Vacation season is upon us. Trying to decided where you’ll go? The nation’s heartland might be your unexpected dream getaway. Big personalities — from Mark Twain to Wyatt Earp — have helped shape mid-America’s small towns, home to unexpected artist colonies, classic steepled churches, vibrant living history, and unequivocally great lakes. Read about these central USA must-sees.
1. Galena, Illinois
A perennial on lists of America’s prettiest small towns, Galena wears its history proudly. Its Main Street is so picture-perfect, it could be mistaken for a film set. History buffs flock to this early 19th-century mining town to explore the Ulysses S. Grant State Historic Sites. Climb down an old mine shaft at the Vinegar Hill Historic Lead Mine & Museum. Visit Apple River Fort State Historic Site, where costumed guides demonstrate what prairie life was like during the 1832 Black Hawk War. More history-themed activities include a guided trolley ride and a spooky ghost tour that ventures into the town cemetery.
Settlers began planting vineyards in the valleys of the Mississippi River as early as 1830. Today, wineries like Rocky Waters, Massbach Ridge, and Galena Cellars offer tours and tastings. The last two have also opened tasting rooms downtown.
Outside activities abound as well. Galena Grant Park and Horseshoe Mound Preserve draw picnickers, who procure supplies at Galena River Wine & Cheese. Apple River Canyon State Park has some of the best fishing, boating, and hiking in northern Illinois. Paddlers can take to the Galena River in kayaks and canoes. Sightseers can climb aboard a Mississippi Explorer Cruise. Those in search of even greater thrills head to Long Hollow. Here, a six-line canopy tour soars 75 feet above the valley floor.
For history, you can’t beat DeSoto House Hotel, Illinois’ oldest operating hotel. The elegantly appointed Goldmoor Inn draws guests with views of the Mississippi River. If outdoor adventure is on the agenda, choose Chestnut Mountain Resort. It’s home to a 2,000-foot alpine slide and the Soaring Eagle, a two-person seated zip line ride. Locals consider the burgers at Durty Gurt’s the best in town. Foodies love Fritz & Frites Bistro for its German and French fare. And don’t miss Root Beer Revelry, a shop devoted entirely to the classic soda.
2. Mackinac Island, Michigan
For a leiusurely getaway to a destination even more slow-paced than the average small town, many Midwest-bound travelers opt for this beautiful island. Here, the only modes of transport are horse-drawn carriages and bicycles. In fact, car-free Mackinac (pronounced “Mackinaw”) is a study in time travel. It’s home to a fort that played a pivotal role in early American history, and you’ll find a circa-1887 Victorian resort that’s so visually stunning, it could only be named The Grand Hotel.
Located near the meeting point of two Great Lakes — Michigan and Huron — 3.8-square-mile Mackinac Island welcomes visitors year-round, but “opens” for the season in late April and sees the biggest crowds from May to October (when ferries run). Once the center of Michigan’s fur trade, this summer playground now consists of 82 percent preserved parkland. Here, 500 horses wait to take riders on tours (via carriage or saddle), and 1,850 rental bicycles are available so sightseers can navigate the island’s 8-mile loop. Golfing, hiking, and sailing are popular as well.
Top sights include Fort Mackinac, which dates to 1780, and Arch Rock, a 146-foot-tall natural limestone formation that’s one of the island’s most photographed spots. Locals are unhurried types who enjoy practicing the art of stone skipping on the pristine waters of 120-foot-deep Lake Huron. There’s no app for that.
Mackinac Island is located in northern Michigan; the closest airport is Pellston Regional Airport. Ferries transport visitors to the island from both Mackinaw City and St. Ignace. Stay at the one-of-a-kind Grand Hotel, whose 660-foot, flag-draped front porch is the world’s longest. Got a sweet tooth? Keep a dentist in business by taste-testing the island’s legendary fudge at any of 14 shops. Many of the recipes have been handed down through generations — double chocolate is a must-try.
3. Amana Colonies, Iowa
A visit to the seven villages that make up the Amana Colonies starts with an introduction to the concept of Gemütlichkeit: the German tradition of hospitality in which hosts treat guests like long-lost friends. First fleeing Germany, then New York, the Amanians came to the Iowa River Valley in search of religious freedom and a place to establish their utopian vision of collective living, in which all land and property were held in common.
Like the nearby Amish, they became renowned for their Old World craftsmanship — weaving cloth, brewing beer, and making furniture and clocks. Today, it’s these traditions tourists come to see, while shopping for handmade soap, candles, and quilts, and watching demonstrations of traditions preserved from the past.
First stop: the Amana Heritage Society, a living museum set inside a schoolhouse, a bathhouse, a home, and other 19th-century buildings. In Middle Amana, the Communal Kitchen and Cooper Shop look just as they did when the last community meal was served in 1932. Meanwhile, High Amana’s General Store is still stocked with staples of prairie life. In Homestead, visitors can learn about the traditions of the Amana Church, or Saal, and visit blacksmith and print shops still demonstrating traditional techniques.
The surrounding prairie has plenty to offer nature lovers as well. The 3.1-mile trail known as the Kolonieweg, or “Colony Way,” along the Mill Race canal makes it easy to get around by bike and on foot.
Don’t miss the chance to experience traditional German hospitality by staying in one of the local hotels or B&Bs. Homestead’s Die Heimat Country Inn, built in the 1850s, is the original visitors’ lodging, updated with modern comforts. Hähnchen (chicken) schnitzel, sauerbraten (pot roast), and schweinefleisch (pork) sausages are musts when dining at Ronneburg Restaurant.
4. Bloomington, Illinois
A tip of our stovepipe hat to this affordable small town, which boasts close ties to Abraham Lincoln and offers a wealth of cultural and outdoor activity options. Start by exploring the David Davis Mansion State Historic Site, a gorgeously restored 19th-century Victorian estate of a former judge who had a long friendship with the president.
A tour of the home also leads you through its meticulously kept gardens. They were patterned after Italian landscaping from the 17th century and English gardens of the 18th century. If you’re staying overnight, Vrooman Mansion is a great option. Built in 1869 and formerly owned by Julia Green Scott, a two-term national president of the Daughters of the American Revolution, it’s now a bed and breakfast whose former owners counted President Woodrow Wilson and President Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt among their inner circle of friends.
Active locals and visitors alike love to hike, bike, and run along the approximately 37 miles of the Constitution Trail. It was dedicated and named in 1987 to celebrate the 200th birthday of the US Constitution. Fly on over to the Prairie Aviation Museum, which is sure to thrill aircraft enthusiasts young and old with a collection of planes such as the Vought A-7A Corsair II, Grumman F-14D Tomcat, and more. In the summer, the museum features Open Cockpit Days that allow you to peek inside and even chat with the pilots who flew the planes.
Check out the Sumatran tiger, gibbons, snow leopards, red wolves, Galapagos tortoise, and more at the Miller Park Zoo. And if you’re a fan of Beer Nuts, you’re really in luck. Bloomington is the only city in the world that produces them. Grab a company tour — and a handful of samples while you’re at it.
Try the bourbon-glazed steak bites at The Mystic Kitchen & Tasting Room, a vibrant bohemian lounge that also features live music in Bloomington’s historic downtown. It’s surrounded by great shopping (A. Gridley Antiques) and art gallery options, plus the McLean County History Museum, which offers a “Looking for Lincoln” audio walking tour that traces the history of Abe’s years when he worked as an attorney in McLean County.
5. Deadwood, South Dakota
Fans of the popular HBO Western Deadwood need no introduction to this famously rowdy gold-rush town, now a National Historic Landmark. But visitors who don’t know the show will be just as wowed. Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane really did live here, as did Sheriff Seth Bullock and swaggering saloon owner Al Swearengen. A ride on the Deadwood stagecoach starts a day spent exploring the town’s historic sites, including the Days of ’76 Museum, the Broken Boot Gold Mine, and the historic Bullock Hotel, said to be haunted by the righteous lawman himself.
Ghosts also purportedly roam the Adams House, an elegant Victorian that sat empty and fully furnished for 50 years before reopening as a museum. And no visit to Deadwood is complete without paying your respects at the Mount Moriah Cemetery. Here, Calamity Jane, Hickok, and Bullock are buried.
Reenactments reign, with shootouts on Main Street and a walking tour led by Marshal Con Stapleton — or at least his look-alike. The drama of Hickok’s murder plays out all over town, from Saloon No. 10, the bar named after where he was gunned down, to the trial of Jack McCall, his murderer, performed at the Masonic Temple theater.
Fans can book a customizable Deadwood: Heroes & Villains tour to learn all about their favorite characters. And Deadwood’s history as a gambling town continues today with dozens of aptly named casinos, including the Gold Dust, the Silverado, the Mineral Palace, and the Tin Lizzie.
Book a room at the Bullock Hotel or the elegantly restored Martin Mason Hotel, which also houses the Lee Street Station Café, beloved for its comfort food and substantial breakfasts. For something more high-end, try the Deadwood Mountain Grand, a Holiday Inn Resort set in a converted gold ore-processing mill overlooking town. In the surrounding Black Hills National Forest, savor the views from the Friendship Tower. Sheriff Seth Bullock built it in 1919 to honor his friend Teddy Roosevelt.
6. Hannibal, Missouri
The spirit of Mark Twain flows through the sleepy town of Hannibal as strongly as the mighty Mississippi River. It was here that Twain (né Samuel Clemens) spent his boyhood years, roaming the streets, exploring the hills and caves, and passing the days along the riverbanks.
Twain lived in Hannibal from the time he was 4 years old to 17, before heading off to explore the big, wide world. First a steamboat pilot, then a journalist out West, he eventually emerged with his signature satirical wit as one of the most important social commentators of his time.
Today in Hannibal, Twain’s name is never far from view. At the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, interactive exhibits provide insight into the humble beginnings of one of America’s most revered authors. The eight-building complex includes his childhood home, as well as the home of Laura Hawkins, the real-life inspiration for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’s Becky Thatcher. Several of Twain’s personal artifacts are on view. This includes his white jacket and typewriter. You’ll also find first editions of his major works and 60-plus original letters penned by the wordsmith himself.
After exploring the home, it’s on to the Mark Twain Cave, whose winding passages set the scene for many of Twain’s tales, and then a narrated cruise on the Mark Twain Riverboat. It’s here on the open water that the spirit of Hannibal’s favorite son seems most alive.
When Twain would return to Hannibal, he’d stay with old friends at the Garth Woodside Mansion, now one of the country’s most charming B&Bs. Book the Samuel Clemens room, and awake each morning to the same view Twain enjoyed more than a century ago. After your trip to the Mark Twain Cave, amble next door to the Cave Hollow West Winery for a glass of Mark Twain Reserve.
7. Dodge City, Kansas
Stepped in the legend and lore of the Old West, Dodge City invites visitors to relive the frontier days in what was long known as the wickedest place on the plains. No other city drew more ace lawmen than the “Queen of the Cow Towns.” It was here where buffalo hunters, drifters, desperadoes, and outlaws all fought for their way of life.
This rough-and-tumble town along the Santa Fe Trail started as a small military site. It then exploded when the railroad arrived in 1872. Rashly constructed frame buildings and tents sprang up beside the tracks, along with a general store, a blacksmith shop, and a slew of brothels and saloons. Unfortunate souls were buried in the Boot Hill Cemetery, now the site of the Boot Hill Museum and a full replica of Front Street, circa 1876. The museum’s interactive exhibits illustrate early life here through colorful characters like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.
Statues of these legends and others pepper the Trail of Fame Walking Tour, which winds through the historic district past the Santa Fe Depot, now home to the Depot Theater Company, and the original site of the Long Branch Saloon. Visitors who wander these storied sites from late July to early August can take part in Dodge City Days — more than 75 events including a rodeo, a cattle drive, a barbecue contest, and a Western parade. Amid all this pageantry, it’s easy to imagine those dusty streets coming alive again with the gunslinging spirits of their past.
Don’t pass up dinner at Prime on the Nine, where Chef Ryan Emery dishes up favorites like chicken-fried steak served with creamy jalapeño gravy. Just east of town sits the Mueller-Schmidt House, aka the Home of Stone, the city’s oldest building still on its original foundation. Visitors can see the inside — frozen in time since 1881 — June through August. And, in the summer, kids will enjoy Long Branch Lagoon’s 27,000 square feet of water attractions, including The Gunslinger, a 300-foot slide that has three full loops.
8. Alexandria, Minnesota
Nearly surrounded by the Alexandria Chain of Lakes, the eponymous town was born when Victorian vacationers began arriving by train for a dose of summer R&R. Some 160 years later, the region retains the lazy vibe of a classic waterfront town.
Wet and wild fun rules in the area’s 300 lakes, where thousands tube, paddle, water-ski, and fish every summer. But that’s only the beginning of the area’s outdoor experience. Cyclists come for the 55-mile Central Lakes Trail — a rail-to-trail conversion along the old Burlington Northern Railroad line. There’s also the 62-mile Lake Wobegon Trail. Hikers favor Lake Carlos State Park and Inspiration Peak. Driving the Glacial Ridge Scenic Byway is the best way to appreciate the full sweep of the lake-dotted landscape. Maps are available at the Visitors Center.
One of Alexandria’s more curious claims to fame is the Kensington Runestone, uncovered in a farmer’s field in 1898 with inscriptions suggesting 14th-century Viking origins. Experts question its authenticity. However, this doesn’t stop visitors from snapping selfies with Big Ole, a giant fiberglass Viking at the Runestone Museum. The complex also encompasses historic Fort Alexandria, as well as a 40-foot replica of a Viking trading ship. A nautical theme continues at the Minnesota Lakes Maritime Museum.
More Nordic humor can be evidenced in the self-guided Skål Crawl, a booze trail that highlights local libations like Panther Distillery’s whiskies and Carlos Creek Winery’s lighthearted vintages.
Beaches, boat rentals, and barbecues, oh my! Consider Woodland Resort on Lake Miltona, Westridge Shores and Big Foot resorts on Lake Mary, and Canary Beach Resort on Lake Villard. Alternately, Geneva Lake’s Arrowwood Resort — one of the biggest — features a water park and golf course. Start the day with a caramel roll from Roers Family Bakery. Cap it with a frosted cookie from The Sugar Shack.
9. Traverse City, Michigan
In “the land shaped like a hand,” Traverse City lies just near the tip of the pinkie finger. Home to loads of festivals and 180 miles of lakefront beaches, the “Cherry Capital of the World” presides over northern Michigan as its social and cultural heart. Downtown, 150 boutiques set in 19th-century Victorian storefronts house artisan dairy (The Cheese Lady), high-end souvenirs (James C. Smith Fine Jewelry), and foodstuffs dedicated to the crop that launched the city (Cherry Republic).
The town is known for hosting tons of annual events — the National Cherry Festival chief among them. In the week spanning the end of June and start of July, the region celebrates its standing as the country’s largest producer of tart cherries with concerts, races, markets, shows, contests, and parades, including the grand-finale Cherry Royale Parade, a tradition since 1925. Late July sees the Traverse City Film Festival, founded by filmmaker Michael Moore. The Trail Running Festival takes place in April. Beer Week happens in November — the list goes on.
Weather permitting, Grand Traverse Bike Tours pedal through Leelanau County’s wine country. And picnickers lounge on Grand Traverse Bay, inhaling that heady lake air that any Michigander can instantly identify as the scent of home.
To stay in town, look to Hotel Indigo. They offer modern rooms with artwork and decorative touches inspired by the area’s history and natural beauty. A 15-minute drive from downtown, Grand Traverse Resort and Spa’s 900 acres enclose a golf course, four pools, and tower rooms that lend sweeping views of the foliage and Grand Traverse Bay. While you’re in the neighborhood, don’t miss a day trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, 40 minutes from the center of town.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, America’s Best Small Towns, in 2022.