Cityscape view of Bayfield Wisconsin, as seen from the shores of Lake Superior

7 Cutest Small Towns In The Great Lakes To Visit In 2024

The five Great Lakes straddle the US-Canada border with sea-like bodies of cool, fresh water. Incredibly refreshing for swimming and other water pursuits in 2024, each lake drowns the cute towns in maritime views, lushness, and a breeze through the streets to enjoy a sea of attractions just a hop from the shore. Alden offers the best access to the Sandbar in Torch Lake, aka the Caribbean of the North, with pristine turquoise waters and jet skiing from the sand mass. Nestled on Crystal Lake, Beluah is just a hop from the top views at the restored 19th-century Betsie Lighthouse on the shore of Lake Michigan. Saugatuck, also on Lake Michigan, is replete with cute stores and art galleries just a hop from Kalamazoo Lake and River, while Alpena, the Sanctuary of the Great Lakes, is surrounded by seven lighthouses and three Dark Sky Preserves.

Alden, Michigan

Torch Lake in Michigan.
Torch Lake in Michigan.

Cozied in a tight embrace with Torch Lake, Alden, a Northwest Michigan town, is an ideal destination for any group, with something for everyone and Instagram-perfect mementos. So welcome to the Caribbean of the North, as locals lovingly refer to this lake, with pristine turquoise waters behind the moniker perfect for swimming or paddling out to the Sandbar. Alden is the closest town to this mass of sand off the southern lake's shore, where jet skiers like to jump onto the open waters after basking in the scenery.

Replete with cute businesses like Alden Muffin Tin and Alden Outfitters, try and find a more iconic spice store than Alden's Mill House and try a flavor from Lakeside Dip, an ice cream store, or a local brew over a shareable pizza pie with your friends—an iconic combination at the Torch Lake Beer Co. Alden Safe Harbor is a park right next to the public boat launch with nine floating docks, a cute replica lighthouse, shaded benches along the lake, and the adjacent Archie Valleau landing, a tiny beach.

Alpena, Michigan

Drawbridge in downtown Alpena, Michigan
Drawbridge in downtown Alpena, Michigan.

Relaxed, lakeside vibes permeate Alpena's atmosphere on Lake Huron's tip of the nose, better known as Thunder Bay. Perfect for anyone seeking a natural oasis with cultural attractions, Alpena is the Sanctuary of the Great Lakes, with three Dark Sky Preserves around. Free entry and great for all ages, the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Museum explores the "Shipwreck Century" over its 10,000 square feet with incredible interactive exhibits. This maritime center, with a shipwreck gallery, theatre, and archaeology lab, is centered around a full-size replica of a wooden schooner that feels real with access to the decks and massive timbers of the shipwrecked boat on the bottom of the lake, except for the getting wet part.

But Alpena loves playing in the water, with boating as a favorite pursuit, making it a great place to learn or slice the lake like a pro. From seven lighthouses to 100 miles of trails for hiking that turn for wintertime snowmobiling adventures, there are also over 400 million-year-old fossils, as well as the Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan. The Alpena Wildlife Sanctuary is a picturesque nature preserve with walking paths, kayaking, and birdwatching. Just south, don't miss the 45-Parallel Landmark, and further, the Dinosaur Gardens—hit with kids—as well as the vast Thunder Bay River State Forest with a boardwalk, a lakefront acreage, and the beachside Ossineke State Forest Campground, just 20 minutes from the heart of Alpena.

Bayfield, Wisconsin

People enjoying the Annual Applefest in Bayfield, Wisconsin.
People enjoying the Annual Applefest in Bayfield, Wisconsin. Editorial credit: Jacob Boomsma /

Bayfield, a perfect summer vacation spot along Lake Superior, is ideal for kayaking adventures. Despite easy access to Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, "the crown jewels of Lake Superior," and its captivating sea caves, this small town remains underrated for less outdoorsy visitors. But with a family-friendly feel and exciting attractions without crowds, Bayfield is a gold mine of discoveries. From the Big Ravine-West Rim Trail through sparse woods to the popular Dalrymple Park and Campground, don't miss the sunset views from the Bayfield Pier and dinner at the Manypenny Bistro.

Trek & Trail is a canoe and kayaking agency, while Le Chateau Boutin makes for a great Instagram post, and Madeline Island is a ferry hop away. The thrill seekers can take a Night Caves Kayak Tour through the nighttime stillness on the water with only nature sounds and magical LED lights. So come for the spectacular Meyers Beach Sea Caves and stay for the small-town charm and sunset over the marina. The Iron Bridge Trail is an easy hike for families; the Bayfield Maritime Museum intrigues every age; and other cute attractions include the Fruit Loop Trail and Stone's Throw Art Gallery.

Beulah, Michigan

The old business district on Benzie Boulevard in Beulah, Michigan.
The old business district on Benzie Boulevard in Beulah, Michigan. Editorial credit: Roberto Galan /

A town with a sweet name bringing up the image of a smiling beluga whale hosts sweet attractions like its own sandy beach just a hop from downtown, chili cook-offs, and the popular Pinecroft Golf Course in a lush verdancy. Nestled at the western tip of Crystal Lake, one of the largest inland lakes in the region, the fantastic Trapp Farm Nature Preserve for hikes stretches along the entire town. From the trails, it is easy to spot Lake Michigan, just seven minutes west of town. Visitors can enjoy a nice bike ride along Crystal Lake to the immense lake, with a stop at Crystal Gardens and onto the historic Point Betsie Lighthouse.

The restored 19th-century lighthouse and museum along a picturesque beachfront offers seasonal tours and top views, while the nearby Old Indian Trail, with the best views of both lakes, is popular year-round among hikers and snowmobilers. The annual Winterfest features quirky activities like frozen turkey bowling and fish toss, as well as a cozy bonfire on the beach and fireworks over Crystal Lake. Your soul will melt against the natural beauty of the area and the sweet residents over a pie slab and a steaming cup of java at Cherry Hut, right by the cool COGNITiON Science and Discovery Centre with cute sculptures.

Saugatuck, Michigan

Aerial view of Saugatuck, Michigan
Aerial view of Saugatuck, Michigan.

Straddling both Lake Michigan and Kalamazoo Lake, Saugatuck is a second-to-none destination for outdoorsy water sports enthusiasts and beach lovers. Home to the famously gorgeous Oval Beach, its white sands contrast the grassy dunes and frame your adventures or lounging time. Attracting photographers and unique wildlife alike, visitors can enjoy swimming, jet skiing, and boating, just a hop from downtown shopping and dining without wasting a moment in one of the nation's top small towns. Replete with cute art galleries and an array of shops along Butler Street, the Michigan Historical Marker relates to a town buried under the sand.

Garnett Beacon Candle Co. is a candle-making shop, while the good-humored Pink Patio is the best place to find that perfect little gift for someone or treat yourself. Mount Baldhead Park features a cool staircase in a forested park with a steep ascent to the summit and a sandy descent to Oval Beach. Just north of the beach, Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area wraps around the Kalamazoo River, with the best sunset view over the lake and the striped Saugatuck South Pierhead, which is excellent for fishing. After a stroll through Wicks Park with a historic ship-building marker, don't miss the iconic Southerner for a relaxed lakeside dinner.

Silver Bay, Minnesota

 Silver Bay, Minnesota on the Shores of Lake Superior
Silver Bay, Minnesota, on the Shores of Lake Superior.

Silver Bay, a Lake County town at the top of Lake Superior, is a top-of-the-bucket list town for the outdoorsy, with intruding Tettegouche State Park and Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. Just three miles northeast, Beaver Bay, is the North Shore's oldest community, while the nearby Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area make Silver Bay a perfect base for wet and dry adventurers. Just 56 miles northeast of Duluth, visitors can enjoy easy access along the highway to many other parks, lakes, rivers, and scenic areas within a 15-mile radius of this small town.

Built by a mining company in 1956 and home to under 2,000 people, the city flaunts clean streets, a library, a marina, and recreational facilities like regular hockey and softball tournaments. From its own Bayside Park with a sandy beach frontage, picnic areas, boat launches, and a dock for scuba divers to a beautiful nine-hole golf course with a driving range, many hiking, skiing, snowmobiling, and ATV trails start within and connect to state trails. Silver Bay is a jet set for the most popular Superior Hiking Trails through natural beauty along the world's largest freshwater lake.

Winthrop Harbor, Illinois

The marina at Winthrop Harbor, Illinois.
The marina at Winthrop Harbor, Illinois.

Just a hop south of Milwaukee, this small town is home to the largest marina on the Great Lakes, the North Point Marina, with a docking power of some 1,500 slips. Winthrop Harbor may lack in size but more than makes up in beauty, straddling the sparkling blue Lake Michigan, a magnet for boaters to experience some of the region's best water sports, fishing, and even beaches like the 4160-acre Illinois Beach State Park, next to the marina. Visitors can hop from one attraction to the next without wasted moments or energy, dedicating it to a good time with loved ones.

From camping, hiking, and picnicking at the park, its varied landscape houses over 650 species of flora in the dune areas, as well as black oak forests topping sand ridges to explore. Visitors can take advantage of Diamond Ghost Charters on a fishing sail to cook your catch campsite after, or simply head to the Tropics for great American cuisine overlooking the Great Lake. Enjoy drinks after at the all-time favorite Harbor Brewing Co., and the next day, make a seven-minute drive north along Lake Michigan to Carol Beach, a real Zen spot.

Explore the cutest small towns in the Great Lakes region in 2024. Alpena is home to the world-renowned Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Museum, which, over its 10,000 square feet, delves into the "Shipwreck Century." The museum is centered around a life-size replica of a wooden schooner that feels real, with access to the decks and massive timbers of the shipwrecked boats on the lake's floor.

From jumping into the open waters of the Sandbar in Alden to basking in the nocturnal feel of a Great Lake in Bayfield during a Night Cave Kayak Tour, each town is the best summer vacation in the making. In Michigan, many hiking trails turn into snowmobile routes, while for the best dining, don't miss the Southerner in Saugatuck.

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