Small towns in the Midwest are marked by their community feel: a zest for life, a love of their neighbors and a hankering for some good ol' fun. They're also highly historic, full of gorgeous and easy-to-explore nature areas, home to amazing lakes where the setting sun seems to set the sky on fire and festivals aplenty.
So get thee to the Midwest—we've tracked down the most charming towns with must-visit attractions and recreation areas you'll want to point your internal compass to now.
This picturesque lakefront town is packed to the gills with appeal—so much so that President Barack Obama couldn't resist a visit here in 2011. He met with local businesses in Marquette's historic downtown district, some of which still trade on that fame today. With 22,000 residents, Marquette is the Upper Peninsula's largest city, although the small-town feel is evident from the vibrant Lower Harbor, a home to a series of festivals from spring through fall, to the university district, where mom-and-pop shops and restaurants line the streets.
"There's room to roam, without fences, without gates—just open land," said Marquette Mayor Dave Campana. "Whatever your interests are—biking, skiing, hiking—we've got a trail for you; there's a bike trail, the Iron Ore Heritage Trail, that starts at the casino on the east side of the city that goes to Republic [35 miles southwest of Marquette]. We also have a lot of beaches and parks."
A recreationist's dream, the pinnacle of natural beauty is Presque Isle Park, a 323-acre peninsula that juts into Lake Superior from the northern tip of the city. You can navigate your way through a two-mile scenic loop on foot, bike or by car; be sure to stop at the must-see Blackrocks for some quiet contemplation and to feel the mist of Lake Superior on your face.
"It's pretty impressive when [Lake Superior's] waves crash against the shoreline," said Campana. "People go out to Presque Isle when the weather is bad just to see it."
Marquette was also prominently featured in the James Stewart/Otto Preminger classic "Anatomy of a Murder;" the courtroom scenes were filmed in and around the idyllic Marquette Country Courthouse. Additional movie scenes were filmed in Big Bay, a 20-minute drive from Marquette; stop at Sugarloaf Mountain on the way and trek to the top for the most expansive views of Lake Superior in town.
A trip to Sugarloaf is among Campana's favorite treks in Marquette; he also recommends spending a day in the vibrant downtown district.
New Glarus, Wisconsin
When Switzerland's economy took a turn for the worse in 1845, it inspired Swiss settlers to make the move to the United States; the rolling hills, family farms and woodland pastures of southern Wisconsin's New Glarus reminded them of the alpine farmlands of their hometown. Its residents are enthusiastically proud of their rich heritage, keeping the folk traditions, cuisine, music and exquisitely maintained common areas alive and well. Plus, it's got a Beer, Bacon and Cheese Festival—how much better could it get?
The town of 2,100 is known as a craft beer destination: the New Glarus Brewing Company produces six beers that are available year-round, in addition to seasonal selections.
A short 50 miles due east of Marquette, Munising (population 2,355) beckons. Its Pictured Rocks are an international draw; even Kid Rock, who filmed his video "Born Free" there, is a fan. In the winter, you can take up ice climbing as the waterfalls and shoreline ice over and thrill-seekers will be happy to discover that Munising is home to the Midwest's largest ice-climbing festival, the Michigan Ice Fest.
Speaking of waterfalls, Michigan is a paradise for these natural wonders, and Munising features 17 waterfall trails to hike. Towering sand dunes can be seen in all of their glory at the Grand Sable Banks and Dunes. And for those into shipwreck lore, a glass-bottomed boat tour, during which you can view the watery remains of vessels in Lake Superior, is a don't-miss.
De Smet, South Dakota
It's all things Laura Ingalls Wilder when you visit this prairie town of just more than 1,000 permanent residents. A pioneer and author of the "Little House on the Prairie" books—which became a popular TV series in the '70s and early '80s—Wilder and her family traveled more than 1,000 miles in a covered wagon to claim land after the Homestead Act of 1862 was announced.
In the '90s, the Ingalls Homestead once again saw glory when it was converted to a working farm; you can experience the rigors of the homestead lifestyle, visit a real one-room schoolhouse and even camp overnight in a covered wagon. The journey into Wilder's life continues at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, where you can visit the railroad surveyor's shanty where Wilder and her family spent their first Dakota winter in 1879. And, every year, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant stages a different book from the series.
It's been almost 30 years since "Field of Dreams" hit the silver screen, but to residents of Dyersville, Iowa—population just over 4,000—the movie is never forgotten. It was filmed on the century-old Lansing family farm and the set is operational to this day.
Never before has the mantra: "If you build it, they will come" been so true. Every year, visitors descend on this home, baseball diamond and cornfield to run the bases, play some catch, get some of the best selfies ever and just sit on the grass and enjoy the natural beauty of the area. The best thing yet: it's free to do so.
There's no place like Wamego, Kansas, for fans of the 1939 classic "The Wizard of Oz." In addition to being home to one of the world's largest privately-owned collections of Oz memorabilia, the 4,600-resident town is home to the Oz Winery—with fun choices such as the "Squished Witch"—and an annual Oztoberfest.
"I love seeing the memorabilia that was actually featured in the movie," said Hilliard. "You can see a couple of the flying monkeys and also costumes worn by the Munchkins."
But for those who want to get out from beyond an entirely Oz-filled vacation, Hilliard suggests the Schonhoff Dutch Mill, Columbian Theatre, the Wamego Historical Museum & Prairie Village and the Lazy Heart D Ranch.
"How many people can say they fed a bison, which you can do at the Lazy Heart D Ranch!" she exclaimed.
The "first of the Kansas cow towns," Abilene (population 6,665) had the distinction of being the end point of the Chisholm Trail; once the Kansas Pacific Railroad built a stop here in 1867, it quickly became a "frontier town." As businesses sprang up, so did lawlessness and it took outlaw Wild Bill Hickok, of all people, to bring back order—serving as city marshal in 1871, bringing back an era of peacefulness.
More famously, Abilene is known as the boyhood home of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower: the house on South East Fourth Street has been open to the public since 1947 and is on a compound that also features the Eisenhower Presidential Library—a treasure trove of more than 27 million historical items—in addition to a museum, visitors center, place of meditation and Eisenhower statue.
Yellow Springs, Ohio
With its vibrant arts community, this 3,500-strong town offers a colorful downtown district full of performance artists, eclectic shops, galleries and concert venues.
Those who want to get back to nature shouldn't miss the Glen Helen Raptor Center, an outreach of the Glen Helen Ecology Institute, which rehabilitates injured raptors and houses those whose injuries prevent a return to the wild. Nearly half of the 150-200 birds of prey admitted each year make it back to their natural habitats. Expand your knowledge of these gorgeous creatures at the nonprofit facility.
The beauty of nature makes "The Lilac Village," only an hour from Chicago, a must-visit town. While it weighs in with 42,000 residents, the small-town feel is evident as soon as you set foot in this picturesque and fragrant town.
Just about as quaint as you can get, Lombard has one of our favorite downtown areas, thanks to Lilacia Park, an 8.5-acre horticultural gem, featuring 800 lilacs, 25,000 tulips and a heritage dating back to the 1920s. Also of note in Lombard is the Dr. William LeRoy House, or the Little Orphan Annie House as it's better known; once owned by a doctor, the house was later purchased by Harold Gray, creator of the Little Orphan Annie comic strip, who used the home's study to work on the cartoons until he married. You can even see references to Lombard in his work during this time period.
Oak Park, Illinois
Our biggest small town at 52,000 residents—and also officially a village—Oak Park's draws include its delightful family-owned businesses, but its largest are arguably the dedications to the town's most famous native sons. The Ernest Hemingway Birthplace and Museum is a must for any literature lover; museum exhibits are housed in kiosks fashioned from old-fashioned doors, and such hold artifacts as Hemingway's childhood diary and the letter from nurse Agnes von Kurowksy—portrayed in "A Farewell to Arms"—ending their engagement.
Frank Lloyd Wright's influence on the world's spaces is immeasurable; visit his home and studio, where he spent the formative years of his career, then take a walking—or bicycle—tour of the historic area featuring buildings he designed, such as the Moore-Dugal residence, the Hill-DeCaro House and Unity Temple.
A stop on the Oregon Trail, Ogallala (population 4,700) was home to many types of drifters over the years including cattlemen, trappers, tradespeople and regular folk; its name, given by Sioux Indians, means "scatter."
Today, the town is known for its number of wildlife-viewing areas. In January through March, bald eagles congregate on or below the Kingley Dam on Lake Ogallala; the west end of Lake McConaughy attracts a large number of Canadian geese. Lake McConaughy and Lake Ogallala rank as the No. 3 spot for bird-watching in the nation; more than 320 species of birds have been identified near their shores.
Jamestown, North Dakota
They're not the stuff of myth, American buffalo (bison) roam free among 15,000 of their human counterparts in this North Dakota town. Jamestown's pride and joy is the rare white buffalo—creatures of which have been held sacred by American Indians—Dakota Miracle, who lives among the herd at the National Buffalo Museum. Here, you'll learn about history of the bison and more about its cultural significance.
Adjacent to the museum lies one of America's most popular roadside attractions: the world's largest buffalo monument, a 26-foot-tall, 60-ton concrete likeness that's been presiding over Jamestown since 1959.
A town of approximately 6,600 residents, Nappanee is as about as American as you can get—just ask the visitors who make their way here each year for its famous Apple Festival. It kicks off with the presentation, and enjoyment, of a 7-foot-wide apple pie, before a parade with military flyover, carnival rides, a cornhole tournament, an apple-baking contest and the Miss Apple Blossom scholarship pageant.
Nappanee is the southern gateway to the Northern Indiana Amish Country; to learn more about the Amish and practice Nappanee's motto "Embrace the Pace," a visit to Amish Acres is in order. This farm and heritage resort features a preserved round barn and lets you have a taste of Amish cuisine. The complex is the only old-order Amish farm listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Ste. Genevieve, Missouri
Founded by French Canadians traveling west across the Mississippi River from Illinois in 1735, Ste. Genevieve is Missouri's oldest town. The population of 4,400 beam with pride over its historic district, where 646 buildings built in 29 different styles of architecture contribute to its rich heritage, including some of the most significant examples of French-colonial dwellings in the United States. It's located just 60 miles south of St. Louis; historic homes you can tour include the Beauvais-Amoureaux House (1792), the Bequette-Ribault House (1792), the Bolduc House Museum (1770) and the Felix Valle State Site (1818).
Every year in August, the Jour de Fete celebrates Ste. Genevieve's European roots with colonial blacksmithing and woodworking demonstrations, drills by the French Marines, antique steam engine displays and one of the largest artisan craft festivals in the Midwest.
This beautiful community is a walkable one, but visitors can also get around via trolley (with convenient stops to one of the many wineries) or take a ferry ride down the Mississippi River.
While St. Louis, Missouri, may lay current claim to the title, Winona, Minnesota, was once known as "Gateway to the West" thanks to its sandbar prairie in the middle of the Mississippi River.
"The city of Winona was founded in the early 1850s after a riverboat captain set up camp on a massive sandbar in the Mississippi River. That sandbar is where they built Winona, so we are technically an island city," said Cynthya Porter, digital communications coordinator for the Visit Winona website. "Thanks mainly to the lumber and grain shipping industries, people in Winona amassed enormous wealth early, and by the turn of the century, we had one of the most beautiful and prosperous Victorian downtowns in the state. Many of those buildings still stand today, and nearly all of our downtown is listed on the National Historic Register."
Today, the town of more than 27,000 is a vibrant, thriving community; it is rich in the arts, home to the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, a symphony orchestra, two independent theater companies and numerous festivals, such as the Great River Shakespeare Festival, the Minnesota Beethoven Festival, the Boats & Bluegrass Festival and many others. The idyllic setting next to the Mississippi River also makes it the perfect spot to enjoy the great outdoors, whether you just want to view the bluffs, visit the Deer Park or get more physical and go kayaking, hiking, skiing or snowshoeing, depending on the season.
"The beauty of Winona is that it is a great place to find compromises for friends or families that might have different interests," said Porter, who has lived in Winona for more than 20 years. "You can paddle the Mississippi backwaters in the morning, shop in the afternoon and take in a play or concert that night. It's really the best of all worlds here."