Lifestyle

Your Guide to Michigan's Best Beach Towns

Weekend getaways to one of Michigan's charming lakefront towns are a time-honored Michigander tradition (especially if said town is "up north"). With thousands of miles of lakefront shoreline, both of the Great variety and the smaller inland variety, Michigan beach towns are abundant -- though they're NOT the same as Southern California beach towns or New England beach towns and never will be, so align your expectations accordingly.

Michigan beach towns are distinctly... well, Michigan-y. Some are super-touristy with tons of bars, restaurants, and other activities outside of the lake itself, while others are a bit more folksy and quiet. Whatever your speed is, you can expect to eat well and drink well -- this is the Great Beer State, after all, and a focus on local sourcing, seasonality, and from-scratch preparation has spread to restaurants even in Michigan's most remote areas. You're also guaranteed access to all the standard boating and golfing, because if you're anywhere near a lake in Michigan, it's a safe bet that there's boating and golfing to be had.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of ALL of Michigan's beach towns -- there are seriously a lot of them -- but we've highlighted our favorites below. No matter what you're after, Michigan's got a beachy haven for you.

Grand Haven

Arguably the grandest Michigan beach town of all
Grand Haven is indeed grand. It has a big, beautiful, sugar-sandy 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 to see if they get knocked off by the massive waves. Its state park is among Michigan's best, and the beach was named AAA's favorite in the state. We love breakfast at Morning Star Café. We love a good Euro-style lunch at Elegance of the Seasons. We love a good cocktail on the rooftop deck at Snug Harbor. We love Fricano's Pizza. We love beer at Odd Side Ales and Grand Armory. We could suck down oysters at The Grand all day. We could suck down Rum Bombers at the tiki bar in Jack's Waterfront Bistro + Bar all night.

There's plenty to do and see and eat and drink downtown, 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 even a dog beach.

 

Empire/Glen Arbor

Summer destinations known for their proximity to Michigan's most famous landscape
Maybe you've heard of the Sleeping Bear Dunes? Good Morning America once named it the most beautiful place in America -- hell, we even named Empire one of the best unspoiled American beach towns you can actually afford. Empire and Glen Arbor really function as two sides of the same coin, with the national lakeshore sandwiched between them: individually there's not a whole lot going on at either one, outside of the dunes. 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.

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). 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 beautiful preserved 110-acre wooded area, so you can get some quality forest appreciation time.

Sawyer

Explore some of Michigan's (other) best dunes and booze
So yes, you've heard of the Sleeping Bear Dunes. Everyone has, and everyone goes there. But funny thing about Michigan's stock of sand dunes: they run pretty much the entire western coast of the state along Lake Michigan, all the way into Indiana. And some of them, like the ones in Sawyer on the southwestern side of the state, get pretty damn tall -- up to 260 feet tall at the Warren Dunes State Park.

After your dune climbing, rehydrate with a beer at Greenbush Brewing Co. and maybe even take a quick jaunt to Journeyman Distillery: one of the best craft distillers in Michigan with an excellent on-site restaurant, Staymaker -- and the Livery, an under-the-radar microbrewery with excellent sandwiches and pizzas made from house-made spent-grain bread and dough, and great live music every weekend. You can even drive just a bit further to Round Barn Winery, Distillery and Brewery and St. Julian Wine Co. It's not the best wine the state of Michigan has to offer but hey, you're here. The only problem is all of this involves a lot of driving, which is just a bit counterintuitive for a post-dunes booze tour.  

Copper Harbor

As rugged and scenic as the Great Lakes get
Copper Harbor isn't so much a "beach town" as it is a town nestled on the northernmost American shores of Lake Superior, and that name is no mistake -- it's brutal, but beautiful. This part of the UP is best for hiking and mountain biking, and if you find yourself out this way, dinner with a view overlooking the lake at Harbor Haus is an absolute must, followed by beers at Brickside Brewery. Also, be sure to 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 for anyone who has never been north of "the bridge"
You love Mackinac. And we love Mackinac! Mackinac Island is painfully picturesque, like a place caught 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.

There are a LOT of fudge shops -- a LOT -- but man cannot live on sugar and butter alone, and so there are also casual eateries like Seabiscuit Café & Grog and Millie's on Main. Then there are more upscale spots like Chianti at Mission Point Resort, where you can also grab a Lavazza coffee and house-made pastries at Boxwood Coffeeshop & Café, or nibble on a cheese and charcuterie board while sampling a wine flight at Reserve. And, of course, no trip to Mackinac Island is complete without a visit to the Grand Hotel: the most iconic hotel in the state, where the Grand Luncheon Buffet is something of a legend and a bit of a Michigan bucket list item. Another must-do: a visit to the Pink Pony.

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.

St. Ignace

Best place to view the Mackinac Bridge from the other side
The best thing about St. Ignace is the view of the Mackinac Bridge from Kiwanis Beach -- although the proximity to Clyde's Drive-In, home of one of Michigan's best burgers, is a close second. There's also a pretty cool fireworks show over Moran Bay on Lake Huron every Saturday through most of the summer, and you can kayak from here to Mackinac Island, if you want. (And hey, it saves you the price of the ferry!)

Cheboygan

An "up north" escape for when you don't quite have Mackinac/Harbor Springs/Traverse City money
Located on the shores of Lake Huron, Cheboygan State Park has 7 miles of lake frontage with a mix of habitats including marshes, dunes, beaches, and wetlands. Cheboygan also has Burt Lake State Park with 2,000 feet of sandy shoreline. Have a fancy whitefish dinner at the Michigan-famous Hack-Ma-Tack Inn & Restaurant or enjoy more casual small plates at the Nauti Inn Barsto, 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, with 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 and sand to explore and lighthouses to look at. 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.

Charlevoix

Bounded by lakes and central to the major destinations of northern Michigan, but with plenty to offer on its own
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 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.

For grub, enjoy a crepe and a cup of Michigan-roasted coffee at That French Place. At Harwood Gold you'll get to sample and take home a variety of maple syrups and other gourmet maple products, all made from sap collected from the trees surrounding Charlevoix's Harwood Lake. Take a twilight tour followed by a farm-to-table dinner at Castle Farms, a legit French Renaissance-style castle built back in 1918. Sip beers at Lake Charlevoix Brewing Company (with the most Michiganiest tap handles of all time – shaped like lighthouses!). Oh, and there's plenty of beaches, of course, but also plenty of shopping, since Charlevoix is known as quite the artsy little beach town filled with

Traverse City

The best (but also the busiest) of all things northern Michigan
Traverse City has everything to make you feel like you're in civilized society, but still somewhat away from it all. The easy move is to stay at the Holiday Inn Resort West Bay Beach, because there are a thousand rooms, and it's right on the beach, and it's easy walking distance to Downtown, and there's a "nightclub," and also a "dayclub" (think less Vegas and more Michigan lakefront patio). West Bay Beach is pretty terrific on its own, though, with beach volleyball, designated swimming areas, and a paved running/biking trail.

Spend the rest of your time exploring Downtown, which is full of fantastic breweries and beer bars like 7 Monks Taproom, the Filling Station, Terra Firma, Brew, the Workshop, Rare Bird, and Right Brain. Get a proper pour-over made with Intelligentsia beans and a house-made pastry at Morsels, and definitely hit up BLK\MRKT for house-roasted coffees and from-scratch baked goods. Enjoy the "northern Michigan Italian" cuisine of multi-time James Beard nominee Chef Myles Anton at the exceptional Trattoria Stella at the slightly freaky but mostly cool Village at Grand Traverse Commons (formerly a sprawling mental asylum, now a sprawling adaptive reuse historic preservation project). Hit Spanglish for tamales and Left Foot Charley for wine and cider while you're there. Check out one of TC's more eclectic eateries like the Asian-Latin fusion Georgina's; the Little Fleet food truck park and beer, wine, and cocktail bar; and the long-time favorite Patisserie Amie for a decadent French breakfast or dinner. Enjoy even more exceptional dining at Town Plaza, the Cook's House, and Trattoria Stella's sister restaurant The Franklin. And of course, you'll wanna tour ALL the wineries of both Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsula, which are both easily accessible with Traverse City as a central starting point.

Petoskey

A teeny-tiny Traverse City for those who loathe crowds and find TC too overbuilt
Oh, Petoskey. We love you for everything you are, and also because you're not Harbor Springs. We love Sunset Park, on top of the bluffs overlooking Little Traverse Bay with the stair tower to Bayfront Park below. We love Bayfront Park, too, with the central promenade connecting the park to the downtown Gaslight District; we love the clocktower and the gazebo, and we especially love the Bayfront Park waterfall. A real waterfall! Take lots of selfies in front of it, then go have dinner and raid the wine cellar at Chandler's, a northern Michigan favorite -- or, skip dinner and have a glass of wine or cocktail at POUR Public House. When morning comes, rise with a house-roasted coffee with made-from-scratch breakfast, lunch, and dinner at Roast & Toast. Grab a corned beef sandwich at Cormack's Deli. The Crooked Tree Arts Center is also well worth a visit (there's also one in Traverse City).

Suttons Bay

A postcard-perfect Main Street USA town in the middle of wine country
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, Heath & Vine restaurant, Leelanau Cheese Co., and a pretty terrific B&B at the Inn at Black Star Farms. There are also a number of other wineries and tasting rooms (because this is, after all, Michigan wine country), but for those who enjoy a more modern aesthetic with their wine tastings, check out Blustone Vineyards.
 

Pentwater

A sleepy escape on the shores of Lake Michigan where you can still drive a dune buggy
Pentwater Public Beach is a damn good white sand beach. Ride your bike along the boardwalk, get a game of beach volleyball going, or just coat yourself in baby oil and soak up the sun. Nearby is the popular Gull Landing restaurant with two bars, a huge patio overlooking the water, and live music throughout the week. There are also the 2,000-acre Silver Lake Sand Dunes, which happen to be the only dunes east of the Mississippi where you can drive a dune buggy.

South Haven

Michigan's version of "South Beach"
Located on the shore of Lake Michigan at the mouth of the Black River, South Haven was once known as "the Catskills of the Midwest" and also "the Jewish Brigadoon," as the resort crowd that flocked there every summer in the first half of the 20th century was predominantly… Irish Catholic! Kidding, they were Jewish. So there you go, some history.

South Haven has seven public beaches, but the largest and most popular are North and South Beach. South Beach is the only one south of the river (go figure), and it gives you a great view of the South Haven South Pier Light -- another lighthouse! Start your day at Café Julia for a specialty coffee and homemade pastries, grab a glass of wine and a cheese plate at Channel Wine Bar for lunch or a beer and burger at South Haven Brewpub, then share small plates and sip on cocktails at Taste for dinner.

Manistee

Sugar sand beaches with a charming downtown and riverwalk that's light on crowds
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.

Benton Harbor/St. Joseph

An artsy retreat along the southeastern edge of Lake Michigan
Just a bit north of Sawyer is Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, sister cities that practically share Silver Beach County Park. While St. Joseph is certainly the more charming coastal resort town of the two, Benton Harbor is stronger in its cultural areas -- and by "culture" we mean food and drink. There's Charlie's Piggin' n Grinnin' for award-winning barbecue, La Perla for Mexican food inside of a grocery store, bread+bar for locally-sourced rustic meals and from-scratch artisan breads, the Mason Jar Café for excellent breakfast and brunch, and the Livery AGAIN for some truly fantastic beers (especially their sours, especially their barrel-aged Maillot Jaune) and pizzas.

There's also the Benton Harbor Arts District, which houses the studio of renowned sculptor Richard Hunt, as well as Water Street Glassworks, which offers a variety of classes for those interested in learning the art of glass blowing. St. Joseph has plenty to brag about, too, with Caffe Tosi, Baguette de France, 221 Main, rooftop views of the water at RyeBelles, and one of Michigan's best pizzas at Silver Beach Pizza. As for beaches, Benton Harbor has Jean Klock Park (especially great if you're crowd-averse), and St. Joseph has Silver Beach County Park with its huge expanse of soft, well-maintained sand.  

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 river, Douglas -- has gained 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. Downtown Douglas has ample boutique shopping, and "antiquing" enthusiasts will also love the Saugatuck Antique Pavilion, where we're not saying that you're going to find a pristine set of authentic vintage Eames Shell Chairs, we're just saying that you might.

Have oysters on the half shell at Everyday People Café, enjoy Southern hospitality and Southern-inspired food from two-time James Beard Award semi-finalist Chef Matthew Millar at The Southerner, or make the 15-minute drive to Salt of the Earth in Fennville, a farm-to-table restaurant and bakery. Oh, and hit up Saugatuck Brewing Company and get some Neapolitan Milk Stout. Obviously.  

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: New Holland is making some of the best beers (and spirits!) in the state. Stop by its brewpub in historic downtown Holland. Also stop by Our Brewing Company since you’re here; they're a small operation making some very fun beers. 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 since 1929 honoring the city's Dutch settlement heritage. 4) Holland State Park Beach: an expansive, sandy beach on Lake Michigan and Lake Macatawa, each with their 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

Easily next in line to be coastal western Michigan's next "it" destination.
Another one from the shores of Lake Michigan (it's not that we don't love you, other four Great Lakes, it's just that, well, you're Jell-O and Lake Michigan is crème brulee). Muskegon has Pere Marquette Beach, one of only three "certified clean" beaches for public safety and environmental health on the Great Lakes. Or check out any of the other 27 miles of Lake Michigan frontage in Muskegon County, including a dog beach (rare for lakefront communities) in Kruse Park.

After you've cleaned the sand out of your toes and from other various cracks and crevices, head to the iconic Dockers Fish House and Lounge for some shark tacos and cocktails outside at its Tiki bar. Enjoy a gourmet lunch on a Taco Bell budget at COURSES Restaurant (operated by students at the Culinary Institute of Michigan), where a hanger steak will cost you a whopping $12, or go for the full gastropub experience at Se4sons. Enjoy true waterfront dining at the Lake House, knock back a shot of whiskey at Hennessey's Pub & Whiskey Bar or a house brew at Pigeon Hill Brewing Company, mind your p's and q's at Pints and Quarts (a local favorite), have a few craft cocktails and wood-fired pizzas at the 18th Amendment Distillery, and stuff your face full of cheese without fear of judgment at The Cheese Lady's original location. Plus, get all your retail therapy done in the Lakeside Business District.   
 

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