Ah, the Midwest. Home to the Rust Belt, swing states, and plenty of cornfields. While many travelers overlook this section of the United States, those who don’t find beautiful scenery, friendly people, and ample places to explore. Use this guide to determine which Midwestern state calls to you.

Photo by Rafa Diaz

Illinois

  • Capital: Springfield
  • State Population: 12,801,539
  • Abbreviation: IL
  • Nickname: The Prairie State

Though known for its most-populous city, Chicago, there’s much more to this Midwestern state than the windy metropolis in the north. Abraham Lincoln, one of the most famous U.S. presidents, began his political career in Illinois. The state features prairies, plains, and an abundance of farmland, and it’s even been called a microcosm of the United States as a whole.

Indiana

  • Capital: Indianapolis
  • State Population: 6,633,053
  • Abbreviation: IN
  • Nickname: The Hoosier State

This state’s name means “Land of the Indians,” referring directly to the indigenous and Native American populations who lived on the land long before it was granted statehood in 1816. Thirteen major interstate highways cross Indiana, earning it yet another nickname, “The Crossroads of America.” Indiana features rolling plains and farmland throughout most of the state, dunes along the shore of Lake Michigan, and a northern region prone to icy conditions.

Photo by Jon Goldstein

Iowa

  • Capital: Des Moines
  • State Population: 3,134,693
  • Abbreviation: IA
  • Nickname: The Hawkeye State

Once a part of French Louisiana, Iowa now pays homage to its colonial heritage in the form of a state flag featuring the same blue, white, and red stripes of the French drapeau. Today, Iowa isn’t really like France at all. Due to its particularly rich soil, the Midwestern state is covered in farmland, and has been deemed one of the safest states to live in. Movie buffs will recognize Iowa from its role in Kevin Costner’s “Field of Dreams” — and those who love the movie can actually visit the film’s iconic baseball diamond near Dyersville.

Photo by Tom Zittergruen

Kansas

  • Capital: Topeka
  • State Population: 2,907,289
  • Abbreviation: KS
  • Nickname: The Sunflower State

Named after the Kansa tribe who originally inhabited the area, Kansas has a history of Native American influence rich enough to match its soil — which makes it one of the most productive agricultural states in the country. Surprisingly, the prairie-covered state is actually featured in a number of pop-culture classics. Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz” was whisked away from her Kansas farm, Superman grew up in the fictional town of Smallville, and the small farming community of Holcomb played host to the tragedy chronicled in Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.”

Kentucky

  • Capital: Frankfort
  • State Population: 4,436,974
  • Abbreviation: KY
  • Nickname: The Bluegrass State

Straddling the traditional north/south border of the United States, Kentucky features a mix of Midwestern culture and Southern charm. Home to the world’s longest cave system (Mammoth Caves National Park), the state is also known for its bluegrass music, tobacco, bourbon whiskey, college basketball, and horse racing. It is one of only four states classified as a commonwealth.

Photo by Amy Reed
Photo by Shalee Blackmer

Michigan

  • Capital: Lansing
  • State Population: 9,928,300
  • Abbreviation: MI
  • Nickname: The Great Lakes State

Michigan is unique in that it is the only state to consist of two peninsulas — the two halves of the state don’t even touch one another, separated by the Straits of Mackinac in between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Famed for its Tim Allen-voiced commercials beckoning visitors to “Pure Michigan,” this watery state is home to nearly 65,000 lakes. It’s actually said that, in Michigan, one is never more than six miles from a lake. Thus, the state has become known for its various outdoor opportunities.

Minnesota

  • Capital: Saint Paul
  • State Population: 5,554,532 (2017)
  • Abbreviation: MN
  • Nickname: Land of 10,000 Lakes

The landscape of Minnesota is varied — the middle region of the state is covered in hills and lakes (the nickname is no exaggeration), the south boasts plains and river valleys, and the north is considered rocky and wooded. Over half of the state’s population lives in Minneapolis or Saint Paul (known together as “The Twin Cities). Minnesota is home to the famous shopping complex, Mall of America, as well as some of the country’s best bike trails.

Photo by Jack Callahan

Missouri

  • Capital: Jefferson City
  • State Population: 6,093,000
  • Abbreviation: MO
  • Nickname: The Show Me State

This central state has played a pivotal role in U.S. history. Missouri was the starting point of the Pony Express, the Oregon Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, and the California Trail, as well as a complex battleground during the Civil War. Situated at the crossroads of various regions of the country, Missouri boasts a blend of Midwestern and Southern culture. Ragtime, blues, and jazz music all claim roots in this state, and barbeque and beer are both cornerstones of Missouri life — Anheuser-Busch is headquartered in St. Louis. Missouri also claims many famous writers, including Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, Walt Disney, and T.S. Eliot.

Photo by Dorrell Mccadney
Photo by Steve Brock

Nebraska

  • Capital: Lincoln
  • State Population: 1,907,116
  • Abbreviation: NE
  • Nickname: The Cornhusker State

Originally explored by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Nebraska was once home to at least six different indigenous populations. The state has two major regions: the Dissected Till Plains in the east and the Great Plains in the west. Nebraska is the only state with a unicameral legislature (one house), and one of two states with an official state soft drink — Kool-Aid, which was invented by a Nebraskan man in the 1920s.

Photo by Jacob and Esther Fu

North Dakota

  • Capital: Bismarck
  • State Population: 757,952
  • Abbreviation: ND
  • Nickname: The Peace Garden State

This plateau and plain-filled state sits on the northern border of the United States, connecting to the Saskatchewan and Manitoba provinces of Canada. For such a large state, North Dakota has a relatively small population (the fourth-smallest in the country), but it features the Badlands as well as Theodore Roosevelt National Park — which is known for its gorgeous and unique landscapes. During long winter days, it is possible to see “sun dogs,” an atmospheric optical phenomenon that produces bright spots to the sides of the sun.  

Photo by Jacob Blucker

Ohio

  • Capital: Columbus
  • State Population: 11,614,373
  • Abbreviation: OH
  • Nickname: The Buckeye State

Known for its importance as a swing state in national elections, this Midwestern state has also produced the second-highest number of presidents (behind only New York). Ohio is also known for being a bellwether state — one that indicates nationwide trends. Filled with rolling plains, Ohio played a prominent role in the development of both the National Football League and Major League Baseball (the Cincinnati Red Stockings, now the Reds, were the country’s first professional baseball team in 1869).  

 

Related:  The Top Photo Spots in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

South Dakota

  • Capital: Pierre
  • State Population: 865,454
  • Abbreviation: SD
  • Nickname: The Mount Rushmore State

Known for the major tourist attraction from which its nickname originates, South Dakota is one of the least-populous states in the country. Most South Dakotans live in the eastern part of the state, an area dominated by agriculture. The state is primarily made up of grasslands, but the Badlands add vivid color to the state’s mostly arid landscape. South Dakota’s most famous story originates around the Ingalls family from “Little House on the Prairie,” and the state also features many annual Native American events and celebrations.

Photo by Briana Moore

West Virginia

  • Capital: Charleston
  • State Population: 1,831,102
  • Abbreviation: WV
  • Nickname: The Mountain State

Though its name may imply otherwise, West Virginia is actually in the eastern part of the country, bordering Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Virginia, and Maryland. Known for its historic coal mining and logging industries, this relatively small state is characterized by mountains and rolling hills — lending itself to those outdoor adventurers who seek hiking, kayaking, rock-climbing, mountain-biking, fishing, white-water rafting, and backpacking. West Virginia is also home to one of the most densely karstic areas of the world, and draws recreational cavers and scientists alike.

Photo by Peter Schreve

Wisconsin

  • Capital: Madison
  • State Population: 5,778,708
  • Abbreviation: WI
  • Nickname: The Badger State

When in Wisconsin, do as the cheeseheads do — well, sort of. Wisconsin is known as “America’s Dairyland” due to its status as one of the leading dairy producers in the country. Surprisingly enough, the state’s third largest industry is actually tourism. Wisconsin hosts a slew of festivals each year, including Summerfest and Oktoberfest, as well as ethnic celebrations like Festa Italiana, Irish Fest, Polish Fest, Polka Days, and Brat(wurst) Days. Visit for the festivals, but don’t forget to sample the cheese!

Photo by Jarvis Lawson
Photo by Sam Li

 

Unless otherwise noted, all population numbers are estimates from 2016.