I’m a sucker for small towns, top 10 lists, and Minnesota. So naturally this list wasn’t too far off on the horizon. It was definitely a struggle who to include though. And, should larger cities like Duluth or Rochester be included on a list about “towns?” Narrowing it down to ten was incredibly difficult too, when you consider that the North Shore and the southeastern Bluff Country area have dozens of cool little towns I could have included. So, I tried to give a good cross-section of Minnesota towns that are unique in character, scenic, charming, and just plain old cool. Let’s get started!
10. Stillwater, MN – Situated on the St. Croix River just outside of the the twin cities, Stillwater has all the feel of an old historic river town with sharp, rocky outcrops on one side and the flowing, busy waters of the riverway on the other. Home to antique shops, fun restaurants, caves, and a liftbridge, Stillwater is a fascinating, beautiful town to spend an afternoon exploring.
9. Pipestone, MN – Many of the buildings found in Pipestone, like the courthouse or the iconic Calumet Hotel, feature beautiful architecture made with locally quarried rock. This charming little southwestern town also features the Pipestone National Monument, a waterfall, the World’s Largest Peace Pipe, and is just down the road from the awesome Blue Mound State Park in LuVerne.
8. Grand Marais, MN – Grand Marais is situated far up on the North Shore of Lake Superior but is a very popular tourist town in summer and winter. It has the feeling of a mountain-town-meets-beach-town hybrid with the Sawtooth Mountains and the Gunflint Trail nearby. Other points of interest are Artist’s Point, a harbor with lighthouse, and the historic Naniboujou Lodge. Also, Minnesota’s biggest ski resort, Lutsen, is just down the road. In 2015, it was voted “America’s Coolest Small Town” by Budget Travel.
7. Red Wing, MN – Another beloved Minnesota town, Red Wing sits on the water just south of the confluence of the Mississippi River and the St. Croix. It is characterized by looming bluffs, marinas, a historic downtown, and the omni-present Red Wing Shoe Company. Barn Bluff, just steps away from downtown, provides a chance to hike to a scenic overlook of the area. Also here – the World’s Largest Boot.
6. Biwabik, MN – Especially in winter, the Iron Range town of Biwabik has the feel of a Swiss Alps mountain town. The facades of the buildings on the main drag all look Bavarian or Scandinavian in nature, due to the large population of Germans and Finnish here. Combined with the nearby Embarrass Mountains, Honk the Moose, Giant’s Ridge Ski Resort, and the deep crevasses of the Iron Range mines, this town is nothing short of awesome.
Image courtesy City-data.com
5. Elba, MN- Elba is a tiny little town nestled deep in a valley in southeastern MN just north of Whitewater State Park. The steep, picturesque bluffs and the quaint feel of the secluded little hidden gem of a town will make you feel a million miles away from everything, in a good way. Just outside of town is the Elba Fire Tower, which, if you can stomach the heights, provides breathtaking panoramic views of bluff country.
4. Taylors Falls, MN- This little beauty is only about 45 minutes or so from the Twin Cities and is the perfect daytrip getaway. Set against the dramatic cliff faces and outcrops known as the “Dalles,” the St. Croix River rushes through rock formations millions of years old. Easy hikes, rock climbing, ferry rides, and ice cream shops abound here. Also home to the “The Old Jail Bed and Breakfast”, a former jail house converted into a B&B. Swing across the river into Wisconsin for more amazing hikes and vantage points.
3. Ely, MN – Way, way up in Boundary Waters country is the fan-favorite Ely, voted “Coolest Small Town in America” by Budget Travel in 2010. 5 hours north of the Twin Cities and on the edge of one of the most remote areas in the Lower 48, Ely also has the International Wolf Center, the Cabin of the Root Beer Lady, the North American Bear Center, a brewpub, and countless canoe outfitters and sporting good shops. This is what outdoorsmen live for.
2. New Ulm, MN – Embrace your German roots in this trip back to the old country at New Ulm, MN. This town in the Minnesota River Valley just northwest of Mankato has held onto its heritage like none other – including a Glockenspeil (above), Hermann the German monument, the second-oldest family-owned brewery in the US, German restaurants, beautiful architecture (also above), and assorted polka-and-beer festivals. New Ulm is deserving of the number 2 spot for being unique, distinctive, and historic. And for brewing the best beer in Minnesota (Grain Belt Premium).
1. Duluth, MN – Known as “The San Francisco of the North,” Duluth takes the number one spot on this list for numerous reasons: For its significant contrast with the farmland and relatively flat majority of the western part of the state; For its vintage-feeling, touristy Canal Park and Liftbridge; for its unique attractions like the Glensheen Mansion and the Great Lakes Aquarium; and its access to the wild & scenic North Shore of Lake Superior. Not to mention its in-town waterfalls, hikes, skiing, and unique architecture of its downtown. It’s pure Minnesota, a place where it’s almost impossible to run out of things to do.
Honorable mentions: Mankato, Walker, Detroit Lakes, Two Harbors, Winona, Lanesboro, Welch, Lindstrom, Virginia, Spring Grove, Marine-On-St Croix.
Hi I live in a ghost town in Kooch County on U.S. 71 nine miles
southwest of Big Falls. Not much left of it a town hall some old homes
a church. Pop is three and three dogs. I’d like to find out the history
of this town but none of the paper recordes was keep by any one.
Stop by and see what is left of it. We do have a mail drop off done by
HC-1 out of Bermiji.
Sounds interesting, what was the name of the town?
9 miles southwest of Big Falls would probably be Margie, MN.
The Glockenspiel isn’t in the pictures of New Ulm. At least the ones that show up on my screen. Shown are top left Wanda Gag House, top right Schells, bottom left Brown County Historical Society and bottom right is a building in Downtown New Ulm
Beth, thanks for pointing that out. Originally I had a picture of the Glockenspiel but later added the photogrid of the four buildings. I will update it accordingly.
What no Herman the German the second biggest copper statue in the United States!!
I have done an entire article on Hermann the German: http://highwayhighlights.com/2013/01/hermann-the-german-new-ulm-mn/
Lanesboro? How could you miss Lanesboro?
Lanesboro was in the running, and you will see it in the Honorable Mentions as well. And I am planning a follow-up to this article and Lanesboro will likely make the list!
Blue Mound is in Luverne NOT Pipestone.
If you re-read his comment about Pipestone , you will see he never said the Blue Mound State Park was in Pipestone…He said The Blue Mound State Park was down the road(which it is) and in “LuVerne.”
I went back and updated the article to reflect that Blue Mound State Park was closer to LuVerne.
You had it right- Pipestone National Monument is in Pipestone and you mentioned Blue Mounds State Park down the road in Luverne… one is a National Monument and the other is a State Park.. unfortunately the State Park in Luverne had quite a bit of storm/flood damage recently-it may be years before it’s back to it’s former beautiful self
It is Luverne MN. Not ‘LuVerne’ that is in Iowa!
Blue mounds state park is actually part of rock county by luverne, mn… Not Pipestone
I don’t believe anything about any counties were mentioned at all, when they were talking about Pipestone?
Correct, no counties were mentioned, just a state park location.
Does Elba have the last fire tower in Minnesota you can climb?
There is still a fire tower in St Croix state park East of Hinckley.
No, there are many fire towers in MInnesota you can still climb. Smokey Hills State Forest, Itasca State Park, and Mille Lacs Kathio State Park are just a few which still have climbable fire towers.
Martin Luther College in New Ulm has great history, old and beautiful architecture, and a new Chapel that is incredible. The college campus is definitely worth a tour!
I agree with the comment above – I am from the Twin Cities but have lived in Winona for years and feel it has become the epitome of a great small town, with so much to offer and unsurpassable beauty to boot!
Just FYI – Winona is MUCH cooler than Red Wing! Lots of bluffs to climb, the river to enjoy, great shopping, fantastic food, AND incredible theatre, film, and music festivals – and world class art museum.
There is very little beside “pretty town” to merit Winona’s inclusion in the list. There is no shopping to speak off, no “fantastic food” whatsoever. Historical and pretty…that’s about it.
Winona has a nice Marine Museum and a beautiful levee to walk along. I was born there so it can’t be all bad LOL
I went to college in Winona many years ago and the best malts on Earth could be had at this little ice cream shop not far from campus. Sorry I can’t remember the name of it offhand, but Winonans would know.
I generally look beyond restaurants and shopping when considering a town “cool.” I prefer things like scenery, character, architecture, history, uniqueness, or sometimes just the overall vibe of the place.
Winona is great (went to WSU) but Red Wing is a better spot to visit. The Historic downtown has been preserved better and access to the Mississippi River is markedly better in Red Wing, plus there is tons of hiking available there as well. St. James Hotel is a very popular Historic hotel with three great restaurants. Artistic community is also very alive in Red Wing.
I thought the list was pretty cool. Currently doing morning radio in Winona I was glad to see it mentioned in the Honorable section. I grew up in Minneapolis and Winona will always and forever be my home and home away from home. Cool list sir!
Very good article. Yay Lindstrom gets honorable mention!
How did Grand Rapids not make this list?
Grand Rapids is a great city and will likely be considered on the follow up.
Please consider Northfield in your follow-up!
I promise you it will be on there!
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How could you miss Lake City “Birthplace of Waterskiing”?!
It was hard to narrow it down to one of those southeast towns along the River. Red Wing just had something special over Lake City, but Lake City is a great place!
I’ve lived in Ely–it is cool. Biwabik–not so much. Surprised to see Virginia as an honorable mention….what is cool about Virginia besides Canelake’s and Dave’s Pizza?
I liked Virginia because of the mining history (and scenic overlook), its historic downtown with old signs and buildings, the roadside attractions, and the vintage, blue-collar feel to it. I look beyond restaurants and businesses generally. Biwabik is just a fun little town with some Scandinavian flair to it.
Talking about Pipestone, MN there is a wonderful Minnesota State Park everyone seems to forget about just 7 miles south of #23, Split Rock Creek State Park History there, camping, lake, fishing, horse trails, much, much more!
I would love to check that park out sometime!
I agree with Sheree-check out Split Rock Creek State Park in Ihlen Minnesota- just 7 miles south of Pipestone
Kinda sad that you couldn’t find anyplace in Northwestern MN, where we have awesome tubing on the Red Lake River at Red Lake Falls, along with beautiful scenery with the great history being taught every August at the Chataqua at Huot Park just outside of town. Detroit Lakes is 70 miles southeast and while it does have WeFest, Red Lake Falls is still 80 miles from the Canadian Border. I think its time you checked out the rest of Northern MN…..
I actually just went through Red Lake Falls the other day again. Definitely some beautiful scenery by the river and I loved the old historic courthouse. I also liked Karlstad, MN a great deal and believe I will add it to the follow-up to this article.
How about New London Spicer? It has good food, nice people, beautiful lake, etc
I might have to make a trip back through there and take a second look!
Stillwater us my hometown so I love that it ison list. Waconia is where I am raising my family and is #1 to me! Great lake, parks, and historic downtown.
Waconia is a great little town for sure! Thanks for reading!
Nice to see Walker on the list. I live close-by, and love it. Grew up in Hermantown and agree with Duluth being 1st, even though the weather sucks there. Very cool article!
Thank you! I am planning a follow up as well.
Great Job! Loved seeing the old Bandstand still standing in Biwabik.
Thank you Jan!
I lived not far from Detroit Lakes throughout my high school years and worked for one of the main car dealerships there for a few years after college. It was a nice enough big town (and I loved the people I worked with, just btw), but I don’t think I’d put it as even an honorable mention. I would probably recommend Park Rapids and Fergus Falls instead, and probably a lot of other smaller towns.
PR and Fergus are great, and so is Alexandria too. I might be a little biased because I live so close to DL. All great towns though!
We love the Grand Marais area. It’s beautiful and has some of the best little shops and food I’ve ever personally seen. I’m happy it’s on the list. Here’s a post I did on Grand Marais, MN with a few photos. Great place to stop next time your on your way to Canada!
Cool, thanks for the link and for reading!
You are so welcome!
Get off HWY 61 once you cross the Mississippi and visit Hastings. 62 buildings on National Register. Fabulous food at Onion Grill and original Bierstube to mention a few. 15 miles of hiking biking trails with 12 miles along waterway, Three Rivers, two lakes, beautiful Vermillion Falls. First and one of the best wineries in the state (Alexis Bailly). Live and active arts community including two live theater groups, concerts at amazing Historic Leduc Estate orchard FREE every Sunday in August and Cruise In car shows every other Saturday all summer long and a great place to adopt your next pet –Hastings Animal Ark — great no kill shelter!. Front porch hospitality abounds. . . .
Hastings is an awesome town for sure and will be on the follow-up article!
I’ a cartoonist who has worked for 4 major papers including the Strb for 2 years and the Rochester PB for 35 years now have 90 papers 60 papers in mn. Great job.
I can’t believe with all of its lakes, The Forest History Center, The Judy Garland Museum and yellow brick road, a cute downtown area and lots more, that Grand Rapids didn’t make this list! Every time I tell someone I am from Grand Rapids, they say something like, “I love that place!” or “It is so pretty up there!” I think your list is a good one, but I really think Grand Rapids was overlooked.
Grand Rapids is a great city and will likely be considered on the follow up. Thanks for reading!
If you love Red Wing, don’t miss this great house on 25 acres, just a mile from the river and 3 miles from downtown Red Wing. http://www.rwcountryhome.com
We love Red Wing and the surrounding area, but work has taken us across the river and south.
I’ve lived in MN my entire life and have been in the travel industry nearly my entire adult life. I take women traveling to all parts of the world. It is easy to find exciting venues and activities out-of-state. I haven’t given much thought to taking women out and about in MN. Thanks to your article, I am inspired to do so.
Candy ~ ImagineYou Traveling
Thanks for reading Candy!
We’d love for you to visit New Ulm, Candy! We have so many great things to offer tour groups, only a few of which are mentioned here! Let us know if we can send you a visitors guide! email@example.com
Add Anoka and Jordan for honrable mention?
Anoka will certainly be on the next ten, I promise you that!
Live in Ely/Winton. Glad to see us on there. Want to check out most of the list mentioned due to being at some of them already. However, Duluth? Love the city but surprised it made the list.
The only reason I almost didn’t put Duluth on here was because it was a list about smaller towns around Minnesota. But in the end, I had to go with it. I’m surprised any Minnesotan would be surprised about Duluth’s inclusion on the list.
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What about Chatfield?
Chatfield is a great little town but didn’t make the top ten. There are so many to choose from!
We are staying near Alexandria (visiting from Florida)…any recommendations on some towns with great downtown shopping and reataraunts within the vicinity of where we are? We have seen Alexandria, Fergus Falls, Battle Lake, and Parkers Prairie. Would LOVE some recommendations! Thanks!!
Have you been to Perham or Detroit Lakes yet? Glenwood is a nice little town as well. I would start with those!
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I enjoyed your site–we live in Clarissa MN-small town USA-we are in the process of trying to camp in all the State Parks here, but only get to go 3 or 4 times a year. We also take lots of pictures, so your north shore peace was especially interesting!! Thanks
Of course I haven’t been to all of the Minnesota cities and towns, but I found International Falls, MN to be absolutely stunning! In the autumn you get to experience all of the beautiful leaves turning colors. In the spring you get to see all of the bright green colors coming out to play. And of course winter, it looks like a winter wonderland. After all it is the “Icebox of the Nation.” There’s also a few really good local restaurants to hit up. Rainy river and rainy lake are so pretty! And if you have your passport, Canada is just on the other side!
Great article. Love all these Minnesota towns.
Thank you Smith!
Two little towns in N.W. Minnesota that you did not mention are Climax and Fertile which are in Polk County. I was born in Fertile and have family living in or near Climax and I graduated from high school in Crookston, Minnesota.
I was born in Fertile, Minnesota, have family living in and near Climax, Minnesota and I graduated from high school in Crookston, Minnesota.