Some people may guess that lakes or bicycle trails are the chief attraction for travelers in the Upper Midwest. Other might say museums, state parks or stadiums.
Wrong, wrong and wrong. The No. 1 attraction in travel is . . . shops.
Shopping is sightseeing for a lot of people. On vacation, they shop not as they would at the local mall, but as if had all the time in the world to browse, stroll and sample.
During the holidays, there's no place like home. In fact, it's the perfect getaway.
Every year, I go to downtown for the festivities. I get tickets for Handel's "Messiah" at Orchestra Hall. I hunt for stocking stuffers on Nicollet Mall.
I don't stay overnight. I live here, after all.
Visiting Chicago during the holidays, I'm always bowled over by how merry everyone is.
Can it be . . . Chicago Nice? It's either that or pixie dust.
Chicago is an exciting place to be any time, but at Christmas, it pulls out the stops. The Magnificent Mile sparkles. Ice skaters do pirouettes in Millennium Park. There are free concerts everywhere.
For 500 years, Germans have done their
holiday shopping at open-air Christmas markets in town squares.
Named for the Christ child, the markets traditionally start on the first Sunday of Advent, with shoppers warming up with hot spiced wine while browsing at garland-draped timber kiosks.
It's a tradition worth importing,
and that's what Chicago did in 1996 with its Christkindlmarket, where two-thirds of the vendors come from Germany.
Down comforters, to nestle all snug on a bed. Fleece stockings, to wear with care. Bowlsful of jelly, and a shop full of toys.
These visions were enough to draw six Minnesota women toward the rolling folds of southwest Wisconsin, holiday lists in hand. Until that trip, my friends and I never had thought of ourselves as power shoppers.
"Wow, I've never done this before,'' marveled my friend Mary, looking on as three of us tried futilely to close the lid of the bulging car-top carrier. "I've heard about women who do this.''
Twin Citians can boast all they want about their quality of life, their lakes and their urban civility.
But the only thing most people in other states and countries really want to know about is the Mall of America, and the very interesting fact that there's no tax on clothing and shoes in Minnesota.
Opened in 1992, the megamall was an instant hit, attracting eager shoppers from all over the world, most arriving with empty suitcases they can stuff with deals.
Americans have a love-hate relationship with their tourist traps. Theyre so uncool . . . but so irresistible.
What makes something a tourist trap? Its a place thats so cheesy you have to see if its really as cheesy as it looks. A place so iconic youve seen a million pictures of it. A place plugged by thousands of highway billboards.
Mostly, its a place everyone else has seen so you have to, too. We cant help ourselves, especially when it comes to anything thats odd or oversized.
In Madison, a visitor is exposed to many messages: Resist corporate globalization. Fight for social justice. Housing is a RIGHT!
But when I was there one November, no one said anything against materialism.
Madison sometimes called the Peoples Republic of Madison is so anti-establishment and anti-corporate that a Starbucks caused an uproar when it opened on State Street.
No one knows how to celebrate Christmas like the Germans.
It's thanks to them that Americans decorate Christmas trees, hang wreaths and put nutcrackers on mantels. Because of them, we bake gingerbread men, open Advent calendars and fill stockings with treats.
Still, not every German Christmas tradition has crossed the Atlantic.
In an up-and-down economy, people still like to shop, even if they can't spend much.
That's turned out pretty well for the town of Princeton, which operates Wisconsin's largest outdoor weekly flea market in its tree-shaded City Park.
The last years have been busier than ever for the market: For a buck or two, anyone can find a treasure, even if it's a bag of marbles or a freshly baked pastry.
It's obvious from one look at the shop-lined streets of Amana, the largest of the seven Amana Colonies, that modern commerce is in full flower there. Even so, the first question asked about the villages is: Are the Amana people Amish?
And no wonder the people of the Amanas spoke German, lived simply and adhered faithfully to Scripture. Many still do. But no, they never were Amish.
The first people of the Amanas were German immigrants who came to Iowa in 1855.
In spring, women's weekends pop up like daffodils.
Chalk it up to cabin fever women just want to get away. Or, perhaps more accurately, tourist-starved destinations want women to get away.
In 2018, the Lake Michigan town of Holland is first out of the pack with Girlfriends Weekend March 2-4. The famous tulips won't be out, but hotels offer specials, and a package includes a breakfast buffet, champagne brunch, fashion shows, concerts, clinics and swag bags.
From the beginning, the St. Croix River has shaped Hudson's identity.
The first settlers came by canoe on the fur-trade highway. The first steamboat docked in 1847, and soon logs were floating down the St. Croix to sawmills in Hudson and its neighbor on the Minnesota side, Stillwater.
Hudson's 1913 toll bridge became a landmark on the St. Croix, fattening town coffers after the lumber boom ended. The bridge closed in 1951, but its raised bed still stretches partway over the river, giving residents and visitors a place to stroll on warm summer evenings.
In the grand scheme of things, Galena, Ill., was destined to be a flash in the pan.
The flash came from the shiny lead sulfide upon which the town's fortunes were built in the 1830s, '40s and '50s; galena is the Latin word for the ore.
It made many people rich, and in the 1850s, Galena, three miles from the Mississippi, was the busiest port between St. Paul and St. Louis.
For many years, Red Wing has been Twin Citians favorite day-trip destination.
Its adorable, with its brick storefronts, flowering planters hung from lampposts and rows of stately Victorian houses in three historic districts.
Sitting on a sharp elbow of the Mississippi, its a small town that still looks the part it has a bakery, a barber shop, a homespun café and it was the first Minnesota town on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of Distinctive Destinations.
Northfield always has been shaped by newcomers.
First the Yankees came to town, then the Norwegians. Each started a college, and the Yankees built mills, whose flour won international prizes as the Minneapolis mill were just getting started.
Missourians arrived in 1876 for a brief but memorable visit; the violent bank raid by the James-Younger Gang is called "the seven minutes that shook Northfield.''
In a little village in northern Wisconsin, muskie probably is still king.
Back in 1971, city boosters got the U.S. Patent Office to make Boulder Junction the official Musky Capital of the World. After all, the surrounding two counties have the world's densest concentration of lakes, and they still yield 4-foot fish.
But times change. Now, this former logging town deep in the middle of state forest has gained fame as a playground for another kind of trophy hunter.
Since its earliest days, the people of Mineral Point have created beauty out of nothing.
Lead first drew eager frontiersmen, who often lived in the "badger holes'' they dug in their search for "mineral.''
The territory later became known as the badger state, and the town became Mineral Point, the nucleus around which Wisconsin developed.
Few tourist towns are more blessed than Fish Creek.
It's known as Door County's shopping town, and if people think that's too much of a good thing well, they're in the minority, judging by throngs on the streets.
It's also the gateway to the wildly popular Peninsula State Park. This big park is more like a resort, with a beach, boat rentals, playgrounds, tennis court and golf course, plus a theater, lighthouse, bike trails and one of the state's best-known hiking trails.
When a small town is about as pleasing as can be, what else can it do?
Why, make sure everyone notices, of course.
In 1972, an old Yankee mill town just north of Milwaukee started a Wine & Harvest Festival. Two years later, it started Winter Festival.
As soon as we turned off the highway into Nisswa, my childrens heads began to swivel.
"Souvenirs . . . Gift Shop . . . Moccasins, read my daughter Madeleine. "And look Candy Store.
"This is a cute town, said my son Peter, noticing the covered sidewalks. "Its like a cowboy town.
As often as not, vacationing couples find they're in a mixed marriage: One likes to shop, one likes to bike or hike.
What to do? I've seen dozens of men patiently waiting on benches as their wives and girlfriends scour the shops.
But it needn't be an either/or proposition. Pick one of the destinations below, and you'll find both great shopping and great riding (or running, or skating) routes, plus great restaurants in which to relax afterward.
It all began with an enameled horse trough/hog scalder.
It grew into an empire that includes a five-diamond resort, a collection of upscale shops, an innovative art center, a foundation that rescues Wisconsin folk art and, in fact, an entire town that's so perfect it's almost eerie.
That horse trough evolved, too, into such products as the Body Spa, a futuristic shower stall with a waterfall and 10 jets that pummel tired muscles with 80 gallons of water per minute.
When spring is a tease and days are gray, only one sport always comes through: Shopping.
And where better to shop than Stillwater? The little village on the Minnesota side of the St. Croix River has a Main Street thats chockablock with antiques, books and bibelots from around the globe, filling every inch of storefronts once occupied by the blacksmiths and haberdashers and apothecaries of the logging era.
In summer, its streets are clogged with tourists, out to enjoy the riverside ambiance as well as the merchandise (See Summer in Stillwater).
People converge on Spring Green, Wis., for many good reasons: To admire Frank Lloyd Wright masterpieces. To hear Shakespeare at American Players Theatre. To see world-class kitsch at House on the Rock.
But what brought me to Spring Green? Free stuff.
Spring Green calls itself "The Birthday Town,'' because people celebrating birthdays can go around to its businesses collecting free loot, like trick-or-treaters. It's like having another holiday, except you're the only one who gets to celebrate it.
There are certain towns that are so adorable and have so much that appeals to tourists that you just have to call them show towns.
They're real towns, of course, but they're always on their best behavior because tourists are always watching, and many have evolved in lockstep with tourism.
There's no question about what goes on the top of this list Galena, Ill. This 1850s lead-mining boom town snoozed for a century before it was rediscovered and turned into a playground for weekenders, especially from Chicago.