Minnesota probably isn't on your bucket list of must-see destinations. And if you live here, you might not think of it as a traveler's paradise. But there are tons of small towns across the state that are well worth a visit.
Sure, you won't find them on the cover of Afar or National Geographic Traveler. They don't have luxury resorts or five-star hotels. (Well, most of them, anyway.)
What they do have is small-town charm, natural beauty and the Minnesota-nice spirit that makes our state so irresistible. You won't regret making one of these your next getaway.
The gateway to the boundary waters, Ely is surrounded by the quiet wilderness of the North Woods. Even if you're not the type to rough it with a tent and canoe for five days straight, there's plenty to see and do here. Make some furry friends at the world-renowned International Wolf Center (or the North American Bear Center on the other side of town). Better yet, plan a trip for mid-September to watch the canoe-portaging marathon - you'll feel grateful to be on the sidelines as participates lug canoes on their shoulders for the entire 26.2 miles.
This "Big Little Town" in southern Minnesota is as quaint as it sounds. In the heart of Amish country (it's home to the state's largest population), you're bound to see plenty of horse-drawn buggies around town - as well as plenty of Amish wares. Stop in the historic Village Depot or take a peek at the handcrafted furniture at R & J's Wood Goods. With so many unique shops in one spot, it's the perfect opportunity to buy Christmas gifts for your entire family.
Not into shopping? Bring your bike and pedal through the picturesque farmland on the Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail. Or take a tour through the nearby Niagara Cave, where you can gawk at a 60-foot underground waterfall.
As the frigid setting for the FX series Fargo, Bemidji enjoys a lot of name recognition these days. (The show was actually filmed in Canada, though.) You'll hear plenty of "yahs," "sures" and "you betcha's" around here. You'll also find the iconic sculpture of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Whether you're staying for the weekend or just passing through, you can't pass up this larger-than-life photo op.
Despite its reputation as a party town, St. Cloud has so much more to offer than just its college scene. You can stroll the peaceful Munsinger Gardens on the shores of the Mississippi or take a trolley ride through the historic downtown. In the summer, bring your swimsuit. You won't want to miss Quarry Park, where you'll find several flooded old rock quarries that are now swimming holes. Bring your inflatable flamingo, too: all your worries will drift away as you float in the serene turquoise water.
You may as well call this Minnesota's own Little Germany. The home of Schell's Beer, it's named for the Gothic town on the Danube River. You'll see the German influence in the cute downtown storefronts.
Every fall, the town goes all-out for Oktoberfest, with festivities that have been ranked the best in the nation. So pull up your lederhosen and prepare to say "prost!"
A nostalgic getaway in the shadow of the suburbs, walk down the main street on any summer weekend and you'll find yourself elbowing throngs of tourists. It's a favorite among MSPers - and for good reason.
With rows of stone and brick storefronts, the main drag is like a movie set from a bygone era. You'll see traces of the lumberyards and manufacturing plants that were once the town's lifeblood.
Fun fact: The entire 11-block downtown district is on the National Register of Historic Places.
From the Objiwe word for "iron," this old mining settlement is in the heart of the Mesabi Range. Here you can take advantage of outdoor activities year-round. Bust out your skis at Giants Ridge in the winter. Play a round of disc golf with friends in the spring. There are also two regular golf courses — the Quarry and the Legend. Take a plunge in one of the region's many refreshing glacial lakes in the summer. And put your skills to the test on some hardcore mountain-biking runs in the fall.
Don't forget to grab a pic with "Honk," the adorable memorial to the real-life moose who took up residence here during the winter of 1935. (His adventures around town are the subject of an award-winning children's book).
There's a reason it's been named America's Coolest Small Town. If you haven't been to this northern gem, you're seriously missing out.
A quaint fishing village on the shores of Lake Superior, just 45 minutes south of the border, you won't run out of gorgeous photo ops here. Hike out to Artist's Point - a weathered, rocky peninsula with stunning views of the shoreline. Walk the breakwater to the historic lighthouse. Take a short drive up to Pincushion Mountain, where you'll find a panoramic perspective of the Sawtooth Mountains.
There are plenty of good eats here, too. Start with breakfast at World's Famous Donuts downtown - it lives up to its moniker! Later, grab a bite at the award-winning Angry Trout while feeding the ducks from the waterfront deck. When the weather's decent, you can't pass up Sydney's Frozen Custard. Enjoy your Mint-Fudge Mountain on the beach out back, or climb up to the rooftop patio for a bird's-eye view of Artist's Point. And, of course, you can't leave without having sampled the famous Sven & Ole's Pizza. (Grab a bumper sticker on your way out - you'll start seeing them everywhere!)
Home to the illustrious footwear factory, this river town on the Wisconsin border is well worth a weekend visit any time of year. You'll find plenty to do here in the snow and sunshine - and plenty of opportunities to fill up your friends' Instagram feeds with the scenic backdrop of river bluffs. The best known is Barn Bluff, the town's iconic landmark. It's a short drive (and steep hike) from the charming downtown.
A riverside whistle-stop with loads of charm, it ranks among the oldest towns in Minnesota. From the freeway, the Little Falls exit is easy to breeze on by. But, trust me, you won't regret a spontaneous detour to this hidden hideaway.
Best-known for being Winona Ryder's namesake, this charming college town is nestled on the riverbank in the heart of Bluff Country. You'll find endless outdoor things to do here. Enjoy the spectacular views from Garvin Heights Park (the perfect spot for a smooch with your s/o!) Take a plunge in Lake Winona. Mountain-bike through Bluffside Park. Visit one of the many vineyards in the surrounding valley. Or, if the weather's not cooperating, spend an afternoon at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum - a small yet astonishing collection of world-class water-themed works.
Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes, and this tiny tourist town borders five of them. It's part of the Brainard Lakes area - a vast outdoor playground where Twin Cities urbanites can get their fill of watersports. Whether you're pontooning, water-skiing, relaxing on the lakefront, or exploring the quaint shops and eateries, you're bound to have a good time here.
Three words: Jolly. Green. Giant. The towering monument to the B&G Foods mascot is reason enough to visit this cute little town near the Iowa border. You'd need a selfie stick 30 feet long to get a good shot with the big green guy, so bring a friend!
Perched on the shores of one of the clearest-watered glacial lakes in Minnesota, this little hamlet is home to Spicer Castle, the well-loved waterfront manor that used to be an inn and restaurant but is now up for sale. (Wanna buy it for only $2.7 million?)
Come in the winter, and you can also catch a glimpse of the annual ice palace.
You might as well call this "the town with the big fish." Part of the Leech Lake Indian Reservation, there's not much else to see in this tiny town (population: 116) besides the Big Fish Supper Club and an old-fashioned general store. But if you're into fishing (or your boyfriend is), you won't have to go far to start trolling for walleye.
You'll fall in love with the historic flavor of this place. Just an hour south of Minneapolis, the city also hosts one of the more spectacular county fairs of the hundreds that take place every summer across the state. Oh, and it's the hometown of Owl City. (Remember "Fireflies"?)