17 Underrated Destinations in the Midwest

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Destinations like North Dakota, Kansas, and Iowa are often referred to as “fly-over states,” which means they’re often overlooked by travelers. But if you’ve ever spent any time in the Midwest, you know that the region offers much more than meets the eye. From lakeside havens to charming farm towns, the Midwest has plenty to offer the wayfaring traveler — you just have to know where to look!

Nashville, Indiana

Landscape of Brown County in Southern Indiana with rolling hills and deciduous forests.
Credit: Amanda Wayne/ Shutterstock

Nashville, Indiana might not be as famous as the “other Nashville” in Tennessee, but this small town still has significant allure for those looking for a fun getaway. With access to acres of trails in Brown County State Park and Yellowwood State Forest, Nashville provides ample opportunities for travelers to commune with nature. Since Nashville is home to two distilleries (Hard Truth and Bear Wallow), in addition to Brown County Winery, visitors can imbibe on local spirits after a long day on the trail. While Nashville doesn’t share the same music credentials as its big-city brethren, the Brown County Music Center is impressive in its own right, with year-round musical performances featuring popular headliners.

Ephraim, Wisconsin

View from Sven's bluff scenic overlook in Peninsula State Park in Door County, Wisconsin.
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Situated on a peninsula that extends into Lake Michigan, Door County, Wisconsin provides travelers a mix of scenic beauty, spectacular shorelines, and picturesque towns. In particular, the town of Ephraim is an excellent destination for vacationers looking to unwind on the water. Located between Fish Creek and Sister Bay, Ephraim is home to Peninsula State Park, which provides easy access to countless water activities, including motorboat rentals, sailing, and paddling. Off the water, the colorful graffiti art at Anderson Dock is a must-see, as are the annual musical productions at Northern Sky Theater. Plus, the lively town center is filled with boutiques and galleries, with walking and tram tours available for those who wish to learn more about Ephraim’s many historic sites.

Galena, Illinois

Shops along the main street of Galena, Illinois.
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With over 85% of its buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, the city of Galena offers a wealth of history among the hills and valleys of western Illinois. As the one-time home of former U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, Galena’s location along the Mississippi River made it a cultural and economical mecca in the 19th century. Today, all the charm of yesteryear remains evident, from the Main Street lined with red-brick buildings to the Victorian-era mansions available to tour. Visitors can also take their pick of historic accommodations, including the famous Desoto House Hotel and the Jail Hill Inn, located inside an old jailhouse. And as an ideal weekend getaway, Galena has plenty to keep you occupied during the day, including antique shops, local boutiques, walking trails, and eateries.

Hocking Hills, Ohio

A hiker at Ash Cave in Hocking Hills, Ohio.
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Spanning four towns, Hocking Hills is a gem of a state park located on the Allegheny Plateau. Although it’s not often recognized on a national level, Hocking Hills is locally renowned as a premier outdoor destination in southeastern Ohio. Featuring staggering cliffs, deep gorges, cavernous rocks, and plunging waterfalls, Hocking Hills’ unique topography is a result of the region’s abundance of black hand sandstone. Although overnight camping is permitted in the park, the region offers a variety of lodging for travelers who prefer not to rough it. The Inn and Spa at Cedar Falls in Logan is situated ideally for day trips into Hocking Hills, while also providing luxury accommodations, spa facilities, and dining services.

El Dorado, Kansas

A gravel road going through the Flint Hills of Kansas.
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As the only town in Kansas to be named a “City of the Arts,” El Dorado has a healthy local art scene that draws visitors to south-central Kansas. In addition to a number of private art galleries and the Coutts Museum of Art, El Dorado’s historic district features the famed Sculpture Alley. With 16 different sculptures installed throughout downtown, visitors to El Dorado can roam city blocks in search of the unique art installations. The city center is also home to numerous locally-owned eateries and retail offerings, making it an ideal home base for adventurers looking to explore the Flint Hills or El Dorado Lake and State Park, both of which are within an easy driving distance.

Medora, North Dakota

The Little Missouri River cutting through the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
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Situated at the gateway of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the small town of Medora, North Dakota, provides ample opportunity to view the vast beauty of the Badlands. While the lesser-known national park is often overlooked in favor of the Black Hills or Yellowstone, the scenery at Theodore Roosevelt makes it well worth the visit. From the colorful rock walls in the Painted Canyon to the bison that roam the plains on Scenic Loop Drive, the beauty of the park turns North Dakota into a bucket-list destination. As a base camp, Medora itself also provides visitors with a mix of things to do, with historic sites, live entertainment, and unique dining experiences, such as Pitchfork Steak Fondue, a dinner in which local chefs load up pitchforks with 12-ounce steaks and fry them in soybean oil (a technique known as fonduing).

Saugatuck/Douglas, Michigan

Aerial View from the top of Mt. Baldhead looking at the towns of Douglas & Sagatuck.
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Hailed as the “Art Coast of Michigan,” the twin cities of Saugatuck and Douglas are beloved by Midwesterners seeking a coastal vacation with plenty to do. These cities are known to be especially friendly to the arts, with numerous private galleries, weekly live entertainment, and several shops selling artisan wares. As both cities line the shores of Lake Michigan, the towns also provide access to white-sand beaches, state parks, and an excellent culinary scene. Offshore, sailing is a particularly popular pastime for locals — visitors can either charter a sailboat for a cruise or rent a harbor slip if traveling by boat. On land, the region is bike-friendly, with bike rentals available for exploring the town, state parks, and trails.

Crofton, Nebraska

Lewis and Clark Lake at sunset in South Dakota.
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Crofton’s most popular attraction is the nearby Lewis and Clark Lake, named after the westward explorers who once camped on its shores. The lake, which shares its northern shoreline with South Dakota, is ideal for campers, anglers, and paddlers. It’s also a popular spot for horseback riders, with trails, cabins, and campsites that accommodate horses. In town, visitors can stay in the Historic Argo Hotel, a bed and breakfast listed on the National Register of Historic Places, or wander through the rose garden in the town’s arboretum. A bevy of other state parks, including Ash Fossils State Historical Park, which displays the skeletal remains of rhinos, camels, and three-toed horses, are within a short driving distance from downtown.

Amana Colonies, Iowa

View of the outside of an historic home in Amana Colonies, Iowa.
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First settled by Germans in 1714, the Amana Colonies is one of the longest-lived communal societies in the U.S. Comprising seven different towns, the Amana Colonies were designed to resemble actual German villages, with a charming main street for shops, farm buildings on the outskirts of town, and communal residences for large families. The Amana Colonies are a lovely place to visit if you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind destination. Village shops are filled with artisan products and vintage finds, the streets are lined with cafés and wineries, and many of the local restaurants and breweries serve German-style delicacies. In line with the town’s heritage, the Amana Colonies hold six annual festivals, including Oktoberfest, Maifest, and Prelude to Christmas, all of which are open to the public.

Abilene, Kansas

Statue of Dwight D Eisenhower in his hometown of Abilene, Kansas.
Credit: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/ Getty Images

With a population of under 7,000 people, Abilene is a small town with big credentials. Most notably, Abilene is the hometown of former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It also is home to several five-star museums within a few city blocks, including the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, where visitors can see the president’s humble boyhood home and learn about his tenure as a national leader. There’s also the Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad, which involves a 10-mile train ride, and the Seelye Mansion, which gives a peek into a historic home that was furnished from the 1904 World’s Fair. For more historic offerings, Old Abilene Town recreates a time when Kansas was part of the Wild West, with live steers, can-can dancers, and daily gunfights.

Eagle River, Wisconsin

View of Eagle River on a Spring day.
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In general, the Northwoods of Wisconsin, or “Up North” as the locals say, is sought after for its bass and walleye fishing. But since the city of Eagle River is home to the “World’s Largest Chain of 28 Lakes,” it’s truly a paradise for anglers. With so many interconnected waterways, Eagle River provides endless opportunities on the water. For family fun, the small town offers a variety of attractions, including the Northwoods Children’s Museum, go-karting, and horseback riding. During the winter, Eagle River continues to keep tourists entertained with dog sledding, snowmobiling, and nordic skiing. Plus the town holds annual festivals all year long, such as the Up North Beer Fest, Musky Open Fishing Tournament, and Paul Bunyon Fest, which celebrates local artists and vendors.

Sisters Lakes, Michigan

Sunset at Sister Lakes in Michigan.
Credit: Fox Valley Voice/ Flickr/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Home to 10 natural lakes within a six-mile radius, the resort area of Sister Lakes, Michigan, has drawn visitors to its shores for over 100 years. The region became a premier vacation destination in 1911 when a railway was built between Chicago and the town of Dowagiac, Michigan. All these years later, Sisters Lakes retains much of its original charm. From the historic 5-Mile Drive-In Movie Theater to Driftwood, an old-fashioned soda shop, the region feels like a throwback to simpler times. Surrounded by acres of farmland, the winding roads between lakes are littered with pay-your-own farm stands that sell blueberries, raspberries, peaches, and fresh corn. To go directly to the source, Sprague’s Family Fun Farm offers hayrides and pick-your-own seasonal berries. Afterward, don’t forget to stop by Sisters Lakes Brewery to wash down your hard work with a beer.

Stillwater, Minnesota

Stillwater Lift Bridge with a walking path showing pedestals with chains in the foreground.
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On the banks of the St. Croix River lies Stillwater, a picturesque town that is the “Birthplace of Minnesota.” In addition to being one of the oldest towns in the state, Stillwater was the site of the 1848 territorial convention that began the process of turning Minnesota into a state. The result is a city steeped in history, including old-fashioned paddle boats cruising the river, a lift bridge open to pedestrians and cyclists, and a historic main street. In addition to its vibrant art scene, culinary offerings, and outdoor opportunities, Stillwater offers something unique to the St. Croix River Valley — hot air balloons. For an amazing view of the town and the surrounding valley from the sky, Aamodt’s Hot Air Balloons Rides has the largest balloon fleet in the Midwest and offers private and small group rides.

Aberdeen, South Dakota

A landscape of the lake and clouds at Wylie Park in Aberdeen, South Dakota.
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Once a major railroad hub of South Dakota, Aberdeen has since become an ideal destination for family fun. Wylie Park, a 200-acre public park, is complete with campsites, a lakeside beach, miniature golf, go-karts, biking trails, and a playground for children. Also found in the park is Storybook Land, which takes inspiration from nursery rhymes and the Wizard of Oz to create a world where children can interact with their favorite fairy tales. The attraction includes a vintage 1881 train that travels throughout the park. On hot summer days, the local water park will keep you cool, while the Dacotah Prairie Museum has the region’s natural history on display.

French Lick, Indiana

A classy outdoor dining area in French Lick, Indiana.
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In the 19th century, people used to flock to the small town of French Lick, Indiana, to sit in natural hot springs purported to be good for their health. The existence of these sulfur springs prompted the construction of the French Lick Resort, a historic hotel that provides a full-service vacation. Although the original European-style bathhouses are no longer in use, the region’s warm sulfur springs continue to be employed in the resort’s spa treatments. In addition to the spa, French Lick has a swimming pool, golf course, casino, several restaurants, and stables for horseback riding. Nearby, there are wineries to tour, a historic train museum and scenic railway, and several hiking trails.

Glenmont, Ohio

View of a two story treehouse in Glenmont, Ohio.
Credit: Chris McLelland/ Compelling Photo

If you’ve ever dreamed of living in a treehouse, then Glenmont, Ohio should be on your bucket list. Home to the Mohicans Treehouse Resort, this small town boasts some of the most unique accommodations in the U.S. In addition to a number of cozy cabins available for overnight stays, Mohicans has eight treehouses open for guest bookings. Each treehouse is distinct and accommodates between two to four people. Perhaps the most famous of these treetop abodes is the Little Red Treehouse, which was designed and built by Pete Nelson from the TV show “Treehouse Masters.” Since Glenmont is situated in close proximity to numerous state parks, local wineries, and a lakeside beach, these treehouses are a great place to hole up for a few days.

Grand Marais, Minnesota

Grand Marais lighthouse and a beautiful sunset on Lake Superior.
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At first glance, the city of Grand Marais resembles a seaside town in the Pacific Northwest, but this small Midwestern enclave is located along Lake Superior in northeastern Minnesota. In addition to the region’s abundant beauty, this tight-knit community has a thriving art scene, especially amongst plein air painters who paint the surrounding Sawtooth Mountains and the rocky shores of Lake Superior. In fact, Grand Marais’ peninsula is so popular with artists painting the local lighthouse that it has been dubbed “Artist’s Point.” For more fun outside of town, explorers should take the Gunflint Trail Scenic Byway, a 57-mile loop that travels through Minnesota’s pristine wilderness towards the Boundary Waters, before heading back to Grand Marais for the fish of the day at the Angry Trout Café.

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