Michigan, a state adorned with diverse landscapes and vibrant cities, hides within its boundaries a host of towns waiting for you to discover. While the draw of Detroit, Dearborn, and Grand Rapids is undeniable, the true essence of Michigan lies in its often-overlooked gems. These towns offer quiet natural beauty, historical significance, and welcoming communities, making them ideal locales for out-of-town tourists seeking an authentic Michigan experience. Jump in and find your next destination in one of these 11 underrated towns in the Great Lakes State.
St. Joseph is on the shores of Lake Michigan, approximately 90 miles to the northeast of Chicago. It is renowned for its sandy beaches, most notably the Silver Beach State Park beach at the mouth of the St. Joseph River. If you go there, you do not want to miss the Silver Beach Carousel, made up of 44 handcrafted horses. Go ahead and release your inner child and take a magical spin on this historical merry-go-round, first in operation in 1910. It is perfect for a family activity or even a playful romantic outing.
Or plan a visit to the St. Joseph North Pier Lighthouse. The historic lighthouse, constructed in 1832, definitely has some stories to tell. It is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day and provides guided tours and rental options for private events.
If you are looking for a calm holiday shopping locale, enjoy a leisurely walk along the beautifully lit streets of St. Joseph’s downtown area. You will discover an eclectic assortment of shops and dining establishments, such as the Chartreuse Art Gallery or the 221 Main Restaurant.
Frankenmuth is dubbed "Michigan's Little Bavaria." Located approximately 90 miles northwest of Detroit, Michigan, visitors may feel they have been transported to a quaint European village. Visitors look forward to shopping and lodging at unforgettable locations like Bronner's Christmas Wonderland, known as "The World’s Largest Christmas Store," and the Bavarian Inn Lodge.
While you are in Frankenmuth, you do not want to miss The Holz Brücke (Wooden Covered Bridge) suspended across the Cass River. Despite being constructed in 1980, the bridge's appearance aligns with 19th-century designs. Frankenmuth's commitment to preserving its cultural roots, is also evident in annual events like the Oktoberfest celebration, which further solidifies its status as a top-rated destination in Michigan.
If you are looking for a relaxing break from chaos, you will find it along Lake Michigan's eastern shore. Saugatuck, a small yet lively, town, is a mix of artistry and natural beauty. Saugatuck Dunes State Park comprises 2.5 miles of sandy shoreline and coastal trails, including the 0.75-mile Beach Trail. A flourishing art scene with numerous galleries characterizes the town, complemented by attractions like Oval Beach and the Star of Saugatuck paddle-wheel boat, offering tours of the Kalamazoo River and Lake Michigan.
The historic Saugatuck Chain Ferry adds a touch of nostalgia, connecting visitors to the beach and Mt. Baldhead, where you will find a 1-mile loop trail that is great for a hike or a run. Amidst over a dozen galleries, independent shops, and restaurants, the Saugatuck Center for the Arts hosts events, concerts, and local theater presentations. The town's historic churches, including the 1860-founded First Congregational Church, contribute to its energetic community and preservation of its rich history.
Holland, Michigan, is a small town celebrated for its annual Tulip Time Festival, where the town embraces its Dutch roots with colorful tulip displays and iconic windmills. Learn about the rich heritage at Windmill Island Gardens and Nelis' Dutch Village, where the traditions come to life. Beyond the tulips, Holland's welcoming downtown invites exploration, offering a delightful mix of shopping and culinary opportunities, making it an ideal haven for history enthusiasts and foodies alike.
Dive into the city's history at the Holland Museum, featuring exhibits of the town's past. The Cappon House Museum, built in 1874 and once the residence of Holland's first mayor, Dutch immigrant Isaac Cappon, is a historic treasure offering insight into the city's early days. After surviving the great fire of 1871, the Settlers House Museum houses furnishings and relics from the 19th century, providing a tangible link to the past. Holland's downtown, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, highlights the city's architecture and adds to the intrigue of this Dutch-inspired haven in Michigan.
Traverse City is an inviting lakeside town located in Grand Traverse County, along the Grand Traverse Bay of Lake Michigan. Nationally, the town is known as the "Cherry Capital of the World". The region produces 40 percent of the yearly tart cherry harvest in the United States. If you visit in the spring, do not miss the annual cherry blossoms along the Lake Michigan shoreline, stretching from Benton Harbor to the Grand Traverse Area. Gas up your vehicle and ready your camera because you will want to take pictures of the breathtaking spectacle of pink and white.
Not to be outshined by the cherry blossoms, regional wineries are also popular. Considering that the area shares the distinction of being near the 45th parallel with the world-renowned wine regions of Burgundy and Bordeaux in France and Piedmont in Italy, it is no surprise that there are over 50 wine vineyards to visit. With so many wine tours at your disposal, you might need a couple of days to please your wine enthusiast’s palate.
Traverse City is not only about the cherries and wine. It also has its fair share of exceptional restaurants to suit any appetite. For example, try Amical for European flair or The Cottage for American comfort food and homemade cherry pie.
The quiet town of Petoskey lies along the shores of Lake Michigan's Little Traverse Bay. Enchanting Victorian architecture lines the town’s tranquil streets. If it is a one-of-a-kind shopping occasion you desire, you cannot go wrong with the historic Gaslight Shopping District. You might feel you have stepped back in time as you peruse the independent shops and boutiques lining streets lit up with old-fashioned gas lanterns of days long gone by.
Be ready for outdoor adventures while you enjoy the natural beauty and cultural exploration at Petoskey State Park with its mile-long stretch of white sandy beach along Lake Michigan. Enjoy camping at one of the two campgrounds or hiking on one of the two trails within the park. For family fun, why not engage the kids in educational fossil hunting along the shores?
Charlevoix stands out with its distinctive "mushroom houses" designed by architect Earl Young. Delight in a self-guided tour of the whimsical designs, also known as "gnome houses" and "hobbit houses." Visit the scenic Charlevoix South Pier Light Station for an experience where serenity is at center stage. Imagine walking along the pier, watching sailboats gliding along on Lake Michigan accompanied by seagulls weaving back and forth overhead.
For a truly special shopping destination, the holiday Charlevoix Circle Market has you covered. The market is open yearly from mid-November to the end of December. You can support local artists and crafters when you choose among the designers’ handmade products that are sure to spark joy in anyone on the receiving end of one of the many heartfelt gift options.
Along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, Grand Haven is a tranquil getaway amid its pristine beaches. In warm weather, spend sun-soaked beach days swimming, paddleboarding, or kayaking in the crystalline waters of Lake Michigan. Visit the iconic Grand Haven Lighthouse and take in the orange and pink hues of sunrise or sunset against the majestic lake backdrop.
As the seasons change, Grand Haven transforms into a winter wonderland, hosting the "Winterfest" festival. This annual event features activities like ice sculpting and a winter market, adding a touch of festive magic to a winter escape.
If you are looking for a Michigan getaway that is truly out of the ordinary, consider Mackinac Island. Leave your car behind, though, because the island is car-free and is only accessible only by ferry or plane. Experience the nostalgia of the past with a stay at the historic Grand Hotel, built in 1887. There, you can choose from a host of vacation packages that offer a wide variety of activities, from bike rides to mini-golfing to an afternoon at the spa.
If you visit in the winter, check out the horse-drawn sleigh rides with Sleighman's magnificent Norwegian Fjord horses. Consider organizing a private sleigh party accommodating up to 50 individuals. This package includes sleigh rides, a crackling bonfire, a toboggan hill for exhilarating sledding, and a cozy facility where you can unwind and indulge in snacks after a day filled with excitement.
Those with a sweet tooth will be delighted to find that Mackinac Island has a notably high number of candy shops, particularly producing handcrafted fudge. Known as the "Fudge Capital of the World," local candy shops produce as much as 10,000 pounds of fudge per day during the peak tourist season, from the end of May to the beginning of September. One favorite fudge shop, Murdick’s Candy Kitchen, has operated for 136 years.
The town of Alpena lies on the shores of Lake Huron. It is a fascinating destination with a maritime heritage full of intrigue. There, the whole family will be thrilled to explore shipwrecks, lighthouses, and the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center.
Beyond its maritime allure, Alpena offers a variety of attractions and activities to engage visitors. Nature lovers will appreciate the beauty of the nearby Huron-Manistee National Forests while they embark on scenic hiking trails at Rockport State Recreation Area. For those seeking cultural events, the Alpena Civic Theater and Thunder Bay Arts Council showcase the region's artistic talent through live performances and exhibitions.
Alpena's downtown area is a must-visit, with 23 large, eye-catching murals bursting with color. Explore the diverse offerings of nearly 200 operational businesses, including popular shopping destinations like The Bluebird Boutique, Cedar and Threads, and Rusty Petunias Marketplace. Satisfy your appetite at The Fresh Palate, Pompeyos Mexican Grill, and The Old Polish Corner, offering an eclectic choice of cuisine.
Marquette, on the shores of Lake Superior, is an outdoor lover's paradise. There, you will find a wealth of opportunities to explore the natural splendor of the area. Put on your hiking shoes and venture along the numerous hiking trails of Presque Isle Park or Sugarloaf Mountain, where each hiker’s reward at the summit is a panoramic vista of Lake Superior.
For a bit of local culture, Marquette's thriving craft brewery scene provides a delightful respite for connoisseurs of locally brewed beverages, with establishments such as the Blackrocks Brewery or the Ore Dock Brewing Company.
If you visit in the winter, you might want to plan to attend the annual Olympic-style figure skating competition. Or perhaps a day at the dogsled races is more your speed. In that case, bundle up and come delight in The UP 200 and the spectacle of frenetic canine energy as the teams embark on the competition from their starting point in downtown Marquette.
Michigan's lesser-known towns offer a wide spectrum of experiences, spanning from serene lake-side getaways to fascinating historical pockets. Whether discovering the artistic appeal of Saugatuck or delving into the Dutch heritage of Holland, each town seamlessly combines commercial and historical attractions. As you embark on your journeys, these concealed treasures will pull you in and make indelible marks in your memory.