Top 10 Coolest Towns in Minnesota

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!

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DSCN076110.  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.

pipePhoto credit: pipestone-county.com

107_08079.  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.Marais

DSCN09868. 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 evokes the feel 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.

100_2100100_20747. 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. 

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107_35166. 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.  Couple that 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.
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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.

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mpls 0094. 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.

107_3502107_34963. Ely, MN - Way, way up in Boundary Waters country is the fan-favorite Ely, voted “Coolest Small Town in America” by Budget Travel.  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.

2013-10-20 11.59.392013-10-21 10.52.322. 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).

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DSC_00731. 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, tourist-friendly 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.

64 thoughts on “Top 10 Coolest Towns in Minnesota

  1. 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.

  2. 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

    • 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!

    • 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.”
      ..

        • 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

    • 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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

  6. Pingback: The Top Ten Coolest Towns in Minnesota - KOOL107

    • 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!

  7. 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.

  8. 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!

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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!

  12. 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.

  13. 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. . . .

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

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