To say that something is the best of its kind means it “excels all others,” according to the dictionary. That is true for the winners of the Best of the Midwest annual reader poll.
For the fourth year, our readers shared their picks for the Midwest’s best places to visit, stay, dine, and have fun. We bet anyone visiting the Midwest who follows these recommendations will have a memorable experience. After all, an experienced traveler knows he or she asks the locals to get the scoop on the best a city has to offer.
So it is with our thanks to the experts–our readers–that we can share the tabulated results from the Best of the Midwest poll. Make time this year to revisit a favorite place that’s listed. Perhaps our poll inspires you to visit these cities, restaurants, hotels, or festivals for the first time. If that’s the case, we have one thing to say.
Welcome to the Best of the Midwest.
Best Large City for a Weekend Getaway: St. louis, Mo.
Although it was a close race–with only 21 votes to decide first versus second place–readers have named St. Louis as the best large city in the Midwest. Kansas City, Mo., came in second, with Chicago, Ill., in third.
Visitors to St. Louis can enjoy many attractions and activities that are either free or have reasonable fees. While the city is a year-round destination, it especially shines in summer. The city’s jewel–Forest Park–and its many cultural attractions buzz with activity. The Saint Louis Art Museum just opened its East Building on June 29 and 30, adding 30 percent more exhibit space, plus more parking spots. In addition, a free outdoor film series will be on Friday nights in front of the museum on Art Hill Plaza.
Add into summer’s mix the big Fair St. Louis over July 4th weekend, the summer concerts at Soldiers Memorial downtown, baseball action at Busch Stadium, festivals, restaurants, nightlife that includes several area casinos–wait a minute; you’re going to need more than a weekend.
St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission, www.explorestlouis.com, (800) 916-0040
Best Small City for a Weekend Getaway: Branson, Mo.
|The new $10 million wooden roller coaster, Outlaw Run, at Silver Dollar City. Silver Dollar City photo
Virtually every type of entertainment or amusement can be found in Branson, but somehow, the city balances the tourist activity with its own brand of Ozark hospitality. Maybe it’s this unique mix that attracts our readers, who again selected Branson as their favorite small city (2011 and 2010 winner).
With more than 100 live shows, Branson is billed as the live music capital of the world. But there’s also shopping, golf, lakes, rivers, Silver Dollar City theme park, and countless family-style amusements. Plus, plentiful and varied accommodation and dining choices are available. And with the regional airport up and running–Southwest Airlines just added service this spring to Branson–more visitors can discover Branson’s style of fun.
Always popular over the summer–especially July 4 and Labor Day weekends–the fall and winter seasons have the National Harvest Festival (Sept. 12–Oct. 26) at Silver Dollar City and the Ozark Mountain Christmas that kicks off Nov. 1 with the Festival of Lights.
Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau, www.explorebranson.com, (800) 296-0463
Best Large Hotel: Hyatt Regency St. Louis at The Arch
Travelers have countless hotel choices, but when shopping for a place to stay, our readers named the Hyatt Regency with great views of downtown and the Gateway Arch as the best large hotel. With 910 rooms, this AAA Four Diamond, pet-friendly hotel has plenty of amenities, plus it’s within walking distance of Busch Stadium, Laclede’s Landing, and downtown restaurants.
Hyatt Regency St. Louis at The Arch, www.stlouisarch.hyatt.com, (314) 655-1234
Best Small Hotel: The Raphael, Kansas City, MO.
Built in 1927, The Raphael Autograph Collection is an urban retreat in Country Club Plaza. This AAA Four Diamond hotel has luxurious, modern comforts that marry with historical grace and charm to create a memorable stay. Walk to the Plaza’s wonderful shops, restaurants, and nightlife, or enjoy an evening “at home” in Chaz Restaurant and Lounge. And for the second time (2013 and 2010), it’s our readers’ favorite boutique hotel.
The Raphael, www.raphaelkc.com, (816) 756-3800
Best Lake Weekend Escape: Lake of the Ozarks
With more than 1,150 miles of shoreline and 54,000 surface acres, it’s easy to get hooked on the Lake of the Ozarks in central Missouri, which has reeled in its second award (2013, 2010) as the Midwest’s best lake getaway. The emphasis here, naturally, is water recreation, and there’s plenty of it.
Yet the area has grown into a golf destination, too. Add outlet and boutique shopping, a variety of fine restaurants, great nightlife, and loads of family amusements and you’ve got the recipe for a great getaway for any season. And for the Fourth of July, the lake is hard to beat for a good time.
Lake of the Ozarks Convention and Visitors Bureau, www.funlake.com, (800) 386-5253
Sunset on the Lake of the Ozarks. Missouri Division of Tourism photo
|There are times when our schedules or finances do not allow for a week’s vacation or a weekend getaway, yet our life batteries may need recharging. A day away from the routine is in order.
We asked readers for their favorite day tours from Evansville, Ind.; Kansas City; and St. Louis. Check out these ideas for quick getaways this summer.
Best Day Tour from Evansville: Paducah, KY.
Paducah, in southern Kentucky, is 128 miles southwest of Evansville. A National Heritage Destination, Paducah is home of the National Quilt Museum of the United States. With more than 150 quilts, the museum exhibits some of the best quilting and fiber arts in the country. Rich in Civil War, African-American, and river history, Paducah’s museums are housed in wonderful examples of 19th-century American architecture.
Historical downtown has a myriad of antique and boutique shops, plus charming restaurants. LowerTown Arts District, a neighborhood listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is filled with artisan shops and interesting storefronts.
Paducah Convention & Visitors Bureau, www.paducah.travel, (800) PADUCAH (723-8224)
|Shops along Main Street in St. Charles. Greater St. Charles Convention & Visitors Bureau photo
Best Day Tour from St. Louis: St. Charles, Mo.
Proof that everything old is new again, this lovely city on the Missouri River, located less than an hour from the metropolitan St. Louis area, has all the makings for a great day tour.
Shop or dine along Main Street near the river, Missouri’s largest and oldest historical district. See the state’s first capitol. Bike or hike the popular Katy Trail State Park. Immerse yourself in Lewis and Clark history. Summer and fall bring plentiful festivals and outdoor concerts or events. And for Christmas, the historical district glows with candlelight and magical characters.
Greater St. Charles Visitor and Convention Bureau, www.historicstcharles.com, (800) 366-2427
Best Day Tour from Kansas City: Independence, MO.
President Harry Truman knew it, and so do our readers. Independence is a great place to visit (and to live), and–for the second consecutive year–it is the best day tour from Kansas City.
A quaint historical square bulges with interesting shops and eateries. Take a wagon tour and hear about some of the history. If tracing your family’s tree has taken root in your mind, check out the new Midwest Genealogy Center in Independence, the largest public genealogy library in the nation. And the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, plus the Truman Home, always has interesting exhibits to help you expand your knowledge of Missouri’s president.
Independence Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 748-7323, www.visitindependence.com
Best City for Live Music: Kansas City, MO.
|Kansas City CVA photo
In this year’s new category, Kansas City toots its own horn as the best city in which to enjoy live music. Its jazz roots run deep, dating to the 1920s, and there are many venues–even a museum–to visit to hear this truly American musical form.
But there are also blues clubs in Kansas City, and the Power and Light District downtown regularly offers outdoor concerts in just about every musical genre. In the 18th and Vine Historic Jazz District, a newer night spot–Danny’s Big Easy–is an interesting fusion of R&B, Gospel karaoke, and DJ tunes that meld in a hot New Orleans ambiance.
Kansas City Convention and Visitors Association,
www.visitkc.com, (800) 767-7700
Best Romantic City: Eureka Springs, Ark.
This small town in the Ozarks drips in romance. Even its architecture–with the Victorian gingerbread trim–is easy to love. Readers bestowed Eureka Springs, located about an hour southwest of Branson, with its first Best of the Midwest award.
Eureka Springs is a popular wedding destination. An industry has grown around couples seeking this mountain town in which to tie the knot. Don’t miss Thorncrown Chapel, a beautiful architectural jewel, even if you’re not getting married. Dozens of B&Bs, plus cabins and hotels or motels, are in town for a romantic overnight stay. Add in festivals, restaurants, and a thriving artists’ community and you, too, will fall in love with Eureka Springs.
Eureka Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission, www.eurekasprings.org, (866) 947-4387
Best Natural Area or Nature Trail: Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri
Getting back to nature is not a problem in Missouri’s national forest, and 77 percent of our readers named Mark Twain forest as the best natural area. The beautiful Ozarks serve as the setting for a wide variety of activities, and you have 1.5 million acres in which to roam. Fourteen floatable streams and 16 lakes are here to enjoy. You’ll find trails for hiking, biking, or horseback riding.
Mark Twain National Forest, www.fs.usda.gov/mtnf, (573) 364-4621
Best Casino: Ameristar Casino Resort, St. CharlesThis gaming destination on the Missouri River rolls along as a favorite casino with our readers; it also was picked in 2011. With a 130,000-square-foot casino offering slots and table games, eight dining options, the Bottleneck Blues Bar that serves up live music, and a beautiful hotel that includes a spa, Ameristar is a great weekend base for exploring St. Charles County.
Ameristar Casino Resort, www.ameristar.com, (866) 667-3386
|For travelers who seek the urban experience, a weekend in a new city can be a bit challenging, as well as exciting. With limited time, how do you know what to see? That’s why we wanted to highlight the best attractions in four metropolitan areas for this question. Ready? Let’s go.
Best Attraction in Evansville: Evansville Museum of Arts, History and Science
Arts, history, and science come together on the banks of the Ohio River in an institution that dates to 1904. Learn about constellations inside Koch Planetarium. Rivertown USA and Evansville Museum of Transportation Center are popular stops for the children. Affordable family fun, admissions or donations are under $5.
Evansville Museum, www.emuseum.org, (812) 425-2406
|Country Club Plaza offers 15 blocks of shopping. Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association photo
Best Attraction in Kansas City:
Country Club Plaza
This historical outdoor shopping and entertainment venue is one of the areas that define the city, and the majority of readers who voted believe it’s the best attraction in Kansas City. Fifteen downtown blocks of wonderful shops, restaurants, and classy nightlife venues–as well as nearby hotels and cultural institutions, including The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art–make the Plaza Kansas City’s go-to destination. Take a break by sipping a cold drink near one of the fountains and watch the parade of people pass by.
Country Club Plaza, www.countryclubplaza.com,
|The new $18
million Sea Lion
Sound at the Saint
Louis Zoo. ©David Merritt, St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission photo
Best Attraction in St. Louis: Saint Louis Zoo
St. Louis area residents know it’s not summer without a trip to the zoo–we’re raised on it. Visitors know it’s an attraction that should be part of any trip to St. Louis. Still offering free admission (some exhibits have entrance fees), the zoo in Forest Park is beloved by all, and 55 percent of readers who voted say it’s the best attraction in the city.
This year, say hi to the new baby Asian elephant, Priya, who was born in April. Sea Lion Sound, an exhibit that opened last summer, will bring a smile to your face, and the charming Emerson Zooline Railroad that travels around the zoo celebrates 50 years. Bring your walking shoes, sun hat and sunscreen and explore the world in these 90 acres.
Saint Louis Zoo, (314) 781-0900, www.stlzoo.org
Best Attraction in Springfield: Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World
Bass Pro’s flagship store is more than a place to purchase outdoor gear. It’s one of those “you have to see it to believe it” places, and the majority of readers who voted think it’s the best attraction in Springfield, Mo.
Once you get past the huge selection of, well, everything for the outdoors, make your way to the renovated gigantic fish aquarium; daily feedings are back and fish are hungry. There’s also indoor waterfalls, turtle exhibits, indoor archery and shooting ranges, and arcades. Enjoy a fine meal at Hemingway’s Blue Water Café.
Bass Pro Outdoor World, www.basspro.com, (417) 887-7334
Best Place to See College Football: Columbia and Memorial Stadium
The University of Missouri-Columbia Tigers have faithful fans throughout the state and Midwest, and our readers have chosen Columbia and the university’s Faurot Field at Memorial Stadium as the best place for a college football game.
Named in 1972 after long-time coach Don Faurot, the stadium actually dates to 1926 and has grown over the years to accommodate about 71,000 fans. In fact, when full, “The Zou” becomes the ninth largest city in Missouri. A new suite and club lounge on the east side of the stadium is planned for completion in time for the 2014 season.
Mizzou Tigers, www.mutigers.com, (573) 882-6501
Best Golf Trail: Lake of the Ozarks Golf Trail
Location and variety team up to provide a golf experience on par with any offered in the country. A large majority of our readers (85 percent) agree it’s the best golf trail in the Midwest.
Central Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks Golf Trail has more than a dozen courses designed by world-class golfers, including Arnold Palmer. These courses are set amid the natural beauty surrounding the lake. Entertainment extends beyond the fine clubhouses, and wonderful accommodation choices make planning a weekend of tee times a no-brainer. Which is good, because you’ll need all your wits for some of these holes.
Central Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks Golf Trail, www.golfingmissouri.com
Best Food Festival: World Series of Barbecue®, Kansas City
You better come hungry for this event, presented by the American Royal Association. More than 500 teams compete in four meat categories in what’s called the largest barbecue contest in the world. Spread over 20 acres within Kansas City’s Stockyards District, the event is held over four days in October and is the season finale for the competitive barbecue circuit. It also includes live music, cooking demonstrations, and more. The American Royal, a Kansas City tradition since 1899, celebrates the region’s agricultural heritage through competition, education, and entertainment.
The American Royal Barbecue, www.americanroyal.com, (816) 221-9800
Best Outdoor Dining: The Boathouse, Forest Park, St. Louis
Since its beginning in 1876, Forest Park has been popular with boaters, and the lake (now called Post-Dispatch Lake) has undergone expansion and restoration. The Boathouse, a year-round casual dining venue, was designed to be reminiscent of Midwest boathouse cottages from the early 1900s. During warm weather, rent paddleboats and other small craft to explore the park’s lake. The lakeside patio hops with live music, and there’s no better place in town to watch a sunset. Sunday brunches are popular, and during cooler weather, gather around the wood-burning fireplace with a mug of hot chocolate or glass of wine.
Boathouse restaurant, www.boathouseforestpark.com, (314) 367-2224
The Boathouse in St. Louis’ Forest Park. St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission photo