Minnesota's small towns often revolve around the abundance of freshwater and minerals for mining. Familiar holidaymakers know exactly what this great state can offer. From wondrous stargazing and summer days on canoes and jet skis to tree swings that fling you into seemingly bottomless deep ends, a vacay outside Minnesota's big cities can revive the soul. Take yourself for solo hikes and artsy vibes, or go with some company and spend nights around barbecues, howling into the wind like local wolves.
Ely is a Minnesota favorite. Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is America's most popular national wilderness area, with thousands of lakes. It's a magnet for water sports enthusiasts and dark sky gazers. If you're keen on a road trip, do the Echo Trail and pick blueberries along the way. You can also support the conservation work at the International Wolf Center or visit the North American Bear Center during the warmer months.
Minnesota's North Shore is home to an art-loving town with a penchant for Northern Lights displays. To stand a chance of seeing the aurora borealis, you'll have to book a frosty winter trip. But celestial displays aren't the only attraction. Lutsen Resort is the best ski resort in the state, and summer is a blast with golfing, sailing, and other outdoorsy opportunities for R&R at Gunflint Trail. Dockside Fish Market will fill your belly with the freshest Lake Superior catches, and dessert has to be World's Best Donuts. You can go gallery hopping, take classes and attend seminars at Grand Marais Art Colony or North House Folk School.
If your ideal vacation involves tubing with snacks in your pockets, you'll be more than satisfied with Lanesboro. This town in southeastern Minnesota is known as the "Bed and Breakfast Capital of Minnesota." Visitors love staying over and spending time on or near the Root River. The Root River State Trail is fab for cycling, and when your muscles are sore, you can sink into a seat at the Commonweal community theatre.
This town is about an hour from Minneapolis and got its name from a Dakota chief—his descendants still live here today and are known as the Prairie Island Indian Community. Artisanal products abound in Red Wing. You may have heard of Red Wing Shoes and its leather boots. Red Wing Pottery has an even longer legacy, and its clay and stoneware pieces make beautiful and practical souvenirs. There's an artists' residency at Anderson Center at Tower View, and between Barn Bluff, Sorin's Bluff, Lake Pepin, and Bay Point Park, nature can be your muse.
If you love shopping, you'll enjoy the stores in Nisswa—they sell unique items like moccasins, log furniture, art, trinkets for gifts, and novelty candy from shops like The Chocolate Ox. Take a break from swiping your card at the Wednesday turtle races, or relax on a Gull Lake yacht. Nisswa has a rural feel with many lakeside resorts, and Lower Cullen lake is also worth a visit for paddle boating or kayaking. You can also put dog sledding and horseback riding on your agenda.
New Ulm is as German as it sounds. This charmingly old-fashioned town celebrates all things Bavarian during an annual summer event. There's polka dancing, dog racing, mandatory beer, and the kind of food that's ubiquitous during Oktoberfest. You can camp or simply hike in Flandrau State Park or chill out in German Park. When you're done communing with nature, check out the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame, which pays homage to Judy Garland, Prince, Bob Dylan, and other icons that hail from the North Star State.
Stillwater is as cute as can be. It's referred to as "the birthplace of Minnesota" and is one of the state's oldest and arguably most pretty towns. Visitors of all ages savor getaways here because there's history and architecture to explore and green spaces to meander through. You must do a Trolley Tour if it's your first time.
Staples is all about sweet corn stands, the long fishing pier at Dower Lake, and a longstanding arts scene. Put this small town on your Minnesota shortlist if you relish the simple life during your hard-earned breaks. The Central MN Barn Quilt Trail is a treat—take selfies with all the art as you make your way from point A to point B.
Hibbing is essential for music fans—Bob Dylan grew up here, and you can gain some insight into the life of one of the greatest songwriters of all time in his boyhood abode. The Greyhound bus was also founded in this small town full of mines. Duluth is about an hour and a half away.
What's in Austin, Minnesota, you might ask? Well, quirk after quirk. There's the 15-foot-tall Buffy the Cow. And then there's the SPAM Museum, where you can learn everything you've ever wanted to know about canned spam for free. The S. P. Elam Residence has no connection to Hormel Food headquarters and was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
There's a small town on Lake Minnetonka's Northeast shore that's a mere 11 miles from Minneapolis. It is three square miles of some of the most pricey real estate in all of Minnesota. The privately-held behemoth, Cargill, is based here, and you can practically smell the money in the air. With a getaway in Wayzata, you'll be able to have fun all year round. The frozen lake becomes an ice skating and ice fishing spot, and Bellecour baked goods will warm you up afterward. Mark the Chilly Open on your calendar—it's an annual event where hundreds of participants use hockey sticks and golf clubs to hit tennis balls on nine-hole courses on the solid lake.
If New Ulm is all about German culture, then Lindstrom pivots to Scandinavia. This small town's Swedish heritage dates back to the mid-19th century when Daniel Lindstrom settled here. Visit Franconia Sculpture Park, the Chisago Lakes area, and get some decor pieces from Scandi-inspired Glädje or Lindstrom Antique Mall. Make a trip to nearby Taylor Falls to ride the riverboat and try the viticulture, or do one of the many trails in St. Croix. You must take pics of the Swedish Coffee Pot Tower before leaving.
Population-wise, you don't often get towns that are smaller than Tofte—its 200-plus residents are used to visitors, though. The town is a launchpad for overnight biking in the Superior National Forest, and adventurers come to hike and explore sea caves too. The amazing Waves of Lake Superior Spa in Bluefin Bay can give you a rubdown on your return.
Harmony sure sounds promising, and you'll be happy to know that the "Biggest Little Town in Southern Minnesota" delivers on its name. The entire population could fit into a high school auditorium, and many locals are Amish. Harmony is a pleasant town with farms and stores to buy handmade items such as jams and quilts. Niagara Cave is a must-see with its ancient fossils, underground river, and waterfall, but it's only open between April and October.
Many of Pipestone's buildings were constructed with local materials. Going further back, Native Americans would use the hard red clay to make prayer pipes, hence the town's name. Pipestone National Monument is considered sacred, and you can discover more about Native American culture on a short trip. You'll see the 20-ft Winnewissa Waterfall, too, after a 3/4-mile hike.