South Haven, Michigan: Municipal Marina building, via Claudine Van Massenhove /

Michigan's Best Small Towns for a Weekend Escape

Also known as the Mitten State and Wolverine State, Michigan abounds in opportunities for year-round outdoor recreation, making it an ideal destination for a weekend escape. Consider St. James, a charming town on the hook-like Beaver Island, featuring its own toy museum, a lighthouse, and remote vibes perfect for chilling out. Michigan is home to five Great Lakes. Lake Michigan is the world’s largest lake located entirely within a single country, while Lake Ontario is the smallest, Lake Erie is the shallowest, and Lake Huron has the longest shoreline.

Holland offers a chance to enjoy the beauty of Lake Michigan and relax in its late-1800s and early-1900s downtown, characterized by tree-lined streets and whimsical pocket parks. Did you know that the enigmatic designer and artist Earl Young didn't use blueprints, instead creating homes that fit the site? Experience the "Lord of the Rings" vibes around his whimsical "Mushroom Huts" in Charlevoix, home to the world's largest cherry pie tin and numerous beaches.


Pere Marquette Station
Pere Marquette Station in Alden, Michigan, By rossograph - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Cozy, walkable, and uncrowded, Alden inspires an easy, breezy escape along the Upper Peninsula. Nestled along the turquoise Torch Lake, known as "the Caribbean of the North," this small, lovely, and pristine town boasts swimmable waters. Alden, the closest town to the Sandbar just off the southern shore, attracts paddlers and jet skiers to lounge under the rays, enjoy second-to-none scenery, and jump into the open waters from this sand mass. Overlooking Lake Michigan from the trails of its Coy Mountain Natural Area, the Grass River Natural Area sprawls just south in a beautiful nature preserve.

Brimming with Instagram-perfect mementos, think lakeside strolls in the cooling water's breath, sunny skies, and a dripping cone from Lakeside Dip. Visitors can take a trip to the Messiah's Tree Farm, surprise a loved one with a bouquet from the flower garden, or browse books at the town's library. Afterwards, share cold suds over a large pizza pie at the popular Torch Lake Beer Co., across from the public boat jetty with nine floating docks and a pretty replica lighthouse. Peppered with cute businesses for every taste, like Alden Muffin Tin and Alden Outfitters, Alden's Mill House is a stellar place to stock up on any kind of spice.


Looking north along M-25 in Caseville, Michigan
Looking north along M-25 in Caseville, Michigan, By Notorious4life - Own work, CC0, Wikimedia Commons

Famous for its summer Cheeseburger Festival, the tiny beachside city of Caseville is much more than that. As the east side’s most popular “Up North” beach town at the start of Saginaw Bay in Lake Huron, Caseville inspires an easy-going weekend escape where locals know how to have fun each day. From mini-golf to go-karts and giant ice cream cones to fantastic food, Saginaw Bay's waters are generally warm, offering a refreshing embrace for splashing, swimming, diving, or floating. There is also the Sandy Acres Llama Farm and flamingos—lots of flamingos, which have symbolized the town ever since they were spotted flocking a decade ago.

Filled with silliness, music, and fun events like the Cheeseburger Eating Contest, Caseville morphs into "Key North" when every restaurant tries to outdo each other with the most delicious patty between the buns. Breathing in the air of simplicity, from Lefty's Diner to the Caseville Pier and unfussy yacht club, dine at Baywatch On the Beach Grill and stay next door at Caseville County Park, a scenic campground with pretty trails for strolls. Sand Point Nature Preserve is minutes south with a trailhead, while Caseville Golf Course, near a tree farm, affords views to the horizon. Minutes north, the spectacular 723-acre Sleeper State Park on Saginaw Bay offers seasonal campsites and shaded trails through ancient dune forests.


Street view in Charlevoix, Michigan
Street view in Charlevoix, Michigan. Image credit Fsendek via

Ah, Charlevoix the Beautiful, a long-time haunt for artists, dreamers, and families seeking an extraordinary escape. Home to three lakes and countless trails for every type of scenery chaser, the immense Fisherman's Island State Park flaunts an island vibe with high sand dunes and cedar bogs for hiking. From the World's Largest Cherry Pie Tin to East Park with a marina on Round Lake, Charlevoix is perhaps best known for the Earl Young Mushroom Houses. The enigmatic designer and artist didn't use blueprints, instead creating homes that fit the site, not vice versa. His scenic huts, real architectural treasures of the state, give off major Lord of the Rings vibes, as if rooted in the forest floor.

Built from locally sourced stone, using limestone, fieldstone, and boulders, each house is individually designed with cedar-shake roofs and a horizontal emphasis, lending a mushroom-like appearance and earning the names Gnome Homes or Hobbit Houses. While not open to the public, these private properties are open for self-guided tours. Highlights include the most photographed and impressive Half House, which appears to be cut in half, and the Thatch Roof House. After a hike through the North Point Nature Preserve, a serene day at the central Michigan Beach Park, or Ferry Beach Park overlooking Lake Charlevoix, Villager's Pub is just a hop away from sunset views behind the red Charlevoix South Pier Lighthouse.


Street view in Holland, Michigan
Street view in Holland, Michigan, via Juli Scalzi /

Historic and hip, Holland is a year-round destination to drink in the glory of Lake Michigan, the world’s largest lake located entirely within a single country. With four seasons of outdoor fun and cultural attractions, this small town transports you back in time and to another country. Home to a beautifully restored downtown, named the nation’s coolest downtown by America in Bloom, visitors can admire the late-1800s and early-1900s architecture along its tree-lined streets and relax at whimsical pocket parks. Flaunting a creative collection of boutiques to discover at your own pace between characterful bistros and breweries, a springtime visit promises tulips.

From summertime parades, perennials, and street performers, not to mention pristine beaches, to the corn stalks and pumpkin carvers of the fall, lake-effect snow arrives, and Holland shines with holiday greens and Sinterklaas, the Dutch version of St. Nicholas. Enjoy cross-country skiing or snowshoeing in the winter through hemlock forests, and in the summer, sailing, kayaking, jet skiing, and kitesurfing while anglers fish for their own dinner. With over 1,500 hectares of parks and trails at your backdoor, the marshlands, wooded glens, and towering dunes, including 240 kilometers of paved bike paths, beckon for backcountry treks, mountain biking, and fat tire adventures.

St. Joseph

An aerial view from a helicopter over St. Joseph, Michigan, shows the town, St. Joe River, and a thriving city.
An aerial view from a helicopter over St. Joseph, Michigan, shows the town, St. Joe River, and a thriving city.

Nestled near the bottom of Lake Michigan, the St. Joseph River flows through the heart of this charming town into the expansive lake. From romantic morning sunrises along the pier to the never-crowded beaches like Lions Park Beach for daytime lounging, St. Joseph North Pier Inner Lighthouse features not one but two iconic, historic lighthouses on a breakwater with an elevated catwalk and dramatic sunset views. Nature takes center stage in St. Joseph, with town greens like Riverview Park with trails and Carronde Park with a playground. Lookout Park is perched atop a hill with hiking trails and offers the best panorama over the bluff, lake, and city of St. Joseph for picnicking.

Start each beautiful day with a new cozy cafe before exploring the parks, Silver Beach, or the ever-popular Harbor Shores Golf Club. Don't miss the Krasl Art Center with its exhibits, permanent sculptures, and classes for all ages. Families enjoy Slackers Family Fun Center with laser tag and saying hi to the wagging tails at Mutterly Love, a kennel. Grab a treat from the iconic Culver’s for a stroll through Tiscornia Park, which takes your breath away in every season along the quiet lakeshore with a sandy beach, pier, lighthouse, and picnic pavilion. Cracker Barrel Country Old Store is the perfect companion for your picnic basket and treats back home.


The historic business district on Mitchell Street, Petoskey, Michigan
The historic business district on Mitchell Street, Petoskey, Michigan. Image credit Roberto Galan via Shutterstock

One of the most popular towns for those in the know—think beaches, state parks, and corals—Petoskey remains pleasantly uncrowded, allowing you to finally acquaint yourself with its charms. Nestled atop a hill like a tiny knob with views akin to the Atlantic Ocean, the southern coastline of Lake Michigan's calm and beautiful Little Traverse Bay is strewn with treasures. The sandy shores of the spectacular Petoskey State Park offer a lovely beach, perfect for combing for the elusive Petoskey stones—rocks and fossils from colonial coral deposits over 350 million years old. The restored train depot is now the Little Traverse History Museum, while the Sky Bridge, just 20 minutes outside of town, is the world’s longest timber-towered suspension bridge.

Bayfront Park is wonderful for a stroll through the former industrial site with rocky and water views, as well as places to relax or enjoy sports fields and a playground, all along the charming Little Traverse Bay. Hop next door to Sunset Park just for the relevant evening pursuit, or take it down—not a notch—but south to the scenic Bear River Valley Recreation Area. This 1.5-mile stretch along riverbanks beckons you to follow via trails, boardwalks, or in a whitewater raft. Petoskey Bayfront Lighthouse is accessible via a jutting pier, while the treats at Kilwins Chocolate Kitchen, an old favorite chocolate shop with fudge and ice cream, will blow your mind.

South Haven

The harbor at South Haven, Michigan.
The harbor at South Haven, Michigan. Editorial credit: Susan B Sheldon /

South Haven is a revered summertime destination for a weekend getaway in the state. Flaunting many beaches and nature trails along the shores of both Lake Michigan and at the mouth of the Black River, the crowds seem less daunting when everyone is engaged otherwise. South Haven Piers feature a bright red lighthouse, while Black River Preserve feels like a world of its own with miles of trails for hiking through the shaded forest and wetland. From North Beach to South Beach, Deerlick Creek Park offers a slick sand stretch with backwoods and scenic rocks.

From viewing spring flowers to leaf peeping through fall foliage, South Haven is never lonely, turning over its lush trails to snowshoers and cross-country skiers. Kal-Haven Trailhead takes you through a serene covered bridge, while camping is a popular option for any group, including the Kal-Haven Outpost, Yogi Bear's Jellystone Park™ Camp-Resort, and Covert/South Haven KOA. Home to its very own Michigan Maritime Museum, this world-class landmark makes the area's seafaring heritage accessible to every age with exhibits on the Great Lakes and the culture of boating, along with a store and a research library.

St. James

St. James, Michigan: Located on Beaver Island, known for its rich Mormon history
St. James, Michigan: Located on Beaver Island, known for its rich Mormon history, via Reel creative /

Covering a portion of Beaver Island as well as the wild islets of High, Garden, and Hog, one day in St. James is never enough. Accessible via a scenic, over two-hour ferry ride from Charlevoix, this harbor town on the northern tip of the largest island in the middle of Lake Michigan is a popular camping destination, perfect for a long-weekend escape. Truly in the middle of nowhere, with miles of coastline, St. James promises an escape from reality. With something to keep the whole family happily engaged, don't miss the Beaver Island Marine Museum and the delightful Toy Museum for visitors of every age.

From Mt. Pisgah, a hiking area, to Bella's Roost Trail, Daddy Frank’s ice cream shop will have you coming back for more flurries, malts, and hot-fudge brownie sundaes. Stock up a picnic basket at McDonough's Market for a circle hike around the clear Font Lake or the trails through the blufftop George & Althea Petritz Nature Preserve before catching the sunset behind Beaver Island Harbor Light at the tip of the island's "hook." The Big Rock is a historic landmark right at the "Beaver's Heart," while Beaver Head Lighthouse graces its, well, tail, which you can access from Bill Wagner Campground via a trail and stop at Martin's Bluff Scenic Overlook.

Michigan’s diverse towns offer unique experiences for all. From the historic charm of Holland's downtown to the fantastical Mushroom Houses in Charlevoix, and the serene, remote beauty of St. James on Beaver Island, there's something for everyone. Whether you're exploring scenic trails, enjoying beachside relaxation, or uncovering quirky attractions, Michigan's blend of natural beauty and cultural treasures makes it the perfect destination for an unforgettable weekend escape.

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