Midwest Charm

Whether you get there by taking the scenic route in your Subaru, or fly in and pick up a rental, consider a side trip when you visit the Indiana Dunes. Here are five of our favorite nearby destinations sure to enhance your experience.

#1. Chicago’s Historic South Side Community.

The DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago.
The DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago. Photo: Courtesy of The DuSable Museum

The Obamas have picked a site in Jackson Park on Chicago’s South Side for the Obama Presidential Center (his planned presidential library), but the historic neighborhood already boasts plenty of famous landmarks, including the Museum of Science and Industry, the University of Chicago’s Gothic Revival campus and the DuSable Museum of African American History. Prestigious architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who designed New York’s Central Park, published a design for the area in 1871, and architect Daniel H. Burnham helped develop it when he suggested it as the site for the 1893 World’s Fair Columbian Exposition. 

Works by Chicago Imagists Roger Brown, Ed Paschke and Sullen Rocca on view at the Smart Museum of Art.
Works by Chicago Imagists Roger Brown, Ed Paschke and Sullen Rocca on view at the Smart Museum of Art. Photo: Courtesy of the Smart Museum of Art

Be sure to visit the University’s Smart Museum of Art, and dine at The Nile Restaurant, a Middle Eastern restaurant in the Hyde Park neighborhood. Then drive past the handsome brick homes on tree-lined Greenwood Avenue (the Obamas once lived on Greenwood). Speaking of the Obamas, make plans to return to see the library when it opens in 2020, the 14th site in the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration’s Presidential library system

#2. Harbor Country, Michigan.

This area, which is about a 50-mile drive along Lake Michigan from the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, has been called the Midwest’s answer to the Hamptons. The reason is not only its resort-like feeling, but the increasing number of organic farms, chic shops and farm-to-table restaurants you’ll find there. Officially, there are eight towns that make up Harbor Country – Michiana, Grand Beach, New Buffalo, Union Pier, Lakeside, Harbert, Sawyer and Three Oaks, with major public beaches in New Buffalo and Warren Dunes State Park, and small ones in between. 

Take a spin along the Red Arrow Highway, where you’ll find worthwhile stops in Three Oaks, including art galleries, the Viola Cafe, the Vickers Theater for films, the Acorn Theater for live music , the European-style boutique French Twist and artisan whiskey maker Journeyman Distillery, located in an 1890s factory. Head on to New Buffalo, where you can load up on sustainable foods and cured meats from Local grocery, and pick-your-own blueberries at Mike’s Blueberry Farm. In Union Pier, Fredman Design Group is the go-to spot for contemporary home furnishings, while the Whistle Stop Grocery is a great place to grab a tasty lunch made from locally sourced ingredients. End your afternoon in Sawyer, where you can linger over one of nearly 50 craft-brewed beers at the Greenbush Brewing Company, formerly a mechanic’s shop.

Ted Rita, general manager of the Hesston Steam Museum in Indiana, next to a steam powered train.
Ted Rita, general manager of the Hesston Steam Museum in Indiana, next to a steam powered train. Photo: Courtesy of the Hesston Steam Museum

#3. The Taltree Arboretum & Gardens Railway Garden.

Whether you’re a kid still into Thomas the Tank Engine or a grown-up with a soft spot for model trains, you’ll be charmed by the 1-acre railway garden at the Taltree Arboretum & Gardens in Valparaiso. Built to scale with waterfalls, bridges and 3,500 miniature trees and bushes, the garden retraces early 19th-century steam engine history. Afterward, pop into the Industrial Revolution Eatery & Grille for a burger or a brick oven pizza. You can stay overnight in a 1914 former freight station at Riley’s Railhouse Bed & Breakfast along Chesterton’s tracks. If you’re up for another train experience, head to the Hesston Steam Museum in LaPorte, 20 miles away. 

#4. The 3 Dune Challenge

If you haven’t yet had your fill of sand dunes, be sure to take this climb up the three highest sand dunes in Indiana: Mt. Tom at 192 feet, Mt. Holden at 184 feet and Mt. Jackson at 176 feet. Some parts of the 1.5-mile trail feature 40-degree slopes, so wear your best sand-climbing shoes. 

#5. More historic venues.

The Dunes area isn’t just about beaches and nature. Beverly Shores’ Depot History Museum and Art Gallery, housed in a pink stucco train depot that is on the National Register of Historic Places, offers contemporary art exhibits and history about this former railway town. In Chesterton, the 1885 Westchester Township History Museum housed in The Brown Mansion, once owned by a wealthy family, celebrates the town’s vibrant history through its permanent exhibit. It also displays work of local artists and offers area house tours. Take time to stroll by the Lustron homes at 411 Bowser and 739 Timber Court. Made from prefabricated steel and enamel and featuring distinctive tiled facades, Lustron homes were built at a factory in Columbus, Ohio, between 1947 and 1950 and sold as cheap housing to returning War veterans.

Continue on to the Bailly Homestead and Chellberg Farm in Porter. Its historic buildings – including a few original log cabins – hark back to the time when a 19th-century fur trader once lived here. Check for the days and hours of operation. The Porter County Museum, once the sheriff’s residence and local jail in Valparaiso, exhibits a treasure trove of artifacts from the town’s past, including veterans’ uniforms, artillery shells and scrapbooks from the Civil War era. Though it’s not a museum, the beach cottage near Harbert that was home to poet Carl Sandburg and his wife in 1928 is a National Historic Site. It’s about 35 miles from Valparaiso. 

Paella - one of many Spanish dishes available at Don Quijote Restaurant in Valparaiso, Indiana.
Paella - one of many Spanish dishes available at Don Quijote Restaurant in Valparaiso, Indiana. Photo: Courtesy of Don Quijote Restaurant

End your history lesson by saluting the king of popcorn, Orville Redenbacher, whose bronze, life-size statue stands in Valparaiso’s downtown. Then dine at one of these local eateries: farm-to-fork Valley Kitchen & Bar, Spanish Don Quijote or Mediterranean Meditrina Market Café. And save room for dessert: homemade ice cream at Valpo Velvet, in business almost 70 years.