Great suburban destinations abound in America’s Heartland, hugging cities like Chicago; Omaha, Nebraska; Minneapolis; Detroit; and Indianapolis. These suburbs are close enough to major cities to sample their delights and just big enough to be destinations themselves.
From history, golf and nature parks to tuk-tuk rides and a public art walk, Naperville, a suburb of Chicago, is a tourist destination in its own right. The city, on the banks of the DuPage River, enjoys easy access to just about anywhere in the Midwest and is a short hop by train to downtown Chicago.
The city boasts 18 hotels, including Hotel Arista, a AAA Four Diamond luxury hotel and spa, and three full-service hotels within walking distance of Naperville’s famous Riverwalk. Completed in 1981 to commemorate Naperville’s 150th birthday, the three-mile walk takes visitors along the DuPage River and abounds with fountains, covered bridges and beautiful light poles that hearken back to Naperville’s history as the oldest settlement in DuPage County. More than 75 restaurants pepper the area. Group travelers can take advantage of Naperville’s public art program, Century Walk, which features more than 40 public art pieces, including murals, sculptures and mosaics.
The Naper Settlement, a living-history outdoor museum that showcases many historic buildings in the area, is a must-visit. Groups can visit 30 historic buildings as they learn, with the help of costumed interpreters, about 19th-century Illinois and how it changed over time. Smaller groups can organize a motorized tuk-tuk tour of the city; visitors who are looking for a bit more excitement can visit WhirleyBall, a unique entertainment complex where guests can battle it out with bumper cars and lacrosse sticks, a game of HyperBowling or laser tag.
Waconia is 30 minutes west of Minneapolis and is best known for having the second-largest lake in the metro area, along with three wineries, two breweries and a distillery. Group visitors who want to immerse themselves in the area can have a meal at Lola’s Lakehouse, one of the few restaurants situated on a lake in the area, or take a boat ride out to the island in the middle of Lake Waconia for a picnic and hiking.
All of Waconia’s libation destinations are within a five-mile radius of each other, making it easy for groups to check them off their list in one day. Or groups can take a step back in time with a customized barn quilt tour through Carver County. An attraction called At the Farm has a miniature farmers market and a 100-year-old barn, where groups can sit down for a tea party in the Antiques Loft. The Andrew Peterson Farm is another great place to visit, especially if groups are interested in Swedish history. The farm was founded in the 1800s by a Swedish immigrant whose life was detailed in a daily journal from the time he left Sweden until the day before he died in Waconia; that journal became the source material for the “Emigrants” book series.
Groups staying in downtown Waconia can shop, dine, catch a movie or take a step-by-step painting class through Unearthed Arts, a cooperative art gallery. The kitschy Garage Bar and Bowl, a sports bar and bowling alley built in an old garage, is a great place to catch a meal and compete with fellow travelers.
A suburb of Detroit, Dearborn wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for Henry Ford. The famous automobile magnate was born in Dearborn and chose to locate his Ford Rouge Factory there. Thus, Dearborn attracts millions of Ford fans annually from all around the world. The Henry Ford complex has four attractions and is one of the most visited sites in the state of Michigan, said Jennifer Ollinger, manager, domestic and international marketing, for the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The Henry Ford Museum is a collection of everything Americana, from the history of slavery and women’s suffrage to civil rights. It houses the bus that Rosa Parks made famous, including the seat she refused to give up for a white passenger. The museum is connected to the Greenfield Village, an outdoor historical village with more than 80 structures. All of the buildings have historical relevance, including Henry Ford’s birth home, the Menlo Park lab where Thomas Edison perfected the light bulb and Orville and Wilbur Wright’s bicycle shop. Visitors can take a steam train ride around the perimeter of the village or hop in a Model T or a horse-drawn carriage for their visit.
A tour of the Ford Rouge Factory is a must. The facility makes the Ford F-150. It tells its story through a 4D experience and then a tour of the assembly plant from the catwalk above the plant floor. An Automotive Hall of Fame sits next door to Henry Ford and tells the story of the people who created the automobile industry.
Council Bluffs, Iowa
Council Bluffs sits across the river from Omaha, Nebraska. Visitors staying in Council Bluffs can walk across the beautiful Bob Kerry pedestrian bridge to the Old Market, Omaha’s arts and entertainment district that is full of shops, restaurants and art galleries, or drive five minutes to visit Omaha’s world-class Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium or the beautiful Lauritzen Gardens.
Council Bluffs is well known for being an outdoor destination, with its extensive paved trail system that includes the Wabash Trace Nature Trail, a converted railroad trail made of crushed limestone. It has a beautiful performing arts center, with classrooms and gallery space, and an up-and-coming public arts scene.
“We have really evolved over the last five to 10 years,” said Emma Schwaller, senior content manager for the Council Bluffs Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We have a bunch of new local restaurant options and attractions.”
Group travelers can visit the Union Pacific Railroad Museum and the RailsWest Railroad Museum, combined with a stop at the Golden Spike Monument that commemorates the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. Or they can visit the historic Squirrel Cage Jail, an 1885 Gothic-style building — said to be haunted — that served as a jail until 1969. The Loess Hills National Scenic Byway runs through Council Bluffs and is a must-see for visitors that have never seen the prairie and forest-covered bluffs and rolling hills of this part of the state.
About 30 minutes from downtown Indianapolis, Noblesville is the seat of Hamilton County. The historic downtown is home to the county courthouse, boutique shops, restaurants and antique shops. Groups can catch a show at the popular Ruoff Music Center, a large outdoor amphitheater, or visit some of the city’s great parks, where they can canoe, kayak or tube down the White River. The Potter’s Bridge, built in 1870, is the only remaining covered bridge in Hamilton County, and there is a wonderful nature trail along the river that is great for hiking or bicycling.
The 1950s-era Nickel Plate Express travels through Noblesville; it offers themed train rides along 15 miles of track through northern Hamilton County and the rolling countryside and back to downtown. Groups can rent out the train for wine and appetizers or take the Reindeer Ride during the winter months.
Noblesville, when paired with its small-town neighbors in Hamilton County, has much to offer. In nearby Fishers, the Conner Prairie outdoor living-history museum gives group visitors a taste of what life was like in 1800s Indiana. Costumed interpreters guide guests through several themed historic and scientific exhibits. Nearby Carmel has a 1,600-seat concert hall that offers access to the symphony orchestra and performances by famous jazz musicians.
“People love how easy it is to get to our destination and get around our destination,” said Katie Utken, marketing and communications manager for Visit Hamilton County. “We’re always developing new and exciting things. Many of them didn’t exist five to 10 years ago.”