Location is one of the biggest factors lending nationwide appeal to Midwest travel destinations. The area is fairly easy to reach from all corners of the Continental United States.
But not only is the region geographically central, it’s also been at the center of some of the most significant cultural and social events in America’s history. Today, a host of visitor attractions preserving and celebrating that heritage help make the Midwest the center of attention.
Many of those attractions have a special significance for African-Americans. The Ohio River, which served as path to freedom for many escaped slaves, now provides a fitting backdrop for the acclaimed Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. The court case at the center of the nation’s most important school desegregation ruling began in Topeka, Kansas, where a museum is dedicated to telling the story. In Detroit, Hitsville USA helped produce the soundtrack to America’s 1960s pop culture.
From historical museums to retail outlets, a number of Midwest visitor attractions are notable for their sheer size. Springfield, Illinois, boasts the largest U.S. presidential library, dedicated to Abraham Lincoln. The world’s largest and oldest military aviation museum is found at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Greene County, Ohio. The nation’s largest shopping and entertaining complex is the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota.
Need more reasons to focus on the Midwest for the next convention, business or leisure trip you plan? Read on.
If you meet in Illinois’ famed “Windy City,” don’t pass up a chance to visit one of its renowned cultural attractions like the Art Institute of Chicago and the Dusable Museum of African-American History.
In the city of Lansing, part of the suburban Chicago Southland area, you can play a round of miniature golf and practice your swing in the batting cages at Hollywood Park — a great setting for a teambuilding event. Lisle, another suburban destination located 16 miles west of Chicago, is the site of the 1,700-acre Morton Arboretum.
A top visitor site in the capital city of Springfield is the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum, while Peoria’s Riverfront shopping and dining district is one of its hottest spots.
Travelers to the Moline/Rock Island area can enjoy cruising on the Mississippi River and touring the John Deer Pavilionand Collections Center. In Rockford, the Burpee Museum of Natural History and the Coronado Performing Arts Center are among the main attractions.
If your group is headed to the capital of the Hoosier State, make room on the itinerary for a visit to Bethel AME Church, which once served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Indianapolis is also home to the Crispus Attucks Museum and, of course, the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The Northern Indiana Center for History is housed in a Victorian mansion in South Bend, which also is the site of the University of Notre Dame and the College Football Hall of Fame. In the northeast Indiana city of Fort Wayne, key places of interest include the African/African-American Museum, the Chief Richardsville House and the Embassy Theater.
Indiana’s southern edge is home to one of the best-preserved Native American heritage sites in the nation, Angels Mounds in Evansville, where you’ll also find the Evansville African-American Historical Museum. The Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial is a short drive to the east.
LaPorte County includes two of the most popular visitor attractions in northern Indiana: the Indiana Dunes and Michigan City. Located between Lake Michigan and South Bend, the area also includes the towns of LaPorte, Rolling Prairie and several other communities.
Michigan City, the county’s largest community, provides the gateway to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. At this popular resort, you can glimpse the Chicago skyline from the 123-ft.-high peak of Mount Baldy and enjoy a host of outdoor activities that include picnicking, swimming, camping, hiking and horseback riding.
A great picnicking and playing venue in Michigan City is Washington Park, home to the state’s only working lighthouse. You can work up a sweat on the tennis court or enjoy a relaxed stroll through the park’s rock garden. For more exercise and sightseeing, you can visit the 110-acre International Friendship Gardens. Golfers can tee off at the free nine-hole course in Creek Ridge County Park. History buffs might enjoy a tour of the Barker Mansion, art lovers can browse the art gallery inside the LaPorte County Convention & Visitors Bureau and shopping enthusiasts can check out the Lighthouse Place Premium Outlets.
The town of LaPorte offers several unique event sites, such as the Mo Lac Ciel country estate and Smith Hall at Red Mill County Park. Rolling Hills, known for its U-pick farms and orchards growing apples, blueberries, pumpkins and other produce, might be an ideal setting for a family reunion outing.
Major meeting venues in LaPorte County include the Blue Chip Casino, Hotel & Spa, which offers a 15,000-sq. ft. ballroom, the Best Western LaPort Hotel & Conference Center, which accommodates up to 300 people for events, and the LaPorte Civic Auditorium, which contains banquet, conference and meeting space, plus a 1,382-seat auditorium.
Iowa’s capital and largest city was the site of the first Army Officer Training School for Black soldiers. The story of that history-making institution is chronicled at the Fort Des Moines Museum and Education Center. Other notable Des Moines attractions include Blank Park Zoo, the Science Center of Iowa and, opening in 2010, downtown’s new Principal Riverwalk.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa’s second largest metro area is home to the African American Historical Museum and Cultural Center of Iowa and the historic 26-acre Brucemore estate. Top attractions in Waterloo include John Deere factory tours, the Bluedorn Science Imaginarium and the Isle of Capri Casino.
Situated on the banks of the Missouri River, Sioux City offers meeting groups such diversion as the Arosy Casino, the Milwaukee Railroad Shops Historic District and the Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center. Davenport, part of the Quad Cities area on the Iowa-Illinois border, draws visitors to the German American Heritage Center, Figge Art Museum and Arsenal Island.
The newest attractions in Kansas’ largest city are the Wichita WaterWalk, a $130 million shopping and
entertainment district, and the Intrust Bank Arena. The downtown cultural complex known as Museums on the River includes the Old Cowtown Museum, which has an exhibit on Black cowboys. Another place to explore the state’s Black heritage is the Kansas African-American Museum, housed in Calvary Baptist Church. Groups traveling with kids might also want to include a trip to the Museum of World Treasures — where the displays range from dinosaurs to military history to Egyptian mummies — on their itinerary.
If your group is gathering in Kansas City, the list of things to see and do will include The Legends at Village West — a 1.1-million-sq. ft. shopping and entertainment district — the Kansas Speedway, Wyldewood Cellars Winery, Lewis and Clark Historic Park at Kaw Point and the Strawberry Hill Museum & Cultural Center — which spotlights the area’s Eastern European heritage.
Travelers to Topeka will certainly want to plan a tour of the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. It’s located in the Monroe School, which was ground zero in the series of cases that led to the landmark 1954 Supreme Court school desegregation ruling.
Other sites of historical interest include State Capital, known for its giant 11-by-31-ft. mural of the radical abolitionist John Brown; the Charles Curtis House Museum, home of the only Native American U.S. vice president; Old Prairie Town; and The Mulvane, the state’s oldest art museum.
The 116,000-sq. ft. Kansas Expocentre is Topeka’s largest meeting venue.
Detroit, Michigan’s largest city, offers an abundance of Black cultural and historical attractions that include the acclaimed Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the Motown Historical Museum and Hitsville USA, and the Tuskegee Airmen National Museum.
In the capital city of Lansing, you can view a marker at Malcolm X’s home site as well as tour the All Around the African Work Museum and Resource Center. For groups traveling to Ann Arbor, the African American Cultural & Historical Museum of Washtenaw County organizes Underground Railroad tours.
Among the top attractions in Flint are the Whaley Historical House, the Flint Cultural Center and Crossroads Village. Points of interest in Grand Rapids include the Dutch Village Theme Park, the Gerald R. Ford Museum and Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.
Visitors to the Victorian resort of Mackinac Island can enjoy strolling on the beaches along Lake Michigan and touring historic sites like the Round Island Lighthouse.
Shopping and dining on Grand Avenue is a favorite pastime for visitors and residents in Minnesota’s capital. Other St. Paul attractions include the Xcel Energy Center, the Schubert Museum of Musical Instruments and the Science Museum of Minnesota.
To see Minnesota’s biggest attraction, head to nearby Bloomington. The Mall of America is the nation’s largest shopping an entertaining complex — 4.7 million sq. ft. filled with more than 520 stores, an indoor theme park, an aquarium, a NASCAR racetrack and more.
Nestled on Lake Superior, Duluth has a list of attractions that includes the Tweed Museum of Art at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, the Great Lakes Aquarium, and the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.
In a state called the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” (there are actually even more) you can certainly expect plenty of fishing, boating and other outdoor recreation. Voyageurs, Minnesota’s only National Park, is situated just across from the Canadian border on Rainy Lake.
For a reception venue with great views inside and out, consider the Walker Art Center, which sits next door to the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and its iconic 7,000- lb. Spoonbridge & Cherry installation.
Other picturesque attractions doubling as event spaces include the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, the historic Mill City Museum and the Guthrie Theater, which offers magnificent views of the Mississippi River, Anthony Falls and the Stone Bridge.
Art lovers might also want to browse the Frank Gehry-designed Weisman Art Museum, while fans of live entertainment can check out the happenings in the Hennepin Avenue Theatre District, the Riverfront District or the Warehouse District.
Nicollet Mall, were the famed Mary Tyler Moore statue stands out front, is a favorite local shopping haunt, and the enormous Mall of America in Bloomington is easily accessible by light rail.
Outdoor attractions include more than 22 area lakes; 50 miles of walking, running and biking trails; and 170 area golf courses.
The city’s largest meeting venue, the Minneapolis Convention Center, contains 480,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space, 87 meeting rooms and a 28,000-sq. ft. ballroom. There are 30,000 area guestrooms. Visitors to Minneapolis during thewinter will appreciate the enclosed, climate-controlled Skyway connecting downtown hotels, shops and attractions.
If “Meet Me in St. Louis,” is the call to your group’s next convention, you’ll want to fit in time on the agenda for visits to attractions like the new Lumiere Place casino complex on the riverfront and the landmark Gateway Arch, where you can enjoy a skyline view from the top.
Kansas City’s must-see attractions include the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, the Power & Light District and the 18th and Vine Jazz District, where a memorial to Charlie Parker called “Bird Lives” has been erected.
For family reunion groups or meeting attendees traveling with kids, Springfield attractions like the Discovery Center science museum and the ancient underground riverbeds of Fantastic Caverns are bound to have a special appeal.
In Columbia, key points of interest include the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Gardens, the University of Missouri’s Museum of Art and Archaeology and special events like the J.W. Boone Ragtime and Early Jazz Festival in June.
Whether the trip is for a convention, an employee incentive or a family reunion, Branson is the place for those who love live entertainment. This Ozark Mountain destination showcases more than 100 live performances a day in 53 theaters. Whatever you’re in the mood for — jazz, blues, gospel, classical, Big
Band, country, magic, comedy, animal shows and more — there’s a stage in Branson calling you.
Branson’s top attraction is Silver Dollar City, the 1880s theme park buzzing with live entertainment, more than 100 craftspeople, 60 shops, a dozen restaurants and six annual festivals. Another popular hangout is the new Branson Landing entertainment district, which contains 450,000 sq. ft. of shops, restaurants,
marinas, condos and a boardwalk.
The Shepherd of the Hills Homestead draws visitors with tours, crafts and music inspired by the heritage of the Ozark Mountain people. The site also offers stunning views of
Table Rock Lake and the mountains from atop the 230-ft. Inspiration Tower. The Showboat Branson Belle, an 1880sstyle paddlewheel boat, makes dinner and lunch cruises on the lake, with a live show included, of course.
On the Branson Scenic Railway, passengers ride in restored 1940s dome cars. But the most memorable way to see the sights around Branson and the lakes might be to take a tour aboard the famous amphibious vehicles known as the Ducks.
The Branson Convention Center provides views of Lake Taneycomo and enough event space for up to 4,500 people. It contains a total of 220,000 sq. ft., including 47,000 sq. ft. of divisible exhibit space and a 23,000-sq. ft. ballroom on the first level, and 10 meeting rooms on the second level. Managed by the Hilton Hotels Corporation, the convention center is within walking distance of Branson Landing. Two nearby Hilton Hotels count among the 19,000 guestrooms throughout the city.
You’ll find lots of interesting ways to spend time in Nebraska’s capital city, from touring the Governor’s Mansion and sampling the shops, galleries and restaurants in the Historic Haymarket District to treating the tots to an outing at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo. Other notable attractions in Lincoln include the Great Plains Art Museum, the Lied Center for the Performing Arts and Pioneer Park.
Omaha is home to the Great Plains Black History Museum and the Malcolm X birth site. It’s also the site of Nebraska’s number one visitor attraction, the Henry Doorly Zoo, which boasts the world’s largest indoor desert, the world’s largest indoor swamp and the world’s largest enclosed rainforest. Other points of interest include Boys’ Town, the Orpheum Theatre, Lauritzen Gardens and the Joslyn Art Museum.
At Eugene T. Mahoney State Park, located between Omaha and Lincoln, you can go fishing, splashing in the water park or exploring the nature trails.
As a friend of the Wright Brothers, the African-American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar had a part in
the history being preserved at the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park, which includes Dunbar’s home.
Just east of Dayton is Greene County, the site of such attractions as the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce and the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
In Akron, well known for its industrial heritage, two of the top attractions are Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens — the former estate of Goodyear Tire and Rubber co-founder F. A.Seiberling — and the Goodyear World of Rubber Museum.
Columbus is home to several interesting Black heritage attractions, including the Kelton House and Garden, a restored Underground Railroad stop and the King Arts Complex.
Cleveland’s top tourist draws include the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and the Beck Center for the Arts.
Sandusky, Ohio’s Kalahari Resort has been caringly designed to accommodate the special needs of meeting and event planners. With state-of-the-art audiovisual and a distinctive African themed, versatile layout, meetings and events from 12 to 2,200 will be ensured an extraordinary experience.
Kalahari Resort, which boasts 95,000 sq. ft. of meeting/exhibit space, is a destination in itself with its pampering spa, shops, and nearly 900 spacious guest rooms and suites providing planners and guests a luxury of choice uncommon in the Midwest.
A visit to Cincinnati’s acclaimed National Underground Railroad Freedom Center should definitely be on your agenda if your group is gathering in this Ohio River city. One of Cincinnati’s most notable historic sites is the Harriet Beecher Stowe House, where you can view exhibits on anti-slavery movement
and the Underground Railroad.
The Arts Consortium of Cincinnati spotlights African- American art and culture, while other places to view art include the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Taft Museum of Art and the Contemporary Arts Center.
The Museum Center at Union Terminal offers several family- friendly attractions: the Cinergy Children’s Museum, the Museum of Natural History and Science, an Omnimax Theatre and the Cincinnati History Museum. Other great choices for family fun are the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, Paramount King’s Island Amusement Park and the Newport Aquarium.
For an evening of grown-up recreation, you can head to nearby Lawrenceburg for some dinner and riverboat gaming at the Argosy Casino.
The Duke Energy Center, the city’s largest meeting venue, contains 200,000 sq. ft. of contiguous exhibit space, more than 100,000 sq. ft of meeting space and a 40,000-sq. ft. ballroom. There are more than 23,000 area guestrooms, including 3,000 rooms within three blocks of the convention center.
At Toledo’s Walcott House Museum you can tour five historic buildings for a look back at life in the Maumee River Valley during the 19th century. Other area attractions of historical interest include the Canal Experience, the American Civil War Museum of Ohio, Old West End and Fort Meigs State Memorial Park, a War of 1812 battlefield located in Perrysburg, Ohio.
For family reunion groups, Toledo has plenty of kidfriendly attractions, from Cedar Point Amusement Park and the drive-through African Safari Wildlife Park to the playful corn mazes at Country Lane Tree Farm and Fleitz Pumpkin Farm.
Always a family favorite, the Toledo Zoo has become much more than an animal park, offering wine tasting in its Vineyard Adventures attraction and free summer Music Under the Stars concerts at the amphitheatre.
Fans of the visual and performing arts can browse the exhibits at the Toledo Museum of Art and take in a play at the Stranahan Theater. For a nature-themed diversion, you can visit the Butterfly House, where hundreds winged beauties flutter around an indoor garden.
Toledo’s premier meeting venue, the SeaGate Convention Centre offers 75,000 sq. ft. of column-free exhibit space. The city has more than 7,000 guestrooms.
Biking is a favorite pastime in Wisconsin’s capital, a city known for being on the cutting edge of green
living. Among the top visitor attractions in Madison are a State Capitol modeled after the nation’s capitol
building in Washington, D.C. and the Henry Vilas Zoo.
Lake Geneva, one of the state’s most popular resort destinations, offers such notable attractions as Big Foot Beach State Park, Black Point Mansion and the Geneva Lake Area Museum of History.
In La Crosse, you can get a view of three states — Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa — from atop the 570-ft.-high Grandad Bluff. A cruise along the Mississippi River provides another local sightseeing option.
Wisconsin’s oldest city is best known as the home of the Green Bay Packers. Along with Lambeau Field and the Green Bay Packer Hall of Fame, other major attractions in Green Bay include the Bay Beach Amusement Park and the Hazelwood Historic House Museum.
Hundreds of vintage motorcycles could be the backdrop for one of your off-site events if you meet in Milwaukee. The new Harley-Davidson Museum and Archives offers a catering service and event space that includes an outdoor venue that holds up to 15,000.
Known as the “City of Festivals,” Milwaukee celebrates its ethnic and cultural diversity with a full calendar of annual events like Summerfest — the world’s largest music fest — in June, Festa Italiana in July and the African World Festival in August. In fact, there’s some sort of festival going on nearly every weekend during the summer months, with many of the gatherings taking place at Henry W. Maier Festival Park on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Milwaukee boasts an impressive list of African-American heritage attractions, including Greer Oaks Art Gallery, the Wisconsin Black Historical Society Museum, the Hansberry-Sands Theatre Company, the African American Children’s Theatre and America’s Black Holocaust Museum.
Other major attractions include the Milwaukee Brewing Company, the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Milwaukee Public Museum.
The city’s largest meeting space is the Midwest Airlines Center, which contains 88,695 sq. ft. of exhibit space, a 37,506-sq.ft. ballroom and 28 meeting rooms. There are more than 12,000 hotel rooms in the Milwaukee metro area.
While this destination has been dubbed the “Waterpark Capital of the World®,” you’ll find lots more to
do here than splash around. Several resorts and spas and more than 100 restaurants and entertainment spots are counted among the amenities.
Plentiful family-friendly sites make the Dells an ideal spot for a family reunion. Along with the popular water parks, you’ll find places like the Rick Wilcox Magic Theater, Pirate’s Cover Family Fun Center, International Crane Foundation nature preserve and Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum.
A nice excursion for meeting delegates or spouses might be a scenic drive to the Wollersheim Winery in nearby Prairie du Sac. Once they arrive, they can tour the outdoor wine garden and take in the view of the Wisconsin River Valley below. The area’s newest place for wine tasting is the Tourdot Winery, which features a wrap-around deck that provides panoramic views.
The Kalahari Waterpark Resort Convention Center, with its African-themed decor, contains 100,000 sq. ft. of convention space. It also boasts 752 guestrooms, a full-service spa, a 27-hole golf course, an indoor theme park that sprawls more than 100,000 sq. ft., and the state’s largest water park. There are more than 8,000 guestrooms throughout the Wisconsin Dells.
Meeting groups and others traveling to America’s heartland will find easy accessibility, a wide range of meeting and lodging accommodations and a bounty of historical, cultural, entertainment and recreational attractions. You can find out more about the destinations profiled here, as well as others, through the state tourism offices listed at the end of this article.
GETTING IN TOUCH
Illinois Bureau of Tourism (800) 2CONNECT
Indiana Office of Tourism Development (800) 677-9800
Iowa Division of Tourism (515) 242-4705
Kansas Travel and Tourism Division (800) 2-KANSAS
Travel Michigan (800) 644-2489
Explore Minnesota Tourism (800) 657-3700
Missouri Division of Tourism (888) TOURISM
Nebraska Division of Travel & Tourism (877) NEBRASKA
Ohio Division of Travel and Tourism (800) BUCKEYE
Wisconsin Department of Tourism (800) 432-8747