What most people don’t know is that there are many wonderful small towns in Michigan that are not just cute to look at but also have a lot to offer!
I was born in raised in the Great Lakes State so I have been traveling around the lower and upper peninsula since I was a little kid (thanks mom and dad for getting me hooked). Because of this, my eyes were opened to the beauty of the state and now I want to share all the best historic and cute small towns in Michigan with you!
This blog is for the road tripper, the outdoor adventurer, and for those who can appreciate small-town charm! So let’s get into the best cute and historic towns in Michigan – I wonder where you’ll be inspired to go next!
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On this list of the best small towns in Michigan, the coastal town of Leland definitely has a soft spot in my heart! At first glance, this old fishing village appears too cute to be real as all of the shanties have been perfectly maintained to keep the history alive.
There are several different businesses operating here like gift shops, the restaurant on the dam, and the Dam Candy Store but my favorite is the Village Cheese Shanty which prepares fresh deli sandwiches (get yours served on fresh pretzel bread). They have over 60 different types of cheeses to choose from and you can add on chips and drinks including wine and beer.
Across the street from the main village, you can grab coffee at MadCap coffee which is my favorite coffee shop in the entire state of Michigan!
This historic town in Michigan is not one to miss!
The unsuspecting community of Harbor Springs sits on top of Little Traverse Bay. The town is so picturesque lined with shops, restaurants, and cafes. It’s easily walkable and there are two little beaches. Zorn Beach is a great spot to relax or swim and is not typically crowded whereas Zoll Street Beach is a small dog beach.
I had the chance to stay in Harbor Springs at the Colonial Inn a couple of summers ago for a friend’s wedding and it was magical! I wish we could’ve stayed for longer.
The property is tranquil and historic with a grand wrap-around porch and is close enough to walk down to the water or into town. My favorite part was the large jetting tub! It was a luxury I wasn’t expecting to get but thoroughly enjoyed it. The free breakfast was yummy too!
If you have the time, staying here will be a highlight of Harbor Springs!
The Petoskey Pier PC: Zach Beland
On the southern side of Little Traverse Bay is another waterfront town, Petoskey, that draws lots of tourists for its scenic viewpoints, trails, breweries, wineries, and a range of local restaurants.
Some of the best things to do are to look for Petoskey Stones at Petoskey Beach, walk along the rushing Bear River, and go wine tasting at one of 14 wineries. In the summer don’t miss out on riding the vintage trolley around town, then get off and check out the Gaslight District.
Petoskey also has quite a wide selection of high-end hotels and resorts which is a nice change from the crusty motels and lackluster chain hotels that are all that’s on offer further north.
If you haven’t been here yet Petosky is definitely one of the best small towns in Michigan you need to check out!
Traverse City is by far one of the best cute towns in Michigan famous for its cherry production and freshwater beaches on the Grand Traverse Bay! The town is also up and coming and I love having a look inside all of the incredible boutique shops along Front Street that sell Michigan-themed clothing, decor, and souvenirs.
There are also lots of great restaurants and cafes to stop at when it’s time to take a break from shopping. You have to grab a cherry pie from Grand Traverse Pie Company and sample all the different types of cherry-flavored foods from The Cherry Republic.
If it’s your first time in Traverse City a laidback way to see the highlights and hidden gems is on this private Rickshaw Tour where your guide will pedal you around to 5 different areas of the city and teach you about the history.
What the greater Traverse City area is really known for is its wineries! There are several popular wineries out on the 18-mile-long Old Mission Point Peninsula and the easiest way to visit them is by joining a wine tour from Traverse City.
This 5-hour Old Mission Peninsula Wine Tour is a very highly rated choice for $99 USD and visits 4 different wineries. This is a perfect choice so no one in your group has to be stuck as the designated driver.
One of the stops this tour makes is Brys Estate Vineyard & Winery which is one of my personal favorite wineries in the area. The views from the patio are incredible and while you’re there make sure to walk down to the lavender gardens if they are in season!
Halfway between Traverse City and Mackinac City is Charlevoix. This small town in Michigan has a few pristine beaches including a state park, art galleries and boutiques, and charming local restaurants. You can even learn about the quirky history of the mushroom houses scatted throughout town on a 50-minute Mushroom House Tour.
The Charlevoix South Pier Lighthouse is Charlevoix’s most popular site. An ideal way to spend the afternoon is to set up a spot on Michigan Beach Park and go for a swim while you enjoy the views of the bright red lighthouse. There is even a pier that you can walk out on to get a closer look.
If you head slightly out of town you can stroll around the gardens of the 100-year-old Castle Farms or head inside the castle on a self-guided tour for just $10 USD. With or without paying for a tour you can even wine tasting at the on-site 1918 Cellars Wine & Food at Castle Farms.
Honor, Michigan is less than 30 minutes from Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Honor is a great place for camping because you are set up right on Platt River which feeds out into Lake Michigan.
You’ll see tubing trips being advertised but after not having a great experience I’d say skip that and head straight to the beach – that’s where the real magic of Platt River lies. The currents here are strong and you can float down the river on your back – it’s so fun!
After a long day at the beach, you have to head down the road and get fresh fish from The Manitou Restaurant.
If you’re staying the night nearby then you have to see what’s playing at the Cherry Bowl Drive-In Theatre. It’s one of only a few drive-in theatres remaining in the state. Even if you don’t have time to watch a movie the retro sign is worth taking a picture of at some point.
Empire just so happens to be the village home to the Sleeping Bear Dunes State Park. The most epic views can be found along the Pierce-Stocking Scenic Drive which costs $25 USD per car unless you have a National Park Pass.
Once you park at the Sleeping Bear Dunes Overlook it is just a short walk to what I think to be one the most beautiful views in the world – particularly at sunset!
If you are fit and have a few hours to spare you can run down the side of the dune where it meets the water just prepare for a steep crawl back up.
I consider myself to be in pretty good shape but the Dune Climb Trail is HARD! It’s 3.6 miles long to get to the water and it’s all sand and very steep. We couldn’t continue on because we didn’t give ourselves enough time before sunset but the landscapes made for an epic photoshoot.
Back in town, you can easily reach the Robert Manning Memorial Lighthouse and South Bar Lake from Empire Beach but my personal favorite beach would have to be North Bar Lake just north that connects to Lake Michigan. It is a bit of a walk around the lake to get to the beach so try not to carry a lot of gear.
Tour Option: If you are staying in Traverse City you can opt to join this Daily Tour to Sleeping Bear Dunes that includes round-trip transport, park fees, lunch, drinks, and stops at all the best outlooks.
The town of Frankfort isn’t anything to speak of but the reason to visit is for the outdoor attractions in the vicinity, the best one being Point Betsie Lighthouse. Point Betsie is tucked away at the end of a dirt road just a 10-minute drive outside of town.
Michigan has a lot of lighthouses but to me, this is the prettiest one I have seen so far! I also really like that there is a small public beach to the left of the lighthouse and the cool thing is that if you don’t want to pay to enter the lighthouse you can easily walk right up to it from the front side.
Practically right across the street is Crystal Lake and it’s super clean for swimming and there is a nice public beach at Bellows Park.
Frankfort is also super close to two other tiny towns that are right next to each other Beulah and Benzionia. You can find a handful of fast-stop and sit-down restaurants in Beluah across from Crystal Lake. I recommend L’Chayim for authentic Jewish-style deli sandwiches.
Camp Squid is an off-the-grid campsite that is perfect for those who don’t have camping equipment because many of their campsites include a pitched tent, mattress, and fire ring.
There are also glamping options and the property has nice luxuries including a solar shower and a DIY coffee bar. I’ve stayed here twice and what made my stays here particularly amazing was the owner, Kendra. She is super sweet and went above and beyond for us. I highly recommend staying here for some peace and quiet.
Such a peaceful little town! PC: Zach Beland
My brother really found Manistee to be one of the best small towns in Michigan whereas I didn’t find the downtown too special. Granted I didn’t spend much time here to explore and since visiting I’ve learned that are a lot more things to do in Manistee than meets the eye – I really missed out!
Next time I want to check out the Arcadia Marsh Boardwalk, hike one of the trails at Arcadia Dunes, see views of Lake Michigan from the Arcadia Scenic Overlook, and check out the Manistee North Pierhead Lights.
There is always a line here! PC: Zach Beland
Ludington is another one of the waterfront historic towns in Michigan that is worth visiting if you enjoy beaches, museums, and lighthouses.
Specifically, Big Sable Point Lighthouse is also one of the most famous lighthouses in Michigan that you should see if you are willing to hike 1.8 miles each way to get there!
The S.S. Badger is a 400-ft-long coal-fired steamship that is docked right in town. This ship is very unique in the sense that it’s a passenger and car ferry and takes people across Lake Michigan to Manitowoc, Wisconsin in a 4-hour period. It’s a great shortcut to avoid a super long road trip around the coast.
Even if you don’t get the chance to ride this mighty ship it’s definitely worth visiting the dock to take pictures if it’s there and if not the Maritime Museum is open May 6th – October 21st. Inside the museum, there are a lot of interactive displays and history about the region’s use of ships and also the shipwrecks that took place on Lake Michigan.
For grub, you have to order some fried fish straight from Lake Michigan at Bortell’s Fisheries. I liked it but for some reason, I didn’t find it to taste incredible as the rest of my family does so try it for yourself and see what you think!
Cross Village is home to 93 residents – if you blink you’ll miss it. There is one thing that stands out here, the Polish restaurant Leg’s Inn, and it is a must-stop if you are driving through the Tunnel of Trees along M 119 along the coast.
The food, whimsical and strange wooden decor, and history of this family-owned (for over 100 years!) restaurant are equally as incredible! The beautiful back garden overlooks Lake Michigan where you can enjoy your drinks from the bar.
From the menu, there are all kinds of traditional Polish dishes to try but some of my favorites are the perogies, Polish sausage with sauerkraut, and the smoked whitefish dip.
Be sure to come early for lunch or dinner or there will likely be at least a 2-hour wait.
Also, before you go make sure to snap a picture of the Welcome to Cross Village mural on the side of the building across the street.
Below the restaurant, there is Cross Village Beach where we saw an incredible purple haze sunset after we finished up with dinner. The beach access is less than a 10-minute walk and there is also parking if you want to drive there.
How could any list of the best small towns in Michigan be without Mackinac Island? It embodies every sense of the words cute and historic!
Car-free Mackinac Island is only home to 500 annual residents and the only way to get off the island in the winter months is on a snowmobile. In the summer and fall Mackinac Island is by far one of Michigan’s most well-known tourist destinations.
The charm of this car-free island can’t be explained, you really have to visit it for yourself to know what it’s really like.
I could go on about the best things to do on Mackinac Island but some of my favorites are ordering drinks on the Grand Hotel’s patio, walking or biking to Arch Rock, relaxing with a drink at Marquette Park, and sampling authentic Mackinac Island fudge in town.
Mackinaw City is the northernmost city in the lower peninsula of Michigan that is iconic for the 5-mile-long (8 km) Mackinac Bridge that connects the lower peninsula to the upper peninsula.
To me, a perfect few hours spent in Mackinaw City look like walking along the beach and taking photos of the bridge, enjoying an ice cream with a homemade waffle cone from Ice Cream Dreams, seeing the historic Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, and having lunch at Dixie Saloon before taking the ferry over to Mackinac Island.
If you don’t have the time to spend the whole day at Mackinac Island you can still experience the ferry and go underneath the Mackinac Bridge on either a Mackinac Bridge Sunset Cruise or a Mackinac Bridge History Cruise. These cruises cost under $30 USD per person and only last around an hour so it’s a quick and affordable activity that will be easy to fit into your plans.
If you’re planning to cross the bridge you must stop here, it’s one of the best small towns in Michigan for a reason!
My Finding’s Tip: To reach the beach going north toward the bridge take exit 339 for Jamet St and then left on Nicolet St. Make sure you do NOT miss this exit because it’s the last one before going over the bridge.
Marquette is by far the biggest town in the Upper Peninsula with 20,000 annual residents but is still small in the grand scheme of the entire state. Because of how remote the majority of the U.P. is this town makes a great stop if you are road-tripping to get some of the modern comforts of bigger cities like Target, Walmart, and chain restaurants.
Presque Isle Park is by far the best thing to do in Marquette and to be honest, I think the Black Rocks at this park are one of the most beautiful and unique places in all of Michigan!
These jagged black rocky cliffs hang overtop of Lake Superior and braving the icy waters to cliff jump here is a MUST if you want to fit in with the locals. The highest point to jump stands at around 30 feet – it’s so exhilarating!
Sault Ste Marie
The irony is that this blog is about the best small towns in Michigan yet Sault Ste Marie (pronounced soo-saint-mah-rie) is actually the second-largest city in the U.P.
Sault Ste Marie is located on the border with Canada all the way to the top of the Upper Peninsula. Getting there is practically a straight shot north once you cross over the Mackinac Bridge.
It is most famously known for the Soo Locks which are one of the world’s busiest locks! The first time I came here as a child I saw in awe as I curiously watched the big freights be lowered or lifted 21 ft in order to cross over to either Lake Superior or Lake Huron.
You can even experience this for yourself if you join a Locks Tour for $31 USD!
The town is really nice too and there are several restaurants, cafes, and ice cream shops. This is one of the historical small towns in Michigan you definitely need to visit at least once in your life.
Munising is actually one of the most visited small towns in Michigan by tourists, especially in the summer. Munising is most easily recognized for being an access point to see the Pictured Rocks which are less than a mile offshore.
The easiest way to see them is on a Pictured Rocks boat cruise where you get to see 40 miles of coastline. These are epic and in my opinion, you will definitely enjoy this tour!
That being said, some other ways you can see the Pictured Rocks are from a kayak tour or on one of many hiking trails. The Chapel Beach Loop and Mosquito Beach Loop combined are the best hikes for the most complete views. In total it is 10.2 miles.
Other than the pictured rocks there are many other things to do including exploring the waterfalls in the area, seeing Munising Range Lighthouse, or swimming at Sand Point Beach.
Falling Rocks Cafe and Bookstore is one of my personal favorite places to grab a coffee in town, it has so much character and I love the mural on the outside of the building.
Ironwood is right on the border of northern Wisconsin and is one of the best small towns in Michigan to access the northwestern coast of the U.P.
It’s only 18 miles to Lake Superior, 35 minutes to the Porcupine Mountains (Michigan’s only mountain range), provides some of the best choices for accommodations, and also has some nice restaurants in the quaint little town.
The Lake of the Clouds Overlook is by far the best viewpoint of Porcupine Mountain. It really feels like there’s a lake in the sky – it is gorgeous!!! There are also hiking options here too if you want to get even more off the beaten path.
A nearby hidden gem I recently got to visit was the Copper Peak ski jump. It is no longer in operation as a ski jump but visitors can take the chairlift up for a small fee to the base and then climb 461 stairs up to the top!
There are also tons of waterfalls to discover in this area. Some of the best ones are Rainbow Falls, Sandstone Falls, Gorge Falls, and Potawatomi Falls, and can all be found along the same stretch of road. Don’t miss out on Black River Harbor Beach at the end!
Escanaba doesn’t have much to offer but there is one thing worth stopping here for which is Sand Point Lighthouse. It is the most picturesque little lighthouse with a boathouse and very well-maintained grounds.
When we visited, the lighthouse was closed as it was after hours but you can take a tour of it and climb the spiral staircase for just $3 USD per person or $5 USD per family. The museum next door is also included in the admission fee and gives a lot of information on the lighthouse’s history.
If you want to stretch your legs a bit more you can continue on to Ludington Park and go for a walk. The town has nice local options for food and there is even a small shopping plaza with chain retail stores, supermarkets, and restaurants.
The Welcome to Escanaba mural on 517 Ludington St is worth stopping for a quick photograph.
Staying in this tepee was one of the coolest experiences ever!
St Ignace is the first town you will pass through after crossing over the Mackinac Bridge and one side of the town faces directly towards the bridges so are lots of scenic viewpoints there. The other side faces Mackinac Island and this is one of the departure point options to take the ferry to the island.
St Ignace is also a popular spot for camping (or staying in a tepee!) and there are some authentic pasty shops you can try here. My favorite is Taste of the Upper Peninsula, it’s a hole-in-the-wall attached to a party store.
This is one of the best small towns in Michigan that is impossible to miss if you’re coming to the Upper Peninsula.
Just 11 miles south of Holland is Saugatuck – Douglas which is known for its thriving art scene but famous for its beaches. Oval Beach has been awarded as being one of the top 5 beaches in the U.S. by MTV and closeby is Douglas Beach which is great for sunset.
The Kalamazoo River is what divides both of these small Michigan towns and there are companies where you can rent kayaks, jet skis, or even a retro boat.
There are several art galleries and shops to check out in town and for food, I recommend grabbing a coffee from Uncommon Coffee Roasters, an Acai Bowl from Tree of Life Juice, or dining waterfront at The Butler for dinner.
While you are visiting check to see if Saugatuck Center for the Arts has any performances going on and if you don’t find that interesting the outdoor sculpture garden is free to walk through and a nice way to spend a few minutes.
South Haven is through and through a beach town in Michigan that has a total of 7 different beaches. The most famous beach is South Beach because here you’ll be able to walk the pier out to South Haven Lighthouse and grab ice cream from South Beach Cafe. There is also a huge kid’s playground.
In town, you’ll have lots of choices for food from local establishments to well-loved chains.
The Bank 1884, PC: Zach Beland
If you were looking at a map of Michigan Port Austin sits on the tip of the “thumb” on Lake Huron and it’s one of the best small towns in Michigan for minimal crowds and outdoor adventures.
Far overshadowing the beaches, Port Crescent State Park, the floating lighthouse, the opportunity for stargazing, and the weekly Saturday Farmer’s Market is Turnip Rock. This rock is one of Michigan’s most intriguing natural formations that can’t be seen from land so you will need to book a kayak tour or boat tour from town.
There are two main routes the kayak tours take, an advanced 7-mile paddle or a more beginner-friendly 3.4-mile version.
In town, you might want to stop in for food and drinks at Bank 1884 Food & Spirits. It originally opened as a bank and now runs as a restaurant with minimal changes to the interior and exterior. I haven’t been here yet but my brother has and he really loved their Old Fashioned!
An hour and a half drive north from Detriot is Port Sanilac. This is an extremely sleepy town and there isn’t a whole lot to do besides camp and spend quality time on the beach.
Why I recommend it though is because on the Lake Huron side, you can witness amazing sunrises and it’s easily accessible from the bigger cities in Mid-Michigan and it’s guaranteed not to be overcrowded like the beaches in Holland or South Haven.
As a teen, I went with a group of friends and we stayed in a cabin in Port Sanilac. Although that was my first and only time spending a few days on the east coast of the state it was a very memorable trip!
It does have a little fishing pier to walk out on and of course, what would a small waterfront town in Michigan be without a lighthouse? You can find the Port Sanilac Lighthouse here which has been maintained well but they don’t offer tours so you can only take pictures from the outside.
Lots of traffic during the Christmas season! PC: Zach Beland
Frankenmuth is a Bavarian town that has German-themed restaurants and architecture. It’s most visited at Christmastime for Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland and fun fact, it’s the largest Christmas store in the world – it has every type of decor you can imagine!
In the offseason, there is still lots to do from kayaking down the Cass River to riding the Barvarian Bell River Boat to going wine tasting, and visiting shops and museums.
Just a mile from Main Street I’ve also gone ziplining at Frankenmuth Ariel Park and it was pretty fun!
I was pleasantly surprised to discover St Johns, it is one of the best cute towns in Michigan!
The town has an old railway car right off Main Street that has a beautifully painted logo on each side. It’s super photogenic!
Directly across the street is Waypoint Coffee Co and I am obsessed with everything about this place. When I was visiting my mom for a couple of weeks I was here almost daily to work. Their lattes have the perfect syrup-to-coffee ratio and they also have delicious/healthy homemade baked goods. The interior is modern and there’s tons of seating.
Waypoint is definitely very high on my list of Michigan coffee shops and St Johns is worth visiting for this spot alone!
In addition, the rest of St Johns is super cute to walk around and there are other nice shops, a couple of other cafes, and some local restaurants.
If you venture further down the road a few miles you can enjoy cider, donuts, fruit wine, pie, tractor rides, or apple and pumpkin picking at Uncle John’s Cider Mill.
This historic town in Michigan needs to be on your radar if you’re passing through Mid-Michigan.
Located 25 minutes west of Lansing is Grand Ledge. I’m highlighting them as one of the best historic towns in Michigan for its natural sandstone ledges and a plethora of pine trees. In the 1800s the Pottawatomi, Chippewa, and Ottawa groups settled near these rocks and ledges along the Grand River.
Whenever I am visiting family in the Lansing area I always enjoy spending part of a day walking the Ledges Trail inside Fitzgerald Park to see the sandstone rock formations up close.
After a day of hiking, I like to head back to the downtown and grab a cone from Lick-ity Split and then walk with my cone just a couple of minutes down the street to Island Park which is a strip of path sandwiched in the middle of the river with a gazebo, lots of ducks, geese, and greenery.
Ah yes, nothing like a visit to Hell to put you in a good mood! Well, if you’ve wondered if Hell is real you can quite literally walk through the Gates of Hell…
This town is one big joke and I found it to be a pretty amusing stop as there is an eternity of puns on all of the signs and attractions – my favorite had to be the Creamatory where I enjoyed a Gravedigger Sundae.
You can also play mini-golf on a red-turfed course, see Hell’s Chapel of Love (yes, they actually host weddings here), mail a postcard to friends or family from the official Hell post office, eat BBQ at The Smoke Doctor, grab a beer from Hell Saloon, and more.
There’s actually a lot to see here for it being a roadside stop off so if you want to be able to say that you’ve been to Hell and back this small town in Michigan is worth visiting.
Charlotte has a decent population of around 10,000 people yet this small town in Michigan has very few attractions but they are worth mentioning because you might just find yourself passing through Charlotte if you are road-tripping across central Michigan.
I used to live in Charlotte for a few years so I know the lay of the land. I would recommend stopping in at Fay’s Evelyn Bay on Cochran Ave for a latte, lunch, or local-made ice cream. This is the town’s only local coffee shop and it is delicious and decored with local art.
Bennett Park is a nice place to go for a walk, this park is very spacious and there are walking paths and a cute river flowing through it. It’s particularly pretty in the fall time.
Speaking of fall the Country Mill Orchard & Cider Mill is one of the best in the state. Just wait until you try their fresh organic cider and homemade warm donuts from the indoor store that has lots to look at, you can even sample local wines.
Outside you can go apple picking, find a pumpkin from the U-Pick field, or navigate the corn maze.
If you’re passing through the week after Labor Day stop in for the annual Frontier Days Festival which features a professional rodeo and one of the most famous parades in Michigan.
So save your food or gas stop for Charlotte because this is one of the best small towns in Central Michigan to spend a few hours.
Chelsea is a historic town in Michigan because it is the birthplace of JIFFY Mix. It’s located just 20 minutes west of Ann Arbor and an hour west of Detriot. Here you can go on a short free tour of the manufacturing facilities to learn how their famous mixes are made and watch them be packaged on the line.
Now, this isn’t something I would drive out of the way for but it’s something interesting to do if you’re in the area. After the tour, there are a few local restaurants you can eat at.
Note: As of February 2023 tours are still paused due to COVID. Check their website for updates.
Final Word on the Best Cute Towns in Michigan
I hope you enjoy reading all about the best small towns in Michigan! These towns are really all so different from one another that it’s hard to pick a favorite! So don’t pass any of them if you have the chance to stop because you never know which one you’ll fall in love with.
Thanks so much for reading and if you have any questions or comments leave them below! I also have more Michigan content for you to check out here: