Downtown street on Mackinac Island, Michigan. Image credit Alexey Stiop via Shutterstock

6 Most Inviting Towns in the Great Lakes

The Great Lakes region refers to the string of States along the North-Central border of the continental US, along with the Canadian Province of Ontario, which lie on the shores of the five Great Lakes, known as Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, Lake Michigan, and Lake Ontario. The Great Lakes, which include three of the five largest lakes on the planet, have been the home of numerous Indigenous North American peoples ever since the lakes were first carved out of the Earth via glacial activity thousands of years ago. These include the Haudenosaunee, the Anishinaabe, and the Huron-Wendat, among many others.

The American States that have shorelines along one of these Great Lakes are Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. The shores of these lakes are beautiful, especially in the summer, and there are many inviting communities for those looking to stay and experience them.

Mackinac Island, Michigan

Main Street inMackinac Island, Michigan.
Main Street inMackinac Island, Michigan. Image credit Michael Deemer via Shutterstock

Located on an island in the channel that connects Lake Michigan to Lake Huron, on the Huron side, Mackinac Island is almost more of a summer resort park than a true town, with only 500 year-round residents. However, after May 1st every year, the town's many hotels, restaurants, shops, cafes, and tourist attractions hire hundreds of seasonal staff members, and the summer colony comes alive. The town is filled with preserved historical buildings that reflect the town's origin as a trading post during the fur trade, as well as a site of two battles during the War of 1812. Over half of the island's shorelines are preserved as a state park, and hiking and cycling trails lace all across the community.

The island is also home to an annual Art Festival, a nautical boat race, and a Fudge Festival to celebrate the signature fudge for which the island is historically known. For any paganism enthusiasts, there is also a celebration of Epona, a horse-goddess known to the Gauls and later incorporated into the Roman pantheon. There are tours of the island’s many stables, and the horses are given blessings.

Another key aspect of the island, which many consider a primary factor in attracting tourists, is that it is almost completely free of automobiles, save for fire, police, and medical emergency vehicles. As a result, the town’s infrastructure is not built around the accessibility of cars but people, making the entire village inviting and easily walkable or cyclable.

Port Hope, Ontario

A view of the Ganaraska River in downtown Port Hope, Ontario.
Ganaraska River in downtown Port Hope, Ontario. Image credit John Fader via

Sitting along the northern shore of Lake Ontario lies the town of Port Hope. It is a beautiful historic town that retains much of its Victorian architecture. Its downtown street is so well preserved, in fact, that it is known as the best-preserved 19th-century streetscape in all of Ontario, with a higher per-capita rate of preservation than any other town in Canada. The town also sits on the mouth of the Ganaraska River, which is the site of an annual salmon run that attracts fisherfolk from all over.

The town is home to several art galleries and a vibrant assortment of shops and boutiques on its downtown street, along with Canada’s last "atmospheric theatre." Port Hope hosts an annual jazz festival and an agricultural fair in the fall. There are a number of historic hotels, one of which overlooks the Ganaraska River, two beaches, and a drive-in movie theater. War-history enthusiasts will also appreciate that the town is known as one of the primary suppliers of uranium for the Manhattan Project during WWII.

Marquette, Michigan

Aerial view of the port along Lake Superior in Marquette, Michigan.
Overlooking the port along Lake Superior in Marquette, Michigan.

Marquette is a major port on the shoreline of Lake Superior and is the largest city on Michigan’s upper peninsula. It is known for shipping iron ore from the Marquette iron range but has also gained popularity as a prominent recreation and welcoming tourism community. It is host to a number of art festivals, a music festival, the Blueberry Festival, a dog-sled race, a ski marathon, and a beer-brewing festival. The community is home to a number of art galleries, historical museums, and even an old lighthouse, which is available for tours.

The town takes pride in the walkability of its community, which also gives way to a number of parks, beaches, and trailheads. Marquette is also a prime winter destination, as its hilly terrain makes for some ideal skiing and snowboarding when the ground is layered with snow, which is often, as Marquette is known as the third-snowiest location in the contiguous United States.

Grand Marais, Minnesota

View of the US Coast Guard Station along Lake Superior in Grand Marais, Minnesota.
US Coast Guard Station along Lake Superior in Grand Marais, Minnesota.

On the northern shore of Lake Superior’s nose in Minnesota lies the inviting town of Grand Marais. Like Marquette, Grand Marais is primarily famed as a winter tourism destination due to the weather generated by the colossal Lake Superior. However, a number of cultural events take place over the course of the year, such as the Fisherman’s Picnic, which takes place in early August. The community gathers along the shore for a massive seafood potluck featuring fried herring and other fish from Superior’s waters.

October also sees an annual festival known as Moose Madness, in which the local moose population is celebrated through family-based games and other events. There is also an Arts festival in July and both Summer and Winter Solstice festivals.

Ephraim, Wisconsin

The picturesque town of Ephraim in the fall.
The picturesque town of Ephraim in the fall.

For those looking for a quieter and quainter getaway along one of the Great Lakes, the village of Ephraim, Wisconsin, which rests along Michigan’s Green Bay, could be perfect. Home to less than 500 people, but with many lakeside resorts, rental cottages, inns, and even nearby campgrounds, the small town is very welcoming to visitors. The town sits on the eastern edge of Peninsula State Park, and the town itself contains the Ephraim wetlands preserve, which is laced with trails for hikers and nature enthusiasts. The state park is also home to a beach and several campgrounds, which see a lot of activity during the summer.

In June, the town also hosts a Scandinavian Summer Solstice festival known as Fyn Bal, during which bonfires are lit along the town’s beach to drive away the spirit of the "Winter Witch."

Put-in-Bay, Ohio

Austrian Beer Garden on South Bass Island in Put-In-Bay, Ohio
Austrian Beer Garden on South Bass Island in Put-In-Bay, Ohio. Image credit LukeandKarla.Travel via Shutterstock

Much like Ephraim, Put-in-Bay is an incredibly small village, having a population under 200 people, but with a disproportionate number of resorts and other rental-dwellings for visitors. Unlike Ephraim, however, Put-in-Bay is an island community, sitting among the waters of Lake Erie. The town is known for its historical significance, having played a role in the War of 1812, much like Mackinac Island, which also sees tourism as its primary industry. Most of the landmass is reserved for its park-space, with the Scheef East Point Nature Preserve, the Oak Point State Park, and the South Bass Island State Park making up the majority of the island, there is also a cave known as Crystal Cave which offers tours. There are trails all over the island, campgrounds for those wishing to spend their nights outdoors, and a number of hotels for those who don’t.

Due to the large bodies of water, the region around the Great Lakes offers a great deal of climate diversity, providing beauty and an abundance of recreational activities no matter the season. As a result, this great breadth of land and water boasts inviting lake-side communities for everyone, from Mackinac Island, Michigan, to Put-in-Bay, Ohio.

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