15 Charming Lake Towns In America

There is no denying that the sight of water — whether a sea, a river, or even the rippling shallows of a swimming pool — has a calming effect on us. This is why the idea of a vacation at a beach resort with multiple pools is so enticing. It also explains the lure of a break by the lake, a body that lets us sate our yearning for the water, and often water sports, without the parting gift of salty after-taste or chlorinated sting. There are thousands of lakes across the United States, from huge ones that are great in size and name to small private bodies of water. 

Some are notable for their lack of development, while others are home to teeming cities; states up and down the country boast places on lakes that promise visitors an enjoyable stay. Using travel sites, poring over maps, and scoping out top-rated lodging, we've put together a list of charming lake towns to visit in the United States that aren't big but have plenty to keep visitors enthralled (a more detailed explanation appears at the end of this story). 

Bayview, Idaho

Located northwest of Spokane and shaped a little like a question mark, Lake Pend Oreille stretches for hundreds of miles across the top part of Idaho. On its southern shore, visitors will find this small town with only a handful of streets, but it's one that promises a big escape from the daily grind. You can walk from one end of Bayview to the other in less than 15 minutes, but it punches above its size in terms of outdoor activities. On the lake, travelers will find a wide range of options, such as swimming, fishing, boating, and more; there is excellent hiking in and around town. 

A great choice for walks is Farragut State Park in the foothills of the Coeur d'Alene Mountains, a few miles from Bayview. Here, hikers might spot deer, coyotes, and maybe even elk. For the full lake experience, book a cabin at lakefront MacDonald's Resort — the rooms have wood floors and large windows that take full advantage of the setting. Catch up with the locals over coffee, ice cream, or a bowl of clam chowder at the no-frills Ralph's Coffee House & Cafe.

Bigfork, Montana

Another small town with a population of about 5,000, this destination on Flathead Lake is a scenic spot. Nature meets the eye in all directions, with the town set by the water, buildings peeking out among trees, and views of mountains (snow-capped in the winter) a constant. It's a welcoming, low-key place with a village feel, but visitors won't be starved of things to keep them busy. The shopping is varied, with gift stores, farmers' markets, health boutiques, and a good selection of art galleries. Bigfork Center for the Performing Arts is a mid-sized venue with a capacity of more than 400 and a solid roster of plays, musical performances, and Broadway-style shows. 

Lovers of a warming cup of Joe should stop by Fieldheads, a simply designed café and coffee-roasting business where the beans are the star attraction. Among the top-rated places to stay here, Mountain Lake Lodge sits just outside the town, is right by the lake, and all of its rooms have a fireplace. Active types are spoiled for choice, with fabulous mountain biking around Bigfork and hiking along cliffs above the lake. Whitewater rafting can easily be arranged, as can boating and kayaking on the water.

Burlington, Vermont

Whether you're visiting as a family or with friends who love their beer, this town on Lake Champlain has it all. For drinkers, the choice of breweries is likely to instill a sense of glee, and Pine Street is a magnet for craft beer fans since there are four breweries located in a ½-mile stretch. Such is the lure of beer here that the annual Vermont Brewer's Festival takes place each summer in Burlington. It's a leading global beer event, with music, food, local artisanal products, and, of course, lots of beer, all taking place along the lake, with the view of mountains adding to the enjoyment. 

The lake is, naturally, a focal point, with boating, kayaking, and beaches calling in the summer. At other times of the year, visitors can enjoy spring blooms, fall foliage views, and fireworks over the lake at New Year's. The town has a broad selection of lodging, but for something unique, tourists should try a local inn, like Blind Tiger Burlington, a brick house from the 1800s that feels like the country home of a moneyed cousin. Local riches from the waters and land are celebrated at Bleu Northeast Kitchen, with beautifully presented meat, seafood, and produce from the region.

Charlevoix, Michigan

One of the most exciting aspects of visiting Charlevoix is that you can see water in multiple directions. This is because the town is set between three lakes — Lake Michigan to the west, the wishbone-shaped Lake Charlevoix to the east, and Round Lake in the heart of town — so lake lovers will get plenty of bang for their buck. This is a pretty place for sure, with an updated waterfront park, making strolls by the lake and on its beaches a joy. Boating is among the ways to enjoy the lake's bounty. 

The warmer months are a great time to visit, with colorful, delicate petunia flowers planted around many streets. Additionally, the beloved, one-week-long Venetian Festival — expect music, fireworks, a carnival parade, and lots of things to do for children — pulls in visitors from all over the Midwest each summer. Gourmands can sample great local seafood at many places and fine European-influenced dishes at Terry's of Charlevoix. For a cool, intimate hotel, book a room at Earl of Charlevoix, a boutique property with contemporary rooms, a swimming pool, and a rooftop bar that promises great cocktails alongside expansive lake views.

Chelan, Washington

Located east of Seattle, Lake Chelan appears on the map like a long, slender snake caught in mid-wriggle, sliding through forests and the Cascade Mountains en route. Chelan has a historic center at its southern tip and is close to the Columbia River, while the lake is a dream spot for water sports enthusiasts. The town center is serene and charismatic, with low-rise structures and several historic buildings, such as Ruby's Theatre and the Chelan Museum, each more than a century old. Chelan Riverwalk Park is a good place for travelers to orient themselves while enjoying water views with spellbinding clarity and emerald-blue hues. 

It's also the site of the annual summer Lake Chelan Bach Fest, a nine-day celebration of classical music where all performances are free. Adventure enthusiasts will hit the water on a boat or canoe, atop water skis, or while revving a jet ski. Those looking for great water views from above can try parasailing or leaping with Skydive Chelan. The rooms at Lakeside Lodge and Suites have heart-melting lake views, and the property is pet-friendly. Main course dishes come with suggested wine pairings at lakeside Sigillo Cellars at the edge of town.

Grand Lake, Colorado

The mountains of Colorado have helped that state lay claim to some of the most breathtaking landscapes anywhere in the country — vistas that instill excitement and calm in the beholder. Travelers to Grand Lake, which sits on a slice of land between Grand Lake and Shadow Mountain Lake, will witness that majestic scenery from many vantage points in the town. Scan the lakeside, and you'll see homes and cabins sticking out from among the towering pine and fir trees while peaks covered in winter snow rise in the background. The air feels clean and crisp, helped by the location's altitude; Grand Lake sits more than 8,300 feet above sea level. 

You'll experience the fresh lakeside at Western Riviera Lakeside Lodging, where a number of room categories look over the water. The town center has a boardwalk lined with shops, art galleries, places to grab a bite or linger over a leisurely meal, and even the Rocky Mountain Repertory Theatre, which stages Broadway shows. Active types can hit the trails on foot or mountain bike, go sailing or fishing on the lake, or attack the powder in winter on a snowmobile or cross-country skis. Situated by the North Inlet of Grand Lake, Rapids Restaurant overlooks bubbling rapids, has a fine dining menu, and stocks an impressive selection of wines.

Grand Marais, Minnesota

Not far from the Canadian border on the northern shore of Lake Superior, Grand Marais has a curling waterfront that lets travelers enjoy stunning lakeside walks. Among the ambles worth taking is one down by Grand Marais Harbor, where a breakwater trail leads around the edge of the lake and out toward the Grand Marais Lighthouse. The usual lake activities serenade visitors, from kayaking to paddle boarding and more, and since forests extend outside the town, the hiking here promises a true escape into the wilderness. 

The town has a thriving art scene; the Grand Marais Art Colony is a hotbed of creativity, with studios for local and visiting artists and even spaces specific to print-making and ceramics. Visitors with a sweet tooth can order iced dairy treats at Superior Creamery, where floats, sundaes, and scoops of ice cream are made in small, premium batches. Eclectic furnishings and boldly colored interiors grace the Mayhew Inn, located a stone's throw from the lake, which will be evident from the rooftop deck.

Greenville, Maine

The largest lake in Maine, Moosehead Lake, branches out in many directions, making it full of tucked-away bays, coves, and inlets. On its southern end sits Greenville, a small town where a little more than 1,000 people live year-round, a calm spot where visitors won't be overwhelmed with options and choices but where they can easily inhabit the town's easy-going rhythm. Kelly's Landing is both a restaurant with a bar and a lodging choice; dine here on the deck in the summer, and you'll be able to watch the floatplanes arriving and leaving from the water just in front. 

For greater connection to the water, travelers can book a cruise aboard the Katahdin. This century-old steamboat ferried people and delivered supplies to settlements and camps around the lake but now carries leisure passengers for a jaunt. Some visitors may be surprised that this small town has a world-class hotel in the Blair Hill Inn, a renovated country home with landscaped gardens, hiking trails, a spa, a trout pond, and gorgeous lake views. Less surprising, given the name of the lake, this part of Maine is one of the best places to spot moose, especially in the spring.

Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

For families, there is so much to do in this town on Lake Geneva, an hour's drive southwest of Milwaukee. There are beaches along the lake where kids can enjoy the water up close and personal. Another is a shore trail that runs along the lakefront for more than 25 miles, letting families enjoy the sight of grand homes and pretty leafy shorelines — the easiest paved section is close to town. Other attractions in and around town include horseback riding, balloon trips, zip lines, farms, a water park, a safari, and even a year-round magic show. 

Tourists will find a selection of gift stores in town, and when it comes to meal time, a local tradition is fish fry (especially popular on Fridays), with fish from nearby lakes battered in beer and fried, served in spots like The Baker House. For accommodations right on the lake, guests won't be disappointed with Harbor Shores on Lake Geneva.

Lake Havasu City, Arizona

This town on the shore of Lake Havasu may occupy a site thousands of miles from the capital of England, but it is, nevertheless, where to find London Bridge. Yes, here in the Mojave Desert, a bridge that used to span the River Thames in London is very much part of the town's DNA. It was purchased by an American businessman in 1968, then taken apart, and its 10,000 granite blocks were carefully packed and shipped to California before being trucked to Arizona. The bridge was finally completed in Lake Havasu City in 1971, the epilogue to a remarkable story. 

Today, it is one of the top tourist attractions in the state, with people taking photos of the Union Jack flags that flutter atop posts and marveling at the street lamps made from old French cannons. This, however, isn't the only thing to do here — there's also great hiking in the red-rock country around the town, beaches and swimming by the lake, golfing galore, and many parks where visitors can unwind. Comforting American staples are the lure at Juicy's, while travelers will definitely feel a sense of place among the abode accommodations at WorldMark Havasu Dunes.

Mount Dora, Florida

There's a reassuring, old-Florida feel about this destination on Lake Dora, northwest of Orlando, where visitors can experience small, independent stores, tranquil lakefronts, and languid days. One of the top sites here is the lighthouse, painted red and white stripes, like a giant candy cane, and set out on a finger of land that points out at the lake. It's a fine spot to sit, relax, picnic, and enjoy the simple beauty all around. Nearby is the Palm Island Boardwalk, part of a park and an excellent place to wander when looking for native plants and trees. 

For hunters of old bargains, the antique shops are places of lore, with Renniger's one of the biggest vendors in town (it also runs a flea market). Mount Dora has plenty of cafés and places to eat, and Goblin Market Restaurant & Lounge is among the best. You'll get the Old Florida vibe at Grandview Bed & Breakfast, a former private winter home turned into comfortable lodging.

Osage Beach, Missouri

A great destination on Lake of the Ozarks, Osage Beach promises families lots of fun activities. Jolly Mon Indoor Waterpark is part of the relaxed, chilled Margaritaville Lake Resort Lake of the Ozarks and has all the best bits kids expect from water parks — slides, a giant tipping bucket, a multi-story play area, and a lazy river. At Putt N'Stuff, kids can meander around an 18-hole mini-golf course or expend a little oppositional force with bumper cars. Other options in town include go-kart racing, boating on the lake, and a trampoline park. 

Shoppers will rejoice at the chance to test their cards at the Osage Beach Outlet Marketplace, with more than 80 shops selling goods at discounts. Travelers will like the lake views and the chance to swim in the pools during the warmer months at Redhead Lakeside Grill — the family-friendly fare includes burgers, pizzas, and nachos.

Oswego, New York

The quaint port town near Rochester in New York State has a population of about 17,000 and exudes a real maritime feel from its location on Lake Ontario. That sentiment dates back centuries, with the town prized for its location by Native Americans before the arrival of Europeans, who later created trading posts here for the fur trade. Forts were constructed to protect trading routes, some still standing today, including Fort Ontario State Historic Site. 

Shipping brought wealth to the town, and large homes dot the streets of Oswego — for an in-depth look, drop by the Richardson-Bates House, a former private home now a museum. For an overview of the city's layout, grab a bite or a brew at the Rooftop Lounge, close to the Oswego River and with striking lake views. Take a journey into the past at the Beacon Hotel, located in the Historic District and close to the lake.

South Lake Tahoe, California

A town firmly established as a year-round resort, South Lake Tahoe promises spectacular views of mountains and the waters of Lake Tahoe. It also attracts world-famous performers who come here to stage shows at various hotel casinos. Shoppers can get their fill of consumption at Heavenly Village, with stores selling active clothing, jewelry, and fashion accessories; there's even mini-golf and a cinema here. The outdoors is the marquee attraction of South Lake Tahoe, which is expected given how easy it is on the eye. 

The sun shines here most of the year, so even in winter, there is plenty to see, from hiking and skiing to biking and kayaking, and the mountains ringing the lake make the vistas unforgettable. The lake views, either through large windows or from the outdoor deck, are as mouthwatering as the food at Riva Grill. For travelers who want to avoid large casino resorts, the intimate Resthaven Tahoe has bright rooms, an outdoor fire pit, and is close to Lakeside Beach.

Wolfeboro, New Hampshire

A tranquil town with less than 7,000 residents, Wolfeboro will appeal to any tourist looking for a relaxing lake getaway — it actually rests between Lake Wentworth and the significantly larger Lake Winnipesaukee. The New Hampshire Boat Museum is a real treat for lovers of all things maritime. There are many sailing vessels in the collection, though not all are on display, and the various rowing sculls, sailboats, hulls, canoes, and old engines trace the deep heritage of boating in the state. 

Even more remarkable is the chance to navigate Lake Winnipesaukee aboard a beautifully maintained antique boat, which serves as a transfer between the town center and the natural history-focused Libby Museum. For sturdy sandwiches and delectable drinks by the lake, check out Marker 21. A classic New England home is now the Wolfeboro Inn, set right on the lake by boat slips and in the heart of the town.

Our methodology for picking these lake towns

We looked across numerous travel sites, carefully analyzed maps of the United States to get a good geographical spread throughout the Lower 48 and to ensure that there are places for every season, and compared ratings on review sites to put together this list. We've also strived to offer readers lake towns that provide a variety of experiences, from nature escapes to urban adventures.