Best Midwestern lake towns to live in

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people got back to nature—permanently. City dwellers, newly empowered by working remotely, relocated to more rural areas in droves to escape the pressures of living in a small space in a concrete jungle. People in major coastal cities quickly realized that the Midwest had a generally lower cost of living, which made it more affordable.

The Midwest also offers coastal living—just freshwater lakefronts instead of ocean shores. The Great Lakes—together the largest freshwater body on the planet spanning hundreds of miles across the upper Midwest—are a major draw for many; however, the Midwest also has many converted quarries, lakes made from dams, and lakes created from receding glaciers. They all spawn a variety of activities in, on, and around the water that allow people to create a more relaxing lifestyle.

Stacker collected data from WalletHub—released on June 16, 2021—comparing U.S. beach and lake towns in six categories: affordability, weather, safety, economy, education and health, and quality of life. All cities had to have at least one local beach listed on TripAdvisor. Rankings are based on comparisons of 191 cities across 62 key indicators of livability. Read the full methodology here.

Is lakeside living for you? See what these Midwestern towns have to offer.

You may also like: Interior design trends from the 1920s to today

Aerial view of Traverse City marina with boats

1 / 25SNEHIT PHOTO // Shutterstock

#1. Traverse City, Michigan

– National rank: #1
– Total score: 65.8
– Affordability rank: #35
– Weather rank: #15
– Safety rank: #23
– Economy rank: #20
– Education & health rank: #13
– Quality of life rank: #1

Located on the shores of Grand Traverse Bay in Lake Michigan, Traverse City thrives on lake living. The city has four beaches within minutes of downtown and a marina for boaters and paddlers. Pretty much any water activity is possible on Grand Traverse Bay—even surfing!

Commuter rail station in Highland Park

2 / 25Michael Heimlich // Shutterstock

#2. Highland Park, Illinois

– National rank: #9
– Total score: 58.5
– Affordability rank: #19
– Weather rank: #30
– Safety rank: #10
– Economy rank: #7
– Education & health rank: #9
– Quality of life rank: #12

Part of Chicago’s North Shore, Highland Park is about 25 miles north of the city, but a world away. Home to a number of lakefront parks and beaches, Highland Park is also home to Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, a 77-acre nature preserve with distinct lakefront, bluffs, and ravine ecosystems. Once a part of the former Fort Sheridan Army base, Openlands remains temporarily closed since April 2021 while the U.S. Navy investigates the site for old unexploded military munitions.

Large trees and park bench by lake in autumn

3 / 25MarynaG // Shutterstock

#3. Brookfield, Wisconsin

– National rank: #10
– Total score: 58.3
– Affordability rank: #8
– Weather rank: #20
– Safety rank: #9
– Economy rank: #13
– Education & health rank: #5
– Quality of life rank: #15

Waukesha County turned an old gravel quarry into a gem for Brookfield’s residents. Fox Brook Lake has a popular swimming beach, and due to its 30-foot depth it’s ideal for scuba divers. The lake is part of a 223-acre park that includes trails and wetlands that are ideal for birds and other wildlife.

Two people kayaking on lake

4 / 25Suzanne Tucker // Shutterstock

#4. Pewaukee, Wisconsin

– National rank: #11
– Total score: 57.7
– Affordability rank: #25
– Weather rank: #32
– Safety rank: #6
– Economy rank: #2
– Education & health rank: #12
– Quality of life rank: #20

Pewaukee, Wisconsin’s namesake lake is a fisherman’s paradise. The 2,437-acre lake contains musky, panfish, largemouth bass, northern pike, and walleyes. For those who’d rather play in the water than on it, Lakefront Park has a beach and swimming area.

People walking along Lake Erie beach by boats

5 / 25Denise Kappa // Shutterstock

#5. Rocky River, Ohio

– National rank: #13
– Total score: 56.9
– Affordability rank: #9
– Weather rank: #2
– Safety rank: #15
– Economy rank: #11
– Education & health rank: #7
– Quality of life rank: #35

Cleveland Magazine ranked Rocky River second on its 2022 list of Best Places to Live, and for good reason. The city features a quaint downtown and great access to Lake Erie for boaters and paddlers. Bradstreet’s Landing offers one launch point, and Emerald Necklace Marina—located in Rocky River Reservation—allows boaters access to the lake via the city’s namesake river.

You may also like: Can you guess these famous skylines?

Fishing dock on Staring Lake in fall

6 / 25Susan Rydberg // Shutterstock

#6. Eden Prairie, Minnesota

– National rank: #14
– Total score: 56.8
– Affordability rank: #10
– Weather rank: #9
– Safety rank: #7
– Economy rank: #8
– Education & health rank: #14
– Quality of life rank: #31

Minnesota is known for its lakes, and Eden Prairie’s residents can enjoy 17 of them. The lakes, many of which are named for settlers of the area, offer year-round enjoyment, from swimming at beaches to ice fishing. Round Lake hosts the city’s annual Fourth of July celebration, which features food, music, and fireworks on the beach.

Duluth skyline from lake

7 / 25Canva

#7. Duluth, Minnesota

– National rank: #15
– Total score: 56.4
– Affordability rank: #31
– Weather rank: #13
– Safety rank: #22
– Economy rank: #22
– Education & health rank: #15
– Quality of life rank: #8

Duluth sits on the western tip of Lake Superior, which makes it a vibrant shipping terminus for cargo traveling through the Great Lakes, but its lake life has much more to offer. Duluth has many parks on the water, including Park Point Beach, a long sandbar that separates Lake Superior and Superior Bay. Lake Superior is the largest, coldest, and deepest of the Great Lakes, but those elements stave off summer heat and keep the shoreline warmer in the winter.

Aerial view of Mequon

8 / 25James Meyer // Shutterstock

#8. Mequon, Wisconsin

– National rank: #16
– Total score: 56.4
– Affordability rank: #24
– Weather rank: #18
– Safety rank: #3
– Economy rank: #9
– Education & health rank: #10
– Quality of life rank: #33

Although it’s located on Lake Michigan, Mequon sits on 100-foot-high bluffs that overlook the lake. Ozaukee County is building a staircase down to the lake, but that’s a project that’s been years in the making. Inland, Mequon has many other options for water-related activities, including hiking along the Donges Bay Gorge, fishing at Spirit Lake, and canoeing on the Milwaukee River.

Red harbor beacon in Alpena

9 / 25Timothy Milan Kuret // Shutterstock

#9. Alpena, Michigan

– National rank: #18
– Total score: 54.6
– Affordability rank: #23
– Weather rank: #1
– Safety rank: #34
– Economy rank: #34
– Education & health rank: #17
– Quality of life rank: #9

Thunder Bay and Lake Huron beckon water lovers in Alpena, which offers a number of activities to enjoy the freshwater lake it borders. Alpena is also home to Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, a preserve of almost 100 shipwrecks in the surrounding waters that snorkelers and scuba divers can explore.

People touring historic big red lighthouse

10 / 25Canva

#10. Holland, Michigan

– National rank: #19
– Total score: 54.5
– Affordability rank: #13
– Weather rank: #12
– Safety rank: #44
– Economy rank: #16
– Education & health rank: #19
– Quality of life rank: #4

Lake Macatawa is the definition of lakefront living, as most of the property surrounding the lake provides stunning views for waterfront homeowners. The lake is popular with boaters and anglers. Downtown Holland, on the eastern end of the lake, boasts three lakefront parks, and residents also enjoy Holland State Park on its western end, which also connects to a beach and popular lighthouse on Lake Michigan.

You may also like: Here are the best places to live on the East Coast, from New England to the Florida Keys

Crane taking off over lake with skyline in background

11 / 25Erik Drost // Wikimedia Commons

#11. Bay Village, Ohio

– National rank: #20
– Total score: 54.0
– Affordability rank: #16
– Weather rank: #3
– Safety rank: #19
– Economy rank: #27
– Education & health rank: #6
– Quality of life rank: #37

While beautiful homes abut Lake Erie, the crown jewel of Bay Village is Huntington Beach and Huntington Reservation, part of the nationally renowned Cleveland Metroparks system. Residents can picnic on the shore, take a dip in the lake, or paddle around the waters. A small boat launch allows easy lake access to small boat owners who live in Bay Village.

Stoughton City Hall with Norwegian flag

12 / 25Henryk Sadura // Shutterstock

#12. Stoughton, Wisconsin

– National rank: #21
– Total score: 54.0
– Affordability rank: #33
– Weather rank: #19
– Safety rank: #2
– Economy rank: #31
– Education & health rank: #18
– Quality of life rank: #27

Lake Kegonsa lies on the north end of Stoughton, and its namesake state park is a haven for boaters, anglers, and swimmers. During winter, ice fishers take to the lake, and the beach converts to a sledding hill. The main town sits along the Yahara River, which is dotted with waterfront parks, including Viking County Park and Troll Beach, both of which embrace the city’s Norwegian heritage.

Water fountains and park at Branson Landing

13 / 25Rosemarie Mosteller // Shutterstock

#13. Branson, Missouri

– National rank: #22
– Total score: 53.8
– Affordability rank: #26
– Weather rank: #43
– Safety rank: #42
– Economy rank: #19
– Education & health rank: #41
– Quality of life rank: #2

Formed in 1959 after a dam was built in the White River, Table Rock Lake beckons Branson residents with every lake activity you can imagine. Residents boat, water-ski, Jet Ski, parasail, and more along this 43,000-acre lake that boasts 857 miles of shoreline. Table Rock Lake is also known as one of the best lakes for bass fishing in the central U.S. and hosts a stop on the pro fishing circuit.

Vermillion lighthouse and lake

14 / 25Henryk Sadura // Shutterstock

#14. Vermilion, Ohio

– National rank: #24
– Total score: 51.7
– Affordability rank: #6
– Weather rank: #11
– Safety rank: #13
– Economy rank: #17
– Education & health rank: #35
– Quality of life rank: #30

Vermilion developed around the area where the Vermilion River empties into Lake Erie. Vermilion has no fewer than four beaches, and it’s also a popular spot for motorboats and sailboats. Its annual Festival of the Fish celebrates the lake with a sandcastle contest, a “crazy craft” regatta, and a lighted boat parade.

Dam at Oak Creek Pond in park

15 / 25Tony Savino // Shutterstock

#15. Oak Creek, Wisconsin

– National rank: #27
– Total score: 48.2
– Affordability rank: #30
– Weather rank: #42
– Safety rank: #17
– Economy rank: #15
– Education & health rank: #21
– Quality of life rank: #43

Just south of Milwaukee, Oak Creek sits on bluffs above Lake Michigan’s western shore. In 2018, the city completed Lake Vista Park, a 250-acre transformation of industrial land that features a playground, walking trails, and a pavilion that looks out onto the lake. A new lakefront residential development next to the park broke ground in 2021.

You may also like: What the 50 biggest cities in America looked like 50 years ago

Bike path and covered bridge in fall

16 / 25Ross Ellet // Shutterstock

#16. Oregon, Ohio

– National rank: #28
– Total score: 46.6
– Affordability rank: #11
– Weather rank: #41
– Safety rank: #29
– Economy rank: #26
– Education & health rank: #24
– Quality of life rank: #42

Next door to Toledo, Oregon sits on Maumee Bay, which leads into Lake Erie. A local boat ramp provides boating access to the bay for recreation and fishing—particularly for walleye and yellow perch. Maumee Bay State Park offers two swimming beaches on Lake Erie and an inland lake for non-motorized boating and fishing.

Aerial view of suburban houses and lake in autumn

17 / 25James Meyer // Shutterstock

#17. Shorewood, Wisconsin

– National rank: #29
– Total score: 46.1
– Affordability rank: #41
– Weather rank: #45
– Safety rank: #14
– Economy rank: #32
– Education & health rank: #11
– Quality of life rank: #34

This small village—just 1.5 square miles—is bordered by water on two sides: To the west is the Milwaukee River, and to the east is Lake Michigan. Milwaukee is on its south border, giving residents easy access to the city. A pedestrian-friendly village, Shorewood has its own 5-acre lakefront park with a beach.

Kenosha Breakwater lighthouse and lake

18 / 25John Brueske // Shutterstock

#18. Kenosha, Wisconsin

– National rank: #31
– Total score: 46.0
– Affordability rank: #37
– Weather rank: #29
– Safety rank: #33
– Economy rank: #35
– Education & health rank: #36
– Quality of life rank: #19

Kenosha’s Lake Michigan shoreline once buzzed with manufacturing—a 69-acre industrial site once housed Simmons Mattress Company, which then became a factory for American Motors Corporation before being sold to the city in 1994. Over many years, Kenosha developed this area into the city’s HarborPark neighborhood, which has turned the lakefront into a cultural playground for residents. Kenosha also has five beaches, a harbor, and Pike Bike Trail, a lakefront path that connects to bike paths linking Milwaukee to Chicago.

Canadian goose takes off from lake

19 / 25Mike Truchon // Shutterstock

#19. Gages Lake, Illinois

– National rank: #32
– Total score: 45.9
– Affordability rank: #28
– Weather rank: #36
– Safety rank: #30
– Economy rank: #30
– Education & health rank: #31
– Quality of life rank: #46

Created over 10,000 years ago when glaciers receded, Gages Lake has a 143.4-acre surface area and is 54 feet deep at its lowest point. The lake is mostly surrounded by residences, but there are several lakefront parks that provide public access for swimming, boating, and fishing. Anglers can find a variety of fish in the water, including carp and largemouth bass.

Aerial view of marina and city

20 / 25Alert Five Productions // Shutterstock

#20. Racine, Wisconsin

– National rank: #36
– Total score: 42.7
– Affordability rank: #42
– Weather rank: #22
– Safety rank: #35
– Economy rank: #42
– Education & health rank: #26
– Quality of life rank: #22

Racine’s shoreline is dotted with beaches, a zoo, and a marina, all of which give residents prime access to Lake Michigan. Racine’s harbor is overlooked by a historical lighthouse that was established in 1866 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. Further inland, a former limestone quarry has been converted into Quarry Lake Park, a spring-fed lake that’s prime for swimming, scuba diving, and fishing.

You may also like: Best places to live in the Midwest

Boat motoring by Waukegan Lighthouse

21 / 25spencereagan // Shutterstock

#21. Waukegan, Illinois

– National rank: #37
– Total score: 42.0
– Affordability rank: #44
– Weather rank: #27
– Safety rank: #31
– Economy rank: #41
– Education & health rank: #23
– Quality of life rank: #36

Waukegan may look familiar—it’s been a filming location for many movies, including “The Blues Brothers,” “Groundhog Day,” and “Batman Begins.” Part of Chicago’s North Shore, Waukegan has a vibrant harbor that offers boating, kiteboarding, and charter fishing opportunities on Lake Michigan. It also has beaches with natural dunes, a rarity in the area.

Aerial view of Lorain lighthouse and Lake Erie

22 / 25Lake Front Drones // Shutterstock

#22. Lorain, Ohio

– National rank: #38
– Total score: 41.6
– Affordability rank: #39
– Weather rank: #14
– Safety rank: #25
– Economy rank: #40
– Education & health rank: #39
– Quality of life rank: #44

In the early 1900s, Lorain’s city officials became worried that its lakefront would fully develop, leaving the public with no way to access Lake Erie. The city bought up 42 acres of land and turned it into Lakeview Park. Today it offers a variety of beach activities, including beach volleyball, swimming, and paddling sports. Lorain also sports a public boat ramp for boats up to 24 feet, as well as a public fishing pier.

Gazebo by Lake Michigan

23 / 25Sarah C. Photography // Shutterstock

#23. Zion, Illinois

– National rank: #39
– Total score: 40.8
– Affordability rank: #45
– Weather rank: #28
– Safety rank: #32
– Economy rank: #36
– Education & health rank: #32
– Quality of life rank: #40

Apart from a decommissioned nuclear power plant, Zion’s Lake Michigan shoreline is mainly home to Illinois Beach State Park, a 6.5-mile long stretch of wetlands, prairie, savanna, and beaches, including the state’s only beach ridge shoreline. Residents make good use of the park’s opportunities for swimming, hiking, and boating.

Man with binoculars at Michigan City Lighthouse

#24. Michigan City, Indiana

– National rank: #40
– Total score: 40.5
– Affordability rank: #14
– Weather rank: #34
– Safety rank: #43
– Economy rank: #39
– Education & health rank: #40
– Quality of life rank: #25

Michigan City offers both lakefront living and lake access. Washington Park offers 99 acres of outdoor activity—including a 2-mile-long beach—and its pier has Indiana’s only working lighthouse. The city’s lakefront border to the west is Indiana Dunes National Park, which offers a plethora of lake-related activities year-round.

Ashtabula Harbor in summer
25redtbird02 // Shutterstock

#25. Ashtabula, Ohio

– National rank: #41
– Total score: 40.2
– Affordability rank: #43
– Weather rank: #4
– Safety rank: #38
– Economy rank: #44
– Education & health rank: #37
– Quality of life rank: #24

Ashtabula has a place in history as being a terminus point on the Underground Railroad; from here escaped enslaved persons would cross Lake Erie into Canada. Today, Ashtabula celebrates all that Lake Erie has to offer. Boaters enjoy getting out into the open water; anglers fish for walleye, bass, and perch; and swimmers enjoy the beach at Lakeshore and Walnut Beach Parks.