A first-timer’s guide to Southwest Michigan | Southwestern Michigan Tourist Council

A first-timer’s guide to Southwest Michigan

Never been to Southwest Michigan? Follow this guide to plan your first trip to Southwest Michigan. It will help you choose what things to do and places to eat, drink, and watch the sunset. Then stay over so you wake up refreshed for more fun tomorrow.


Southwest Michigan is a four-season travel destination – it’s beautiful all year. Of course, the best time to visit depends on what you want to do. Here’s a little more information about each season here.


Being on the coast of Lake Michigan, summer is the most popular time of year to visit. It’s warm and sunny and has perfect weather for lake activities. It’s also when most of our big events take place. 

Summer also brings an abundance of produce to our farms and farm stands, and there’s nothing like eating fresh-picked fruits and veggies from our local farmers. View our harvest guide to find out when your favorites will be in season.

Favorite summer activities:

  • Beach time, hang gliding, parasailing
  • Boating, kayaking, paddleboarding
  • Fishing
  • Touring the North Pier lighthouse
  • U-pick cherries, strawberries and blueberries
  • Hiking 
  • Mountain Biking
  • Golfing
  • Makers Trail Festival
  • Fourth of July Fireworks
  • Krasl Art Fair on the Bluff
  • Chalk the Block
  • Berrien County Youth Fair



Making this your first season to visit will easily make it your favorite to return to year after year. The gorgeous fall leaves, mild temperatures, bountiful harvest, and less busy attractions are all reasons to unwind here. It’s easier to book a room with the rates and amenities you like, especially if you come during the week. 

Favorite fall activities:

  • Fall color tours
  • Apple picking
  • Gathering pumpkins, squashes, and soup vegetables
  • Start your Makers Trail Passport
  • Antiquing
  • Kayaking
  • Hiking
  • Bird-watching 
  • Surfing 
  • St. Joseph Fall Fest
  • Luminary Celebration
  • Window Wonderland



Winter is a magical time of year in Southwest Michigan. Snow and ice formations create stunningly beautiful waterfronts, countrysides, and cityscapes. When the weather conditions are right, nothing rivals nature’s frozen artistry on our piers, lighthouses, and beaches. 

Don’t let chillier temperatures make you hibernate at home. Lake Michigan tempers our temperatures so it is rarely bitter cold. But this massive freshwater inland sea is a snow machine, making lake-effect snow so you can enjoy your favorite outdoor winter sports for hours.  

Favorite winter activities:

  • Cross-country skiing
  • Fat tire biking
  • Snowshoeing
  • Downhill skiing
  • Ice skating 
  • Makers Trail Tours
  • Creative Connections
  • Shopping 
  • Light Up the Bluff
  • Reindog Parade
  • Ice Fest



Ahhh, what a beautiful and sweetly scented time of year when our orchards, vineyards, and towns are filled with blossoms. Come during this less busy time to explore the new exhibits at our galleries and museums. Bring your kids for spring break activities. Hunt for wild morels. Fly kites. Your spirits will soar like the returning gulls and songbirds. 

Favorite spring activities:

  • Blossom tours
  • Golfing 
  • Kayaking
  • Hiking
  • Mountain biking
  • Beach glass & rock collecting
  • Explore museums & art galleries
  • March Mannequins
  • Blossomtime Grand Floral Parade



As you can see from the lists above, there are lots of things to see and do in Southwest Michigan. But here are more ways to spend your first time here — most can be done in any season.  


You’re on vacation so treat yourself to Southwest Michigan’s best restaurants! Here are some options that both locals and tourists enjoy.


Mason Jar Cafe: This cozy cafe in the Benton Harbor Arts District serves up made-from-scratch, locally sourced, organic and delicious food. Literally every item on their menu is tasty so you won’t leave disappointed. Sip on a specialty latte with your huevos rancheros, you’ll thank us later—open daily.

Staymaker Restaurant: Brunch lovers, this is your place! This ultimate brunch buffet includes breakfast-themed pizzas, taco bar, breakfast meats, savory casseroles, fresh-cooked eggs, a donut bar, house-made pastries, a build-your-own Bloody Mary bar, and a unique cocktail menu. Gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan plus non-alcoholic drink options are available. They serve brunch every Sunday.


Silver Beach Pizza: Easily one of the most popular restaurants in Southwest Michigan, many say it’s the best pizza in the area. Try a slice of one of their specialty pizzas with a frozen schooner of your favorite Michigan brew. Enjoy it all with a view of Lake Michigan.

TIP: During summer months you can expect wait times. Check-in on Yelp to save your place in line. While you wait you can go have fun at the Silver Beach Carousel right across the street! Or pick up a pizza from their to-go window to take with you to Silver Beach.

Clementine’s Too: Known for their delicious onion rings and expansive menu, you can dine with a view of the St. Joseph River.

Plank’s Tavern: This American-style waterfront restaurant located inside the Inn at Harbor Shores features views of the St. Joseph River, an outdoor patio, and a dockside bar. 


Grande Mere Inn: This family-owned-and-operated restaurant in Stevensville offers cozy, cottage-style dining with Lake Michigan views. Watch the sunset while enjoying local favorites like fried lake perch, shrimp, and homemade soups. Even its bread basket is memorable. Save room for homemade desserts, especially the coconut cream pie!

Tabor Hill Winery & Restaurant: One of the most well-known wineries in Southwest Michigan, Tabor Hill, offers a beautiful view of its vineyard and serves exceptional dining options. Pair a glass of their award-winning wine (non-alcoholic options also available) with a mouthwatering filet, and you’ll taste for yourself why they made this list.

Bistro on the Boulevard: Get high-quality food without the suit and tie. The Bistro on the Boulevard in downtown St. Joseph serves upscale American cuisine with a Lake Michigan view. Their menu changes seasonally but they always offer tasty small plates and entrees and know how to pair them with the perfect wine from their extensive list.

TIP: If you’re looking for the best wine list in the area, this is your place!

Tosi’s: Widely acclaimed for its authentic Northern Italian cuisine and world-class wine cellar, this 80-year-old restaurant specializes in casual fine dining and warm hospitality.


Kilwins Ice Cream and Fudge Shoppe: You can find all things sweet at Kilwins in St. Joseph. Handmade fudge, 32 flavors of ice cream, chocolates, old-fashioned shakes, and malts, giant caramel apples, and more!


If you’re on the hunt for the best craft beverages, Southwest Michigan is the place to be. The Makers Trail (what we call our collection of breweries, wineries, cideries, and distilleries) has over 40 locations. Each place offers a unique experience from vineyard views, outdoor beer gardens, and live music to wines on tap, historical buildings, and locally-sourced foods. Check out these local tours and transportation services.

Most popular places:

TIP: Tour the Makers Trail from early September to the end of May and earn prizes! Pick up a Makers Trail Passport and collect stamps at each destination you visit. Collect 10 stamps to earn your first prize. 


With so many activities to do, it can be overwhelming to know where to start. So here are the top attractions and sights that you can add to your first-timer itinerary.

Watch the Sunset 

This is the number one must-do while you’re here! Watching the sunset over Lake Michigan fill the sky with beautiful shades of pink, red, yellow, and orange will be the perfect ending to your day.

Best viewing spots:

Go to the Beach

Here in Southwest Michigan, we’re best known for our beaches, so you have to go to at least one while you’re here. Even if you’re not visiting in the summer, a Lake Michigan beach is a must-see.

The most popular beaches are:

  • Silver Beach County Park, St. Joseph: Silver Beach is the busiest of our beaches, and there’s a good reason for that. It is walkable from downtown St. Joseph (super important when the parking lot is full), has a view of the historic North Pier lighthouses and you can access the South Pier. It has over 20 beach volleyball courts, kayak, and SUP rentals, a playground for kids, and lifeguards on duty all summer — perfect for families! It’s also steps from main attractions like the Whirlpool Compass Fountain (seasonal) and Silver Beach Carousel.
  • Warren Dunes State Park, Sawyer: A beautiful beach with a natural environment. Here you can climb the iconic towering sand dunes, hike miles of nature trails, follow the stream to the famous clay pit, or walk the dog beach with your pet. During summer months, enjoy concessions from the beach house or the many food trucks on site. Plus, you’ll get free entry with your Michigan Recreation Passport.
  • Weko Beach, Bridgman: Just a short drive from downtown Bridgman, this beach and campground are less crowded than Silver Beach and Warren Dunes. The parking lot can still fill up quickly during the summer though, so it’s best to get there in the morning. There’s a boardwalk you can follow up into the dunes for a gorgeous view of the lake, a beach house, boat launch, kayak and SUP rentals, and access to the Warren Dunes dog beach.
  • Jean Klock Park, Benton Harbor: This gorgeous beach is a little less crowded than the others. It is one of the better places to hunt for beach glass, crinoids, and rocks for your collection. Enjoy a view of the lighthouses and a short walk to your perfect beach spot.

Splash at Whirlpool Compass Fountain

This amazing fountain below the bluff in St. Joseph is open from early spring until late summer. Measuring 200 ft. in diameter, it is Michigan’s largest splash pad and is only steps from downtown and Silver Beach. Water cannons spray 35 feet in the air and run every 15 minutes. In between, you can splash in the ground sprinklers. This will be fun for the whole family, and the best part is it’s free!

Climb the Dunes at Warren Dunes State Park

The towering sand formations rise 260 feet above the lake. If you can make it to the top you’ll be rewarded with one of the best views of Lake Michigan, and you might even be able to see the Chicago skyline.

Gather Up the Freshest Foods

For decades, local farmers have welcomed travelers to their family farms and farm market stands. From late spring to mid-fall, you can see where your fruits and vegetables are grown and taste the freshness difference. Many farms offer hayrides, opportunities to pet their farm animals, corn mazes, harvest festivals, u-pick fruits and pumpkins and fresh pies, jams, salsas, cheeses, honey and more wholesome goodies. 

This Farms & Harvest Guide is handy to have as you drive through the countryside.

Go Kayaking

Rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard (SUP) from Third Coast Paddling and explore the Paw Paw and Galien Rivers, Silver Beach, and Warren Dunes. You’ll have a blast paddling with friends and family and get a great workout in, too. Own a kayak, canoe, or SUP? Check out our water trail guide for route options.

Take a Hike

The best way to explore the natural beauty of the area is by hiking one of our many trails. View our trail guide to help you choose the best one for you.

Favorite Hikes:

Play at the Silver Beach Center

Take a spin on the magnificent Silver Beach Carousel below the bluff in downtown St. Joseph. Choose from 48 beautifully carved figures or two chariots to ride on. The Carousel house also has a gift shop filled with souvenirs and a museum commemorating the Silver Beach Amusement Park that stood on Silver Beach from 1910 until 1971. This indoor attraction is fun for all ages and perfect for year-round family fun.

Just down the hall at Silver Beach Center, kids ages 3-12 will also have fun at the Curious Kids’ Discovery Zone. They can explore interactive exhibits and enjoy learning through fun activities. Your biggest challenge will be convincing your kids to move on to the next activity on your itinerary!

Explore Our Arts and Museums

Discover the creativity flowing through Southwest Michigan. Connect with our artists and learn about the rich history that lives here. Visit Water Street Glassworks to see a glass-blowing demonstration or the Krasl Art Center to see regional gallery showings or take a guided sculpture tour around town. 

Another fun activity is to take your photo with the murals around Southwest Michigan. Can you spot the giant squirrel waiting to take your photo? 

Earn fun, artsy prizes for some of these stops and more when you play Creative Connections!

Tour the St. Joseph Lighthouse

Yes, you can go inside the St. Joseph North Pier Lighthouse during the summer months. Walk the pier (accessible from Tiscornia Beach Park) and take a guided or self-guided tour of Southwest Michigan’s most iconic landmark. It’s free to view the first floor of the restored lighthouse. A fee will be charged to climb to the lantern house. 

Explore St. Joseph with a Surrey Rental

When you rent a surrey from Scooter Joe’s, you can pedal around St. Joseph with your family, friends, and relatives in vehicles that seat up to 11 people.

accessible mural two men on the sidewalk in benton harbor one is in a wheelchair


​​Are you searching for a fun vacation destination that is wheelchair-accessible? Or traveling with someone who is neurodivergent and you want to go where everyone feels welcome and comfortable? Pack your bags and make happy memories in Southwest Michigan. This guide will make it easy to plan!



Check out our pet-friendly guide for a list of all of the places to visit and hotels to stay at with your furry friend.



Need help planning your stay in Southwest Michigan? Check out our itineraries for a step-by-step guide. Or contact the Southwestern Michigan Tourist Council at 269-925-6301 or info@swmichigan.org for more advice and recommendations for your first time visiting.



With so many fun places to go in Southwest Michigan, you will want to turn a day trip into a longer stay. Our expanded number of lodgings makes it easier to find the amenities and rates you like. But reserve your stay soon for the best choice of dates, especially during the summer!


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Please send us photos and videos of your Southwest Michigan getaway. Use our hashtag #swmichigan or upload your photos to our Crowdriff Collector below. This is an opportunity for your photos to appear on our social media, website or marketing materials. Thanks for sharing your memories!

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