Salty shores and seagulls are the default mental images of the beach, but in Minneapolis, freshwater lakes shaded by maple trees steal the show. Whether it’s the skyline-backed waters of Bde Maka Ska lake or the soft-sand banks of the Mississippi River, this city does it differently.

With more than 22 lakes amid the urban landscape, travelers to Minneapolis can choose beaches that are family-friendly hangouts, immersive natural experiences or crowd-filled social scenes. 

White Sands Beach

Best beach for nature

As one of few white-sand beaches in the country devoid of piña coladas, Minneapolis’ White Sands Beach is unlike the rest. For starters, it’s down on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River rather than beside a lake. Maneuver your way down via several winding flights of worn-in stairs to access a long-stretching branch of sand, flanked by dense foliage and low-hanging trees. It’s not exactly a spot for swimming, more so fitted for a brisk hike or group hangout before dusk. With river views in both directions, it’s a darling spot to perch up with a book or favorite playlist. Amid the woodsy thicket, it’s hard to believe White Sands Beach is only a 12-minute drive from downtown.

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People enjoying the beach and the water at Cedar Lake East Beach in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Cedar Lake East Beach is a hidden oasis full of local character © Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board / Meet Minneapolis

Cedar Lake East Beach (Hidden Beach)

Best beach to experience the local scene in Minneapolis

A short walk down a leafy path in the Kenwood neighborhood brings you to Cedar Lake East Beach, a secluded favorite of Minneapolitans. Affectionately known as Hidden Beach, Cedar Lake East Beach doesn’t see many visitors, though you will find plenty of the city’s eclectic energy. Reggae-bumping nature-lovers convene with family gatherings, barbecue enthusiasts and sun-tanning university students. On this well-shaded patch of sand, you’ll encounter a more alternative scene compared to the big-name beaches around town.

As a former nude beach, it still has a slight reputation for post-sunset shenanigans and twilight skinny dipping. Although it’s not always the most pristine beach in the city, you can bet it’s full of character and personality.

Sailboats on Lake Harriet in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Lake Harriet is a great spot for families © Mike Krivit Photography / Meet Minneapolis

Lake Harriet

Best beaches for families with little kids

Lake Harriet is a soothing amalgam of both urban socializing and suburban relaxation on the southwestern edge of Minneapolis. Set in the Linden Hills neighborhood, the lake has two aptly named beaches to choose from: North Beach and South Beach. The area is full of young families, and you’ll see lots of kids building sand castles or persuading their parents to buy ice cream during the summer. Between the Lake Harriet Band Shell and different boats for rent, North Beach is the place for live performances and water sports. Snag a paddleboard or kayak, and stay for whatever’s happening on stage around sunset. Conversely, South Beach has all the same beauty and charm but far smaller crowds.

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Four paddleboarders leave the sandy beach and head out onto Bde Maka Ska lake in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Bde Maka Ska is the largest lake in Minneapolis © Ben Harding / Shutterstock

Thomas Beach

Best beach for energetic city life

Ask a local about the most popular beach in town, and they’ll tell you to hit up Thomas Beach on Bde Maka Ska, the largest lake in Minneapolis. Here, you’ll find city folk and suburbanites alike. Hammocks are strung up between trees, coolers are filled with goodies, and plenty of pop-up lawn games dot the nearby grass on a sunny day. While the actual sand part of the beach isn’t so big, there’s plenty of green space behind it, meaning you’ll never have to stress over finding a spot.

Thomas Beach is basically a microcosm of the city, a well-loved gathering spot backed by the iconic skyline of Minneapolis. You’ll find every type of person here, and they might even invite you to join in on a game of volleyball. The energy on a sunny day here is unparalleled.

A shot looking down a paddleboard out onto a lake as the sun sends orange streaks across a blue cloudy sky
Lake Nokomis is the best spot for stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking, canoeing and sailing © JoeChristensen / Getty Images

Lake Nokomis Main Beach

Best beach for swimming and water sports

With an impressive mass of greenery around Lake Nokomis Main Beach, it almost feels like you’ve skipped the city. One of Minneapolis’ larger lakes, Lake Nokomis is a formidable spot to try water sports without the crowds, including stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking, canoeing and even full-on sailing. The lake is surrounded by shaded walking trails, and you’ll find people enjoying a lazy outdoors afternoon all around the lake’s perimeter. It’s leisurely and relaxing, offering a rapid detox from busy streets and traffic.

Snag some cheese curds and a locally brewed beer at Sandcastle, a beachside staple that keeps the long summer-day energy afloat. Close proximity to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport means that you’ll catch glimpses of planes flying low overhead, making this one of the best vantage points for aviation fans.

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Kids jumping off a dock at Wirth Lake Beach in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Kids jump into the water at Wirth Lake Beach © Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board / Meet Minneapolis

Wirth Lake Beach

Best beach for volleyball and recreation

Teetering on the edge of the suburbs, Wirth Lake Beach sits just outside downtown Minneapolis. You’d be surprised how much of a difference an eight-minute drive from the city can make. At Wirth Lake Beach, volleyball tournaments are commonplace, whether organized by adult leagues or just large groups of friends looking to face off across the net. A half-circle dock on the water rounds the beach itself, making it worthy of a stroll even if you decide not to swim. Minutes away to the east, Utepils Brewing pours up myriad craft beer in its warehouse-like taproom and outdoor beer garden. It’s the ideal place to decompress after a quick-paced round of beach volleyball.

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