21 Of The Best (And Most Underrated) Towns In Michigan, From Someone Who Lived There For 20 Years

·14 min read

Michigan is one of the most (if not *the* most) beautiful of the 50 states. It's got lakes, forests, and rivers galore, plus four completely different seasons, plenty of museums and shops, and, of course, the iconic Mackinac Bridge. It's a state well worth visiting.

The Mackinac Bridge
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And while plenty of people have visited Michigan's big cities like Detroit and Grand Rapids, there are plenty of smaller towns that are very much worth seeing.

The Detroit skyline at dusk as seen from Windsor, Ontario
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To get you started, here's a list of 21 underrated places in Michigan to visit — directly from a longtime Michigander. (Me!)

1.Traverse City

Overlooking Lake Michigan and dunes in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park, Michigan

Let’s start with a brief geography lesson. The lower peninsula of Michigan is affectionately known as “the Mitten” because it looks like a hand, and if you ever meet someone from Michigan, they will show you where they live using their own hand as a map. Traverse City is a cute little place on what would be the tip of Michigan’s pinky finger.

The city, which sits on the twin arms of the Grand Traverse Bay, is not only the largest producer of tart cherries in the US but is also located in Michigan’s wine region, so if you’re looking to tour an orchard or vineyard, this is the destination for you. Only a few miles away, on the coast of Lake Michigan, sits Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, perhaps the state’s most singular natural landmark. The 64 miles of shoreline feature massive dunes that rise 400 feet below sea level, making it perfect for a hike and beautiful for a photo op.

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Black Rock beach in Marquette on Presque Isle

Marquette may be the largest city in Michigan’s snowy upper peninsula, but with fewer than 22,000 residents, it still feels like a small town. On the shores of Lake Superior, Marquette (like most of the UP) is much busier in the summery tourist season. Go cliff diving at Presque Isle Park, hike up Sugarloaf Mountain, or explore the historic downtown. If you do happen to visit in winter, there’s plenty of cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, and ice fishing to be done as well. No matter the temperature, however, the Lower Harbor Ore Dock will be presiding over the town and its inhabitants.

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3.South Haven

Waves crash against the pier in South Haven

Michigan, surrounded by four of the Great Lakes, is home to more than 125 lighthouses, each unique in its design. (Some visitors attempt to see them all!) In the southwestern corner of the state sits South Haven, with its bright red lighthouse jutting out into Lake Michigan. With a quaint downtown, sandy beaches, and both the Kal Haven and Van Buren Trails, the town is perfect for a relaxing weekend away. Only a few hours' drive from Chicago, South Haven is especially popular with those looking to escape the big city on summery long weekends.

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4.Mackinac Island

The front entrance of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island

Mackinac Island, along with Mackinac Bridge and Mackinaw City (yes, they’re spelled differently), is the Michigan tourist destination. The island, located near where the peninsulas meet via the iconic 5-mile-long suspension bridge, is the perfect combination of natural beauty, historic landmarks, quaint village, and luxurious resort.

Take a ferry to the island and then explore either on foot, by bike, or by carriage — because there are no cars allowed. Enjoy the island’s famous fudge, pedal along the numerous winding paths, or tour the British Fort Mackinac. Presiding over all is the Grand Hotel, with its famous yellow umbrellas and teardrop-shaped pool, the perfect location for eating more fudge. (PSA: Joann’s Fudge is the best and will ruin all other fudge for you.)

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A windmill overlooking a field of tulips

Holland, Michigan, got its name from the group of Dutch Calvinist separatists who came there from Holland in the 1840s, and has stayed true to its roots ever since. The area, which is still home to a large population of Dutch Americans, is best known for its windmill De Zwaan. Built 251 years ago, it is the only authentic, working Dutch windmill in the US and sits on the beautiful Windmill Island in the Macatawa River. Every May, Holland also hosts the Tulip Time Festival, which draws large crowds set on seeing the fields of bright flowers and buying a pair of wooden clogs.

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Drone shot of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing on a summer evening

If you remember your elementary school state geography, you probably know that the city of Lansing is the capital of the state. (And it's located right smack-dab in the middle of the palm of the hand, if you’re using that as your map.) It's home not only to the gorgeous white capitol building but also to the Michigan History Center, the Potter Park Zoo, and Michigan State University’s beautiful, wooded campus. Stop by the Michigan State Dairy Store for the best ice cream of your life (Sesquicentennial Swirl for the win!), say hi to Sparty, pop in to Schuler’s Books (my favorite bookstore in the country), and, of course, head to Old Town for a coffee or dinner. Can you tell I love this city?

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Muskegon Channel South Pier Lighthouse and Wave, Lake Michigan

Near Holland on the state's western coast is Muskegon, the perfect destination for those looking to spend some time on Lake Michigan. With its abundant beaches, boating, and fishing, you’ll find yourself back in the chilly blue water again and again. Choose between Pere Marquette Park, Hoffmaster State Park, and Muskegon State Park for your beach days, or tour some of the area’s historic old houses on your off day. Muskegon is also home to Michigan’s largest amusement park: Michigan’s Adventure. So if you’re looking for a water slide or roller coaster — and you don’t want to trek to Cedar Point — this is the place to get your fix.

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8.Ann Arbor

People walking in the sidewalk of Liberty Street in Downtown Ann Arbor

As a lifetime Michigan State fan, I shudder to include the University of Michigan’s hometown on this list, but despite the town’s gaudy use of gold and navy in their decorating schemes, it is a great city to check out. Tool around the university’s campus (which isn’t as beautiful as MSU’s, but I digress), or pop in and out of the shops and restaurants downtown.

Ann Arbor also hosts the U of M Museum of Art, the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, and the U of M Museum of Natural History, all of which are worth a stop. Ann Arbor is also well known for its art fairs, so plan your visit around them if you’d like to saunter about the city in search of a great piece for your home.

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9.Tahquamenon Falls

The Tahquamenon Falls in fall

One of the upper peninsula’s many natural treasures, the Tahquamenon Falls are a pair of waterfalls along the Tahquamenon River toward Lake Superior. View the cascading water from a lookout point or wade through the shallow waters surrounding the falls for a refreshing dip in the summer.

The falls are especially beautiful in autumn, when the leaves are changing, and the 4-mile hike between the two sets is a great way to spend an afternoon. Spend the night in one of the lakefront hotels in Paradise, Michigan, and then pop over to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point to learn about all the boats that didn’t quite make it back to port.

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Two horse-drawn carriages are seen in the Bavarian-themed town of Frankenmuth in Michigan

Located in the thumb crease of the lower peninsula, Frankenmuth is a tiny Bavarian haven in the middle of otherwise unassuming farmland. Drink a beer and order some schnitzel at the Bavarian Inn, or head across the street to Zehnder’s for their world-famous family-style chicken dinners. Pop in and out of the chocolate shops and little general stores before watching the cuckoo clock sound from the Glokenspiel Tower. Oh, and Frankenmuth is also the home of Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, the world’s largest Christmas store. It is massive.

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The Curwood Castle on a summer day

Owosso is one of the few Michigan towns boasting a legitimate castle. The building — complete with turrets — looks straight out of a fairy tale as it sits beside the Shiawassee River. Built by author James Curwood in 1922, the Curwood Castle was originally used as a writing studio but is now a museum owned by the city.

Once you’re done exploring the castle and its surrounding park, you can cross the swinging bridge to grab an ice cream treat at the Cone Zone. Get a coffee at Foster’s, a cookie at Lance’s Bakery, or a massive breakfast at Greg & Lou’s. Owosso is also the original home of the Polar Express, and if you visit during the holidays, you can take a ride to the North Pole, hot cocoa included.

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The Cheboygan Lighthouse on Lake Huron in winter

Situated only a few miles from Mackinaw City, Cheboygan is the iconic tourist locale’s less flashy sister. Sure, you can pop over to Mackinac Island, but you can also enjoy a more low-key vacation wandering around in Headlands International Dark Sky Park, Cheboygan State Park, or Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park.

Of course, there’s always a lighthouse to tour (this one being Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse), and the Cheboygan Brewing Company is an excellent spot for a nice cold beer after a day hiking or at the beach. A unique point of interest is the National Shrine of the Cross in the Woods, a massive crucifix located in the desolate wooded landscape of northern Michigan. Whether or not you’re religious, the site is impressive.

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13.Isle Royal

Coastal areas of Isle Royale were once submerged beneath prehistoric lake waters, and contain many tumbled boulders and other large rocks

In a baffling move by the Department of the Interior, Michigan (despite being what I would argue is the most beautiful state in the US) has only one national park: Isle Royale. Located over 50 miles into Lake Superior (and closer to Canada than Michigan), this wooded island is extremely remote and accessible only by ferry. Complete with inland lakes, forests, and a rocky coast, it's an ideal spot for hiking, camping, and kayaking. Beware, though: There are wolves living on the island, and at over 200 square miles, if you get into trouble, it might take a while for help to arrive.

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The Tridge in Midland

It’s hard to write a paragraph about Midland without mentioning the name “Dow” — so I’m not going to. Home to Dow Chemical and Dow Corning, Midland became a hub for well-educated and well-paid scientists and businesspeople. The area is now a center of culture in the area and hosts the sprawling Dow Gardens, the Midland Center for the Arts, and the unique architecture of the Alden Dow Home and Studio. Perhaps Midland’s coolest feature, however, is the Tridge, a three-way footbridge that spans the meeting of the Chippewa and Tittabawassee rivers. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

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The pier at Petosky

Located near the top of the lower peninsula, Petoskey is another shoreline town perfect for a summer getaway. Located along the Little Traverse Bay, the city boasts a large marina, and there are plenty of boating opportunities. Aside from the water, the two chief draws to the city are its historic Gaslight District, a downtown packed with cute shops and restaurants like McLean & Eakin Booksellers and Populace Coffee. The other is the abundance of wineries and breweries in the surrounding area. Maple Moon, Petoskey Farms, Burnt Marshmallow, and Walloon Lake are just a few.

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16.Sault Ste. Marie

Bulk carrier ship Kaministiqua going through the Soo Locks

If you’ve heard of Sault Ste. Marie, it's most likely because it’s the home of the Soo Locks. The locks enable ships to move from Lake Superior to Lake Huron — and thus the other Great Lakes as well — by bypassing a set of rapids on the St. Marys River. Watch cargo ships maneuver the locks, or take a ferry and ride through the locks yourself. It should also be mentioned that this is one of a few cities in the UP that border Canada, so if you’re looking to make a brief international excursion, this is a point of entry as well.

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The shoreline of Lexington

North of Detroit on the lower peninsula’s thumb, Lexington is a nice afternoon getaway from the hustle and bustle of the Motor City. Walk out on the seawall that surrounds the Lexington State Harbor, or head out sailing for the afternoon on Lake Huron. Afterward, take a stroll through Lexington’s downtown, stopping at the Old Town Hall Winery, the Lexington General Store, and Market Place on Main. You can also swing by the Lexington Village Theatre to see live music, comedy acts, or stage productions.


18.Higgins Lake

A few piers in Higgins Lake at dusk

While Michigan is certainly known for its proximity to the Great Lakes, it is also home to hundreds of smaller inland bodies of water. Higgins Lake is one of the largest — and nicest. In the summer, spend a long weekend cruising around in a boat or barbecuing on the shore. The shallows extend deep into the lake, making the water warm and perfect for wading. In the winter, try your hand at ice fishing on the lake’s frozen surface or break out the cross-country skis on one of the local trails. And as with every Michigan city, snowmobiling is always an option too.

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A forest outside Gaylord

Located in the northern portion of the lower peninsula, Gaylord is covered in snow for about half the year, which makes its Alpine-themed architecture look right at home. The tiny town looks like it’s been transported straight from Switzerland, and unlike many other northern Michigan towns, it is still bustling in the winter, since it’s located near some of the Midwest’s few skiing hills.

In the summer, the cool weather makes it perfect for golf, and Treetops Resort, the Otsego Club, and the Michaywe Pines Golf Course are all popular destinations. And of course, no Alpine village would be complete without chocolate — so swing by the Alpine Chocolat Haus on Main Street.

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Big Sable Point Lighthouse in Ludington

Located on the west coast of Michigan (probably around the first knuckle on the pinky, if we’re being specific), Ludington is a beautiful harbor town built where the Pere Marquette River flows into Lake Michigan. You’ve got both the Big Sable Point Lighthouse and the Ludington North Breakwater Light to investigate, as well as the Port of Ludington Maritime Museum, if you love boats.

Grab dinner at the Old Hamlin Restaurant, and then explore the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness or the Manistee National Forest for two very different types of scenery. And if you’re looking to head over to Wisconsin for a bit, the SS Badger leaves Ludington for Manitowoc every day.

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A giant cow statue on Elsie's Main Street

With a population under 1,000 and a designation as a “village” rather than a “town,” Elsie would probably not be on most people's lists. But! I spent about 20 years of my life living there, and I’m writing this one, so I’m going to give them a shoutout.

First and foremost, you should visit to see the massive cow statue located on Main Street. Her name is Elsie, but she’s anatomically a bull, so we must stan some queer bovine representation. Elsie is also home to Green Meadow Farms, a massive dairy farm with nearly 10,000 cows (meaning the people are outnumbered 10 to 1), and hosts the Elsie Dairy Festival every July, so clearly, they’re into cows. After you finish touring the dairy farm, you can pop over to Foo-G’s for some delicious pizza or head to the bar the Tipsy Cow (we love a theme). For dessert, drive on over to the Blue Moon Ice Cream Shop in Ovid — where I would HIGHLY recommend getting your flurry stuffed with peanut butter.

Matthew Huff

What's your favorite small town in Michigan? Share in the comments below!