The beach in Michigan City, Indiana, USA. Editorial credit: Lewis Photo Studio /

7 Coolest Towns in the Great Lakes for a Summer Vacation in 2024

North America's Great Lakes Region, straddling both the United States and Canada, is a terrific alternative to the coastal beaches for the summer. The small towns in multiple states offer a convenient escape to the five Great Lakes, including Huron, Michigan, and Superior. The Great Lakes, like a sea—as far as the eye can see—are picturesque freshwater bodies that absorb sunlight for your summertime pleasure swims without the pesky salt taste or dangerous surf.

Tipping the scale from cool to epic with three lighthouses, St. Joseph strikes the balance with low crowds along seven exquisite beaches with comforts and amenities, while South Haven, a Great Lakes State town, has over a century of resort expertise in its back pocket. Offering quality lodging along the waterfront, visitors can enjoy extraordinary experiences on a fun and insightful vacation against some of the most picturesque horizons, like sandy beaches, social cafes, and wine-tasting rooms.

Ashland, Wisconsin

Aerial view of the small town of Ashland, Wisconsin, on the shore of Lake Superior.
Aerial view of the small town of Ashland, Wisconsin, on the shore of Lake Superior.

Ashland, a historic port town with a role in the First World War, is a fantastic town for a cultural vacation destination on Chequamegon Bay in Lake Superior to discover what's behind its modern-day claim to fame as the "Historic Mural Capital of Wisconsin." A coastal stroll from Maslowski Beach Artesian Well on the western flank to Bayview Park on the right, with a stop right in the middle at Deep Water Grille, "paints" you a pretty good picture. Don't miss the largest bass sculpture and Ashland Historical Museum while the eight-block Main Street District winds along Ashland's murals on the National Register of Historic Places.

Surrounded by striking landscapes, Ashland strikes the balance between scenic art and natural scenery for some cool ventures under the hot summertime sun. How about a dose of real cool cascades through Copper Falls State Park, just half an hour from downtown, or perhaps a day trip to the Apostle Islands? From Pattison State Park to Amnicon Falls State Park, the immense embrace of Wisconsin’s Northwoods dares you to compromise between waterside recreation in the Great Lakes harbor and the Ashland Rail Trail. And when you fit in both on a single vacation, have a victorious drink at the Neighbourly Bar.

Cheboygan, Michigan

Cheboygan Michigan Front Range Light lighthouse tower, guiding ships away from danger, built on or near the shore.
Cheboygan Michigan Front Range Light lighthouse tower. Editorial credit: Dennis MacDonald /

At the entrance of the Cheboygan River into Lake Huron, Cheboygan is a cool town with a lush natural embrace and sparkling waters for every type of boater to explore Northern Michigan. Seriously, a whole lot of it, since the Inland Waterway, a network of navigable waterways including three rivers, four lakes, and 42 miles of waters inland, offers an itinerary that can outlast any vacation. The Black Mountain Recreation Area of lush forests alone is ideal for days of fishing, hiking (30 miles), horseback riding, and off-roading (60 miles) without ever leaving since there is also camping—just bring provisions.

Open year-round, Cheboygan State Park is famous for summertime lodging and modern camping, with more lovely trails overlooking Lake Huron and the coastal landscape. Crowning the state park, Cheboygan Point Light is a lovely decommissioned lighthouse from 1851. The coolest part about visiting this town is vacationing on budget for an immersive experience of some of the best landscapes in the Wolverine State. Use the cash you save for gas on a worthy road trip down the Huron Shores Heritage Route, also the US-23, for 200 miles of breathtaking lake views.

Michigan City, Indiana

City view of Michigan City, Indiana, USA.
City view of Michigan City, Indiana, USA.

Spoiled in nature, this small Great Lakes town, once a thriving lumber port, tips the cool scale to epic with scenic experiences against the ocean-like Lake Michigan from its southern shores. Attracting picnickers, photographers, and everyone in between, Washington Park, home to two historic lighthouses, offers sweeping views of the city's lakefront, where the 1858 Old Lighthouse is the first of its kind in the Great Lakes Region. No trip to Michigan City is complete without a tour of the Barker Mansion to top off your vacation in an English-style manor from 1857 that functions as a museum.

Part of the stylish Uptown Arts District, the opulent art and decor in the former home of a railroad industrialist and philanthropist exude timeless elegance. Michigan City, a direct gateway into the 15,000 acres of unique landscape through the Indiana Dunes National Park, offers thrills for the active with 16 miles of trails for adventures, three of which comprise the epic Dune Challenge, including the daring 1.5 miles over the three tallest dunes. Teeming with wildlife, its colorful melange of woodlands, rivers, bogs, and rich wetlands hosts a habitat for over 350 bird species.

Port Clinton, Ohio

Port Clinton Lighthouse in Port Clinton, Ohio.
Port Clinton Lighthouse in Port Clinton, Ohio.

To say that the hidden north coast of Lake Erie is a treasure trove would be an understatement, with one of its gems uniquely bright along Port Clinton's coastline. This fun spot to check out on your summer vacation comes with a double dose of discoveries, from the quaint Ohio town on the mainland to the Put-in-Bay, just off on South Bass Island, home to Benson Ford Shiphouse and Oak Point State Park. Port Clinton features sandy beaches, with the Port Clinton Lighthouse overlooking both the lake and the Portage River to the west and a historic downtown shopping district. With places like Otto & Urban Greenhouse-Flower, start at the linger-worthy Ala Carte Café, ending at the hit McCarthy's Restaurant & Pub for dinner.

Visitors can enjoy world-class fishing and boating here, in “Walleye Capital of the World,” home to a beautiful tradition where crowds gather on the eve of December 31 for the Walleye Drop of a 20-ft, 600-lb. fiberglass walleye to ring in the New Year. From the miles of beautiful coastline with beaches to island ferries and entertainment like weekend festivals, the intimate Listening Room presenting world-class musicians comprises a fun friends' or a date night. The Liberty Aviation Museum and African Safari Wildlife Park are major family attractions, while a day trip to Put-in-Bay affords many fabulous experiences like Butterfly House, a nature preserve, and the most popular Perry's Cave Family Fun Centre.

Port Huron, Michigan

Aerial view of the Blue Water Bridge spanning the St. Clair River between Port Huron, Michigan, USA, and Canada.
The Blue Water Bridge between Port Huron, Michigan, USA, and Canada. Editorial credit: Matthew G Eddy /

It is easy to guess which epic lake this town graces the banks of, but what is less obvious to those who have never been is that Port Huron is a celebratory summer vacation destination where two rivers meet and one lighthouse eye spectates spectacular sunrises and the few locals who crawl out at this time to bathe along its pristine beaches. Port Huron’s close relationship with the water is too infectious not to join! Bursting with incredible vistas, there are many unique places to explore in the Maritime Capital of the Great Lakes, including Huron Lightship and the Great Lakes Maritime Centre.

Having guided mariners between Lake Huron and the St. Clair River for nearly two centuries, Fort Gratiot Light Station is Michigan's oldest lighthouse and the second oldest in the region. Gracing the southern shore of Lake Huron near the northern mouth of the St. Clair River, it offers seasonal and holiday tours for insights and stunning views, while the surrounding park and beach are open year-round. Culture fans are tickled to discover admission-free entrance into three museums: the Thomas Edison Depot Museum, the Huron Lightship, and the Carnegie Center, while the active enjoy pleasant walks along the Blue Water River Walk and the Thomas Edison Parkway Boardwalk.

South Haven, Michigan

Saint Basil Catholic Church behind a bustling beach on Lake Michigan in South Haven, Michigan, USA. People playing and lush green foliage in the background.
South Haven, Michigan, USA. Editorial credit: Claudine Van Massenhove /

With over a century of resort expertise in its back pocket, South Haven is an unmatchable vacation destination in the Great Lakes State, with quality lodging for every group, taste, and budget. Gracing the shores of Lake Michigan, waterfront opportunities for fun and recreation abound against some of the most picturesque horizons, bringing out a cry of delight in every one of the never-ending string of visitors. Nestled between the sparkling blue and green forests to the east, South Haven frames your adventures along the idyllic beaches—a good dozen of them—for lounging to the sound of the gentle waves, in the cool breeze, under the sunshine.

Whether you're taking a relaxing walk along the sandy beach or seeking shade under the shady trees of the Casco Township Nature Preserve, the town's moniker resonates in your mind. Home to the Michigan Maritime Museum, don't miss an up-close view of the operational, historic South Haven Lighthouse at the end of the South Pier on a sunset stroll. The active can enjoy a hike at the nearby sand dunes for a challenge or seek solitude at peaceful nautical overlooks, while social lakeside cafes, coffee shops, and B&Bs have something for you and your kids to make an impression while enjoying java or a snack at a nearby bakery or a wine tasting room.

St. Joseph, Michigan

Aerial view of downtown St. Joseph, Michigan, including the state park, St. Joseph Lighthouse, and the St. Joseph River.
Aerial view of downtown St. Joseph, Michigan, including the state park, St. Joseph Lighthouse, and the St. Joseph River.

St. Joseph strikes the perfect balance with low crowds and seven exquisite beaches that make it one of the state's best beach towns. The comforts and conveniences make it great for families and beach lovers who enjoy days of group lounging or sunbathing in serenity on the soft sands against the surf until the striking sunset. Part of thousands of sprawling acres of State Parkland, visitors enjoy excellent access from out of the waters to modern and rustic campsites, bathrooms, and hot showers, as well as hiking trails and sand dunes to get the pulse racing. This small town is also home to three lighthouses, which are equally begging for your attention: St. Joseph North Pierhead Outer Lighthouse and Inner Lighthouse, as well as the cute St. Joseph River & South Pier lighthouse.

From Lions Park Beach to Silver Beach County Park and Tiscornia Park, playgrounds and picnic areas, including a covered pavilion, bike racks, and volleyball nets, are all for public use on the sandy shores. Home to five marinas and unique shops, visitors can enjoy scenic strolls and browse along grand Victorian homes from the past, art structures, and manicured gardens behind picket fences. Inspiring a fairytale for all ages, St. Joseph loves kids, and everything revolves around fun for families on any budget. You don't have to give up your firstborn to enjoy the Curious Kids' Museum, while the iconic Silver Beach Carousel at Silver Beach County Park features chariots that kids enjoyed back in the early 20th century.

A Summer to Remember in the Great Lakes’ Charming Towns

Like inland seas, the Great Lakes inspire a foreign feel away from the city with sandy beaches and coastal landscapes, while the small towns play along as cool hosts with unique attractions. St. Joseph offers modern and rustic campsites straight from the waters to explore thousands of sprawling acres of surrounding state parkland on a summer vacation to savor and remember.

Port Clinton is a two-in-one destination from its own sandy beaches, with Port Clinton Lighthouse overlooking the Portage River and a historic downtown shopping district, to the nearby Put-in-Bay with cool experiences like the Butterfly House and the Perry's Cave Family Fun Centre.

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