Autumn is the perfect time to explore the Midwest, as trees turn vibrant colors, farmers harvest golden fields and cool breezes remind us that we’ll soon be spending a lot of time indoors. Here are 10 quintessential destinations.
Sure, it’s a short train ride from home, but there’s always something interesting to see in Chicago’s Loop neighborhood.
Kick off fall with one last warm-weather concert, the World Music Fest. For eight days, from Sept. 21-27, at the Chicago Cultural Center and other locations, talented musicians share the sounds and rhythms unique to their home cultures. While you’re at the cultural center, explore art exhibits and weekly foreign films.
Just a few blocks south on Michigan Avenue, stop by the Art Institute of Chicago and revel in some of the best art on the planet. See which art styles move you the most in this 300,000-piece collection. Many temporary exhibits are on display this fall, too, including “Building: Inside Studio Gang Architects,” with a studio-like atmosphere that reflects the unique approach of Belvidere native Jeanne Gang and her team at Studio Gang Architects, designers of Chicago’s new skyscraper, Aqua.
Other special exhibits include Frank Lloyd Wright’s collection of Japanese prints, richly colored early German woodcuts, a survey of classic American pop musicians, artist Danh Vo’s collection of reconstructed fragments of the Statue of Liberty, and a look at the work of filmmaker and artist Steve McQueen (not to be confused with the famous actor).
From here, walk a few blocks across Grant Park to the Field Museum, where you’ll see how 21st century technology unravels two Egyptian mummies. Then, discover some of the most surprising and unusual mammals ever to walk the earth.
But why walk when you can run? Stop by the Windy City early on Oct. 7 to see the 35th annual Chicago Marathon. Each year, some 45,000 runners follow a 26.2-mile course from the Loop north toward Wrigleyville, west toward West Loop, south toward Bronzeville and ending at Grant Park.
“Let’s talk about the Shedd Aquarium, one of the largest aquariums in the U.S., and really, there is nothing else like it in our area,” says Melissa McCarville, regional public relations manager for Choose Chicago. “Then, the Art Institute has artwork from around the world, and Adler Planetarium was the first planetarium in the country. Chicago is a place where you can learn and see so many things.”
The Beer Capital of America has a long history of brewing, and you can still find a good drink along the Riverwalk, in the Third Ward or at Oktoberfest every weekend in September. Indeed, the city’s brewing history is a treasured asset. But there’s a lot more to the city.
Start out at the Milwaukee Public Museum and tour the Streets of Old Milwaukee, a recreation of 1880s Milwaukee. Stick around to tour some of the museum’s 4 million-object permanent collection, its 4,100 square-foot green roof, or one of many temporary exhibits, such as “Native Games,” which highlights two dozen games played by American Indians in the U.S. and Canada.
Next, explore the Milwaukee Art Museum and watch its massive sunscreen wings unfold twice daily. The museum’s three buildings are each architectural marvels, and its exhibitions include a kid-friendly display on animation, which includes concept drawings and still shots from actual films.
Wisconsin folks are always looking for a party, and they’ll find one at the Harvest Fair that kicks off Sept. 28 at State Fair Park. And, just north of the city, the annual Cedarburg Wine & Harvest festival unfolds Sept. 15 and 16.
When planning your trip, follow the back roads for better color. Route 67 will lead you through Eagle, Wis., to Old World Wisconsin, 600 acres of restored prairie and woods inside the southern Kettle Moraine State Forest, where 1900-era immigrant life is recreated in working farms of German, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish and Polish heritage. A crossroads village shows how our “melting pot” heated up in America. This is the nation’s largest living museum dedicated to rural life.
From Chicago, travel the Amtrak Hiawatha for a unique view, or take quiet Wisconsin Route 32 and follow the curving landscape along Lake Michigan, through places like Kenosha and Racine. Continue the scenic lakeview drive as you approach downtown.
“The lakefront drive you’ve got to do,” says Carrie Woods, a publicity specialist for VISIT Milwaukee. “It starts by the Milwaukee Art Museum and Discovery World, right after you come over the Daniel Hoan Memorial Bridge. Follow Lincoln Memorial Drive and go past the lakefront, past Alterra Coffee, and then past the marina and Bradford Beach. As you go north, the road pulls away from the lake and there are these giant historic mansions.”
Door County, Wis.
The Door County peninsula is a nautical paradise, with some 300 miles of shoreline in Green Bay and Lake Michigan. Great fall vistas are available from the water, but there are many ways to explore this mostly rural vacation destination.
Start your journey on the Door County Coastal Byway, a state scenic route established in 2010 along state routes 42 and 57. You’ll pass the county’s major communities as the road bends with the landscape on both sides of the peninsula – trimmed in vibrant orange and yellow foliage.
From towns like Sister Bay or Fish Creek, put in a kayak or board a scenic boat tour. Explore sweeping lakeshore views and natural trails during Segway or airplane tours, or bike/hike trails at one of the county’s five state parks.
For a taste of fresh produce and unique restaurants, explore the So Delicious, So Door County culinary tour through Oct. 28, and don’t forget the cherries (Door County’s specialty). Harvest festivals run throughout the fall in several communities.
Come evening, enjoy a rich theatre environment featuring performances by the Peninsula Players or the American Folk Theatre, which hosts its quadrennial “And if Elected,” a spoof on presidential history.
Despite the area’s many mom-and-pop destinations – including nearly 100 art galleries and studios – it’s that scenic byway that draws national attention.
“The designated route combines so many things that are great about Door County,” says Jon Jarosh, director of communications for the Door County Visitor Bureau. “It will take you through many of our small communities and is a great way to get an overview of the county. You’ll pass by state parks, stores, historic sites, lots of scenic vistas, and of course, the water.”
Lake Geneva, Wis.
Enjoy waning warm days with lots of outdoor fun in the Lake Geneva area. Boating is the easiest way around this 5,500-square-acre lake, and lakeshore communities offer ample boat launches. Catch a water taxi or enjoy a dinner cruise or historic tour aboard a Lake Geneva Cruise Line vessel.
Celebrate the lake’s unique boating heritage from Sept. 28-30, during the Geneva Lakes Antique and Classic Boat Show. This annual event at the Abbey Resort includes a boat parade and a vintage watercraft show.
Boating’s not the only way to get around – some choose to walk the lake instead, following a 26-mile path that traipses through backyards and forests, including Big Foot Lake State Park, where people enjoy camping, hiking, boating and fishing.
From Oct. 6-7, downtown Lake Geneva welcomes autumn with its annual Oktoberfest, a family festival with authentic food, fun, music and a pumpkin giveaway.
Fall color here is both predictable and exceptional, thanks to careful cultivation of exotic trees at some of the area’s oldest mansions. Unique species like ginko and cypress add to the variety. George Hennerley, president of the local Chamber of Commerce and the CVB, predicts color will be at its strongest from Oct. 20-27. When that color hits, he says, the area’s best drive is along Snake Road, between Lake Geneva and Williams Bay.
“It’s like driving through a yellow cathedral,” he says. “There are almost all sugar maples, and that road just winds around.”
Wisconsin’s state capital is a busy city any time of the year, and fall is no exception. Its chain of five interconnected sparkling lakes is treasured by residents and visitors alike, for all manner of water sport. In fact, this city hums with all kinds of vigorous activity.
Just after Labor Day, Madison welcomes Ironman Wisconsin, a triathlon that includes a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run that ends at the State Capitol. A few weeks later, on Oct. 13, is the Haunted Hustle, a marathon/half-marathon/10k race that encourages runners and spectators alike to show up in costume. On Oct. 6, join nearly 80,000 tailgaters outside Camp Randall Stadium for an all-day party as the Badgers take on the Illini.
On Sept. 14-15, a variety of musicians come together for the World Music Festival at the Wisconsin Union Theater, on the University of Wisconsin campus. Catch the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s season kickoff on Sept. 21, a Russian repertoire, at the Overture Center for the Arts.
The food here is not to be missed. Join the Dane County Farmer’s market every Saturday morning on the Capitol Square to find fresh produce, meats, baked goods and other treats. Along State Street, you’ll discover top-notch, home-grown restaurants.
Madison is surrounded by scenic countryside and quaint villages. Follow Route 151 west toward Mt. Horeb’s “Trollway,” an offbeat tribute to troll statuary and Norwegian heritage. On Oct. 6, celebrate these whimsical characters with family activities.
“One of the things that makes Madison different is our proximity to the university,” says Judy Frankel, communication manager for the Greater Madison CVB. “We have a perfect storm here that results in an amazingly high quality of life for residents and visitors alike.”
Mineral Point, Wis.
Southwest Wisconsin’s Driftless Area offers sweeping views of the rugged, hilly terrain, but it’s the many cultural and historical attractions that set Mineral Point apart from other destinations.
Consider swapping your car for a bicycle after you arrive. Mineral Point is one stop among a network of some 28 bike trails throughout this part of the state. Here, access two long trails: one, a 31-mile loop that passes an early settlement convent, the other a 45-mile trail that reaches Wyalusing State Park’s river views and American Indian burial mounds. It’s rugged terrain, to be sure, but that doesn’t stop nearly 1,200 bikers from 24 states from joining the annual Dairyland Dare bike tour every August.
If you prefer touring the area by car, be sure to visit the Fall Art Tour, around Mineral Point, Spring Green, Dodgeville and Baraboo. From Oct. 19-21, about 45 local artists open their studios to the public and offer live demonstrations as they craft fine paintings, woodworks, sculpture, jewelry and more. While you’re there, visit the home of another famous artist: Frank Lloyd Wright, whose Taliesin is open to the public until November.
Every year, thousands of visitors arrive for the annual Cornish Fest, this year Sept. 28-30. Celebrate immigrants from England’s Cornwall County, and stop by Pendarvis, a restored Cornish settlement and historic site that celebrates with a pub night. Local genealogists are on hand to trace Cornish ancestry, and local cooks serve figgyhobbin and pasties – a calzone-type pastry Cornish miners once found convenient to take to work.
“I think it’s surprising that such a small town can have such a long main street – we call ours High Street,” says Gayle Bull, owner of Foundry Books and president of the local chamber of commerce. “It’s such a vital thing to this small town and you don’t often see that.”
The Great River Road: Galena – Dubuque
There’s a reason fall is one of the busiest times of the year in Galena: Every weekend in September and October is filled with community-wide events.
Major Galena events include the Lions Club’s annual Oktoberfest, on Sept. 22, and the Galena Country Fair, on Oct. 6-7, which attracts 20,000 visitors and 150 juried artists. You can also catch local artists and guest artists at the Twenty Dirty Hands tour of Jo Daviess pottery studios on Oct. 13-14, and at the Fall Harvest & Art Festival at Galena Cellars Vineyard, Sept. 29-30. The latter festival features grape stomping, apple bobbing, pumpkin painting and hayrides.
Harvest celebrations bubble all around Galena, both in small towns throughout Jo Daviess County, such as the Warren Pumpkin Festival on Sept. 29 & 30, and across the Mississippi River in Dubuque, Iowa, with exciting waterfront attractions along the Port of Dubuque. Stop by the locally owned Mystique Casino, or get lost inside the Smithsonian-affiliated National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium.
Both Galena and Dubuque are rooted along the Great River Road, a national scenic byway that shadows the Mississippi from Minnesota to New Orleans. From Galena, travel south along Route 84 toward Carroll County and visit the Hanover Bluff Nature Preserve, or take in magnificent river views at Mississippi Palisades State Park. Travel north to visit Gramercy Park in East Dubuque, Ill., the site of several American Indian mounds, then follow Wisconsin’s Route 151/61 north to Potosi before hopping onto Route 133 along the river to Prairie du Chien, where Wyalusing State Park and Iowa’s Pikes Peak State Park offer truly stunning river views. On the the Iowa side, visit Effigy Mounds National Monument, where more than 200 American Indian mounds have been carefully preserved by the National Park Service.
For another scenic riverside drive, follow the back roads south of Galena.
“I would go south on Blackjack Road,” says Celestino Ruffini, sales and marketing director for the Galena/Jo Daviess County CVB. “Take that road, and you’re going past Chestnut Mountain Ski Resort, Casper Bluff and Goldmoor Inn. Unfortunately, the Great River Road only follows federal and state highways, but I think this is an even better drive.”
Quad Cities: Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa; Moline, East Moline, Rock Island, Ill.
The Mighty Mississippi is the most obvious attraction in the Quad Cities, bisecting this two-state community. But that’s just the start.
On both sides of the river, enjoy the views from dozens of riverfront parks, and see how much wildlife you can spot. Herons, hawks and eagles routinely fish here. To see the eagles and spectacular autumn hues, hop aboard the Celebration Belle, a Moline-based riverboat offering fall foliage cruises and all-day voyages to Dubuque and Prairie du Chien. Pass through a river lock and dam, and enjoy the picturesque bluffs.
On land, the Quad Cities also boast a rich cultural environment, filled with fun museums. Bring the family to the newly remodeled John Deere Pavilion for a hands-on experience with agricultural equipment and learn about the impact of this farm implement manufacturer. Then, tour the nearby plant and watch these massive machines where they’re made.
Kids and adults will enjoy the Putnam Museum’s interactive exhibits, including the hall of mammals and the Smithsonian Community Reef, a traveling exhibit of a crochet coral reef. Visitors may opt to spend the day watching a movie on the massive screen.
Art lovers will enjoy Davenport’s Figge Art Museum, which houses temporary exhibits from the University of Iowa’s collection and, through Oct. 7, includes a temporary display of NASA-related artwork, lectures and children’s exhibits.
The arts make up just part of the nearly 300 cultural events that take place during the weeklong East West Riverfest, Sept. 7-16. During that week, visitors can enjoy art fairs, music concerts, craft beer and Celtic culture at a variety of local venues.
To top it all off, Illinois Highway 92 and Iowa Highway 67 offer incredible scenery.
“Both sides of the river are part of the Great River Road, a national scenic byway that runs from up north down to the Gulf of Mexico,” says Jessica Waytenick, public relations manager for the Quad Cities CVB. “On both the Iowa and Illinois sides, there are places with great views of the river and places you can stop to look or take photos.”
Starved Rock State Park, Utica, Ill.
If it’s fall colors you’re after, few places offer a more golden opportunity than Starved Rock State Park, in Utica, Ill.
The 2,630-acre park boasts 18 scenic canyons and sweeping views of the Illinois River, in addition to a lodge and visitors center. Take I-88 and exit in Ottawa, following Route 71’s narrow, twisting lanes through a glowing riverside forest. Follow the old park entrance on Dee Bennett Road and stop at the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center for more scenic views. Stop by Starved Rock Lodge for an outdoor or indoor meal, homemade ice cream, a favorite brew or an overnight stay.
Visitors can join trolley rides and boat tours, wander the trails, or follow a guided hike to learn about the area’s unique geology. Call ahead for reservations. The canyons offer the best views here, says Kathy Casstevens-Jasiek, marketing director for the Starved Rock Lodge, whose favorites include easy-to-reach Council Overhang and nearby Ottawa Canyon, one of many prime photography spots.
“I’ve seen it in all seasons, and it just doesn’t glow like it does in fall,” says Casstevens-Jasiek. “In winter and spring, things seem muted, and in summer everything’s alive, but only in fall does it really glow.”
End the hike with a refreshing Starved Rock Ale, brewed by Leinenkugel’s, or visit in October and November for more drink and food. On Oct. 6 and 20, the park celebrates Oktoberfest, with authentic German food and brews. On Nov. 9, the Lodge celebrates with a Leinenkugel’s dinner, based on the popular Wisconsin-based brewer. The following night, join a Leinenkugel’s pub crawl through Utica.
Dixon, Ill., and Illinois Route 2
Nobody does history like Dixon, Ill., boyhood home of President Ronald Reagan and military residence of President Abraham Lincoln.
Popular stops include Regan’s childhood home, now a museum preserved in 1920s-era style, and the Dixon Historic Center, a school-turned-museum that includes a wealth of local artifacts and unique perspectives on Reagan’s younger days.
Visitors also enjoy a statue of Abraham Lincoln, beardless and dressed as a soldier, as he may have looked while serving at Fort Dixon during the Black Hawk War. The national highway dedicated to America’s 16th president passes through downtown Dixon, as Route 38 meets Route 2. Follow the latter south toward Sterling to pass through a segment of America’s first transcontinental highway.
For some picturesque fall scenery, follow the Rock River along Route 2 north from downtown Dixon, and stop at one of many scenic outlooks. Enjoy vibrant reds, oranges and yellows from low points along the road, and visit historic places such as John Deere’s Homestead, in Grand Detour, Ill. For an impressive sunset, watch from the bluffs along Castle Rock State Park, south of Oregon, Ill., or north at Lowden State Park, where Lorado Taft’s American Indian statue overlooks the river valley from a 125-foot bluff.
Special events in the Dixon area include the down-home Scarecrow Festival on Sept. 29, where you can visit the city’s impressive new riverfront walk.
“The first thing you see when traveling from the tollway on Route 26 north into town is the Dixon Arch in the distance,” says Colleen Brechon, president of Dixon Tourism. “It’s very appealing, and you don’t see things like that in communities anymore. It tells you this is a nice place to visit.”