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Heartland Family Favorites

Some places are best discovered through the eyes of a child.

America’s heartland is full of fun, family-friendly destinations that are wonderful for multigenerational groups and offer a taste of history, excitement and culture. Groups can visit a farm or a bakery run by the Amish people of Indiana; walk in the steps of President Abraham Lincoln, who practiced law and lived in Illinois before moving to the White House; or step into botanic gardens, zoos, museums and entertainment complexes that offer adventures for kids of all ages.

Here are some great destinations for multigenerational groups touring the Midwest.

St. Louis

Best known for the Gateway Arch that stands sentinel over the Mississippi River, St. Louis has slowly evolved from a riverboat town to one with world-class attractions. The Gateway Arch reopened in 2018 after a $380 million renovation to the grounds and museum. Now, along with taking a ride up the arch elevator for incomparable views of the river and city, museum visitors can learn the story of how the arch was built and how the river influenced western expansion. Group visitors can hop on a riverboat at the base of the arch for a dinner or sightseeing cruise or visit the Old Courthouse, the site of the famous Dred Scott Case.

The city’s Union Station has become an entertainment mecca for all ages. Tenants include a carousel; the St. Louis Wheel; the St. Louis Aquarium, which features saltwater species and local animals found in the Mississippi and Missouri rivers; and the Grand Hall, with many food and drink options, a mirror maze, a ropes course and miniature golf. Light shows dazzle guests on the 65-foot-high ceiling of the Grand Hall lobby. 

Like Union Station, many of the city’s other highlights can be found in repurposed historic buildings. City Foundry STL transformed a former factory in midtown into a European-style food hall, a cinema and Fassler Hall, a German beer hall with food and live entertainment. Likewise, City Museum was built in a 100-year-old 10-story warehouse downtown; artists there have repurposed architectural pieces and objects from everyday life to build miles of tunnels, slides, climbers, bridges and castles. There’s even a retired school bus perched on the roof. The facility is fun for kids of all ages. 

One of the city’s quirkier attractions, the Jefferson Barracks Telephone Museum, features an extensive collection of phones, telephone-related equipment and novelty telephones in a restored building from 1896.

Grand Rapids, Michigan

Grand Rapids has attractions and experiences to rival the offerings of bigger and more crowded destinations. Outdoor recreation abounds with parks, rivers and hiking trails, and the city is only 30 minutes from the Lake Michigan shoreline, with its sand dunes, beaches and scenic vistas. 

The 158-acre Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park is one of the top Grand Rapids attractions for visitors. It features Children’s, English Perennial, Japanese, Michigan’s Farm, Victorian, Arid and Woodland Shade gardens. There also is a Carnivorous Plant House and a Tropical Conservatory. The sculpture park has the Midwest’s most comprehensive outdoor sculpture collection, including works from Rodin, Degas and Miro. Groups can take a tram tour of the sculpture park, where they will learn about the different art pieces and the artists who created them.

The John Ball Zoo is about five minutes from downtown. Along with a wonderful collection of animals, the zoo also has a zip line, a funicular that takes guests to the top of the zoo, the Sky Trail Ropes Course, the Hobby Farm, the Gem Company — where kids can pan for gems in a brand-new sluice — camel rides and the Budgie Aviary. Guided tours are available.

The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum presents hands-on, interactive exhibits that tell visitors about the life of the 38th president. The Public Museum, across the street, is a science and history museum that also includes a planetarium.

Green Bay, Wisconsin

No trip to Green Bay would be complete without visiting Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers football team, the only community-owned franchise in the NFL. Groups can take tours of the field that range from one to two hours. Guests walk through the stadium, including its premium seating areas, the players tunnel leading to the field, the south end zone loft, exclusive club levels and more, learning the history of the field and the team as they go.

Faith travelers will want to make a stop at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help just outside Green Bay. This is the only site in the United States approved by the Roman Catholic Church as an apparition site of the Virgin Mary. According to the church, Mary visited a young girl in a Belgian settlement near present-day Green Bay in the early 1850s, asking her to pray for poor sinners and teach children about the catechism and the sacraments. A chapel was built on the site of the apparition. 

Green Bay’s Northeast Wisconsin Zoo and Adventure Park offers animal encounters and behind-the-scenes tours for groups. The Adventure Park has a zip line, a ropes course, a 36-foot climbing wall and a Cellcom Kids Kourse Adventure for smaller children who don’t meet the size requirements for the other features in the park. For car lovers in the group, the Automobile Gallery and Event Center is housed in a former Cadillac dealership that sat empty until the museum’s founder, William “Red” Lewis, converted it into a car museum.

Northern Indiana Amish Country

Elkhart County in north-central Indiana is home to the third-largest concentration of Amish residents in the U.S. behind Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and northern Ohio. The Amish population centers around the communities of Middlebury, Shipshewana and Nappanee. Groups that want to learn more about the Amish should start out at the Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau, which developed a Heritage Trail audio driving tour that provides an entertaining and informative tour through the region with stops at must-see attractions along the way. Motorcoach groups can opt to have an experienced guide hop on their bus to give them a narrated tour of the area.

Groups can enjoy experiences such as an Amish Haystack meal prepared by an Amish family and tours of local Amish businesses that make everything from baked goods and cheese to baskets, wind chimes and leather goods, among others. 

The Menno-Hof Amish Mennonite Interpretive Center in Shipshewana shares the story of the Amish and Mennonite people and how they ended up in Indiana. The town is known for having a variety of businesses, many of them Amish, as well as a big flea market. Groups can schedule a backroads tour with various shopping experiences or visit the Barns at Nappanee, which offers an Amish house and farm tour, horse and buggy rides, and farm-table meals.

In the summer, Elkhart County hosts a Quilt Gardens and Quilt Murals exhibition with 16 gigantic gardens planted to look like quilt patterns and 14 mural sites. The county is also known as the RV capital of the world because companies headquartered there make between 65% and  80% of all the RVs manufactured in the U.S. Many of the factories offer plant tours that are fun for the whole family.

Springfield, Illinois

Abraham Lincoln is Springfield’s biggest draw. The city is home to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, with 40,000 square feet of galleries, high-tech theaters and historic displays, as well as the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, the house where Lincoln lived for 17 years until he left Springfield in 1861 to become president of the United States. The home has been completely restored to its 1860 appearance, and tours are available from National Park Service rangers. 

No visit to Springfield would be complete without a visit to the historic Old State Capitol, where Lincoln tried several hundred cases in the Supreme Court and gave his “House Divided” speech. The Lincoln Tomb is a granite monument where Lincoln and his wife, Mary, and three of their four sons are buried.

Visit Springfield Illinois offers an Explorer Passport to visitors. One side of the booklet offers a scavenger hunt for Abe’s Hat at 12 sites and attractions around Springfield, including the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Dana-Thomas House, the state Capitol building and the Illinois State Museum. The other side of the passport, Living Legends of Route 66, takes guests to some of the most famous businesses that still stand along the Mother Road, including Maldaner’s Restaurant, a fancy dining establishment opened in 1884; Route 66 Motorhead’s Bar, Grill and Museum; the Route History Museum; Knight’s Action Park and Route 66 Drive-In movie theater; and the Cozy Dog Drive-In restaurant.

Other must-see attractions are the Botanical Gardens at Washington Park; the Lincoln Memorial Garden; and Lake Springfield, where groups can rent boats or paddleboards. The Kidzeum of Health and Science offers a respite for the younger generation, with special kid-friendly exhibits and play structures.