The Two Harbors Light Station is the oldest operating lighthouse in the US state of Minnesota. Image credit Dennis MacDonald via Shutterstock

7 Coolest Small Towns in Minnesota for a Summer Vacation

If you're looking for one place to spend your summer vacation in, you can't go wrong with Minnesota. This Upper Midwest state, which borders Canada and Lake Superior, is known for having 10,000 lakes. Lake Itasca, one of Minnesota's glacial lakes, is the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Although all of these bodies of water alone are reason enough to visit Minnesota, the state also boasts more than its fair share of cool small towns to check out during your trip.


Aerial view of downtown street view of Ely, Minnesota.
Downtown street view of Ely, Minnesota.

Located in far northern Minnesota on the banks of Shagawa Lake, Ely is a cool town to visit during the hot summer months. Ely also sits on the edge of the Boundary Waters, a large wilderness area filled with wildlife, pristine waterways, and miles of trails. 

Spend a day or two traversing the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, or spend a few nights at one of the many campsites. Rent a canoe and explore some of the area's 1,500 miles of waterways. If you prefer to stay on land, hike the Kawishiwi Falls Trails, which is 1.5 miles long that culminates with a stunning waterfall view. If arts and culture are more your thing, stop into the Dorothy Molter Museum, a local historical resident known for her homemade root beer. You can also spend some time at the Ely Folk School, which is a do-it-yourself outpost for local traditional crafts.

Red Wing

Overlooking Red Wing is a Community in Southern Minnesota on the Mississippi River
Red Wing, Minnesota on the Mississippi River.

Nestled on the mighty Mississippi River, the city of Red Wing beckons visitors to explore its waterfront, whether you're on a riverboat cruise or eating at a local restaurant. You can also get out on the river via a canoe, kayak, or other type of personal watercraft. If you're a history buff, check out Red Wing's Aliveo Military Museum, which has exhibits displaying artifacts from the Civil War, WWI, and WWII, the Cold War, and the Persian Gulf War, among other battles. The Pottery Museum of Red Wing will also appeal to art lovers with over 6,000 pieces of vintage pottery, stoneware, and dinnerware. 

Outdoor enthusiasts won't want to miss the city's many cool parks, including AP Anderson Park, the Billings-Tomfor Conservation Area, and Bay Point Park, situated on the Mississippi River. Spend the day at Memorial Park, which offers sweeping views of the river, and both Minnesota and Wisconsin bluffs. 

New Ulm

Aerial View of the German Inspired New Ulm, Minnesota
Overlooking New Ulm, Minnesota.

If you're looking for a well-rounded vacation experience, don't miss the cool city of New Ulm. Located on both the Minnesota and Cottonwood Rivers in the southern portion of the state, New Ulm has something to please everyone in your family or travel group. Nature lovers can rent a kayak or canoe and paddle down one of the rivers, taking in local wildlife such as eagles and deer. As another option, spend the day at the diverse Flandrau State Park. If hiking is your thing, check out the Hermann Monument, which sits high atop the Minnesota River Valley and offers stunning views.

Another cool thing to do in New Ulm is tour the August Schell Brewing Company, sampling several types of local beer. Be sure to fit in a trip to the Harkin Store, which dates back to 1870 when the city's riverboat business was booming. It's now a museum and showcases several artifacts from that time period. 

Two Harbors

Jetty at Two Harbors, Minnesota, on a sunny day.
Jetty at Two Harbors, Minnesota, on a sunny day.

Nestled along the shores of Lake Superior, the city of Two Harbors is in the state's northern region. The city is home to Minnesota's oldest operating lighthouse, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. 

While staying in Two Harbors, you'll be within close proximity of some of Minnesota's most beautiful parks. Spend a day exploring the Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, Gooseberry Falls State Park, Tettegouche State Park, or Cascade River State Park. Be sure to check out one of the area's several waterfalls during your hike. Cool off at Agate Bay Beach on a hot summer day, or take a boat ride from the pier. Explore the Two Harbors Lighthouse Museum, sample local beer at the Castle Danger Brewery, or charter a boat at North Coast Charter Fishing. 


The beautiful Minnesota town of Winona.
Overlooking the Minnesota town of Winona.

Located on both the Mississippi River and scenic Lake Winona, the city of Winona is abundant with outdoor recreational, cultural, and historic experiences. Downtown Winona adds to the city's cool factor by boasting over 100 sites on the National Register of Historic Places.

Nature lovers will enjoy visiting the area, as it's home to five diverse state parks. Check out native wildlife, take a nature hike, have a peaceful picnic, rent a boat at one of them, or spend some time at the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge or the Trempealeau National Refuge. Explore the city's rich culture at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum or attend the Great River Shakespeare Festival. Other annual events include the Minnesota Beethoven Festival, the Frozen River Film Festival, and Steamboat Days.


Downtown street in Victoria, Minnesota
Downtown street in Victoria, Minnesota.

Surrounded by lakes just outside of Minneapolis, the quaint city of Victoria is a vacation destination by itself. Situated directly on Lake Minnetonka, Victoria is another cool place to spend the summer.

Combining the best of both small-town life and suburban amenities, this city is brimming with water adventures, parks, and shopping and cultural opportunities. Explore one or more of Victoria's 32 parks or 18 playgrounds, enjoying miles of trails, abundant green space, and shorelines. Wasserman Lake Preserve is a beautiful place to spend a few hours. Take a bike ride, hike, or rent or bring your own boat to get the most out of the natural spaces.

Grand Marais

The beautiful town of Grand Marais, Minnesota.
Harbor in the town of Grand Marais, Minnesota.

Artsy and eclectic, the city of Grand Marais was named "America's Coolest Town" by Budget Travel Magazine and "Next Great Adventure Town" by National Geographic Adventure Magazine. Explore all that the area offers by spending your summer vacation in Grand Marais.

Spend a day walking around downtown, where you can check out Artist Point and the waterfront, shop at unique boutiques and art galleries, and sample local coffee and cuisine. Visit the city's lighthouse, which was built in 1922 and offers scenic views of Lake Superior. Explore Lake Superior by kayak or canoe by renting a boat at a local outfitter. You can paddle around bluffs and several small islands while viewing wildlife in its natural surroundings. Tap into your creative side by taking a class at the North House Folk School.

No matter what region of the state you find yourself in during the summer, there is a cool small town to kick back and spend a memorable time in. Whether you want to explore lakes, rivers, and state parks, or the local arts scene, you will find it in Minnesota.

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