Here’s why you should head to the Midwest

With most downtown professionals working from home and capacity restrictions in place for major tourist attractions, now is an ideal time for that road trip to the Midwest you’ve been putting off. The once crowded downtown streets of cities like Indianapolis, Kansas City, and St. Louis are virtually empty, but most of the major attractions are open to tourists. Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Minneapolis have the most per capita green space in the country. Cleveland, Detroit, and St. Louis now rival Miami and Seattle when it comes to street art. So if it’s been more than a few years since your last trip to the Midwest, here are some reasons to skip the crowded beaches or national parks and explore the Midwest instead.

Unlike the beach destinations and coastal cities, you’ll have room to breathe in the Midwest

Social distancing is far more practical in the Midwest. And the cities are especially right on top of things when it comes to enforcing mask-wearing, taking temperatures, and setting capacity limits. Many of the office workers who typically crowd the downtown areas during business hours are still working from home, so the sidewalks will be nearly empty, with street parking readily available. But the places that tourists tend to visit are still open. And most Midwestern cities have bike and/or scooter share programs for those who are not renting a car.

Midwestern cities don’t jack up their accommodation rates as much during the warmer months

Instead of blowing an outrageous amount of money on a mediocre, two-star hotel near the beach, you can enjoy the often overlooked culture and breathing room that the Midwest offers. You can do that for less money and end up with better accommodation. The key to getting affordable rates in the Midwest is to avoid the major cities when a convention or big sporting event is in town. With a bit of planning, you can find rates in Columbus, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, etc. that you could only find in NYC when the weather is below freezing. And if you do want to splurge, you’ll be guaranteed to get more value for your money. Just go to the Hyatt Regency St. Louis and ask for an Arch View Deluxe Suite. They all end in 97.

Many of the top Midwest attractions have undergone extreme makeovers since your last visit

New York and San Francisco are not the only cities and reinvent themselves every decade. Many of the things we all love about these great American cities have found their way to the Midwest as well. St. Louis is scheduled to open its first European-style food hall/public market next year. In the spirit of Manhattan’s High Line, the Brick Line Greenway will eventually connect Forest Park (larger than Central Park) with the downtown area.

Exhibits rotate in and out of most larger museums every few months, but historic landmarks change as well. The Gateway Arch in St. Louis underwent a $380 million renovation in 2018, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland is set to begin a 50,000 square foot expansion next year. New museums have opened as well. Springfield’s History Museum on the Square opened last summer and was voted best new attraction of 2019 by USA Today. If your last visit to the Midwest was pre-iPhones, your return is long overdue.

Midwestern cities are far more car-friendly than Boston, NYC, San Francisco, etc.

Pre-COVD, most of us were used to arriving at JFK, taking the overpriced AirTrain to the LIRR or subway, and riding shoulder-to-shoulder in an overcrowded subway car to our accommodation. Unless you were staying beyond walking distance from a train station, getting a car in a place like New York or San Francisco was seen by most as economically prohibitive and too challenging except for the most adventurous among us. But in cities like St. Louis, you have the option of taking the MetroLink from Lambert Airport or renting a car and parking it, without spending more on parking than on food. In St. Louis, a metro ride from the airport will set you back just $4, and a day pass is only $7.50.

Speaking of cars, Route 66 starts in Chicago and passes through the rest of Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas before it cuts through Oklahoma. Some of the most exciting attractions along this historic route are in Missouri between St. Louis and Springfield. You may not be able to visit the countries of Cuba and Lebanon right now, but you’ll pass through both Missouri cities along the route between Springfield and St. Louis. And Springfield is a must-visit as it is recognized as the official birthplace of the “Mother Road.” The History Museum on the Square is one of the places that chronicles this near-100-year history. There’s a Route 66 Visitor Center in the city as well.

The quirkiest museums are in the Midwest

Whether you want to gawk at jarred brains in the Indiana Medical History Museum or have a burning desire to sit in a bus that hangs halfway off the rooftop of an old shoe factory in St. Louis, you can indulge these quirky desires in the Midwest. When you hear “Alexandria,” you may think suburban DC, but there’s also one in Indiana. And it’s home to the world’s largest ball of paint. Visitors can make an appointment to add their own coat of paint to this legendary roadside attraction, which has grown so large that it now resides in a dedicated barn built special for the ball.

Many of the historical markers you’ll see during your road trip to the Midwest are made at Sewah Studios, which is located in Marietta, Ohio, just 45 miles south of Cambridge. Sewah offers tours and will even design a marker for you, budget-permitting. Cambridge (famous for its glass, and “S” shaped bridges) is an ideal first stop if you’re starting from anywhere between New York and DC.

Museum mandates vary from city to city, but most are restricted to 25-50% capacity. In some cases, you may have to get tickets in advance, but when you do arrive, you won’t have to worry about rubbing up against strangers. And most museums are checking temperatures at the door.

If you want to be near the water, there are plenty of lakes in the Midwest

They don’t call Minnesota “The Land of 10,000 lakes for nothing.” They actually have more than 15,000. And so does Wisconsin. You don’t have to visit any of the Great Lakes either. Size is not everything. Geneva Lake, on the Wisconsin side of the IL/WI border, is a popular weekend getaway for Chicago and Milwaukee city dwellers, and the less-famous Lake Como is not too far north of Geneva.

And then there are the rivers. The Detroit River separates the Motor City from the land of maple syrup, ice hockey, and Tim Hortons, while the Ohio River separates the Midwest from the South. If you’re visiting Southern Indiana, you can walk from Jeffersonville to Louisville via the Big Four Bridge. Once you cross the border, you can get a peek into southern culture via the bourbon tours, fried chicken, and other food culture, which is distinct from the Midwest. The Missouri and  Mississippi rivers are the longest in the country. The latter of which flows through Minneapolis, St. Louis, and the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois. And river cruises are a relaxing way to take in the sunset over the Mighty Mississippi.

Midwestern cities have their own food cultures, and you’ll get more value for what you spend

We’ve all been to that overcrowded beach destination and overpaid for a slice of pizza that you couldn’t give away in Boston’s North End or along Old Fulton Street in Brooklyn. After Texas, many of the country’s top beef-producing states are in the Midwest. The region’s food scene is far more sophisticated than most of us give it credit for.

Indianapolis has the highest concentration of Burmese restaurants in the country. Cincinnati is famous for its Cincinnati Chili. Kansas City is often referred to as the world capital of barbeque. While Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis have their own pizza cultures. And you won’t have to stand in line for hours, only to shell out $25 for an individual pie. You can’t go more than a few blocks in most parts of St. Louis without seeing an Imo’s. Scoff if you feel the need, but this unique style of pizza (with provel cheese) has made its way to Brooklyn’s Bed Stuy neighborhood and to Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

The Midwest also has desserts that the locals won’t let you leave without trying. Throughout Indiana, it’s Hoosier Pie. There’s even a Hoosier Pie trail that runs throughout the state. It’s one of the 21 Indiana Foodways Culinary Trails. St. Louis residents rave about their gooey butter cake. The Ohio buckeyes get the nod for easiest state sweets to travel with the Kansas caramel puff corn is not too far behind.

If you want to fly in, there are plenty of one-way tickets for under $100

Depending on where you’re coming from, it can take a day or two to drive to the Midwest. If you’re limited on days and looking to cut some of the driving time, you should have no trouble finding cheap direct flights to CVG. Especially if you’re flying from DC, New York, or Philly. All flights should be less than $200 one-way. If you are flexible, you can find flights from New York or DC for under $100 (one-way). Chicago and Detroit have similar fares for those who plan to start in the northern part of the Midwest. You’ll pay a bit more to fly back from Minneapolis or St. Louis, but not by much.

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All pictures were shot with my Panasonic Lumix ZS100 4K Point and Shoot Camera.