I once vowed never to live anywhere north of South Bend. But I fell in love with a Michigander and followed him to West Michigan when I married him nineteen years ago. Then another love story began.
I didn’t expect to fall in love with Michigan. Then I saw how beautiful the snowy winters were. I walked to the end of a pier, sat in front of a lighthouse and held my breath as I watched the sunset over Lake Michigan. In Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, I found an unexpected multitude of cultural opportunities. The feeling grew slowly, until I was completely smitten. West Michigan introduced me to this amazing state.
The are so many places and things I love in West Michigan. And even after all these years, there’s still so much I want to see. This is a list of my favorite things here. The things that I think make West Michigan a great place to live and visit.
1. Silver Beach in St. Joseph – This is my favorite Lake Michigan beach to visit as a family. The city sits high on a bluff looking over Lake Michigan. It makes for some fantastic views from the top.
Down at the beach, you’ll find a vintage Carousel for the kids to ride. There’s also a huge splash pad with water cannons and jets. It’s great if you get tired of swimming in the lake, or for those days when the water in the lake is just too cold for a dip.
The lighthouse pier is located at this beach. It’s one of Michigan’s most photographed lighthouses. Last year they offered inside tours of the lighthouse for the first time. That’s one of the items I still want to cross off my West Michigan Bucket List. If you’re lucky, you may even see a freighter coming into the harbor while you’re there.
When you get hungry, you can walk over to Silver Beach Pizza inside the old train depot. It’s some of the best pizza in Michigan. For dessert, walk up the bluff to Cabana’s where they have over 90 different flavors of ice cream. Whew! St. Joe needs it’s own post, and you can find it right here if you want to know more about this lovely Michigan beach town.
2. South Haven – This is another beach town I frequent in West Michigan. At South Beach, you can walk to the end of the pier, sit in front of the lighthouse, dangle your feet over the water and watch the sunset. The South Haven lighthouse is another iconic Michigan lighthouse.
The swimming beach is big and wonderful, and often the water is a degree or two warmer here than other beaches in the summer. There’s a nice bathhouse and a great playground for the kids. In downtown South Haven, you’ll find lots of unique restaurants and shops.
3. Saugatuck – Yet another beachtown. (Are you sensing a theme here?) Saugatuck is a little different, because it doesn’t sit right on the lake. They tried that about 100 years ago, and the town ended up getting buried by sand dunes. So they moved it inland along the river.
Saugatuck is a tiny town filled with art galleries and restaurants. One of the most unique features is the hand-operated chain ferry that takes you across the Kalamazoo river.
It’s the only ferry of its kind still operating in the US. When you disembark from the ferry, you’re at the bottom of the stairs that take you to the top of Mt. Baldy, a sand dune that overlooks Oval Beach. You can walk down to the beach where you’ll find a bathhouse and concession stand.
Saugatuck Dunes State Park is another one of my favorite spots. You have to park and hike through the woods about 1.5 miles to the beach. It’s a wild, natural beach that you don’t find many places in West Michigan these days.
4. Grand Haven – I know. I know. Another beach town. I just can’t get enough! Here you’ll find Grand Haven State Park with a beach right on Lake Michigan. It’s walking distance from the shops and restaurants in town. There’s also yet another famous lighthouse at the end of the pier that’s a great place to watch the sunset.
One of Grand Haven’s most unique attractions is the Musical Fountain, a synchronized water, light and music show that plays at dusk every night from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Grand Haven is also home to the Coast Guard Festival.
It’s one of my favorite times to visit even though it’s very crowded. Parades, fireworks and street food abound, and several Coast Guard ships are open for tours.
5. Yankee Springs State Park – This place is close to my heart. It’s just a few minutes from our house, and I’ve spent many summer days at the beach here with my boys over the years. They both learned to swim at this beach.
The park’s swimming beach on Gun Lake is always clean and well-cared for. It’s rarely crowded, unless it’s a holiday or really hot weekend. Even then, there’s plenty of room for everyone. It is a perfect place for families with young kids, because the water is shallow even several feet away from shore. Since it’s an inland lake, the water is also much warmer than chilly Lake Michigan. Also, the concession stand is unbelievably inexpensive. There are bathrooms and changing rooms as well. If you like to camp, you can stay at the campground that’s just short walk from the swimming beach.
6. Holland Tulip Time – There are lots of reasons to visit Holland, but Tulip Time is the event that brings the most tourists to town. The festival celebrates the area’s Dutch heritage. The entire city is awash in bright tulip blooms lining the streets and filling the parks. Dancers in wooden shoes klomp down the street. Live performances, street food and parades provide plenty of other entertainment.
While we’re talking about Holland, I have to mention Tunnel Park. Holland is just a few miles inland from Lake Michigan. Tunnel Park is a county park just outside of town with a beach and sand dunes. The unique thing about this park is the tunnel that goes through the dune down to the beach. It’s a beautiful place to spend a summer day.
Big Red, the lighthouse in Holland Harbor, is also a must see if you’re in town. It claims to be the most popular lighthouse in Michigan.
7. Artprize – For about three weeks in early fall, the city of Grand Rapids transforms into one big gallery as it hosts Artprize, an international art competition. Artists display their works on the streets and in many downtown buildings.
Over 1,400 different pieces of art are on view throughout the city. It’s an incredible opportunity to see a variety of art genres and often the artists are there to meet in person. I always spend at least one day viewing the entries with my kids. It’s a truly unique way to expose yourself to creativity and a variety of points-of-view.
8. Grand Rapid’s Museums – Downtown Grand Rapids hosts a trio of great museums. The GRAM, GR’s art museum, has a world-class collection and regularly features national and international traveling exhibits as well. The Public Museum is a great place for families to spend the day. It has a variety of hands-on exhibits that focus on history, science and culture.
The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum pays tribute to the only U.S. president to hail from Michigan. It does more than just tell the story of the 38th president. The museum’s mission is to share the importance of all citizen’s participation in civic life, a cause that was close to President Ford’s heart.
9. Agritourism – I kind of wish I lived on a farm. Since I don’t, the next best thing is visiting one. And West Michigan has mastered the new concept of agritourism, farms that are also tourist attractions.
In the fall, I love to make the rounds to apple orchards. Gull Meadow Farm in Richland and Lewis Farm Market in New Era are two of my favorites to visit with family. After you pick your own apples you can visit animals at their petting zoos, and they have tons of activities for the kids. Don’t forget to buy some freshly made doughnuts to take home with your apple cider.
If you want a more adult orchard experience, visit Crane’s Pie Pantry and Orchard in Fennville where the homemade apple pie in their restaurant is almost as good as Grandma’s. You can even get a pie flight with samples of four of their famous pies.
In the springs and summer, Earl’s Farm Market, also in Fennville, is my favorite place to pick berries. They have strawberries, blueberries and raspberries. I’m always sure to stop into their bakery while I’m there for a serving of their enormous, fresh strawberry shortcake. And I do mean enormous. Just one is big enough for our family of four to share.
10. Fred Meijer Garden – In late winter and early spring, Fred Meijer Garden in Grand Rapids hosts their Butterflies are Blooming event.
Hundreds of butterflies are released into their indoor tropical conservatory. Visitors walk among the butterflies, getting an up close view when they land to rest and eat. If you stand really still, one might even land on you. The garden is a great place to visit anytime of year with art displayed throughout the grounds and indoors. The Children’s Garden and new Japanese garden are highlights you don’t want to miss.
11. Binder Park Zoo – I’m partial to Binder Park Zoo, really for only one reason. They have giraffes, and you get to feed them by hand which results in getting to pet them a little.
I love giraffes. So petting giraffes will win me over every time. John Ball Zoo is the other West Michigan Zoo. It’s pretty great too. I love that both zoos are compact and make it easy to see everything in two of three hours.
12. Downtown Kalamazoo – There’s just something cool about downtown Kzoo. There are lots of nifty restaurants and shops to visit, and it’s all very close together which makes walking around easy. You’ll find The Kalamazoo Mall there which was the first open air pedestrian mall in the US. At night it’s all lit up and just so pretty with the vintage city buildings and brick streets.
I could go on and on about even more things I love in West Michigan, but this article is already almost 2,000 words long. Have you visited West Michigan? Do live you here? What are some of your favorite places and events?