When you think of Michigan, you might imagine the bustle of larger cities like Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Lansing. But the Great Lake State is home to many charming small towns whose rich historical significance, luxurious natural beauty, and enlightening cultural and artistic amenities are sure to inspire and delight.
1. Mackinac Island
With its perfectly-preserved Victorian Architecture, cobblestone streets, fudge shops, crystal-clear waters, and picturesque cliffs and rock formations, Mackinac Island – located in Lake Huron, between the upper and lower peninsulas – is a dream getaway. Nature aficionados, history buffs, and foodies alike will discover plenty to entice their senses. Scenic hiking and biking trails, historic tours of Fort Mackinac, and culinary adventures await in this quaint gem of a tourist destination.
Be ready to walk, bike, or ride in horse-draw carriages as there are no cars allowed on the Island. It is beautiful year round, but in June, tourists can luxuriate in the intoxicating fragrance and beauty of the island’s many blooming lilacs during the Lilac Festival. The Christmas season is also especially magical, as the city celebrates with its festive Tree Lighting ceremony and Bazaar.
2. Traverse City
Wine enthusiasts need go no further than Traverse City, located in northern MI, to find one of the top wine regions in the United States. This city is frequently referred to as the “Cherry Capital of the World” due to its abundant cherry orchards and annual National Cherry festival. However, is also widely recognized for its thriving wine and local food scene, one that goes far beyond the culinary delights of its gorgeous famous red fruits. Incredibly, Traverse City boasts nearly 40 wineries, all at the 45th parallel. This means that geographically, the town sits at the same latitude that creates the perfect grape-growing climates shared by world’s most renowned and cherished wine regions, including the Rhone Valley and Bordeaux in France, the Willamette Valley in Oregon, and Piedmont in Italy! How amazing is that!
On top of tantalizing wineries and craft breweries, Traverse City offers ample outdoor recreational activities, such as fishing, kayaking, paddle boarding, boating, golfing, hiking, and biking, to name a few. Finally, it’s a fantastic place for watching birds, especially in the spring and winter.
Nestled along the Kalamazoo River and Lake Michigan, Saugatuck boasts breathtaking natural beauty with sandy beaches, rolling dunes, and stunning sunsets. Oval Beach, ranked as one of the best freshwater beaches in the Nation, is a popular spot for swimming, frolicking, and picnicking.
Saugatuck is also an artistic haven, attracting painters, sculptors, writers, and musicians. The town’s numerous art galleries, studios, and theaters showcase the works of local and regional artists and performers. The Saugatuck Center for the Arts is a gem of creative expression and hosts various cultural events and performances.
In short, with spectacular beaches, artistic flair, a vibrant downtown area with an array of boutique shops, art galleries,restaurants, and beautifully-restored historical buildings, this small town really packs a punch for a relaxing and culturally-enriching getaway.
As you can probably tell by its name, this quaint, family-friendly Bavarian-style town is proud of its rich German heritage. Adorned with traditional architecture, including half-timbered buildings, flower-filled window boxes, and decorative murals, Frankenmuth is appropriately nicknamed “Little Bavaria”. With river boat tours, Oktoberfest and other cultural festivals, and Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland – which proclaims to be the largest Christmas store in the world – visitors here can find unique presents, go sightseeing, and bask in Bavarian culture.
Above all, Frakenmuth is famous for its authentic German cuisine. The iconic Bavarian Inn and Zehnder’s restaurants, for instance, serve bratwurst, sauerkraut, schnitzel, and homemade pretzels. Frankenmuth’s warm hospitality, vibrant shops, and cultural heritage make it a popular destination for visitors looking to experience a slice of Germany right in the heart of Michigan.
Petoskey, on the southern shore of Little Traverse Bay, is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise, with ample opportunities for hiking, biking, and exploring nature. It is also a convenient base for day trips to Mackinac Island, located just a short ferry ride away. The downtown district, called the “Historic Gaslight District” due to the period-style gas lamps that illuminate the streets, is lined with specialty stores, art galleries, cafes, and restaurants. It’s a great place to stroll, shop, and experience the town’s fun and engaging atmosphere.
When visiting, keep your eye out for Petoskey stones, which are fossilized coral stones with intricate hexagonal patterns and one of the town’s most distinctive features.
Situated in the Upper Peninsula and home to Northern Michigan University (NMU), Marquette is a lively city with a small-town feel. It offers gorgeous natural scenery, including Lake Superior and majestic nearby waterfalls. Every season here offers the chance for recreational activities. In the winter, for example, visitors can go cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and ice fishing, and Marquette Mountain is an excellent place for downhill skiing and snowboarding. In the summer, tourists can go camping, boating, golfing, and enjoy exploring the extensive local trail network for hiking and mountain biking.
Set along Lake Charlevoix and Lake Michigan, Charlevoix features scenic beauty and charming boutiques, and most importantly, is home to the fanciful houses designed by architect Earl Young, whose whimsical and organic designs resemble mushrooms, gnome homes, and other fairy-tale-esque structures. Appropriately referred to as the “mushroom houses,” these iconic architectural wonders mirror and blend into the environment, and many are either within walking distance or easily accessible by car.
Like so many other small towns in Michigan, Charlevoix is close to many natural wonders, and is a just a short drive from Fisherman’s Island State Park, where visitors can swim in pristine waters. The town hosts an annual Venetian Festival every July with fireworks, a boat parade, and live music, as well as an Apple Festival in October, celebrating the area’s apple harvest with craft fairs, food vendors, and entertainment. Its waterfront parks, bustling downtown, plentiful outdoor activities, and historic lighthouse add to Charlevoix’s allure.
Located on the Leelanau Peninsula on a small piece of land in the center of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, this alluring Michigan town has a relaxed coastal vibe. It’s perfect for enjoying beaches and sunsets, sampling local wines and ciders, eating freshly-caught seafood,and becoming immersed in the town’s maritime heritage.
One of the main attractions in Leland is Fishtown, a gorgeously-restored, historic fishing village. A collection of weathered shanties and docks that date back to the late 1800s, it is now home to a variety of unique shops, art galleries, and fish markets. Visitors can stroll along the wooden walkways, admire the fishing tug boats, and taste fresh whitefish or smoked fish from local vendors.
Because of its proximity to the wilderness of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Leland is conveniently located for excursions, including hiking, dune climbing, kayaking or canoeing on the Crystal River, or taking scenic drives.
Honor is a small, tranquil village located in Benzie County, Michigan. Situated in the northwestern part of the Lower Peninsula, its proximity to Crystal Lake, a picturesque inland lake known for its clear blue waters, makes it easy to rent kayaks, paddleboards, and boats, or to simply relax on the luxurious sandy beaches.
The Honor area is part of the larger Traverse City region, which is known for its cherry orchards. In the summertime, visitors can enjoy the beauty of the cherry blossoms and even pick cherries – which are made into pies, jams, cherry wine, and other delectable treats – in the surrounding orchards.
Ludington, situated in Mason County, is known for its stunning Lake Michigan shoreline and beautiful sandy beaches. Stearns Park Beach is a popular destination, beloved for its wide stretch of sandy shoreline, clear waters, picnic areas, playgrounds, and beach volleyball courts.
Just north of the city, Ludington State Park is a perfect destination for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. The park spans over 5,300 acres and features sand dunes, forests, inland lakes, and miles of hiking trails. The natural beauty allows for all kinds of outdoor adventures like camping, fishing, boating, swimming, and wildlife watching. The park is also home to the iconic Big Sable Point Lighthouse, which offers tours and astonishing views of Lake Michigan.
11. Cross Village
Cross Village exudes a peaceful rural charm with its small population and scenic countryside. Visitors can enjoy the slower pace of life, take in the serene surroundings, and experience a true sense of calm. Its long history dates back centuries. Originally inhabited by the Odawa Native American tribe, their presence is still felt in the community today through the legacy of their robust cultural heritage and traditions, which visitors can explore through various cultural events, art, and storytelling.
One of the main attractions in Cross Village is Legs Inn, an iconic restaurant and landmark. Built in the early 20th century by Polish immigrant Stanley Smolak, the building features unique architecture with its timber and stone construction, whimsical carvings, and colorful decorations. The housemade Polish cuisine, Great Lakes whitefish dishes, and welcoming atmosphere make this a favorite destination restaurant for tourists.
12 and 13. Benzonia/Beulah
These neighboring communities, located in Benzie County, are in the northwestern part of the Lower Peninsula. Like most of the other small towns on our list, they are replete with striking scenery that make outdoor adventuring a breeze, all year round. Benzonia boasts lovely hiking, jogging, and biking trails. The 22-mile long Betsie Valley Trail, as a case in point, is suitable for all ages and skill levels. Beulah and nearby Crystal Mountain Resort are ideal for winter sports enthusiasts who want to participate in downhill skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. The resort itself has a spa, dining options, and other amenities for a well-rounded winter getaway.
Culture lovers can visit the Benzie Area Historical Society & Museum, located in Benzonia, to explore artifacts, photographs, and other displays related to the local history, giving a glimpse into the area’s past and its cultural significance.
14. Mackinaw City
One of the most iconic features of Mackinaw City is the Mackinac Bridge – a suspension bridge connecting the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan. It affords stunning views of the straits and serves as a gateway to the Upper Peninsula. Visitors can drive or walk across the 5-mile span of the bridge, or find designated areas for admiring and photographing it from various angles.
Mackinaw City is a convenient and beautiful base for exploring the Mackinac region. Whether you’re discovering the historic downtown area, visiting Fort Michilimackinac, embarking on a ferry ride to Mackinac Island, or partaking in outdoor activities and cultural attractions, Mackinaw City offers a memorable experience for everyone.
15. Sault Ste Marie
Sault Ste. Marie, in Chippewa County, is situated at the northeastern tip of the Upper Peninsula on the St. Marys River, which serves as the international border between the United States and Canada. The International Bridge reveals breathtaking views of the St. Marys River and acts as an important transportation link between the two countries.
On the doorstep of the Hiawatha National Forest, Sault Ste. Marie is Michigan’s oldest city, with a long and fascinating history that dates back to its origins as a fur trading post in the 17th century.
Perhaps the city’s most famous landmark is The Soo Locks. This marvel of human innovation sees nearly 500,000 visitors a year and allows ships to safely navigate the 21-foot drop in elevation between Lake Superior and the lower Great Lakes. It remains one of the most popular attractions in Sault Ste. Marie, giving the city its clever nickname, “the Soo”. A trip to the Visiting Center affords an up-close-and-personal-look at the intricate gates and chambers that enable the locks to raise and lower an average of 7,000 boats and freighters a year simply using the force of gravity.
Munising is a small city in Alger County and is often considered “The gateway to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore” – one of the most stunning natural attractions in the Upper Peninsula. The lakeshore stretches for 42 miles (68 kilometers) along Lake Superior, and flaunts colorful sandstone cliffs, rock formations, waterfalls, pristine beaches, and picturesque hiking trails. Munising Falls is a popular attraction that can be reached via a short hiking trail. The falls cascade 50 feet (15 meters) over a sandstone cliff and provide a scenic spot for photography and relaxation.
Also, if maritime vessels and history are your jam, this city is definitely for you. Lake Superior, the deepest fresh water lake in the world, is called the “Graveyard of the Great Lakes” due to the 350 shipwrecks that lie beneath its powerful (and occasionally deadly) waters. Munising is well known for its shipwreck tours that allow curious tourists to explore the submerged ghosts of ships past.
Ski enthusiasts will lose their minds at Copper Peak, home to the largest artificial ski jump in the world! Constructed in 1969 and designed by Lauren Larson, this ski-flying structure allows extreme ski jumpers to accelerate to speeds of over 70 miles an hours. And it stands an impressive 26-stories tall! The Copper Peak Adventure Ride allows brave visitors to visit the top of the tower for magnificent views, but the trek is not for the feint of heart. The journey begins with an 800-foot ride on a chairlift, followed by an 18-story elevator ride to the main observation deck, and finally, for those who are still inclined to go further, a stairway to the top.
Copper Peak has a rich history in ski jumping and has hosted numerous international competitions in the past. While ski jumping events are not currently held there, the facility is currently experiencing a multi-billion dollar renovation project that would allow ski jumping all year round – yes, even in the summer!
Lovers of architecture and design should not miss Marshall, which houses one of the Nation’s largest National Historic Landmark districts. Beautifully-preserved Victorian-era buildings grace the downtown area, showcasing a variety of architectural styles from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Brooks Memorial Foundation, for instance, is the centerpiece of Fountain Circle. Its neoclassical design, influenced by Greek and Roman architectural styles, contains a central circular basin adorned with intricate carvings and decorative elements, including four allegorical statues that represent Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter, all beautifully-crafted by Italian sculptor, Caracciolo Pellagallo.
The historic Honolulu House, an eclectic mansion-turned-museum, is another one of Marshall’s architectural wonders. Jude Abner Pratt, the U.S. Consul to the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands, built this astonishing home 1860 using a melange of Gothic Revival, Italianate, and Polynesian architectural styles. It also serves as the Marshall Historical Society Headquarters.
|Must-Visit Small Town
|Must-See or Do Attractions, Recreational Activities, & other Highlights
|Fort Mackinac, Lilac Festival, Christmas Season, & Victorian Architecture
|Wineries & Craft Breweries, National Cherry Festival, & Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
|Saugatuck Center for the Arts & Oval Beach
|Authentic German Cuisine & Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland
|Historic Gaslight district, Petosky State Park, & Crooked Tree Art Center
|Marquette Mountain, Iron Ore Heritage Trail, & Teal Lake
|Mushroom House Tours, Venetian Festival, &Fisherman’s Island State Park
|Fishtown & Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
|Platte Point Beach, Cherry Bowl Drive-In Theatre, & Honor Trading Post
|Big Sable Point Lighthouse, Sandcastles Children’s Museum, & Ludington State Park
|Legs Inn, Tunnel of Trees, & Wilderness State Park
|Betsie Valley Trail & Benzie Area Historical Society & Museum
|The Mackinac Bridge, Fort Michilimackinac, & Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse
|Sault Ste Marie
|The Soo Locks & Hiawatha National Forest
|Shipwreck Tours of Lake Superior & Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
|Copper Peak & Copper Peak Adventure Ride
|Brooks Memorial Fountain, Honolulu House, & The Marshall National Historic Landmark District
The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/christiannafzger
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