A Forgettable Trip to Benton Harbor, Michigan

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Have you ever taken a road trip somewhere and then realized that the whole trip was a complete letdown? Well, I have to say that we experienced this feeling to an extent during our recent trip to Chicago!

Flying out early Saturday morning at 6AM meant it was an early start for us as we had to drive to Memphis Airport around 4AM. We landed at Chicago’s Midway International Airport around 7:35AM and immediately headed over to the rental car center. A short wait for the shuttle bus lead to us taking a 5 minute ride to the Alamo rental car area. Our ride for the weekend – a Kia Soul!

The decision was made to take a road trip early Saturday morning from Chicago to Michigan. Our final destination – Benton Harbor, Michigan!

You may be asking why did we pick Benton Harbor as our Michigan location? Well, if you take a look at the map there are not many locations within relative short driving distance from Chicago unless you are willing to drive further to the likes of Kalamazoo or Grand Rapids. Plus our research on Benton Harbor led us to believe it would at least prove to be a spot on the Lake that would offer some beautiful scenery and a few things worth exploring.

Heading out of the Chicago metropolis through several tolls (I would highly recommend taking advantage of the rental car companies offer for the I-Pass which is a pre-paid tag that allows you entry through all Chicago and surroundings state tolls!) which are certainly plentiful in this part of USA.

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Crossing the Michigan State Line

The drive to Benton Harbor took around 90 minutes, the highlight along the way being a quick stop at the Michigan Welcome Center. One thing we were unaware of was that driving to Michigan saw us cross into Eastern Time Zone (if you ever drive to Benton Harbor, be aware of this time zone change because there are not too many notices letting you know!) but given that we drove back that same morning it didn’t make much of a difference.

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Benton Harbor, Michigan

Benton Harbor was in all honesty a major disappointment! The downtown area was small with very little to see and explore. A few bookstores, coffee shops and a run-down look was all this town on the side of Lake Michigan to show. Maybe we didn’t explore enough but we didn’t even get to see Lake Michigan.

We did come across the Harbor Links Golf Course which is hosting the US Senior PGA Championship in a couple of weeks but apart from that we were really struggling to find anything worthwhile.

We also stopped for breakfast at McDonald’s (yes, there wasn’t much in terms of options!) before we headed back on the drive to Illinois as we attempted to justify going 1 1/2 hours out of our way. Did we succeed? Probably not but that’s random road trips for you and they don’t always work out the way you plan them.

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I don’t want to judge the state of Michigan purely from this short road trip because the reality is that there are likely many beautiful spots throughout this state that are more appealing than Benton Harbour. But I have to admit that we were both slightly disappointed by our experience simply because our expectations were much higher of this location on the Eastern coast of Lake Michigan.

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Summary

Had we visited here during the US Senior PGA Championship, I am sure I would probably be writing a more positive review but if you have any desire to visit Michigan I would highly recommend visiting somewhere other than Benton Harbor.

Trips to upstate Michigan are by all accounts much more interesting and aesthetically appealing with beautiful scenery, but unfortunately our initial experience in this state leaves a lot to be desired.

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I have to admit that the highlight of this trip was heading back into Chicago, especially with the gorgeous skylines we were treated to on a beautiful Spring day!

44 COMMENTS

  1. That’s a shame that you didn’t enjoy your destination in Michigan. I did a road trip from Chicago to Michigan last summer, visiting Indiana Dunes on the way then New Brighton, Saugatuck and Holland in Michigan. The Michigan Gold Coast area is a great place to visit so if you end up doing another Chicago road trip I definitely recommend visiting there

    • Thanks for sharing the additional information Katie, it will definitely be useful on our next trip to Michigan. Our travel philosophy on road trips is that you have to experience a place first hand before you can really know what it is like so even though Benton Harbor wasn’t for us, we are still glad we made the trip there to check it out with our own eyes!

  2. I’m sorry you didn’t have such a great time on your trip! I’ve thought of taking a road trip to the northern parts of Michigan before to the beaches / sand dunes in the summer that look quite lovely! I’ve seen gorgeous pictures looking out to the lake. Maybe for next time!

    • I think we just needed to head further north on this trip to really experience true Michigan! But given our time constraints this was as good as we could do and even though our experience wasn’t the best, the fact we made it across the Michigan border and saw a little of this state was the main purpose of the trip.

  3. How disappointing. I can kind of tell there wasn’t much there because, going by your 5 photos, one is just a road and two are just signs! Sounds like it may have had a lot more of a buzz if you went two weeks later but then maybe also it would have been nothing but traffic jams. Better luck with the next trip!

    • The old downtown picture is about as spectacular as it gets! You know writing this post I clearly have a bit of a negative vibe going on but I think it provides a nice contrast to the usual positive approach where we always encourage folks to visit a location.

      At the end of the day, I would still say ‘Go visit Benton Harbor for yourself’ but be warned our experience wasn’t the most positive!

  4. What a shame! Although it may be far busier during the US Senior PGA Championship, I would think that the place should stand up all by itself, in terms of being attractive or interesting, without an event. However on the other hand, just like life, I guess we need contrasts to appreciate the more beautiful and fascinating destinations.

    • Jackie, you make a great point about needing to see and visit contrasting spots around the world. We have to face the reality that not everywhere that we travel to will be an awesome experience but I think it is only fair that I wrote a fair analysis of our experience rather than sugar coating what we really felt!

  5. You didn’t say how you came to choose Benton Harbor as your destination, so it is hard to know what your expectations were. If you just pick a random town to visit, your probability of having a similar result are about 50-50, in just about any state in the union.

    • Lee, it was pretty much as random as they come!! Opened up a map, looked at spots in Michigan within short driving distance from Chicago and there you have it the beautiful metropolis of Benton Harbor was our chosen destination.

      We actually did some research here though before driving there and it did appear that there was more things going on. Maybe we just didn’t explore the town in enough detail but you know first impressions are generally what keep folks in an area!

    • I have actually just added a paragraph to this post Lee indicating our reason behind visiting Benton Harbor. As you can see, there was no real skill to our selection rather a stab in the dark that ultimately backfired on us but unless you make the trip you will never find out!!

  6. Too bad you didn’t enjoy your visit to MI but good to know. We haven’t been yet often talk about doing a weekend trip. I’ll keep Benton Harbor off the list! …nothing beats the beautiful Chicago skyline!

  7. Too bad you didn’t just stay in Chicago, I’m sure you would have had fun there. But like Jackie says, that’s life. I think you were brave to even write about the disappointment of the trip. So many times it’s all “pretty wonderful” in the blog world and I appreciate the fact that you posted an honest, disappointing experience rather than trying to gloss it up, or leaving it out altogether. I’m sure you learned from it.

  8. looooool driving in Chicago is the WORST. I once saw a magnet that was like “how to drive in Chicago” and it said “put your right foot on the accelerator, press down, put your left hand out the window, extend middle finger.” Anyway, sorry Michigan didn’t live up to expectations. I loved the sleeping bear dunes in that state, but don’t have much experience otherwise.

  9. Your experience must be very challenging. Well, I only tried having road trips a few times but the most common bad experience I had was the boredom if there are not so much great views to see. I ended up eating a lot of chips while on the trip but I think it is still fun although having bad experiences. Maybe just plan ahead next time and learn from the past experiences.

  10. i guess, next time ask! Just about anybody would have told you downtown Benton Harbor would be a let down. For anyone living or had lived in the area, we know full well that B.H. is *nothing* like it used to be. Oh, and you missed many a grand place along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan on your way to and from B.H. Clean, sandy dunes and shore all up and down the Michigan coastline… including the shoreline of Benton Harbor. Just because you didn’t see it, doesn’t mean it wasn’t (or isn’t) there.

    Hopefully, you don’t judge the rest of the state by your unfortunate initial experience.

    • Mike, in no way am I judging the state of Michigan by our experience at Benton Harbor. As you saw in my post, I wrote “I don’t want to judge the state of Michigan purely from this short road trip because the reality is that there are likely many beautiful spots throughout this state that are more appealing than Benton Harbor.”

      I think it’s a case of we didn’t do sufficient research but at the end of the day, I am just providing our viewpoint on our experience. This is not to say that anyone else would feel the same way and as you indicated, they are many a grand place along the eastern shore of the lake. Unfortunately we just didn’t have the time to experience them and what we did explore wasn’t an ideal reflection on this community!

  11. A shame indeed! You were right next to St. Joe, one of the most beautiful small towns in Michigan, right along the lake! Great restaurants, quaint downtown retailers. You really missed out! Try it again & come to St. Joe! Breathtaking!

    • Cheers Gina, we will definitely take a trip to St. Joe sometime and hopefully experience some of that beauty you mentioned. But you know sometimes you have to encounter negative experiences in order to fully appreciate your surroundings.

  12. Too bad your research didn’t reveal that Benton Harbor’s twin city right next door is the charming town of St. Joseph, where I grew up. When you were at the new golf course, you were right next to Jean Klock Park on Lake Michigan, and from there you could have walked to the beautiful St. Joseph lighthouse. Benton Harbor has always struggled some economically, but especially from the last recession when it went bankrupt and was taken over by the state. Next time do more research and visit St. Joseph!

  13. You did not do much research (or homework) or you would have driven across the river to St. Joseph or 1/2 hr north to South Haven. Both would have given you a very enjoyable day and better places to eat than McDonalds.

    • Thanks for providing a couple of alternative options Kathy and we will definitely keep these in mind when we next return to Michigan.

  14. Its a sad shame that YOU didn’t research the area before you made the trip. the number one error I noticed on your part is that downtown Benton Harbor has no McDonald’s, the only McDonalds in Benton Harbor is at I-94 exit on Pioestone Rd which also displays a variety of other places to dine like Applebee’s which is right across the street. This brings me to part two. You obviously did not notice the great big bridge crossing over the St. Joe River which actually leads to downtown St. Joseph and Silver Beach which is where there are a multitude of quaint shops, restaurants and also fine dining. Not to mention the scenic shoreline view from the bluff. St. Joseph also has 1 McDonalds which is nowhere near the lake area or Harbor Shores. The only problem that I see which your review is your own near sighted perspective as well as not taking the time to #1 reach the area and #2 explore #3 stop and ask the locals where to go.
    Benton Harbor and St.Joe are only separated by the River and no our area isn’t downtown Chicago, it’s small quaint and beautiful.

    • I appreciate your honesty Diana and apologize if you took offense to anything that I wrote on Benton Harbor. Of course our trip to Michigan was short so first impressions really went a long way. Honestly we probably ended up in the wrong part of town but I am only ever honest in my blog posts so only thought it was fair to give a fair review on our experience. I am certainly not suggesting that folks avoid Benton Harbor and definitely would encourage everyone to visit to experience the town for themselves! We are all entitled to our opinions and unfortunately our experiences determine how we feel about a place! For us, it was negative though if we ever return here in the future, perhaps we will see a better side of Benton Harbor!

  15. its too bad you didn’t drive about 5 minutes to St. Joseph. A quaint city that is growing and has gorgeous views of the lake. It is a shame you didn’t research a little more and missed it!

    • Definitely in hindsight I would have spent a little more time researching Benton Harbor and found that taking the drive a little further to St. Joseph would have been the more productive trip – then I could quite easily have been writing ‘An Unforgettable Trip to Michigan’! But there’s a story for another day right 🙂

  16. Sorry about your bad trip to Michingan, but next time do some research. Benton Harbor has been the shit hole of Michigan for years next to Detroit. If you went about 1 mile across the St. Joseph River to the beautiful city of St. Joseph, you would see a big difference. St. Joe has everything you want in beauty and shopping. But you better hurry up cause the Benton Harbor trash is slowly moving in and it will go down hill just as quickly as did Benton Harbor.. Please bring plenty of money because your $$ help our little stores out to where We can enjoy our little piece of heaven after all the tourists leave…

    • It’s really sad to hear that Benton Harbor was once a thriving community and has since seen a downfall. With so many positive remarks made about St. Joseph, I really think this is a town we need to explore! I appreciate your honest comments about Benton Harbor.

  17. RE: Benton Harbor. Benton Harbor does have a glorious history and was known around the world for several reasons. With a change in demographics, the city declined into a state of catastrophe. BH, the home of Whirlpool Corp. and many other companies “in it’s day” that has since passed. To many reasons for here. By contrast St. Joseph, across the river is nationally known for it’s art and life style. The trip across the river is like to enter a different world. Well worth another day trip to St. Joseph. As I grew up in BH, loving every moment of it, I would no longer live there.

    • It’s a real shame Richard to hear that a town like Benton Harbor has deteriorated so much over the years. There are so many cases of towns like this, especially in states such as Arkansas where we both currently reside. It’s a sad state of affairs but an unfortunate reality. As I have indicated in other comments, I would definitely love to return to the banks of Lake Michigan and explore some of the other towns and hopefully have a better experience than we did in Benton Harbor!

  18. Random choices can easily disappoint. You happened to choose a town that has seen better days, and is trying desperately for a comeback. For those of us who grew up near there, these improvements are amazing, compared to it’s darkest days. The Arts District near Harbor Shores is the best part, other parts are severely run down. In that area is a charming little spot called The Mason Jar Cafe where you could have gotten a much better breakfast! Missing the lake is your own fault, you just needed to drive west silly. However, I highly recommend it’s sister city St. Joseph. You just missed it! Now there’s a spot worth visiting again. It’s my hometown, can you tell?

    • Thanks Robin, yes I don’t think we really spent enough time in Benton Harbor to really experience everything! Thanks for providing some suggestions on alternative spots such as The Mason Jar Cafe which sounds interesting. Will definitely have to take a trip to St. Joseph when we next visit Michigan.

  19. As someone who was born outside Chicago, I will say leaving Chicago and heading up to St. Joseph or Holland Michigan is exactly what a break from the city should be. Certainly Benton Harbor is not as quaint as the other Western coast towns, but that also depends on if you take the Interstate there or the highway next to the Lake. The beaches in Western Michigan during the summer are great and worth the 3 hour trip from Chicago.

  20. Welp, thanks for that article! You just saved me from taking a horrible road trip. I was debating between Benton Harbor and the Holland/Saugatuck area, which is an area I’m more familiar with than Benton Harbor. If I were you, I’d suggest a nice trip to Saugatuck, and then head up to Holland. Saugatuck has a nice mountain, called Mount Baldhead, and it’s truly a beautiful view. Although, you have to travel up hundreds of steps to get to the top.

  21. Benton Harbor is one of those cities that you have to visit with a resident. Some of the best places to eat are right in the middle of a small neighborhood. You wouldn’t even know about them unless you lived there. Our downtown is starting to come back, with a few EXCELLENT restaurants.

    I find it a shame that you judged BH and MI on one short visit: “but if you have any desire to visit Michigan I would highly recommend visiting somewhere other than Benton Harbor”. Benton Harbor is a beautiful town, with a lot to offer. You just have to leave the judgments at the door.

    And SJ is nice, but it also has a stuffy atmosphere and it’s expensive! (Not like Chicago, but very high for SWMI.) We only go for the fountains for the kids.

  22. I am sorry you were disappointed on your trip to Benton Harbor. As a native of Benton Harbor, the decline of the city is attributed to years of mis-management. However, each time I come home, the growth is slow, but steady. Just like anything, it takes time when a system has been abused. Benton Harbor is surrounded by Lake Michigan, and offers beaches, wine tours, eateries, golfing, etc. I believe with more questions and research your trip could have been more enjoyable; especially with the beautiful city of St. Joseph being it’s neighbor. Try it again and I believe you will have a more favorable trip.

  23. It’s a shame you didn’t do a little more research about the surrounding area. I manage a vacation rental resort in Stevensville Michigan that is predominantly visited by Chicago travelers. We are about 15 minutes from Benton Harbor. We have 2 state parks within a very short driving distance to explore dunes and beaches. St joseph Michigan which you would have found right across the bridge from the Golf Course you spoke of, has year round festivals, Silver Beach, kids and adults love this small hidden jem! This area is very well known for wineries, breweries, and local markets with great produce. You pick is also great fun, with options of blueberries, strawberries, cherries, and apples depending on the season. Fall and winter are even packed with things to do. St Joseph winter Ice Fest, snow mobile trails, cross country skiing, to name a few things. If you ever want to give are little corner of Michigan another try, call Chalet on the Lake in Stevensville Michigan, one of our reservation specialist will freely offer advice on area attractions that will fit your travel expectations. We have been located on the shores of Lake Michigan since the early 60’s. No reservation required to help you plan your trip!

    • Hi Katie, thanks so much for your insightful comments! You have probably noticed this post was published several years ago and obviously with the amount of traveling we have done over the last few years, our opinions have changed dramatically! We are definitely ready to head back to this part of Michigan and explore more and be able to write a much more positive review of this region. Again, I want to reiterate our appreciation for your tips and recommendations. We will certainly take you up on your offer to reach out to you when we plan a return trip. Thanks again and have a great weekend!

  24. It’s too bad that you didn’t make your destination Saint Joseph, the “twin city” to Benton Harbor. Saint Joe has transformed itself into a virtual tourist attraction for so many, especially during the summer. You would have found a quaint downtown area, with “C & G Variety” store (the former GC Murphy dimestore of my youth) which hasn’t changed all that much since I was a youngster. The Kids Museum, Silver Beach Carousel, and many fine eating places would have more than rewarded you for your trip into Michigan. Come back again and try out St Joe. (Full disclosure: I was born and reared in St Joe and, although I don’t live there any more, up until recently I returned often to visit my aging mother who lived in the Whitcomb Senior Residence, overlooking Lake Michigan!)

  25. I had a trip planned to Benton Harbor and was going to visit Saint Joseph and other things in the area. I read about Benton Harbor having a lot of crime though and i’m not sure i’m going to make that trip since I would be staying in BH and have to travel through the town constantly to go places.
    Any advice? I don’t want to go on vacation all worried all the time.

  26. It’s frustrating that you clearly missed all of the nice things about our area, but this article lives on, disparaging our city.

    Between the Mason Jar, the Phoenix, and the Livery, there is so much good food, beer, and live music; eating at McDonalds is completely your fault! Look at all of these people writing that they were planning to visit and have now completely changed their minds. 🙁

    • Hi Japhy,

      I first want to apologize that you stumbled across this post – clearly from a lot of the comments we didn’t explore the best of what Benton Harbor had to offer and I in no way intended on this post coming across as negative as it did. It was simply a honest perspective but definitely one that I want to change! I am hoping that in 2019 we will have the opportunity to return to Benton Harbor and have a completely different opinion and take some of your suggestions to try them out. We are very different travelers now than we were when we first visited Michigan. I hope that our post hasn’t stopped people from visiting this destination because this was by no means our intention. Thanks again for visiting, albeit on these terms (I am actually very curious as to how so many people have stumbled across this post – do you mind sharing where and how you found this?).

  27. There are some very lovely areas in Benton Harbor Michigan to visit once you are out of the city of Benton Harbor. Such places include: The Benton Harbor Fruit Market, family owned farms and farm markets, the Benton Harbor Arts district, vineyards, and nature centers. The city of Benton Harbor is in desperate need of help, and is nothing like the city of St.Joseph. St.Joseph Michigan is the place everyone should visit, it is very touristy between June and August, but very beautiful.

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