6 Lake Michigan Beaches for any Vacation Style

Read about Lake Michigan's best beaches and beach towns

Boasting more than 3,200 miles of freshwater shoreline, Lake Michigan’s beaches are as welcoming as they are beautiful, attracting millions of visitors every year. Considered one of America’s “third coasts,” the lake’s beaches offer everything from the world’s largest freshwater dunes to “singing sands” and even a ghost town.

While every beach town dotting the lake provides visitors with unique experiences, a few of them seem tailor-made for specific types of vacationers.

  1. Best Beach for a Traditional Escape: Grand Haven
  2. Best Beach for a European-Style Experience: Holland
  3. Best Beach for Art Lovers: Saugatuck
  4. Best Beach for Families: St. Joseph
  5. Best Beach for History Buffs: South Haven
  6. Best Beach for Adventure Seekers: Pentwater
Lake Michigan Beaches Map

1. Best Beach for a Traditional Escape: Grand Haven

When seeking a classic beach vacation, complete with a 3-mile round-trip boardwalk, historic lighthouses and sugary-sand shores, look no further than the charming town of Grand Haven. Though widely considered one of the best beach towns in the state, its low-key vibe earned it a spot on the “Best Secret Beaches on Earth” list from Travel + Leisure magazine in 2012. This iconic stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline also showcases a lively downtown.

Grand Haven Pier, Grand Haven, Michigan. Grand Haven Pier, Grand Haven, Michigan.

Explore town for less than $2 on the historic trolley, which runs daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Memorial Day through Labor Day, then settle in for a 25-minute synchronized water and light show at the Grand Haven Musical Fountain, presented each summer evening at dusk.

After a photo op of one of Grand Haven’s celebrated sunsets, hit up local haunt Jack's Waterfront Bistro + Bar for a cocktail at the Tiki bar or a lakeside seafood feast with the family.

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2. Best Beach for a European-Style Experience: Holland

Seeking the cultural enrichment of an international excursion, but with a domestic price tag? Consider a visit to the historically Dutch town of Holland, Michigan.

Windmill Island Gardens in Holland, Michigan Windmill Island Gardens in Holland, Michigan

Start your adventure at Nelis' Dutch Village, where for $12 per adult and $10 per child you can explore a 10-acre reproduction of an 1860s village in the Netherlands, full of authentic architecture, artisanal trade demonstrations like cheese making and candle carving, performances of the traditional klompen dance and themed rides like the zweefmolen, a carousel chair swing.

No trip to Holland would be complete without an afternoon at Windmill Island Gardens, more than 36 acres of spectacular gardens you can visit for only $9 per adult and $5 per child. Earn yourself an incomparable view of seasonal flowers and canals after a five-story trek up the 250-year-old De Zwaan windmill, the only authentic Dutch windmill operating in the country. 

Finish off your day with a true taste of the Alps at the relaxed fine-dining restaurant and café AlpenRose in downtown Holland. Experiment with classic central European dishes like Jäger schnitzel and petite filet au poivre, or people watch over a latte and éclair on one of two outdoor patios before window shopping the boutiques along Eighth Street.

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3. Best Beach for Art Lovers: Saugatuck

Saugatuck is home to Oval Beach, which is consistently ranked among the top beaches in the country, thanks to wide, white shores and clear, warm water. But the town’s appeal can also be found on canvas. Known as the “great art-doors” or the “art coast,” Saugatuck is a serene harbor village overflowing with more than 90 art galleries, art schools and shops.

Docks in Saugatuck, Michigan. Docks in Saugatuck, Michigan.

Park at St. Peter’s Church, where a free shuttle will bring you to the complimentary Friday Night Open Studios, held from 7:30 to 10 p.m. on select Friday evenings throughout the summer. View work and demonstrations from the students of Ox-Bow, a 95-year-old summer art school and artists’ residency. Or check out Saugatuck Center for the Arts (SCA), which always has a full calendar of exhibitions, musicals and concerts. Event prices vary and gallery access is free.

If the visual stimulation helps you work up an appetite, depart from SCA on the Hungry Village Tours’ Culinary Walk, which will take you along downtown storefronts for brief histories and tastings ($15-$30), or a Delicious Drive, which heads outside of Saugatuck to explore organic farms, orchards, wineries and cheese producers ($50-$75). Reservations required. 

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4. Best Beach for Families: St. Joseph (Silver Beach)

This growing resort-style town is making a name as the “Riviera of the Midwest,” thanks to picturesque sand dunes, lush orchards and the beloved Silver Beach. Parents will appreciate a highly walkable downtown and a slew of kid-friendly activities.

Playing on the beach at St. Joseph (Silver Beach) Playing on the beach at Lake Michigan.

Ranked by TripAdvisor as St. Joseph’s No. 1 attraction, the Silver Beach Carousel features 50 hand-carved, hand-painted animal figures and chariots; while kiddos are entertained by 1,000 twinkling lights and organ music for just $2 a ride, adults can admire historic photographs along the carousel border. Across the street is the Curious Kids’ Museum, an interactive experience with imaginative exhibitions like a simulated apple orchard, a play veterinary clinic and even a machine that will encase children in a gigantic bubble. Admission is $6 a person.

Refill hungry bellies at Silver Beach Pizza, a pizzeria in a historic Amtrak depot that routinely finds itself on “best of” lists. Kids will love the playful atmosphere that includes a Superman phone booth perfect for pictures. Adults can unwind with the super frosty beer known as “ice cold schooner,” whose popularity helped launch the restaurant. 

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5. Best Beach for History Buffs: South Haven

With seven public beaches, South Haven has ample shoreline for visitors to enjoy. The same can be said for its rich history, which draws knowledge seekers from all over the state. 

Begin your education with the HarborWalk walking tour, which places informative markers along the Black River from pier head to pier head. When you hit Dyckman Avenue, stop by the Michigan Maritime Museum to immerse yourself in all things nautical. Open daily at 10 a.m., the museum is spread across five buildings, where visitors can explore historical exhibits, take classes on boat building and sailing skills, and partake in various festivals like the annual fish boil. Take your experience to the open waters with a ride on Friends Good Will, an operating reproduction of a 19th-century tall ship, which is available for day sails, private charters and educational events. Cruises begin at $35.

South Haven Bay, Lake Michigan South Haven Bay, South Haven, Michigan.

If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in town during the second weekend of August, the National Blueberry Festival is a must-do. Celebrating Michigan’s storied blueberry heritage, the annual festivities include live music, sporting events, a parade and, of course, a blueberry pie-eating contest.

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6. Best Beach for Adventure Seekers: Pentwater

Home to the 50-acre campground that is the majority of Charles Mears State Park, Pentwater’s idyllic tree-lined streets and charming Victorian homes disguise what is really a virtual playground for kids and adults alike.

Take advantage of the Silver Lake Sand Dunes’ nearly 2,000 acres of living sand with Mac Wood’s Dune Rides, beginning daily at 9:30 a.m. through summer, and 10 a.m. in fall and winter, and ranging from $12 to $18. A tour guides narrates the 7-mile ride with fascinating facts about these natural wonders while you enjoy panoramic views of Silver Lake and try to spot fulgurites, hollow glass tubes formed when lightning strikes sand at a temperature of at least 3,270 degrees.

Walk or bike the William Field Memorial Hart-Montague Trail, a recently repaved 22-mile rail trail covering 225 acres of rural farms, woodlands, waterways and cherry and apple orchards with picnic stops and scenic outlooks along the way. Alternatively, saddle up near Rothbury, Michigan, for a horseback ride. Restrooms and water are available along the path.

If you’re craving aquatic adventure on one of several area lakes and rivers, stop by Pentwater Outfitters to rent a kayak, canoe or paddleboard for half-day, full-day or weekly rates starting at $35. Shuttle service to and from the river is available.

Kayaking in Pentwater, Lake Michigan Kayaking in Pentwater, Michigan.

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About the Author

Kara Wyar is a writer and editor based in Dallas, who has been published in The Dallas Morning News, D Magazine, D CEO, D Weddings and the Houston Chronicle, among others. Despite being a passionate Ohio State fan, one of her favorite vacation spots is Oval Beach on Lake Michigan.