FLYOVER STATE? HARDLY. The Midwest doesn’t always get its due when it comes to travel hotspots, but that’s all the more reason for you to swing in and check out the very best the Plains states have to offer.
If your US road trip has you on I-90 through the middle of the country, be sure to tuck a few days away to spend in Sioux Falls in eastern South Dakota. It’s routinely ranked — by Forbes, Time, Livability.com, and others — as one of the best cities to live in the USA. And it’s pretty awesome to visit, too. Here’s why.
1. The city’s namesake
Falls Park: A natural attraction so beautiful they named the city after it. Nearly 7,400 gallons of water rush through rocky terrain and fall 100+ feet at what is surely the state’s marriage proposal capital.
A five-story viewing tower provides an overlook of the entire 123-acre park. From 50 feet in the air, you’ll be able to see several of the oldest buildings in Sioux Falls — including the ruins of the Queen Bee Mill, dating to 135 years ago. Visit during the Christmas season and catch the Winter Wonderland lights display (it typically runs late November to early January) when the park’s buildings — and a majority of its trees — are decorated with thousands of lights. Or come in the summer and eat ice cream sandwiches at the Overlook Cafe in the old Sioux Falls Light and Power Company building.
Bonus: From the park, jump on Phillips Avenue and don’t stop until you hit the Phillips Avenue Diner for a classic American dining experience — think milkshake-sipping on cushioned stools, with a jukebox belting out the oldies.
2. The family-friendly Washington Pavilion
If you’re looking for a one-stop-fits-all for the whole family, head to the Washington Pavilion in downtown Sioux Falls. The Washington Pavilion has a bit of everything — from a variety of art galleries (kids get in free), to the Kirby Science Discovery Center (it has more than 100 exhibits and activities that won’t only be fun for your kids), to the Wells Fargo CineDome, where tickets to Hollywood movies are only $5. The Pavilion is also home to the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra, the Sioux Falls Jazz & Blues Society, and the South Dakota African American History Museum. You could spend your whole stay at this one spot.
Bonus: The Pavilion’s downtown location is a great jumping-off point to explore the city’s SculptureWalk. And on the first Friday of every month, admission to the Washington Pavilion is free (shows not included).
3. CH Patisserie
You likely grew up with the old adage, “If you want French pastries but aren’t in Paris, head to South Dakota.” No? Well, Top Chef winner Chris Hanmer is working to make sure that changes. Since 2013, CH Patisserie — his Euro-influenced sweets and pastry shop — has been offering up the finest in French macaron, brioche au caramel, beignets, and any other number of classy sugar-infused delicacies (or just order a peanut butter cookie). Hanmer’s creations are recognizable not only for their deliciousness, but for their often electric color palette — more aesthetically pleasing than the standard coffee-and-bagel combo.
While neon macarons might seem kitschy, CH Patisserie was recently ranked #2 on The Daily Meal’s 10 Best French Bakeries in America, sandwiched between two of their New York City-based counterparts. And this place isn’t static — seasonal offerings like strawberry tarts and pumpkin cheesecake mix up the menu throughout the year.
Bonus: When you’re done eating, you’re barely a block away from one of the city’s most highly regarded fine dining experiences at Minervas. If you thought Old World elegance was only in Europe, this is your chance to experience it in South Dakota.
4. The best place to get out of the car: The Outdoor Campus
A lot of people visiting South Dakota are looking for experiences that put them out under the Great Plains sky. With that in mind, the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department has free events and educational programs at its Outdoor Campus in Sioux Falls. Kids and adults can take fishing lessons, and there are a bunch of bird watching and junior naturalist programs for the little ones, with classes rotating with the seasons.
Even just stopping by to take a breather is worth the trip. Views along the Big Sioux River, hiking trails, and wildlife (South Dakota is home to river otters, flying squirrels, and several species of owls), combined with a massive jungle gym and picnic area, mean you can lounge as long as you need.
Bonus: The Butterfly House and Marine Cove is right across from the Outdoor Campus. You’ll be able to see butterflies from all over the world and check out the marine life that’s housed in 10,000+ gallons of aquarium. And you can touch sharks and stingrays!
5. A taste of Europe at the Cathedral of Saint Joseph
Completed in 1919, the Cathedral of Saint Joseph has overlooked Sioux Falls for nearly 100 years and is definitely one of the most beautiful buildings in the state. High ceilings, stained glass windows, and the organ from 1947 have all been maintained over the decades — the most recent renovation was finished in 2011. You may be on an All-American road trip, but it doesn’t always have to feel like it.
Bonus: The cathedral’s near-downtown location means you’re close to both Falls Park and the Old Courthouse Museum, where there are 16 huge 100-year-old murals depicting life in the Dakotas.
6. The top up-and-coming music scene in the Midwest
Sioux Falls is undergoing a bit of a musical renaissance at the moment — several new venues have popped up recently, each with distinct vibes and crowd sizes. The recently completed Denny Sanford PREMIER Center just hosted Paul McCartney for the night, and plenty of not-quite-ready-for-stadium acts perform over at The District, where you can combine a night of jams with a wood-fired steak.
But if you’re really looking for a unique musical experience, head to White Wall Sessions. For $5 at the door, you can sit in on local, regional, and national acts recording acoustic, Americana, bluegrass, folk, and blues in an intimate setting.
Bonus: You (or your voice) could be on TV. The sessions are similar to a concert, but they take a single song and really turn it into an experience — shared by few at the time, but recorded and aired on local stations.
7. One of the best urban bike trails in America
Fodor’s recently named the Big Sioux River Recreation Trail and Greenway one of the best in the US. It starts at the waterfalls and winds its way for 26 miles along the Big Sioux River, looping through urban and rural areas. And while it may be called a “bike path,” many people walk, jog, and rollerblade it, too. This just might be the best way to get to know Sioux Falls and discover parts of the city you wouldn’t have otherwise stumbled on.
8. Wild Water West
Wild Water West is probably the site of a lot of people’s “most satisfying sunburn I ever got” story, as it offers just about every “under-the-sun” activity you can think of. It’s the biggest waterpark in South Dakota, and you’ll find it on the city’s west side — just look for the waterslides, paintball, mini golf, batting cages, and go-karts (it’s usually open from Memorial Day to Labor Day).
If you (or your kids) have endless energy that hasn’t been fully exhausted in days, check out the 65ft waterslide complex. It has enough terror-inducing (in the best possible way) water drops to wear out even the most hyper of road trippers. For something more leisurely paced, try the Lazy River. Grab an inner tube and let the current carry you along — and forget all the stresses of driving on I-90. Adult drifters can float to the swim-up bar and enjoy a drink in the adult-only pool, too.
Tickets are about $25 ($10 off if you’re under four feet tall), and admission gets you into the whole waterpark and the wave pool — as well as access to bumper boats, go-karts, mini golf, batting cages, and sand volleyball.
9. JazzFest’s 25th anniversary
This annual Sioux Falls party is a three-day outdoor music event that comes complete with food vendors, arts and crafts, fireworks, and wine and beer gardens — and admission is free. It’s held in mid-July in Yankton Trail Park, and you can hear a lot more than just jazz — Latin rhythms, reggae, and funk all get their time to shine.
Bonus: This year is the 25th anniversary, meaning things are going to be even bigger and better. Headliners include The Fray, Bruce Hornsby & The Noisemakers, Andra Day, and The Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band. If your road trip brings you through Sioux Falls in mid-July, this is one party you should definitely consider crashing.