The Great Lakes region in North America stretches across two countries, including eight U.S. states and the Canadian province of Ontario. This region also largely overlaps with the Great Lakes megalopolis, the largest collection of metropolitan areas on the continent. While the major urban cities like Chicago may be the financial centers and business hubs, the region's heart truly lies in the Great Lakes' smaller communities. These adorable small towns of the Great Lakes offer a charming alternative to the busy atmosphere of the capital cities nearby.
Grand Haven, Michigan
This picturesque beach town found along Lake Michigan is known for its stunning sunsets. Walk along the soft, sandy beaches of Grand Haven or the wooden boardwalk before sundown for an unforgettable view. Take a free ride on a teal blue or tornado red Lakeshore Trolley. These vintage vehicles were retrofitted to shepherd tourists between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekend. Drop by the Grand Haven or Spring Lake farmers markets for piping hot kettle corn and locally grown fruit. Grand Haven has well-paved roads and numerous trail systems running throughout the town. Bring a bike or rent one in town to explore the many attractions. The nearby Grand River is easily accessed from the town and is easily traversed by kayak or stand-up paddleboard. There is no shortage of aquatic activities here. The waters surrounding Grand Haven are chock full of delicious chinook salmon and lake trout. To cap off the evening, find Grand Haven Musical Fountain. This attraction performs a 25-minute light show on summer nights with water jets accompanied by LEDs.
Found in Northwest Indiana, the town of Chesterton is an undeniable Great Lakes gem, thanks to its location and unique geography. Chesterton is only one hour from Chicago by car and only just inland from the lake. Being so close, the water's influence on the town is unmistakable. Only 10 minutes from downtown Chesterton by car are the Indiana Dunes, where the Lake Michigan surf has shaped the environment for thousands of years. Fifteen thousand acres of yellow sand swept with long-bladed beach grasses are there to be explored. In town, there is plenty to do as well. Chesterton's European Market, which boasts having up to 150 produce and artisanal bread vendors, starts in May and is widely regarded as one of the region's best. Visit the many boutique shops in Chesterton's historic downtown area, such as the old-style confectionery and an antiquarian bookstore specializing in rare manuscripts and first-editions established in 1882.
For several reasons, this Great Lakes icon was called the "Best Town Ever" by Outside Magazine. As the gateway to Minnesota's North Shore, vacationers across the country are drawn to this former boomtown. Duluth is known for its grand estates built at the logging industry's height and the unmatched access to Lake Superior. The 135-foot-high aerial lift bridge connects the town to Minnesota Point and raises itself numerous times daily to allow passing ships to travel beneath it. There is also Glensheen Mansion, the most visited historic home in the state, with 12 acres to its credit, gardens, and nearly 39 rooms. Train enthusiasts will want to hop aboard the North Shore Scenic Railroad to ride along historic Duluth, the shore of Lake Superior, and into the north woods. Animal lovers should visit the Great Lakes Aquarium on the Duluth waterfront. Two stories of creatures await inside, including otters, trout, gigantic sturgeon, and a bald eagle.
The coastal wetlands and manicured beaches of the Lake Erie shore in Ohio are a significant tourist draw, as are waterfront towns like Marblehead. Found on the southern coast of Lake Erie, this picturesque town of 20,000 has one of the best lighthouses in the country. Influencers and shutterbugs will want to snap a few pictures of this gorgeous white structure. The Marblehead Lighthouse was built to show mariners the entrance to Sandusky Bay, the safest harbor on journeys shipping goods between Cleveland and Toledo. An estimated 25,000 people climb the lighthouse each year, and it offers unparalleled views of the lake. Marblehead has a beautiful atmosphere and plenty of outdoor seating. Rocky Point Winery has a fantastic selection of beers and wines to relax after walking across Lake Point Park. Anglers will enjoy the sheer amount of fishing opportunities available in Marblehead. Sign up for a chartered fishing expedition and cast away.
Sandwiched between Lake Michigan and Lake Leelanau, Leland is true to its fishing village roots. The town can sometimes feel entirely made of the boardwalk, and the sound of tied-off boats lolling is never far away. Small but beautiful, Leland is the definition of a coastal town and is easily walkable. Waterfront lodging is plentiful and offers a magnificent way to start the day. Visit the collection of preserved shanties known as Fishtown to learn about the town's history. Leland's roots are inarguably connected to the Great Lakes and the maritime culture they produced. Whaleback Natural Area is wonderful and comes highly recommended for nature lovers. Forty acres of hiking trails and scenic splendor await visitors to Whaleback who climb the bluff and are greeted with astounding views of Lake Michigan. Visit the Manitou Islands to find old-growth forests, dunes, a lighthouse, and plenty of spots to camp.
Grand Marais, Minnesota
This former fishing village turned current bohemian retreat for artists comes highly recommended. Budget Travel Magazine called it "America's Coolest Small Town," Outside Magazine put the town on its Top 10 Beach Getaways list. Grand Marais is situated near the border with Ontario and sits between the Grand Lake Superior and the jagged Sawtooth Mountains. Learn how to basket making, canoe building, blacksmithing, and more at the North House Folk School. Stop by the famed Angry Trout Cafe for a wild shrimp sandwich on the lakefront. Visit Loon Lake Lodge for some more delicious eating. The lodge can be found on the Gunflint Trail, a 55-mile path between the town proper to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where excellent options are available for marine exploration. Over 1,100 lakes can be found in the area and are explorable by canoe.
Listed as one of the "The 23 Best Places to Go in the U.S. in 2023" by Conde Nast Traveler, the smallest city in Wisconsin punches well above its weight when it comes to fun and adventure on the shores of Lake Superior. Some of the best kayaking on the continent can be found in Bayfield. The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore found nearby seems almost designed to be explored by kayak; This 21-island archipelago contains hiking trails, lighthouses, and an extensive network of sea caves. On land, there are over a dozen orchards around Bayfield where apples, pears, and other produce can be bought. Many events are held in Bayfield during the summer months, including the free Concerts by the Lake. From bluegrass to rock, there is something for everyone in Bayfield.
The Great Lakes region is a vast expanse of natural wonder in the Midwest. Together, these lakes span nearly 100,000 square miles, called "vast inland seas" by the EPA. This incredible region is also a welcome relief for Midwesterners far from either coasts and longing for a beachfront vacation. With nearly 10,000 miles of combined coastline, the Great Lakes region provides a taste of seaside life in the American heartland. Kayak between island archipelagos of sandstone rock, hike white dunes, and summit lighthouses within a stone's throw of the water. Visit the Great Lakes for family-friendly towns, untamed scenic beauty, and everything in between.