Traveling with Tweens and Teens

How to Turn a College Tour Into a Vacation: Midwest Edition

College Tour Vacation Ideas, University of Michigam

There is a lot of ground to cover when you and your soon-to-be-college student are touring Midwest schools, so we’re suggesting a few different routes. These itineraries lend themselves to true road trips with some highway time in between, plus plenty of sightseeing along the way. Each route is grouped with ease of travel in mind, with no one leg being more than a 3-hour drive. This approach will allow you to see the most schools in the least amount of time but will require you to be on the move throughout the trip rather than staying overnight in one place.

College Tour Vacation Ideas
Northwestern University. Photo by Alan Chan

Midwest College Tour Vacation Ideas

Route 1: University of Chicago, Northwestern University and University of Wisconsin Madison

Start in leafy Hyde Park at the elite, private University of Chicago. Absorb the Gothic architecture as you stroll through the quads and take note of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, where celebrations including graduation are held. Keep an eye out for the Midway Plaisance — site of the 1893 World’s Fair and now an ice rink in the winter. Take a break on campus to enjoy coffee or a sandwich at Grounds of Being, the student-run cafe in the basement of the Divinity School.

As you head north, there are plenty of famed Chicago landmarks to enjoy. For a bird’s-eye view, visit Skydeck at Willis Tower for stunning vistas from the 103rd floor, as well as the famous Ledge where you can walk 4 feet out from the building in a glass box. Back on the ground, spend some time on the Magnificent Mile or visit Chicago’s famous Navy Pier. Ride the Centennial Wheel or see the city from a different vantage point (and cool off!) with the Extreme Seadog cruise. 

The college touring continues north with a visit to Northwestern University in Evanston, which was named for school founder John Evans in 1850. Home to 10,000 undergrad students, Northwestern is well known for its graduate schools of business, journalism and law. Don’t miss the Block Museum on campus that celebrates artistic expression across mediums and cultures. When hunger strikes, create your own rapid-fired pizza at Blaze and then cool down with a frozen custard from Andy’s.

Afterward, travel northwest to Wisconsin to see the University of Wisconsin—Madison on the shores of Lake Mendota. This quintessential college town offers Big Ten sports life and caters to more than 30,000 undergrad students. Walk along State Street, grab a coffee at Espresso Royale and fill up at all-day brunch destination Bassett Street Brunch Club. Then take it all in at Memorial Union, where students come to relax, eat, listen to music and commune along the lake.

College Tour Vacation Ideas
University of Michigan. Photo by Don Duck

Route 2: Michigan State University, University of Michigan, Case Western Reserve University

Start in Lansing with a visit to the home of the Spartans, Michigan State University. Michigan State is a large public university with a huge range of majors and 40,000-plus undergrad students. Based on the season, see if your visit coincides with a Michigan State game — basketball, baseball, hockey and football are all huge sports. Hopcat is a popular spot for burgers and the MSU Dairy Store, part of the College of Agriculture, is known for its ice cream. Try the cake batter-based green and white Sesquicentennial Swirl.

From there, head to Ann Arbor and the beautiful campus of the University of Michigan. Revel in the stunning Law Quad, gaze at Maya Lin’s Wave Field and check out the second-largest stadium in the world, known as the “Big House.” After campus, visit the Kerrytown Market and Shops, home to iconic Zingerman’s Deli as well as a large farmers’ market on Saturdays. If the weather is right, while away the afternoon on a canoe or kayak along the Huron.

The tour continues east to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Case Western Reserve is a private school with about 5,000 undergrads. When you start feeling peckish, visit the Jolly Scholar craft brewery and kitchen, which is nestled into campus. Afterwards, check out the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, only a few miles away. If you have time to spare in Cleveland, consider an Indians baseball, Browns football or Cavaliers basketball game.

College Tour Vacation Ideas
Purdue University. Photo by David Ellis

Route 3: Purdue University, Indiana University, Miami University of Ohio and The Ohio State University

Start with a visit to Purdue University, a large public research school in Lafayette, Indiana, known for its science, technology and agriculture programs. Check out the Neil Armstrong statue, tour the Student Union and see if you can spot some of the tunnels around the Union and Northwestern Avenue that are still open to the public. Then head to Triple XXX, the first drive-in in Indiana, for some grub or grab a pizza at Purdue sports memorabilia-laden institution Bruno’s.

Next up is Indiana University, home to the Hoosiers and another popular Big Ten school. Indiana University Bloomington is the flagship of the public university system in Indiana and caters to 30,000 undergrads. Don’t miss the Sample Gates, the Fine Arts Plaza, Showalter Fountain and the limestone Indiana Memorial Union, one of the biggest student unions in the country, replete with bowling, billiards, a movie theater, restaurants and even the Biddle Hotel. Near campus, favorite all-day eateries include FARM and the Runcible Spoon.

From there, move east to Miami University of Ohio in the quaint college town of Oxford. Miami of Ohio is one of the oldest public universities in the country and serves about 15,000 undergrads. Soak up the campus vibes on the quad and see if you can catch students playing broomball (think ice hockey, which is super-popular here, without skates). Walk around High Street and grab wings or a burger at Mac & Joe’s.

Round out the trip in Columbus at The Ohio State University. The home of the Buckeyes is a large public university with over 40,000 undergrads. Keep an eye out for campus landmark Orton Hall and its bell tower as well as Mirror Lake. When hunger strikes, Ethyl & Tank is popular for burgers and Buckeye Donuts is a favorite student spot for sweets. Beyond campus, there is plenty to keep you busy in Columbus. Make time to enjoy Scioto Mile, a scenic outdoor park along the banks of the Scioto River that was built in 2015 — don’t miss the huge interactive fountain at Bicentennial Park. Consider trying the CoGo bike share program to cycle around and also visit the nearby German Village and Brewery District. Another popular destination is the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, known for its large installation of Chihuly glass.

Relevant Links:

Best tips and ideas for vacations with tweens and teens

How to turn a college tour into a vacation: New York/Tri-State edition

How to turn a college tour into a vacation: Southeast edition

9 places to make family travel memories with college-age kids

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