Here's why tourists should take the Rust Belt as seriously as politicians: Because the food, art and sightseeing in "flyover country" is well worth your precious vacation days — not to mention cheaper than in trendier destinations.
In the last two years, I've visited Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin, sampling art museums, historic sites, architecture, hipster neighborhoods, ethnic culture and great food. I was mostly in big cities but I was also able to enjoy botanical gardens, hiking and biking trails along with spectacular Great Lakes waterfronts.
I live in Brooklyn, New York, but I can honestly say that neighborhoods like Fountain Square in Indianapolis and Midtown in Detroit give my home turf a run for the hipsters' money. Not to mention that the farm-to-table cuisine at a restaurant like Braise in Milwaukee is much better than what often passes for locally sourced meals in Manhattan — and at half the price.
And it's not just me who thinks this part of the country deserves to be high on travel go-to lists. Indianapolis and Cincinnati turned up on Travel + Leisure's list of best destinations for 2017. Cincinnati also turned up on Thrillist's where to go next year list, along with Columbus, Ohio. Even international visitors have discovered some of the region's attractions: The Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee draws visitors from around the world, as do the Motown Museum in Detroit and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
Unfortunately I also find plenty of fellow Americans — especially those who live on either coast — who are more likely to cross Paris or Machu Picchu off their bucket lists than Indianapolis or Milwaukee.
"As soon as someone says 'flyover country,' I know you're from New York or Los Angeles," said Stephanie Klett, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. Folks who grow up near the ocean, she added, are often especially surprised when they first catch sight of one of the Great Lakes. "When they fly into Milwaukee, they notice Lake Michigan," she said. "They thought it was a little lake, but they see how massive it is."
Understandably, the region is rarely a first stop in the U.S. for foreigners. But on a second or third trip, after they've done New York, Orlando and Vegas, that's when tourists from Britain or Germany come "looking for a little bit of the real America," said Toby McCarrick, executive director of the regional marketing organization Great Lakes USA. "It's the small towns, the backroads, the real people. We want them to pull over and see Aunt Bee's Cafe that makes homemade cherry pie with Michigan cherries."
The Midwest's food scene doesn't always get the attention other destinations receive, but I had many memorable meals on my travels there. In addition to Braise in Milwaukee, another spectacular dinner was in Cleveland at Michael Symon's Lola.
But I don't just go for upscale dining when I travel. I like the fun and funky spots too. When in Detroit, you've got to sample coneys — what the locals call hot dogs — at either or both Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island. I also liked the crazy hot dog toppings at Happy Dog in Cleveland. In Indianapolis, I loved the old-school goodness of corned beef at Shapiro's, shrimp cocktail with the hottest horseradish on earth at St. Elmo's and the '50s-style decor at Edwards Drive In. And I'd get the pierogis at Sokolowski's in Cleveland again in a heartbeat. I also had fun shopping the food stalls in Cleveland's beautiful, historic West Side Market.
But it's Wisconsin that holds a truly special place in my heart. Two words: cheese curds.
For me, there's no better way to spend a day on vacation than wandering around a museum. And these cities don't disappoint.
The Indianapolis Museum of Art is wonderful not only for its art collection but for sprawling grounds which include formal gardens, rustic trails and a 100-acre park with outdoor installations like the haunting "Park of the Laments," a walled field with stone walls and a tunnel.
I visited the Detroit Institute of Arts not long after a judge worked out a deal to save the museum's most valuable works from being sold off to help solve the city's fiscal problems. Knowing how close Detroit came to losing some of these jewels made seeing them truly special. The Diego Rivera murals are perhaps the museum's best-known works, but any visit should include a look at "The Wedding Dance" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, "Annunciatory Angel," by Fra Angelico and Tintoretto's "The Dreams of Men," installed in a ceiling that was designed specifically for it.
If I had to pick a favorite art destination on my travels through the Rust Belt, though, it would have to be the Milwaukee Art Museum. Sure, the collection is wonderful — the spooky, unforgettable "Saint Francis of Assisi in His Tomb" and lots of Georgia O'Keeffe. But here the building is its own work of art: a white, winged Santiago Calatrava structure that seems ready to soar or sail right into the water of one of those Great Lakes — in this case Lake Michigan. It's a sight that this New Yorker will not soon forget.