Let summer begin.
These are the best towns to live out the summertime dream by the lake. But when your skin becomes raisin-wrinkled and you’re tired of splashing, they’ve also got you covered with plenty of non-watery things to see and do. And we’re not talking go-karts and mini-golf.
Top Picks for You
WHERE: New York
Lucy mentioned a few times on her I Love Lucy show that she came from Jamestown, New York, her real-life hometown on Chautauqua Lake. She might not recognize her home these days, with its exciting restaurant and music scene that in itself is worth taking note. But comedy still rules, with a couple of museums devoted to the grande dame of comedy’s life and career, as well as the dazzling new National Comedy Center, a gigantic innovative space that was spearheaded by Ms. Ball herself. The world-famous Lucille Ball Comedy Festival in August, which draws big-name comics.
Beaches, coffee shops, summer concerts, and sunsets: that sums up the good life here in this buzzing Door County town on Lake Michigan, where you can spend the day sailing, SUPing, and/or kayaking, then take in its humming landside life. You’ll find cafés, art galleries, and artisan shops galore, plus a taste of the town’s Scandinavian roots at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant & Butik—it’s the one with goats grazing on its grassy rooftop; the bearded tribe stars in the Roofing of the Goats Parade in June.
A visit to Door County during summer’s cherry season brings on cherry-inspired cuisine, cocktails, baked goods, and more cherry goodness. The cherry-stuffed French toast at the White Gull Inn in Fish Creek is world-famous for a reason.
The rustic town of Greenville along the shores of Moosehead Lake is the next best thing to returning to summer camp: anglers, boaters, and hikers rejoice in this North Woods paradise. You’ve also discovered one of the best places to spot moose (they’re most commonly seen May and June), with guides available for moose safaris.
INSIDER TIPCatch some Zen at Stress Free Moose Pub and Café.
Crayfish, crawfish, or crawdad? They’re all the same thing, but in Breaux Bridge, located on Bayou Teche near Lake Martin, don’t argue with the locals, who call these mini crustaceans “crawfish.” This historic Cajun town has, after all, been dubbed the crawfish capital of the world, and it’s the birthplace of crawfish étouffée. Indeed, you’ll find crawfish everything on local menus (Pont Breaux’s is a favorite). But you’ll also find fun antique shops, one-of-a-kind boutiques, art galleries, and a booming Cajun music scene—check out Tante Marie and La Poussiere (a traditional Cajun dancehall). Zydeco breakfasts reign at Buck & Johnny’s.
INSIDER TIPTake a swamp tour on Lake Martin to admire roseate spoonbills, nutria, bald cypress, water lilies…and alligators. Or rent a canoe or kayak and take your own spin around the lake.
You can’t beat the beachy vibe at this funky town on Lake Tahoe, teeming in summer with sunbathers, kayakers, swimmers, and paddleboarders all day long. Just be warned: The water is icy cold no matter the outdoor temp (though that doesn’t stop the water revelers). Warm up exploring the town’s family-friendly restaurants, hip shops, and the outstanding Music on the Beach, a summer concert series that rocks every Friday evening.
Tahoe’s pine-shaded trails await within a hiking-boot throw. Check out the Tahoe Rim Trail, which completely encircles the lake as it explores summit peaks, wildflower fields, and alpine lakes.
WHERE: New Hampshire
Wolfeboro on Lake Winnipesaukee claims to be America’s oldest summer resort town, and it has the stately architecture, posh boutiques, and paddle-wheeler cruises to prove it. Hang out at Wolfe’s Tavern at the Wolfeboro Inn (built in 1812), savor the divine blueberry tart at Stellaloona, and swing to the beat of an outdoor concert at the Cate Park bandstand. Oh, and don’t miss Lobster Day—when a massive, lobster-filled truck lumbers onto the parking lot of Hunter’s Shop ‘n’ Save and stays until it’s empty.
Talk about picture perfect. The peak-encircled, mirrorlike Grand Lake has got to be one of the nation’s most divine lakes. Top that off with the Wild-West-style, lakeside Grand Lake Village, complete with old-timey saloons and a historic, shop-fringed boardwalk dating from 1881, and you’ve got all the makings for a primo summer getaway. But wait, there’s more: The natural bounty of Rocky Mountain National Park awaits just a mile away.
INSIDER TIPFor amazing views of the lake while dining, Grand Lake Lodge’s mountainside deck can’t be beat (you can stay at the lodge as well).
This chill Hill Country town near three lakes (LBJ, Marble Falls, and Buchanan) is legendary for its diner—Blue Bonnet Café has been going strong for eight decades, and they aren’t slowing down. Part of its recipe for success is the 10 different kinds of pie (at least) made daily. Stop by for Pie Happy Hour between 2 and 5 pm to sample some of the freshly made lemon cream, German chocolate, fudge, cherry, banana cream… Here, too, the historic Main Street harbors antique shops, gift shops, and eateries, while wineries and craft breweries, along with a limestone cavern, await in the surrounding rolling hills.
Big names have vacationed in this laidback, Old Florida town on Lake Dora, Calvin Coolidge, Thomas Edison, and Dwight Eisenhower among them. The Lakeside Inn, established in 1883 and where they stayed, is still up and running—reigning as the state’s oldest continuously operating hotel. But there’s nothing old-timey about the historic town’s leafy streets, edged with buzzy restaurants, sidewalk cafés, antique shops, and art galleries occupying 19th-century clapboard houses.
INSIDER TIPSalute the sunset with a cocktail from the back deck of the Pisces Rising restaurant.
At the heart of the Iowa Great Lakes, Okoboji has long been a favorite summer playground. The vintage Arnolds Park Amusement Park still thrills with its 1930s wooden roller coaster, log ride, and funnel cakes galore. But you’ll also find a lakeside jam-packed with panoramic restaurants—The Gardens, Dry Dock Lounge, and Bracco among them—along with concerts and live music in Arnolds Park. For some of the best sunset watching around, head to the deck of Maxwell’s Beach Café’s.
Long sandy beaches grace this summery, gay-friendly Lake Michigan town (really a twin town with nearby Douglas), a favorite Chicagoan getaway. Art lovers rejoice in the plethora of art galleries and plein-air sculptures sprinkled about its 19th-century downtown. The artsiness continues with plenty of music and film festivals throughout the summer, though no getaway is complete without a ride on the Saugatuck Chain Ferry—the only hand-cranked chain ferry on the Great Lakes, which takes you from downtown to a trail leading to Oval Beach, one of the region’s best places to throw a towel and soak in some rays.
Charles Kuralt, the late CBS broadcaster, loved Ely, a rustic, end-of-the-road type of place in northeastern Minnesota, saying it was the best place in America to spend July. Why he didn’t mention the other months, we’re not sure, because it’s stunning all the time. Ely perches near multiple lakes that comprise the Boundary Waters—meaning you’re in for some serious fishing and paddling. But there’s also the joys of the earthy town itself, where Northern Grounds café and wine bar offers live music, the Dorothy Molter Museum celebrates the local “root beer lady,” and the International Wolf Center and North American Bear Center hail two local denizens. All that said, the fresh-caught fish alone, found in restaurants everywhere, is worth the trek.
Lake Havasu City
Party hearty is the name of the game at this fun-rejoicing lake, with plenty of good food and drink (and gambling) to be found along its shores. A faux English village has sprung up around London Bridge—yes, the real London Bridge is located here, having been moved in the 1960s after it started sinking into the Thames and was sold to the founder of Lake Havasu City. There’s also some amazing hiking nearby through rugged canyons, mountains, and basins (check out some great hikes here). Though honestly, the temps can be so sweltering in this Mojave desert town that your best bet is to stay waterside.
INSIDER TIPIf it floats, you can rent it on Lake Havasu, including pontoon boats, speedy powerboats, jet skis, kayaks, paddleboards, even a floating tiki bar with captain.
Towns don’t often get dealt such glorious backdrops as Bigfork, set as it is where the Flathead and Swan Rivers converge into crystal-clear, glacier-fed Flathead Lake, with the Swan Range rising beyond. And if that’s not enough, this thriving, Western-flavored community has world-class art galleries (check out Persimmons Gallery) and Broadway-worthy theater at Bigfork Summer Playhouse, upscale boutiques and fine-dining restaurants (Saketome Sushi is divine and unexpected). All this, with Glacier National Park beckoning nearby.
INSIDER TIPA great way to spend the day is to drive around Flathead Lake, enjoying the breweries and distilleries along the lakeshore.
This isn’t a town, per se, but the woodsy borough of Mount Gretna on Conewago Lake is worth a callout especially for its centerpiece, Pennsylvania Chautauqua, the Victorian-era plein-air adult school that attracts thousands of people every summer. Mount Gretna itself is all about colorful historic cottages with enormous wraparound porches; live shows under the stars at the historic Gretna Theatre (Bernadette Peters, Sally Struthers, and Charlton Heston all performed here); and devouring a chocolate or butterscotch ice cream sundae at Jigger Shop. There’s also hiking, biking (on the Lebanon Valley Rail Trail), and simply whiling away a summer’s day in a tucked-away corner of specialness. The lake, by the way, is one of those fabulously old-fashioned-feeling ones, complete with floating docks and over-water swings. Be sure to climb the Governor Dick Tower in Clarence Schock Memorial Park, offering 360-degree views of the surrounding countryside.