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The Best Beach Towns in the Midwest

Along the scenic shores of the land-locked region's finest lakes and rivers, these all beckon for a summertime visit.

The 12 states that constitute the Midwestern United States might not have oceanic coastlines, but they certainly deliver waterfront—with tens of thousands of river miles and lakeshores that make up some of the best beaches in the Midwest. This north-central region includes Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Kansas, Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Missouri, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois’ beach towns worthy of a summertime visit. 

Unsurprisingly, many of our picks come from the scenic Upper Midwest; yet there are still plenty of selections from across the region, from a famous island paradise, to a peninsula dubbed the Cape Cod of the Midwest, to a National Scenic River known for its free-flowing azure waters. Here are the best beach towns in the heartland, in no particular order.

All listings featured on Condé Nast Traveler are independently selected by our editors. If you book something through our links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Sister Bay sits on Lake Michigan's Green Bay and hosts summertime concerts on the waterfront.

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Sister Bay, Wisconsin

Part of Door County, a beloved Wisconsin destination, Nordic-chic Sister Bay rests on Lake Michigan's stunning Green Bay. This village makes the most of its location by hosting a popular summertime concert series at the Sister Bay Beach and Waterfront Park. Get on the water with a scenic boat tour (especially the sunset and live-music option), or rent a kayak or paddleboard from Bay Shore Outfitters. Consider a stop at the Door County Creamery for a farm-fresh lunch (and unreal goat cheese) and head to Skip Stone Coffee for a locally-roasted brew. Famous goats graze on the green grass roof at Al Johnson's, where you can get Swedish pancakes for breakfast or the lingonberry ice cream for dessert. It wouldn't be Wisconsin without an adult beverage, so grab an Old-Fashioned made with brandy at Earl's Sister Bay Bowl, a quirky Wisconsin supper club plus bowling alley. 

Where to stay: Rest your head at the Dörr Hotel, a contemporary, Scandinavian-inspired spot where saunas are a soon-to-come addition.

Nisswa is nestled between a number of Minnesota's fine watering holes.

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Nisswa, Minnesota

As the land of 10,000 lakes (there are actually even more, but who’s counting), Minnesota is chock full of gorgeous waters, including Lake Superior, multiple mighty rivers, and tons of inland lakes. The north-central town of Nisswa rises above for being effectively sandwiched between multiple crystal-clear watering holes. Located just north of Brainerd, considered the capital of “lake country,” Nisswa boasts a cute main street with locally-owned shops like Found: a curated lifeBig Axe Brewing, a charming northern nod to Paul Bunyan, is another great spot in town. 

Where to stay: Base your trip at the Grand View Lodge on Gull Lake, with its 2500-foot beach, rustic chic accommodations, stellar eateries, and newly renovated spa for the ultimate Minnesota nice getaway. 

Yankton, South Dakota

The charming town of Yankton sits on the banks of the nation’s longest river, the mighty Missouri. This section of the waterway is actually considered a National Park as it’s a recognized National Recreational River. Visitors can head to Goat Island Recreational Area for hiking and island camping. Nearby, Lewis and Clark Lake, a massive, dammed reservoir, provides additional outdoor opportunities; it’s a prime spot for swimming, boating, paddling, and more. Back in town, stroll the well-known Meridian District for bright, poppy murals, locally-owned shops and breweries, and its iconic bridge.

Where to stay: Check out the rustic luxe lodging options at Twist of Pine, which offers a traditional B&B experience alongside private cabin rentals. 

A big draw of Okoboji, Iowa is bustling Lake Okoboji—two lakes, East and West, connected in the middle by a bottleneck and surrounded by a slew of state parks and recreation areas.

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Okoboji, Iowa  

Known as the Iowa Great Lakes, this area and its string of cute lakeside towns is famed for its crystal-clear waters. A slew of state parks and recreation areas offer public access to the lakes. The big draw is bustling Lake Okoboji, two lakes connecting in the middle, which allows boats to pass through the bottleneck. Like most beach towns, the primary season stretches from Memorial Day through Labor Day and is the best time to visit. For dining, Maxwell’s Beach Cafe in downtown Arnold’s Park offers elevated fare and a great wine list, plus a patio that overlooks the new outdoor concert venue. Other tasty spots include upscale Prime, which has excellent crab cakes and even better views of West Lake Okoboji, and quaint Yesterday’s, a local favorite. Finally, consider a stop at Arnold’s Park amusement park for old-school family fun.

Where to stay: There are numerous upscale vacation rentals in the area, but those interested in a classic, laid-back stay should visit Vintage Block Inn & Suites, a revamped motel with nightly bonfires. 

Mackinac Island, Michigan 

This is technically a town and an island, but it belongs on this list either way. Mackinac is a legendary Midwestern destination set in the turquoise waters of Lake Huron. Charmingly, it’s only accessible via plane or ferry. No cars are allowed, so visitors can walk around or ride in one of the iconic horse carriages. Plus, most of the area is protected state park land, so there are tons of recreational opportunities. Enjoy a sunrise kayak with Great Turtle Kayak Tours or rent a bike and ride all the way around Mackinac Island; this journey takes roughly an hour cycling and up to four by foot. Then, sample a glass of Michigan dry riesling at the waterfront Pink Pony and don’t miss a slice of fudge (or five) from Murdick’s.  

Where to stay: While the island’s grand dame hotel, the aptly named Grand Hotel, reigns supreme, plenty of other lodging options like Mission Point or the Island House exist. 

Stillwater, Minnesota sits on the shores of the St. Croix River and has its own aerial lift bridge and riverfront park.

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Stillwater, Minnesota

The St. Croix River is a pristine, blue ribbon that slices through Minnesota and Wisconsin, forming the border between the states for most of its 170-mile length. It’s even been elevated to National Scenic Riverway status for its natural beauty. Right on its shores rests Stillwater, a quintessential Midwestern river town complete with an aerial lift bridge and a riverfront park. Sample a local beverage from Lift Bridge Brewery; their mango IPA is especially popular, but expect tons of seasonal beers, plus a hard seltzer and hard cider option. There’s also a speakeasyold-school ice cream shop(pe)classic diner, and multiple tasty, trendy eateries. 

Where to stay: Look no further than the upscale, dog-friendly boutique Lora Hotel

​​Bayfield, Wisconsin

Bayfield serves as the gateway to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, a stunning site administered by the National Park Service. Known as “the jewels of Lake Superior,” this area is famous for its ice caves in winter and a bevy of warm weather activities; visitors can kayak, cruise, sail, fish, and more. Bayfield provides a myriad of farms and orchards, too, earning the nickname of the berry capital of Wisconsin. It’s also home to thriving indigenous culture, with the nation’s first Tribal National Park and first native-owned distillery nearby. 

Where to stay: Consider a stay at the Wild Rice Retreat, an upscale, modern cabin-style spot. 

Indiana's Winona Lake is smack dab in the state's lake country and counts a public park with a splash pad around which winds an easy, scenic trail.

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​​Winona Lake, Indiana

This cute town is smack dab in the middle of Northern Indiana lake country, a grouping of three counties that boast hundreds of lakes. It has a fantastic outdoor amphitheater, a great public park with a splash pad, and an easy, scenic trail to stretch your legs. But the star of the show is its natural lake namesake, a premiere bass fishing spot and swimming hole. Get in the water instead of on it with paddleboard and kayak rentals from The Lake House, then check out the shops and restaurants housed in refurbished Victorians at the Village at Winona

Where to stay: Tons of cute Airbnbs litter this area, so extend your stay for a weekend getaway.  

Osage Beach, Missouri

Ignore the Ozark TV show reputation and consider the winding miles and miles of shoreline at the Lake of the Ozarks. This serpentine man-made recreational paradise is a major Midwestern summer destination. It’s also home to the notorious “party cove,” where boats gather with raucous crowds, called Anderson Hollow Cove. On the culinary side, snag brunch from On the Rise and dinner by boat at 1932 Reserve or Backwater Jack’s

Where to stay: The nearby Lodge of Four Seasons (not that Four Seasons) is a four-star spot, but the best options for accommodations are lake homes right on the water via Airbnb or VRBO. 

The cute beach town of Sandusky, Ohio offers easy access to Lake Erie from Cleveland.


Sandusky, Ohio

On the shores of Lake Erie, Sandusky is a cute beach town that’s easily accessible from Cleveland and home to Cedar Point amusement park. Travelers can experience a variety of watersports there, from kayaking to paddleboarding to parasailing. There’s also a historic theater, numerous beaches, waterfront dining, and souvenir shops galore. Catch the ferry to Kelly’s Island for even more Northern Ohio beach town fun, like renting a bicycle, swimming at the beach, walking the Lilac Trail, or even scuba diving the Great Lakes. 

Where to stay: Pop up to the quaint village of Marblehead to stay at The Red Fern Inn at Rocky Point Winery, a five-star inn. 

Grand Haven, Michigan 

This lower peninsula gem is famous for the Grand Haven Lighthouse and ten sandy beaches along the pretty Lake Michigan coastline. Shops and eateries line the boardwalk here, which is anchored by Grand Haven State Park. Visitors can fish, swim, camp, and picnic along the Great Lake’s shore. Also, catch the (seasonal) Musical Fountain show downtown at dusk. 

Where to stay: Consider a stay at one of the quaint inns in town, such as the Looking Glass, which sits a short mile from downtown and offers stunning lake views. Guests can either take the 79 steps up to this bed and breakfast, or use the historic electric trolley.