Best Summer Vacations in The Midwest [2024]

A kayaker enjoying a sunny day on a calm lake with Minneapolis's urban skyline in the distance, a Midwest summer vacation highlight.

Looking for the best summer vacations in the Midwest?  There are tons of ideas for every budget. 

The Midwest United States refers to the states in the middle of the country, including Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, Missouri, and more. 

As a Midwest local, I can first-hand give you my top summer recommendations. 

For the locations I haven’t yet experienced, I have rounded up other expert travel bloggers who have the answers.

This guide is created to give you the top details for why summer is an ideal time to visit these Midwest attractions

Chicago is my favorite Midwest summer spot because the city’s culture comes to life with festivals all season.

From local farmers markets to casual patio gatherings, the windy city is my favorite place to be.  Milwaukee and Madison are highly recommended for a similar lively flair. 

For outdoor lovers, there are tons of nature activities like Starved Rock, Indiana Dunes, and more.

If you are planning your summer vacation in the Midwest, this guide is the place to be.  Let’s start planning!

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Illinois

Chicago

Chicago has a special place in my heart. 

From towering skyscrapers to iconic attractions like “The Bean” (or Cloud Gate) and Navy Pier, the windy city is famous for its urban charm.

Warm weather brings tons of seasonal events making summer one of the best seasons ever in Chicago. 

Locals insist that summer is the best time to visit! 

One of the best ways to experience the culture of Chicagao’s various neighborhoods is through summer festivals.  Festivals take place every weekend over the summer months. 

From large-scale events like Taste of Chicago to weekend markets in neighborhoods like Fulton Market and Wicker Park, you can experience Chicago culture all summer long. 

The top things to do during Chicago summer are:

  • Weekend Festivals
  • Walk Lakeshore Trail or Chicago Riverwalk
  • Taste of Chicago

Stay: Felix Hotel

Starved Rock

A slender waterfall trickles down a moss-covered rock face in the lush Starved Rock State Park in Illinois. The natural beauty of the scene, with its vibrant greenery and gentle water flow, offers a tranquil escape for those seeking a nature-filled spring break in the Midwest.

Starved Rock is one of my personal favorite places to visit in Illinois.  And summer is the most popular time to visit.

Starved Rock State Park is located approximately two hours by car from Chicago.  There is no direct public transportation option. 

Starved Rock is unique because it features unique sandstone formations, canyons, caves, and after it rains… waterfalls. 

It’s unlike anything else in Illinois, and I had no idea something existed like this in the Midwest. 

(I later learned there are tons more Midwest hiking destinations.  Starved Rock only begins scratching the surface!)

It’s most crowded over summer weekends, specifically over Memorial Day Weekend when the summer season unofficially begins.

The parking lot is huge (and free), and I have never had an issue finding a parking space. 

Just keep in mind you’ll be sharing the trails with sometimes bigger groups of people.

I recommend visiting Starved Rock on a weekday or earlier in the morning over the weekend to avoid crowds (as best as possible).

There are so many things to do in Starved Rock during the summer, from exploring miles of hiking trails overlooking the Mississippi River to taking a boat tour. 

The best things to do in Starved Rock over the summer are:

  • Chasing Waterfalls
  • French Canyon Trail
  • Boat Tour

StayRustic Villa or Starved Rock Lodge

Indiana

Indiana Dunes

Tall, dry beach grass sways gently in the wind on a sandy dune with a clear view of the blue waters of a Great Lake in the background. This serene beach setting is a less-known but peaceful Midwest spring break destination at Indiana Dunes National Park.

Indiana Dunes is one of the most biodiverse national parks in the United States! 

Located conveniently one hour outside of Chicago, it’s easy to get here on a Midwest road trip or by train. 

Summer at Indiana Dunes brings its 9 beaches along its South Shoreline to life. 

Summer is the busiest time of year at Indiana Dunes, so keep this in mind while planning.  I recommend booking accommodation well in advance. 

Beaches open Memorial Day Weekend. 

The first time I visited during Memorial Day Weekend, we got into the main parking lot easily at 9:00am.  But by 3:00pm when we were leaving, at least 100 cars waited in line to get into the park.

The best things to do at Indiana Dunes in the summer are:

  • Relax at the Beach
  • Hike Dune Succession Trail
  • Explore neighboring Beverly Shores

Stay: Spring House Inn

Indianapolis

Indianapolis by Corbin Mathias via Unsplash

If you’re looking for a perfect Midwest destination that has a bit of everything without breaking the bank, Indianapolis is your spot! 

It’s especially great in the summer when Hoosier hospitality is at its finest.

Summer in Indy also means you might just catch some indy cars tearing up the Speedway. If that’s on your list, and it should be, make sure to take a tour at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum.

After the race tracks, stop by Mass Avenue for some shopping.

And foodies, brace yourselves. You cannot leave without dropping by Shapiro’s Delicatessen and St. Joseph’s Brewery.

The deli’s been around for ages! And the brewery? Well, let’s just say it’s not in the first place you’d look for a brewing operation.

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is one of the best things to do in Indianapolis with kids.

It’s not just another museum; it’s the biggest children’s museum in the world. In the summer, they have a massive outdoor sports zone that cannot be missed.

One more thing that sells Indy for me is its affordability.

You can snag a hotel just outside downtown for a steal. And if you want to be in the heart of the city, you can find deals for under $200 if you book ahead.

It’s worth staying a full three days to soak in the unique experiences in Indy. Even then, you’ll be planning your return trip before you’ve even left!

Packing for Indy? Layers are your best friend. Midwest weather likes to keep you on your toes!

Best Summer Things to do in Indianapolis:

  • Indianapolis Speedway
  • Pedal a Swan Boat on the Canal
  • Indianapolis City Market

Stay: Home2 Suites by Hilton Indianapolis Downtown

Contributed by Catherine of Postcard Narrative

Michigan

New Buffalo

A charming lighthouse perched on a pier extends into the tranquil waters of the Great Lakes, captured during a serene spring evening. Visitors nearby enhance the calm yet adventurous spirit of a Midwest spring break destination by the water.

New Buffalo is a pure Michigan paradise! Consider renting an Airbnb or staying at a quaint hotel to experience lake life for a long weekend this summer in Michigan.

Many of the best Michigan wineries are also located nearby.

One of my favorite summer activities in New Buffalo is taking a sunset cruise! My ship left from the Union Pier dock, where there is a one-hour time difference from New Buffalo (even though it is a 15-minute drive away). Pro tip to be mindful of this!

Best Summer Things to do in New Buffalo:

  • New Buffalo Beach
  • Stray Dog Rooftop

StaySunset Vista

Mackinac Island

Midwest road trip to a serene lakeside in Mackinac Island, Michigan. There is a white lighthouse overlooking the clear blue waters, flanked by vibrant greenery and a no trespassing white picket fence.
Mackinac Island by Vincent Yuan via Unsplash

Mackinac Island is one of the best summertime destinations in Michigan.

Only about 500 people live on the island year-round, but thousands of people flock here each day in the summer to see the historic sights and stunning views.

For fewer crowds and slightly cooler temperatures, June and early September are the best times to visit Mackinac Island.

July and August are also good months to go, but it can get very crowded and hot. 

Most crowds will be along Main Street near the ferry docks where the shops and restaurants are. You can escape the crowds by exploring other parts of the island.

Mackinac Island is a car-free place, so the easiest and most popular way to get to the island is by ferry from Mackinaw City or St. Ignace.

Book through Shepler’s or Star Line online or in person. (Boarding is on a first-come, first-served basis, and boats run every 15 minutes during high season.)

You’ll find restaurants at varied price points depending on what you’re looking for – from burger joints to fine dining.

The biggest expense to plan for is renting a bike to ride around the island (highly recommended!).

This can cost around $50 for a half day and $80 for a full day.

The ferry ride to Mackinac Island costs about $31 for adults and $19 for children. 

If you’re looking to save money, consider packing a picnic lunch and bringing your own bike on the ferry.

You can easily see the highlights of Mackinac Island in a single day, but for a more relaxed experience, consider staying one or two nights.

Best things to do on Mackinac Island:

  • Bike or hike around the entire island
  • Visit the Grand Hotel
  • Taste Mackinac Island fudge

Stay: Harbour View Inn

Contributed by Amanda of My Vintage Map

Minnesota

Minneapolis and St. Paul

Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis by Rod M via Unsplash

Minneapolis-St. Paul, often referred to as the Twin Cities, is a fantastic destination to visit in the summer for many reasons.

The weather is beautiful here! During the summer months, you’ll experience mild to warm temperatures with plenty of sunshine.

Because Minnesota is known as the land of 10,000 lakes (psst: there are actually 11,842!), you’ll also find an abundance of water recreation, along with parks and other nature areas.

The Twin Cities are known for its many cultural events and festivals, many of which take place during the summer months.

From the renowned Minnesota State Fair to the Twin Cities Jazz Festival and the Uptown Art Fair, there’s always something happening in the area.

Bring your appetite! We have a diverse and vibrant food scene here, from local favorites like Juicy Lucy burgers to international dishes from around the world.

Attractions and museums are abundant, including the Walker Art Center, Minnesota Children’s Museum, and Guthrie Theater. Many are FREE, including the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the Weisman Art Museum.

And the Mall of America is famous for its hundreds of stores, attractions and an amusement park right in the middle!

Tip: Minnesota has no sales tax on clothing- shop it up!

The Twin Cities metro area is easily driveable, with much of it easy to get to in 30 minutes or less.

Plan for several days here, or add more days to visit the peaceful Northwoods or north shore of Lake Superior.

Minneapolis-St. Paul offers a perfect combination of outdoor activities, cultural events, and scenic beauty, making it an excellent destination to visit during the summer months.

Best things to do:

  • Mall of America
  • Minnesota State Fair
  • Explore the Mississippi River or one of our many lakes

Stay: Omni Viking Lakes Hotel

Contributed by Lisa of Twin Cities Frugal Mom

Minnesota’s North Shore

Gooseberry Falls State Park by Cody Otto via Unsplash

The North Shore of Minnesota is a perfect slice of bliss in the summer!

Spanning over 150 miles of shoreline along Lake Superior, towns like Duluth, Two Harbors, Tofte, and Grand Marais have become favorites for locals and tourists alike when the weather starts to warm up.

As a Minnesotan born and raised, I’ve spent several summers along the North Shore, exploring Gooseberry Falls, agate-hunting in Canal Park, and hiking up to Palisade Head for beautiful views.

Many of the region’s top attractions are free and don’t require booking in advance.

The North Shore is absolutely my favorite place to unwind in the state, especially in the summer when the weather is warm—this is the only season when Lake Superior’s frosty temperatures become a benefit rather than a detriment.

Driving up the North Shore All-American Scenic Drive—even for a few miles—is a must.

Along the route is the New Scenic Cafe, one of the best restaurants in Duluth with beautiful views and even better food.

While lodging along the North Shore can usually be found last minute, booking at least two months in advance is recommended for availability and pricing.

Plan to spend about three days with Duluth, Tofte, or Grand Marais as a home base.

If you’d like to visit more than one of those areas, extend your trip by a few days.

Things to do:

  • Split Rock Lighthouse
  • Hollow Rock
  • Gooseberry Falls

Stay: Bluefin Bay on Lake Superior or Lift Bridge Lodge, Ascend Hotel Collection

Contributed by Eva of Eva Darling

Missouri

Kansas City

Kansas City is an artsy, historical city located right smack dab in the middle of the U.S.

It’s an underrated Midwest destination (no, it’s not just flat plains and hay bales) that makes for a great place to visit for a summer vacation.

The city sees its largest amount of visitors during the summertime due to the ideal warm weather and popular events like Boulevardia, Shakespeare in the Park Festival, and KC BBQ Fest.

Advance ticket purchases are encouraged for each event.

A long weekend is perfect for experiencing all Kansas City offers.

In this amount of time, you can visit world-class museums, tour the Midwest’s largest specialty brewer (Boulevard Brewing Co.), and enjoying top-notch barbecue at Joe’s.

In terms of where to stay, Kansas City has it all. From casino hotels, to B&Bs, and luxury accommodations, there is something for everyone.

If you want to be within walking distance of some of the BEST restaurants, bars, and shopping, I recommend staying in either the Crossroads Arts District or Country Club Plaza.

Best things to do:

  • Joe’s Kansas City BBQ
  • Jazz music at Green Lady Lounge
  • Historical landmarks: National World War I Museum and Memorial and Union Station

Stay: Crossroads Hotel

Contributed by Devon of Say Yes to the Trip

Ohio

Cleveland

Cleveland, Ohio is a great Midwest summer vacation destination. 

Since it is located on the southern coast of Lake Erie, the beaches near Cleveland provide the perfect summer weekend getaway. 

Most of them are free, uncrowded, and a great place to soak up the sun.  In addition to sunbathing, kayaking is a popular activity along the shores of Lake Erie in Cleveland.

When looking for a break from the summer sun, head indoors to one of the Cleveland museums. 

Cleveland’s Northcoast Harbor area is home to several world-class museums, like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

There are also high-quality educational centers and museums located right downtown or in University Circle. 

In the evening, Playhouse Square entertains with classic, Broadway theater.

Ohio is also home to one National Par just a short drive from Cleveland.  I recommend spending at least one day exploring Cuyahoga Valley National Park. 

And don’t miss a day at the roller coaster capital of the world!  Cedar Point is also a short drive from Cleveland and is worth at least one full day in your Cleveland summer itinerary. 

Summer fun isn’t complete without a breath-taking thrill ride or a trip down a speedy water slide!

Best things to do in Cleveland this summer:

  • Edgewater Beach
  • Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
  • Midwest Hiking in Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Stay: Hyatt Cleveland Regency at the Arcade

Contributed by Michelle of Moyer Memoirs Empty Nest Travel Adventures

Wisconsin

Milwaukee

An urban outdoor seating area in Milwaukee, featuring modern architecture with steel beams and glass canopies, set against a brick building with a faded mural. The inviting space, ideal for a leisurely spring break afternoon, blends contemporary design with historic elements.
Milwaukee by Tom Barrett via Unsplash

Milwaukee is the quirky, younger-sibling town of Chicago.

Located approximately one hour by car from the windy city, it’s possible to combine both cities into a summer road trip.

The city is super fun and highly underrated!

Catch a ball game at American Family Field and enjoy a sunshine stroll along Milwaukee’s beautiful lakefront.

If you are in town during Summerfest, don’t miss one of the biggest outdoor concerns in the country!

Huge headliners like the Rolling Stones and Lady Gaga. The lineup is usually announced in March!

The best things to do during summer in Milwaukee are:

  • Milwaukee Summerfest
  • UW Arboretum
  • Lakefront

StayCambria Hotel Milwaukee Downtown

Madison

Madison, the capital of Wisconsin, is one of the best summertime destinations in the Midwest.

Since it’s a college town, there are plenty of inexpensive things to do.

Plus, it’s less crowded in the summer when the students have gone back home, so you don’t have to book your hotel as far in advance.

One of Madison’s must-see attractions is the spectacular Capitol building, which is free to tour.  It’s also air-conditioned, doubling as a great place to cool off.

Explore the beauty of nature and take a hike through the extensive grounds of the Arboretum. 

And don’t miss the Olbrich Botanical Gardens – my favorite part is the Thai pavilion and its serene garden!

Be sure to pack a hat, sunscreen, and plenty of water.  The combination of sun and humidity in Wisconsin can pack a punch if you’re not prepared!

For food, I recommend a delicious slice of signature mac & cheese pizza at Ian’s Pizza!

Give yourself 2-3 days to explore Madison’s attractions.

Tip: If you’ve got some extra time, take a day trip to nearby Mount Horeb to see the trolls!

Best Madison Things to do in the summer:

  • Wisconsin State Capitol Building
  • Olbrich Botanical Gardens
  • Arboretum

StayThe Madison Concourse Hotel

Recommended by Lisa Garrett of Travel to Lyon

Conclusion

The Midwest offers a variety of summer destinations, each with its unique charm and attractions!

Experience city life in bustling Chicago, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Madison, Minneapolis, or Cleveland! 

Feeling outdoorsy?  Hit the hiking trails at Indiana Dunes, Starved Rock, or Cuyahoga Valley. 

For the beach lovers, experience the relaxation of Pure Michigan in New Buffalo or Mackinac Island.

Whether you’re drawn to urban adventures, beachside relaxation, or something in between, Midwest summer has got something in store for everyone!

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Alyssa

As a full time employee who loves her job, learn how I honor my wanderlust while working a 9:00-5:00 (because I want to!) This blog welcomes all, and specifically provides resources for those seeking travel intertwined into a busy schedule (3 days to 5 weeks).