Due to its position on Lake Michigan, at the mouth of the Black River, South Haven has always been a port city. During settlement, major ship lines stopped there, both passenger and freight. In the early 1900s South Haven became a resort town, sometimes referred to as "The Catskills of the Midwest." Though small ones remain, the large resorts are now gone, as are the shipping lines. South Haven is still a major regional tourist draw because of its recreational harbor and beaches. It is the western terminus of the Kal-Haven Trail, popular with bicyclists and snowmobilers. Nearby are Van Buren State Park and the Van Buren Trail State Park.
Noted botanist Liberty Hyde Bailey was born in South Haven. His childhood home was presented to the city in the 1930s, and is now a museum.
South Haven offers an interesting array of cultural attractions. The Michigan Maritime Museum, host of the tall ship Friends Good Will, is perhaps its most famous. The Historical Association of South Haven, which now operates out of the old Hartman School, which it is refurbishing, is devoted to documenting and retelling the city's rich history.