It’s the place where you’ll find the nation’s largest African-American cultural museum and its oldest Black theater, a land where civil rights history was made and a revolutionary Black music sound was born. It’s the home of America’s largest shopping mall and the largest musical festival on the planet.
The Midwest, sometimes called America’s Heartland, is teeming with interesting places to see and fun things to do. Its central location makes it accessible to travelers from most points on the U.S. mainland. And with a variety of venues ranging from large state-of-the-art convention centers to casinos and water parks, the region’s meeting spaces can accommodate all kinds of groups.
Read on for a taste of what this region has in store.
Millennium Park continues to be one of the Windy City’s hottest hangouts, while one of Chicago’s most notable Black heritage attractions is the Dusable Museum of African-American History. Lisle, situated 60 miles west of the city in the region known as Chicagoland, offers meeting space for 40 to 50 people at Lisle Station Park. The setting is an 1874 CB&Q Railroad Depot.
Moline boasts the “world’s most comprehensive agricultural exhibit,” in its John Deere Pavilion. For a memorable group outing, consider a Mississippi River cruise aboard the Celebration Belle
. The Peoria Civic Center, containing 110,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space, is the largest event venue in Downstate Illinois. Two good leisure time options are the Peoria Glen Oak Zoo and the Peoria Riverfront.
At Rockford’s marquee attraction, the Burpee Museum of Natural History, the famous T-rex Skeleton Jane has now been joined by Homer, a juvenile Triceratops. The Discovery Center Museum and CoCo Key Water Resort offer more family-friendly diversions.
The Indiana University Art Museum in Bloomington houses an impressive collection of African masks. Visitors can also appreciate the art of the museum’s architectural design by I.M. Pei. Outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy kayaking and canoeing on Lake Monroe, 10 miles southeast of the city. Evansville’s Angel Mound State Historic Site is a living history village depicting the Native American heritage of the area. Two more local attractions are the Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden and the Koch Family Children’s Museum of Evansville.
Fort Wayne also has some notable attractions with kid appeal, including the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo; Science Central, and hands-on museum; and one of the city’s top events, the Johnny Appleseed Festival in September.
Massachusetts Avenue is a favorite shopping, dining and entertainment hub in Indianapolis. Other places to see include the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and nearby White River State Park.
In northeast Iowa, a network of sites highlighting the state’s agricultural heritage has been designated as the Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Area. But there is much more to the Hawkeye State than farming.
Cedar Rapids, the state’s second largest city, is home to the African American Museum of Iowa. It’s also the site of the Home and studio of “American Gothic” painter Grant Wood, who lived and worked there from 1924 to 1934. The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, houses “American Gothic,” as part of the world’s largest collection of works by Wood.
In Des Moines, the capital and largest city, a must-see attraction is the Fort Des Moines Museum and Education, memorial to African-American soldiers of World War I and female soldiers of World War II. The Simon Estes Riverfront Amphitheater – named for the African-American opera singer) – holds a summer concert series called “Nitefall on the River.” Other points of interest include Blank Park Zoo, the Des Moines Art Center and Hoyt Sherman Place, a performing arts center.
The largest museum of its kind, Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit houses more than 30,000 artifacts and archival materials. Taking center stage among the displays is the 22,000-sq. ft. multi-level exhibit called “And Still We Rise: Our Journey Through African American History and Culture.”
A family reunion itinerary for Grand Rapids might include a trip to the John Ball Zoo, where more than 1,000 animals, an aquarium, zip line tour and ropes course count among the things to see and do. A leisurely tour for meeting delegates or spouses might take in the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park or the Grand Rapids Art Museum.
A reunion or incentive trip to Mackinac Island will take travelers back in time to a Victorian village. Carriage tours are a popular way to explore the historic downtown – no motorized transportation is allowed on the island. Top area attractions include the Richard & Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum, Fort Mackinac and the famed Grand Hotel.
The State Capitol Building in Lansing offers tours of its public areas and House and Senate galleries. Visitors can also check out the exhibits at the Michigan Historical Museum, enjoy some education playtime at the Impression 5 Science Center and take in a concert, dance performance or Broadway show at the Wharton Center for Performing Arts. One of Lansing’s largest annual events is the Common Ground music festival, which is held each July on the banks of the Grand River.
The city’s largest meeting venue, Lansing Center, contains more than 175,000 sq. ft. of space, including 72,000 sq. ft. of column-free exhibit space.
Bloomington might be the ideal destination for a family reunion — or perhaps an incentive trip for a shopping enthusiast. The city is best known for the 4.2 million-sq. ft. Mall of America, which boasts more than 500 stores, 50 restaurants and a host of family attractions under its roof.
Elsewhere in the city, you can enjoy these attractions at no charge: the Bloomington Art Center, the Bloomington Historical Museum, the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge and the Normandale Japanese Gardens. The capital city of St. Paul also offers a number of free tourist sites, including the State Capitol, the Governor’s Residence, the Schubert Club Museum of Musical Instruments, St. Paul Cathedral and the Como Park Zoo & Conservatory.
Each May, St. Paul’s Festival of Nations showcases the cultures of 90 ethnic groups, while the Rondo Days celebration in July is a tribute to the local African-American neighborhood that was divided when an Interstate highway was built in the 1960s.
Art lovers traveling to Minneapolis will want to get a glimpse of the famously massive Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, featuring a 5,800-pound spoon and a cherry weighing in at 1,200 pounds. Other art venues include the Walker Art Center, located across from the Sculpture Garden, and the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum.
Another Minneapolis must-see is the pedestrian Stone Arch Bridge over the Mississippi River, with its view of St. Anthony Falls. Sporting such green features as the largest solar array in the upper Midwest, the Minneapolis Convention Center offers 480,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space, 87 meeting rooms and a 28,000-sq.-ft. ballroom.
Akron’s Goodyear World of Rubber Museum and Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens, former estate of Goodyear Tire and Rubber co-founder F.A. Seiberling, spotlight the industry that put the city on the map. The Invent Now Museum offers free admission to see its changing exhibits.
Columbus offers a pair of notable Black heritage attractions for the itinerary: the Kelton House and Garden – a restored Underground Railroad stop — and the King Arts Complex. A summertime meeting or reunion group might want to join the fun at the Columbus Jazz and Rib Fest in July.
The Dayton African American Cultural Festival in August is another event to consider planning a trip around. Two notable year-round Dayton attractions are the Paul Dunbar House and the National Museum of the United States Air Force. The Toledo Museum of Art offers free access to its Georgia and David K. Wells Sculpture Garden. The Toledo Zoo, a popular family attraction, opens after hours for grownup wine tastings at Vineyard Adventures.
The renowned National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which spotlights the anti-slavery movement and other human rights struggles, is a must-see for Cincinnati visitors. The Harriet Beecher Stowe House also contains exhibits on the Underground Railroad.
Summer or fall visitors to Cincinnati might be able to catch one of the city’s special celebrations, like the Macy’s Music Festival in July, the Midwest Black Family Reunion in August or Oktoberfest Zinzinnati – the largest Oktoberfest event in North America, drawing 500,000 revelers each year. Cincinnati’s premier meeting venue, the 750,000-sq. ft. Duke Entergy Center, contains 200,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space, more than 100,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and 40,000-sq. ft. ballroom.
Cleveland is home to two historic performing arts venues: Karamu House, America’s oldest Black theater, and the Cleveland Play House, the nation’s first permanent theater company. Performers are also in the spotlight at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, where a new exhibit, Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power, recently made its debut.
Next door to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Great Lakes Science Center houses interactive exhibits and encompasses the Steamship William G. Mather and an Omnimax Theater. Another local attraction focusing on aerospace science is the International Women’s Air & Space Museum, where admission is free.
A cluster of cultural attractions is located in University Circle, including the Cleveland Botanical Garden, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and the Western Reserve Historical Society/Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum. The Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art has moved to a new $26 million facility, while a $350 million project under way is converting the historic Higbee Building into the new Horseshoe Casino.
At A Christmas Story House & Museum, fans of the holiday film classic depicting a 1940s family can view some of the iconic props and costumes, while visitors to the Hale Farm & Village living history museum can take part in a 19th century experience. The Cleveland Plus pass provides one-price admission to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, Cleveland Botanical Garden, The Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage and other attractions, plus shopping and dining discounts.
Large meeting groups can be accommodated at the Cleveland Convention Center, which offers 375,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space and 37 meeting rooms. The Cleveland Medical Mart & Convention Center, slated to open in 2013, will include the 235,000-sq. ft. Medical Mart for tradeshows and a conference center with close to 60,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Situated on Lake Erie, the town of Sandusky was once a major Underground Railroad terminal. Today, it’s known more as a destination for recreation. At the Kalahari Indoor Waterpark Resort, guests can see exotic animals in the Safari Adventures park, which also offers pony and camel rides, zip line tours, ropes courses and other activities.
A $22 million expansion of the Kalahari Convention Center, targeted for December 2011 opening, adds a 38,000-sq. ft. ballroom/expo center, a 12,000-sq. ft. junior ballroom, 14 meeting rooms, a 4,000-sq. ft. outdoor plaza that’s connected to an indoor ballroom, and 30,000 sq. ft. of pre-function space.
The design of the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison was inspired by the nation’s capitol building in Washington, DC. Visitors can note the resemblance on a free guided tour. Madison is also known for being both green and fit. Visiting outdoor enthusiasts can head to one of several picturesque bike trails in the city, stroll through Olbrich Botanical Gardens or pick up the hiking trails at Lussier Heritage Center or the University of Wisconsin Arboretum.
Other notable outdoor attractions throughout the state include Devil’s Lake State Park, near Wisconsin Dells, known for its 500-ft. sandstone bluffs; Apostle Island National Lakeshore on Lake Superior, a 21-island site featuring sea caves, hiking trails and a waterfall; and the Cave of the Mounds in Blue Mounds, west of Madison.
The town of Spring Green, also just west of Madison, is the site of Taliesin, Frank Lloyd’s Wright’s home and workshop, which marked its centennial this year.
Whether traveling for business or pleasure, visitors to the destination nicknamed the “City of Festivals” shouldn’t miss a chance to experience one of Milwaukee’s long list of special events. June’s Summerfest, called the world’s largest music festival, is one option. The African World Festival in August is another. Henry W. Maier Festival Park, situated on the shores of Lake Michigan, is the venue for many of the city’s celebrations.
Milwaukee has several notable Black cultural and historical attractions, including Greer Oaks Art Gallery, which showcases the works of African-American artists; the Wisconsin Black Historical Society Museum; and the Hansberry-Sands Theatre Company. Fans of the performing arts will find plenty of options in Milwaukee’s Downtown Theater District, which includes the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts – home to the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the Florentine Opera Company, First Stage Children’s Theater and the Milwaukee Ballet – the African dance company Ko-Thi and several other theaters.
The Milwaukee Art Museum on the lakefront, is a must-see, with its striking wing-shaped architectural feature called brise soleil. This moving sunscreen is wider than a Boeing 747. Kids are sure to enjoy a visit to the Milwaukee Public Museum, whose natural history exhibits include a Costa Rican Rain Forest and the world’s largest dinosaur skull.
The Milwaukee area also is home to Wisconsin’s most popular visitor destination. The Potawatomi Bingo Casino, located minutes from downtown Milwaukee in the Menomonee Valley, features a 1,300-seat bingo hall, 3,100 slot machines, an Off-Track Betting room, a 20-table Poker Room and nearly 100 game tables. There’s live entertainment on tap at Bar 360 and in the 500-seat Northern Lights Theater. Dining options include a traditional Wisconsin steakhouse, a sports bar and grill and an Asian restaurant a food court and a buffet. Operated by the Forest County Potawatomi Community, the casino also offers more than 18,000 sq. ft. of banquet space for special events. Event space and catering are available in the Woodland Dreams Ballroom, the Tribal Room, Wild Earth and the private dining room of the Dream Dance Steak restaurant. More than 2,350 enclosed parking spaces are linked by skywalk to the casino.
Milwaukee’s premier meeting venue, Frontier Airlines Center, offers 189,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space, a 37,000-sq. ft. grand ballroom and 40,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. The center also is noted for showcasing $1.2 million in public art. Lodging accommodations are provided by more than 12,000 guestrooms in the metro area.
Dubbed the “Waterpark Capital of the World,” Wisconsin Dells is a popular vacation spot also known its resorts and spas. The state’s largest water park is found at the Kalahari Waterpark Resort, which contains 752 guestrooms, a full-service spa and a 27-hole golf course. A new 100,000-sq.-ft. indoor theme park at Kalahari features a six-story Ferris wheel, an African-themed carousel, a ropes course, bowling, mini golf and more. Five private party rooms provide event space. The resort also has 100,000 sq. ft. of flexible convention space, including a 17,000-sq. ft. ballroom. Throughout Wisconsin Dells are a variety of shops and restaurants and more than 8,000 guestrooms.
As you can see, the variety of attractions and meeting accommodations in the Midwest make this region a good bet for any group’s travel plans. To learn more about what these and other Midwest destinations have to offer, check out the list of state tourism bureau contact information accompanying 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
Travel Michigan – (800) 644-2489
Explore Minnesota Tourism – (800) 657-3700
Ohio Division of Travel and Tourism – (800) BUCKEYE
Wisconsin Department of Tourism – (800) 432-8747