Aerial view of the Waterfront Park in Petoskey, Michigan.

9 Most Underrated Towns In the Great Lakes region

The Great Lakes region of the United States, a vast, beautiful region that is home to five freshwater lakes, is one of the most awe-inspiring regions of the United States. The Great Lakes, namely Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Ontario, and Lake Erie, contain about 20% of surface freshwater on the planet, the largest body of freshwater on earth. Moreover, while the wide, sandy beaches that fringe oceans have their appeal — a beautiful lake, many will confess, is just as gorgeous, perhaps even more so—than an ocean. 

The Great Lakes particularly boast sparkingly clear waters, hard to spot in any ocean on the planet. Part of this region's offerings is a cornucopia of beautiful towns that provide access to its marvels. While some Great Lakes towns are famous, even overhyped, some do not get the attention they deserve. Discover the nine most underrated towns in the Great Lakes region.

Munising, Michigan

Aerial view of Munising, Michigan in winter.
Aerial view of Munising, Michigan, in winter.

Secreted on the shore of a small, beautiful bay on Lake Superior, Munising is a Michigan gem that every vacationer should sing about. The town is home to about 1,900 residents and radiates a distinctive small-town allure many will find irresistible. Munising boasts a downtown complete with such inviting restaurants as the Dogpatch Restaurant, which offers tasty, crispy burgers on Superior Street; several unique boutiques and stores, as well as gift shops such as the impressively-stocked Gift Station, located at 101 Cedar Street. For outdoor lovers, Munising is a dream. The Alger Underwater Diving Preserve, for instance, is among the best scuba-diving areas in the Great Lakes. On Munising Bay Shipwreck Tours, one can come up and close with spectacular shipwrecks. Then again, a visit to Munising can never be complete without a trip to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, whose streaked, sandstone cliffs are quite a sight to behold.

Grand Haven, Michigan

Waves on Lake Michigan roll past the Grand Haven Lighthouse in Grand Haven, Michigan
Waves on Lake Michigan roll past the Grand Haven Lighthouse in Grand Haven, Michigan.

Grand Haven is another Michigan stunner that should be on everyone's travel plans. Curled up at the mouth of the 252-mile-ling Grand River, the longest river in Michigan, Grand Haven hugs the eastern shores of Lake Michigan. The town boasts a population of about 10,9000 and, for its setting, will leave a first-time visitor blown away. Attractions include the Grand Haven Boardwalk, a one-and-a-half-mile-long post-card-perfect stretch that is a pleasure to stroll through. This charming boardwalk, lined with many shops and restaurants, can see time fly by. For a beach experience, views, and all, Grand Haven State Park, located along the picturesque Lake Michigan shoreline, checks all boxes. For some unforgettable pizzas, however, Fricano's Pizza, located at 1400 Fulton Street, might make one imagine he is somewhere in Sicily.

Chesterton, Indiana

Crowded Indiana Dunes beach in Chesterton.
Crowded Indiana Dunes beach in Chesterton. Editorial credit: Adriana.Macias /

Though Indiana does not elicit a lot of recommendations when it comes to travel, the Hoosier State boasts several under-the-radar destinations that will easily sweep first-time visitors off their feet. One such spot is Chesterton. This town of about 14,600 is located just south of Indiana Dunes National Park and used to be a famous destination for one of the most lasting Wizard of Oz festivals in the United States. Today, besides offering convenient access to Indiana Dunes National Park and quiet woodlands, wind-swept prairies, heart-stirring beaches, and lush wetlands, Chesterton boasts several other attractions. The downtown, for instance, teems with many inviting restaurants, such as the community-oriented Red Cup Cafe & Deli located at 115 Broadway Avenue. 

Petoskey, Michigan

Aerial view of the Waterfront Park in Petoskey, Michigan.
Aerial view of the Waterfront Park in Petoskey, Michigan.

Nestled in Michigan's Emmet County on the southern shore of the panoramic Little Traverse Bay off of Lake Michigan, Petoskey's sylvan charm is hard to ignore. With a population of about 5,900, Petoskey is the ideal small-town retreat for someone seeking seclusion, wide-open spaces, or an intimate connection with nature. Sitting atop a hill, Petoskey's location affords panoramic views that stretch down to the shimmering waters of the Atlantic Ocean. While one will enjoy every minute spent in the town's historic Gaslight District, with its quaint gift shops, galleries, and eateries, such as Symons General Store at 401 E Lake Street, many find greater delight picking the beautiful, pebble-shaped Petoskey stones that dot the beach at Petoskey State Park. 

Saugatuck, Michigan

People relaxing on the beach in Saugatuck, Michigan.

Located in the heart of southwest Michigan's wine trail, with gasp-inducing bluffs that overlook an ever-changing lake, Saugatuck will prove pretty difficult to depart from. For art lovers, it should be enough that Saugatuck is called Michigan's Art Coast. While this is about the many creatives drawn to the town by the presence of the world-famous Ox-Bow School of Art, Saugatuck boasts an impressive collection of art galleries, studios, and other public art spaces, and hence, just where art aficionados may want to camp in. For those who will want to swim, splash, or just sink their ankles in some sensation-inducing sand, Saugatuck provides access to several Lake Michigan beaches If one can steal some more time, exploring the area's many award-winning wineries should definitely be on the menu.

St. Joseph, Michigan

A lighthouse in St. Joseph, Michigan.
A lighthouse in St. Joseph, Michigan.

Those who bypass this Michigan secret are unknowingly foregoing one of the most charming spots in the Great Lakes region. St. Joseph is located along Lake Michigan in Berrien County. Affectionately referred to as St. Joe, St. Joseph is home to about 7,600 residents who have the underappreciated privilege of living in one of the country's most beautiful regions. Part village, part city, and exuding elements of both, the rustic charm of St. Joseph is ideal for one looking for seclusion, simplicity, and authenticity. One of St. Joseph's highlights is Silver Beach which many regards as one of the best in Michigan. If Silver Beach, for its crowds, proves a victim of its fate, check out Tiscornia Park or Lions Park.

Two Harbors, Minnesota

People on jetty at Two Harbors, Minnesota on a sunny day
People on jetty at Two Harbors, Minnesota, on a sunny day.

Two Harbours, located on the North Shore of Lake Superior, is another underrated town in the Great Lakes region worth exploring. Though located about 13 miles away, a visit to Two Harbours must just involve a trip to the Gooseberry Falls State Park. Boasting about 20 miles of picturesque hiking trails interspersed with several scenic overlooks, Gooseberry Falls, the first park developed along Lake Superior's North Shore, is home to pristine cascades, big-boughed oaks, a fun gift shop, and endless natural attractions. If marooned in town, it would be prudent to check out Betty's Pies. This eatery's delectable cream and fruit pies are world-famous. And for good reason. With a location that allows patrons to look out the window for some amazing views of Lake Superior, the ambiance of this property is hard to match.

Grand Marais, Minnesota

U.S. Coast Guard Station of North Superior at Grand Marais, Minnesota
U.S. Coast Guard Station of North Superior at Grand Marais, Minnesota.

Secreted in the easternmost county of Minnesota, Grand Marais is another underrated, charming North Shore stunner. The town lies along the northwestern shore of Lake Superior, the world's largest freshwater lake by area. Once a fishing village and boasting what is among the oldest place names in Michigan, Grand Marais owes its rise to its unique geographic setting—particularly the presence of Lake Superior — as well as the town's two natural harbors. One Grand Marais highlight is the North House Folk School, where enrolled students learn knitting, basket-making, or other crafts without worrying about exams, term papers, or credits. To sample the taste of freshwater fish, the curiously-named Angry Trout Cafe, which clings to the edge of Grand Marais Harbor, is just the place to look for. For hikers and outdoor enthusiasts, however, the Gunflint Trail Scenic Byway awaits.

Bayfield, Wisconsin

Fall colors reflected on the still waters of the harbor in Bayfield on Lake Superior.
Fall colors reflected on the still waters of the harbor in Bayfield, Wisconsin.

Hidden at the northern tip of Wisconsin on the picturesque shores of Lake Superior, Bayfield will effortlessly sweep a first-time visitor off her feet. One major Bayfield draw lies in the fact it is the gateway to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, a stunning region that is home — not to one or two islands— but to a remarkable 21. Punctuated by heart-sinking cliffs, gasp-inducing sea caves, and other unique geological formations, Apostle Islands is enough reason to set foot in Bayfield. That is not to mention that this park boasts more lighthouses than any other site in the National Park System. However, the first thing to do in Bayfield is check into Bayfield Inn. Set on the waterfront, with views that few other facilities can beat, Bayfield Inn is the perfect place to lodge.

The Takeaway

The Great Lakes region of the United States is not just an amazing region for its ecological importance but also just for the sake of beauty in its most pristine environment. The view of a clear, sparkling lake encircled by powder-soft sand, big-boughed trees, and majestic mountains is difficult to resist. Such is the description of many spots and towns in the Great Lakes region. From Munising, Michigan, to Bayfield, Wisconsin— and many towns in between—many will confess that the Great Lakes region has one of the most underrated towns in the country.

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