These Spunky Midwestern Cities Show America How to Do Winter
Bring it, snow.
The Midwest is best… in the winter? Yes, seriously. America’s heartland truly shines in its most brutal season. After all, when you have this many months of frigid temps and the occasional polar vortex nightmare, there’s time to get inventive.
Get creative at festivals with steampunk santas or secret outdoor dinners, redefine winter sports by curling on a rooftop or swooshing down a 700-foot-tall toboggan chute, go classic with snowshoeing your way through enchanting forests, and keep yourself warm all the while with ice wine, spiked hot cocoa, and so much beer. Think of it like extreme vacationing. From big cities to small towns, here are our picks for the best Midwest destinations to visit during the frosty season.
It’s pretty hard to find a better Midwestern winter destination than Minnesota’s largest city. After all, locals fully embrace the cold and take advantage of a slew of cool (pun intended) seasonal activities.
Chief among them is the Great Northern Festival, an annual 10-day winter hullabaloo. There’s ice carving, a sauna village, a night lit by ice candles, a chef-driven dinner in a secret location, the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships, and skijoring, which sounds like a fake winter sport, but is, in fact, a real thing. Bold North, indeed.
While the Great Northern is king on the festival front, other seasonal events like the Winter Beer Dabbler, Art Shanty Project, and Vikings Winter SKOLstice make for a fun cold-weather visit to the City of Lakes. Travelers should also consider a snowshoe tour of the Walker Art Center, including its iconic Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture.
After that outdoorsy fun, warm up at the new Watershed Baths & Spa, a first-of-its-kind, holistically-minded, communal bathhouse. On the dining side, for an especially luxe winter meal, check out the private rooftop cabins at the Four Seasons Hotel Minneapolis, dubbed the Nordic Village at Riva Terrace.
Traverse City & Petoskey, Michigan
Best known for its stellar wine and as cherry capital USA, Traverse City (a.k.a. the little finger of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula) is a legit winter haven. Many of the area’s famous wineries have unique offerings during the slow season, like snowshoe trails between vineyards, roasting s’mores around a communal fire pit, and the annual Ice Wine Dinner at Chateau Chantal (part of an ice wine festival).
Plus, special hikes open during the winter season at nearby Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The super popular Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is closed to vehicles and instead open for cross-country skiing, hiking, and snowshoeing.
The town of Petoskey, a former Hemingway-haunt (his fam still has a lakehouse in the area), is another great winter escape. The annual Petoskey Holiday Open House is a winning option, especially since a special liquor license allows for strolling outdoors with an adult beverage or four.
During this fest, the downtown streets are transformed into a pedestrian hub and merchants stay open late for holiday shopping fueled by mulled wine and spiked hot cocoa. Afterward, check out the Enchanting Trail in adjacent Harbor Springs, a two-mile snowshoe hike to a cozy yurt.
St. Louis, Missouri
Lights, lights, baby. Another Midwestern mecca, St. Louis, boasts a bevy of fun wintertime happenings, especially in terms of holiday lights. Travelers can find a million lights and an enchanted forest vibe throughout the award-winning Missouri Botanical Garden at the annual Garden Glow event. Igloos, fire pits, and Clydesdale horses up the holiday ante at Brewery Lights at Anheuser Busch, a classic STL experience. The St. Louis Zoo also gets in on the seasonal action with Wild Lights light displays. City Museum’s Weirdly Wonderful Holidays is another can’t-miss month of winter programming, including Tinseltown tacky karaoke, Steampunk Santa, and a pop-up holiday bar complete with an abominable snowman.
The striking Sandhills of north-central Nebraska are set to welcome travelers all year long. Winter is prime time for stargazing here. The town of Valentine is the home of the annual Nebraska Star Party and the newest IDA Dark Sky Park. Want a glimpse of something impressive on the actual ground? Look no further than the winter bison tours at Golden Prairie Bison, or chase the frozen waterfalls at Smith Falls State Park, the tallest in the Cornhusker State.
Pro tip: Go a little out of your way to the city of Alliance for a peek at the glorious oddity that is Carhenge. Yep, you guessed it. Stonehenge but with vintage cars. Thanks, Nebraska?
There’s much more to this lakeside city than the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Downtown comes to life all season long with the annual WinterLand celebration. Think ice skating, concerts, fire pits, the works. Then take your life in your hands / enjoy the toboggan chutes at Mill Stream Run, where riders can sled down the state’s tallest ice chutes (700 feet, woohoo).
And best of all, just outside the city is Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which earns winter wonderland status with its snow tubing, downhill skiing, snowshoeing, and ice hiking. Warm up with a glass of wine crafted from Ohio-grown grapes at the winery INSIDE the national park.
Two other annual offerings are a wintertime draw; visitors can commemorate Martin Luther King Day at the Ice Fest at North Coast Harbor and its 40+ ice sculptures, live ice-carving demo, and complimentary hot cocoa. Or another pick is the lights/live music of the day-long Brite Winter in the Flats neighborhood.
The Windy City is pure magic in the summer, but winter shouldn't be dismissed, either. Get a dose of German Christmas markets stateside at the traditional Christkindlmarket Chicago. Skate on the ice rink on Wrigley Field (or by "the Bean" in Millenium Park for any Cubs haters). Additionally, Chicago lights up with Lightscape at the Botanic Garden, Illumination: Tree Lights at The Morton Arboretum, and Holiday Magic at the Brookfield Zoo. There's even curling on the rooftop of the Emily hotel.
But perhaps the best reason to visit Chicago during winter is the festive pop-up bars. You could try a slew of options, such as the Fairmont Lodge, Winter Wonderland at The Godfrey Hotel, Rudolph's Rooftop at LondonHouse Chicago, Happy's: A Holiday Pop-Up Bar at the Chicago Athletic Association, or 8 Crazy Nights, Chicago's only Hanukkah-themed pop-up bar at The Graystone Tavern in Wrigleyville.