With miles of pristine beaches and towering sand dunes, Michigan City, Indiana, is flush with coastal charm. Add to those natural wonders a fascinating maritime history, a rich cultural arts scene, and a diverse ecosystem, and you find a premium vacation destination infused with Hoosier friendliness.
Michigan City, located in Northwest Indiana on the southern shore of Lake Michigan, was founded in 1836. It quickly became an important commercial and transportation center for the Midwest. Railroads gradually replaced the ships and barges as preferred transit, but the city’s waterfront setting positioned it perfectly for the tourist trade.
Michigan City is about 60 miles east of Chicago and a stone’s throw from the Michigan-Indiana state border. Interstate 94 provides easy driving access as does the Interstate 80/90 toll road. The closest airports are O’Hare International Airport and Midway International Airport, both in Chicago, and South Bend International Airport in South Bend.
From my home base in suburban Chicago, I’ve frequently traveled throughout Indiana. A recent media trip, however, gave me a closer look into all that Michigan City offers its visitors. Read on for my personal recommendations.
The Indiana Dunes
The Indiana Dunes are a protected collection of immense sandy hills formed by retreating glaciers and molded by wind and water. The area consists of a state park and a national park that sprawl through forests, wetlands, and prairies in addition to the dunes. American poet Carl Sandburg wrote in 1958, “The dunes are to the Midwest what Grand Canyon is to Arizona and Yosemite is to California.” Millions of visitors every year would agree.
1. Indiana Dunes State Park
During Michigan City’s industrial days, much of the sand was hauled away for glass-making. Preservation efforts began in the 1920s with the creation of Indiana Dunes State Park. It’s the smaller of the two parks, with 3 miles of beach and 16 hiking miles spread across 2,100 acres. Look for the “tree graveyard” where trees were covered and suffocated by shifting sands, then uncovered, along Trail 10.
2. Indiana Dunes National Park
Large swaths of land flanking the state park were accumulated over the decades and placed under federal protection. In 2019, the park was designated the Indiana Dunes National Park, which has 25 miles of beach and 50 trail miles within its 15,000 acres.
The park’s signature attraction is Mount Baldy, a “wandering” sand dune that rises 125 feet high and moves inland about 5 feet each year. You can’t climb the dune because of hidden sinkholes and disturbances to fragile native vegetation, but park rangers give guided hikes to the top several times during the summer.
Pro Tip: Take the Mount Baldy Beach Trail for great views of the famous sand dune from the beach.
3. Century Of Progress Homes
Within the national park is a cluster of five historic homes that were featured at the Chicago 1933 World’s Fair, officially named the Century of Progress International Exhibition. The homes were built to showcase futuristic amenities like air conditioners and dishwashers and innovative building materials. They were moved via barge to Lake Michigan’s southern shore and are being privately restored.
One home is a flamingo pink Art Deco style that merges indoor and outdoor living spaces. Another, clad in porcelain-coated steel, was touted as “affordable.” Too bad we couldn’t go inside, but the exteriors are striking.
Pro Tip: An annual public tour of the Century of Progress homes is sponsored by Indiana Landmarks each fall.
What To Do In Michigan City
4. Washington Park
The 99-acre Washington Park is a community gem with 2 miles of soft, sandy beaches to invite hours of sunning and water play. A long elevated walkway on the west side leads to the picturesque East Pierhead Lighthouse. It’s a city icon built in 1904 and is still operational. The park also has a marina, hiking and biking trails, and Washington Park Zoo.
Trail Creek offshoots the lake and borders Millennium Park plaza. Stroll the dock, and you might view the Franklin Street Bridge raise and lower to let sailboats pass through. Pick up a sunset cruise with Harbor Country Adventures. The double-decker Emita II sails along Washington Park and out to the lake.
5. Old Lighthouse Museum
The 1858 lighthouse is now the Old Lighthouse Museum with eight galleries depicting the city’s extensive maritime history. You’ll notice the museum, unlike most lighthouses, stands a fair distance away from the water’s edge. That’s because ever-shifting sands created a new shoreline further north. The beach moved; the lighthouse didn’t.
As you wander through the museum, you’ll learn about Harriet Colfax, a lightkeeper for 43 years during a time when a woman in that role was rare, and the time President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train passed through Michigan City. If you dare, climb the very narrow spiral staircase to the lantern room at the top for impressive views of the beach and Millennium Park.
I was curious to note an exhibit about the Eastland disaster. I knew about the overturned passenger ship that killed 844 people on the Chicago River in 1915. But what was the connection to Michigan City? Turns out, that’s where the Eastland was headed for a day of frolicking, but she never arrived. A hefty anchor chain fence around the museum has 844 links to commemorate the deaths.
6. Lubeznik Center For The Arts
Just footsteps from the lakefront is Lubeznik Center for the Arts, where contemporary expression is celebrated. You’ll know you’re in the right place by the modern outdoor sculptures and the curvilinear facade that winds to the front entry plaza. Admission is always free.
Within the honey-hued, low-rise brick building is a quintet of galleries for rotating exhibitions, performance space for community cultural events, and classrooms for how-to workshops and educational programs. Recent shows have featured renowned artists such as Andy Warhol and the Chicago Imagists as well as the often thought-provoking and contemplative work of emerging creators. During my most recent visit, various works took root in the forgotten victims of a drug war in Jamaica and the quilts that may have been crafted with coded messages to direct enslaved people to freedom.
Pro Tip: Linger at the Gallery Shop, which is stocked with an enticing array of artisan-made fashion accessories and home decor.
7. Friendship Botanic Gardens
Friendship Botanic Gardens is a spectacular collection of formal gardens, old-growth forest, and greenspace bisected by the meandering Trail Creek, but it wasn’t always that way. Opened in the mid-1930s, the 100-acre botanical park was a regional jewel until the 1960s. Then it was largely abandoned to fall into disrepair and dense overgrowth.
7 years ago, a small group of community activists launched an aggressive turnaround campaign. They applied for — and received — improvement grants, and they solicited donations of time and money from local businesses, organizations, and nature enthusiasts. Their efforts are a huge success, and Friendship Botanic Gardens has been restored to stunning beauty, whether you’re in the mood for a quiet retreat or a vigorous workout.
Within the park are 3 miles of paved walking paths, picturesque Lake Lucerne with an arched Chinese bridge and gazebo, globed street lamps, sculptures and statues, and a concert stage. Many of the formal gardens are themed, like the Scandinavian, African American, Persian Rose, and children’s educational gardens. The newest installation is the health and wellness garden, which is equipped with cardio- and strength-training equipment.
Where To Stay In Michigan City
You’ll find a vast selection of overnight accommodations in the Michigan City and South Shore area, so you’re sure to find something that suits your style. Here are two with great ambiance:
8. Beachwalk Vacation Rentals
When you’re traveling with friends or family, a short-term rental home keeps the gang together in a comfortable, private space. Beachwalk Vacation Rentals has a large portfolio of options and sizes, each one given a fun name. I stayed at “It’s A Wonderful Life,” a restored 1800s home on a quiet residential street just a short jaunt to Washington Park and the beach. The three-level home has a fully equipped kitchen, living room, three bedrooms, and two-and-a-half baths. Laundry facilities are adjacent to the kitchen, and parking is in the backyard.
Pro Tip: Vacation rentals don’t always provide the same selection of toiletries that hotels do. Ask ahead of time, or bring your own soap and shampoo just in case.
9. The Brewery Lodge And Supper Club
If a rustic cabin in the woods is your nirvana, you’ll be charmed by The Brewery Lodge and Supper Club. A tree-canopied road winds to the boutique hotel, where 12 guest rooms present serene views of the natural surroundings. Explore the grounds for waterways and wildlife or relax on one of the outdoor terraces.
Built in 1930, the intimate timber-paneled main building houses a restaurant and craft beer and wine bar. Despite its name, the lodge does not have an onsite brewery but is owned by the same folks as Zorn Brew Works restaurant and microbrewery in town. The lodge will arrange tours of local breweries, wineries, and distilleries on request.
Pro Tip: The cozy restaurant is popular with locals, so make reservations.