Word art that reads: Minnesota's most charming lake towns.
Word art that reads: Minnesota's most charming lake towns.
Small towns meet inviting lakes in these vacation enclaves.

It's a fast summer, Minnesota. Make the most of yours by dipping into some of our state's vaunted 10,000+ lakes — and by enjoying the sweet towns around them. We went in search of Midwestern charm for this list, looking for places that would have enough to do if rain ruined a day of swimming and boating. We wanted that easy, summertime feel, too, spots where even if you've never visited before, you can get the lay of the land quickly, and where it's easy to find a decent cup of coffee or a nice cold beer. With summer sailing by, there's no time to wait.

Worth a thousand words: Grand Marais' lighthouse is just a stroll down the breakwater as are picture-perfect harbor views.

Cursive script that spells 'Grand Marais' in gold letters.

Even if it didn't have sweeping, dramatic views of the greatest lake of all, Grand Marais would be a fun getaway.

The town of about 1,300 people a couple hours beyond Duluth on Highway 61 is a scenic, arty, outdoorsy community perched on the shores of Lake Superior.

Its walkable little downtown is known for galleries like Sivertson Gallery, specializing in "art of the north," and the Johnson Heritage Post Art Gallery, operated by the Cook County Historical Society. Get creative yourself by attending the North House Folk School, which offers classes on traditional arts and crafts like bread baking, blacksmithing and wooden boat building.

How beachy is it?

The lake is too cold for most people to swim in and there aren't any sandy beaches. Instead, the shoreline around town is covered with smooth rocks. "The best rock skipping beaches on planet earth," according to Greg Wright, executive director of the North House Folk School.

If you want to get out on the water, places in town rent kayaks and stand up paddle boards. Or take a day cruise on the Hjørdis, a two-masted, gaff-rigged schooner operated by the North House Folk School.

Best non-beach fun

The town hosts lots of festivals: A Wooden Boat Show and Summer Solstice Pageant in June, the Grand Marais Arts Festival in July, the Fisherman's Picnic festival in August, the Moose Madness family festival in October and the Winter Gathering & Arctic Film Festival in November. It's also home to an outdoor painting festival and a dark sky festival.

Plus, the shopping scene screams "up north." There's outdoor gear at the Lake Superior Trading Post and Stone Harbor Wilderness Supply, bait at the Beaver House fishing gear shop, hip "northwoods modern" at Upstate MN and Carhartt and Stormy Kromer traditional at the Joynes Ben Franklin.

What's cooking?

For such a small community, there's plenty of food options, including fine dining with a harbor view at the Angry Trout Cafe, pizza at Sven and Ole's or refined pub grub at the Gunflint Tavern. There's also a co-op grocery, a coffee shop, a brewery and the "World's Best Donuts."

Don't miss

Take a walk out to the lighthouse on the harbor breakwater or stroll out on Artist Point, a picturesque rocky outcropping that sticks out into Lake Superior and forms part of Grand Marais Harbor. For elevated views, hit the nearby rugged Superior Hiking Trail.


A Big Ole welcome: Alexandria's giant Viking greets visitors and speaks to the city's Nordic heritage. But there's more to see and do, including sipping at Carlos Creek Winery.

Cursive script that spells 'Alexandria' in gold letters.

Alexandria's five-syllable name is often abbreviated — it's written as "Alex," but pronounced "Alek," a sort of verbal secret handshake that separates locals from tourists. The nickname lends an approachable vibe to the town of 14,000, just off I-94, roughly halfway between the Twin Cities and Fargo. It retains its small-town trappings, starting with Big Ole, the enormous fiberglass Viking anchoring Broadway's north end. There's also a bingo hall, quilt shop and multi-level antique stores.

How beachy Is It?

In the heart of west-central lake country, the phrase "toy storage" refers to boats and jet skis. An interconnected chain of waterways just beyond downtown hosts several sandy public beaches. Area rental shops offer paddleboards, pontoons and those futuristic, water-propelled jet packs.

Best non-beach fun

Alexandria is known for the claim made by a local Swedish immigrant farmer who said he dug up a sandstone slab covered with Scandinavian runic writings. More than a century later, the Kensington Runestone hasn't been proven authentic or a hoax, and is displayed alongside all manner of historic items, including a horse-drawn carriage, Native beadwork and a mastodon tooth, at the Runestone Museum.

Some attractions are open only during the seasonal tourist swell, including the Legacy of the Lakes Museum, with its collection of classic boats, and Casey's Amusement Park, for mini-golf, bumper boats and go-karts. For evening entertainment, there's Viking Speedaway's stock-car races, or theater performances, both indoor, at Andria, and plein air, at Theatre L'Homme Dieu.

Gal-geared giftables dominate Alexandria's retail scene. Cutesy slogans screen-printed on wooden plaques, T-shirts, and dish towels serve as a constant reminder that "Friends are like therapists you can drink wine with." Several airy boutiques (the Edge Co., the Dashery, Kindred People, Lulie, Scandinavian Gift Shop among them) sell chic rompers, custom suits, organic cotton babywear, and Swedish table linens. Antique stores include Now & Then, Past & Present, and Yesterday's.

What's cooking?

The most charming spot is Roers Family Bakery, where the coffee is help yourself, the old-fashioned donuts are pilgrimage-worthy, and prices are just this side of free.

But downtown is also home to harbingers of hip. At the farm-to-table eatery, La Ferme, in a converted bank, the best seats are inside the old safe, and the Cuban or braised roast-beef sandwiches are first-rate.

There's even a cold-pressed juice bar, Nice Juicery.

Don't miss

Carlos Creek Winery just north of town serves flight of wines (the Minnesota Nice series leans sweet) that can pair with artisan pies from the adjacent Stoke Wood-Fired Pizza and craft brews from the Viking-themed 22 Northmen. For waterfront patio dining, two side-by-side restaurants overlooking Lake Le Homme Dieu reflect Alexandria's juxtaposition of old-school and new. Whether you choose Zorbaz' Macho Nachoz and beer-schlock aesthetic, Lure Lakebar's fresh seafood and sleek surrounds, you get a gorgeous view.


Miles and miles of water: There's Lake Bemidji, of course, and nearly 400 more lakes in the area.

Cursive script that spells 'Bemidji' in gold letters.

If you haven't been to Bemidji in a while, you might be surprised when you pull into this northwoods town about four hours north of the Twin Cities. Though it's all about water, this is no backwater.

Nestled on the southern tip of the 6,420-acre Lake Bemidji, it boasts a small-but-bustling downtown with shops and restaurants, a lakeside visitor center and a burgeoning south shore with three multistory hotels, plus a condo and apartment building. (Think Duluth's Canal Park only more compact.)

How beachy is it?

Bemidji is a true lake town, and we're not just talking about the one that that shares its name. Lake Bemidji alone has plenty of well-maintained beaches, including Diamond Point Park, which boasts open-air pavilions, playground and paddleboard, kayak and boat rentals and Lake Bemidji State Park, which offers all of the above as well as hiking and naturalist programs.

Town boosters claim there are 400 lakes in a 25-mile radius. If it's sand you want, they've got it. Seclusion? Walleye? They've got that, too.

Best non-beach fun

The town (pop. 14,574) is all about Paul Bunyan. Statues of the famed lumberjack and his blue-hued companion have stood guard over the lake (which townsfolk say was formed by his footprint) since 1937.

For a quick dose of quaint, check out the old-fashioned display case in the visitor center (it contains a kooky collection of Paul's cast-offs) or the old-style souvenir shops on Paul Bunyan Drive.

There's other recreation, too. The longest of the state trails, the Paul Bunyan State Trail offers 115 miles of hiking, biking and in-line skating. Or take the 16-mile Lake Bemidji loop.

What's cooking

No need to settle for a fast-food burger. This lakeside town boasts a wide range of offerings, including the upscale Italian restaurant Tutto Bene, Thai at Tara Bemidji and meat o' plenty at Fozzie's Smokin Bar BQ. For a hip, warehouse vibe and darn good food, check out the 209 Bar'seclectic menu, which boasts elote chicken nachos, Cajun shrimp penne and walleye tacos.

Don't miss

The Anishinaabe Art Festival, July 22-23 , features dancing and singing performances, kids activities and a fashion show as well as Indigenous artists selling their wares.


Birthplace of water skiing: With Lake Pepin's expanse as inspiration, it's no surprise that water skiing was invented in Lake City, a sport the town celebrates annually.

Cursive script that spells 'Lake Pepin' in gold letters.

Not many Minnesota lakes have a steady stream of barge traffic. But Lake Pepin isn't most lakes. It's a 22-mile stretch of the Mississippi River that starts just downriver of Red Wing, and its wide waters and dramatic bluffs collaborate to make it one Instagram-worthy moment after another. Lake Pepin is peppered with towns on both sides of the river — Bay City, Maiden Rock, Stockholm and Pepin in Wisconsin, and Frontenac, Lake City and Reads Landing in Minnesota — and all are worth exploring.

How beachy is it?

It's only fitting that Lake City, where water skiing was invented 100 years ago, is home to a gorgeous stretch of beach, at Hok-Si-La Municipal Park. A quieter alternative is a few miles upriver in Florence Township, near picturesque Old Frontenac.

Best non-beach fun

In Pepin, "Little House on the Prairie" enthusiasts have a home at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum & Gift Store (lauraingallspepin.com). Just up the road is another major Pepin attraction, the impressive Villa Bellezza Winery (villabellezza.com), where a restaurant, tasting room and vineyard are wrapped in the trappings of a small Italian village. For picnic enthusiasts, the top-of-the-bluffs grounds at Frontenac State Park (dnr.state.mn.us) boast thrilling Lake Pepin vistas. Before or after, be sure to get a look at Old Frontenac's priceless collection of Civil War-era houses.

Stockholm has a browsable cluster of shops, including the Palate (thepalate.net), which focuses on kitchenware and hosts a wine-and-cheese bar, and Scandihoo (scandihoo.com), which stocks Nordic housewares, apparel and gifts. Kids of all persuasions will enjoy exploring the toy assortment at the Three Little Men (thethreelittlemen.com) in Lake City. And no visit to the Lake Pepin area is complete without a stop at Cultural Cloth (culturalcloth.com) in Maiden Rock, where a stunning series of gallery-like rooms display a discerning array of handmade textiles from around the globe.

What's cooking

Enjoy seasonally inspired, multi-course Friday and Saturday dinners — and casual Sunday brunches — at Chef Shack Bay City (chefshackbaycity.com), the work of Twin Cities food truck pioneers Lisa Carlson and Carrie Summer. For house-brewed beer and beer-friendly gastropub fare — and a pleasant patio — head to Reads Landing Brewing Co. (rlbrewingco.com) in Reads Landing.

Don't miss

This year's big summer festival is Lake City's 50th annual Water Ski Days (lakecity.org). Set for June 23-26, the event will include a carnival, arts-and-crafts fair, concerts, a classic car show and water ski show teams. Across the lake, the 48th annual Stockholm Art Fair (stockholmartfair.org) will draw crowds on July 16.


Country music jamboree: Many of the genre's greats have performed at the annual WE Fest.

Cursive script that spells 'Detroit Lake' in gold letters.

The northwestern Minnesota destination that everyone shorthands to "DL" is a quintessential lake town, not only for its location on the shores of beautiful Detroit Lake but because the surrounding landscape is blessed with more than 400 lakes.

How beachy is it?

Splash in the sparkling waters of Detroit Lake at sandy, mile-long City Beach.

Best non-beach fun

Lively Washington Avenue, the city's main street, is lined with one-of-a-kind shops, including an independent bookstore (the just-opened Bluebird Books), a gathering place for sewing enthusiasts (Red Pine Quilt Shop) and a hangout for clothing/home decor enthusiasts (Beautiful Junque). Or bargain hunt at the weekend-only Shady Hollow Flea Market (shadyhollowfleamarket.com), located five miles south of town.

Bird watchers will love exploring the nearby Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge (fws.gov), and bicyclists will enjoy getting to know the recently opened Heartland State Trail, one of several multi-use trails in the region. For history buffs, look for the fall opening of the new Becker County Museum.

What's cooking?

A must is the 74-year-old Fireside (firesidedl.com), where the supper club-steakhouse-craft cocktails skill sets seamlessly overlap, and, yes, summer guests can arrive via boat. The accurately named Lakeside Tavern (lakesidetaverndl.com) brews its own beer. The lakeside location of Zorbaz — think, "Mexican beach party, with pizza" — was the chain's first; since then, 10 northern Minnesota outlets (zorbaz.com) have followed.

Don't miss:

The 86th annual Northwest Water Carnival (dljaycees.com) will run July 8-17, with a parade, beach bashes, demolition derby, ice cream social and more. In early August, the 2022 WE Fest (wefest.com) country music bash will feature headliners Jason Aldean, Miranda Lambert and Luke Bryan.


Land of 400 lakes: Nisswa is known for its many resorts on beautiful area lakes including Grand View Lodge.

Cursive script that spells 'Nisswa' in gold letters.

With miles of lakeshore and charm to spare, the central Minnesota resort town of Nisswa has been drawing summertime visitors for more than a century.

The tiny city of about 1,900 people boasts dozens of boutiques and several restaurants along its quintessential Main St., including the longtime favorite Zaisers variety store and relative newcomer Big Axe Brewing Company, where the front patio is framed by artist Samantha French's striking mural showing a swimmer about to burst above the water's surface.

How beachy is it?

The Nisswa area is dotted with lakes and is home to scores of lakefront resorts, from historic Grand View Lodge, with its stairway down to a long stretch of sandy Gull Lake shoreline, to Scandi-modern newcomer Nature Link on Clark Lake.

With more than 400 lakes within a 30-mile radius, Nisswa is also a major fishing destination. Nisswa Lake Park in town has public docks and boating access but no public sandy beach. Still, there's plenty of swimming — boaters will often just drop anchor in out in the middle and jump in.

Best non-beach fun

Every Wednesday afternoon in the summer for nearly 60 years running, this town fills with kids hoping to back a hard-shelled champion in the Nisswa Turtle Races.

Many townspeople thought the idea was a little too wacky back in 1963 when Howard Wallentine, then the owner of the Totem Pole shop on Main Street, came up with a plan to catch scores of turtles (they are released back to the wild after every racing season) and host the unpredictable events. But it has become a mainstay.

"We pull in about 2,000 people a week to race turtles," said Pam Dorion, president of the Nisswa Chamber of Commerce. "So he might have been far-fetched then, but it certainly is working out."

What's cooking?

Many of the resort kitchens (like Grand View Lodge's cozy Char steakhouse) turn out tasty fare and provide kids menus, while Big Axe's menu includes a terrific walleye special and cheese curds battered with their own Vapor Lake IPA. There's both a DQ and an A&W in town, plus two locations of local ice cream favorite The Chocolate Ox.

Don't miss

The paved Paul Bunyan State Trail — for bicyclists, walkers, hikers and inline skaters in the summer months — rolls right past the turtle track and through town. Lower Cullen Lake's shoreline and rest area is a quick pedal north from Nisswa.

Wandering in and out of the more than 50 shops on Nisswa's Main Street is a shopper's delight. You can find local artisan wares like hand-turned magic wands at the newly-reimagined Totem Pole marketplace, striped towels and other Turkish goods at Kisa, and, at 75-year-old mainstay Zaisers, everything from Adam Turman-printed dish towels to prankster kid favorites like "snappy gum" and fake dog poop, to an impressive selection of Birkenstock sandals.