Although the coasts may pretend not to notice, the country's so-called flyover zone has been getting a lot of attention lately. Midwesterners will inform you (nicely, of course) that these venerable cities weren't exactly starting from scratch. T&L picks the five essentials that make the following five towns worth a visit.
Milwaukee tops the nation in bars per capita—no coincidence that Miller Brewing Co. calls it home. And thanks to the Harley-Davidson factory in nearby suburban Wauwatosa, Milwaukee has its fringe element. But there's much more to the port city on Lake Michigan: a pan-ethnic gemütlichkeit; great antiquing; genial, affordable restaurants.
Looking Ahead: The esteemed Milwaukee Art Museum (750 N. Lincoln Memorial Dr.; 414/224-3200) is poised to make a global splash early next year with the opening of its soaring addition, the first American building designed by avant-garde Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.
Where Robber Barons Slept: The sumptuous, baroque lobby of the Pfister Hotel (424 E. Wisconsin Ave.; 800/558-8222 or 414/273-8222) has welcomed potentates and celebrities since 1893.
Sandwich Spot: Though the Jewish neighborhood that once surrounded Jake's Deli (1634 W. North Ave.; 414/562-1272) has vanished, the place is still packed with old and young kibitzers at lunchtime.
Cook's Delight: The Spice House (1031 N. Old World Third St.; 414/272-0977) is a gastronomic and olfactory landmark, filled with rare seasonings such as Tellicherry peppercorns from India's Malabar Coast and a Vietnamese cinnamon that could knock your socks off.
Local Delicacy: Frozen custard—creamier and smoother than ice cream—at Kopp's (7631 W. Layton Ave.; 414/282-4080).
Spread across seven hills—just like Rome, the locals say—and overlooking the Ohio River, Cincinnati is becoming a top architectural destination, known for its charming neighborhoods, great old buildings, one of the country's best design schools, and new buildings by Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenmann, Michael Graves, Cesar Pelli, and others.
Art Forum: In a move that will finally put that ugly Mapplethorpe business to rest, the Contemporary Arts Center awarded visionary Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid her first commission in America.
La Belle Dame: It's said that Maisonette (114 E. Sixth St.; 513/721-2260) is one of the best French restaurants between New York and San Francisco—five-star dining for more than 30 years.
Take a Dive: Arnold's Bar & Grill (210 E. Eighth St.; 513/421-6234) opened in 1861 and has been serving the locals ever since.
Turning Back the Clock: A visit to the magnificently domed Art Deco-style Union Terminal will make you long for North by Northwest-style rail travel.
Local Delicacy: Five-way chili, with spaghetti, chopped meat, cheese, onions, and beans, is served up 24 hours a day (except Sundays) at Camp Washington Chili (3005 Colerain Ave.; 513/541-0061). Consider wearing a bib.
The Los Angeles Times recently proclaimed Iowa's second-biggest city "the star of the Rust Belt turnaround." But Cedar Rapids still nurtures its agrarian ties and old-world roots.
Little Prague: The National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library (30 16th Ave. S.W.; 319/362-8500) celebrates a heritage shared by one-quarter of the city's residents.
Pig Out: At Al & Irene's Bar-B-Q House (2020 N. Towne Lane N.E.; 319/393-6237), the secret sauce and huge portions will drive you hog-wild.
No Republicans Allowed: Quaff a few beneath the tin ceilings and mainly non-G.O.P. campaign mementos of the Irish Democrat Pub & Grille (3207 First Ave. S.E.; 319/364-9896).
Perfect Souvenir: The Czech Feather & Down Co. (72 16th Ave. S.E.; 319/364-0952), in business since 1885, will make any comforter or pillow to your specifications—and you can watch them stuff it.
Local Delicacy: Kolacky, little folded napkins of butter-soaked pastry filled with fruit, at Sykora Bakery in the Czech Village (73 16th Ave. S.W.; 319/364-5271).
The Midwest's genuine City Beautiful, this Missouri city is as far from a cow town as you can get, with its Art Deco skyscrapers, stately suburban areas (think Mr. and Mrs. Bridge), oak-shaded boulevards, and more than 200 fountains. Not to mention barbecue, Kansas City strip steaks, and virtually nonstop jazz.
Looking Back: The recently opened, memorabilia-packed Kansas City Jazz Museum (1616 E. 18th St.; 816/474-8463) and Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (1616 E. 18th St.; 816/221-1920) are breathing new life into the down-at-the-heels former nightclub district, 18th and Vine.
'Round Midnight: Charlie Parker and Count Basie were among the legends who sat in on after-hours sets at the Negro Musicians Protective Union Local 627. Re-christened the Mutual Musicians Foundation (1823 Highland Ave.; 816/471-5212), the hall continues to hold smokin' Friday and Saturday jam sessions.
Alternative Cuisine: Westside's Bluebird Café (1700 Summit St.; 816/221-7559) serves vegetarian dishes primarily, growing its own organic vegetables and herbs across the street.
Hip Hangout: The West 39th Street area (between State Line Rd. and Southwest Trafficway) has some great restaurants, including Otto's Malt Shop (3903 Wyoming St.; 816/756-1010), home of KC's best burgers (according to The Pitch, a weekly paper), and boutiques like Boomerang (1415 W. 39th St.; 816/531-6111), which sells clothing, furniture, and collectibles from the 1940's to the 70's.
Taste of Home: Whenever they're back in town, transplanted Kansas Citians beeline it to LaMar's Donuts (240 E. Linwood Blvd.; 816/931-5166).
It's home to the nation's second-richest man, Warren Buffett, and serves as a back lot for director Alexander Payne, who grew up in the Dundee neighborhood and filmed Election and Citizen Ruth here.
Time Machine: Union Station, former hub of the Union Pacific railway line, now gleams as the Durham Western Heritage Museum (801 S. 10th St.; 402/444-5071), with exhibits on Omaha history and rail travel (including six restored cars that you can walk through). But it's the haunting emptiness of the cathedral-like Main Waiting Room that will hold you.
Dining Out: The Flatiron Café (17th and Howard Sts.; 402/344-3040), in a replica of the eponymous New York skyscraper, has romantic tables for two in its glass-walled, triangular dining room; down-home meets retro cheek at Dixie Quicks restaurant (105 S. 15th St.; 402/346-3549).
Need an Engagement Ring? Bill Gates bought his at Borsheim's Fine Jewelry & Gifts (120 Regency Pkwy., in the Regency Court shopping center; 800/642-4438).
The Wild Side: Lied Jungle, in the Henry Doorly Zoo (3701 S. 10th St.; 402/733-8401), is the world's largest indoor rain forest. Also check out the Scott Aquarium, with its trippy zigzag shark-viewing tunnel.