Overlooking Harbor Springs, Michigan.

6 Most Memorable Small Towns In Michigan

Michigan is, for many, the ultimate MidwestGreat Lakes state. Hemmed in by three of the five Great Lakes, Michigan's best things to see and do often require a trip to smaller towns. The state joined the Union in 1837, much later than some of its fellow states along the US east coast. The state retains some of its frontier spirit today, even with well-developed cities like Detroit and the capital, Lansing. Whether through a lakeside retreat, a community of European immigrant descendants, or a jaunt through its Upper Peninsula near Canada, Michigan's offerings are best experienced in smaller places. 


Borawalk around Lake Charlevoix in Charlevoix, Upper Michigan
Boardwalk around Lake Charlevoix in Charlevoix, Upper Michigan.

Tucked between Lake Charlevoix and Lake MichiganCharlevoix, with 2,400 inhabitants, is noted for its historic resorts, well-heeled citizens, and worth-the-trip natural beauty. The town, incorporated in 1879, derives its name from a now-legendary French priest and explorer, Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix. He explored the area from the 1720s until his death in 1761. The town later became a center of the Michigan lumber industry, and elements of its entrepreneurial, can-do spirit endure today. 

For modern visitors, the Charlevoix South Pier Lighthouse makes for a great visit, being a locally famous heritage site that offers lake views and peaceful strolls. And any place this classy is bound to have a golf course or two: big swingers should take a whack at the Belvedere Golf Club or the Charlevoix Golf Club.

Harbor Springs

Aerial view of Harbor Springs, Michigan.
Aerial view of Harbor Springs, Michigan.

Harbor Springs, with a population of just 1,300, sits on Little Traverse Bay, a part of Lake Michigan. Like Charlevoix, the place can trace its roots back to Jesuit pioneers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The town is a lakeside and resort center that attracts out-of-towners for its natural beauty and (very) small-town charms. The area offers a number of historic, standout resorts, not least Wequetonsing, which has provided upscale service ever since its founding connection with the Illinois millionaire industrialist Jacob Bunn. 

Outdoor things to do here include the Little Traverse Lighthouse, a historic structure that leads boats to and from Harbor Point — the deepest natural harbor in all of the Great Lakes region.

South Haven

The spectacular seaside at South Haven, Michigan.
The spectacular seaside at South Haven, Michigan.

South Haven, with 4,000 souls, is a somewhat larger beach town on the southeastern side of Lake Michigan. Incorporated in 1869, the town sprang up from the confluence of the Black River and the aforementioned lake. Ever since South Haven has welcomed many summer tourists and a few hardy year-rounders, some have compared the place to western New York's leisure region, calling it the "Catskills of the Midwest." Culture connoisseurs may want to visit the downtown South Haven Center for the Arts. The botanist Liberty Hyde Bailey was a South Haven native, and his house now welcomes visitors as a museum. 

Cycling enthusiasts love the Kal-Haven Trail, a former rail bed that turns into a snowmobiling trail in winter. Golfers who have been to Charlevoix can take a swing at Beeches Golf Club, which is east of town. 


Aerial view of Houghton, Michigan.
Aerial view of Houghton, Michigan.

Houghton, population 8,000, is a postcard-pretty college town. Incorporated in 1861 and named after a(nother) regional explorer, Douglass Houghton, the town is home to Michigan Technological University on the northern end of the Upper Peninsula. It has welcomed students to its northern position since opening its doors in 1885. The school, also called Michigan Tech, hosts a much-loved Winter Carnival each February, drawing thousands. In other elements of culture, the Douglass House, a historic former hotel, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). 

The town's location on the Keweenaw Peninsula makes for abundant outdoor adventure. Portage Lake, actually closer to a river, connects with Lake Superior on Keweenaw's either side, making for a wide variety of water-based recreation. For a walk in the woods, the Pilgrim Community Forest awaits just south of town. 


Tulip garden and windmill in Holland, Michigan.
Tulip garden and windmill in Holland, Michigan.

Holland, with a population of 34,000, puts on the Tulip Time Festival every May, a nod to its Dutch heritage and a celebration of the flowers typically associated with the Netherlands. Founded by Lake Macatawa, the town southwest of Grand Rapids connects to Lake Michigan via a very narrow channel. Holland takes its name from its settlers, who fled poverty and religious persecution to settle here, beginning in 1847. History buffs will also like Cappon House, formerly the home of town mayor Isaac Cappon, after its construction in 1874. The Cappon House is also NRHP-listed.  

For time outside and a little more Dutch culture, visitors should stop by Windmill Island. As the name says, the site has an original Dutch windmill, imported and re-installed here in 1965. The mill is thought to be over 250 years old. West of town, the Holland Harbor Lighthouse is a must-see. 


Sunset in Leland, Michigan.
Sunset in Leland, Michigan.

Leland, population 2,200, sits by Lake Michigan and Lake Leelanau. The town's natural features — and the reason it attracted human habitation — was a natural "fish ladder," or watercourse that fish pass through. This fact drew Native American fishermen for centuries before European settlement. The town of Leland, which was first settled in 1853, became so famous for its fish that it spawned the moniker "Fishtown." The town also supported the processing and smelting of local iron. 

Today, Leland, like some of the Michigan towns mentioned here, has evolved into a resort town, even as charter and commercial fishing continue here. The historic Fishtown district honors its industrial roots and preserves several Gothic Revival buildings, many of which are the vacation homes of wealthy Midwestern industrialists. The Leelanau Historical Society and Museum offers more such histories to all visitors, specifically focusing on the growth of the region's tourism. 

Michigan's Best Features Lie In Its Small Towns

As these towns prove beautifully, Michigan's memorable places are sometimes its smallest. Charlevoix and South Haven offer golfing and other upscale fun. Harbor Springs and Holland preserve some of the region's finest lighthouses — a reason for a detour of their own. Leland's "Fishtown" and other historic town districts, whether on or off the NRHP, make the state an even more attractive place to spend time. Whatever the reason, or for no reason but for making memories, Michigan's small towns have all the right elements for an unforgettable vacation or two. 

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