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11 unique attractions in the Midwest and South

A 32-foot pencil is among the dozens of giant items to see in Casey, Illinois. Photo courtesy Illinois Office of Tourism

Call them weird, wacky, wonderful—all those adjectives fit. Add unusual, distinctive, and super fun. Still right on. It’s difficult to find the perfect words to describe the following odd yet appealing attractions, but where words might fail, engaging experiences deliver.

From the biggest to the smallest, from railroads to purses, and from a fantastical playground to wildly painted concrete sculptures, here’s a collection of not-to-miss sites. These roadside attractions and cool museums across the Midwest and South are practically guaranteed to wow you.

1. Ripley’s Believe It or Not!

Branson, Missouri

Outside of Ripley's Believe It or Not! museum

The outlandish exterior of the Ripley's Believe It or Not! museum matches the bizarre collection of curiosities within. Photo courtesy Ripley Entertainment Inc.

Robert Ripley started drawing Believe It or Not! cartoons for a small daily newspaper in 1918. Who could’ve predicted how popular the concept would become? Today the brand reaches a worldwide audience through radio, television, books, movies, and museums. Enter a realm where truth is stranger than fiction at the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum location in Branson.

You’ll see such curiosities as shrunken human heads, a vampire-killing kit, and more than 500 other artifacts. A new exhibit on view through 2024 features the work of micro sculptor Willard Wigan, whose intricate pieces are so tiny that they can fit through the eye of a needle. You must see them to believe them. Wander on self-guided tours through 8 themed galleries and Ripley’s Mobile Military Marvels, an outdoor exhibit of military-themed vehicles. Adults, $28.99.

You may also like: Check these Midwest adventures off your bucket list

2. City Museum

St. Louis

Museum visitors climbing giant slinky-shaped play structures

City Museum is filled with a wonderland of slides, tunnels, climbing contraptions, and other adventures. Photo courtesy Explore St. Louis

City Museum just might be the coolest fun house on the planet. This giant playground for kids (and adults) features tunnels, slides, wavy walkways, and rope swings that lead to a kaleidoscope of imaginative delights. Sculptor and visionary Bob Cassilly built this mind-boggling kingdom in a century-old shoe warehouse, filling 4 stories plus the rooftop and outdoor surroundings with salvaged, recycled wonders.

An old school bus looks as if it’s careening off the roof. Vintage airplanes hover above a jungle gym of Slinky-like climbing contraptions. The world’s largest pair of underpants and a 1,500-pound praying mantis join a series of collections ranging from butterflies to architectural remnants and objects found in outhouses. Wild and crazy fun makes City Museum one of St. Louis’ top attractions. $20 for guests 3 and up.

You may also like: Discover 10 important civil rights sites in the Midwest and South

3. Vintage Fire Museum

Jeffersonville, Indiana

Vintage fire vehicle

The Vintage Fire Museum’s extensive collection of fire trucks and other firefighting equipment dates from the mid-1700s. Photo courtesy Curtis Peters/Vintage Fire Museum

Firefighters fascinate us, and countless TV shows and movies have put a spotlight on the profession. They’re the heroes of every community. But firefighters don’t work alone. They need an array of gear to rush into a burning home to battle a blaze. You can find a collection of firefighting equipment dating from 1756 in the Vintage Fire Museum.

Restored fire engines on display include hand pumpers, horse-drawn steamers, the country’s first chemical engine, and early motorized fire trucks. Electronic fire simulation equipment, sometimes demonstrated by local firefighters, teach fire safety measures in a memorable way. A visit here renews your appreciation not only of firefighters but also of the advanced firefighting equipment in use today. Adults, $7.

You may also like: Show-me history: touring Missouri's historic sites

4. Big Things in a Small Town

Casey, Illinois

People waving from inside a giant mailbox-shaped structure

In Casey, you can climb into the World's Largest Mailbox, among other colossal experiences. Photo courtesy Illinois Office of Tourism

With a population under 2,500, less than the average cruise ship’s capacity, Casey is tiny. But its appeal is oversized. You’ll find a host of gigantic items in this town, including a 32-foot-long pencil, a supersized birdcage that you can climb into, a 56-foot-tall rocking chair, and a massive mailbox that overlooks downtown. Casey native Jim Bolin and his team used mostly recycled or salvaged materials to create nearly all of the 30-plus monstrous items, starting with a 54-foot wind chime in 2011.

A dozen of the sculptures in and near Casey have been classified by Guinness World Records as the “World’s Largest,” including the wind chime, a golf tee and driver, and a pair of wooden shoes. As you wander around the gargantuan items, you might start to feel like a shrunken human in a fantasy film.

You may also like: Things to do in Casey, Illinois

5. Evel Knievel Museum

Topeka, Kansas

Museum visitor on a virtual motorcycle jump simulator

At the Evel Knievel Museum, wander among the daredevil's memorabilia and take a virtual motorcycle jump. Photo courtesy Kansas Tourism

Born as Robert Craig Knievel Jr., Evel Knievel jumped to fame in the 1960s and ’70s with daring motorcycle stunts that sometimes ended catastrophically. Clad in his iconic star-spangled white jumpsuit, Knievel became a television star and a household name.

At this museum, photos, videos, and memorabilia tell the story of Knievel’s daredevil escapades, including jumping over a shark-filled tank in Chicago and leaping over 13 buses at London’s Wembley Stadium.

The museum also sports fun interactive exhibits, such as a virtual reality 4-D jump experience. Motorcycle buffs will love it, as will pop culture historians and anyone with a freewheeling spirit. A word of advice: Catch this museum before it moves to Las Vegas in 2024. Adults, $15.

You may also like: Fun things to do in Wichita, Kansas

6. Big Brutus

West Mineral, Kansas

Two people standing in front of Big Brutus

Once the world's largest electric shovel, Big Brutus rises 16 stories in southeast Kansas. Photo courtesy Kansas Tourism

If the word big is in your name, you’d better live up to the billing. Big Brutus does just that and more. The 16-story-tall electric shovel, once the world’s largest, casts a colossal shadow at the 14,500-acre Mined Land Wildlife Area, most of which was surface mined for coal. When the Pittsburg and Midway coal mine shut down in 1974, the owners abandoned Big Brutus in a field because it would have cost too much to dismantle it.

Paying tribute to the mining heritage of southeast Kansas, the roadside attraction weighs 11 million pounds. Its 90-cubic-yard dipper can hold enough dirt to fill 3 railroad cars. You can climb up about 5 stories into the machine for a closer look. A visitors center provides insight into the enormous excavator and the area’s mining history. Adults, $10.

You may also like: A guide to visiting Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas

7. Music Box Village

New Orleans

Music Box Village

At Music Box Village, wacky installations made from repurposed materials serve as unconventional musical instruments. Photo courtesy Tod Seelie/Music Box Village

Built on a 1-acre lot next to a canal leading to the Mississippi River, Music Box Village is a whimsical collection of “musical houses,” which have been described as musical architecture and interactive public sculpture. New Orleans Airlift, an artist-driven nonprofit organization, built this hodgepodge of wacky installations using found objects, building rubble, and repurposed materials that were then fine-tuned by artists and musicians to be unconventional musical instruments.

The sounds and the scene shift and change at different times of night and day and are especially appealing when visitors collaborate to make music or when professionals perform. Check the website for hours and the schedule of performances and special events. Adults, $12; admission varies for performances.

You may also like: Explore America’s musical heritage on a road trip through the South

8. Chauvin Sculpture Garden

Chauvin, Louisiana

Chauvin Sculpture Garden

At Chauvin Sculpture Garden, discover more than 100 large-scale works crafted from a self-taught artist who disappeared after making them. Photo courtesy Explore Houma

In 1984, Kenny Allen Hill, a part-time bricklayer born in 1948, started constructing life-size sculptures on a small plot of vacant land on the banks of Bayou Petit Caillou. He built a rustic cottage there and paid rent to the landowners but didn’t have permission to erect his artwork. Yet within 15 years, Hill had packed what’s now the Chauvin Sculpture Garden with more than 100 pieces, mostly made of brightly painted concrete.

Sculptures of angels, men, women, children, flowers, Jesus Christ carrying a cross, and many self-portraits populate the garden. Hill left town in January 2000, leaving his strange and spiritual treasures behind. 

Dennis Sipiorski, former head of the Nicholls State University art department, recognized the garden’s uniqueness. He notified the Kohler Foundation, which purchased the land, restored the sculptures, built office and gallery space nearby, and then gifted the site to the university. Unveiled in 2002, the garden is undergoing repairs following Hurricane Ida. It’s open from sunrise to sunset, and docent tours are available from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free.

You may also like: 7 beautiful sculpture parks in the Midwest and South you have to visit

9. TrainTastic

Gulfport, Mississippi

Model trains

A host of model trains navigate through elaborate and painstakingly crafted layouts at TrainTastic. Photo courtesy TrainTastic and The Focus Group

With 52,000 square feet of exhibition space, TrainTastic claims to be the country’s largest model train museum. It’d be difficult to disagree as you watch model trains run along multiple tracks through tiny cities, over mountains and bridges, into tunnels, and through layouts that resemble Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.

An enlarged version of the original Mississippi Coast Model Railroad Museum, the reimagined rail menagerie opened this summer. In addition to seeing all gauges of model trains running through elaborate layouts, you can enjoy a play area, educational exhibits, and trains you can actually ride. Adults, $15.

You may also like: A road trip to see lighthouses spotlights Coastal Mississippi’s maritime heritage

10. The Galaxy Connection

Hot Springs, Arkansas

A group of children pointing toward Captain America and Black Panther displays

Guests admire the superhero costumes on display at The Galaxy Connection. Photo courtesy Jesus Martinez

The world needs heroes, and you can find plenty of them at  The Galaxy Connection, a museum that will fascinate Star Wars and Marvel fans. The collection features toys and fun memorabilia dating from the 1970s through the ’90s. Catch up with G.I. Joe, He-Man, Wonder Woman, Superman, and other comic book and movie champions.

The Force will be with you when you throw on a Jedi robe, wield a lightsaber, and sit in an X-wing starfighter model. You can also see toys from your childhood and play vintage arcade games. Museum hours depend on the number of reservations, which must be made online. Adults, $35.

You may also like: A guide to visiting Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas

11. Esse Purse Museum

Little Rock, Arkansas

Various handbags on display

An elaborate collection of handbags at Esse Purse Museum spotlights the role purses have played in our culture. Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism

A museum devoted to purses? Not as frivolous as it sounds. This small and informative museum tells the story of 20th-century women through their handbags and the items that they carry. Owned by Anita Davis and based on her handbag collection, the museum displays purses, photographs, memorabilia, ephemera, and assorted accessories decade by decade to illustrate not only fashion history, but also changes in our culture.

In addition to its permanent collection, the museum hosts special temporary exhibits. One of only a handful of purse museums in the world, Esse also has an adjoining shop where you can peruse books, jewelry, scarves—and, of course, a plethora of purses. Adults, $10.

Susan Manlin Katzman is a freelance writer from St. Louis.

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