New culinary energy, a buzzy minimalist resort and zippy activities both above and below the water are among the reasons to visit the Brainerd area— plus, of course, the 400 lakes.

When Minnesotans say they're heading "up north"—uttered with a lilt of longing—they often mean the Brainerd Lakes area, two hours from Minneapolis and St. Paul. More than 400 lakes, including the Gull and Whitefish chains, plus the Mississippi River, beckon visitors with glitters of blue peeking through lush pines. Families dip paddles and glide along shorelines, shriek and skip across waves on water skis and wakeboards, and cast fishing rods with soft, hopeful plunks of bobbers and bait.

dock nature link
Credit: Kate Becker

Favorite attractions, such as Paul Bunyan Land's county-fair-style amusements or Brainerd International Raceway's bone-rumbling motorsports, still draw steady visitors. But a growing number of seasonal residents and remote workers relocating to lake country has helped stoke some new culinary energy. MN Traders Company in Pequot Lakes is a sunup to sundown coffee shop and craft cocktail bar. In Crosby, Victual sells cheeses, chocolate, spirits and (wild card) lactose-free ice cream.  

And the changes aren't just in food and drink. A buzzy resort called Nature Link recently opened in Nisswa. Its minimalist modern cottages have floor-to-ceiling windows framing white pines and Clark Lake. Vacationers can borrow kayaks for paddling to a private island and bikes for pedaling on the nearby Paul Bunyan State Trail. What you won't find: TVs in the rooms. Guests are also encouraged to stash personal electronics. Director of Hospitality Jason Struthers says, "Our main goal is for people to disconnect from their devices and busy lives and to reconnect with each other and nature."

mural in downtown brainerd
Credit: Lizanne Lately

1. Sip and Swing

At MN Traders Company in Pequot Lakes, you can share savory flatbreads and charcuterie boards on the patio or curl into a stylish swinging chair to sip a fruity mimosa or espresso expertly blended with maple syrup, herbs and creamy swirls of foam.

cross lake recreation area
Credit: Brandi Grahl

2. Learn about Loons

Take a free pontoon cruise to learn about loons, or watch (and listen) for Minnesota's dapper black-and-white state bird from Cross Lake Recreation Area's shoreline walkways with interpretive panels. A $17.5 million National Loon Center is expected to open in the next couple of years, giving visitors a look into a loon's world. 

3. Order Ice Cream for All

Besides selling all the elements for an epic picnic or pontoon party, Victual in Crosby scoops Rave Creamworks ice cream, made on-site. Adding a natural enzyme to the recipe turns the flavors lactose-free or lactose-friendly. Our picks: Honey Lavender Sunflower Seed or Pink Squirrel, a take on the classic supper club drink flavored with crème de noyaux.

4. Dip Into Clear Waters

In Crosby, Cuyuna Outfitters rents clear-bottom kayaks and stand-up paddleboards to help you see into the water of former iron ore mines at Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area. The clarity lets paddlers glimpse fish, submerged trees and industrial remnants. Scuba certified? Go deeper with Minnesota School of Diving's Fun Dives—followed by a cookout.

maddens on gull lake
Credit: Brad Thornberg

5. Soar Above the Trees

The 15-mile view across Gull Lake and the Pillsbury State Forest moves into fast-forward during the seven-station Brainerd Zipline Tour. If you prefer sky-high vistas without a harness, climb the 100-foot-tall Paul M. Thiede Fire Tower in Pequot Lakes and look for the city's fishing-bobber water tower.

6. Soak in Saltwater Pools and a Salt Room

The resort Madden's on Gull Lake debuts an outdoor saltwater pool this summer, and Nisswa's Grand View Lodge recently expanded its Glacial Waters Spa to include more ways to soak and relax, plus a salt room for halotherapy.

gull lake boaters
Credit: Paul Vincent

7. Sail at Suppertime

A lake getaway calls for a surfeit of seafood, so make dinner an event by boating to Bar Harbor Supper Club in Lake Shore for pistachio-crusted walleye or Ernie's on Gull for cracker-breaded walleye.

cuyuna country state recreation area
Credit: Julie Freund

8. Pedal the Paul Bunyan

Minnesota's longest state trail (115 miles) begins at Brainerd's Crow Wing State Park, where you can camp and wander remnants of a Mississippi River community. Bike into downtown for Knotty Pine Bakery's Bluebarb Pie and groovy pics by the "You Betcha!" mural. Mountain bikers should check out Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area's 50-plus miles of red-dirt singletrack trails with names like Bobsled, Galloping Goose and SandHog Mountain. 

9. Head to a Repurposed Railroad Center

A brick clock tower rises above Brainerd's historic Northern Pacific Center, repurposed in 2019 as a mixed-use development. Grab rainy-day puzzles and games, cheesecake in a jar, and fancy popcorn at Goody's Gourmet Treats. Next door, Notch 8 ChowHouse and Drinkery pours local beers and tops its most popular pizza with stout beer sausage and wild mushrooms.

10. Cue the Brews

After joining Nisswa's Wednesday turtle races (in their 60th year!), cool off with a Vapor Lake Hazy IPA at Big Axe Brewing Company. Dig into trout dip or house-smoked brisket while sitting outside beneath a colorful mural of an underwater swimmer. You'll feel the refreshing lake vibe even in the heart of downtown.