Minnesota might be known for its many lakes or for the larger-than-life Mall of America. But this upper Midwestern state is full of unique places to explore, including countless small towns. Whether you’re an outdoor enthusiast looking to connect with nature or a lover of quirky roadside attractions in search of some fun, you’re sure to find a town that strikes your fancy here. From the North Shore of Lake Superior to the Wisconsin border and everywhere in between, Minnesota is full of smaller communities just waiting to be explored.
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The next time you’re looking for a new Midwest adventure, consider checking out one of these must-visit small towns in Minnesota.
Grand Marais, Minnesota
If you’re planning an adventure to the North Shore of Lake Superior then Grand Marais needs to be on your to-visit list. This small harbor town only has about 1,500 residents, but is a popular place for tourists no matter the season.
Start your day with a coffee at Java Moose and some sweet treats at World’s Best Donuts. There’s no shortage of good food in this town with eateries of all kinds. Take in a scenic view at Artist’s Point and be sure to stop by the Grand Marais Lighthouse. Outdoor enthusiasts will especially enjoy this small town, which has easy access to both the Sawtooth Mountains and Superior National Forest.
Head to the home of Paul Bunyan for an outdoorsy adventure. Known as “Minnesota’s playground,” Brainerd has no shortage of ways to experience nature from hiking and kayaking to high ropes courses and rock climbing.
With its location along the Mississippi River, this scenic town in central Minnesota provides a beautiful backdrop to explore. Hike the Paul Bunyan State Trail or wander the Northland Arboretum. Then experience Paul Bunyan Land and learn about Minnesota’s native son in a variety of ways, including a 26-foot-tall talking Paul Bunyan statue.
New Prague, Minnesota
Head southwest of the Twin Cities for a getaway in the Czech hamlet of New Prague. This charming town is the perfect place to relax and unwind.
Enjoy traditional favorites in a neighborhood diner atmosphere at Ettlin’s Cafe and pick up any pastry you could want at Lau’s Bakery. Sip on something local at Giesenbraü Bier Co. or Next Chapter Winery. Then grab dinner at The Local 105 for a fresh take on classic favorites or 1319 Woodfire Tavern for delectable wood-fired pizzas.
Located in northern Minnesota, Ely is a beautiful gateway town to the Boundary Waters. Shop along Sheridan Street in downtown Ely and grab a bite to eat at one of the community’s lauded restaurants.
Next, get your animal fix by heading to the International Wolf Center or North American Bear Center. Both of these organizations provide educational programming and great opportunities to see these animals up close.
There’s no shortage of outdoor adventure in Ely from hiking and cycling to canoeing and even sled dog adventures.
Some claim that Nordic explorers were in the Alexandria area as early as the Middle Ages. But this historical controversy only makes this small Minnesota more charming. To learn about this piece of local lore, head to the Runestone Museum. Don’t forget to snap a photo with Big Ole, America’s largest Viking, while you’re there too.
Alexandria has a vibrant downtown area teeming with shops, restaurants and more. Wander the boutiques and antiques stores there before grabbing a drink at Copper Trail Brewing Co.
Grand Rapids, Minnesota
Most well-known as the hometown of actress Judy Garland, Grand Rapids is a charming town located along the Mississippi River. Named for the river’s rapids that made early steamboat travel a challenge, this small town offers scenic outdoor activities alongside rich local history.
Learn about Grand Rapids’ leading lady with a visit to the Judy Garland Museum. Then grab a pint at Klockow Brewing before diving into the area’s logging history at the Forest History Center.
Located in southeastern Minnesota, Lanesboro is a tiny town with a big outdoor presence. Lanesboro is most commonly known for the Root River State Trail, which takes cyclists along 42 miles of paved trail along the bluffs of the Root River Valley.
This community also has a large Amish population with plentiful businesses to visit and even a self-guided Amish Backroads audio tour.
In Stillwater, you’ll discover a beautifully historic downtown on the banks of the St. Croix River. Just 30 miles northeast of Minneapolis, this small community is a popular day trip or weekend getaway for travelers from the Twin Cities.
Known as the Birthplace of Minnesota, this river town is full of local history as well as boutiques and unique local eateries. Grab a drink at Lift Bridge Brewing Co. or Saint Croix Vineyards. Then enjoy a sweet treat from one of Stillwater’s many shops like MN Nice Cream or Candyland.
About the Guest Blogger
Megan Bannister is a freelance writer and blogger at Olio in Iowa-based in Des Moines, Iowa. When she’s not sampling and writing about food, Megan enjoys visiting unique destinations, roadside attractions, and “world’s largest” things across the Midwest and beyond. Her book, Iowa Supper Clubs, highlights classic eateries past and present from around the state.