At the mouth of Trail Creek, this historic waterfront city sits on the southeast shore of Lake Michigan, and attracts tourists from across the region in summer.
Michigan City’s plus points are undeniable, with a fine sandy beach, a luxury outlet mall, a casino resort and proximity to a national park.
You can use the marina as a base for fishing trips and cruises, or simply pass the day lazing on the beach before ambling out to the only working public lighthouse in Indiana to watch the sun go down.
In and near the town are some great museums where you can delve into the history of shipwrecks on the lake, discover the area’s steam heritage and step inside the plush home of the Barkers who made a fortune on the railroads in the 19th century.
1. Washington Park Beach (Michigan City Beach)
Right on the lakefront in Michigan City is a two-mile beach with soft sand, shallow waters, rolling dunes behind and a dramatic view of the iconic lighthouse.
The dunes and relatively sparse development help give the beach a remote and natural feel, and the gently shelving shoreline makes this an ideal place for kids to make a splash, although you’ll need to pay attention to rip current warnings.
After a few years without patrols, Washington Park Beach did have lifeguards during the summer when we wrote this list after the city hiked the hourly rate.
There’s a walkway skirting the eastern end of the beach, offering access to the lighthouse via the catwalk.
2. Washington Park
The beach is one element of a historic park that first opened to the public in 1891.
On the National Register of Historic Places since 1991, Washington Park has a host of interesting landmarks, like the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument (1896), and impressive buildings erected by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s.
This is the setting for a zoo that has been around for almost a century, as well as tons of amenities, including fitness trails, the marina, boat launch, fish cleaning station, a splash park, concessions and a historic tennis complex.
Washington Park is a fitting location for annual events like the enchanting Festival of Holiday Lights in December and January.
3. East Pierhead Lighthouse
An enduring symbol for Michigan City, the only public operating lighthouse in the state of Indiana has stood at the end of the East Pier since 1904.
This signal replaced an older lighthouse erected in the harbor in 1858. In good weather, a walk along the pier, dubbed the “catwalk” is one of those things that you simply have to do in Michigan City.
The light was electrified in the 1930s, making the walkway obsolete, but local residents rallied to ensure this structure was preserved.
Accessed via Washington Park, the pier has been a go-to for fishing for well over a century, and is the perfect place to watch the sun go down.
4. Indiana Dunes National Park
Michigan City is at the east end of a national park preserving a vast stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline and the intricate dune systems behind.
Stretching from here to Gary there’s more than 15,000 acres of dunes, oak savannas, bogs, marshes, prairie, river habitats, forests and swamps, all visitable on 11 marked trails. In the immediate vicinity you’ve got Central Beach, which we’ll cover in more detail next.
But behind that is the Great Marsh, a thriving wetland ecosystem supporting green herons, coots, mallards and wood ducks, as well as rusty blackbirds, tree swallows and kingfishers during the migrations in spring and fall.
This environment can be explored on a 1.3-mile trail. Also rich with birdlife is the Heron Rookery, a parcel of inland forest that is stunning in spring when the wildflowers are in bloom. The main visitor center for the national park is 15 minutes away in Porter, with educational displays and educational videos.
5. Central Beach
On the shoreline west of downtown Michigan City is the stunning Central Beach, which falls within the Indiana Dunes National Park.
What you’ll find here is a gorgeous strip of golden sand, walled by massive dunes that conceal a buried forest. In the spring and summer the dunes are a nesting site for bank swallows, and you can see them darting overhead at this time of year.
The dunes reach incredible heights, and one famous peak here is Mount Baldy. Outside of ranger-led programs, the dunes are unsafe to climb as they are riddled with hidden holes left behind by decomposed trees.
On the landward side you can get onto the Calumet Trail, which traces the dunes and Great Marsh southwest for nine miles as far as Mineral Springs Road in Dune Acres.
6. Old Lighthouse Museum
A charming sight at the mouth of Trail Creek is the historic lighthouse that went up in 1858 and served the city until 1940. The Old Lighthouse replaced a previous light from 1832 and in turn was replaced by the current Michigan City East Light.
A total of 7 lighthouse keepers and 14 assistant keepers served at this building across those 82 years. April through October you can head inside to pore eight intriguing display rooms.
These cover the sail era on the Great Lakes, shipwrecks, Michigan City history and much more. On show are models, photographs, 19th-century furniture and a 4th order Fresnel lens.
7. Barker Mansion
The Barker family of railroad industrialists had a vital part to play in the development of the Calumet region in the 19th century.
Their 38-room residence is in perfect condition, serving as a civic center in the heart of Michigan City. The oldest section dates to 1857 and the mansion was expanded in the early 1900s in the Renaissance Revival style of a typical English manor house.
This has rounded gables, mullioned windows, patterned maroon brickwork and dressed Indiana limestone for the trim.
The Barker Mansion was left to the city with much of its opulent interior decor in situ, and stands as a visitor attraction and wedding venue.
There’s much to uncover on a tour, from the lives and influence of the Barkers to thrilling little details like hidden buttons used to summon the staff.
8. Washington Park Zoo
Open April through October, the zoo in Washington Park has been part of the scenery since 1928.
Appropriately the Washington Park Zoo is perched on the side of a dune, with winding tree-lined pathways and structures that were built by the Works Progress Administration in the Great Depression, like the Art Deco-style Observation Tower.
Since its earliest days the zoo has been a sanctuary, and many of the animals you’ll see are former pets, recovering from injuries or were seized as illegal.
At the time of writing there were more than 90 species from five continents, and some favorites include fennec foxes, Bengal tigers, lemurs and wallabies.
One memorable exhibit is Winged Wonders, a walk-through aviary, and kids are sure to love The Farm, with friendly domestic animals like horses, donkeys, pigs and goats.
9. Lubeznik Center for the Arts
Within walking distance of the shorefront in Michigan City is a world-class arts hub for the Northwest Indiana region.
The center was established in 1978, and took on its current name in 2003 after a donation by the local residents and philanthropists Jack and Shirley Lubeznik.
As well as three airy gallery spaces, the center features two classrooms and a gallery shop where you can buy one-of-a-kind works by artists and makers from the region.
The Hyndman Gallery here doubles as a performing arts space, while the Susan Block Gallery has an unbroken view of the lakeshore.
There are ten or more exhibitions each year and a bustling events schedule including the Lubeznik Art & Artisan Festival in late summer and the Holiday Artisan Market in November and December..
10. Friendship Botanic Gardens
Dotted with outdoor art, this fabulous horticultural attraction opened in the midst of the Great Depression with the theme, “Peace and Friendship to all Nations”.
On Trail Creek, the Friendship Botanic Gardens were designed by the Stauffer Brothers, who had recently created a garden for the Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago in 1933-34.
Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands donated 200,000 tulips, a Royal Gardener was sent from the UK to design an English Garden, while the King of Persia shipped roses for the Rose Garden.
Awaiting you today are more than 100 acres of forested valleys and hillsides, embroidered with glorious formal gardens.
The Heritage Gardens continue to celebrate world cultures, and there are also imaginative new spaces like the ArcelorMittal Children’s Garden, for nature-based play.
11. Lighthouse Place Premium Outlets
Designed like a cute waterfront village, this luxury outdoor mall opened on Michigan City’s North End in 1987. At the Lighthouse Place you can browse dozens of factory stores and clearance centers, with savings of up to 65%.
Some of the brands represented are Columbia, Adidas, Skechers, Nike, Calvin Klein, the North Face, Le Creuset, Crocs, Old Navy, Samsonite, Puma, Under Armour, Gap, Michael Kors, Polo Ralph Lauren and Eddie Bauer, to name just a handful.
There are a few eateries sprinkled around the mall, with locations for Subway and Starbucks, as well as specialty stores for the likes of Lindt chocolate and Pepperidge Farm.
12. Hesston Steam Museum
A labor of love for almost 70 years, this steam-powered museum close by in Hesston is run by the volunteers from the Laporte County Historical Steam Society.
The attraction began with a purchase by a small group of steam enthusiasts in 1956, and has grown to include all kinds of equipment on a huge campus.
There’s a steam-powered sawmill, a century-old electric power plant, steam traction engines, a steam crane from 1941, a blacksmith shop and railroads for four different gauges on three routes.
The museum has a fleet of 11 locomotives, the oldest dating back to 1911, as well as a wealth of other rolling stock. What you get is a living and breathing educational experience, with spectacular functioning machinery from a bygone age.
Check the calendar for special events, like the Labor Day Weekend Steam & Power Show and the Hesston Ghost Train in the build up to Halloween.
13. Indiana Dunes State Park
Not far southwest of Michigan City is a state park enclosed by the national park. Created in 1925, Indiana Dunes State Park preserves more than 2,000 acres of lakeshore, including 3 miles of immaculate beaches.
In keeping with the surrounding landscape, the beachfront at Indiana Dunes State Park is fringed by towering dunes, formed over the course of thousands of years and gradually taken over by unique ecosystems.
For extra background there’s a nature center open Wednesday to Sunday, and unlike at some locations the dunes are open for hiking. You can even test your endurance skills on the 3 Dune Challenge, a 1.5-mile trail with a vertical gain of more than 550 feet.
14. Harbor Country Adventures
Setting off from Heisman Harbor in Michigan City, this tour company offers a big choice of scheduled trips and private custom adventures.
If you’d like to see the lakeshore at a gentle pace there’s the Classic Lake Tour aboard the Emita II, taking you along the channel by Washington Park, past the lighthouse and onto Lake Michigan for panoramic views of the dunes.
Thrillseekers can take the Sea Rocket, blending high-speed action with interesting details about Lake Michigan, while there are also romantic sunset cruises and a Saturday night party cruise. Harbor Country Adventures also rents out WaveRunners, as well as canoes and paddle boards.
15. Blue Chip Casino, Hotel & Spa
Opposite the Trail Creek Marina, Michigan City has had a riverboat-style casino since 1997. The complex has grown a lot since that time, and the accompanying 22-story tower, constructed in 2009, is the tallest in Northwest Indiana outside of South Bend.
The Blue Chip Casino, Hotel & Spa is on an impressive scale, with 65,000 square feet of gaming space all laid out on a single floor.
This includes 1,900 slot machines and more than 40 table games. There’s a choice of three eateries, with a deli, casual sports bar and steakhouse, while on the second level of the tower is the 10,000-square-foot Spa Blu.
Available here are a long list of treatments and packages, a state-of-the-art fitness center, a private transformation suite for special events and a salon for everything from hair styling to pedicures.