Frankenmuth cityscape with the Bavarian Belle Riverboat

8 Most Charming River Towns in Michigan to Visit in 2024

Michigan's most charming river towns offer unparalleled ways to experience the state's natural beauty, with lush surroundings and trails like those in Dexter, often complemented by a nearby lake. From the bay to the Mackinac Straits in Cheboygan, each town on this list is a paradise for nature and outdoor enthusiasts. Visit Marshall for a dose of history; it once contended to become the state's capital.

These towns provide some of the most picturesque experiences, from the bustling boardwalk in downtown Manistee and the St. Clair waterfront to serene parks and calm waters perfect for paddling. Locals seize the first signs of warmth to enjoy paddling. The many riverside locations, nestled between a Great Lake and its tributaries, inspire waterfront dreams in spring and summer. In winter, don't miss the nostalgic German Christmas market in Frankenmuth.

Bay City

Golden sunrise in the city of Bay City, Michigan.
Golden sunrise in the city of Bay City, Michigan.

Bay City, home to approximately 35,000 people, boasts a scenic drawbridge over the Saginaw River, living up to its grand name. As a quintessential port city on Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay, experiencing maritime splendor is unparalleled, especially when sailing on BaySail's Appledore Tall Ships, either during a daytime sail with Great Lakes 101 or an evening Sunset Sail. The town also features many remarkable attractions, including its antique center, which is likely the largest in Michigan. This historic corner building spans an entire block, housing over 400 booths in 60,000 square feet of vintage splendor. Bay City is an eclectic, historic waterfront town, offering diverse experiences from its historic downtown to uptown, known for its prime water views.

Wenonah Park at sunset in Bay City for the Tall Ship Celebration.
Wenonah Park at sunset in Bay City for the Tall Ship Celebration. Editorial credit: Craig Sterken /

The city's splendid riverwalk, complete with a pier and Bigelow Park, provides easy access to the vast lake. The riverfront Uptown area boasts the highly anticipated U.S.S. Edson-Saginaw Valley Naval Ship Museum, set to open on March 1, alongside a collection of restaurants and boutiques. Downtown's delightful architecture is home to artisanal coffee shops, antique stores, eateries, and brewpubs. The town's blend of vintage finds, local crafts, and specialty shops within 19th-century architecture makes it effortlessly cool, often overshadowed by its more famous neighbors in the state.


River scene on the Cheboygan, Michigan river and the inland waterway with docks and boats
River scene on the Cheboygan, Michigan river and the inland waterway with docks and boats

Located at the northern starting point of the renowned Michigan Inland Waterway, Cheboygan offers over 40 miles of navigable waters to Mullet Lake, Burt Lake, Crooked Lake, Pickerel Lake, and Petoskey. Kayaking up the Cheboygan River to Mullett Lake offers a corridor teeming with wildlife, with rentals available from Nautical North Family Adventures, which also provides glass-bottom boat tours. The area is rich with fishing opportunities, including walleye, brook, and rainbow trout, with reputable charters like Rockin’ and Reelin’ Sportfishing and Diabolical Sport Fishing in Duncan Bay. Cheboygan State Park's Lighthouse, along Elliot Creek northeast of downtown, adds a historical touch, reminiscent of Cheboygan's origins by the river, where aquatic dreams come to life.

Cheboygan, nestled along the majestic Straits of Mackinac, attracts water lovers in summer and offers year-round entertainment with Kingston Theatre's latest blockbusters or performances at the nearly 150-year-old Cheboygan Opera House. The 18-hole Cheboygan Golf Course and several lighthouses, including the Cheboygan Crib Lighthouse and the Cheboygan Front Range Light (which doubles as a museum), are worth exploring. For an enjoyable evening, Cheboygan Brewing Company offers fresh beer on tap and patio-style dining, while the Step Inn provides classic breakfast and lunch options, including outstanding burritos. The Nauti Inn Barstro, with its superb wine list and creative dishes, is perfect for couples looking to share a plate of pistachio pesto pasta or enjoy a Chicago-style hot sub.


Downtown Dexter, Michigan.
Downtown Dexter, Michigan. Image credit Andrew Boydston via Shutterstock

Dexter, a welcoming town located approximately 10 miles northwest of Ann Arbor, sits along the banks of the Huron River and Mill Creek. It is renowned for its extensive network of walking trails amidst lush surroundings. Dexter is a haven for those who enjoy outdoor activities, boasting 14 parks where biking and paddling are popular. One of its many trails conveniently leads to the downtown area, offering shopping, dining, and historical sites like the 1840s Gordon Hall. This year, Dexter celebrates its bicentennial, marking 200 years since its founding in 1824 as the humble “Mill Creek Settlement." Now, it's an award-winning recreation hub near numerous rivers and riverfront trails. The Border-to-Border Trail provides varied recreational activities, including biking, walking, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, and access to many local parks, such as Mill Creek Park.

The 104-mile-long Huron River Trail seamlessly connects nature with museums, cultural activities, local theater, concerts, and festivals. Dexter's vibrant arts scene is highlighted by the Encore Musical Theatre Company, featuring all-season productions with national talent, and Dexter Art Gardens, showcasing rotating sculptures and a permanent collection. Dexter Daze attracts visitors with artisans, crafters, and free entertainment, while the Paint Dexter Plein Air Festival is an event not to be missed in late summer. The downtown area and historic Main St., with their three-story architecture and flower shops, offer a variety of discoveries, including the Dexter Cider Mill, Farmers Market, and the Library. Don't overlook the Dexter Pub, Side Door Gallery, Beer Grotto Dexter, and Zingerman's Cornman Farms to the north.


Looking down the river at Frankenmuth, Michigan, from the wooden bridge.
Looking down the river at Frankenmuth, Michigan, from the wooden bridge.

Frankenmuth, Michigan's enchanting riverside German-style town along the Cass River, is affectionately known as Michigan's Little Bavaria. This city, rich in German heritage, offers unique culture and picturesque waterfront strolls. In winter, the town embraces the iconic German Christmas spirit, with holiday lights tours and ice skating along the river. Frankenmuth's architectural beauty is a delight for families and photographers, whether exploring on foot or via horse-drawn carriage. The iconic covered wooden bridge provides a scenic walk and an excellent spot for selfies.

Bavarian Inn in Frankenmuth, Michigan.
Bavarian Inn in Frankenmuth, Michigan. Editorial credit: Kenneth Sponsler /

Frankenmuth is compact, covering only about three square miles, yet it attracts approximately 1 million visitors annually. Despite its popularity, the town provides personalized experiences that leave a lasting impression. Anchored by Zehnder’s and the Bavarian Inn, visitors can enjoy traditional, world-famous chicken dinners. Food enthusiasts can explore German pretzel rolling, visit fudge and taffy shops, St. Julian Winery, or enjoy bratwurst and beer at Frankenmuth Brewery. Its cobblestone paths wind through Bavarian architecture, leading to shops, indoor waterparks, and a beautiful riverfront ideal for summer recreation.


City of Manistee, Michigan early morning in spring.
City of Manistee, Michigan early morning in spring.

Manistee, a historic port town in northwest Michigan, is celebrated for its beautiful North Pier Light among other nautical attractions. The Manistee County Historical Society maintains a 1.75-mile designated riverwalk from the Manistee River banks through downtown, featuring 25 informative plaques. Despite its small population of just over 6,000 residents, Manistee boasts engineering marvels including three vehicular bridges, three railroad bridges, a large pedestrian bridge, and two hydroelectric dams. Anglers can join local fishermen and have their catch cooked at local restaurants nestled among the quaint shops and historic architecture. Big Al’s Pizza, Manistee’s oldest pizza establishment, remains a local favorite. Manistee offers year-round outdoor activities, including boating, fishing, paddling, and floating under the season's first warm sunrays.

Don't miss the Happy Owl Bookshop in downtown's historic heart, known for its curated collection of classics, critically acclaimed works, and vacation mementos. Nearby, MaryAnn’s Antiques showcases treasures from various eras, including leather records, crystal, jewelry, art, and furniture. Little River Casino Resort provides entertainment with its lodge-style hotel or RV park, indoor and outdoor pools, fine dining, and a spa. It also features a 1,600-seat performance venue for national musical and comedy acts. North Channel Brewing offers local brews and American fare with views of the river’s drawbridge and freighter traffic, while Blue Fish Kitchen & Bar on River Street serves farm-to-table artisanal meals riverside for brunch or dinner.


Street view in Marshall, Michigan
Street view in Marshall, Michigan, via Roberto -

Marshall, recognized as one of Michigan's most picturesque cities, owes its beauty to a rich history that has preserved many Greek Revival buildings. Described as "a storehouse of 19th-century architecture," its National Historic Landmark District includes over 850 homes and businesses, making it the largest district of its kind in the "small urban" category nationwide. Founded in 1830 by Sidney and George Ketchum and named in honor of Chief Justice John Marshall of Virginia, who passed away five years later, Marshall stands out as the first of many towns to bear his name. Although it aspired to be the state capital, a dream that went unfulfilled as the title was awarded to Lansing in 1839, Marshall attracted a diverse group of professionals and speculators, contributing to its prosperity along the Kalamazoo River, strategically located between Detroit and Chicago. The town offers garden tours, candlelit walks through its tree-lined streets, eclectic shops, and an abundance of historic homes. Once a village of eight voters in 1847 and a pivotal switch center for the Michigan Central Railroad, Marshall became a haven for wealthy industrialists and the Midwest’s center for patent medicine. Today, it captivates visitors with unique local events, the blues festival, the renowned Dark Horse Brewing, and historical homes like the National House Inn.


Roscommon, Michigan: The business district on 5th Street
Roscommon, Michigan: The business district on 5th Street, via Roberto Galan /

Nestled on the Au Sable River near Higgins Lake, Roscommon is celebrated for its riverfront beauty and fishing opportunities. An ideal year-round retreat, the town boasts the flat Au Sable River Trail, offering stunning river views, and a scenic byway that explores the river's wild side. With a farmer’s market every Saturday at the River Center and a variety of shops, Roscommon invites visitors to enjoy kayaking, paddle boating, or tubing on the river, with equipment rentals available from local businesses like Campbell Canoes and Kayak Livery. Whitewater paddling, a thrilling alternative to rafting, is showcased at the annual Au Sable River Canoe Marathon in July, a challenging 120-mile race. The Higgins Lake Nursery and the Civilian Conservation Corps Museum offer insights into the world’s largest pine nurseries and conservation efforts. Culinary delights can be found at Bird and the Bear Bakery for breakfast or pastries, Nibbles Ice Cream for a treat on a hot day, and Fred’s of Roscommon for evening entertainment with pool tables and bowling.

Saint Clair

Marina on Lake Saint Clair on clear blue day
Marina on Lake Saint Clair on clear blue day

Situated about 52 miles northeast of Detroit and 15 miles south of Port Huron, Saint Clair, with a population of approximately 58,000, maintains a close-knit community atmosphere amidst its broad array of attractions. The town’s boardwalk, particularly enjoyable for a leisurely stroll through Palmer Park with views of freighters on the St. Clair River, complements the popular walking tour of public art and gardens. Riverview Plaza Park hosts free evening concerts, and outdoor enthusiasts can rent canoes or kayaks from a small dock on the Pine River or the full-service River’s Bend Marina. St. Clair Boat Harbor, close to downtown, features a dockside campground, boat launch, and kayak rentals, enhancing the visitor experience with accessible boating, museum visits, and dining at the River Crab restaurant. The historic city is ripe for exploration, offering courtyard fire pits, cozy seating, a streetscape park, and walkable streets lined with shops, restaurants, a brewery, and a wine house. Families can enjoy the Pine River’s gentle currents or its wooden boardwalk for scenic walks and sunsets. The river also winds around the city golf course, offering an 8.4-mile scenic journey, with annual events like the River Classic Car Show and the St. Clair Art Fair adding to the community’s vibrant culture.

Michigan’s river towns, set against the backdrop of the state’s famed lake scene and National Lakeshore, offer expansive experiences that belie their size, thanks to the vast waters that enhance the allure from cool to epic. Whether it’s the Germanic charm of Frankenmuth, Michigan's Little Bavaria on the Cass River, or the historical depth of Marshall, these towns exemplify the effortless cool that defines Michigan's river communities.

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