You don't have to settle for Chicago. Seek out one of these other ten Great Lakes destinations in the U.S.
In many ways, the Great Lakes are one of America’s best-kept secrets. The five massive bodies of water sit in the heart of the upper Midwest, and are considered to be the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth. Still, for as great as they are, they don’t always attract a lot of tourism from people outside the Midwest, despite their many attractions, tourist towns, and beautiful wildlife.
In fact, for many Americans, the closest they’ll ever get to a Great Lake is a visit to Chicago, which sits on the shores of Lake Michigan. While the Second City is great and all—please, go there!—it’s certainly not the only destination worth visiting along the over 10,000 miles of shoreline along the Great Lakes. Here are 10 other Great Lakes destinations for your next weekend adventure.
Top Picks for You
Cleveland’s never had a great rap. It’s been the punchline of jokes for years, and it knows it. Perhaps that’s why the city has put so much effort into revitalization, renewal, and restoring civic pride. The city is full of great things to check out on a weekend trip, from the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame and USS Cod submarine—both located conveniently along the shores of Lake Erie—to a world-class art museum and orchestra. There are delicious (and affordable) restaurants, like Mabel’s BBQ from celebrity chef Michael Symon (a native Clevelander), and Salt+, whose owner was nominated for a James Beard award for Best Chef: Great Lakes. Cleveland loves its beer so much, too, that the city is home to dozens of breweries, like Great Lakes Brewing, Platform Brewing, and Pulpo Beer Company. Can’t decide? Try them all: Cleveland’s tourism board actually offers prizes for completing at least eight locations featured in its Brewery Passport, with a bonus prize if you hit all of them.
A cute little beach town on Lake Michigan’s eastern shore, Holland, Michigan, is perhaps best known for its Tulip Time Festival, held each May. That’s when the city celebrates its Dutch heritage and prodigious tulip output, as millions of blooms start to blossom across the city. There’s more to Holland than just that one weekend, though, with the city boasting a number of excellent breweries, including New Holland Brewing, as well as a variety of delicious Dutch bakeries. There’s a windmill, of course, and a twice-weekly farmer’s market, which you’ll especially want to visit if you’ve reserved one of Holland’s many beachside rentals for the week. The city even has its own museum, which sponsors educational walking tours around town, spotlights local luminaries in exhibits about the town’s past, and even maintains several historic homes around town.
Minnesota’s Grand Marais sits right on Lake Superior, and really caters to visitors. There are fewer than 1,400 full-time residents in town, so the town makes much of its living by visitors who come to participate in classes at either the North House Folk School or the Grand Marais Art Colony. (The North House school offers a number of very cool sailing classes, if you’re into that, including a weekend course on how to navigate by the stars.) You might see a moose if you take a hike in the Superior National Forest, but if you’re more into navigating the area by car, check out the Gunflint Trail Scenic Byway, which ends in Grand Marais and runs through about 57 miles of the Forest. There are plenty of chic and scenic Air BNBs in the area, but if you’re looking for something a little more rustic and traditional, there’s the Loon Lake Lodge, which offers eight different cabins for rent during the summer.
Another scenic spot on the shores of Lake Superior, Bayfield, Wisconsin, is full of natural wonders. The region’s Apostle Islands National Lakeshore encompasses 21 different rocky outcroppings and is known for its hiking trails and expert-level kayaking. If you want to explore the islands at an easier pace, take a ferry to Madeline Island, where you’ll find a cute little town, as well as Big Bay State Park and its scenic trails. Since 1986, the city has also hosted dozens of musical acts, performers, and even a bluegrass kids camp every summer at Big Top Chautauqua, a 900-seat circus tent set up in a field about five miles from the center of the city. The city is also pretty proud of its many orchards and fruit farmers, and in the summer, you can even take a drive along the city’s Fruit Loop, which is where you’ll find farm stands from many of the purveyors.
Imagine Key West, but put it smack in the middle of Lake Erie: That’s Put-In-Bay. The South Bass Island city is a tourist mecca for people from Ohio and Michigan during the summer, when its 300 full-time residents are swarmed with out-of-towners. Visitors can take a quick ferry to the island from Sandusky or Catawba, but you’ll want to rent a golf cart once you’re there. After dropping bags at your vacation rental or the Getaway Inn at Cooper’s Woods, zip off to one of the island’s wineries, the Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, or maybe the Perry’s Cave Family Fun Center. It’s worth noting that, like Key West, the island boasts a truly staggering number of bars, meaning things can get rowdy once the sun goes down. Fortunately, most hotels and rentals are within staggering distance of the main drag.
If you’re looking for tourist attractions in Wisconsin, look no farther than Door County, which is practically the Myrtle Beach of the north. The Green Bay-adjacent area does a swift tourist business in summer, and there are dozens of little tourist towns along the area’s 300 miles of coastline. Egg Harbor stands out for its charm and breadth of attractions, though. Visitors can take a two-hour kayak tour out of the marina that lets them explore shipwrecks and Ojibwe rock art, or they can peruse the many delicious offerings at Wisconsin Cheese Masters. (They offer subscriptions to a cheese of the month club, in case you fall in love.) There are candy shops, distilleries, and restaurants specializing in Wisconsin fish boils, and local shops offer everything from handmade pottery to fair trade clothing.
WHERE: New York
Oswego sits at the junction of the Oswego River and Lake Ontario, meaning it was an early hotspot for the military, traders, and anyone looking to make a living. The Fort Ontario State Historic Site has been an active military site since the French and Indian Wars, while the Oswego West Pierhead Lighthouse sits in the same spot as three other lighthouses before it. (Interestingly, Fort Ontario was also the only WWII refugee shelter in the U.S., which is why one of its old administration buildings now houses the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum.) If you’re hungry, grab a bite at Rudy’s Lakeside Drive-In, a casual spot that’s been operating since 1946. There, you can pick up some fried fish—don’t forget the hot sauce!—and pop a squat at a picnic table along the lakefront. When you’re done there, zip on over to the beautiful, art deco Oswego Theater, which has been showing movies since 1941. (Full disclosure: It’s been updated inside, so you’ll be able to kick back in a recliner rather than pack into a massive auditorium.)
A city of almost 600,000 residents, Milwaukee isn’t exactly as tourism-dependent as some of its other Great Lakes counterparts. That doesn’t mean it’s not well worth a visit, though. The city is known for its role in brewing history, meaning there are all sorts of bars and breweries waiting to host thirsty patrons. There are over a dozen different brewery tours in town, and a lot of them end in absolutely stunning taprooms. Don’t miss SafeHouse, either, where visitors have to use a password to enter, and all of the drinks are espionage themed. If you want to grab a meal, you can’t go wrong with German food in Milwaukee. Mader’s has been serving up pork shanks, dumplings, and sauerkraut for well over 100 years. Dig into a plate and then head back to your hotel for a nap. The Pfister is a luxe classic, but if you’re looking for something a little different, check out the Iron Horse, which caters to motorcycle enthusiasts. (Harley-Davidson is just down the road.)
Located all the way at the top of Michigan’s mitten, Mackinac Island is a picturesque resort town. Starting in the late 19th century, the island became a hip summer colony for the state’s manufacturing magnates, and a number of the structures on the island nod to their legacy. In fact, the entire island has been given National Historic Landmark status, making it as storied as it is beautiful. Almost all motor vehicles are banned from the island, so most people get around by bike or horse-drawn trolley. The stately Grand Hotel can be a little pricey, but it’s worth the splurge: It’s been hosting luminaries for croquet, tea parties, and dinner and dancing since 1887. There’s plenty to do on-site, including checking out America’s oldest operating duckpin bowling alley, but if you do want to explore, make sure to check out some of the island’s famous fudge.
For whatever reason, there are almost 200 shipwrecks sitting right off Alpena, Michigan, making that town one of the state’s most historically intriguing destinations. Visitors to the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary can check out the wrecks by kayak, hop on board a glass bottom boat and take a cruise, or even rent some gear and go on a snorkeling expedition to some of the best-preserved ships. There’s even more wilderness to explore outside the sanctuary, including Island Park wildlife sanctuary and Rockport State Park Recreation Area, where you can sit on the beach by day and gaze up at the stars at night.
I can't believe that you left Duluth Minnesota off this list, Beautiful city, beautiful drive up the North Shore scenic drive, something happening all year round!!