By and large we think of the middle of the United States as being conservative, old-fashioned and wholesome. The very word “Midwestern,” has become synonymous with a sort of Pleasantville-esque place of small minds, corn fields and general stores.
This may be true of some places in the Midwest region of the U.S., but isn’t it true of some places all over the country?
In reality, this huge swath of our country is chock full of interesting, progressive and unique towns and small cities that are anything but backwater.
You’ve certainly heard good things about urban centers like Chicago and St. Louis, but here are a few smaller locales that may shatter your notions of what it means to be Midwestern.
1. Madison, Wisconsin
This bustling college town that’s home to the state’s largest university makes frequent appearances on lists of the cities with the highest quality of life. In fact, it ranked #1 on the 2015 Livability Top 100 Best Places to Live list. Chalk it up to Madison’s packed calendar of cultural events, progressive politics, active music scene, and love of good food.
That’s not all though, this awesome city just an hour and a half east of Milwaukee also has beautiful natural surroundings for the outdoorsy, great accommodations for cyclists and is known to be one of the most eco-friendly cities in the country. Sure, the winters are tough, but the free summer concerts and plethora of farmer’s markets help make up for it.
2. Saugatuck-Douglas, Michigan
These sister villages located on the picturesque shores of Lake Michigan, just a couple hours from Chicago, have long been favored as vacation destinations for Windy City residents looking to get away from the crowds and traffic. But Saugatuck and Douglas are not simply summer towns with pretty beaches (although they have those in spades), but they’re also known for their thriving art scene and LGBT community. Saugatuck is even home to a namesake craft beer brewery.
The towns are a bit more active in the warmer months when the beaches come alive, but you can find fun the rest of the year by checking out their monthly art strolls, holiday parades and festivals and even local wineries and gourmet dining. Saugatuck-Douglas definitely has that small town charm thing, but there’s a lot more to it than just quaint streets and homemade pie joints…although it’s got those in spades too.
3. Ann Arbor, Michigan
A2 , as it’s affectionately known as to locals, is a historically liberal and artistic haven that’s grown up around the University of Michigan. Ann Arbor was the birthplace of the famous SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) of the 60s, hosts an annual marijuana legalization festival (“Hash Bash”), was an early recycling pioneer, and the first city in the nation to elect an openly gay official…so you could say that Ann Arbor is a little progressive.
There’s no end of cultural events going on which makes sense given that the median age of the population is 27 and 70% of its residents hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. These goings on include a major film festival (one of just a few Academy Award qualifying film fests), art fairs and Festifools, Ann Arbor’s own version of Mardi Gras. With a rich past and a thriving present, this is one Midwestern town that will change your definition of a Midwestern town.
4. Iowa City, Iowa
It’s no surprise that so-called “college towns” make more than one appearance on this list. Iowa City is one that is especially renowned for literature – the university is home to the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has produced acclaimed authors like Sandra Cisneros, Ann Patchett, John Irving and Flannery O’Connor.
UNESCO has even officially named the place a “City of Literature,” a distinction given to only 7 cities in the world. And like Madison, it’s also earned a place on this year’s Livability list. Iowa City is not just books and writers though; it’s also home to several craft breweries, wineries, a week-long arts festival, and an annual jazz festival that’s been named among the top 10 in the country.
The good news is that this list is far from complete. There are so many other great places that are bursting with history and culture, and each one does its part to break the stereotype of boring backwaters.
But thankfully, these places do stay true to the notion that the Midwest is friendly, charming and welcoming of strangers. Go see for yourself, you’re sure to be pleasantly surprised by what you find.
10 Awesome Travel Accessories Every Traveler Must Have
Best Places to Travel in December
Travel in December is a good idea for you if you want a vacation that is during the slow season. Here are the best places to travel in December, when everyone else is home celebrating the holidays.
Here are more places to travel in December. Enjoy!
Read next: surfing the world’s longest wave in Brazil
The Ultimate American Road Trip: Route 66
If you’re looking for the omega American road trip then you’ve got to hit the Mother Road, otherwise known as Route 66. From Chicago to LA, it’s a journey that’ll provide the experience of a lifetime, showing you the heart of a great nation.
Start in Chicago & Chase the Sun
In reality, the best always head west. Would you rather end the trip in the Windy City, or just in time to catch a gorgeous L.A. sunset on the beach? There’s just something deeply spiritual for folks when we head west. It becomes an adventure. It becomes a vehicular voyage to the sea. Here are some of the highlights you can expect in order:
• Illinois: It’s a pretty straight shot through the state from Chicago through Springfield (which has some stretches of restored Route 66) and southwest to St. Louis. There’s a bit of the bright lights of big cities, but also a good calm stretch of rural to cruise through as well; vast fields of corn and farmland for close to 300 miles.
• Missouri: Once you hit East St. Louis you’ll again be greeted by sky scrapers, industrial areas and the mark of modernity but then it’s another SE straight shot through the entire belly of the state.
• Kansas: You’re only going to spend a little time in the good’ol Kansas heartland. And by little we mean a whopping 14 miles far down in the bottom south east corner. You’ll go through two towns: Galena and Baxter Springs but rest assured there’s great classic restaurants and places that’ve been open as long as Route 66 has been around. In fact, it’s because of road tripper like you just passin’on through that keep’em goin.
• Oklahoma: You’re going to go through two huge metropolises that have “country” written all over’em: Tulsa first and then into Oklahoma City before heading directly west towards the Pan Handle. Of all 8 states, it’s here that they take Route 66 the most seriously. It’s got the most preserved still-drivable miles and you’ll be able to see the remnants of Kiowa, Apache and Comanche Native American land. And, you’ll get to take the same route as families long ago in the Dust Bowl took to escape.
• Texas: You’re going to go through the upper tip of the Texas Pan Handle that takes you through Amarillo. It looks short on a map but the 200-mile stretch of plains is a sight to behold like none other. If you can time it so you cut through here in the afternoon on a sunny day your spirit will be recharged. Just try not to pay any attention to all the truckers!
• New Mexico: Welcome to the Land of Enchantment where you’ll pass through Sun Belt city and Albuquerque. These days, it can be a bit challenging to stay strictly on the old road but with all the sandstone mesas and pine forests it’s definitely worth it.
• Arizona: In Arizona you’ll stay in the northern plains rather than heading down into the really hot areas around Phoenix. Instead, you’ll pass directly through Flagstaff which is a mountain town and where Northern Arizona University is located. The sights here are like a completely different world from everything you’ve seen so far, especially once you begin to head south right before passing into California. Oh, and because of the high speeds on the I-40, this will feel like one of those awesome car track days.
• California: Once you reach this point get ready to cruise through rolling hills, vineyards, orchards, stunning landscapes and then at Barstow you should begin smelling the sea. From San Bernardino and Pasadena to Santa Monica it’s simply breathtaking.
This is only a taste of the experience really. You’ve just got to get out and do it. There’s plenty of great resources online to keep you on track and if you have the time you don’t have to miss a thing. Enjoy!