Best up-and-coming towns to get to know

They've been on the sidelines, but now they're ready for their closeup.

The Fenelon cable railway in Dubuque.
Dubuque's Fenelon Place funicular climbs a 65-degree grade.

Some nifty little towns just haven't made the A list — or any list, so far (See Chasing the Top 10 ).

That means now is a good time to explore them, before the other tourists flock in.

Tops on this list is Viroqua , a southwest Wisconsin town that caught the eye of expatriates from Madison long ago but recently has become more tourist-friendly with the opening of Main Street Station.

This indoor public market houses a cafe, organic ice-cream parlor, shops and the Greenman Music Hall, which holds regular concerts and events.

And the Driftless Folk School teaches classes in such homespun arts as spinning and sausage-making. Once, Viroqua was notable mainly for having the only stoplights in scenic Vernon County; those days are over.

For more, see Valleys of Vernon County.

It's easy to breeze through Ashland on the way to Ironwood, Mich., or to skip it completely on the way to Bayfield.

But this town on Lake Superior's Chequamegon Bay has a lot to offer: an old-fashioned downtown lined with superb murals, a folk school and a good restaurant, coffeehouse and bakery.

Across the bay, Washburn is another up-and-coming spot, with its old brownstones, coffee shop/bookstore and very fine restaurant, Good Thymes.

Both towns are close to great hiking and skiing trails, and in February, they host the candlelight ski tour Book Across the Bay, one of winter's best events.

In the shadow of Mount Hosmer, whose top offers one of the great views of the Mississippi River Valley, Lansing is starting to get noticed.

The little northeast Iowa town is off the beaten path but has an incomparable setting, and fine inns and shops are popping up. Don't miss a pontoon-boat tour of the sloughs.

Up the Mississippi in Minnesota, Wabasha boasts an old-fashioned downtown lined with good restaurants and shops, including one that sells kimonos.

It's the region's best spot to see eagles, outdoors from November through March and all year at the National Eagle Center, home to three bald eagles and a golden eagle.

You can't really call Dubuque a little town. But the Iowa port town definitely on the upswing, with the wonderful new river museum, river walk and riverfront resort with indoor water park.

It already had a spectacular setting and one of the region's finest collections of Victorian houses; now, it can get the tourists it deserves.

Last updated on December 9, 2011

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