cheese drizzled with honey and served on rustic Italian bread. An adjoining bakery and artisanal delicatessen store offer an epicurean treasure trove of kitchen goodies.

Don’t leave without: A walk through the University of Michigan Museum of Art, where a spotlight on under-recognized genres like Inuit art and the African diaspora amplifies the museum’s permanent multicultural collections.

THE DARK ROOM
THE DARK ROOM
THE DARK ROOM

St. Louis, Missouri

If there are two things St. Louis is known for on a national level, it’s the Gateway Arch and Budweiser. But its flourishing dining and culture scenes are reason enough for a visit to this river town. The buzziest restaurant in town is the vegetable-centric Vicia, opened by two expats of the acclaimed Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York, but other great picks include Bosnian favorite Lemmons by Grbic (St. Louis has the largest population of Bosnians outside of their home country) and food truck graduate Guerrilla Street Food.

Forest Park, one of the largest urban parks nationwide clocks in at almost twice the size of Central Park, and it’s a scenic, lagoon-dotted eden and also home to many of the city’s best cultural attractions. Here, you’ll find the free Saint Louis Art Museum, renowned for its modern collection and pre-Columbian art, and the Saint Louis Zoo. Wrap up your night with a visit to the snazzy, jazzy club The Dark Room at The Grandel or the laidback BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups.

Must eat & drink: Local favorite Melo’s Pizzeria offers wood oven-fired classics, but its unique specialty pies are where the real fun begins. Keep your eyes peeled for the Sloppy Louie, a take on St. Louis-style pizza, appropriately topped with sausage, pepperoni and the city’s signature Provel cheese, a curious, melty fusion of provolone, Swiss and white cheddar. And hey, while you’re here, might as well drink some beer, right? For a taste of history, Square One Brewery is housed in a century-old former Anheuser-Busch tavern, while Bridge Tap House and Wine Bar provides a thorough introduction to the local scene with 55 beers on tap out of more than 200 total brews to sample.

Don’t leave without: Strolling down Cherokee Street, a vibrant district anchored by antique shops like The Purple Cow and Mesa Home, art galleries and Latinx-owned bakeries.

OKTOBERFEST ZINZINNATI
OKTOBERFEST ZINZINNATI
OKTOBERFEST ZINZINNATI

Cincinnati, Ohio

Straddling the Ohio River that separates the Buckeye State from Kentucky, this German-settled river city boasts the largest Oktoberfest in the United States, three major sports franchises and a thriving music scene. In some sense, Cincinnati proves to be a choose-your-own-adventure getaway: partake in the 12-stop Donut Trail or the winding Kentucky Bourbon Trail, or spend a day stopping by the many breweries. As a city of neighborhoods, Cincinnati also provides dense pockets of retail and dining options that are fun to explore. O’Bryonsville, Hyde Park and Oakley are top candidates for an afternoon out (absolutely do not miss out on the luxuriant double-chip opera cake, adorned with buttercream rosettes and a smooth chocolate glaze, at The BonBonerie), while Mt. Adams is tailor-made for a night out (start off at Blind Lemon for delicious cocktails on the verdant, romantic patio, where live music often elevates the experience.)

The main stretch of Over-the-Rhine has become a hipster mecca of trendy eateries and cool bars like Longfellow (check out its tiny Other Room for the state’s largest selection of rum) and Rosedale, while Fountain Square anchors downtown and offers summertime programming and a winter ice rink.

Must eat & drink: Black raspberry chocolate chip ice cream at Graeter’s, the French Pot-frozen treat (it’s a thing) that’s been a staple in Cincinnati since 1868. Rhinegeist is a local favorite for craft beer fans, Sam Adams recently unveiled a spacious new taproom, and Fifty West Brewing Company also offers kayaking and volleyball to really kick the day into high gear. Of course, no visit is complete without a taste of Cincinnati-style chili, a beanless, cinnamon-tinged version traditionally found atop spaghetti or coney dogs. Skyline Chili is the standard bearer, but Cincinnatians in the know will point you to Camp Washington Chili for a less corporatized take.

Don’t leave without: Taking a walk along the Ohio River. The city’s new Smale Riverfront Park features a carousel with a hand-carved menagerie and a playground area complete with a rock-climbing canyon, racing slides and log climbers.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Ariel Cheung is a senior editor for Modern Luxury Chicago, where she covers the city’s dining scene. She resides in the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago, where she is currently resisting the urge to adopt every stray cat that crosses her path.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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