Travel

The State With the Best Beach Towns Isn't Even on a Coast

3,000 miles of pure coastal bliss.

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With two huge peninsulas that dip into the waters of four Great Lakes, Michigan is America's undisputed lakefront champion; from rugged and rocky shores to soft-sand beaches, no other state offers as wide-ranging a coastal experience. And the beach towns that dot these expansive shores are uniquely Michigan: You're not going to be transported to Cape Cod out here—but you are most certainly going to eat some delicious fried cod.

Some of the best beach towns in Michigan are super touristy and loaded with bars, restaurants, and other activities. Others are a bit more folksy and quiet. You'll find bustling art centers and high-end vineyards, boaters' paradises and endless dunes. With thousands of miles of coastline, there's truly something for everybody. And while this list is by no means exhaustive—there are so many towns, and folks in the UP keep threatening us for telling people to go there!—here are just a few of the state's many, many Great Lakes treasures.

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 and see and 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.

Empire/Glen Arbor
Empire/Glen Arbor | Pure Michigan

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 (which you must try). And if trudging through giant sand piles isn't your idea of a vacation well spent, the lovely, 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 appreciation time.

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 isn't so much known for its beach towns (or towns in general) as it is for its random stretches of beach, so this part of the UP is best known 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 Fitzgerald's (aka "The Fitz"), an inn and restaurant located right on the shores of Lake Superior serving excellent smokehouse barbecue and a massive selection of rare craft beers and fine whiskeys.

Mackinac Island and Mackinaw City

Peak Michigan at the collision of two Great Lakes
Located where the waters of Lakes Huron and 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 quality of feeling lost somewhere in time... not unlike the movie famously filmed on the island, Somewhere in Time. 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 essentially serves as a holding pen for the island, with a substantial number of shops and small restaurants crammed into the city right by the ferry docks. Beer enthusiasts should make sure to take an hour out of their day and detour to the relatively new Biere de Mac for a few brews with a side Mackinac Bridge views and excellent bar food. And if you want to skip the island altogether, this is also the entry point to the Upper Peninsula, with gorgeous St. Ignace right across the expansive Mackinac Bridge.

Cheboygan
Lighthouse in Cheboygan, Michigan | 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 with its 2,000 feet of sandy shoreline. Have a fancy whitefish dinner (it's required by Michigan law) at the Michigan-famous Hack-Ma-Tack Inn & Restaurant, or enjoy more casual small plates at the Nauti Inn Barstro, but definitely end your day with a beer on the balcony patio at the Cheboygan Brewing Company where the focus is on classic German styles.

Ludington

A west coast Michigan escape with east coast Michigan 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 entrance fee). Within the park, you'll find the lovely Hamlin Lake Beach area with warm, shallow waters, 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 Barley & Rye for Mexican food, along with the largest selection of whiskey and bourbon in the area; Jamesport Brewing Company for house-brewed beer and hearty pub grub; and the Mitten Bar beer garden for ALL things Michigan in beer, wine, and spirits. You'll want to spend at least one evening gorging at Chuck Wagon Pizza because it's a classic and a Michigan favorite... and also because it's pizza.

The channel in downtown Charlevoix | 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 island in Lake Michigan with over 100 miles of hiking trails and pristine waters for kayaking. Check out the "Mushroom Houses" of Charlevoix, which look like hobbit huts, then peruse downtown's outstanding restaurants and bars. Then go back to the beaches—they really are something.

traverse city
Traverse City | Tony Demin/Traverse City Tourism

Traverse City

The best (but also the busiest) of all things northern Michigan
Traverse City has always been popular, 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 the gateway to the Old Mission Peninsula's excellent wineries and home to some of Michigan's best farm-to-table restaurants such as The Farm Club, The Cook’s House, and Taproot. You can bar hop or bike ride, take in art at galleries and museums alike, and enjoy beach days both solitary and jam-packed with volleyballers and sailors. Here, hipsters and hippies commingle with yuppies and weekenders, who all 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.

Walloon Lake
Walloon Lake | 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 Walloon Lake, which formed from a glacier and 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 also 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 newer 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 waterski gear, wakeboards, tubes, and life vests. There’s no reason to be at this stunning lake and not get out and play in it.

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 an (admittedly small) public beach at Marina Park, but there's also fantastic dining at places like Martha's Leelanau Table and 9 Bean Rows, plentiful cute boutiques through downtown Suttons Bay, and the entire Black Star Farms estate campus with the winery and tasting room, complete with an onsite Inn in the very likely event that you never want to leave.

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, Saugatuck
Oval Beach, Saugatuck | 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 across the Kalamazoo River, Douglas—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 art galleries like the Armstrong De-Graaf International Fine Art Gallery. Popular events such as Drag Queen Bingo and the “Dunes Diva” competition at the Dunes Resort definitely help set this area apart from 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 Café 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 their insane breakfast spread (think prosciutto ricotta omelets and French toast with mascarpone creme fraiche and fresh berries), grab one of their loaner bikes, tool 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.

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 lakefront is full of dunes. There is also a dune here, but there is a tunnel 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. You’ll be happy to spot both tourists and locals in wooden clogs ritualistically sweeping the streets and klompen dancing. 4) Holland State Park Beach: An expansive, sandy beach on Lake Michigan and Lake Macatawa, each with its own campgrounds. 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.

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 damn-lovely day trip away from Chicago, Muskegon has all the trappings of a great beach town while also serving as a cultural hub. And unlike other, smaller beach towns, this place just 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 that they are magnificent. The crown jewel here is Pere Marquette Beach, one of the Great Lakes' 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 scale than, say, Cedar Point, but the very fact that there are good coasters and a big-ass water park in this lake town is astounding.

East Tawas lakefront
East Tawas | 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 very humble Bambi Motel or Cabana Cove, make friends Saturday morning at the local farmer’s market, take in 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 River Queen. Pre-Covid, this area was known for its blues festival and its county fair, so let’s hope those beloved events will soon return.

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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.
Cathy Brown contributed to the reporting of this article.
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