Comprising a pair of peninsulas that are surrounded by four of the five Great Lakes, the midwestern state of Michigan is renowned for its natural beauty and outdoor recreation opportunities. Michigan’s time as an industrial powerhouse, led by cities such as Detroit, has faded, but that past helped spur the growth of numerous lively and unique small towns throughout the state. Check out our list of seven offbeat small towns that deserve spots on your next Michigan travel itinerary.
Settlers from Bavaria in southern Germany established Frankenmuth in the 1840s, and that Bavarian influence is still apparent in the town’s architecture and social calendar nearly 200 years later. Frankenmuth’s early autumn Oktoberfest and December Christkindlmarkt (holiday market) have an authentic German feel, while Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland (billed as the “World’s Largest Christmas Store”) maintains that Bavarian holiday spirit year-round. The town’s classic wooden covered bridge (Zehnder's Holzbrücke) even feels like it was transported straight from southern Germany. Frankenmuth is also one of the top fall foliage destinations in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.
Time really feels like it has stood still on Mackinac Island, which is located in Lake Huron between Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Lower Peninsula. Famously free of automobiles, Mackinac Island’s streets teem with bicycles, horse-drawn carriages, and pedestrians during the summertime tourist season. The town’s homes, businesses, and hotels appear largely unchanged from the late 1800s, most notably the majestic 1887 Grand Hotel. Whether taking a carriage ride, kayaking around the island, or just sitting on a bench enjoying an ice cream or homemade fudge, visitors to Mackinac Island get to enjoy a truly unique experience.
Once a busy industrial and commercial town due to its location at the entry point of the St. Joseph River into Lake Michigan, the town of St. Joseph now thrives as a tourist destination. The historic downtown area sits on a lakeside bluff that provides fantastic sunset views. Down below, Silver Beach offers a sandy beach, playgrounds, a spray park, and a classic carousel. Visitors who are interested in St. Joseph’s offbeat history should check out the House of David Museum, dedicated to an apocalyptic religious group from the first half of the twentieth century that, oddly enough, became best known for its barnstorming baseball team.
While the Lake Michigan shoreline town of Saugatuck was founded as a lumber port in the 1800s, it rapidly transformed into an artists’ colony and popular tourist destination. The arts scene remains very active and is centered around the Saugatuck Center for the Arts, along with several local galleries and highly-regarded fine dining establishments. Visitors can get a taste of the past by taking a paddle-wheel boat tour of the area, but Saugatuck is also home to an even more unique bit of history. The Saugatuck Chain Ferry, America’s last hand-cranked, chain-guided ferry boat, has been crossing the Kalamazoo River in various forms since 1857.
New Buffalo, located across Lake Michigan from Chicago and about a 70 mile drive away, has long been a popular lakefront escape for residents of the “Windy City.” The town has a classic downtown along Whitaker Street that leads to a beautiful public beach, while a relatively recent tourist attraction, Four Winds Casino, sits just outside of town. New Buffalo also has a pair of quirky local businesses that are open only during the summer tourist season: Redamak’s, a funky hamburger joint, and Oink’s, an old-timey ice cream shop full of kitschy pig-themed decor.
Situated near the northern tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, Petoskey’s picturesque spot along Little Traverse Bay has made it a popular tourist destination for well over 100 years. Today’s visitors enjoy a range of downtown shops and eateries and highly-rated resorts such as the Hotel Walloon. But one of Petoskey’s biggest tourist draws is much more ancient and natural. Petoskey Stone, Michigan’s official state stone, is actually fossilized coral with intricate, hexagonal patterns. Petoskey State Park’s lakefront area is the best place to hunt for these 400 million year old pieces of Michigan history.
Founded in the 1800s to serve Michigan’s copper mining industry, Copper Harbor is the northernmost community in the state, set at the northeast tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula. It may be a trek to get to Copper Harbor, but the isolated northern location makes it ideal for viewing the mesmerizing Northern Lights (aurora borealis) during the long nights of winter. In addition to hosting one of Earth’s most unique natural spectacles, Copper Harbor is perhaps Michigan’s premier spot for fishing and ice fishing. One of Michigan’s best ski resorts, Mt. Bohemia, is also located nearby.
It should be no surprise that Michigan, with its abundance of industrial towns, lakefront tourist hubs, rural communities, and immigrant enclaves, has more than its fair share of offbeat small towns. Whether you prefer quirks of nature or manmade kitsch, Michigan has towns that are sure to scratch your travel itch. So, when you make your plans for your first (or next) visit to the “Great Lakes State,” make sure to set aside time to explore some of its fantastic offbeat towns!