Midwest College Campuses That Are Actually Great to Visit

Museums, arboretums, even a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house: You don’t have to be a student, prospective student or an alum to enjoy these on-campus attractions.

You can expect fun football games and good late-night eats in almost all college towns, but many campuses have much more to offer. Most larger schools have at least one museum and a smattering of historic buildings, but a few really stand out with unique attractions or collections. Here are some of the can't-miss spots at college campuses across the Midwest.

Robie House Chicago Frank Lloyd Wright
Robie House. Maremagnum/Getty Images

University of Chicago, Chicago

The University of Chicago is home to one of Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural masterpieces, the 1910 Frederick C. Robie House, often cited as the best example of Wright's Prairie style. Designed for a local businessman, the house has been a National Historic Landmark since 1963 and was donated that year to the University. Tour options range from a 90-minute in-depth exterior-interior visit to a 45-minute interior tour.

Other campus highlights for visitors: The Oriental Institute Museum, with a notable collection of Egyptian artifacts, and Smart Museum of Art, a fine arts museum that will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2024.

National Music Museum, Vermillion, South Dakota
Courtesy of Byron Pillow/National Music Museum

University of South Dakota, Vermillion

After five years of renovation and expansion, the National Music Museum debuted the first phase of new permanent exhibits on August 30, 2023, with seven first-floor galleries, such as Our Shared Musical Origins and Celebrated Artists and Musical Expression in Identify and Faith. For $10, you can view a variety of treasured instruments, listen to live music from featured artists and read stories about music-makers. The museum, founded in 1973, holds a collection of about 15,000 instruments from many cultures and historical periods. The college offers the only graduate degree in musical instruments in North America and supports research into areas such as conservation and cataloging.

Nichols Arboretum
Peony garden, Nichols Arboretum. Courtesy of Visit Ann Arbor

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

This campus boasts the largest football stadium in the United States—but there's a lot to explore beyond sports. The Nichols Arboretum, fondly known as "The Arb," and neighboring Matthaei Botanical Gardens give a free escape into nature. One gem: the Peony Garden, the largest collection of heirloom peonies in North America. Certain times of year, Shakespeare in the Arb plays to an audience of students and visitors. And any time you visit, you'll find spots to sit down and soak in the natural landscape.

Also worth a trip: The free Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, which shows highlights from its collection of more than 100,000 artifacts from around the world: Egyptian mummies, historical coins, Parthian pottery, glass vessels. At the University of Michigan Museum of Art, the permanent exhibit We Write to You About Africa doubled the space devoted to African art.

Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, Bloomington Indiana
Courtesy of Eskenazi Museum of Art

Indiana University, Bloomington

Even the student union is remarkable here—it's one of the largest student unions in the country, with a bowling and billiards spot, hair salon, one of the largest Starbucks in the country, a movie theater and plenty of places to eat and hang.

Beyond the student union, though, the free Lilly Library holds some incredible artifacts such as the first folio of Shakespeare's works, one of the world's 14 original Gutenberg Bibles, more than 30,000 comics donated by the producer of Batman, Thomas Jefferson's personal copy of the Bill of Rights, George Washington's letter accepting the presidency of the United States, the first printed edition of The Canterbury Tales, typescripts from many of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels and four of John Ford's Oscars. Catch a tour on Fridays at 2 or drop in for a self-guided visit.

The Eskenazi Museum of Art, which recently underwent a $30 million renovation, stuns with its design alone—the work of I.M. Pei, architect of the Louvre Pyramid and Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Inside you'll find seven galleries with some of the 45,000 artworks in the museum's collection. Look for pieces by Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Claude Monet.

University of Missouri Botanic Gardens
University of Missouri. Stephen Emlund/Getty Images

University of Missouri, Columbia

Spending time on the Mizzou campus should be a highlight of visiting Columbia. The whole campus reflects its design as a botanical garden, with 18 gardens including a butterfly garden and lily garden. Take self-guided tree trail tours and scavenger hunts; you can also request group tours and specialty tours through the garden website. Also at Mizzou: Look for the reopening of the free Museum of Art and Archaeology, scheduled to wrap up a move and renovation in the second half of 2023.

International Quilt Museum University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Special exhibit Liz Axford: Overlay. Brett Hampton/International Quilt Museum, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

University of Nebraska, Lincoln

Exploring small, unusual museums always adds a pop of fun to a trip, and one of these finds happens to be on the main campus of the University of Nebraska. The collection at the International Quilt Museum features quilts from more than 50 countries, with a few quilts dating to the 1600s. Upcoming special exhibits include World War I Quilts: The Sue Reich Collection (September 8, 2023 to April 13, 2024) and A New Deal for Quilts (October 6, 2023 to April 20, 2024). Don't miss the garden in the back of the museum, designed in blocks to look like a patchwork quilt.

More campus attractions: the University of Nebraska State Museum at Morrill Hall, where you can learn about the state's natural history in four floors of exhibits; and the Sheldon Museum of Art, which showcases American artwork in a midcentury modern building designed by Philip Johnson.

MSU Broad Art Museum
MSU Broad Art Museum. Bob Stefko

Michigan State University, East Lansing

This large, lush campus off the Red Cedar River is one of the largest research universities in the world. And the energy in the 5,000-seat "Izzone"—named after basketball coach Tom Izzo—feels unmatched at any college basketball game. But cultural attractions merit a visit, too, like the MSU Museum, celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2023. The museum, a Smithsonian affiliate, is free, but you must register to visit exhibits that pull from art and science with a focus on creativity. Halls include life-size animal dioramas and historical objects from the Great Lakes.

The free MSU Broad Art Museum focuses on modern art with themes such as Shouldn't You Be Working? 100 Years of Working From Home (through December 17, 2023); and Resistance Training: Arts, Sports and Civil Rights (through February 18, 2024). Currently under construction, the museum's CORE (Center for Object Research and Engagement), opening in November, will bring new ways to learn and interact with the permanent art collection.

Chazen Museum of Art Madison Wisconsin
Chazen Museum of Art. Courtesy of Focal Flame Photography

University of Wisconsin, Madison

You'll be tempted to paddle one of the lakes in Madison as well as visit the city's stellar Dane County Farmers' Market. By all means, do. But also make time to visit the Chazen Museum of Art, a campus highlight with 24,000 works of art. It's free to explore the two buildings, housing art that represents a variety of time periods and cultures. Also at the university: relax, listen to live music, or meet up with friends at lakeside Memorial Union; look into Wisconsin's natural wonders at the University of Wisconsin Geology Museum; savor an ice cream cone at the Babcock Dairy Store; or stretch your legs at the 1,260-acre University of Wisconsin Arboretum.

Notre Dame South Bend Indiana
Notre Dame campus. Photo courtesy of Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame

More Colleges to See

The University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, offers free general tours that give a historical and social overview of the school and stop at celebrated places like the Grotto, Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Main Building (the Golden Dome), and the Hesburgh Library ("Touchdown Jesus"). Separate tours of Notre Dame Stadium are available as well.

KU Natural History Museum Lawrence Kansas
KU Natural History Museum. Doug Stremel

The University of Kansas in Lawrence houses the recently renovated Spencer Museum of Art, home to European, North American and East Asian artworks, and the KU Natural History Museum, which introduces visitors to life on our planet.

At the University of Iowa in Iowa City, the Stanley Museum of Art reopened in a new building in 2022 after a devastating 2008 flood forced the evacuation of the old building; the Old Capitol Museum retraces the footsteps of the state's founding fathers in Iowa's original Capitol; and the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History explores Iowa's 500 million years of history.

Weisman Art Museum, Minneapolis
Weisman Art Museum. Kevin J. Miyazaki/Redux

At the University of Minnesota, Frank Gehry's gleaming Weisman Art Museum holds the school's collection of more than 25,000 objects, with numerous pieces showcasing American modernism.

The North Dakota Museum of Art, on the campus of University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, is the official art museum of the state of North Dakota, featuring contemporary, international art.

AE Seaman Mineral Museum
AE Seaman Mineral Museum.

In the heart of Copper Country on the Keweenaw Peninsula, the A.E. Seaman Mineral Museum at Michigan Tech in Houghton features a notable collection of minerals from around the world, with a focus on specimens from the Great Lakes region. See an 850-pound chunk of copper as well as rocks that glow neon under black lights.

The Kennedy Museum of Art at Ohio University in Athens will show In Hand: Material Engagements with the Built World from September 22, 2023 to March 31, 2024. Orton Geological Museum at Ohio State University in Columbus is the state's oldest free public museum, built in 1893. The Richard and Carole Cocks Art Museum at Miami University in Oxford sits on 3 acres of sculpture park grounds and contains five galleries of changing exhibitions.

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