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10 Small Towns in Michigan With Big Charm

by Staff

There is something sublimely picturesque for every taste in each one of the Great Lakes State’s most charming towns. In the winter months, New Buffalo sits snow-covered, ready to embrace the holiday season. At the same time, Calumet offers profound insights between the craggy coastline and the rugged terrain through Keweenaw National Historical Park.

Prepare to unearth the best small towns in Michigan with big charm, many being oldies but goodies. You can’t miss Petoskey’s Victorian elegance and peerless natural beauty with prized coral fossils at its state park. Return in the summer to South Haven to lounge along South Beach between the majestic waters and the sand dunes.

Bay City

Golden sunrise in the city of Bay City, Michigan.

This historic city has an eclectic, nautical vibe, and is exceptionally peaceful along the Lake Huron coast, charms through distinct neighborhoods, and has an undeniable small-town feel despite a population of over 33,000. From artisan to antique shops with highlights like Secret Garden, Ferne Boutique, and Panache Boutique to vibing coffee houses, rustic taverns, and cozy waterfront eateries, Bay City enjoys a beautiful riverfront for strolls and historic sites like GT Homestead and Little House. Belly up for an evening of craft beer, handcrafted cocktails, or a sunset sail on a tall schooner!

Kombucha on tap at Harless + Hugh Coffee will revive you in the morning for a prowl through blocks of boutiques, vintage racks, or Michigan’s largest antique center, Bay City Antiques Centre/Bay Antique Centre. A lakeside playground of possibilities awaits, with nothing better than a caffeinated sugar rush of a Cinnamon Toast Crunch Latte from the aptly named best roaster in Michigan, Populace Coffee, before a day at the picturesque Wenonah Park overlooking the Saginaw River. You can engage creatively at Painterly Pottery and try to find a cooler way to explore the town than a group Sunrise Pedal Trolley ride with pints while biking. 

Calumet

Downtown scene of the historic Calumet, Michigan during the fall
Downtown scene of the historic Calumet, Michigan.

One of the most picturesque slices in the state, Calumet, sits spoiled in nature minutes from Lake Superior shore, at the heart of the Keweenaw Peninsula. Practically a historical trap, the small town—the epicenter of the early 20th century Keweenaw copper boom—packs a punch with engaging sites from its deep past, like the opulent Calumet Theatre, which opened in 1900. You can dive into Calumet’s local lifestyle as it is today, with its old-timey vibes and small-town charms for city dwellers, like several gift shops, galleries, coffee houses, and saloons.

Having withstood the test of time, the theater is a testament to the town’s glorious past with 60 annual performances, while the Italian Hall built in 1908, a site for a worker’s strike in 1913, was shamefully demolished in 1984, given its historical significance and architecture. Come now for George Gipp Recreation Area & Ice Arena and Swedetown Nordic Ski Trails, just a stroll from downtown and in the spring for Queen Anne’s Falls to the northeast! You can enjoy easy access to trails and explore the peninsula, from the craggy coastline with Calumet Waterworks Park to the rugged terrain through Keweenaw National Historical Park.

Charlevoix

Thatch House in Charlevoix Michigan in the winter.
Thatch House in Charlevoix, Michigan.

Charlevoix sits spoiled in nature along Lake Michigan shores, with French roots and Americana charm. French Jesuit Priest Pierre Francois Xavier de Charlevoix, a brilliant chronicler and historian but also a spy explorer of the New World, took a voyage from 1720 to 1722 for the French, during the young King Louis XV’s rule, around the Great Lakes. Under the pretense of seeing how French missions were fairing, it was to discover British penetration of North America while first noting the Sleeping Bear Dune shoreline on the way. The blend of cultures is evident throughout the quaint downtown, with terraced cafes, galleries, and places for a tasty bite, seafood, and fine dining!

The charming town is perfect for strolls along the stunning waterfront, from Michigan Beach Park to the Charlevoix Pier Lighthouse. With the immense lakeshores and Round Lake at its heart, featuring a supreme marina, there is access to all your favorite ways to boat! A destination as it is with a rustic feel, artsy vibes, and modern amenities, the distinct Hobbit houses by architect Earl Young, designed out of limestone, fieldstone, and locally sourced boulders, take the front stage! These 27 “mushroom huts” on the world radar in a forest setting under cedar shake roofs give off the Lord of the Rings vibes, and you can stay at one of the architect’s other creations, The Earl of Charlevoix!

Hillsdale

The business district on Howell Street, Hillsdale, Michigan.
The business district on Howell Street, Hillsdale, Michigan.

Hillsdale, an idyllic college town in the corner of the state, is a sought-after destination along the verdant rolling hills wedging into Indiana and Ohio. With a progressive feel and new-age flair amid the grand Victorian homes, Hillsdale charms along the manicured, tree-lined alleyways! In between cute cafes to chat up the friendly crowd, you can reenergize with good food through restaurants on request and go barhopping at great prices! Visitors can let their eyes wander on a stroll, resting on sites like the historic courthouse and the Will Carleton Poorhouse, a museum of local history.

The historic Hillsdale College is a marvel, with the feel of the mid-1800s and highly influential pride in the air along the grounds integrated into the architectural downtown. Its revered liberal arts programs give the lively town a jolt into a bustling scene, along with many outlets for the students to let out steam, like the 14-acre Slayton Arboretum, a recreational space to relax in the scenery or walk and reap from it as an educational resource. The Baw Beese Trail snakes through Hillsdale and along Sandy Beach Park to Baw Beese Lake, with perfect sands for year-round lounging, hiking, or circling the lake on a relaxing bike ride.

Leland

Main street in Leland, Michigan, also known as Fishtown, originally a fishing community, now a tourist destination with restaurants, quaint shops and boutiques.
Main street in Leland, Michigan. Image credit Frank Setili via Shutterstock.com

Home to under 500 locals, the beautiful town of Leland feels like a time capsule with its iconic Fishtown neighborhood. Full of old-timey maritime charms, like antique fishing shanties, Leland attracts travelers with its favorable geography, where everything is within a stroll between not one but several lovely waterfronts, including the shores of Lake Michigan and the picturesque Lake Leelanau. Whether you are seeking a tranquil break from the every day or to escape the city fog into pristine nature, the friendly locals give you a warm welcome.

You can hit the shores in the morning and visit museums, shops, galleries, and restaurants until you return to Van’s Beach for a glorious sunset. While browsing local artwork and enjoying fresh seafood eateries, stray away into the nature of Myles Kimmerly Park, Palmer Woods Forest Reserve, or take up the Dune Climb just west. You can recharge deliciously at Village Cheese Shanty, and don’t miss the Leland Gal for unique fits! Even the Manitou Islands are nearby for an impromptu getaway into absolute remoteness before an evening at the local Verterra Winery.

Ludington

Street view in Ludington, Michigan
Downtown, Ludington, Michigan.

At the mouth of the Pere Marquette River, which flows into Lake Michigan, Ludington feels prepped for endless summer days by stunning waters. One of Michigan’s most revered getaways, you can explore the small town over dry and wet pursuits between a bustling downtown and a water sports heaven, with iconic sites like the historic North Breakwater Light. Glide aboard Ludington’s own S.S. Badger, one of the largest cruising vessels on all the Great Lakes, to Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Don’t save the Ludington Maritime Museum for a rainy-day dive into the region’s maritime history.

Cute as a button, Ludington pulls you in with architecture from the 19th century and catapults you to some of the state’s most beautiful beaches into the water with canoeing, boating, and kayaking. Stearns Park boasts a vast stretch of sand for R&R with on-site concessions, a playground, and a skate park amid the cerulean invasion of rolling waves. From serene fishing to Ludington State Park’s Big Sable Point Lighthouse and hiking trails, you can also stroll through the historic White Pine Village. Mason County Historical Society offers another outlet for learning, while the Waterfront Park hosts live music performances in the summer.

New Buffalo

People explore the quaint downtown area, passing Casey's Diner, New Buffalo, Michigan.
Quaint downtown area, and Casey’s Diner, New Buffalo, Michigan. Image redit Page Light Studios via Shutterstock

At the mouth of the Galien River along Lake Michigan, New Buffalo, the ultimate escape for Chicago‘s dwellers, is often omitted unless accessing Indiana to the south. More than a beach town, it is an ideal town to play and rest without crowds, with a modern, large refuge harbor, a 24/7 public boat launch, and a great selection of lodgings, restaurants, nightlife, and a booming wine industry. Southwestern Michigan’s first gambling casino, the Four Winds Casino, year-round concerts, headliner entertainment, concerts, conferences, and special events at the Resort and Silver Creek Event Center.

Petoskey

The view to the north down Howard St affords a glimpse of Little Traverse Bay off Lake Michigan, a setting that makes this quaint town a popular coastal resort.
Howard St, Petoskey, Michigan. Image credit Kenneth Sponsler via Shutterstock.com

Petoskey, one of the state’s most scenic towns, boasts a magnificent waterfront and architectural splendor. Famed for ready-made souvenirs, the Petoskey stones, you can find these highly prized coral fossils in Petoskey State Park, as idyllic as it is for hikes and camping, which brings crowds for a hunt on visit after visit. From the bustling downtown to exciting watersports and a pretty lighthouse, you will have a ton to explore, with sparkling ciders and wine flowing from many wine breweries in between.

The hideaway on the Little Traverse Bay shores of Lake Michigan within unspoiled natural splendor is easy to miss, but hard not to fall for its Victorian elegance and extensive collections at the Little Traverse History Museum. You can enjoy the Bear River Valley Recreation Area for walks, biking, and hiking while the Vintage Downtown Petoskey Trolley offers a spin around town. Petoskey’s Gaslight District is an indulging shopping destination. At the same time, Mighty Fine Pizza will tease your tastebuds to continue your tour through the surrounding Petoskey Farms Vineyard and Winery and Maple Moon Sugarbush and Winery.

South Haven

People along Lake Michigan beach in South Haven.
Lake Michigan beach in South Haven. Image credit Claudine Van Massenhove via Shutterstock.com

South Haven is Chicago’s favorite escape to the beaches and the Aqua Park at Lake Arvesta Farms, with watersports and a challenging water obstacle course. Stumble upon this real splash pad along the southeasterly shore of the glittering Lake Michigan and fall for its vast stretch of pristine sands and sights that make you understand the name. Between the majestic waters lapping at your feet along South Beach and the blue set of stairs, you can easily access the dunes to explore.

Picture-perfect around each turn with old-timey charms, Clementine’s Bar is a historic landmark in a former 1896 bank, serving restaurant-style food over caramel and chocolate martinis. The Michigan Theater offers an elegant evening over a live performance or a movie in a restored 1920s building. Don’t miss the engaging Michigan Maritime Museum on Great Lakes history and first-hand experience on a hike through the waterfront nature preserves and protected parks, with a red lighthouse for a picnic on a jutting outcrop in the lake!

St. Joseph

The business district on State Street, St. Joseph, Michigan.
The business district on State Street, St. Joseph, Michigan.

Pack your bags for the Winter Beer Fest in January, the “Light Up the Bluff” event until February, and the St. Joseph Ice Fest in the same month. This picturesque crossroads town has a long history of charming visitors with its scenic splendor, where the St. Joseph River empties into Lake Michigan. The vintage downtown is perched atop the rustic-looking bluffs over Lake Michigan with its iconic Whirlpool Compass Fountain and various fantastic retail stores. Visitors can enjoy hikes through Silver Beach County Park, Kiesel Overlook, and Lookout Park for the best vantage points.

St. Joseph’s culinary delights and drinking experiences include Michigan’s most delicious foods and worldwide cuisines like Papa Vino’s Italian Kitchen, with nearby wineries, breweries, and bars for tours and tastings, including Clementines Too. Find the St. Joseph North Pier Lighthouse from Tiscornia Park and visit the Heritage Museum and Cultural Center. Curious Kids’ Museum and Discovery Zone delight parents and kids with educational fun and hands-on activities. At the same time, the stunning lakefront Silver Beach boasts an indoor carousel, perfect for unwinding in every season against spectacular views.

When it comes to charming, Michigan is full of goodies, with practically every town touching a lake with beautiful views and a plethora of state parks for outdoor adventures. The Great Lakes State is a treasure trove for scenically- and plain-starved travelers.

Start with St. Joseph, a culinary delight with a stunning beach, that looks high from above, perched atop the bluffs. Or, check in to Hillsdale an idyllic college town along the verdant rolling hills wedging into Indiana and Ohio. Finally, Bay City is a revered shopping destination that can rival any big city in the state!

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