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Small Town Gems

10 Great Small Towns to Visit in the Midwest, US

Big city life can take its toll on a working woman, so it's no surprise that when a free weekend approaches, many gals crave the Midwest's charming appeal and away-from-it-all vibe. There are dozens of perfect weekend escapes scattered throughout the region, and with friends or family in tow, all are ideal places to relax and unwind.

To get the scoop on the greatest small town gems out there, we enlisted the help of Midwest Living, whose staff has shopping, sightseeing and relaxing in these small towns for 20 years.

Midwest Living Magazine

In a continual quest to uncover the best cities and towns, Midwest Living looked specifically at the 8,500 towns with populations less than 20,000 in the region and added a layer of research that spanned several months and ranked towns in 12 categories including attractions, vibe, scenery, walkability, shopping, dining, lodging, arts scene, outdoor activities, proximity to major cities, multiday potential and wild card (for special events such as festivals).

Check out the list below to find your perfect escape:

#1 Ephraim/Fish Creek, WI —Who needs New England?  The Midwest has its own coastal charm around the Great Lakes, and our top towns, located in Door Country, are the best examples of it.  The 80-mile long Door Peninsula extends into Lake Michigan on Wisconsin’s east side, creating more than 300 miles of coastline.  Tucked into this shore are lighthouses, 30 beaches, five state parks, golf courses and pretty towns seemingly plucked straight from a painting.  Visitors rent bikes at the park entrance and ride to water views, beaches and a lighthouse.  Artists inspired by the country’s scenery show their work in the two towns’ dozen galleries.  Plentiful shopping runs toward high-end boutiques; good food is equally ample.

#2 Petoskey/Charlevoix , MI —These neighboring resort towns along the Lower Peninsula’s northwestern shore began entertaining vacationers who came by steamship more than a century ago.  Petoskey climbs hills along Little Traverse Bay, and Charlevoix nestles between Lake Michigan and Lake Charlevoix.  The beach and harbor are steps from the 100 shops and galleries of Petoskey’s Gaslight District and landmark Stafford’s Perry Hotel.

#3 Galena, IL —The preservation movement in this old lead-mining town has effectively defined the trend toward small towns reinventing themselves.  Framed by northwestern Illinois hills, the business district’s century-old buildings now house more than 90 shops filled with antiques, home accessories and art.  Some 50 inns and hotels welcome travelers, and restaurants serve seemingly every taste.

#4 Madison, IN —Towering limestone bluffs and the Ohio River frame picturesque Madison, an old riverboat port so tied to the past, 133 downtown blocks are on the National Historic Register, with buildings dating to 1817.  Antique dealers fill the district, a brick river walk leads visitors close to touring riverboats, and a stroll through Madison’s hilly streets provides glimpses of lush gardens around grand old homes, some converted to inns.

A Best Midwest Town - Saugatuck, Michigan

#5 Saugatuck/Douglas, MI —These side-by-side Lake Michigan shore villages are so artsy, residents take for granted having their portraits painted.  Visitors see original art adorning studio windows and encounter sculptures on almost every street corner.  Artists set up easels among the swimmers and sunbathers enjoying the crescent of white sand to capture Oval Beach (considered one of the country’s best) on canvas.

#6 Nashville, IN —So-called progress never quite made it to Nashville, a haven of hills and forests 55 miles south of Indianapolis.  That’s fine with the artists who live and work in studios tucked amid the town’s 250 shops and the countryside.  The artists’ colony founded by Indiana painter T.C. Steele, who was drawn by the vistas that seem to spread from every hilltop, celebrates its 100 th anniversary this year.

#7 Bayfield, WI —Lake Superior adventure awaits visitors to this town on the Bayfield Peninsula.  Like jewels tossed into the sapphire water, the 22 Apostle Islands lie just offshore.  On summer days, Bayfield’s harbor is full of kayaks and tour boats going to and from the beaches, lighthouses and campsites in the legendary archipelago.

#8 Put-in-Bay, OH —A storybook getaway is just a ferry ride away from northwest Ohio’s Lake Erie shoreline.  Only boats connect South Bass Island and its town of Put-in-Bay to the mainland, so visitors leave cars behind.  Family attractions fill the island, including museums, cave tours, fishing charters and a 1917 carousel.  For a great area view, climb the 352-foot Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, a while column commemorating a U.S. victory in the War of 1812.

#9 Stillwater, MN
—The timber of the St. Croix River Valley on the Minnesota/Wisconsin border built the fortunes behind Stillwater’s Victorian mansions, and the forests and craggy river valley still supply scenery visitors love.  The town lures travelers with an irresistible mix: a dozen inns and a historic downtown sprinkled with antique shops and bookstores that bring collectors from all over the world.  Stillwater offers one of the regions most surprising boat tours: St. Croix cruises in a gondola built in Venice, Italy.

A Best Midwest Small Town - Mackinac Island, Michigan

#10 Mackinac Island area, MI —It’s become a cliché to say that arriving by ferry to an island’s harborside village is like stepping back in time.  But it’s so true at Mackinac Island, that you’ll wonder if the idea originated on this Gilded Age holdover.  The queen of Victorian Era resorts, the white-columned Grand Hotel, occupies a bluff over the waters between Michigan’s peninsulas.  Because cars are banned, the signature sound is the clip-clop of horses’ hooves.

(Source: Midwest Living)

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