As summer winds down, many of our “big vacation” plans fade with the seasons, but the truth is, we never really stop wanting to spend time with our families, to get away for a weekend, to simply explore or relax, right? I don’t think that ever wanes. At least in my world, it doesn’t.
Because I live here in the Midwest, and we are always looking for the best and most extraordinary ways to enjoy our time together… without spending a fortune. So I’ve collected 25 of the best and most extraordinary free and fun activities in this part of the country.
Park Point Beach, Duluth: Facing Lake Superior, Park Point Beach boasts the world’s largest sandbar: 7 miles long. Open to the public, it is often packed with swimmers, surfers, sunbathers and people just looking to spend time near the water.
Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, Duluth: Managing 365 acres as a natural reserve and observatory, Hawk Ridge draws visitors from all over the world, especially in the fall, to observe the migration of the nearly 20 species of raptors and vultures who move through this territory.
St. Joan of Arc Chapel, Milwaukee: Originally constructed more than 500 years ago, this chapel did not find its start in Milwaukee, but rather in a little French village south of Lyon. It was moved to Long Island in the 1920s, dismantled, moved again and then reconstructed right here on Marquette’s campus in 1966. Tours are free, but donations are welcome.
Miller Brewery Tour, Milwaukee: Experience Bavarian-style Miller brewing during a free, guided one-hour tour, which runs nearly every 30 minutes between 10:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. You’ll see the Miller Caves, observe high-speed production and sample complimentary favorites at the end of your tour.
Jelly Belly Warehouse Tour, Pleasant Prairie: Jelly Belly lovers, rejoice! Free tours of your favorite jelly bean warehouse (including samples!) are offered daily. Located 30 minutes south of Milwaukee, a 25-30 minute train ride will allow you to explore the candy-making experience including characters, Jelly Belly bean art and a stop at the end that includes a few tasty treats.
GM Renaissance Center, Detroit: It’s no secret that General Motors and the city of Detroit share a special relationship. Learn the history of the two during a one-hour tour, then take a peek at GM’s latest models in their showroom. You’ll end your time here with a stunning view of the skyline of Motor City from the 72nd floor of the Detroit Marriott.
TART Trail, Traverse City: Lovers of the outdoors will soak up the opportunity to bike, hike through forests, stroll along beaches or absorb the loveliness of local wineries along TART Trail, a collection of open space corridors dedicated to promoting healthy lifestyles in the area. Visitors can join in a number of local events or make their way on their own, enjoying the quiet, clean, beautiful space.
Grange Insurance Audubon Center, Columbus: Just a quick mile from downtown Columbus, this designated “important bird area” is the heart of an extensive redevelopment project. More than 200 species of birds have been recorded in this habitat on the Scioto River, including tropical songbirds and warblers. It’s also a hunting ground for the peregrine falcon.
Scioto Mile, Columbus: More than 145 acres of open, lush parkland stretches along the riverfront, including areas for biking, walking and jogging. The park features a 15,000-square-foot interactive fountain and the country’s largest free outdoor climbing wall, making it a popular location for locals and visitors alike.
Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland: Founded in 1913 “for the benefit of all the people forever,” this museum allows the art enthusiast to wander freely among the works of some of the greatest artists in the world, including Picasso, Renoir, Van Gogh, O’Keefe and Monet. Children’s programs are offered regularly.
Soldiers and Sailors Monument, Indianapolis: Providing a 360-degree view of downtown Indianapolis, this monument placed within the Indiana War Memorial Plaza stands tall. Originally built to honor those from the state who gave their lives during the Civil War, it now also represents the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War and the Spanish-American War. It’s free to climb this monument’s 330 steps, or you can pay a small fee to take the elevator to the top.
Whitewater Gorge Park, Richmond: A remnant of the last Ice Age, Whitewater Gorge Park Trail boasts a bird sanctuary, limestone cliffs and a walking trail — and, if you can walk the length of the trail, a beautiful waterfall.
Chicago Botanic Garden, Chicago: It is astonishing that this garden is free, and yet it is. As part of their mission, they state, “A visit to the Chicago Botanic Garden’s 385-acre, living museum campus — in all four seasons — should inspire awe, joy and well-being, and feel welcoming and safe to people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities.” And they make it so.
Richard H. Driehaus Museum of Stained Glass, Chicago: Located near the lower level of Navy Pier, this museum is unlike anything else in the area — it feels distinctly un-touristy. It houses 11 stained-glass windows by Tiffany Studios. (If you are having trouble locating the gallery, call 312-482-8933 ext.21 for assistance.)
Lincoln Home State Historic Site, Springfield: A piece of history about halfway between Chicago and St. Louis, this is the site of Abraham Lincoln’s home — the only home he ever owned. He lived in this house from 1844 until 1861. Tours are free, but tickets are required. You can grab them at the Lincoln Home Visitor Center, though it’s suggested that you come early during busy summer months.
Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site, Springfield: Like Lincoln’s home, his final resting place is also in Springfield. This tomb also houses his wife Mary and three of his four sons. His fourth is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Tours are available daily.
Forest Park, St. Louis: With more than 1300 acres of lush green space, St. Louis boasts a city park larger than New York’s. The area includes more free activities than most visitors can manage in one trip, including the Missouri History Museum, the 90-acre St. Louis Zoo and the St. Louis Art Museum.
Anheuser-Busch Brewery, St. Louis: Founded in the 1800s, the Anheuser-Busch Brewery is both history- and architecture-rich. You’ll witness the beer-making process, learn the brewery’s traditions and sip a few complimentary favorites at the end of your tour.
The Money Museum, Kansas City: During a self-guided tour through Kansas City’s federal reserve bank, you can lift an honest-to-goodness gold bar, see billions of dollars in the region’s largest cash vault, design your own currency, see President Harry Truman’s coin collection and walk away with your own bag of shredded cash. Keep in mind that, if you are 18 or older, valid I.D. is required.
Harley-Davidson Vehicle and Powertrain Operations, Kansas City: Have a need for speed? Or at least to see how speed is born? This tour is a good one for you. It starts with a video, then moves on to the factory floor, where you will see the evolution of Harley-Davidson. Tours occur hourly on weekdays between 9:30 and 1:30 p.m., and tickets are first come, first served (they recommend arriving early).
Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site, Topeka: A deep dive into an important part of our history. You’ll visit the former Monroe Elementary School to understand the ordinary people who helped to bring about important change: the desegregation of schools.
International Forest of Friendship, Atchison: It just sounds beautiful, doesn’t it? This arboretum is a tribute and memorial to Amelia Earhart (on her 200th birthday), as well as to aviation and to aerospace. It houses trees from all around the world, and has dedications and exhibits to many lost in pursuit of their passion — including the seven astronauts lost on the Columbia Shuttle.
Field of Dreams, Dyersville: If this isn’t a baseball lover’s dream, I’m not sure what is. The site of the 1989 Field of Dreams movie set is also a 100-year-old farm that still attracts fans from all across the country. They come to run the bases, fantasize a home run — and yes, on certain summer Sundays, they watch for those “ghost” players to return.
State Historical Museum, Des Moines: The beauty of this museum is that each exhibit tells a story that takes you on a journey through Iowa’s history — from the history of the state’s wildlife to more than 300 artifacts from the Civil War to their role in the building of Hollywood.
John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park, Des Moines: Open from sunrise to midnight (city park hours), this park is located on 4.4 acres. It features artwork by 22 of the world’s widely celebrated artists, with 28 sculptures in total. Guided tours are available upon request, though you are free to roam the park on your own during open hours.
There are so many more stellar places to explore in the Midwest. If you’d like to add to the list, simply leave your recommendation in the comments.
Disclosure: This is part of a sponsored collaboration between Experience Columbus and SheKnows