Beach towns you wouldn’t expect. | Craig Sterken/500Px Plus/Getty Images

The State with the Best Beach Towns Isn’t Even on a Coast

3,000 miles of sandy shores.

Mitten-shaped Michigan’s two massive peninsulas touch the waters of four Great Lakes—making it America's undisputed lakefront champion. And with more than 100 public beaches, ranging from rugged and rocky shores to sand as soft and white as the Caribbean, no other state can claim a coastline as diverse. No matter where you’re at in Michigan, you’re never that far of a drive from the water.

The beach towns stretching from coast to coast each have a personality and vibe of their own; some are folksy and quiet, others dotted with vineyards and top-notch farm-to-table dining. Some lean on the touristy side, and others are unspoiled and entirely yours for the taking. You're not going to be transported to Cape Cod out here—but you are most certainly going to eat some delicious fried cod.

With thousands of miles of coastline, you’re bound to stumble upon your new favorite stretch of sand. While this list is by no means exhaustive—there are so many towns, and folks in the Upper Peninsula keep trying to get us to stop telling people to go there—here are a select few of the state’s stand-out shores that will quickly convince you that you are, in fact, a lake person.

Do as the locals and sip BYO cocktails on the edge of Grand Haven’s lighthouse pier. | Shutterstock/Leene

Grand Haven

Arguably the grandest Michigan beach town of all
Located due west of buzzy Grand Rapids, Grand Haven is, indeed, grand. It has a big, beautiful, sugar-sand beach at Grand Haven State Park with a lighthouse pier, where people may or may not take thermos cocktails out to sit on the edge and see if they get knocked off by the massive waves. The state park is among Michigan's best, and the beach was named AAA's favorite in the state. There’s plenty to do, see, eat, and drink downtown—breakfast at Morning Star Café, rooftop cocktails at Snug Harbor, pizza at Fricano's Pizza, beer at Odd Side Ales, cold-pressed juices, smoothies, and wellness shots at Bodhi Tree—but none of it takes away from what is ultimately the primary focus and your raison d'être: that big, beautiful beach, and those thermos cocktails. And yes, there's also a dog beach.

And you thought you needed to be in the desert to go dune trekking. | Posnov/Moment Open/Getty Images

Empire and Glen Arbor

Small town charm along Michigan’s most iconic coastline
With their proximity to the sprawling, world-famous shoreline that is Sleeping Bear Dunes, Empire and Glen Arbor really function as two sides of the same coin at the base of Michigan's pinkie. Individually, there's not a whole lot going on outside of the dunes and the state’s finest kitesurfing conditions. Together, there's still not a whole lot going on beyond taking a million selfies on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and the 260-foot Dune Climb—and that's the charm.

Even still, there is the iconic Art's Tavern and Grocer's Daughter Chocolate in Glen Arbor, and The Cherry Hut, to the south of Empire in Beulah, for cherry pie (a must-try). And if trudging through giant sand piles isn't your idea of a vacation well spent, the 9-mile Alligator Hill Trail through the forest also offers great views of Lake Michigan. The Krumwiede Forest Reserve has no dunes and no panoramic views of the lake, but it is a beautifully preserved, 110-acre wooded area, so you can get some quality forest bathing time in—if that’s your thing.

Not a bad place to see the sunrise. | Alan Tsai/Moment/Getty Images

Traverse City

The best (but also the busiest) of all things northern Michigan
Traverse City is a sleepy little hamlet of 14,000 that nearly bows under the weight of thousands of tourists. But love for the city on Grand Traverse Bay has hit a fever pitch. It's been declared one of the best beer towns in America. It's also the gateway to the Old Mission Peninsula's excellent wineries and home to some of Michigan's best farm-to-table restaurants, such as Farm Club, The Cooks’ House, and Taproot. You can bar hop or bike ride, stroll through galleries and museums, and enjoy beach days both solitary and jam-packed with volleyballers and sailors. Here, hipsters and hippies commingle with yuppies and weekenders—all of whom come together for spectacular sunsets on the bay. It's one of the best beach towns in America, period. That it knows it—as, apparently, does everyone else—doesn't diminish its charms.

Eagle River beach has stretches of sand on the shores of Lake Superior. | The Fitz

Copper Harbor

As rugged and scenic as the Great Lakes get
A place of stunning beauty and brutal winters, Copper Harbor isn't so much a "beach town" as it is a village nestled on the northernmost American shores of Lake Superior. The Upper Peninsula is known not exactly for beach towns, for its random stretches of beach. This part of the UP is great for hiking and mountain biking—but, if you time it right, you can find a pretty unforgettable stretch of sand in the 20-minute window that is summer. Since you're here, make the 30-minute drive south to Eagle River for a stop at Fitzgerald's (aka "The Fitz"), an inn and restaurant located right on the shores of Lake Superior that serves excellent smokehouse barbecue and a massive selection of hard-to-find craft beers and fine whiskeys.

Quintessential Main Street USA. | Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau

Mackinac Island and Mackinaw City

Peak Michigan at the collision of two Great Lakes
Located where the waters of Lakes Huron and Lake Michigan meet at the impasse of Michigan's peninsulas, you can only get to Mackinac Island by boat. That gives the painfully picturesque, tiny island the feeling of being lost somewhere in time—not unlike the movie Somewhere in Time that was famously filmed on the island. Mackinac Island is all about biking, shopping, and eating, as well as gawking at all the pastel-colored historic Victorian homes, marveling at the absence of motorized vehicles, and dodging road apples from all the horse-drawn carriages. Touristy? Yes. Magical? Undoubtedly. It's basically a Michigan beach town theme park.

As for Mackinaw City, it serves as a holding pen for the island, with a substantial number of shops and small restaurants crammed right by the ferry docks. Beer enthusiasts should make sure to take an hour out of their day and check out Bière de Mac Brew Works for a few cold ones with a side Mackinac Bridge views and excellent bar food. And, if you want to skip the island altogether, this is the entry point to the Upper Peninsula, with gorgeous St. Ignace right across the expansive Mackinac Bridge.

A lighthouse as idyllic as any in Maine. | Sean Patrick Doran/Shutterstock

Cheboygan

An "up north" escape that won't destroy your budget
Located on the shores of Lake Huron—which doesn’t get nearly as much love as Lake Michigan, owing largely to its rockier shores—Cheboygan State Park has 7 miles of lake frontage with a mix of habitats, including marshes, dunes, beaches, and wetlands. Cheboygan is also home to Burt Lake State Park and its 2,000 feet of sandy shoreline. Indulge in a fancy whitefish dinner (it's required by Michigan law) at the locally famous Hack-Ma-Tack Inn & Restaurant, or enjoy more casual small plates at the Nauti Inn Barstro. Definitely end your day with a beer on the balcony patio at Cheboygan Brewing Company, where the focus is on classic German styles.

Dunes and more dunes. | Rudy Malmquist/Moment/Getty Images

Ludington

A west coast escape with east coast prices and crowds
Ludington State Park has a beautiful stretch of sand that's 7 miles long—some of it accessible from outside of the park (if you're too cheap to pay the $9 nonresident entrance fee). Within the park, you'll find warm, shallow waters at the Hamlin Lake Beach area, and just to the north is the 3,450-acre Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area with plenty of wilderness, sand, and lighthouses to explore. The last few years have brought some exciting new spots to Ludington: Hit up Jamesport Brewing Company for house-brewed beer and hearty pub grub or The Mitten Bar beer garden for all things Michigan (as far as beer, wine, and spirits go). You'll also want to spend at least one evening gorging at Chuck Wagon Pizza because it's a Michigan favorite and, well, because it's pizza.

The channel in Charlevoix shows how the town lives with water. | Visit Charlevoix

Charlevoix

An idyllic small town wedged between two lakes
With Lake Charlevoix to the east and Lake Michigan to the west, Charlevoix is practically surrounded by beaches—but there's plenty to do off the sand as well, since this place is known as quite the artsy little beach town filled with galleries and boutiques. Walk the Charlevoix South Pier to the lighthouse at the end. Bike down the 26-mile Little Traverse Wheelway. Hunt for Petoskey stones (fossilized coral rocks exclusive to, and abundant in, Michigan) at Fisherman's Island State Park. Take a day trip out to Beaver Island, the largest in Lake Michigan with over 100 miles of hiking trails and pristine waters for kayaking. Check out the Earl Young mushroom houses, which look like hobbit huts, and peruse downtown's outstanding restaurants and bars. Then, go back to the beaches—they really are something.

The same lake where Hemingway once spent his summers. | Hotel Walloon

Petoskey & Walloon Lake

A teeny-tiny Traverse City for those who loathe crowds
Petoskey's got everything you'd want from a dreamy Michigan beach experience, minus the Traverse tourists and the air of bougieness that all but ruins nearby Harbor Springs. There's Sunset Park on top of the bluffs overlooking Little Traverse Bay, where you’ll find a stair tower to Bayfront Park below. Then there’s Bayfront Park, with its clocktower, gazebo, waterfall, and central promenade that connects to the Downtown Gaslight District.

There, go have dinner and raid the wine cellar at Chandler's, a northern Michigan favorite. Or, head a mere 7 miles down the road to the 100-foot-deep crystalline, glacier-formed Walloon Lake, where Ernest Hemingway once spent his summers writing at a local cottage. You’ll also want to get a beer-battered whitefish sandwich at Barrel Back (they have up to 23 local beers on tap, Bell’s Oberon being one of the most quintessential Michigan brews to try). Cozy up for the night at the gorgeous Hotel Walloon, a boutique hotel that has been painstakingly crafted to honor the historical style of the original Walloon Lake Village, and wake up the next day and rent a tricked-out boat from Tommy’s; they can hook you up with water ski gear, wakeboards, tubes, and life vests. There’s no reason to be at this stunning lake and not get out and play in it.

Even the buildings feel like a beach town. | Suttons Bay Chamber of Commerce

Suttons Bay

A postcard-perfect Main Street USA town in the middle of wine country
Basically the pinkie on the mitten that is Michigan, the Leelanau Peninsula is a place you want to be all day, every day, all summer long, thanks to its bounty of vineyards, wineries, ciders, beers, and farm-to-table restaurants. It manages to be both rustic and sophisticated, and nowhere is that balance more apparent than in the epicenter of Leelanau, Suttons Bay. There's a (admittedly small) public beach at Marina Park, but there's also fantastic dining at places like Martha's Leelanau Table and 9 Bean Rows, plenty of cute boutiques in downtown Suttons Bay, and the entire Black Star Farms estate campus with its winery and tasting room—complete with an onsite inn in the very likely event that you never want to leave.

The historic buildings of Manistee abutt the water. | Daniel E. Johnson/Moment/Getty Images

Manistee

Sugar sand beaches with a charming downtown and riverwalk
All of the beaches in Manistee are public, but they're the kind of big, beautiful beaches you wouldn't ordinarily expect to be public. If you like impossibly charming historic buildings lining a quintessential American Main Street and cute riverwalks (and cute bridges, cute marinas, etc.), and you just want to miniaturize it all and put it in your pocket to keep with you forever, then Manistee is for you. This is a Michigan beach town through and through. Manistee's cup admittedly does not runneth over with diverse food and drink options, but places like The Fillmore, TJ's Pub, and Bluefish Kitchen + Bar have you covered.

Oval Beach welcomes people of all backgrounds. | Ollie and Tat

Saugatuck/Douglas

High-end art and antiques in Michigan's premiere gaycation destination
Saugatuck is to western Michigan what Provincetown is to Cape Cod. Nicknamed "The Great Art-Doors," Saugatuck—along with its sister city, Douglas, across the Kalamazoo River—has earned a reputation as a gay-friendly destination for the arts, thanks to ties to the Ox-Bow School of Art, the Saugatuck Center for the Arts, and galleries like the Armstrong De Graaf International Fine Art Gallery. Popular events like Drag Queen Bingo and the “Dunes Diva” competition at The Dunes Resort—one of the largest LGBTQIA+ resorts in the country—definitely help set this area apart from that of nearby, more conservative Holland. There’s quality boutique shopping everywhere you look, but antiquing at the Saugatuck Antique Pavilion is where it’s at.

After you laze around at the renowned Oval Beach (once considered one of MTV’s Top 5 Beaches in the USA, thanks to its sweeping shoreline backed by huge dunes), hike through Mount Baldhead Park or go on a guided dune buggy ride. Then, have oysters on the half shell at Everyday People Cafe or make the 15-minute drive to Salt of the Earth in Fennville, a farm-to-table restaurant and bakery, before nestling into one of the friendliest B&Bs in the state, Sherwood Forest. After indulging in their insane breakfast spread (think prosciutto ricotta omelets and French toast with mascarpone crème fraîche and fresh berries), grab one of the loaner bikes, cycle along the shore, and get yourself a Neapolitan Milk Stout from Saugatuck Brewing Company before napping and checking out the sunset at the lesser-known Douglas Beach.

The days don’t get any more picturesque than this. | Discover Holland

Holland

A small-scale lakefront version of Grand Rapids
There are many reasons to visit Holland. 1) Tunnel Park: As previously noted, the Lake Michigan shoreline is full of dunes. There is also a dune here, but there is a tunnel running through it (hence the name). 2) New Holland Brewing, which makes some of the best beers (and spirits!) in one of America's top five beer states. 3) Tulip Time: Every May, the city of Holland becomes a real-life Dutch impressionist painting as it celebrates the budding of hundreds of thousands of technicolor tulips, an annual celebration held since 1929 that honors the city's Dutch settlement heritage. Tourists and locals wear wooden clogs and ritualistically sweep the streets to take part in klompen dancing. 4) Holland State Park Beach: An expansive, sandy beach on Lake Michigan and Lake Macatawa, each with its own campground. 5) CityFlatsHotel: A sister property to the CityFlats in downtown Grand Rapids, this is hands-down the hippest hotel you will find in any of Michigan's lakefront communities, guaranteed.

Go to Muskegon before everyone else does. | ehrlif/Shutterstock

Muskegon

In line to be coastal western Michigan's next "it" destination
Muskegon stands out from the myriad charming, timeless, sand-dusted hamlets that dot Michigan’s coastline simply by having, well, people. Lots of them, relatively speaking. A short drive from Detroit, even shorter from Grand Rapids, and a fantastic day trip away from Chicago, Muskegon has all the trappings of a great beach town, in addition to being a cultural hub. And unlike other, smaller beach towns, this place hums with art, music, and a great food and drink scene. No wonder everybody's calling it Michigan's next "it" destination.

Still, none of that would matter without the beaches. That's why you're here, and trust us that they are magnificent. The crown jewel is Pere Marquette Beach, one of the Great Lakes's best-maintained patches, whose white sands and azure waters look almost Caribbean (except, of course, when they're frozen). The requisite beach activities are all here—sailing, fishing, swimming in a giant body of water without worrying about sharks. Oh, and Muskegon has an amusement park! Michigan's Adventure is smaller than, say, Cedar Point, but the very fact that there are good coasters and a huge water park in this lake town is astounding.

The Sunrise Coast practically glows in the light. | Bambi Motel

East Tawas

An inexpensive hidden treasure on the Sunrise Coast
Many local Michiganders don’t even know about the tiny, affordable beach town of East Tawas. If an impromptu map of Michigan is always shown as a left hand, East Tawas is located around the knuckle of your index finger—a region most tourists skip in favor of more popular Lake Michigan on the west side of the state. This area is known as the Sunrise Coast for a reason: Waking up early to take in the sunrise coming up over the horizon of Lake Huron is a must. Tawas Point State Park, on Tawas Bay, even has a pet-friendly, fenced-in section of shoreline so your dog can safely run and play on the sugar-sand beach and in the warm, shallow waters. This is small-town Michigan at its finest, so roll with the decidedly “Schitt’s Creek if it were on the water” vibe. Check into the humble Bambi Motel or Cabana Cove; make friends Saturday morning at the regional farmers market; watch a movie at the blast-from-the-past, cash-only small-town theater; and make sure to end the evening feeling fancy on a paddleboat cruise aboard the Au Sable River Queen.

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Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer covering food, travel, arts, culture, and what-have-you. She winters in Las Vegas and summers in Detroit, as does anybody who's anybody. Her favorite activities include drinking beer and quoting Fight Club.
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