Mackinac Island, Michigan

The 9 Best Towns Along Lake Michigan

The state of Michigan rubs up against four of the five Great Lakes: Superior, Huron, Erie, and Michigan. The latter, in conjunction with the long western flank of the Lower Peninsula (better known as the "Sunset Coast"), creates one of the most attractive and congruous shorelines that The Great Lake State has to offer. There are large swaths of sandy beaches (oftentimes backdropped by ancient freshwater dunes) and plentiful waterfront towns that accent the landscape and the experience all the more. In order from south to north, these are nine of the best Michigan towns along Lake Michigan.

St. Joseph

Aerial view of St. Joseph, Michigan
Aerial view of St. Joseph, Michigan.

Tucked in the southwest corner of Michigan, St. Joseph, aka "St. Joe," is a viable beach town not only for those landlocked on the Lower Peninsula but also for residents of northern Indiana or Illinois. Split by the St. Joseph River, just as it empties into the vast blue waters of Lake Michigan, this small Berrien County city not only has an attractive pier (complete with two historic lighthouses), but popular beach parks on either side. Silver Beach County Park, which sits on the south side, blends into the downtown core, where both family-friendly and adult-appropriate attractions can be found. Be sure to catch a sunset at the aptly-named Lookout Park, and if you get the chance to make a small side trip, scoot down to Warren Dunes State Park to see the colossal sand dunes in all their glory.

South Haven

The scenic town of South Haven, Michigan
The scenic town of South Haven, Michigan. Editorial credit: Claudine Van Massenhove /

Less than 30 miles up Lake Michigan's coast from St. Joseph, the triple threat that is South Haven emerges. This Van Buren County community has a magnetic downtown core, a storybook Old Harbor Village, and two inviting beaches (South Beach and North Beach) that are once-again divided by a long pier (stemming off the Black River), that is this time tipped by a bright-red lighthouse. The intersection of Water and Center Street is where the shopping, coffee, and culinary explorations can begin, with each surrounding square block unveiling new independent businesses. The Old Harbor Village, which has been sculpted to mimic an old-fashioned fishing enclave, adds even more artisanal shops into the mix, as well as riverside eateries and accommodations. Like St. Joe, South Haven also has a sand-dune-themed state park (i.e. Van Buren), just a few minutes drive south of the city.


Aerial view of Saugatuck, Michigan
Aerial view of Saugatuck, Michigan.

The sister villages of Saugatuck and Douglas await another 20 miles up the road from South Haven, in a section of Michigan known as "The Art Coast." Based around either side of Kalamazoo Lake/Kalamazoo River (Douglas on the south shore, Saugatuck on the north), but still adjacent to Lake Michigan, these Allegan County communities offer ample waterfront experiences. Each downtown core (which feels like a single unit separated by a short bridge) is colorful, creative, and quirky. Many local eateries/breweries participate in what is known as the Social District - meaning that beverages can be purchased from one establishment and enjoyed in the common areas of another (while waiting on a table, perhaps). Boating and paddling outlets exist along the Kalamazoo waterways, and distinct beaches service both Douglas and Saugatuck (Douglas Beach and Oval Beach, respectively). Alternatively, another 2.5-mile sandy stretch sits just north of the collective at Saugatuck Dunes State Park.


Tulips and windmills in Holland, Michigan.
Tulips and windmills in Holland, Michigan.

Next, let's scoot 12 more miles northward (and ever so slightly inland) to the cultural haven of Holland. This Dutch-immigrant town, or rather, small city (many of the cute towns along Lake Michigan are technically cities) wears its European heritage on its sleeve. Traditional windmills, tulips galore (during the spring bloom, that is), local festivals, specialty shops, and even the general aesthetic of downtown (hued here and there with hints of orange) all mirror that of the Netherlands. But since this article is all about Lake Michigan, no visit to this Allegan/Ottawa County hub would be complete without following the north shore of Lake Macatawa to Holland State Park, the hearty Ottawa Beach, and the red-lighthouse-tipped pierhead.

Grand Haven

Lighthouse on Lake Michigan in Grand Haven
Lighthouse on Lake Michigan in Grand Haven, Michigan. Editorial credit: Dennis MacDonald /

Grand Haven is one of Michigan's quintessential beach towns. For a wet and wild summer, join the fun-loving crowds at Grand Haven State Park, Grand Haven City Beach, or North Beach Park, or sneak off to one of the many smaller outlets in the surrounding area. If sunbathing isn't your thing, catch a ride on the Lakeshore Trolley, or take a stroll along the Grand River Boardwalk (complete with a musical fountain) and into the exciting and well-stocked downtown districts. Paddlers will appreciate the protected waters and maze-like routes through the Grand River bayous, anglers will have plenty of prime spots to cast a line along those same shores, and boaters let er' rip across the full expanse of the Great Lake.


Aerial view of Muskegon, Michigan.
Aerial view of Muskegon, Michigan.

Though it is the most populous city along Michigan's Lake Michigan shore, do not overlook Muskegon this summer. In terms of outdoor recreation, this seat of the namesake county has three state parks (Muskegon, Pj Hoffmaster, and Duck Lake), several subsidiary lakes, two paddle-worthy rivers, 65 miles of multi-use trails, and 26 cumulative miles of soft sandy beaches. Muskegon also specializes in extracurricular fun - thanks to Michigan's Adventure (the largest amusement/water park in the state), a robust nightlife (especially in the libation department), and a lively arts & entertainment scene, complete with live performance venues, ambitious outdoor sculptures, and countless street murals (be sure to download the art walk map to see them all).

Traverse City

The charming downtown of Traverse City, Michigan
The charming downtown of Traverse City, Michigan.

Jumping well into the upper half of the Lower Peninsula, Traverse City teases the wild and wondrous landscape of northern Michigan. This Grand Traverse County gem is situated at the base of the West and East arms of Grand Traverse Bay (i.e. a substantial Lake Michigan inlet), which are divided by a long, vineyard-lined peninsula (aka, the "Traverse Wine Coast"). Sommeliers can tour the various award-winning wineries, and make pit stops at the many scenic lookouts, historic lighthouses, and lush parks along the way. Those open to a moderate, but unforgettable side adventure, can traverse the Traverse Highway for about 30 minutes to reach the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Shoreline - with its windswept, mountain-like formations and pristine beaches. Last but not least, consider timing your visit for the National Cherry Festival (June 29th-July 6th, 2024). Traverse City, after all, is known as the "Cherry Capital of the World."


Aerial view of Round Lake in Charlevoix, Michigan,
Aerial view of Round Lake in Charlevoix, Michigan.

As we continue our charge toward the tip of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, a stop in Charlevoix is a must (at least it was for Ernest Hemingway, who often summered here). The tapered site plan of this charming city accommodates a significant stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline, as well as the one-two punch of Round Lake and Lake Charlevoix. The beloved Michigan Beach Park sits equidistant from two other natural coastal attractions: Fisherman's Island State Park (to the west) and North Point Nature Preserve (to the east). When not on the water, be sure to check out the famous "mushroom houses" - 30 distinct properties designed by architect Earl Young, who utilized Northern Michigan stones and cedar-shake roofs to bring his earthy creations to life.

Mackinac Island

A busy Market Street in Mackinac Island, Michigan
A busy Market Street in Mackinac Island, Michigan.

The geographical (and perhaps, emotional) pinnacle of our Lake Michigan East Coast road trip brings us to Mackinac Island. Yes, this slightly more than four-square-mile island does actually tilt into Lake Huron's domain, but given the magic of the region, and lack of clear demarcation between the two Great Lakes, I trust that readers will forgive the transgression. Park at Mackinaw City and take the ferry over to this car-free enclave, where you can travel about on foot, bike, or even a horse-drawn carriage. Explore the titular state park (which dominates the majority of the island), visit historic forts, play a few rounds of golf (mini, disc, or regular), embrace spa life, or simply surrender to the resort town's world-famous fudge. You can't go wrong on this idyllic and old-fashioned rock.

Parting Thoughts

The eastern shore of Lake Michigan is one of several substantial Great-Lake-shorelines under Michigan's rule, but it is a tough one to top. The "Sunset Coast" is saturated with paradisiacal beaches, replete with state parks, and blessed with unique small towns. There are always more nooks and crannies to explore along Michigan's slice of Lake Michigan, but these nine towns are some of the absolute best. Where will you find yourself this season?


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