Road Trip Plans, Part 3: Hitting the big city or checking out history

Road trip
Chicago skyline

This is the third in a three-part series…

Getting away for three-day weekends seems to be the American way…or, at least, our way. If you like a road trip, here are a few spots to check out in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska.

Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Twin Cities in Minnesota have always been a family favorite to visit. They’re about a 6-hour drive from the Big O.

I suggest checking out the Mississippi River area downtown. Mill Ruins Park allows for a great walk along some amazing scenery. St. Anthony’s Falls are located near the Stone Arch Bridge. You can walk across the river on the bridge and visit another park area on the east bank.

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Minneapolis’ St. Anthony’s Falls

Nearby are two cool attractions – Mill City Museum and Guthrie Theater. I suggest visiting both. The behind the scenes tour at the Guthrie was very educational. You learn about set design and construction, wardrobe design and production, as well as make-up.

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Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis

Mill City Museum gives you a lesson in the history of the milling and flour business in Minneapolis. The city was once the flour capital of the world. The museum is located in an old mill that had been partially destroyed by explosions and fires. The ninth floor observation deck gives visitors a great view of the area.

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Mill City Museum in Twin Cities

Of course, the Mall of America should be on everyone’s list. This iconic mall is more than just shopping – it’s home to Nickelodeon Universe’s amusement park, an aquarium and special exhibits, such as Star Trek and Barbie. Some of its stores can be tourist attractions – American Girl toy store, Peeps candy store and the Vikings Locker Room.

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Vikings store at Mall of America

The Minnesota Zoo is a nice place to visit. It’s not on the same level as Omaha’s zoo or San Diego. But, it has some interesting exhibits that are worth the visit – Grizzly Bear Coast gives a pretty good look at the bears. They have the best prairie dog colony I’ve seen outside of the wild. The Asian horses on exhibit are attractive creatures.

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Minnesota Zoo’s grizzly bear exhibit

The zoo’s exhibit on Northland animals is pretty good. That may have been my favorite part of the zoo, other than the prairie dogs. The area shows animals native to the state or heavily populated.

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Horses at Minnesota Zoo

Mickey’s Diner is St. Paul should be visited for a meal. It’s open 24 hours a day.

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Famous Mickey’s Diner in St. Paul, Minnesota

 Duluth

Staying in Minnesota, a trip to Duluth may require a four-day weekend. The city in northeast Minnesota lies on Lake Superior.

The lakefront area is beautiful. You can walk along a rose garden and then the lake. Gulls will flock to you if you buy a bag of popcorn and feed them. This is a very popular activity with little kids.

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Duluth park

The bridge is cool to watch. As freighters and other large boats leave the harbor area for the lake, it rises to let them through.

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Duluth’s famed bridge

A boat ride on the lake is fun.

Minnesota North Shore Scenic Drive

You can take a drive along the North Shore Scenic Byway. It runs to the Canadian border. You can see some beautiful shoreline on the drive.

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Lake Superior shoreline in northeast Minnesota

Split Rock Lighthouse is a must-stop on the drive. The old lighthouse is situated perfectly along the lake. You can see some amazing views from the top. I suggest taking a hike down to the lake for a different view of the lighthouse.

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Split Rock Lighthouse

The Grand Portage Waterfalls – a few feet from the Canadian border – is worth the drive. The falls are thunderous and amazing to see. While nothing truly challenges Niagara Falls for their majesty, the Grand Portage Falls could be considered Minnesota’s “Niagara Falls.”

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Grand Portage Falls

Chicago

If you’re up for the Mag Mile, maybe visit to Chicago (8-hour drive). You can stroll along the Mag Mile and see some big time stores. Though, the Hershey’s store was more up our alley (and wallet).

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Downtown Chicago

The Hard Rock Café had a cool display of guitars on its ceiling.

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Hard Rock Cafe in Chicago

The Shedd Aquarium is a major attraction to visit. Check out the dolphin shows. The animals on display were impressive, including a decades-old snapping turtle and a giant lizard.

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Senior citizen turtle at Shedd Aquarium

The Museum of Science and Industry has a wide range of things to see. I imagine people can spend a whole day there. I liked the captured German U-Boat from World War II.

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German U-Boat

My favorite Chi-town attraction is Millennium Park. More specifically, the Cloud gate (Bean). The reflective art piece shows off the city’s skyline regardless of the time or the weather. It’s a beautiful addition to downtown.

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The “Bean” at Millennium Park in Chicago

Lisa loves the architecture tour. It is pretty fun. You take a boat ride along the Chicago River and view some of the best looking and oldest skyscrapers in the United States. It’s a 60-90-minute tour, and well worth it.

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Chicago skyline

Springfield

Springfield is the state capital of Illinois. It’s also home to President Abraham Lincoln.

Springfield has one of the best presidential museums we’ve seen (four so far). The history of the 16th president is told from his childhood to that tragic day in April 1865, when he was assassinated after being shot at Ford Theater in Washington, DC.

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Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum

The lobby of the museum showcases the Lincoln family in front of the White House. This has to be one of the most popular spots for photographs there.

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The Lincoln family at the White House

Lincoln as a boy is highlighted in front of a log cabin. He lived in Kentucky and Indiana as a youngster, before settling in Illinois.

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Lincoln as a boy

Outside the museum, you can see more Lincoln-related attractions by visiting the museum’s visitors center and his law office.

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Visitors center

The Lincoln home is part of a national park, depicting a 1800s-era neighborhood. You can also take walking tours of Springfield, highlighting Lincoln.

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The Lincoln home in Springfield

Two capitol buildings are located in Springfield. The current capitol building was an interesting visit. A lot of artwork is depicting the state’s history is featured along the walls. You can also see the governor’s office, as well as the Senate and House chambers.

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Early Illinois capitol

The Old State Capitol building is now a museum. It’s the location of Lincoln’s famous “A house divided” speech.

North Iowa – Mason City and Clear Lake

North Iowa offers a contrast in styles, just a few miles apart.

Mason City is the hometown of award-winning musical writer Meredith Willson. His life and work are celebrated at Music Man Square. The museum highlights his career, specifically the success of the musical “The Music Man.”

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The Music Man

The attraction also includes Willson’s childhood home.

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Willson’s home

Frank Lloyd Wright designed a couple of local buildings. The Stockman House is available for tours.

Less than 10 miles to the west lies Clear Lake. It’s home to the glacial lake of the same name. The lake is beautiful.

Clear Lake is full of aqua activities – boating, skiing, swimming and fishing.

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Summer in Clear Lake

Lady of the Lake offers a fun cruise around the lake. It’s a fun way to spend about 90 minutes and learn a great deal about the area.

North Platte

Let’s say you prefer to stay in the Cornhusker state, but away from the larger cities. North Platte may be the perfect spot. The city of about 25,000 was home to Buffalo Bill Cody. His Scout Ranch is a state park area and open for visits. Visitors get a close-up look at Buffalo Bill’s life on the ranch.

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Buffalo Bill’s ranch

Cody Park has something for everyone. The large park is home to amusement rides for kids, ice cream shop, athletic fields, picnic grounds and more.

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Cody Park carousel

A small wildlife refuge sits in the middle of the park. You can see elk and bison, as well as llamas and geese and ducks.

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Wildlife zoo in North Platte

A small train museum welcomes fans of the tracks. You can check out the engines and some rail cars.

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UP

North Platte is home to the Bailey Yard for Union Pacific Railroad – the largest rail yard in the world. More than 100 trains come through daily. This is where train cars are separated and assigned to an engine for their final destination.

The Golden Spike observation tower allows visitors a great view of the rail yard.

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Largest rail yard in the world

North Platte has one of my favorite veterans memorials – the 20th Century Veterans Memorial. It honors all the men and women who served their country during war.

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Veterans memorial

It also recognizes the volunteers who worked at the Canteen during World War II. These volunteers – mostly women – served donuts and coffee to the 6 million soldiers and sailors who traveled through North Platte during WWII.

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Honoring WWII volunteers

The Canteen volunteers are among the events and items on exhibit at the Lincoln County Museum – including a living history museum of older buildings from the area.

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WWII exhibit

OK, these are only a few ideas on places to go and things to see and do for a weekend or long weekend getaway from the Omaha area. We hope this has been helpful, and that you have a fun and safe trip, no matter where you plan to travel.