Sandy dunes. Sunny beaches. Cherry orchards. World-class wineries. On the northwest edge of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, the small town of Traverse City is a hub for foodies, wine connoisseurs, outdoor enthusiasts, and cherry lovers. Surrounded by water, towering forests, and gorgeous beaches, this Lake Michigan beach town is the perfect destinaton for a summer or fall getaway!
Traverse City gets its name from Grand Traverse Bay (a bay of Lake Michigan) — which got its name from the French voyageurs who made “the long crossing” (le grande traverse) from Canada south across the bay. Traverse City is perched at the base of the enourmous bay, which is split in half by the Old Mission Peninsula. To the west, the Leelanau Peninsula (Michigan’s pinky finger) separates Traverse City from the deep, open waters of Lake Michigan.
We tapped a local insider, Emily Batdorf for a local’s guide to things to do in Traverse City! And special thanks to Practical Wanderlust team member Jordan Wagner of Hamburg and Beyond for generously letting us use photos of her hometown and providing additional local insight. Take it away, Emily!
Table of Contents
Psst: Planning a trip to the northern states? …. We have a bunch of other posts you will love!
- 9 Magical Places to Visit in Michigan in the Winter
- 8 Best Places to Visit in Minnesota: A Local’s Guide
- The Ideal Indianapolis Weekend Getaway Itinerary
- 43 Cozy Things to do in Chicago in the Winter (A Local’s Guide)
Looking for more USA inspiration? We have a MASSIVE travel guide for all our favorite places in the US and handy advice, packing tips and travel guides. Click the link below to download!
Traverse City FAQs
Considering a visit to Traverse City? Here are a few local’s tips to help you plan your trip!
What’s the history of Traverse City?
Long before gourmet restaurants, wine tours, and paddle boarding, this region of northern Michigan was inhabited by the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi peoples. These nations were prominent traders with established trade routes stretching to the Atlantic Ocean in the east, the Rocky Mountains to the west, Northern Canada to the north, and the Gulf of Mexico to the south!
When the French and English arrived, they set up trading partnerships and later established a permanent village in the 1840s in what is now Leelanau County. In 1980, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians became the first tribe in the country to successfully petition for federal recognition. Today, the tribe’s resort and casino operations play a major role in the region’s booming tourism industry.
In the 1840’s, the city’s founder, Perry Hannah, began to grow the lumber industry in Traverse City. The industry took off in the late 1800s, and the state of Michigan quickly became the country’s top lumber producer. Railroads were built to transport the lumber out of the area, many of which now serve as routes for local recreational trails.
After the lumber boom, the region’s economy turned to agriculture. Today, the region is the Cherry Capital of the world, a popular (and growing) wine region, and a favorite summer tourist destination.
What’s the best time of year to visit Traverse City?
Each season has its highlights in Traverse City, but the best times to visit are between May and October. While the end of spring can be a little chilly, there’s a palpable excitement in the air as the city opens up after a long winter. And in mid to late May, visitors can enjoy the stunning cherry blossoms that adorn the region’s numerous orchards.
As the summer continues, everyone heads to the water to cool off — July and August are the best months to take full advantage of TC’s beaches and water sports.
The height of summer sees visitors from all over — downstate, across the Midwest, even across the country. Big events like the National Cherry Festival and the Traverse City Film Festival are major summer attractions — and bring major crowds.
And don’t overlook the fall: September and October bring changing leaves, apple cider, and a pleasant crispness to the air. Summer crowds are gone, but weekends bring leaf peepers chasing the colorful scenery!
Should I rent a car?
You’ll probably want to rent a car while visiting Traverse City. Having a car allows you to check out some of the many nearby attractions that can’t be reached by public transportation, like Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and the Old Mission Peninsula.
However, if you actually plan to stick to downtown Traverse City (and are staying downtown, too) you can get away without a car. Downtown is very walkable; you can access beaches, breweries, restaurants and shopping all within a few blocks. You can even catch a brew bus to take you to some of the wineries out of town!
That said, if you’ve got more than a couple of days to spend, rent a car and make a point of seeing the gorgeous northern Michigan countryside. We recommend using Kayak to compare car rental deals and find the best rate!
How do I get to Traverse City?
If you’re traveling by air to Traverse City, you’ll fly into Cherry Capital Airport (how cute is that?) The airport is an easy 5 miles — or 15-minute drive — from downtown TC.
If you’re driving to Traverse City, you’ll either drive in through Michigan’s Upper or Lower Peninsula. Most folks coming from or near the Chicago area will drive US-131 N through Grand Rapids. For a longer drive – but one that takes you by some of Michigan’s most lovely beach towns – you can drive US-31 N along the western shore of the state. Travelers from the Detroit area will take I-75 N through the center of the state.
Driving across the Upper Peninsula (UP, or da Yoop as da Yoopers say) is an adventure in itself. Known for dense forest, sparkling waterfalls, and very few people, the UP is a scenic route to Traverse City if you happen to be traveling from another northern state.
From the north, you’ll enter the Lower Peninsula via I-75 S. And this route takes you over the Mackinac Bridge, a 5-mile long, beautifully scenic suspension bridge connecting Michigan’s 2 peninsulas.
While Michigan isn’t really known for its traffic, driving “Up North” on Fridays throughout the summer is a thing. There isn’t much that Michiganders take more seriously than their summer vacations, so be prepared for this highway stampede if you happen to be traveling on a Friday.
Where to Stay in Traverse City
There is so much to do right along the lakeshore that it’s worth staying downtown during your visit to Traverse City. The downtown area is small enough that you can pretty much walk anywhere! Here are the best boutique hotels, B&Bs, and vacation rentals in Traverse City.
- Stay in a Vacation Rental: There are a number of fantastic picks for vacation rentals in Traverse City on VRBO! We recommend booking directly through VRBO because it has fewer fees and more flexible cancellation policies than Airbnb – also, we’re not fans of Airbnb’s unethical track record and lax security. This modern downtown condo is centrally located on Front Street with a beautiful skyline view of town – and it’s budget friendly! Just a 15-minute walk away from town, this charming garden cottage is steps away from the lake (with beautiful lakefront views) and the beach!
- Park Place Hotel: This newly renovated hotel is in the heart of downtown. It’s just a block away from Front Street — the main drag — and chock-full of great restaurants and shops. And, it’s just two blocks from the beach. This city landmark was built on city parkland, hence the name. Lumber barons in the 1870s bought this new building and upgraded it to a luxurious and regal hotel. In 1930, the Park Place hotel became the city’s tallest building with the addition of a 10-story tower. The hotel’s Beacon Lounge is located at the top of the hotel, and you can enjoy live music and appetizers with fantastic views of Traverse Bay!
- Sugar Beach Resort Hotel: Located just three miles from downtown, this modern beach hotel will make you feel like you’re closer to the tropics than Canada! The rooms are freshly updated in clean greens and blues, and best of all, you have access to the hotel’s private beach along the bay! The hotel also offers a continental breakfast and a heated indoor pool.
- Hotel Indigo: Overlooking Clinch Park Beach, Hotel Indigo is one of the hippest new hotels in Traverse City! The interior has a modern rustic feel, with lots of woodland accents paired with green and reds. Onsite they have their own restaurant, as well as a terrace which overlooks the beach and bay, which you can even swim in. Yes, please!
- The Oviatt House Bed and Breakfast: For a more intimate vibe, this BnB is located on the north edge of downtown, just a short walk away from the shops and restaurants. This 1900 home belonged to a Scottish blacksmith, and the house. still boasts original woodwork and detail. Besides the bright and elegantly furnished rooms, they provide locally-grown, organic food to start your day!
- Wellington Inn Bed & Breakfast and Tea Room: While this option is a bit pricier than the other places we’ve recommended, this neoclassical mansion will make you feel as fancy as the original lumber baron that built it in 1905! With its 9 guest rooms, its super-cozy library (to live your best Belle fantasy), and sumptuous full breakfast in the turn-of-the-century dining room it may be hard to leave once breakfast is over. This is a great place to make your visit to Traverse City a romantic getaway! Browse Reviews on TripAdvisor
Things to Do in Traverse City
As a scenic Michigan beach town, Traverse City caters to both the hip, local crowd and the abundance of tourists that flock here in the summer. A quick look around this gorgeous northern landscape will be enough to understand downstaters’ obsession with this place. And for good reason!
From the brilliant blue waters of Lake Michigan and the Grand Traverse Bay to the flourishing food and wine scene unfolding in the northern countryside, Traverse City is your next destination for a down-to-earth, delicious, and nature-centric vacation.
You’ll have no trouble lining up your itinerary, but here are some local tips to help you enjoy the best things to do in Traverse City!
Explore Downtown Traverse City
For a smaller town, Traverse City has an incredibly vibrant downtown! It’s packed with the incredible food, history, shopping, and culture that make Traverse City such a much-loved Midwestern destination.
Historic neighborhoods, first-rate restaurants, cultural attractions, numerous brewpubs and — of course — the beach are all within a few blocks of one another.
You can take a stroll past founding lumber barons’ exquisite mansions on 6th Street, grab a morning coffee and pastry, do a little shopping on Front Street, and hit the beach — all before lunch. Here are a few highlights in downtown Traverse City:
- Browse Local Boutiques: Though small, TC’s downtown district is packed with local gems. Many shops are dedicated to the region’s appreciation (read: obsession) with food.
- Fustini’s is a unique stop that carries every imaginable flavor of oils and vinegars. Pick up a little bottle of blood orange olive oil and cranberry balsamic vinegar for a fun twist, or roll up your sleeves for a class at the School of Cooking and learn how to make various cuisines like Italian, French, or even Thai dishes!
- Kilwin’s originated in northern Michigan with the Kilwin’s Chocolate Kitchen 60 miles north in the little town of Petoskey. TC’s location across from Clinch Park is the best place to get an ice cream downtown. Or fudge. Or chocolates. Or all the sugar all the time!
- West Bay Handmade is a cutesy shop with beautiful local art, home goods, and soaps. While Traverse City is indeed a tourist town — meaning it’s really easy to find a T-shirt — this shop stands out as an authentic destination for unique, hand-made goods.
- Backcountry North is a local outfitter that has a downtown location for all of your outdoorsy needs. Forgot a hat? Lost your water bottle? Need a trail guide? This is your place. The super friendly staff will make sure you’re equipped for whatever adventures you’re undertaking.
- Some other great shops include Haystacks, Ella’s, Cherry Hill Boutique, Cali’s, and What to Wear.
- Visit the Perry Hannah House: Located on 6th Street in downtown Traverse City, lumber baron and the original founder of Traverse City built his retirement home which was completed in 1893. Built in the Queen Anne style architecture, the three-story asymmetric brick building includes a turret and sweeping front porch outside, and 40 rooms and ten fireplaces inside! As you can imagine, a lumber baron knows his wood, and inside you can find intricately carved cherry, birch, beech, birdseye, curly maple, oak, dark oak, and walnut. Today, the house is the Reynolds Jonkhoff Funeral Home, but they do allow visitors if there is no funeral going on (just make sure to call ahead!)
- Sara Hardy Downtown Farmers Market: On Wednesday and Saturday mornings from May through October, you can find the region’s freshest produce for sale right downtown. The Sara Hardy Farmers Market features over 100 local farmers throughout the season and is a great way to sample the best of the season. If you’re not picking up groceries for dinner, you can grab a pint of fresh cherries for a snack or a jar of Cherry Honey Mustard to bring home.
- City Opera House: This second-story theater was initially built in 1891 and was the first building in town to install electric lights. Above the shops and dining on Front Street, the City Opera House is the perfect place to catch an after-dinner show. The restored Opera House is gorgeous inside and out with its Victorian architecture and hosts all kinds of events, including many by the National Writers Series.
- The Dennos Museum Center: The Dennos Museum Center is the place to go to check out one of the largest collections of Inuit art in the United States, with over 3000 works of art in total. Approximately 1600 of the works are prints and sculptures made by the Inuit people of the Canadian Arctic, Greenland, and Alaska in the museum’s 10,000 square feet of exhibit space. You can experience the culture of these Inuit people through their artwork, many of which depicts hunting, fishing, ceremony, and community.
Hit the Beach
Traverse City is a freshwater beach town, with dozens of pristine sandy shores for a perfect day at the beach. If you’re traveling from outside the Great Lakes region, you may be under the impression that beaches are for Hawaii. Or Florida. Or California. And sure, those beaches are incredible, but they have sharks. And salt.
Step onto a white sand Michigan beach and you won’t miss the ocean at all. The warm sand is pleasantly soft, the water is a bright Caribbean blue, and you still get that amazing sea breeze.
Depending on your favorite beach activities (sunbathing, paddle boarding, ice cream cone licking) and your ideal setting (close to town or out in nature) you can select the perfect beach for your day in the sun.
- Clinch Park: For a hoppin’ beach right in town, head to Clinch Park on the West Bay. This beach parallels downtown TC, and is just steps away from shops, restaurants, and brew pubs. On weekends, especially, it’s a happening place — and for a good reason. There’s a swimming beach, cafe, and kayak and paddleboard rentals. Though there’s usually a crowd, this beach can’t be beaten for a stunning setting right in town.
- Suttons Bay Beach: For another “in-town” beach — though a much quieter one — head north along scenic M-22 to Suttons Bay. This charming village has its own beach, also bordering its downtown district. It’s definitely a smaller, quieter alternative without the added amenities of Clinch park, though not to be overlooked if you plan to spend some time in the quieter, though the wonderfully artsy village of Suttons Bay. Suttons Bay Bikes, a short walk from the beach, also rents out kayaks and paddleboards for use on the Bay.
- Van’s Beach: Van’s Beach, in the little community of Leland, is a true Lake Michigan beach. As opposed to sitting on a bay, this beach brings you to the true edge of the vast Lake Michigan, meaning you’re in prime sunset territory. The beach itself is wonderful too, and ideal for rock-hunting. While you’re in Leland, don’t miss Fishtown, a historic and still operational commercial fishing village (one of the only in the state).
- Peterson Beach: For a scenic beach in the heart of Sleeping Bear Dunes, head to Peterson Beach. To get there, you’ll drive from the main highway onto a gravel road, winding through the forest until it emerges onto this pristine Lake Michigan beach. While it still attracts visitors, this beach is tucked a bit out of the way and tends to see fewer crowds than others. Gorgeous views of towering dunes to the north make this a stunning setting for sunbathing, swimming, and — if the waves are good — body surfing. This rather remote beach isn’t situated in or near any town, so pack a cooler full of snacks if you decide to make a day of it.
Visit Traverse City Wineries
Growing in the field around here, we’ve got more than just cherries. The “tip of the mitt” is gaining recognition as one of the country’s prominent wine-making regions, and the sheer number of wineries don’t lie!
Traverse City sits at the base of two skinny, finger-like peninsulas. Each has the perfect conditions for growing certain grapes – and for you to enjoy some wine.
Located on the 45th parallel – the same latitude as famed European wine regions like the Bordeaux and Piedmont, these little slices of paradise have the perfect conditions for grape growing.
Because of the surrounding water (Lake Michigan is huge, people), the Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsula’s microclimates are perfect for the process – lots of lake effect snow insulates and protects vines, and the peninsulas are blessed with an extra month of growing season, so the ripening is not cut short.
While you can have a lovely time at any of the local wineries, here a few of the locals’ favorites:
- Brys Estate: This 111-acre vineyard and winery was voted the best by locals in 2020 — and for good reason. Located on the Old Mission Peninsula, Sip a glass of their light and crisp Signature Rosé Reserve with a charcuterie board, all while sitting on the Upper Deck looking over the deep blue bay. They also have a “Secret Garden” of over 6000 lavender plants, a flower garden, strawberry patch, and herb garden! You just might never leave.
- Chateau Chantal: Enjoy a short jaunt through Chateau Chantal’s hilly grounds before or after your wine tasting. Chateau Chantal is known for its ice wine – a sweet, delicious wine made from grapes that are harvested while frozen. Definitely a perk of making wine in a cold climate! Come on a Thursday night for Jazz at Sunset, where you can sip wine, enjoy the water views, and tap your foot to some smooth jazz. Sophisticated!
- 2 Lads Winery: Closer to the tip of Old Mission Peninsula, 2 Lads Winery stands out from the crowd. Unlike other European-style wineries dotting the peninsula, 2 Lads is a modern, sleek, industrial space looking out over the East Bay. This winery specializes in both cool climate red and sparkling wines which they produce from sustainably-grown grapes on their 58 acres. Order a flight from the knowledgeable staff and sip out on the patio — while enjoying one of the best views on the peninsula.
The easiest way to visit Traverse City Wineries is to book a wine tour. You’ll be able to visit multiple wineries without worrying about whose turn it is to be DD! All you’ll need to do is pick between wineries on the Leelanau Peninsula or wineries on the Old Mission Peninsula.
For more suggestions, check out Wayfaring With Wagner’s local guide on where to go wine tasting in Traverse City!
See Sleeping Bear Dunes
Once one of the upper Midwest’s best-kept secrets, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is now noted as one of “The Most Beautiful Places in America” according to Good Morning America. And while the crowds are now bigger and the beaches now busier, it’s about time everyone noticed how absolutely gorgeous this part of the world is!
- Travel Tip: You’ll need to purchase an entry pass to enjoy the trails at Sleeping Bear Dunes. Or, you can use a National Park Pass, valid at any National Park site for a year from the month of purchase! The National Parks pass pays for itself after visiting two parks AND 10% is donated to conservation, so it’s well worth the price.
Where does the name of Sleeping Bear Dunes come from? Like, are there actually bears? Well, not exactly: the Legend of Sleeping Bear comes from the Anishinaabe, or “original people,” including the Odawa (Ottawa), Ojibwe (Chippewa), and Bodowadomi (Potawatomi) tribes — who lived, hunted, fished, and harvested in Michigan and surrounding areas long before the settlement by Europeans.
The Legend of Sleeping Bear recounts the story of a mother bear and her two cubs escaping fire or famine (depending on the story) in the woods of what is now Wisconsin. While the mother bear made it to the shore, laying down to wait for her cubs, the two little ones never arrived. In one story, the cubs sink and later resurface, forming the North and South Manitou Islands just off the shore of the dunes.
These two forested islands, one more developed and one almost entirely wilderness area, look like smaller “sleeping bears” off the Lake Michigan shore. In this story, the mother remains laying on top of the dunes, watching over her cubs.
While the Sleeping Bear legend isn’t particularly…um…. happy, you will find plenty of joy in exploring this beautiful landscape. Here’s what to do on a visit to Sleeping Bear Dunes:
- Dune Climb: Sleeping Bear’s quintessential must-do activity is the Dune Climb – and it’s exactly what it sounds like. Hike up the towering dune for an unobstructed view of turquoise Glen Lake — and if you hike far enough, you can catch a view of Lake Michigan, too. The dunes are deceiving and seem to go on and on…and on. But if you’re up for a hike, you can walk 2 miles over the dunes to one of Lake Michigan’s spectacular beaches. Keep in mind that this trail is entirely sand, making for a strenuous and slow hike. Bring lots of water and sun protection, and definitely take a dip in the lake.
- Traverse City Tip: From the beach, you can add a 300-yard walk to the south for a chance to see remnants of the 1857 shipwreck of (what is thought to be) the James McBride – of course, it’ll depend on the lake levels and continuously migrating sand. All shipwrecks off the Lakeshore are protected by State law and are part of the Manitou Passage State Underwater Preserve.
- Pyramid Point – This trail is one of the most popular on the lakeshore — and for good reason. At the Lookout — the hike’s main attraction — you stand almost 400 feet above the unbelievably blue water of Lake Michigan. You’re also granted amazing views of the nearby Manitou Islands. The water below looks incredibly inviting on a hot day, but resist the temptation to slide down the dunes — the journey up takes approximately 50 times as long, and if you wait long enough, you’ll surely see a tired soul trying to make their way back up — and not having any fun doing it. While most folks hike to the Lookout and back, the trail continues to wrap around through picturesque woods and meadows. It’s definitely worth the extra time to complete the loop, and you’ll likely have the trail mostly to yourself.
- Glen Haven – This adorable village is perched right on the lake just 2 miles north of the Dune Climb. Visiting Glen Haven is like stepping back in time, to when Great Lakes steamers stopped here for resupply. In addition to enjoying the prime beaches, you can visit the General Store, the Cannery — now a museum for historic boats used in the area — and the Blacksmith Shop. For a challenging hike nearby, head west from Glen Haven to the Sleeping Bear Point Trail. This hike provides endless Lake Michigan panoramic views, ghost forests (where migrating dunes have killed the trees), and a beach for your after-hike swim.
You can also take a day tour to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park with a guide that is well-versed in the area history, flora & fauna, and geologic formation of the Great lakes and Dune formations. It really helps to have a guide to explain everything from the Native Tribes that once roamed the area, to the geologic forces that leave us with the Great Lakes we know today. Oh, and they also cater a wonderful lunch.
Stuff Your Face
For a small town, Traverse City really delivers in the food and drink category! While primarily known for cherries, the area also showcases its other regional produce, fish, dairy, wine, and beer on plentiful local menus.
The farm-to-table scene is kickin’ here, with the agricultural roots of the area on display just miles outside of downtown. Dedicate a good chunk of your trip to experiencing the area’s culinary scene — you won’t be disappointed. Or hungry.
Let your deepest foodie desires take you on your own culinary adventure — just make sure you check out these favorite TC dishes and restaurants before leaving town!
- Taproot Cider House – Find Traverse City’s best cherry cider, a bazillion other ciders, and a foodie-approved farm-fresh menu at downtown TC’s Taproot Cider House. Taproot features its own funky ciders — like Cherry Ginger and Moroccan Vanilla Bean — among other local favorites. The food here isn’t to be missed, either. They’ve got farm-to-table dishes featuring the region’s freshest produce. Try the Taproot Root Salad made with local and organic roasted root vegetables, baby kale, Northern Natural Organic apples, locally foraged wild rice, and chèvre with an apple thyme vinaigrette. For a more decadent option, try the Loaded Mac N Cheese with roasted apples and caramelized onions for a Michigan take on a true classic.
- Farm Club capitalizes on the region’s rich agricultural scene. Unlike Taproot, however, the restaurant and brewery are actually on the farm! You can drive the 7 miles from downtown Traverse City to reach Farm Club’s rural setting, or you can bike there on the paved Leelanau Trail, which takes you right by the restaurant. This farm / brewery / restaurant / market has everything you need: an idyllic setting in which to linger over your meal or drink, a market to pick up plenty of local treats, and a rotating menu that features whatever’s fresh and in season — crispy fresh onion rings, padrón peppers, and aioli, fresh-pressed grape spritzers, or — when those leaves start to change — apple fritters.
- The Cook’s House is a hidden gem nestled in a nondescript house on the edge of downtown Traverse City. The chefs here focus on — you guessed it — farm-to-table cuisine that reflects northern Michigan’s richness and appreciation of the local bounty. The restaurant is minimalist and small, creating an intimate setting. The menu, while pricey, will have your mouth watering at first glance — savory squash creme brûlée and poached striped bass, anyone?
- The Little Fleet – For casual snack options and an open-air bar, head to this lot of decked-out food trucks. Some food trucks stay all summer while some cycle in and out. Either way, you’ll find a great bite — from tacos to smoothies to ramen — and a fresh-squeezed “farmer’s market” cocktail. In the summer you can catch performances from live local bands as well. C’est la vie!
Stuff Your Face… with Cherries!
You can’t be in Traverse City for more than 2 minutes before getting overwhelmed with Cherry. Cherry what? Cherry everything. Pie. Cider. Wine. Chicken. Salsa. And so. Much. More.
After all, Traverse City is the Cherry Capital of the world. And home to the World’s Largest Cherry Pie Pan – unfortunately, not the greatest attraction the city has to offer.
But make sure you do try a piece of sweet, crumbly cherry pie! Below are some of the best places to get your cherry fix!
- Grand Traverse Pie Company: This is the place to get a piece of decadent, melt-in-your-mouth cherry pie! And what’s a visit to Traverse City without cherry pie? Located in the heart of downtown, Grand Traverse Pie Company is the spot for your afternoon (or morning, who’s judging) pie craving. And if you’re looking for something a little more substantial to fuel an adventure-packed day, you’ve got to try the chicken salad sandwich with Michigan grapes and (obviously) dried cherries – a northern Michigan classic.
- Cherry Republic: This place has it all — every cherry souvenir you could possibly imagine. The downtown TC location has walls of cherry barbecue sauce, cherry-flavored wines and ciders, cherry pop (this is the Midwest, remember), cherry queso, cherry snacks and candy, and even unique, Michigan-themed kitchen goods. Prepare to walk out of the place loaded down with a little of everything.
- Traverse City Tip: if you want the original experience, head west to Glen Arbor, a charming little town that’s home to the flagship shop, complete with cafe, tasting room, and ice cream for the ultimate cherry experience.
- Moomers Homemade Ice Cream: Lick a good old-fashioned cone of your favorite flavor while greeting the cow that made it happen! This well-loved establishment is 5 miles outside of downtown Traverse City, where rolling farmland, orchards, and pretty barns welcome you to the countryside. Enjoy your ice cream on the dairy itself, and see where the magic happens. Moomers makes over 160 flavors of ice cream, including Apple Crisp, Cherry Cheesecake, and Super Moo, Moomers’ take on the classic Michigan Superman ice cream. It’s no wonder they won “America’s Best Scoops!”
You can enjoy cherries any time of year in Traverse City, but as you know by now, TC is known for cherries. So why not consider planning your trip to coincide with the National Cherry Festival?
Taking place in early July each summer, The National Cherry Festival has been celebrating the region’s favorite fruit since 1925. The tradition grew from an earlier one — the “Blessing of the Blossoms” (cute!) beginning around 1910.
These ceremonies, held in May, celebrated, of course, the beautiful cherry blossoms. If you’re visiting during cherry blossom season in May, drive up M-37 along the spine of Old Mission Peninsula to get a spectacular show of the trees with Grand Traverse Bay as the backdrop. Alternatively, hop on a bike and ride up the Leelanau Trail between TC and Suttons Bay for a quiet ride past the orchards on the Leelanau Peninsula.
In 1925, the first-ever Cherry Queen was crowned, sparking a tradition that continues to this day. The festivities continued, gaining support and participation from local businesses. Giant pies were baked, the celebration was extended, and the whole shebang was declared a national celebration. And why not? Who doesn’t get riled up over a giant cherry pie!?
The event brings around 500,000 people to this city of about 15,000. The festivities are endless: concerts, parades, rides, fireworks and of course, good food. Fill up on cherry pie, wine, beer, barbeque, and whatever else you can imagine from local restaurants, food trucks, and farmers’ markets. Not to mention this festival takes place along downtown TC’s picturesque beaches. Is there anything more summertime than cherries, fireworks, and beaches?
If you’re feeling competitive, you can sign up for a cherry pie-eating contest or a cherry pit-spitting contest. But if you’d rather enjoy the cherries, eat ‘em at your own pace while catching a live concert, watching the parade and fireworks, or seeing the crowning of the Cherry Prince and Princess — that’s right, elementary-aged cherry ambassadors! Before your visit, be sure to check the festival’s events page so you don’t miss your favorite activities.
If you don’t visit during this cherry-jam-packed week, no worries: there are plenty of cherries to go around during the rest of the summer. But if you are here during the National Cherry Festival, roll up your sleeves for a pit spittin’, pie eatin’, all-around good time.
Take a Hike
Ask any local what they love about living in Traverse City, and (after the local food and wine) they’re pretty much guaranteed to tell you about their favorite outdoor activity.
While Michiganders don’t have real mountains to speak of, we do have rolling hills, towering dunes, and a whole lot of beautiful water to look at — not to mention the white pine forests and famous trout streams. So yeah, there are some things to see.
The best way to see ‘em? By foot, of course! Lace up your shoes and enjoy Michigan’s great outdoors at these trails near Traverse City.
- Old Mission Point Park Old Mission Point Park, at the northern tip of the Old Mission Peninsula, features about 5 miles of trail through forests, meadows, and along the peninsula’s beaches. It’s nothing too challenging, and you can lengthen or shorten your hike to suit your appetite for adventure. This park is also home to the historic Mission Point Lighthouse (more below!), which is definitely worth a visit.
- Sleeping Bear Dunes Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is the prime destination for hiking near Traverse City. With around 100 miles of trails, even the most avid hikers can find enough options here. Some of the best trails include Alligator Hill, Sleeping Bear Point, and Empire Bluff. Check out the visitor center for up-to-date trail information.
- Travel Tip: You’ll need to purchase an entry pass to enjoy the trails at Sleeping Bear Dunes. Or, you can use a National Park Pass, valid at any National Park site for a year from the month of purchase! The National Parks pass pays for itself after visiting two parks AND 10% is donated to conservation, so it’s well worth the price.
- Brown Bridge Quiet Area If the crowds at the dunes are too much and you’re looking for something a little more…quiet, well, you can’t do better than Brown Bridge Quiet Area. These trails, stewarded by the Grand Traverse Conservation District, circumnavigate what used to be Brown Bridge Pond. When the dam creating the pond was decommissioned, the Boardman River could return to its natural state. You can see the restoration that’s happening along this scenic river, which eventually flows through downtown Traverse City and into the West Bay. There are about 6 miles of trails at Brown Bridge, with different connectors and routes to shorten your hike if needed.
Go Cycling around Traverse City
Traverse City and the surrounding areas are crisscrossed with an incredible network of trails — Traverse Area Recreation and Transportation (TART trails) (accidentally or intentionally on cherry theme- the jury is out!).
This nonprofit organization builds and maintains paved, dirt, and gravel pathways for biking, walking, cross country skiing, hiking, and mountain biking, in both urban and rural settings. Many of the TART trails are actually converted into paths from old railroad tracks that crisscrossed the region during the lumber boom.
TART trails are some of the best places to pedal around town or through the woods – or even to a few nearby wineries and breweries. Rent a bike and start pedaling!
- Leelanau Trail: This 17-mile paved trail connects Traverse City and its neighbor to the north, Suttons Bay. While it does cross some roads, it doesn’t parallel any, making you feel as though you’re cycling through the gorgeous countryside – which, actually, you are. This trail also passes a number of wineries and breweries. Hop Lot Brewing Company, Shady Lane Cellars, Farm Club, and MAWBY Vineyards and Winery are all steps from the Leelanau Trail. Self-guided brew and wine tour, anyone?
- VASA Pathway: If you’re looking for a more rugged experience — no wineries on this trail, folks — rent a mountain bike and head to the VASA Pathway. Choose one of the different length loops (3K, 5K, 10K, 25K) and enjoy an adventurous ride through this beautiful state forest land. This trail is a favorite among trail-loving locals of all kinds, especially cross country skiers in the winter.
You can’t come to Traverse City – or anywhere in northern Michigan – without spending time in, on, or around the water. It’s simply part of life Up North.
If being on the water really isn’t your thing, you can still get a kick out of walking around one of the several marinas on the bay and ogling at some seriously posh yachts!
But hopping in a boat is one of the true joys of summer on the lake, and even the most stubborn of landlubbers should try it. So put on the sunscreen, grab your shades, and pick a water sport to suit your fancy!
- Paddle Boarding: Paddleboarding has really taken off in northern Michigan, as there are about a million places to do it. You can rent stand-up paddleboards (SUPs) at The River Outfitters to test your balance on the Boardman River, the West Bay, or the East Bay. They can even drop them off to wherever you’re staying. Jackson Kayak offers a SUP half day class on a calm lake or the Bay— for those who need a little help navigating the SUP their first time! And if you’re exploring in Suttons Bay (a quaint village 20 minutes north of TC) you can rent a board at the beachside Suttons Bay Bikes.
- Canoeing: For the old school outdoors person – or those who just want to sit in a boat, not stand on a teetering board – why not take a canoe down one of Michigan’s scenic rivers? At Riverside Canoes, you can take a boat down the Upper or Lower Platte River in Sleeping Bear Dunes. They offer trips for both beginning and experienced canoeists, both with incredible scenery. These trips typically take 2-4 hours and include shuttle service for you and your rental boat.
- Kayaking: Kayaking is another excellent way to explore the rivers and lakes (Great and small) near Traverse City. The River Outfitters offers kayak rentals for use on the Boardman River, East Bay, or West Bay. This is a great way to navigate downtown Traverse City by water, since the Boardman river winds through town and empties into the West Bay near Clinch Park. Enjoy an urban paddle and all of the accessible breweries, shops, and cafes along the way. And if you’re a beginner? No problem — you can rent kayaks and get lessons at Paddle TC.
- Sailing: Set sail… back in time! If paddling really isn’t your thing, and you’re not into laying in the sand and getting all… sandy, maybe sailing is for you! And this isn’t the kind of sailing that requires you to do the work. We’re talking about sitting on a big old boat, enjoying the blue waters of the bay, sippin’ on a Bloody Mary. Did that get your attention? Traverse Tall Ship Company offers tours around Grand Traverse Bay on a replica of an 1800s schooner that would have sailed the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean. Enjoy this ride through history on a morning, noon, or dinnertime sail.
Take a Tour
Traverse City loves its beer and wine, and this’ll be obvious with the amount of brew- and wine-hopping tours being offered. They’re popular for a reason though, and worth the hype. But there’s plenty else to see and do if that’s not your thing… including a totally haunted tour of a totally haunted town.
- Kayak, Bike, & Brew Tour: This unique “KaBrew” tour takes advantage of TC’s numerous breweries, downtown waterways, and plentiful bike trails. Starting downtown, you’ll bike to The Filling Station in the historic railroad district. Afterward, you’ll hop in a kayak and paddle across Boardman Lake to Right Brain Brewery. Here, you’ll find funky vibes and beers like Cake Walk and Thai Peanut ales. Back in the Kayaks, you’ll paddle down the Boardman River through the heart of downtown to Rare Bird Brewpub. The last destination, Workshop Brewing, is a short walk away. That’s 4 — count ‘em — 4 local breweries via bike and kayak. Does the beer even count if you’ve kayaked across a lake to get it?
- Grand Traverse Tours – Winery, Brewery & Distillery Tours: These tours really capitalize on the region’s growing acclaim as a destination for wineries, breweries, and distilleries. These tours are flexible and the professionals can help you select the best destinations for your specific taste and interests. Be it wine, beer, or whiskey, Grand Traverse Tours visits numerous local establishments so you can truly get a taste of everything. For something a little different, try the distillery tour for a chance to visit some unique spots – including the “hyperlocal” Ethanology Distillation and the farm-based Iron Fish Distillery.
- Historic Ghost Lantern Tour: As if Traverse City could get any cooler. TC is, according to the locals, super haunted. From the Old State Hospital — also known as the Northern Michigan Asylum — to the Old Town Playhouse, where the lights flicker and unexplained piano music plays, this town is supremely haunted. Numerous books have been written on the subject if you want to do some spooktacular research in preparation for your visit. The Historic Ghost Lantern Tour sticks to downtown destinations like the Opera House (haunted by the ghost of a little girl rumored to have fallen off the balcony to her death, ahh!) and ghostly State Theater, and includes actual ghost hunting with the use of ghost hunting equipment. Now that’s spooky.
Explore the Village at Traverse Commons
The Victorian-Italianate-style Asylum was established in 1881, and the first superintendent Dr. James Decker Munson believed that patients needed treatment through kindness and comfort and that “Beauty is Therapy”, filling the asylum with flowers from the asylum’s greenhouse and the trees planted on the property.
Dr. Munson also prohibited straight jackets, really breaking the mold of the bleak and abusive asylums we have an image of today. It’s poetic that the Village at Traverse City is a place of pleasure and relaxation, like Dr. Munson, would have wanted it to be!
Here are a few things to do on your visit to the Village:
- Take a Tour: If the history above has piqued your interest, you should check out the Guided Historical Walking Tour offered here! On this tour, you’ll learn more about Dr. Munson’s “Beauty is Therapy” theory on patient care, former uses of the various structures on the property, all while venturing through parts of the unrenovated historic building, and even walking through an amazing brick steam tunnel built in 1883. It’s like, spooky ghost tour vibes but where you can imagine the ghosts are not actually tortured but happy!
- Take a Hike – Behind Building 50 there are 140 acres of unpaved hiking trails just waiting to be explored! Besides the glittering streams, the gorgeously wooded areas, and panoramic views of the Village, you can hike up to the old reservoir, which used to supply fresh water to the asylum. Today the giant concrete structure stands stark against the natural background and is covered with plenty of brightly colored graffiti making it feel like modern art. On the front lawn, you can check out Dr. Munson’s flowering trees while using this treemap to help you identify them!
- Grab a Bite at Trattoria Stella: While there are a slew of excellent dining options in the Village, Trattoria Stella is a name well known in Traverse City. They focus on sustainable ingredients sourced locally when possible and serve up house-made pastas, fresh cheeses, charcuterie, breads, and desserts. The charcuterie is the star of any table, with house-made duck liver pate, mazzafegati, smoked pork pastrami, Toulouse sausage, rabbit galantine, cherry mostarda, giardiniera vegetables, Ida red applesauce, and toast! Delicioso! Their staff is also super knowledgeable about the food, and specifically the wine, which in turn has designated them as one of the Top 100 Wine Restaurants in America by Wine Enthusiast Magazine. They can help you pair your wine with your meal, from Italian wine to local wines like Old Mission and Leelanau.
- Try Some Wine at Left Foot Charley – This award-winning winery is beloved in Traverse City. Left Foot Charley works with grapes from several local growers who would otherwise sell to large, out-of-state wineries. They make reds, whites, sparkling wines, and hard ciders, all while supporting local growers and keeping the grapes here in TC! Their 2018 Island View Vineyard Pinot Blanc is their most award-winning wine, so make sure to try a glass while you’re there.
Browse Michigan’s “Book City”
Cherries, beaches, wine, and, oh yeah – books! As of 2015, Traverse City is Michigan’s “Book City” — and for good reason. With five great book stores within a few blocks downtown, there is no shortage of paperbacks and bestsellers to browse as you stroll through town.
- Horizon Books has a huge selection. Located in an old JCPenney building, this multi-story bookstore was scheduled to close in early 2020, but an outpouring of public support has kept it open. TC locals love this icon, with its community vibe and top-notch java.
- Higher Self Bookstore meets all your spiritual book needs and much more! Book special services like intuitive readings, reiki, and shamanic healing, stock up on crystals or incense, embrace your witchy side, nourish your mind, body, and spirit, howl at the moon, and evolve into your higher self! … And then, you know, hit the beach.
- The Bookie Joint is your stop for used books, so you can stumble upon that perfect book you were looking for or never knew you needed!
- Brilliant Books is a cute stop for a smaller, though adorably curated selection.
- Wild Pages sells beautiful writing supplies in addition to books, because sometimes you want to be the author of your own story. It also has a large collection of contemporary work, bridging the past and present.
Tour A Lighthouse
For a state made up of two peninsulas and a whole lotta shoreline, it’s no wonder that Michigan boasts more lighthouses than any other state. More than just being picturesque AF, these lighthouses offer killer views, fascinating Great Lakes History, and some of the best beach picnicking spots.
Here are a few picturesque lighthouses to check out near Traverse City:
- Mission Point Lighthouse – Located on the tip of Old Mission Peninsula, Mission Point Lighthouse sits on the 45th parallel – halfway between the Equator and the North Pole. This quaint, white lighthouse was built in 1870 to warn sailors of the shallow reefs near the end of the peninsula. After an 1860 shipwreck just offshore, Old Mission Lighthouse was built. After the lighthouse was decommissioned in 1933, local residents raised money to protect it and the surrounding forests. Visitors can now tour the lighthouse and its two floors of museums and walk the extensive trails around the end of this lovely peninsula.
- Travel Tip: Make a day of it! Stop at one (or more) of the ten or so vineyards along the Old Mission Peninsula Wine Trail on your way back into town.
- Grand Traverse Lighthouse – This historic lighthouse sits on the very tip of Michigan’s pinky finger – AKA the Leelanau Peninsula. Known for its Caribbean blue waters and sandy dunes, touring this lighthouse is the cherry (ha!) on top of an already unforgettably scenic drive. The Grand Traverse Lighthouse sits within Leelanau State Park and marks an important turn for ships entering Grand Traverse Bay. You can tour the lighthouse tower and the historic museum as well as enjoying the State Park’s trails and beaches.
- Geology Tip: This is an awesome area to look for the region’s famed Petoskey Stones – fossilized corals that have a pretty hexagonal pattern. Looking for them is a bit like a grown-up treasure hunt.
- Point Betsie Lighthouse – Point Betsie Lighthouse sits on the southern end of Sleeping Bear Dunes (17 miles south of Empire) and is the oldest structure in Benzie County. In 1983, it was the last lighthouse on Lake Michigan to be automated. This lighthouse marks the entrance into the shipwreck-rich Manitou Passage, the waters between Sleeping Bear Dunes and the Manitou Islands. Sailors tried to seek refuge away from open water in the passage, though many were unsuccessful in these sometimes turbulent waters. While the passage doesn’t see large commercial ships anymore, the lighthouse is still a beacon worth visiting. You can even rent (for a hefty chunk of change) the Keeper’s Quarters for a one-of-a-kind stay on Michigan’s sunset coast!
Take a Day Trip
With so much coastline around the Great Lakes, there’s no shortage of other exciting and scenic coastal towns and islands to explore. Even taking a scenic drive is a great way to get a feel for Michigan’s beauty all while feeling the breeze from the lakes in your hair!
Here’s where to take a day trip from Traverse City:
- Visit Mackinac Island: Mackinac Island (pronounced mack-in-aw) is a charming little island just over 4 square miles big off the northern tip of Michigan’s “mitt” and a 2-hour 20-minute drive from Traverse City. The entire island is a National Historic Landmark, as well as being pedestrian-only, which means you must take a ferry from Mackinac City to reach the island. The gem of the island is its Victorian Grand Hotel, a sprawling white building with a green roof and yellow awnings that glitter on the water, where Thomas Edison and Mark Twain vacationed in decades past. The island also has two forts, many Victorian buildings, a rock formation called Arch Rock, several fudgeries, and an 8.2 mile look around the island that you can bike.
- Visit Fishtown: Fishtown in Leland County, Michigan is only about a 40-minute drive from Traverse City but feels like stepping into a bygone era of fishermen. This historic 19-century settlement of fisherman shanties is now a collection of boutiques, galleries, and eateries, all in the shell of what was a booming fishing port. It is also still an operational commercial fishing village; one of the only in the state! Pop into the Village Cheese Shanty and try some of their 60+ different kinds of imported cheese paired with their world-famous pretzel bun, or check out The Cove and try their “Chubby Mary”, a Bloody Mary with a smoked chub sticking out the top! There’s plenty to explore in this rustic town, where you can truly eat the freshest fish imaginable, and sing your favorite sea shanty!
- Take a Scenic Drive on the M-119: Two hours north of Traverse City is the little town of Harbor Springs and the beginning of one of the most scenic drives in the country. The Tunnel of Trees is a famous stretch of M-119 that hugs the Lake Michigan shoreline and winds slowly under the wooded canopy. Though doable as a day trip from TC, this gorgeous drive feels like a world away. Harbor Springs, a town of around 1,200, hugs the Little Traverse Bay and is an excellent stop for lunch or treats before hitting the Tunnel of Trees. A leisurely drive through northern Michigan’s finest scenery will bring you to the community of Good Hart — your stop for local baked goods and jams at the much-loved Good Hart General Store.
- Eyaawing Museum & Cultural Center: Located about 30 minutes north of Traverse City on the Grand Traverse Reservation, Eyaawing Museum & Cultural Center chronicles the history of the Native American nations in the area with artifacts in its museum and sells traditional and contemporary artworks. The name “Eyaawing” (pronounced a-yah-wing) translates to “Who we are” in Anishinaabemowin, the traditional language of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians who are native to this part of Michigan.
- Also be sure to check out Suttons Bay, Glen Arbor, Frankfurt, and Empire, and Northport!
About Our Contributing Writer: Emily is a copywriter, nature lover, and art dabbler who lives in the northern Michigan town of Traverse City. Her favorite parts of travel are the outdoor pursuits unique to the destination — and the best local food and drink she can find. Learn more at emilycarolcopy.com
Are you looking forward to a Traverse City trip be full of cherries, beaches, wine, and adventure? What are you most looking forward to on your trip to the tip of the mitt? Let us know in the comments below!
Psst: Looking for more Midwestern adventures? Take a look at some of our other blog posts:
- 9 Magical Places to Visit in Michigan in the Winter
- The Ultimate Self-Guided Tour of Cleveland Breweries
- The Ideal Indianapolis Weekend Getaway Itinerary
- 8 Incredible Weekend Getaways in Indiana
Psst: Save this post for later on Pinterest!