Big Tub Lighthouse located in the Bruce Peninsula of Tobermory, Ontario, Canada. Image credit studioloco via Shutterstock.

8 Oldest Founded Towns To Visit in the Great Lakes Region

The Great Lakes are the most abundant freshwater lakes in all of North America. The oldest towns and cities surrounding the Great Lakes are the locations of the oldest civilizations in all of Canada and the United States. Rich in history, these beautiful lake towns and cities are worth the trip for water enthusiasts and history buffs alike.

Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, and Michigan

Sault Ste. Marie Bridge Crosses the St. Marys River from Canada to the United States
Sault Ste. Marie Bridge Crosses the St. Marys River from Canada to the USA. Image credit Randy Runtsch via Shutterstock.

The twin Saults sit between two Great Lakes on St. Mary’s River, Lake Superior, and Lake Huron, and are located a short drive away from Lake Michigan. Home to the Canadian Bushplane Museum, the Art Gallery of Algoma, and Hiawatha Highlands, a majestic outdoor landscape with miles of trees with leaves that light up the skyline with yellow, blue, and red hues. Sitting on the border between Canada and the United States and connected by the International Bridge, Sault Ste Marie has been a booming stopover for many Canadian travelers. Dating back to 1641 through records of Etienne Brule, the Sault is a massive trade and transportation hotspot that has left behind hundreds of historical locations and sites to enjoy. Take a walk along the boardwalk in Canada and look over to see the land of America just across the way. Sault Ste Marie is one of the oldest cities around the Great Lakes and is a space filled with culture, architecture, and history.

Mackinac Island, Michigan 

The Harbor at Mackinac Island with crystal blue waters, boats and a church steeple in the background
The Harbor at Mackinac Island. Image credit Michael Deemer via Shutterstock.

A gathering place for fishing, hunting, and trapping, Mackinac Island is one of the oldest cities in North America, dating back to 1620. A wonderful place to visit, Mackinac is part of the Upper Great Lakes and was once known as New France. French missionaries worked with the Indigenous people of the region to establish Mackinac as one of the great trade spaces for the boosting American economy. Visit the location of the famous Battle of Mackinac in the War of 1812 when the British and Americans fought which has become the oldest golf course in Michigan. An epicenter of the fur trade, vacationers, business people, and locals mixed and mingled to create an ethnically diverse and culturally rich community. Located between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, Mackinac features national parks, Victorian cottages, downtown boutiques, and culinary experiences. Famous for its fancy fudge, Mackinac is a vibrant city with diverse experiences that provide an inside look into the development of the surrounding areas and epic Great Lakes.

Port Colborne, Ontario

Aerial lake landscape, view of the Welland Canal, Lake Erie entrance; Port Colborne Ontario Canada
View of the Welland Canal, Lake Erie entrance in Port Colborne. Image credit SF photo via Shutterstock.

Enjoy Lake Eerie while visiting Port Colborne and watch the ships pass by in this city known for its views of the majestic Great Lake. Founded in 1833 and lying a few miles south of Welland, Port Colborne on the north shore of Lake Eerie began as a port of entry for ships. The first settlement was known as Gravelly Bay and was later renamed to honor the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. An example of one of the natural bays transformed for shipping along the massive great lakes, Port Colborne has evolved into a space for visitors from all over the world. The natural economic masterpiece is filled with opportunities to enjoy the waterfront, walk into the antique architecture and take in the cultural environment of one of the most important sites in the history of one of the oldest cities in the Great Lakes area.

Kingston, Ontario

Kingston Yacht Club at sunset on Lake Ontario
Kingston Yacht Club at sunset. Image credit Roland Shainidze via Shutterstock.

The First Nation lands named Katarowki, now called Kingston can be found on the Northeastern edge of Lake Ontario. Starting in the 1600s and settled in 1783, this “King’s Town” is the oldest city in the history of the Great Lakes Region. Holding extreme military importance throughout history, Kingston is home to Fort Henry and has taken advantage of the epic banks of Lake Ontario, home to the protected lake sturgeon fish, an at-risk species that migrate between Lake Ontario and the Atlantic Ocean. The city offers hundreds of opportunities to experience the wealth of Lake Ontario, which provides drinking water to over 9 million people. As the oldest area along with the diversity of habitats to visit along the lake, as well as the arts and culture opportunities to enjoy, makes Kingston, Ontario one of the best destinations that highlights the history of the Great Lakes that is available to visitors year-round.

Toledo, Ohio

Downtown Toledo Ohio is filled with multi colored architecture that sits alongside the Maumee River. Ducks float in the water and sit on the island.
Downtown Toledo, Ohio. Image credit Patricia Elaine Thomas via Shutterstock.

Located on the eastern shores of Lake Eerie, Toledo is known for architectural restorations, warmer climates, and coastal winds. First established in 1866, Toledo Ohio is an all-American city, located a short 14 miles up the river from east of Newport Harbor. Found on the Oregon Coast, the area boomed after the development of the railway and established a Golden Era for Toledo. Visit Fort Meigs to engage in an educational excursion of the War of 1812 by walking through the fully reconstructed fort and museum. Embrace the outdoors alongside beautiful historical landmarks, sites, and attractions such as The Battle of Fallen Timbers National Historic Site or Wabash Cannonball Trail. “Holy Toledo!” There is so much to do in this city that marks some of the oldest histories around the Great Lakes region.

Thunder Bay, Ontario

A rock formation called the Sea Lion, Sleeping Giant Provincial Park near Thunder Bay Ontario on Lake Superior.
Sleeping Giant Provincial Park near Thunder Bay, on Lake Superior. Image credit Don Wiens via Shutterstock.

Fort William and Port Arthur make up this old northwestern Ontario city located on the traditional lands of the Anishinaabeg, covered by the Robinson-Superior Treaty. Following herds of Caribou into the region, hunters discovered the area at the end of the Wisconsin glaciation over 10,000 years ago. There have been thousands of antiques and artifacts discovered in these areas and are housed in all of the nearby museums. The first contact with Europeans was had in the 17th century when the Ojibwa were the main residents living there. Named after the Thunderbird, Thunder Bay is rich with Indigenous history, Canadian culture, and ancient topographies. Watch Sleeping Giant from shore, and visit Fort William, the epicenter for fur trading before amalgamating with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821. Experience the colonial history of Canada by exploring the site where the concerns of the Ojibwa became the Robinson Superior Treaty, which was signed in 1850. One of the oldest cities in Canada and the most abundant land on the Great Lakes, the city of Thunder Bay is an opportunity to step back in time while remaining on land.

Manitoulin Island, Ontario

Aerial view of the Mississagi Lighthouse, Manitoulin Island, Ontario
Aerial view of the Mississagi Lighthouse, Manitoulin Island. Image credit Alex Dumitrescu via Shutterstock.

Located on Lake Huron, Manitoulin Island is one of the oldest areas surrounding the Great Lakes, spread over 2700 sq km of different islands. As Glaciers receded, they uncovered this rich and robust land smoothed over with exposed bedrock. The first known peoples were the Ojibwa, Odawa, and Potawatomi, and artifacts that have been found in the area date back to at least 10,000 B.C., making it one of the oldest sites found in Ontario, Canada. An ancient area, the canon of history often forgets the mighty roots of civilization held in North American landscapes. Manitoulin Island sheds light on the history of Canadian civilizations which were born and bred along the shores of the Great Lakes. Travel across Lake Huron from Manitoulin to Tobermory on the ChiCheemaun and stay for Haweaters Weekend, a culinary experience that celebrates the diverse cultures of settlers in the area. Manitoulin Island is world-renowned for its history and the culturally diverse environment that is a surreal experience for any visitor.

Tobermory, Ontario

People sunbathing and swimming at Flower Pot Island, Tobermory, Ontario, Canada.
Tourists on Flower Pot Island, Tobermory. Image credit AnjelikaGr via Shutterstock.

Meaning "well of Mary", Tobermory is known for its access to water. On the north end of the Bruce Peninsula of Lake Huron, Tobermory is a place that has been inhabited by man for over 3000 years with items from Iron Age forts dating back to 600 B.C. As one of the oldest and busiest towns on the Great Lakes, Tobermory is a scuba divers' dream with ancient shipwrecks and history from 500 ft above water to 8000 ft below. A popular space for kelp, the turquoise waters of this mermaid-like haven have been providing locals with the materials, food, and wildlife for centuries. Popular for its underwater life, there is much history to be enjoyed on the land in Tobermory as well. Check out deep water piers, large vessels and yachts, and seafood that is unlike any other in this oldest-found town in the Great Lakes region!


The North American fertile crescent, the Great Lakes provided communities with fresh drinking water, sensational wildlife, and nourishment for people and the land. The oldest towns and cities that surround the Great Lakes are abundant in geographical and personal histories, provide numerous opportunities for engagement and excitement, and offer sights and activities to remember for years to come.

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