Instead of stopping merely to stretch, think of the stop as a way to make a driving trip extra special. Sometimes we get so caught up in getting there we don’t take advantage of the unusual museums actually located along our way or in towns we’ll stop at anyway.
Because many towns have multiple sights it’s easier to fit in a place that makes it into popular guides. However, doing so may mean losing out on a place you will be excitedly recommending to others.
The following places are just a few of the unusual stops that a lucky travel writer might have uncovered. (Feel free to add your own recommendations.)
The Archway: If taking I80 across Nebraska, do more then stop to take a photo and go under the picturesque arch crossing above the highway at Kearney.
Opened in 2000, it celebrates the early and modern travelers who went west along the Great Platte River. See and hear life-like figures tell their stories against stagecoach and wagon backdrops. There’s even a more modern vista of autos and diners.
City Museum: If taking I70 or any of the other roads that lead to St. Louis, MO, make time to go downtown to explore this weirdly crazy museum. It opened about 25 years ago in an abandoned shoe factory. You will definitely feel like an explorer as you listen to menacing organ sounds while finding unexpected objects and pathways inside, outside on the roof and along different levels including underground.
Traveling North South
If driving the 101 to LA, go downtown to its latest museum, the Academy of Motion Pictures Museum that opened in 2021. it often updates exhibitions so you might catch old movies and costumes one time and might see Star Wars figures the next time.
4. If taking I 55 down to New Orleans, LA go to the warehouse district for the spectacular National WWII Museum. It has planes and artifacts but it is not about planes. It is a multimedia experience with immersive exhibits and first- person histories. Its “Expressions of America” reveals reflections of the men and women who served. It’s new Liberation Pavilion opens early Nov. 2023.
Take advantage of Presidents Day, Monday Feb. 20, 2023, to get to know Abe Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States. A federal holiday when schools and some businesses are closed, the extra day off is a chance to sightsee everything Lincoln all at one time in historic Springfield, IL.
Among items recently added to the museum is Lincoln’s definition of democracy found on a piece of paper among the artifacts: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.”
Either way, Springfield, IL and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum are worth a visit.
What to see
Visitors Center – located in the building that housed the Lincoln-Herndon Law Office, 1 S. Old State Capitol Plaza, it’s a good place to choose where to go, get advice on how much time to spend at each place and where to park or walk. Count on staying in Springfield for at least two days because the town has a lot to see and do including stuff for Route 66 aficionados. As its address implies, the Plaza also has the Old State Capitol building where politicians, including Barak Obama, stood on its historic steps to speak to the world.
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum – Way more than just a holding place for Lincoln artifacts, the Presidential Museum, located at 212 N. 6th St., has live, you-are-there shows, interesting movies and period characters including Abe, wandering the halls. The museum has interactivevignettes from his early years, political life and Civil War. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library is across the street. Both buildings need tickets.
Lincoln’s Home – A good place to see the furnishings of the period, the home is at 426 S. 7th St. Take a tour and learn more about his and his family’s years in the house.
Lincoln’s New Salem – A re-constructed historic village at 15588 History Ln. (Rt 97) Petersburg 20 miles northwest of Springfield, it portrays the life and times of Lincoln’s early years before turning to politics.
Illinois State Capitol – an imposing structure at 401 S. 2nd St,, its dome can be seen from the highway. See the rotunda and tour the legislative assembly rooms open between sessions.
Because Springfield is both the state capital and home to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the town is “packed” with places to stay ranging from B&Bs and popular chains to large hotels.
Two of my favorites are The State House inn, a smallish, mid-last century hotel at 101 E. Adams St. It is across from the Illinois State Capitol and six blocks from the Presidential Museum, and the Inn at 835 Boutique Hotel, at 835 S. 2nd Street, a historic inn convenient to the Dana Thomas House and Lincoln’s Home.
Why two weekend dates
Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is a state holiday on Feb. 12th in California, Connecticut, Missouri, and Illinois. Presidents’ Day was originally celebrating the birthday of George Washington Feb. 22, 1732 in Virginia. It was celebrated as a Federal holiday in the 1880s. The short story is that following lots of haggling and changes of mind, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Bill that moved holiday celebrations to Monday. Thus Washington’s Birthday celebration became Presidents’ Day in honor of Washington and Lincoln.
Shopping on-line makes holiday gift-choices COVID safe and fun. Just try to do the shopping now while orders have a good chance to make it to their destinations by Christmas. You also are likely to find some things you would like. Hey, give yourself a gift.
For the traveler or travel wannabe National Geographic has a holiday special – for $39/year that includes immediate digital access, 12 print issues, and a tote bag. Find the details at NationalGeographicHolidayGift.
Check out the giftshop on-line at a favorite museum such as the Art Institute of Chicago. The shop has great scarves, books, calendars, jewelry and home décor items. Look for gifts at MuseumShopartic.
Share your love of fine foods. Order from a favorite coffee or candy store. A couple of examples are Door County Coffee and Tea which is the go-to place in a Wisconsin vacation spot and Long Grove Confectionery in a historic Chicago suburb.
With COVID cases down and more people having received vaccines, travel has picked up. However, health officials still considered driving as a better alternative to flying.
In the Midwest a drive to Springfield, IL means following Route 66 for road buffs and finding that the Lincoln Museum is way better than a family may expect. It is something to experience.
Driving RTE 66 west to LA sounds awesome but if you’re a Midwesterner with only a long weekend or a Spring Break week, look closer to home. Think Springfield, Illinois’ state capital on historic US Rte. 66.
Getting Started – if you call Chicago ‘home’ your city marks the beginning or ending (however you see it) of Rte. 66. Just don’t try to find the number on current maps. Today’s interstates connect the road’s big cities such as Chicago, St. Louis, Tulsa, Los Angeles (remember the song) and such smaller, interesting towns as Litchfield, IL and Kingman, AZ.
To start out historically, begin near the Art Institute of Chicago (supposedly it started at Jackson Bvd. The sign is on Adams across Michigan Avenue from the museum so take Adams Street west to Joliet Road and onto Interstate 55. Or take your easiest way to the I-294 Tri-State Tollway where you can connect with I-55 (known in Chicago as the Stevenson Expressway). In Illinois, I-55 basically follows historic Rte 66. Illinois has posted Route 66 signs along the popular old road west.
Tip: Chicago to Springfield is about 197 miles so plan about 3 ½ hours. The police do patrol the highway so enjoy the scenery. Remember, you are on vacation.
Go – Springfield is about Lincoln, about state government, about historic homes.
Lincoln – Renew your acquaintance with the 16th President at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. You will be in for a remarkable two hours. Yes plan to spend that amount of time to see the movies and exhibits that peel away the myths from the man and the times.
The Old Capitol building is normally open to visitors but It is supposed to be closed for updating in 2021 so you might only get pictures outside.
Go across from it to the Springfield Visitors Center in the Lincoln-Herndon Law Office at 1 S. Old State Capitol Plaza. It may still be closed for renovations but see the building from the outside.
Drive north of downtown to the Lincoln Tomb where he, his wife and three of their four children are buried.
Back to downtown, the dome of the Illinois State Capitol, 361 feet above ground, can be seen from miles away. Go inside to see where legislation has been argued and passed from 1888 to today in the House and Senate chambers on the third floor. Some of the building may be closed to the public due to COVID restrictions.
Historic homes include a Frank Lloyd Wright. One of the best examples of his work is the Dana Thomas House in Springfield. It still has all of its original art glass and much of its original furnishings. Also put the Vachel Lindsay Home on the itinerary. Built in the late 1840’s, the house was home to Mary Todd Lincoln’s sister Ann. Vachel Lindsay’s parents bought the house in 1878. It was the poet’s home until his death in 1931.
Route 66 – Springfield loves historic Route 66. Some of the old places are gone but newly renovated stops have added to the fun. Visitors can go back in time by taking in a double feature at the Route 66 Drive In or stop for a bite at the Cozy Dog Drive In, a diner at 2935 S. Sixth St. where the Waldmire family make the famed hot dog on a stick served since 1946. More place can be found on Legendary Route 66.
Where to stay – Visit Springfield is a great resource for places to stay. If you like historic inns and B&B’s consider The Inn at 835. An early 1900’s former apartment house, the Inn is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. If retro 1950’s is more your style check out The State House Inn which recently underwent a redo. Both places feature complimentary breakfasts and free parking. The last is a plus in Springfield where visitors have to feed the meters.
Tip – Wear comfortable shoes and bring the sunscreen. This is a walking town.
Now is a good time to plan a visit close to home, a day’s drive out or a little further away because lots of travel destinations are beginning to open and gas is still in the budget range.
Restaurants and bars have opened their outdoor seating areas. Among them is The Loyalist at 177 N. Ada Street near Randolph Row. It has had walk-ins but will likely be taking reservations beginning Wednesday, June 24,2020. If you go: expect more French style choices.
Millennium Park and Lakefront
Yes, you can visit Cloud Gate (The Bean). If you go: take selfies and don’t touch it. Most of Millennium Park is open but masks are encouraged as is social distancing.
The same goes for the lakefront which isopen as of today, June 22, 2020 to movers, not sitters. that means walkers, joggers, cyclists.
Tucked into northwestern Illinois near the Wisconsin and Iowa borders is the charming town of Galena. There are lots of good B&B and restaurant choices because rolling hills, historic homes and fun shops make the town a popular summer (and fall) destination.
Memphis, TN has a lot to offer as vacation destination. However, if interested in understanding more about the global Black Lives Matter movement then visit to the famed museum based at the Lorraine Motel, 450 Mulberry St, where Martin Luther King Jr was shot. The museum plans to reopen July 1, 2020.
If you go: you will need a timed ticket and have to wear a face covering. For tickets and other information visit National Civil Rights Museum.
With so many events canceled and people staying home to be safe, we may barely note that Memorial Day Weekend is upon us. But some places such as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon have procedures in place to again allow visitors and other destinations are planning to reopen. So with that in mind think of where you might want to go to recognize the meaning of Memorial Day.
The following article is a reprint of one I did for the Chicago Tribune when I was a regular contributor to Features and Travel. It is “Military Museums: Fit one into a long weekend or summer destination.”
Heads up vacationers, you know that Memorial Day, May 25 (in 2015), and not the Summer Solstice, June 21, marks the start of summer vacations. But Memorial Day really is a time to honor people who lost their life while serving in the United States armed forces.
As a long weekend or the start of a summer journey it’s a perfect time to visit military museums to find out more about wars in which the US was engaged, their eras, battle conditions, leaders and places. And it’s simpler than you may guess because military museums dot the US from California to Florida. They range from huge displays of lifelike dioramas to small gems of plane and vehicle-filled hangers. And they often are near vacation destinations. Here are just some of the places to put on your do now list.
If you have watched in wonder as the Navy’s Blue Angels have zoomed overhead during the Chicago Air and Water Show, you can see them up close inside a hanger at the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, FL and practicing outside.
But that wouldn’t be the only or even main reason to go there. Walk under and around a combat F-14D Tomkcat or a rare SBD Dauntless Bureau No. 2106 from the Battle of Midway. Glimpse the Western Front in a World War I diorama. Or see the replica of the WW II USS Cabot aircraft carrier’s Island and flight deck and go to its main deck to try the ship’s anti-aircraft gun battery. Memorial Day is also about people so look for vintage uniforms and memorabilia such as flight logs.
But don’t miss the Cubi Bar Café. Way more than a place to relax while touring the museum, the café replicates the mid-twentieth-century Cubi Point Officers’ Club that was in the Philippines. Known for its bar lined with squadron plaques started during the Vietnam War, the plaques here are the real ones sent to the museum when the Officers’ Club closed.
You will want a place to rest tired feet. The museum has 350,000 square feet of exhibits and covers 37 acres. NAS, as the base is known, dates from 1914. It handles Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard flight personnel. As museum historian Hill Goodspeed pointed out during a recent phone interview, it is an aviation museum but the people who serve are important. “You will see more than flying machines. Look beyond the machines and focus on the individuals in the cockpit. We have memorabilia, but really it’s about those who served of various ages, including those in their teens, who were and are willing to fly into a dangerous situation and serve in the military to protect our freedom,” Goodspeed said.
In contrast, the Lyon Air Museum, tucked into the Martin Aviation corner of John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, CA is tiny. At a mere 30,000 square feet, its planes, jeeps and memorabilia, mostly from WWII, are easy to slip in a sightseeing jaunt when visiting Orange County, CA’s Irvine area.
“Visitors who come here don’t feel rushed. They see how small we are so they feel they can take their time to really see what’s here,” said Museum President Mark Foster.
However, finding the museum is a challenge on the airport’s winding back roads unless you are persistent and the GPS is working. But once there you find a gem.
It’s not hard to find the B-17 Flying fortress used in the Pacific, a Douglas A-26 “Invader” or the B-25 “Mitchell,” named for General “Billy” Mitchell. The museum isn’t just a good place to visit for its machines and memorabilia, it’s the docents. Many of them are military retirees
“We get letters from visitors who say they spoke to someone who served in the same squadron or area as a grandfather,” Foster said. He added, “Talking with our docents is like finding old letters from a family member. You hear their stories.”
Retired USAF Major General William Lyon who flew during WWII and Korea founded the museum so current generations would have some idea of WWII era vehicles and battles and stories. lyonairmuseum.org/
Tourists coming to Fredericksburg, Texas for its very western look and shops, its nearby wine region and its abundant flower and peach fields will arguably be surprised to find a museum dedicated to the Pacific War and its veterans while walking down Main Street.
But Fredericksburg was where Admiral Chester Nimitz was born in 1885 and the congressional district that appointed him to the U.S. Naval Academy. A career naval officer, Nimitz was Commander in Chief of the United States Pacific Fleet and of the Pacific Ocean Areas for U.S. and Allied sea, land and air forces during WW II.
The background is important because it was the Admiral Nimitz Foundation that set up a museum in the former Nimitz Hotel in Fredericksburg in 1971.
Today, that museum is one of several stunning places to visit on the National Museum of the Pacific War’s six acres. Stop in the Nimitz Museum to learn of the Admiral’s career and see the historic hotel.
Iin the 33,000 square foot George H. W. Bush Gallery, follow the battles and America’s involvement on the Pacific Front beginning with Japan’s mindset that led to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Walk outside to the Japanese Garden of Peace, a gift from the Japanese military to the U.S. in honor of Nimitz. Also outside, see plaques honoring Pacific War heroes that line the Memorial Courtyard’s limestone walls.
Be sure to visit the Plaza of Presidents made up of stone and bronze monuments to the 10 U.S. presidents who served during WWII. A separate program, the Pacific Combat Zone, re-enacts engagements in a field two blocks east of the museum campus.
When looking for a fascinating way to work off at least some of New Orleans’ famed cuisine, check out the National WW2 Museum, a 220,500 square foot campus in the former Warehouse District known now as the Arts District.
Opened on the 56th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 2000 and affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, the building was called the D-Day Museum until the U.S. Congress officially designated it America’s National World War II Museum in 2003.
As with the Lyon Air Museum, the volunteers you encounter are likely to be war veterans. But you will need a good half day to experience this museum. Its galleries and movies cover all the fronts, from Home to Europe to the Pacific Islands in several pavilions and theaters.
The feeling of awe starts in the museum’ s multi-level atrium where you see a Douglas C-47 Skytrain and SBD Dauntless, a Supermarine Spitfire and Messerschmitt BF 109 hanging from the ceiling.
You are in the US Freedom Center: The Boeing Pavilion. While exploring the Boeing Pavilion do the “Final Mission: The USS Tang Submarine Experience.” Similarly to major Titanic exhibits, it assigns participants an actual name of someone on board. Learn at the end if your person was lost or captured by the Japanese.
You can see the planes from an observation deck on the third floor of the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion. The original museum, the Louisiana Pavilion is the place to learn about Normandy and other beach landings.
Be sure to go to the new Campaigns of Courage Pavilion. Its “Road to Berlin: European Theater Galleries” opened early 2015 with fantastic dioramas such as a blown-out German bunker and the forested “Battle of the Bulge” in the “Breaching the German Frontier” section.
Also look for a village and other scenes as the armed forces marched up the Italian boot. They are battle sites that have been recreated with bombed out roofs backed by the sounds of war and newsreels.
The remaining Courage Pavilion build out, “Road to Tokyo: Pacific Theater Galleries,” opens in late 2015.
“It’s amazing,” said Owen Glendenning, associate vice president of education and access. “It’s immersive. It’s realistic and environmental. You can believe you are there,” said Glendenning.
Save time to see “Beyond All Boundaries, a 45 minute 4D film in the Solomon Victory Theater narrated by its executive producer, Tom Hanks. The movie takes you from battles to the Home Front using a variety of animation and sound effects. Personal accounts are read by Brad Pit, Gary Sinise and other celebrities.
For a recreation of USO style entertainment, think Bob Hope or the Andrew Sisters, try to catch a show at the Stage Door Canteen.
Perhaps the most forceful feature of the National WW2 Museum is the personal connection to people, places and time. Glendenning pointed out that the museum has four-full-time historians who are finding and recording personal stories of WWII veterans and their families. “It’s the compelling way we tell the story. It’s through personal narratives from citizen soldiers,” he said. www.nationalww2museum.org
A visit to Cantigny Park, the estate that Robert R. McCormick’s will decreed as a public space after he died in 1955, is a delightful Chicago area destination. Its gardens and museums are particularly fun to browse from late spring to early fall. What Chicagoans, and indeed, out of town visitors are likely not to know is that Cantigny (pronounced Canteeny (silent g), is home to a terrific museum that honors the Big Red One, the nickname of the US Army’s 1st Infantry Division. BTW, the 1st Division celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2017.
Talk about you-are-there dioramas, at the First Division Museum you don’t walk by them, you enter them and are fully enveloped by sight and sound as you connect from trenches and beaches to jungles and sand while going from World War I to Desert Storm. The museum plans to add a section depicting contemporary conflicts.
“It’s very powerful and compelling,” said Exec Director Paul Herbert, discussing the museum’s depictions.
What he hopes visitors will take away though, is an appreciation for the high price paid by people who serve in the military.
“It’s not just Division One, but all who serve our country. “Our soldiers have paid a high price for our freedom over the years. We’re telling the story of everyone who serves to defend our democracy,” said Herbert.
Settle in for an unusual video that takes viewers from the Charleston Museum founded in 1773 to when Chicago’s Field Museum obtained Sue in 1990.
Thanks to “Riches Rivals and Radicals: 100 Years of Museums in America” a part of the Great Museums film series, you can travel from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “live” museum to the 2004 Smithsonian Museum of The American Indian with stopovers at the National Museum of Air and Space, The Isabella Stewart Gardener in Boston, the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio and the Exploratorium in San Francisco.
Add in NYC’s Met and MOMA, Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Boston’s Children’s Museum, Michigan’s Greenfield Village, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, the US Memorial Holocaust Museum in D.C., New York’s Botanical Garden, the Milwaukee Art Museum and the National Zoo to see the breadth of the definition of museum and how museum architecture has changed.
It’s all on You Tube, so, refill the morning beverage cup, get comfortable, and visit youtube/watch/feature.
Sure there are countries I still hope to explore, but there are also so many places in the US I would love to revisit.
Two of them are Las Vegas, NV because it has become a foodie town but also because I haven’t visited the Neon Museum and similar attractions and St. Augustine, FL because its centuries-old history is so much a part of the town.
Director/producer Tim Burton takes visitors on a fun, inciteful, virtual tours of the Neon Museum and Vegas. Follow along with him in six short videos that include “Lost Vegas.” The videos make me realize how much I didn’t notice when there about 12 years ago.
Get comfortable. It’s time to visit some of the places that have intrigued you or are on your someday list. Don’t dress for travel.
Lots of destinations have added virtual tours. Some are OK even though they expect you to read French, such as on the 350 degree Louvre exploration or Spanish such as with the Guggenheim in Bilbao videos on Mark Rothko’s “Untitled” and Jeff Koons’ “Puppy.”
Others, like the ones here, have videos and cams that make visitors feel they are there.
So warm-ups or jammies are OK as you visit outer space, a zoo, an amazing garden, a Royal home and an aquarium. Just remember if looking at a cam that the place may be in a different time zone so might have different action at a later or earlier hour.
Don’t wait for the first robin or crocus to pop up to plan what to do or where to go for a spring vacation. Hotels and good B and B’s may already be booked and airlines will have few seats at the price you want. Make plans now
Good as Washington DC is, student groups may already have plane seats and hotel rooms so consider that destination for another time. Instead, Spring Break is a good chance to splash in a pool, visit and cross off a presidential museum or find an unusual children’s museum in a town not yet visited.
The suggestions listed here are Midwest destinations within a day’s drive of Chicago. The city’s schools are out April 6-10 and most suburban districts are out March 23-27 in 2020.
Arguably among the best indoor water parks are the ones at the Kalahari Resorts. If living in the Midwest, consider the African-themed one at the Wisconsin Dells. The resort really is a combination amusement park, movie and dining destination and games emporium.
I like the Dells as a summer or fall escape when the weather is predictable but spring is a good time to enjoy a resort that has so much to offer, guests might not feel the need to leave. Also check out other Wisconsin Waterparks for a spring Break.
Across the road is the Grand Rapids Public Museum which has fun explorations and a merry go round ride. From American Indian displays to inventions, an old-time streetscape and a giant clock, there is enough here to spend the day.
Where a dinosaur and orangutans hang out
People outside of Indianapolis may not know the city has a remarkable Children’s Museum charmingly guarded by a huge dinosaur and that the Indianapolis Zoo is one of the few places in the country that boasts a specialized orangutan center where visitors can watch these intelligent animals play and practice their cognitive game skills.
I love the Childeren’s Museum’s Take Me There exhibits. When I visited it was to China. Currently it is to Greece. And there really is a simulated flight there. And I was fascinated by everything the orangutans could do.