Sure, Minneapolis is a trendy hipster town we all love. St. Paul is where you go for a hockey game or to grab gourmet cuisine. However, sometimes even the most die-hard metropolitan-goer needs a break from the big city lights and sounds. Small towns in Minnesota astound visitors with unexpected favorites in dining, deals, even dragon boats! Our Rural TravelingMom guides you through some travel-worthy towns under 2,000 in population here in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
The Best Small Towns in Minnesota Await
Traffic weary and ready for a break from the hustle and bustle? Sure, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota’s beloved Twin Cities, offer a wealth of experiences in cuisine, culture, night life and kid-friendly fun. But sometimes you need to quiet your soul or explore a quirkier corner of the world. No problem! This is the list for the small town bests in Minnesota.
Taylors Falls, MN – Best Small Town Vista
Taylors Falls is on the eastern border of Minnesota, just across the border from Wisconsin, along the banks of the gorgeous St. Croix River. It’s an easy drive from the Twin Cities, under an hour in the usual traffic, and is a prime example of respite from the big city for an outdoorsy day trip. Among our favorites are Interstate State Park, the Scenic Boat Tours on the river, and Wild Mountain Waterpark (which is near Wild Mountain Winery…just sayin’!) Animal lovers will adore a stop at Fawn Doe Rosa Wildlife Education Park. This getaway is close to another crowd favorite in Minnesota, the eclectic city of Stillwater. Make sure to plan a whole weekend for this small town getaway.
Biwabik – Best Slopeside Small Town
Most folks do not associate Minnesota with skiing or hills. We are flatlanders, after all. But we do a have a few impressive ski areas and the ability to make REAL snow almost year around! Giants Ridge is northern Minnesota’s premier ski resort. It is nestled in the heart of the famous Iron Range (if you’ve seen North Country with Cherize Theron, that’s the general area!) In fact, the name of the town–Biwabik–means “iron” in Ojibwe, the local native American language of the region. The town has a moose statue in the middle of the town square for quintessential Minnesota snapshots. Before departing, make sure to stop by Vi’s Pizza, a local hotspot, for a slice of the best pies in the northland.
Nisswa – Best Base Camp for Lakeside Fun
Nisswa is a shoppers dream if you want to find unique small businesses to support the local economy. Most notable and quirky, perhaps, are the turtle races held downtown every Wednesday during the summer. If you need somewhere to stay, you have a plethora of resorts located on the plentiful lakes surrounding the town. The small town features a few good brew pubs. Big Axe Brewing won’t disappoint for a brew and a burger.
Moose Lake – Best Small Town Escape on the Interstate
Hand-crafted beers at the Moose Lake Brewing Co. aren’t the only draw to this town. Just off of 1-35 N., Moose Lake State Park is a short drive for hiking and fresh air. The best hole-in-the-wall with great food hands-down is Art’s Cafe along Highway 73. Parents, take note: the playground at Moose Lake city park is a must-stop for stretching legs and monkeying around a bit. Walk the beach lakeside to burn off the breakfast calories consumed at Art’s! The park is also adjacent to the public campground; therefore, bathrooms are on-site for a quick stop.
Ely – Best Small Town for Epic Adventures
In Ely, you will immediately see Minnesotans’ love for the great outdoors. Canoe-clad cars are parked outside storefronts. Sheridan Street is Ely’s main street, where you’ll find local artisan shops like Steger Mukluks, Piragis Northwoods Company, Wintergreen Northernwear and the acclaimed photo gallery of Jim Brandenburg. In the summer months, hearty souls set sail for the many chains of lakes in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. In the winter, those same adventurers take a dog team. Stop for a meal at the impressive American fusion restaurant Insula, named for one of local lakes. Ely is also home to The International Wolf Center, The North American Bear Center and Dorothy Molter, who is affectionately known as “The Root Beer Lady.”
Grand Marais – Best Small Town on the Big Lake
What Grand Marais lacks in numbers, it makes up for in spirit. The town is on Lake Superior and is praised by Outside Magazine, USA Today, and several regional publications. While visiting this little town on the big water, stop at Sven and Ole’s Pizza. World’s Best Donuts is true to its name. This is truly splurge-worthy sugar. The Gunflint Trail will take you to the Canadian border and to remote resort getaways. Maybe a coveted moose sighting, if you’re lucky. Grand Marais hosts the Dragon Boat Festival and The Fisherman’s Picnic. Both are popular summer festivals to attend like a local.
Park Rapids – Best Small Town Year Around
Park Rapids is a few thousand strong on the westerly side of central Minnesota. There you’ll find wonderful pumpkin patches, fall fun and music festivals plus lots of soft active adventures. Itasca State Park may be the crown jewel of the Minnesota State Park system and belongs on the list for travelers of all ages. Walk across the cool, iconic headwaters of the Mississippi River or take a hike though gigantic pines while you’re on site. Carter’s Red Wagon farm is family stop in the fall to fit in! Kids can take a “cruise” in boats made of real giant pumpkin shells! You’ll also want check out Park Rapids, which has been named as having one of the Top 10 Charming Minnesota Main Streets.