Waterfront buildings near the entrance to Oval Beach on Lake Michigan in Saugatuck, Michigan, USA. Editorial credit: PQK / Shutterstock.com

9 Must-Visit Small Towns in Michigan

With an incredibly apt state motto of: "If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you," Michigan is an incredibly unique state and perfect for visitors.  It is the only state bordered by four Great Lakes: Superior, Michigan, Huron, and Erie.  This abundance of coastline provides ample opportunities to experience coastal beauty in charming coastal towns- but this is not everything Michigan has to offer.  It also contains large swathes of verdant fields, sparkling inland lakes, and impressive historical districts

Although every small town in Michigan has its appeal and history, there are specific standouts that no visitor should overlook. These nine towns are must-haves on every itinerary.


Old business district on 2nd Avenue in Alpena, Michigan, USA.

A business district on 2nd Avenue in Alpena, Michigan, USA. Editorial credit: Roberto Galan / Shutterstock.com

In the northeast corner of the peninsula, Alpena is at the top of Thunder Bay, with a bounty of beaches and parks, a vibrant historic downtown district, and unique opportunities to explore the area's maritime heritage.  

The Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center is a sprawling assortment of exhibits ranging from "dive tubes" to "explore" the lake floor to "lake storm" on a wooden schooner replica.  Close by is the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, with glass-bottom boat shipwreck tours offering a peek into the past and, if at the correct skill level, snorkeling or diving to view the shipwrecks. 

Starlite Beach is a family-friendly option complete with a splash pad.  Thomson's Beach is the perfect grassy place for a picnic, with a soft sandy swimming beach and panoramic Lake Huron views.

Take a stroll around Alpena's residential areas to see stately Victorian mansions and cute Craftsman-style cottages. Next, seek a souvenir of locally-made handicrafts in the shopping district while soaking in the artsy aura of the historic Art Deco and Renaissance Revival-style buildings.  After working up an appetite, indulge in fresh Italian-American fare at the Courtyard Ristorante, an Alpena institution since the 1980s.


Bavarian-style houses of the Bavarian Inn center in Frankenmuth, Michigan, on a perfect winter day with a blue sky above and white snow on the ground.
Bavarian-style houses of the Bavarian Inn center in Frankenmuth, Michigan, on a perfect winter day with a blue sky above and white snow on the ground. Editorial credit: T-I / Shutterstock.com

Frankenmuth, a delightful slice of Bavaria in the Great Lakes State founded in 1845, honors its German roots in many ways. 

Timber-frame architecture dominates the town, with the cozy feel of a Bavarian village defining the downtown.  The Historical Association showcases how Frankenmuth became Little Bavaria and visits the Michigan Heroes Museum to honor those who have served.   

The Bavarian village-like River Place shops feature a blacksmith experience and places to get Michigan-exclusive souvenirs such as Petoskey stone jewelry and cherry products.  For additional shopping, Bronner's expansive Christmas Wonderland provides the magic of the season all year round, with twinkling displays and an endless variety of ornaments.

The Bavarian Inn Lodge is ideal, providing a resort environment with a distinctive Frankenmuth flair.  By the banks of the Cass River, it is near the Holz Brücke (a beautifully built wooden covered bridge), perfect for a peaceful and romantic stroll.

Across the river from the inn is the first-class Bavarian Inn restaurant. Famous crispy fried chicken dinners are a main attraction but do not miss German classics such as schnitzel (fried pork cutlets) and savory sauerbraten (marinated roast beef).  Finish the meal with a sweet and flaky apfelstrudel.


Kitch-iti-kipi, an amazing natural spring in Manistique, Michigan.

Kitch-iti-kipi is an amazing natural spring in Manistique, Michigan.

Deep in the Upper Peninsula, Manistique is the epitome of natural beauty.  Nicknamed "Emerald City," possibly for the green waters of its sizeable natural freshwater spring, Manistique truly is dazzling.

Located in Palms Book State Park, Kitch-iti-kipi, or "The Big Spring," is unreal, crystal-clear placid waters dotted with darting trout spreading beneath ancient branches at a constant 45 degrees Fahrenheit.  Over 10,000 gallons of gush per minute from the cracks in the limestone provide the 40-foot deep spring with ever-flowing waters.  

Nature lovers will be spoiled for choice in Manistique with the equally stunning Indian Lake State Park. The fourth-largest inland lake in the Upper Peninsula region is a fishing hot spot with pike, trout, and perch.  Camping sites are plentiful, and a designated sandy swimming beach gives the chance to dip into the unspoiled waters. History buffs will appreciate the two picnic shelters built in the Civilian Conservation Corps era of the 1930s.

After camping and enjoying the inland lake and freshwater spring, grab a local favorite pasty (a savory pastry traditionally filled with root vegetables and meat) on the lakeside boardwalk. If you have more of a sweet tooth, try Trenary toast, a local crunchy cinnamon sugar favorite.


Aerial view of Munising, Michigan, USA.
Aerial view of Munising, Michigan, USA. Editorial credit: SNEHIT PHOTO / Shutterstock.com

The Upper Peninsula serves up more gorgeous landscapes in Munising.  Home of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, it is easy to see why outdoor enthusiasts flock to this region.  Soaring sandstone cliffs, rolling dunes, breathtaking waterfalls, and deep verdant forests inspire and fascinate.  

The variegated sandstone cliffs rising to over 200 feet above the lake, combined with the perched dunes and aquatic ecosystems, including bogs and cedar swamplands, create the perfect environment for an unparalleled, diverse array of wildlife (especially birds) and plant life (over 600 species have been identified). Photographers, artists, amateur scientists, and outdoor enthusiasts will find this National Lakeshore awe-inspiring.

Adventure-seekers can find thrills in the sea caves and shipwrecks offshore in the Alger Underwater Diving Preserve with fantastic underwater visibility, and those that prefer a drier route to discovery can take glass-bottom boats to explore the lake's marvels.  

Pasties and homemade fudge are on the menu at Muldoon's Pasties and Gifts, where various Upper Peninsula gifts and snacks are for sale.  Grab their award-winning version of a pasty filled with succulent beef, potatoes, onions, carrots, and rutabaga, and walk to the historic lakeshore lighthouses.

Paw Paw 

Business district on Michigan Avenue in Paw Paw, Michigan, USA.

Business district on Michigan Avenue in Paw Paw, Michigan, USA. Editorial credit: Roberto Galan / Shutterstock.com

On the lower peninsula, over 13,000 acres of land in Michigan are dedicated to grapes, forming five American Viticultural Areas and over 140 commercial wineries.  The oldest and most significant of these wineries, earning many awards, is St. Julian winery in Paw Paw, Michigan.

Operated by the same family for four generations, the winery provides over 100 products, from classic award-winning reds and whites to the quirky Moo-Low strawberry milk creamy wine.  Also available are spirits like cherry brandy and vodka made from Michigan grapes, and tasting flights are provided.  

Maple Lake, created in the 1900s, is unusually in the middle of downtown Paw Paw, with lakeside picnics, feeding the ducks, and fishing being popular pastimes.  Kayaking the adjacent rivers is a great way to see the city, and Maple Isle is an island getaway for families, with a playground and places to relax and watch the tranquil waters.

History buffs will find interest in Paw Paw City Hall, a Greek Revival-style two-story building used for many purposes over the years.  Other notable historical sites include the Classical Revival Van Buren County Courthouse and the Carnegie Center, built with a Carnegie grant in 1920.


Aerial view of Saugatuck, Michigan.

Aerial view of Saugatuck, Michigan.

Saugatuck is the quintessential artsy beach town on the coast northwest of Paw Paw, even earning the nickname "Art Coast."  It is a town for everyone, with sandy beaches, art galleries, and boating.

A voyage on the Star of Saugatuck's authentic paddlewheel boat down the Kalamazoo River gives the ultimate chance to appreciate the area, with million-dollar mansions, lakeside cottages, and all kinds of boats adorning the naturally stunning scenery.  Other choices for exploring the waters are renting retro boats, kayaking, or paddleboarding.

The Saugatuck Center for the Arts is the beating heart of the art scene of Saugatuck, offering rotating exhibits ranging from an Anishinaabe artist's reflection on the Great Lakes environment to shadow prints of rare plants. The Ox-Bow School of Art and Artists’ Residency (founded in 1910) offers workshops and open studio nights for art aficionados.  Butler Street and the surrounding downtown is home to public art, such as a recreation of Georges Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte and galleries and artists' studios.

Oval Beach is an award-winning white sand spot for sunbathing and swimming surrounded by staggering dunes.  Bring your sunscreen and relax!   

Mt Pleasant

Business district on Main Street in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, USA.

Business district on Main Street in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, USA. Editorial credit: Roberto Galan / Shutterstock.com

Home to Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant is a smaller college town with a rich history, Native American culture, and family-friendly outdoor recreation. Visiting museums, ambling through the enchanting historic downtown, and a campus tour are only a few options in Mt. Pleasant.

The Ziibiwing Center of Anishabe Culture and Lifeways provides a distinctive perspective with its focus on the history of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan and other Great Lakes Anishinabek.

Downtown Mt. Pleasant's historic district contains plenty of eye candy in the form of buildings exhibiting Victorian, French Revival, and Mid-Century Modern styles, housing over 140 businesses.  Make sure to visit the residential districts, with the Doughty House built in the 1860s, which is older than the town itself.  Art Walk Central provides funky public art to be enjoyed by all.

Kayaking on the Chippewa River is highly recommended, with the river's calmness and length of 92 miles making it the perfect spot to spend a day. Catch a game at CMU and cheer on the Chippewas. 


Brooks Fountain in downtown Marshall, Michigan, USA. Unveiled in 1930, it is a Greek Revival-style replica of Marie Antoinette's Temple of Love in Versailles.
Brooks Fountain is in downtown Marshall, Michigan. Unveiled in 1930, it is a Greek Revival-style replica of Marie Antoinette's Temple of Love in Versailles. Editorial credit: ehrlif / Shutterstock.com

South of Mt. Pleasant, Marshall was founded in 1830 (even with the thought it would be the next state capital), continuing to grow until the 1870s. Incredible history is reflected in its carefully maintained National Historic Landmark District, comprised of over 800 structures and houses around town preserved in the Italian Villa and Greek Revival styles. The Honolulu House, built in 1860, is a must-see, with the Polynesian, Italianate, and Gothic Revival mix of styles. 

The National House Inn, the ideal place to stay in Marshall, was founded in 1835 and is the oldest brick building in Calhoun County.  Restored to its old-fashioned charm, the Inn was even rumored to be a stop on the Underground Railroad, which is unsurprising considering that the citizens of Marshall refused to turn over an escaped slave and his family in 1847, instead helping the Crosswhite family to Canada.

An unexpected museum in such a historic town is the American Museum of Magic, an entertaining collection described as "the Smithsonian of Magic."  With archives on illusionists and exhibits exploring the history of magic, the American Museum of Magic is truly an enchanted place to visit.


Robert Manning Memorial Lighthouse in Empire, Michigan, USA.
Robert Manning Memorial Lighthouse in Empire, Michigan, USA. Editorial credit: Dennis MacDonald / Shutterstock.com

Far across the state from Marshall, Empire is a village of around 362 people home to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, a famous spot named "The Most Beautiful Place in America" by Good Morning America viewers in 2011.  

With 35 miles of pristine Lake Michigan coastline, Sleeping Bear Dunes is renowned for a reason.  Piled up high, sandy dunes provide a challenging climb, with views of aquamarine waters and serene skies. 

The Empire Bluff Trail gives another perspective of the area, winding through a beech-maple forest to a perched dune 400 feet up that allows gazing about unhindered at the pure crystalline waves dancing on the mounded dunes.

The Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is a 7.8-mile drive that condenses the best of the area into an easily accessible loop.  Constructed in the 1960s by lumberman Pierce Stocking, the road is well-maintained and can be completed by biking, driving, or walking.  The scenic drive Through forests and dunes is a great way to understand the area's history and get a taste of the different environments that provide habitats for various animals, including nearly countless birds.

Can't Miss Michigan

Michigan's small towns genuinely have something for everyone.  From well-preserved historic districts to flawless natural beauty, the possibilities are endless.  Throughout the year, something is interesting in Michigan, from Oktoberfest to snowshoeing to fishing on the inland lakes.  No matter the time of year, Michigan is full of activities indoors and outdoors.  

Whether you prefer the Bavarian charm of Frankenmuth, the natural beauty of the Upper Peninsula's Manistique and Munising, or the historically significant Marshall, Michigan is a must-see for all. 

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