Artistic offerings combined with small-town Americana make for the best of the Midwest.
A host of new museums and theaters have cropped up along the "Great River Road" that follows the Mississippi River as it winds its way south along the borders of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa. The 350-mile (560-kilometer) drive from Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Davenport, Iowa, is now not only one of the most scenic drives in the country but also one of the culturally richest.
Start in Minneapolis
The epicenter of this Midwestern renaissance is in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where the arts flourish. Among the city's gems are the Walker Art Center (www.walkerart.org), the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (www.artsmia.org), and Frank Gehry's landmark Weisman Art Museum (www.weisman.umn.edu). The city's Guthrie Theater (www.guthrietheater.org), on the banks of the Mississippi, has three theaters and two restaurants, including the swanky Cue. There is also an "Endless Bridge"—a cantilevered walkway that extends almost 200 feet (60 meters) out from the building toward the river; from here you can look down and watch the mighty Mississippi roll over the St. Anthony Falls.
For more of the Great River Road revival, take Highway 61 south from Minneapolis for just over an hour, where your first stop should be the Anderson Center (www.andersoncenter.org) in Red Wing, a writers' and artists' retreat that has a small but worthwhile collection of paintings by Warhol, Man Ray, Matisse, and more. Then get back on the road for another hour's drive south along the river to Winona, Minnesota, an old lumber town that has recently become one of the most vibrant cities on the Upper Mississippi.
Winona's renewal started with the founding of the Great River Shakespeare Festival (www.grsf.org), which runs from the end of June to the end of July and features Equity actors from New York and Los Angeles. The city has since added the new Minnesota Marine Art Museum (www.minnesotamarineart.org), with exhibits of folk art, historical river photographs, and a fine rotating collection of 19th-century maritime paintings by the likes of Winslow Homer. Winona also hosts the Minnesota Beethoven Festival in the summer and now has a wintertime Frozen River Film Festival. And if you need a bite to eat, the Blue Heron Coffeehouse features tasty organic fare as well as live acoustic jazz and bluegrass music several nights of the month.
From Winona, you might take a side trip along one of the Mississippi's cultural tributaries. Keep going south on Highway 61 about 45 minutes until you come to Highway 16, then turn west and drive another hour to Lanesboro, Minnesota, a town on the Root River that's regularly chosen as one of the best small art communities in the country. This is mainly due to the visual arts community and the Commonweal Theatre (www.commonwealtheatre.org), which was founded in 1989. While you're in town, you can either sit down for a prix-fixe menu of French cuisine at the Vintage, or just grab a bratwurst and cold beer and dance to polka music at the old-school Das Wurst Haus.
National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium
When you get back to the river, turn south on Highway 26. A 90-minute drive will bring you to Effigy Mounds National Monument, where you can walk among 4,000-year-old effigies of birds and bears left behind by prehistoric Native Americans. Then continue south along the county roads that hug the river until you reach Dubuque, Iowa, where a different kind of museum opens a window onto the river itself. The National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium (www.mississippirivermuseum.com) is housed in an old shipbuilding factory, where you can watch giant catfish lumber around their tanks or take a cinematic, high-definition "Mississippi Journey" that offers a multisensory experience of traveling in a boat on the river.
For a stop overnight, cross the river on Highway 20 to Galena, Illinois, a circa-1900 city with several inns and Victorian mansions—nearly the whole downtown has been declared a national historic district. Galena has several art galleries, including Chicago Contemporary Art (www.chicagocontemporaryart.com), a minimalist space filled with large paintings by Chicago artists, including Kathleen Patrick and Joseph Catanzaro.
From Galena, take Highway 84 south to your final, and possibly most rewarding, stop—Davenport, Iowa. Not only is the town home to the River Music Experience (www.rivermusicexperience.org)—a concert hall and museum that celebrates music from Delta blues to Minneapolis rock—it's also home to the Figge Art Museum (www.figgeartmuseum.org). This glass masterpiece by British architect David Chipperfield houses some of the city's 3,500 pieces of art. Among its treasures is a collection of Iowa native Grant Wood's paintings of the rolling hills and fields of Iowa and its hard-working people. Looking at these works may be the best way to end this trip: Wood's lush paintings are the perfect reminder that art can be found wherever people have the imagination and will to create it.
The Great River Road is passable year round, but the northern end can be bitterly cold in winter. For road conditions along the entire route described here and to points further south all the way to the mouth of the river in Louisiana, see www.experiencemississippiriver.com. The site also lists attractions and events along the river for all ten states through which the Mississippi flows.
—Text by Frank Bures, adapted from National Geographic Traveler