While it can sometimes be overlooked at the expense of the coasts, the heartland of the US has more than enough to see and do to justify a separate trip. With cities ranging from the massive to the gritty to the beautiful – there’s a metropolis to satisfy everyone’s taste. You can also find some of the most pristine and gorgeous wild landscapes in the country if you look. Buckle up and travel with us as we show you where to go in the Central United States.
Like most of the country, you can easily find interstates to get you from city to city. Road tripping through the United States is often one of the simplest, cheapest, and most enjoyable ways to explore the country. If you’re just interested in say Chicago or New Orleans, air travel is also extensive and you can often find good deals on direct or connecting flights. As opposed to the Northeast Corridor, train travel is not as viable an option in the Central US, so you’ll likely want to stick to the roads or the sky.
We said this before but we’ll say it again; the further south you go, the warmer it gets. Chicago can get very chilly in the winter (think Toronto but colder) whereas you’ll often find warm weather year round in somewhere like New Orleans. Contrary to popular belief however, it can still get cold in places like Tennessee and Texas, so bring a coat if you plan on staying there in the winter.
Where to go in the Central United States
It might not have the same international prestige as New York, but if you make the trip to Chicago you’ll discover what is America’s most enjoyable big city. One of the first things you’ll notice about the Windy City is the hugely impressive skyline. The mix of architectural styles coupled with one of the most recognizable (and tallest) skyscrapers, the Willis (just call it the ‘Sears’) Tower. For the artistically inclined, Chicago offers a wealth of museums, festivals, and performances year round – with something to tickle everyone’s fancy. Walk down the Magnificent Mile, sample some deep dish pizza in its home, visit one of the many parks (Grant Park to name one) that dot the cityscape, relax down by the shores of Lake Michigan, or have a laugh at the famous Second City Theater. There are tons of small neighbourhoods within the massive city, where you can sample an eclectic mix of different cuisine and cultures. Chicago is also home to some of the world’s most famous sports teams from the successful Blackhawks and Bulls to the Bears to the White Sox and hapless Cubs.
Yes, it’s true that over the years Detroit has garnered an increasingly bad reputation. Major economic woes and a frightening homicide rate have been in the news more often than not. Are you still reading? Well if you are, visit Detroit and you might be pleasantly surprised. True, there are a lot of neighbourhoods best avoided, but there’s also quite a lot to see in the downtown area. While there is an eerie, empty feeling to the city, the down to earth, hard-nosed Midwestern style and sensibilities also have a certain charm to them. While the population is declining, younger people are moving in, giving parts of Detroit an upbeat, artsy vibe. There are also some great bars and chow along with an abundance of music venues. Last but not least, it’s also a great city to watch some sports, especially the Red Wings (this is Hockeytown after all). Tickets are substantially cheaper than in Toronto if you live between the two cities and the team personifies the plucky grit that characterizes the city as a whole.
Straddling the border of Minnesota and Ontario you’ll find the pristine wilderness known as the Boundary Waters. A longtime favourite for outdoorsy types, the region offers some of the best camping, canoeing, and hiking you’ll find this side of the Rockies. Seemingly a world away from the metropolis of the Twin Cities, you’ll be just as likely to run into moose or hear the howling of wolves as meeting another person. The endless lakes, streams, rivers, and hills cater to the casual and experienced alike. Get outfitted in the town of Ely, get a permit, and set off into the wilderness. While the weather will certainly be more manageable in the summer, visiting the area in winter will offer a front row seat to dog sledding and related activities. Definitely plan ahead, as permits can be maxed out. Once you make it however, be sure to send us a picture of the northern lights!
Black Hills and Badlands
This area of wilderness can be found in South Dakota and partly in Wyoming, and is home to a large amount of national parks. Easily the most famous landmark can be found in the Black Hills (a small, isolated mountain range) – Mount Rushmore. The monument with four of the most iconic Presidents carved in stone has become one of the symbols of America. The rest of the Black Hills is starkly beautiful, with pine trees covering the slopes of the ragged stony peaks. There’s an awful lot of history and culture here, much of it involving Native Americans (Custer State Park and the perpetually in construction Crazy Horse Monument can be found here). The city of Deadwood is also nearby (check out the HBO series on the early days of settlement here). The Badlands on the other hand is a barren (but hugely impressive) land of eroded rock, spires, and pinnacles mixed with grass prairie. The black-footed ferret – one of the most endangered animals in North America – has also been reintroduced here.
Missouri’s Big Cities
One possesses the gritty charm typical of Midwestern cities while the other does its best to emulate the great cities of Europe while still remaining distinctly American. Several hours apart, you can get a very different side of Missouri with these two destinations.
One of the first things you’ll notice about St. Louis is the Gateway Arch. Located right downtown; the arch symbolizes the city’s history as the Gateway to the West. Indeed, the history of westward expansion is closely linked with St. Louis, just as the city’s history is inextricably tied with the Mississippi, America’s most important river. Today, there’s still a lot to see in the city from the beer (it’s the home of Budweiser, make of that what you will) to the baseball. There’s still an excellent live music scene, with many famous stars (both past and present) calling the city home.
On the other side of the state, you’ll find Kansas City. Despite its name, the city resides firmly within Missouri but its inspiration comes from all over. Kansas City has developed a young, hip vibe in recent years, but it remains most well known for three things – BBQ, fountains, and jazz. While there are over 100 BBQ joints, you can find even more fountains (on equal footing with Rome). It’s definitely the liveliest spot in the Great Plains and is well worth a stop over.
Louisville and Around
The largest city in Kentucky offers a taste (literally in some cases) of the best bits of what the state has to offer. The city itself possesses the same sort of style (brick) and vibe as other Midwestern cities listed above but there’s also enough here to set it apart. A giant bat lets you know you’ve reached the home of the iconic Louisville Slugger while the massive downtown arena plays host to the Louisville Cardinals successful basketball team. Perhaps the most famous sporting landmark however is Churchill Downs in the south, home of the Kentucky Derby (“The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports”). Venture outside the city back on to the highway and you’ll soon enter bourbon country, where you can find a wide variety of distillery’s open to the public (Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark, among others).
Music City and the Blues
Sometimes we all just want to let loose and listen to some tunes. Between these two Tennessee cities, you’d be hard pressed to find better places to do so in the entire United States.
Music City, otherwise known as Nashville, has long been synonymous with country music. The sight of musicians (both struggling and successful) along with an abundance of cowboy boots does nothing to change this view. For fans of the genre, you’ll get what you came for with concerts in abundance and the famous Grand Ole Opry. Still, even if you don’t appreciate the twang of country music, there’s a lot to see and do here. The neon lights of Lower Broadway (stretching down from where the NHL’s Predators play) are the first sign that you’ve come to a place full of life. Nearly every bar has affordable prices and live music (country, rock, blues and more). The sheer amount of entertainment packed into the small district makes this one of the easiest cities to have a blast in without mile long treks to get from place to place.
Perhaps even more ingrained in the history of music is Memphis, Tennessee’s other big city. The careers of Elvis and Johnny Cash (among countless others) took off in the clubs and recording studios of Beale Street. A walk down the famous boulevard still offers up live music and some of the best pork BBQ in the world. Beyond Beale Street, you’ll find that Memphis offers many of the big city thrills you’d expect, though it’s a bit rough around the edges. Still between the college campus and the Grizzlies NBA team, there’s a lot to see here.
Partying in Nashville or Memphis may be one of the highlights of your trip, but it has become an artform in New Orleans. Known worldwide for raucous Mardi Gras celebrations, you’ll quickly find that the festivities on Bourbon Street are in full swing any time of the year. The countless bars, clubs, and… less than reputable establishments work together to create a crazy atmosphere. Plus, Bourbon Street is one of the few places in the country where you’re allowed to drink alcohol on the street. After the party’s over, you’ll find that New Orleans is one of the most gorgeous and vibrant cities in the country. The picturesque French Quarter with its numerous balconies and cafes, unique Creole and Cajun cultures (and the amazing food that comes with it), and typical big city sights ensure you’ll never get bored.
Everything is bigger in Texas. Well that is certainly true when it comes to the size of the state. From East to West or North to South, Texas seems to stretch on endlessly. This means there are quite a few cities and sights worth seeing within its borders.
As the largest city in the state (and 4th in the entire US), you’d expect Houston to have a wide array of stuff to do and see – and you’d be right. There’s an excellent restaurant scene here as well as near countless cultural events and performances. It’s one of few cities with a permanent and professional theater, opera, ballet, and symphony orchestra. Beyond the cultural sights, Houston has become synonymous with business (New York is the only city with more Fortune 500 companies) and the space industry (Houston, we have a problem).
The capital of Texas may not be the biggest city, but Austin is certainly the most enjoyable. Known as the ‘Live Music Capital of the World’, the city lives up to that billing with countless performances in the numerous music venues (more per capita than any other American city). The SXSW festival and Austin Film Festival bring the crowds in, but anytime of the year you’ll find Austin in fine form. There’s a unique vibe to the city, and when you throw in one of the country’s major universities, you can see why Austin is one of the most bumping places in the country.
The city of San Antonio is worth it alone for the two most famous landmarks it has to offer – the Alamo and the River Walk. Both are conveniently located right in the centre, so it’s easy to see both. The Alamo will certainly be hard to forget after you leave while the ever-expanding River Walk lazily snakes by numerous bars, restaurants, and shops. Park your car, and set off on foot to get a real feel for the city.
How much does it cost? ($$$)*
The price of a trip to the Central United States (or anywhere in the country for that matter) will vary considerably depending on where you’re going, how you’re getting there, how long you stay, what you plan on doing, etc. Round trip flights between Pearson and Chicago can often be found around the $400 Canadian range, though this can change considerably depending on who you fly with and how far in advance you book. Heading down to Houston will likely cost around $100 more, though this can skyrocket if you fly direct.
Once you’re in the United States, you’ll find a wide variety of prices. An average day’s expenses could end up around $260 with $128 for accommodation and $47 for food. This is just an average however, and some cities are much cheaper than others. For example, cities in the south often have cheaper food and drink prices than trendier areas in places like Chicago (though you can still find good deals there). Setting off into the Boundary Waters will likely be less of a drain on the finances than a weeklong bender in New Orleans. Always be sure to check the CAD to USD exchange rate, as a strong US dollar can increase prices significantly.
*Cost rating on a scale of ‘$ to $$$$’, or ‘cheapest to most expensive’
Health and Safety
The United States is a safe country for the most part. There is no nationwide advisory in effect and normal security procedures are recommended throughout according to the Canadian government. Obviously, there are areas of certain cities that are more dangerous but this is all on a case-by-case basis. Violent crime is generally more common in the US than in Canada, so definitely know your area of the city before you start walking around. Parts of Chicago, New Orleans, and Detroit especially should be avoided but most parts of the cities are perfectly safe. All things considered, there shouldn’t be any problems exploring the Central United States as long as you plan ahead and use your best judgment.
These are just a few examples of where to go in the Central United States, there’s tons more to see and do. If you think somewhere else should be on the list, let us know in the comments. Traveling down the East Coast instead? We’ve got you covered with our Eastern United States Travel Guide.
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