That ball of string ain't all it's cracked up to be.
While Midwesterners are known for being friendly and sweet, that doesn’t mean all of the region’s attractions carry those same cozy vibes. Just like any other part of the world, there are disappointing museums and contrived roadside attractions, and you might have to elbow your way through a throng of tourists at a spot no local dares to visit.
Here are ten tourist traps to avoid in the Midwest. What’s a tourist trap? Simply put, it’s a place only tourists visit, and locals steer clear of. This does not mean you should cross it off your list. Just understand there are other options—particularly if you’re seeking an immersion with locals.
Top Picks for You
WHERE: Chicago, Illinois
Standing on Lake Michigan’s shoreline and marveling at its vast beauty is a must when in the Windy City, just maybe not at this heavily commercial, 3,330-foot-long pier where restaurants and shopping are the bulk of the entertainment options and parking costs prove astronomical. If you’re going to go to Navy Pier, time your visit carefully. Weekdays are less crowded than weekends, and you’d be a fool to think you can find a meditative spot along the water here if it’s Wednesday or Saturday night between Memorial Day and Labor Day: that’s when people flock here to watch the fireworks shows.
Go Here Instead: Sink your toes into the sand at Chicago’s North Beach and sip a fruity drink at Shore Club, the beach’s full-service restaurant.
Mall of America
WHERE: Bloomington, Minnesota
We get it; you love shopping and you want to cross off your bucket list a trip to the country’s largest shopping mall. But this four-level mecca of retail chains—from Apple to Zara—should not be visited instead of patronizing at least some indie-owned boutiques in town.
Go Here Instead: Bring your dollars to Minnehaha Mile (or MinneMile), a strip of locally owned boutiques in Minneapolis’ Longfellow neighborhood.
Mars Cheese Castle
WHERE: Kenosha, Wisconsin
We know what you’re thinking: how can I go to the Dairy State and not buy or sample cheese? That’s not what we’re suggesting. This food establishment that resembles a castle spans 21,000 square feet and was built in 2011. It may be a family business dating back to 1947, but it’s where all the tourists go. However, plenty of Parisian-like cheese shops in Southeastern Wisconsin, within only a few miles of this monstrosity, sell the same cheeses crafted by award-winning Wisconsin cheesemakers. Don’t make the mistake of thinking the castle is the only place to eat Wisconsin cheese.
Go Here Instead: Wisconsin Cheese Mart in downtown Milwaukee has been in business for 80 years and carries nearly exclusively Wisconsin cheese.
Wall Drug Store
WHERE: Wall, South Dakota
Although this 76,000-square-foot store ranks among the most visited attractions in the Mount Rushmore State, this is not where locals shop for provisions. It’s more like a place to pick up mass-produced souvenirs, use the restroom, and fuel up on lunch. Ice water is always free. The gift-shop portion is strong (think moccasins and magnets), making this a cheesy road trip stop.
Go Here Instead: Score authentic American Indigenous art, quilts, and jewelry at Sioux Trading Post, also in South Dakota.
WHERE: St. Ignace, Michigan
Contrary to the name, there’s no mystery about this tacky roadside stop. In fact, it’s not the country’s only Mystery Spot (a place that defies gravity), which makes you question its credibility. Furthermore, if it’s that great, then why is there also a zip line and mini-golf course?
Go Here Instead: A better (and real) marvel are the numerous dunes flanking Lake Michigan on the Mitten State’s Western side, including Warren Dunes State Park.
World’s Largest Ball of Twine
WHERE: Cawker City, Kansas
Now that you’ve visualized this attraction, that’s all there is to know about it. More interesting is the fact that this has remained the largest ball of twine since its debut by Frank Stoeber in 1961. Perhaps it’s because the locals—and visitors—are invited to add more twine to the ball once a year.
Go Here Instead: Check out the world’s largest single-artist mural, called El Sueño Original, painted on the side of a grain elevator in Wichita.
The World’s Only Corn Palace
WHERE: Mitchell, South Dakota
If you’re driving through this area and suddenly think you’re in Morocco, that’s quite understandable. After all, this palace (home to no kings or queens, just a tourist attraction) of Moorish design is akin to what’s found more often in Tunisia or Morocco.
Go Here Instead: For an authentic look at architecture from a far-flung region, visit the Indigenous community of Maharishi Vedic City in Iowa.
Captain James T. Kirk’s future birthplace
WHERE: Riverside, Iowa
This is one of those attractions where a picture—and not an actual visit—might suffice, even for the most committed Trekkies. That’s because it’s a future site for the Enterprise spaceship captain’s birthplace, noted as March 22, 2228, on the landmark. Yes, you read that right; it’s a future birthplace, which means the captain hasn’t been born yet.
Go Here Instead: If you must go, visit during the town’s annual Trek Fest in late June.
Often referred to as “corny” and “tacky,” this town of around 13,000 people in the Ozarks is entirely built up as a tourist attraction. It’s akin to Pigeon Forge, a gateway town to the Smokey Mountains in Tennessee—think theme parks and Vegas-style dinner shows.
Go Here Instead: The irony is that the surrounding landscape is gorgeous. You should still go to Branson: just skip the go-carts and hike the more than 200 miles of trails instead.
Skydeck Chicago at Willis Tower
WHERE: Chicago, Illinois
Charging a $35 fee to see the view from the world’s third-tallest building via a cantilevered glass ledge isn’t for the faint of heart. Many people who live in Chicago never go here, just like the Chrysler Building isn’t on most New Yorkers’ agendas. This is strictly a tourist spot where it’s nearly guaranteed you will be surrounded by other visitors.
Go Here Instead: Enjoy drinks at The Signature Lounge on the 96th floor of 875 North Michigan Avenue (the former John Hancock Building), where the view is spectacular.