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8 Unexpected Midwest Vacation Destinations

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Forget Disney World and your family’s traditional summertime escape. We’ve found eight Midwestern locations that, even if they seem a little familiar, still hold plenty of surprises for those willing to accept the journey.

(Illinois Office of Tourism photo)

(Illinois Office of Tourism photo)

Williamson County

This quiet, largely pastoral destination in far-southern Illinois caters to the whole family.

Shawnee National Forest covers some 289,000 acres between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, and the rugged landscape features six natural ecological regions tucked among rolling hills, forests, open lands, lakes and bluffs. It’s also home to the Rim Rock Recreational Trail, which has more than 400 miles of equestrian and hiking paths.
Learn more about the region’s rich history at the Williamson County Historical Museum, which is housed in a former jail. The museum’s 17 rooms show off local artifacts, antiques and many aspects of the courthouse’s former life.

Once it opens in September, spend an afternoon at Bandy’s Pumpkin Patch in Johnston City, Ill., and enjoy running through the only corn maze in a 100-mile radius. Little ones can also enjoy inflatable games, face painting or hayrides.

(Visit Eau Claire photo)

(Visit Eau Claire photo)

Eau Claire

Known as the City of Bridges, this northwest Wisconsin town has nine iconic ones, all within walking distance of each other downtown.

While you’re walking around, check out the dining scene, which is a major attraction with many alfresco options. For something more formal, check out industrial chic The Informalist, the more casual The Lakely or the very classic Stella Blues. For something truly casual, try some classic pubs like The Livery or Monk’s Bar and Grill.

Micon Cinemas downtown is a local favorite for dinner and a movie, but it’s also a preferred venue for two local film festivals: Midwest WeirdFest, which features science fiction and underground flicks in early March, and the Eau Claire World Film Festival in November.

(Visit Indy photo)

(Visit Indy photo)

Indianapolis

Kids can’t say no to the iconic Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and its wide range of interactive activities, including an exhibit on the International Space Station. Kids can learn how astronauts work and pretend to take their own journey into outer space.

The Indianapolis Zoo’s Dolphin Adventure is the only place in the Midwest where you can interact with dolphins. Learn from zookeepers how to feed the dolphins and connect with them by using hand signals. The zoo also boasts a roller coaster and the gondola-style Skyline.

Leave the kids behind when you visit the iconic St. Elmo Steakhouse, a classic steakhouse and lounge serving up juicy steaks along with delectable chicken and seafood options.

(Holland Area Convention & Visitors Bureau photo)

(Holland Area Convention & Visitors Bureau photo)

Holland

The sandy shores of Lake Michigan are Holland’s prime destination.

The Holland Princess, a Victorian-style paddlewheel riverboat is a newer attraction with public and private cruises. Enjoy a memorable cruise with lunch or dinner as you pass by lake homes, historical landmarks and amazing scenery illuminated by a glowing sunset.

The state’s most photographed lighthouse is Big Red, located in Holland State Park. For the best view, walk along the boardwalk to the north pier or head to Mount Pisgah, where a dune staircase takes you 157 feet above the lake.

While away your time in between at Holland’s charming downtown, which has received national commendations for its homegrown boutique stores, restaurants and cultural attractions. Street performers play on the sidewalks every Thursday through summer.

(Explore St. Louis photo)

(Explore St. Louis photo)

St. Louis

It’s a given that you’ll have to visit the Gateway Arch, and a 630-foot ride to the peak yields amazing views across two states.

Discover 79 acres of beautiful gardens, greenhouses and conservatories at the historic Missouri Botanical Garden. Explore horticultural displays such as a 14-acre Japanese strolling garden, and a massive collection of rare and endangered orchids.

Unwind at the Beall Mansion, an elegantly restored bed-and-breakfast. Luxury accommodations include a king bed, whirlpool and fireplace. Pamper yourself in the on-site spa. Rejuvenate yourself with a massage, hydrating treatment or a scalp treatment.

(Visit Quad Cities photo)

(Visit Quad Cities photo)

Quad Cities

The John Deere Pavilion in Moline, Ill., is a must-stop for families visiting this cross-state community on the Mississippi River. Get interactive with some of John Deere’s most famous machines, including combines, excavators and swing machines. Try your hand at running a simulated machine, or marvel at the Deere family home.

Then, test your luck at Isle Casino Hotel in Bettendorf, Iowa. Located right on the river, this 35,000-square-foot casino is open around the clock and includes nearly 1,000 slot machines, 20 table games and three restaurants.

The Celebration Belle is a luxury, 750-passenger riverboat, and the largest on the upper Mississippi River. It hosts many cruise options, including Captain’s Dinner cruises, themed lunches and 100-mile daylong cruises.

(Visit Milwaukee photo)

(Visit Milwaukee photo)

Milwaukee

The locals know one of the best ways to experience the city is along the water. Set sail on a double-decker boat with the Milwaukee Boat Line, where you’ll experience narrated, sightseeing tours. Consider taking a “booze cruise” to experience the city’s brewing hotspots.

The Historic Third Ward is where you’ll find tons of locally owned restaurants, boutiques and theaters. It’s home to the famous Milwaukee Public Market (good eats inside), Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, and the Broadway Theatre Center.

Spend the evening at Potawatomi Hotel & Casino to enjoy gambling, seven restaurants, lots of entertainment in the Northern Lights Theater, and the 19-story, deluxe hotel, which overlooks the city. It has amazing views of the bustling city and the Lake Michigan coastline.

(Explore Brainerd Lakes photo)

(Explore Brainerd Lakes photo)

Brainerd Lakes

It’s a true getaway in this lakeside retreat located about an hour northwest of the Twin Cities. Enjoy some thrills on a Zip Line Tour at Brainerd Lakes, where you can take in beautiful views across seven zip lines. If you’re especially brave, take on “The Drop,” a 50-foot free-fall.

The Quarterdeck Resort is a luxurious oasis set on 27 rolling acres with 850 feet of Gull Lake shoreline. Enjoy the Sand Bar, which serves up coffee, beer, ice cream and other refreshments right from the lake. Dock 77 is­­ a new, casual dining restaurant with plenty of seafood options.

Several birds call the lakes and forests in and around Brainerd Lakes home. Join Judd Brink, a local bird expert, on a unique birding tour, where you can see several bird varieties and other wildlife in their own habitat.

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