The Great Lakes area is home to some stellar cities.
Beloved destinations such as Chicago and Milwaukee can be found on these Midwestern shores. The Great Lakes cover 94,250 square miles and have become a centerpiece of group travelers’ visits to the states surrounding them.
Here are a few of cities that have made names for themselves on the Great Lakes.
Everything in Chicago revolves around the river and Lake Michigan. Chicago is a large city mixed with nature, said Naomi Hattori, acting vice president of global development for Choose Chicago.
“If someone hasn’t heard about Chicago, they hear about the lake,” she said. “They really appreciate the breadth of how close the water is to the city and our open lakefront.”
Many of Chicago’s iconic city parks, including Millennium Park, are along the lake so the “lake is accessible to everyone,” Hattori said.
To get a sense of how large the lake is, she recommended that groups go to one of the city’s tallest buildings with observatories to get a view from above.
The water makes an excellent vantage point to view Chicago’s famous architecture. Visitors can take a 60- to 90-minute architecture tour by boat along the Chicago River and out onto Lake Michigan.
The River Walk connects the Navy Pier to west of the river. Groups visiting the historic Navy Pier can ride on the Centennial Wheel or take advantage of Pier Park attractions like the Light Tower Ride, the carousel, the Pepsi Wave Swinger or the climbing walls.
Water taxis are a great way to get around the city; they connect the more than 450 shops along the Magnificent Mile with Navy Pier and the Museum Campus that includes the famous Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium.
Many people don’t realize that Milwaukee, which sits on Lake Michigan, is also located at the confluence of three rivers. Groups take advantage of Milwaukee’s watery location by booking a dinner, a brunch or a history cruise that starts on the Milwaukee River and goes out onto Lake Michigan.
The world-class Milwaukee Art Museum has a huge window with amazing lake views, said Lindsey McKee, communications manager for Visit Milwaukee, and the Discovery World Science and Technology Center, also on the lake, has a must-see Great Lakes exhibit that talks about the importance of the Great Lakes and Milwaukee’s place in it. Visitors can even set sail on Discovery World’s tall ship, the Sailing Vessel Denis Sullivan, a re-creation of a 19th-century three-masted Great Lakes schooner.
Milwaukee is known as the city that beer built, and Lake Michigan and Milwaukee’s three rivers played a huge role in building that reputation, McKee said. Groups can tour some of Milwaukee’s many breweries, but the Historic Pabst Milwaukee Brewery is a must. Visitors can explore the historic Pabst campus, learn about its long history and sample some beer on tap in the tavern.
A Paddle Tavern tour allows guests to drink some of Milwaukee’s famous brews while they paddle along the Milwaukee River. If groups just want to get out and experience the vastness of Lake Michigan, they can take the Lake Express Ferry, a car ferry that transports passengers across the lake to Muskegon, Michigan, said McKee.
Duluth sits on the greatest of the Great Lakes: Lake Superior. It doesn’t matter what time of year it is — group visitors can find something fun to do in and around the water, including boating, swimming, surfing, ice fishing and ice skating. Groups can start their visit at Fitger’s, a hotel, restaurant and retail mecca lakeshore that occupies the site of a historic brewery that dates back to the 1800s. Vista Fleet offers cruises on the lake that take visitors beneath the aerial lift bridge that is a fixture of the port city.
Residents as well as tourists love to line up along the ship canal to watch big ships coming in under the lift bridge. Another attraction by the water is the William A. Irvin, a 1,000-foot ship that is now a free museum. The Irvin was the flagship of U.S. Steel’s Great Lakes Fleet, hauling bulk materials from Lake Superior towns to U.S. Steel’s mills on Lake Michigan and Lake Erie. A train ride on the North Shore Scenic Railroad takes visitors from the historic Duluth Union Depot through downtown Duluth and Canal Park, along the shore of Lake Superior and into the North Woods. The fully narrated tour tells the history of Duluth, the harbor and the railroads that built Minnesota and Wisconsin.
More adventurous groups can take guided fat-tire biking or kayak tours or take a city or brewery tour.
“The brewery and cider scene has exploded here over the last few years,” said Lori Steinbach, visitor services manager for Visit Duluth. That includes distilleries that make gin and whiskey. Groups can also book fun adventures like behind-the-scenes brewery tours and curling lessons.
Erie is the only port Pennsylvania has on the Great Lakes.
What makes the area special is Presque Isle State Park, a 3,200-acre sandy peninsula that juts out into Lake Erie. It is famous for its seven miles of beaches. Presque Isle Bay itself is the largest harbor in the Great Lakes at two miles wide and seven miles long.
Visitors to the park can book a narrated boat tour on either the Lady Kate or the U.S. Ariel, a replica historic ship that sports 18 water cannons.
Erie’s Bayfront district is home to the Erie Maritime Museum and the U.S. Brig Niagara, a replica of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s two-masted relief flagship that helped defeat the British at the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. The Victorian Princess, a paddle-wheeler, also launches from Bayfront and offers scenic boat tours and meal cruises for large groups.
“It’s really becoming where the action is,” said Emily Beck, director of tourism development for VisitErie. The Bicentennial Tower is another must-see destination. The 187-foot-tall tower offers wonderful views of Presque Isle Bay and Lake Erie from two observation decks. Erie has 4,500 lodge rooms and plenty of shopping and restaurants. It is also the largest Concord-grape-growing region in the world, making it a great place to make wine, grape juice and jelly.
“It is a perfect spot,” said Beck. “Everything is right, from the weather to the lake and the sandy soil to the warmer fall. It tends to be warmer here in the fall because the lake is still warm. All those elements make it good for growing grapes.”
Cleveland sits at the confluence of the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie. The best way to see the city skyline is to take a boat ride on either the Cuyahoga River or Lake Erie. The Goodtime III, which can hold 1,000 passengers, offers narrated tours and dinner and entertainment cruises on the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie. The Nautica Queen takes groups on dining cruises of the area.
Edgewater Beach is Cleveland’s most popular beachfront destination in the summer, with live music and food vendors. It is also a great place to lounge on the beach or participate in water sports like kayaking, jet skiing and paddleboarding.
The North Coast Harbor area of Cleveland is home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Great Lakes Science Center and FirstEnergy Stadium, home of the Cleveland Browns. All three are on the shores of Lake Erie.
The Flats neighborhood, which sits on both the east and west banks of the Cuyahoga River, recently underwent a multimillion-dollar revitalization that brought in restaurants, bars, shops and a boardwalk. Water taxis transport visitors to both sides of the river to explore. The Greater Cleveland Aquarium, with its more than 5,000 sea creatures, is also popular with groups.