Skip to site content
Group Travel Leader Group Travel Leader Group Travel Leader

Tour the Waterfront Cities of the Heartland

In the early days of America, building a city near a water source like a river or lake meant survival. Living near water provided locals with easy access to and a direct link for transportation and commerce.

Today, waterfronts have transformed from a means to survive into opportunities to thrive as cities around the United States have tapped into the fun and endless adventure that living near the water provides. The Midwest is home to some of the nation’s largest lakes and rivers, and the cities that border them have developed personalities just as big.

Memorable experiences await at these amazing waterfronts in America’s Heartland.

Pella, Iowa

The story of Pella, Iowa, began at sea, when four ships set sail from the Netherlands bringing hundreds of Dutch pilgrims, including Pella’s leading founder, the Rev. Hendrik Pieter Scholte, to a land that promised religious freedom. In pure Dutch fashion, when the ship’s cleanliness didn’t match their standards, instead of complaining, the pilgrims set to work cleaning from top to bottom to make their temporary home more livable.

The scene played out once again when those 800 Dutch immigrants arrived near the shores of Iowa’s largest lake, between the Skunk and Des Moines rivers, in what would become Pella. The settlers worked together to build their new home from the ground up.

The town’s Dutch roots are still prevalent throughout Pella, where many visiting groups opt for boxed lunches from one of the local meat markets with fresh Dutch Gouda cheese and Pella bologna before heading down to the picnic tables along Cordova Park near the lake.

“I love watching the nature that encompasses the lake,” said Jill Vandevoort, executive director for the Pella Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Bird-watching is fantastic. There are flocks of pelicans that stop in migration each spring and fall, and hundreds of eagles call Red Rock their winter home.”

Smaller groups can rent a pontoon boat or work with CanoeSport Outfitters to arrange ecotours of Red Rock Lake. Groups of all sizes can enjoy the hiking, boating and windsurfing opportunities around this lakeside settlement.

Lake Forest, Illinois

Set along the shores of Lake Michigan, charming Lake Forest, Illinois, was founded in 1861. Architect and landscape gardener Almerin Hotchkiss designed this Chicago suburb as a city in a park, laying it out in an organic way that followed the curves of the lake’s ravines and bluffs.

“I enjoy spending a day at Forest Park Beach playing in the sun, sand and water,” said Sally Swarthout, director of parks, recreation and forestry at the City of Lake Forest in Illinois. “We have a wonderful boardwalk for strolling, and I love to use our boating center; it gives me the opportunity to rent a kayak or take a small sailboat out onto Lake Michigan.”

Visitors to Lake Forest can also take advantage of the many opportunities to get on the water, whether by fishing, skiing or paddleboarding. Offshore, groups can head to a fabulous English-inspired brunch or afternoon tea at the famous Deer Path Inn or whip up some s’mores in one of the fireplace picnic pavilions along the beach.

Sailing lessons are available for groups, as are sunset cruises onboard a Colgate 26 sailboat.

Port Clinton, Ohio

Better known as the Walleye Capital of the World, Port Clinton, Ohio, has one of the fishiest reputations of all Lake Erie’s waterfront destinations. It’s unlikely you’ll find a household in Port Clinton that doesn’t contain at least one fishing rod and reel, and many of the locals are happy to offer fishing tips and advice for out-of-towners.

The town loves walleye so much that each year on New Year’s Eve, the entire community gathers to ring in the New Year by dropping a 20-foot-long, LED-lit, 600-pound fiberglass replica of a walleye fish.

Port Clinton is home to the largest, most complete bait and tackle store in Northwest Ohio at the Fisherman’s Wharf, where visitors can book charter fishing trips to head out and test their luck on the waters. Fishing is a year-round sport in Port Clinton, where spring is prime trophy-walleye season, summer is reserved for catfish, fall is for fishing the shallows around the islands, and winter allows the lake to take the form of a small village with ice shanties built directly on top of the frozen waters.

“The water is what makes or breaks us, and we’re fortunate that it’s made us who we are,” said Hugh Wheeler Jr., mayor of the city of Port Clinton.

Ephraim, Wisconsin

Settled by a group of Norwegian Moravians in 1853, the picturesque lakeside village of Ephraim, Wisconsin, has remained true to its Scandinavian roots. It boasts copious cultural sites and numerous Norwegian traditions, like the annual Fyr Bal (pronounced feer ball) summer festival that starts with waterside fun and ends with a beachy bonfire.

Visitors can enjoy the views of Peninsula State Park and the various islands that dot the water on a sailing cruise, by kayak or by parasail. From the water, travelers get gorgeous views of Ephraim’s white steeples set amongst the surrounding landscape.

“One of the most memorable views in Ephraim is watching as the sun sets over the water of Eagle Harbor,” said Lane Sauve, tourism administrator of the Ephraim Business Council. “It’s a wonderful time to gather with family and friends and relax as the sky turns from pink to orange to purple and the sun disappears on the horizon. There is no better place to see the sun set than along the shoreline in Ephraim.”

Groups can experience Ephraim the way locals do, slowly strolling along the shoreline in Peninsula State Park with an ice cream cone from Wilson’s Ice Cream Parlor in hand.

Mackinac Island, Michigan

The Michigan island of Mackinac began as a fishing colony in the 1860s. Irish fishermen, coopers and net-makers trekked to the island each spring to fish, dry, pack and salt the fish caught along the shores, shipping and selling it in the markets in Canada and New York. It wasn’t long before wealthy Midwestern industrialists discovered this hidden gem, and in the 1890s, many socialites set up summer cottages on the island as a way to escape to the shores and explore the bluffs of the island.

Mackinac Island has retained its Victorian charm. Horse-drawn buggies are still the preferred mode of transportation, as cars and motorized vehicles are not allowed on the island. Visitors can opt for electric scooters or rent one of the 1,500 bikes on the island to get around.

Groups can rent kayaks and paddleboards or book a parasailing adventure or a sunset boat cruise to enjoy the stunning views.

“It is a special feeling to be in the Straits of Mackinac,” said Tim Hygh, executive director of Mackinac Island Tourism. “No two sunsets are the same here.”

Kristy Alpert

Kristy Alpert has traversed more than 50 countries in her quest to uncover stories for her outlets in Food & Wine, Men's Health, Group Travel Leader, American Way, and more. When she's not on the road, you can find her teaching yoga and exploring around her new home in Germany with her husband and her Boston Terrier, Tobias.