Where the Great Lakes kiss the shoreline and lighthouses stand like giants, Michigan's small towns are far more than mere dots on a map. If Alpena's marine sanctuaries make you want to don a snorkel, and Kalamazoo's artisanal breweries tempt your palate, just wait until you explore what lies beyond. Envelop yourself in the serenity of lakefront promenades, endless art festivals, and the melancholy of moonlit barns. So, carve out a space on your travel itinerary and embrace Michigan's most remarkable towns.
For its fine beaches, historic lighthouse, and gorgeous downtown, Tawas earns its place on this list. Don't miss a trip to the Tawas Point Lighthouse, where you can climb up and get a panoramic view of Lake Huron. Not more than 2,000 people live in its bucolic environment and enjoy the many things the town offers. While Tawas has many draws, its focal point is Tawas Bay.
From the shoreline of Lake Huron, famous for its clear, blue waters, to the mind-bending beauty of the Au Sable River, Tawas Bay is hands-down one of the most picturesque spots in Michigan. The Gateway Park, which boasts a 1,200-foot boardwalk, is an excellent location for birdwatching and fishing. Known as the "Cape Cod of the Midwest," in reference to its stunning beaches, Tawas easily lives up to its billing. Visitors will enjoy the many outdoor activities around the area, including kayaking, swimming, and paddleboarding—among endless others.
Located in Benzie County and famous for its pristine dunes, beaches, and spectacular sunsets, Frankfort will easily sweep visitors off their feet. Point Betsie Lighthouse, built in 1858, is a historical landmark worth exploring and stands just a few miles north of the city. With a population of only 1,243 as of 2023, according to World Population Review, this town evidently punches above its weight. Whether one wants to stroll out to the pier late at night, watch some exciting film at the Garden Theater, or walk through the town's maple-lined streets in the cool of the day, Frankfort comes with sights, sounds, and scenes many will find irresistible. Don't miss the chance to visit the Oliver Art Center, an influential space for local artists, located in a converted Coast Guard station. Besides, the turquoise waters of Crystal Lake, which are among the country's cleanest lakes, will be at hand to display its shimmering radiance about two miles from downtown Frankfort.
Since Traverse and the Traverse City region produce at least 40% of tart cherries harvested in the United States, Traverse is often referred to as the "Cherry Capital of the World." However, the city is not just known for cherries or the National Cherry Festival, where locals and visitors enjoy drinks and meals under blooming cherry blossoms. Nestled on the shores of a picturesque lake, Traverse has all the ingredients known to constitute a vacation hot spot. And it is not just some word on the street. The town has won several high-ranking mentions, including "Top Lake Vacations in the US" (by US News & World Reports) and "Best Winter Getaways" (by Oprah Magazine). While such mentions testify to the town's beguiling beauty, they still fall short of capturing the actual experience.
Alpena, the only city in Alpena County, home to one of the world's largest shale quarries, has other attractive highlights besides shale and quarries. Curled up between a huge emerald forest and the dramatically picturesque Thunder Bay, Alpena will leave visitors completely blown away. Don't miss a visit to the Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan, which features a planetarium and fossil exhibits. The town is home to around 10,000 friendly residents, who all enjoy the many stunning features that make it a favorite with tourists — interestingly, without being frustratingly touristy or crazily crowded. While the town boasts such highlights as the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center, the real outdoor gems are in the surrounding area comprising a collection of parks, beautiful lakes, and lush forests. If you're interested in lighthouses, the Alpena Light, also known as "Little Red," is a functioning lighthouse on the Thunder Bay River and worth a stop.
Mackinaw City is one reason Upper Michigan is often considered one of the most beautiful regions in the United States. While the city itself is small and boasts a population under 1,000, its rustic beauty makes it one of the most sought-after. Don't miss the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, a historic structure that provides panoramic views of the Straits of Mackinac. The city comes with attractions that are as impressive for their number—as they are for their charming allure. Whether one wants to cross Mackinac Bridge (the fifth longest suspension bridge in the world), ride the ferry over to the car-free Mackinac Island (one of the prettiest islands in the country), or just wander through the town itself, a visit to Mackinaw City will always come with the desire for a repeat visit. Head over to Colonial Michilimackinac, a reconstructed 18th-century fort and fur trading village, to witness reenactments and delve into early American history.
One thing that makes Kalamazoo famous is its unique name. The jury, however, is still out regarding the actual meaning of the word "Kalamazoo." According to some, Kalamazoo means "boiling pot." To some, it translates to "mirage." To others still, Kalamazoo means "reflecting river." However, while the meaning of Kalamazoo is debatable, there is no doubting the fact that this small town is scenic, charming, and irresistibly laid-back. Additionally, Kalamazoo boasts several features that make it among Michigan's best. And with the beautiful Lake Michigan to the west and its moderating effect on temperatures, Kalamazoo winters are often slightly more comfortable than in many parts of the state.
South Haven is a little haven in every sense of the word. South Haven hugs the sparkling Lake Michigan in Southwest Michigan. Home to about 4,000 residents, South Haven is a small city that boasts a beneficial blend of small-city appeal and big-city conveniences. A number of stunning marinas, easy access to seven public beaches, and a historic lighthouse all combine to make the town a tourist magnet. Besides, South Haven is home to some of the oldest lodges and bread and breakfasts in the Water Winter Wonderland of Michigan. In addition, the eclectic art galleries, as well as the impressive array of shopping and dining options, make South Haven an easy sell.
A visit to Charlevoix will make one understand why this city boasts some of the most epic views in Michigan. A trip here will also reveal why the whole Charlevoix-Petoskey region is one of the most underrated regions in the United States. The region's rustic scenery and picturesque grandeur are such as to make visitors effortlessly come under its enchanting spell. Charlevoix boasts quite a number of mind-bending attractions, including the lake that bears the town's name: Lake Charlevoix. The gorgeous water body is the third largest lake in Michigan in terms of surface area and, in 2012, was voted the second-best lake in the United States. Charlevoix teems with endless options for those who enjoy the outdoors, including swimming, kayaking, and fishing.
The beauty of Marquette, a town of about twenty thousand, is the kind that will stay in mind for a long time. For those who love the outdoors, Marquette has a wide range of exciting options. While some will enjoy strolling through its scenic walking paths, others will quickly lose themselves in such activities as fishing, golfing, and skiing. Regarding biking, Marquette has a long and storied reputation as a top biking destination in the country. Other attractions include Presque Isle Park, which boasts many scenic Lake Superior overlooks, a beautiful lighthouse, heart-sinking cliffs, and Sunset Point—the perfect spot to grab one of the best sunset views in the skies of Michigan.
Located in the Great Lakes Region, Michigan might be cold, with winters that are often harsh and brutal. However, when it comes to beauty, the only state in the country made up of two peninsulas is one of the most stunning as well. It boasts not only the longest freshwater coastline of all the states but also an array of small towns that do a good job displaying its graceful grandeur and spellbinding allure. From Tawas to Marquette, The Riviera of the Midwest will hardly disappoint.