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Top Choice July/August 2014 Issue


Readers select the best places to see and things to do in the Midwest.

For the play Anything Goes, Cole Porter wrote a song called “You’re the Top” in which the singers complimented each other by comparing them to all that’s best in the world, from the Tower of Pisa to Jimmy Durante’s nose.

Not everyone has the gift of verse as Porter, but readers of the AAA Midwest Traveler know “the top” when they see it. For the fifth year in a row, readers have shared their picks for the Midwest’s best places to visit, stay, shop, dine, listen to music, and have fun. If you’re inspired to visit some of these sights–as we expect you will–you might find yourself comparing them to the Mona Lisa. Enjoy the Best of the Midwest.

Best of Midwest



Best City in Illinois: Chicago

Vice President Dan Quayle once misspoke when he said that it was wonderful to be “in the great state of Chicago” during a visit, but his gaffe is understandable given that there are more things to see and do in this Illinois city than in some entire states. The most-visited Midwestern city, Chicago not only ranks as the best big city in Illinois for AAA readers but it garnered the most votes of all the Midwestern big city candidates. It’s easy to see why.

Among the many compelling attractions is Wrigley Field, which is woven into the fabric of the city with its iconic ivy-covered walls. Celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, the legendary ballpark is offering game-day events all season. Chicago specializes in celebrating, with amazing festivals year-round, including the Taste of Chicago (July 9–13) and the Chicago Jazz Festival (Aug. 28–31).

Visitors can experience the city with a sightseeing tour on the river boats, a play date with the animals at Lincoln Park Zoo, a scenic ride on the Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier, or an art adventure in Millennium Park. In addition, guests can explore from the bottom of the sea to outer space in museums that include the Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, The Field Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry, and Shedd Aquarium. When you throw in dining, world-class shopping, and even beaches on Lake Michigan, it’s a wonder Quayle didn’t call it the “country of Chicago.”

Chicago Museums

An aerial view of the city’s skyline with the Field Museum and Shedd Aquarium in the foreground. ©City of Chicago photo


Best City in Indiana: Indianapolis

The Indianapolis 500 over Memorial Day weekend is the world’s largest single-day spectator sporting event, but there are plenty of other reasons to race to Indy. This year marks the biggest year for family travel for the city thanks to two massive exhibit openings, which along with other attractions in Indianapolis have earned it the title of best Indiana city among AAA readers.

The spectacular Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is presenting China’s Terra Cotta Warriors in their only U.S. appearance in 2014. Eight original warriors will be on display through Nov. 2 along with more than 100 artifacts from the tomb of China’s first emperor. Also, the Indianapolis Zoo, already home to 2,000 animals, has added eight more in the $26 million International Orangutan Center. Zoo-goers can view the great apes and enjoy an outdoor skyline ride. The zoo is in White River State Park, a 250-acre oasis with a scenic canal, the NCAA Hall of Champions, Indiana State Museum, and the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art.

Visit Indy, (800) 323-INDY (4639),


The Indianapolis Zoo has unveiled a major orangutan exhibit. Indianapolis Zoo photo


Best City in Missouri: St. Louis

You can’t have a birthday without cake, but with St. Louis turning 250 this year, the city couldn’t just have one. So it is celebrating its momentous milestone with 250 four-foot-tall ornamental cakes that have been decorated by local artists and placed at landmarks, museums, attractions, historical sites, and parks. That rich history and those 250 sites are the reasons that AAA readers chose St. Louis as the best city in Missouri.

Visitors can use the Cakeway to the West app, available via, to find all the cakes in this art and history project. One cake is at Busch Stadium, home to the 11-time World Champion St. Louis Cardinals, which recently saw the addition of Ballpark Village, a 10-acre entertainment plaza that includes restaurants, bars, and the Cardinals Hall of Fame and Museum. From new additions to decades-old landmarks–like the Missouri History Museum and Saint Louis Art Museum–there’s plenty to celebrate in St. Louis, birthday or not.

St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission, (800) 916-0040,



Best Small Town in Missouri: St. Charles

St. Charles served as the final embarkation point of the Lewis and Clark Expedition when it was but a village, yet had they known how charming the city would become, the explorers might have never left. Chosen as the best small town in Missouri by readers of the AAA Midwest Traveler, the city has kept its rich frontier history and river heritage alive. The 10-block, 200-year-old Main Street is Missouri’s largest historical district, and the brick-paved streets lead to more than 125 shops and 25 restaurants, many located in restored buildings that date to the 1800s.

The Foundry Art Center, located in a renovated train car factory, features changing exhibits, and First Missouri Capitol State Historic Site preserves the building where Missouri lawmakers first met in 1821. See full-scale replica boats used by the Corps of Discovery at the Lewis and Clark Boat House and Nature Center.

Readers also liked Branson and Hermann.

Greater St. Charles Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 366-2427,


Festivals in St. Charles celebrate its rich history. Greater St. Charles Convention and Visitors Bureau photo


Best Small Town in Kansas: Lawrence

Lawrence might be a small town with around 90,000 inhabitants, but it offers an unmistakable city flavor and a vibrancy that you can only find in a college town. Home to the University of Kansas, Lawrence possesses a rich culture and easy vibe that readers recognized, naming the city the best small town in Kansas.

Visitors flock to bustling downtown Lawrence and its tree-lined Massachusetts Street. The center of social life in the city, this charming area features boutiques, galleries, coffee shops, and restaurants. Part of the city’s energy comes from its emphasis on art, which can be found in its restaurants, public buildings, galleries, and literally on the street corners through the Downtown Lawrence Outdoor Sculpture Exhibition.

Readers also liked Atchison and Manhattan.

Lawrence Convention & Visitors Bureau, (785) 856-3040,



Best Small Town in Indiana: French Lick

Combining gracious hospitality and luxurious accommodations with outdoor fun and beautiful scenery, French Lick was the top choice among readers for Indiana’s best small town. Many visit the area for the two iconic resorts: the magnificent French Lick Springs Hotel, which dates to 1901; and the West Baden Springs Hotel, once named the “Eighth Wonder of the World” for its breathtaking dome.

Outside the hotels, find golf, shopping, horseback riding, biking, and the French Lick Scenic Railway. On Patoka Lake, rent a pontoon boat, fishing boat, or even a floating cabin. More water fun is at the Big Splash Adventure Indoor Water Park & Resort.

Readers also liked New Harmony and Nashville.

Visit French Lick West Baden, (866) 309-9139,


The dome at West Baden Springs Hotel rises six stories. French Lick Resort photo


Best Getaway: Branson, Mo.

This all-American family-friendly destination in southwest Missouri offers nearly everything but the kitchen sink. Actually, with culinary classes now offered at Silver Dollar City, the sink’s included, too.

In addition to more than 100 music shows, visitors can enjoy zip lines, lake cruises, a water park, excursion train, outlet shopping, fishing, golf, and top-notch museums, like the Titanic Museum Attraction. And no trip is complete without visiting Silver Dollar City, an 1880-style theme park with thrilling rides, crafts, and six festivals a year.

Readers also liked Lake of the Ozarks and Hermann.

Branson/Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 296-0463,

paddle boards

A couple using stand up paddle boards on Table Rock Lake. Branson/Lakes Area CVB


Tastiest Town: St. Louis

For many years, the St. Louis restaurant scene was rather unremarkable with a few bright lights. Yet in the last decade, a passion for food by chefs and patrons has illuminated its culinary landscape. With upwards of 25 excellent restaurants now–ranging from upscale choices to small bistros–and more opening nearly monthly, the city earned the title of Tastiest Town by AAA readers.

Farm-to-table culture has taken hold in the city, and chefs use local ingredients to push the bounds of creativity. Indeed, that artistry earned five St. Louis chefs the distinction this spring of being selected as semifinalists for the James Beard Award, the food industry’s highest honor. Two of them–Kevin Nashan of Sidney Street Café and Gerard Craft of Niche–advanced to be named nominees.

Readers also liked Chicago and Kansas City.

St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, (800) 916-0040,



Best Evansville Attraction: Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden

Visitors to the 45-acre Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden can view more than 700 animals from around the globe. From rainforest species at Amazonia to tigers in Asian Valley, there’s a rich diversity here. Among the newest additions are three Komodo dragons.

Take a paddleboat or bumper boat ride and feed the giraffes. Special events, like Family Fun Day and 5K (July 26), add to the fun.

Readers also liked the Evansville Museum of Art, History and Sciences, and the downtown area.

Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden, (812) 435-6143,



Best Kansas City Attraction: Country Club Plaza

The Spanish-influenced architecture, fountains, and the wonderful array of some 150 shops come together in one of the best-known areas of Kansas City.

Check out music from the best local and regional acts at the Plaza Live! Courtyard Concert Series. Music is offered Thursdays–Sundays until the end of September. Or grab an iced coffee or frozen yogurt and plop down near one of the fountains to people watch. The popular Plaza Art Fair returns Sept. 19–21, adding even more style to the area.

Readers also liked the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Arabia Steamboat Museum.

Country Club Plaza, (816) 753-0100,


The Plaza features wonderful fountains. Kansas City CVA photo


Best Springfield, Ill., Attraction: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

On the day it was announced he would portray Abraham Lincoln in the 2012 film, Lincoln, actor Daniel Day-Lewis privately toured the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield to get a feel for the president.

You may not be preparing to deliver an Academy Award-winning performance, but you’ll leave the museum with a new understanding of our 16th president. And this summer, you can see some sets, costumes, and props used in the film in the “Lincoln: History to Hollywood” exhibit at Union Station across the street from the museum. The items are on loan from Stephen Spielberg and DreamWorks Studios.

Readers also liked the Lincoln Home National Historic Site and the state Capitol.

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, (800) 610-2094,

Lincoln Family

Lifelike models of Lincoln’s family at the museum. Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau photo


Best St. Louis Attraction: Saint Louis Zoo

Since its inception in 1910, the Saint Louis Zoo has not charged admission. It is one of only three contemporary zoos in the country that holds to that practice, the others being Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo and the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. More than 3 million people visit the Saint Louis Zoo each year.

Some attractions in the zoo do charge fees, and parking in the zoo lots will cost about $15. Visitor’s tip: buy the Safari Pass for $12 and save on admission fees for a full day of fun at the zoo. They are available online or at the welcome desk.

This summer, the popular exhibit, “Stingrays at Caribbean Cove,” returns. Note that one of the favorite places to duck inside for a cool few moments, Penguin & Puffin Coast, is closed as construction on a new exhibit area, Polar Bear Point, continues until 2015.

Readers also liked the Gateway Arch and the St. Louis Cardinals.

Saint Louis Zoo, (800) 966-8877,


A cownose ray in the “Stingrays at Caribbean Cove” exhibit at the zoo. Living Exhibits photo


Best Casino: Ameristar, St. Charles, Mo.

It’s big (397 suites), it’s glitzy (AAA Four Diamonds), and it’s the readers’ choice for best casino in the Midwest. It’s the Ameristar Casino Resort Spa in St. Charles, Mo.

Capturing its third Best of the Midwest award (2013 and 2011), the Ameristar has a 130,000-square-foot casino, eight dining options, live entertainment venues, and a beautiful hotel and spa. Readers also liked Lumiere Place Casino Resort, St. Louis; and French Lick Hotel and Casino, French Lick, Ind.

Ameristar Casino Resort Spa, (636) 949-7777,



Best Shopping Destination: Magnificent Mile

Collecting the most votes for shopping destination, the Magnificent Mile in Chicago runs from the Chicago River to Oak Street in the Near North Side. Several of the tallest buildings in the nation, such as the John Hancock Center, lie in the district, but the real giants are department stores Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, and more, along with dozens of other stores.

It also has its own Shopping Festival, Aug. 21–Sept. 1, with fashion shows, culinary demonstrations, promotions, and concerts.

Readers also liked The Mall of America (Bloomington, Minn.) and Country Club Plaza (Kansas City).

Chicago’s Magnificent Mile,



Best Entertainment Destination: Branson

There aren’t many places on the planet where theatergoers can see Barry Williams (The Brady Bunch) perform music from the 1970s in the afternoon and country legend Mickey Gilley in the evening. The 100 live shows in Branson are about as diverse as it gets: from country to pop, rock to opera, Beatles to bluegrass.

Big productions include the Biblical story of Jonah at Sight & Sound Theater, as well as The Adventures of Marco Polo at The White House Theatre. The quality of entertainment is high, and performers often sign autographs after the shows.

Readers also liked St. Louis and Chicago.

Branson/Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 296-0463,


The Adventures of Marco Polo at the White House Theatre. Branson CVB photo


Best Chili: Dixon’s Famous Chili

A lot of the readers who responded said they made the best chili (is that a chili cook-off challenge, folks?) but if they had to pick the best chili parlor, it would be Dixon’s Famous Chili in Independence, Mo. It’s been family owned for 90 years. Diners order the style of chili (juicy, soupy, or dry) and fixings, and then dress up the plate with tamales or spaghetti. There’s also the foot-long chilidog.

Readers also liked Crown Candy Kitchen in St. Louis.

Dixon’s Chili, (816) 861-7308,



Best Fried Chicken: Hodak’s

Since 1962, Hodak’s Restaurant and Bar in St. Louis has served its family recipe for fried chicken. There are other items on the menu, but delicious fried chicken is the No. 1 reason people visit.

For about $8, diners can order a half fried chicken dinner with fries and coleslaw. Specialties also include the whole wing dinner, drumsticks dinner, or chicken liver dinner.

Readers also liked Strouds in Kansas City, Mo., and Giant City State Park in Makanda, Ill.

Hodak’s Restaurant and Bar, (314) 776-7292,



Best Pie: Blue Owl®

It’s hard to say which is sweeter: the pie and desserts at Blue Owl® Restaurant and Bakery in Kimmswick, Mo., or the success story of owner Mary Hostetter. A home-based bakery business that she started in 1983 has blossomed to a restaurant, bakery, and sweet shop.

The original Kimmswick location offers such amazing pies, like the Mile High Apple Pie, that it’s easy to forget there’s a full menu of soups, salads, and sandwiches. Expansion has come in the form of Blue Owl Sweet Shoppes in Kimmswick (next to the restaurant), Festus, and House Springs, Mo. They feature a soda fountain and candy store.

Readers also liked Eckert’s Country Store in Belleville, Ill., and Josephine’s Tea Room & Gifts in Godfrey, Ill.

The Blue Owl, (636) 464-3128,


Mary Hostetter with her Mile High Apple Pies. Deborah Reinhardt photo



Editors’ Picks

In our frequent travels through the Midwest, we’ve found some of our own favorite places.



Best KC Attraction: American Jazz Museum/Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

This combination is such an incredible gem. I never visit the city without going to see them. Jazz runs through Kansas City’s veins, and the museum does a great job interpreting its history. And any baseball fan needs to see the Negro Leagues museum. This American story, which was a huge part of the Midwest in the 1920s and ’30s, is presented honestly and honorably.

–Deborah Reinhardt


Kansas City CVA photo


Best Small Town in Missouri: Weston

In our hectic lives, charming Weston invites you to slow down. There’s great shopping, a winery, brewery, and wonderful places to eat. There are few places anymore that can lower your heart rate, but Weston is one for me.

–Dennis Heinze


Missouri Division of Tourism photo


Honorable Mention

While these destinations and attractions weren’t ranked first among readers, they still garnered plenty of votes and are worthy of a visit.


The Illinois Capitol was a runner-up for best attraction in Springfield. Illinois Office of Tourism photo


Hermann, Mo., was a runner-up for best Midwest getaway. Missouri Division of Tourism photo



The Gateway Arch was a runner-up for best attraction in St. Louis. St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission photo

capitol   capitol    

The Lake of the Ozarks was a runner-up for best getaway. Missouri Division of Tourism photo

  Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, with its sculpture park, was a runner-up for best attraction in Kansas City. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art photo  

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