The midwestern state of Michigan is the kind of place that puts a smile on any visitor’s face. With shorelines on four of the five Great Lakes, Michigan offers unmatched natural beauty and options for outdoor recreation. As the tenth most populous state, Michigan also has lively cities like Detroit, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, and Lansing. But visitors should also make time to explore some of Michigan’s many charming small towns full of friendly locals. Check out our list of seven of the friendliest small towns in Michigan and use it to help you plan out your next trip to the “Great Lakes State.”
Located on the Keweenaw Peninsula, along the shores of Lake Superior, and in the western part of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Calumet was once a key town in the state’s copper mining industry. The 600 or so residents of today’s Calumet take pride in maintaining the historic look and feel of this out-of-the-way town. The downtown area as well as nearly the entire town have separately been declared National Historic Districts due to the well-preserved buildings that help tell the tale of the Great Lakes copper industry. Local shops welcome visitors to experience Upper Peninsula culture, such as by sampling the area’s most famous food, the savory filled crust concoction known as a pasty.
Settled by southern German immigrants in the 1840s, the town of Frankenmuth is nicknamed “Little Bavaria,” but is also known for its holiday connections. Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, self-styled as the “Worlds’ Largest Christmas Store,” is located in Frankenmuth, and the town holds a German-style holiday market (“Christkindlmarkt”) each December. The town has a Bavarian look and feel, and a celebratory vibe all year round, with the town’s 5,000 residents welcoming visitors to their little taste of Germany in eastern Michigan. If you miss out on the winter holiday fun or the Oktoberfest celebration in autumn, fear not—you can choose from a range of outdoor activities available in town as well as the lovely surrounding countryside.
If you are looking to step back into the past without going through the trouble of inventing a time machine, Mackinac Island is the place for you! Almost completely automobile-free since 1895, this Lake Huron island, nestled between Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas, looks and feels very much like it did as a nineteenth century resort destination. The year-round population of 600 swells well into the thousands during the summer tourist season, as visitors enjoy horse-drawn carriage rides, grab an ice cream or local fudge, and soak in the majesty of the 1887 Grand Hotel. Kayak and boat tours offer fantastic views of the island from the water as well.
Located where the Galien River enters Lake Michigan in the southwestern corner of the state, the town of New Buffalo sits at a natural (but improved and maintained) harbor that has long drawn in recreational boaters. Only about a 70 mile drive from Chicago (which is directly across the lake), New Buffalo’s charming downtown corridor is tourist-focused. Bustling South Whitaker Street leads right to New Buffalo’s lovely public beach area, where the town’s 1,700 residents enjoy the sun and sand alongside the many visitors. Locals and tourists also flock to spots like Redamak’s for hamburgers and fries, and Oink’s for ice cream (and to check out the kitschy decor).
The town of Niles is in a great spot for day tripping—25 miles to Lake Michigan at New Buffalo, 90 miles to Chicago, and only 6 miles to South Bend (Indiana) and the University of Notre Dame. But this community of 12,000 residents along the St. Joseph River is worth exploring on its own as well. Nicknamed the “City of Four Flags” due to a fort that kept changing hands during the Revolutionary War era, today’s Niles is home to a downtown area that combines historic charm with modern flair. Locals are happy to discuss the town’s history as part of the Underground Railroad and its beautiful 1892 train station, among other highlights.
Situated on the south side of Little Traverse Bay, which opens into Lake Michigan, near the northern tip of the state’s Lower Peninsula, the town of Petoskey (population 6,000) has been a popular resort destination for over a century. In addition to enjoying the blue waters and lovely sunsets of the bay, visitors come to Petoskey State Park in order to search for pieces of fossilized coral known as Petoskey Stone, which is the state stone of Michigan. Stone hunters and other visitors have plenty of options for relaxation as well, with a range of shops in the downtown area and highly-rated resort accommodations such as the Hotel Walloon.
Like numerous other Lake Michigan shoreline communities, Saugatuck (population 900) has a long history as a popular summer resort town. While founded in the 1800s as a port for the lumber industry, Saugatuck quickly developed as an artists’ colony and continues to be renowned for its lively arts scene. Along with numerous galleries and the Saugatuck Center for the Arts, the downtown area houses several highly-regarded restaurants that pursue the artistic side of dining. Along with arts and dining, visitors can also enjoy a relaxing paddle-wheel boat tour of Lake Michigan and the adjacent Kalamazoo River. Additionally, Saugatuck is known as a particularly welcoming tourist destination for the LGBTQ community.
With more than 3,200 miles of freshwater coastline, Michigan has no shortage of friendly and welcoming lakefront vacation towns. But the interior areas of the state’s Lower and Upper Peninsulas also have many charming small towns that are great places to visit. Whether you prefer outdoor recreation, history, arts and culture, or fine food and drink, you are sure to find lots of friendly places and friendly faces in the Great Lakes state of Michigan!