There are plenty of things to do in Traverse City for all visitors, especially in the summer when it seems something is going on every day! Traverse City has been charming visitors for decades now, and it makes for a romantic getaway in Michigan.
Traverse City is well known for its beaches, an abundance of fresh produce from Michigan’s best farms, and some tantalizing restaurants. Also, the town is a stone’s throw away from the dramatic Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Of course, that is just scratching the surface as there is a lot to love about Traverse City.
Although there are many things to do in Traverse City, the best may be to enjoy the slower pace of life here. It won’t take long to learn why cherished as one of America’s best small towns.
Where is Traverse City?
Traverse City sits at the southern end of Grand Traverse Bay on Lake Michigan. Founded in 1852 is home to 15,000 residents. It is 140 miles north of Grand Rapids and a two and half hour drive. It is a three hour drive from Lansing and four hours from Detroit.
Best Things to Do in Traverse City
1. Visit Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a scenic stretch of dunes along the shore of the sparkling Lake Michigan. The dunes run for 35 miles, with some reaching up to 450 feet in height. Created naturally over time, the stunning park area also includes two islands and several small inland lakes.
The area is home to diverse fauna, including various bird species, deer, squirrels, raccoons, bats, bobcats, and otters. The terrain is made up of wetlands and woodlands, with long, hardy grasses, thistles, and trees like juniper, oak, pine, black cherry, and beech.
Call into the Phillip A. Hart Visitor Center when you arrive to learn more about the area and pick up handy trail maps. Be sure to climb the biggest dune, found in the center of the park. The peak affords terrific views of the surroundings. There are numerous trails throughout the park, perfect for summer hiking and winter cross-country skiing, and Nordic walking.
2. Attend the Traverse City Film Festival
One of the best things to do in Traverse City is head to the best movie theatre in the world according to the MPAA. The Traverse City State Theatre is situated right on Front Street and is home to the famous Traverse City Film Festival held every year. If you are in town for this extraordinary event don’t miss it!
Even if you are just visiting outside the festival time it’s worth it to stop by and have a look at the old theatre as it will transport you to another time.
3. Snap a Picture of The Hippie Tree
An unusual attractions in Traverse City is The Hippie Tree as its vibrant, colorful, and worthy of a few Instagram pictures.
Although the old willow tree is long dead, local artists regularly come to daub paint on the trunk and branches to bring a new lease of life to the woodlands. Bright splashes and vibrant streaks create a technicolored piece of magic.
Located near the Old State Hospital, urban myths tell of hauntings by the spirits who lurk in the old wards.
4. Spend an Evening at the City Opera House
Built-in the early 1890s, the City Opera House boasts exquisite designs both inside and out. Admire the handsome red-brick façade, complete with stately columns and arched upper windows, before stepping inside to marvel at the beautiful interiors.
Inside, the gorgeous frescoes and gold leaf help to create an air of splendor enhanced by the high vaulted ceilings, balcony, and regal-red seats.
5. Have a Flutter at Turtle Creek Casino
A popular casino in the northern part of Michigan is the Turtle Creek Casino as it boasts more than 55,000 square feet. You’ll find roulette tables and card games like blackjack and craps. There are electronic games, too, including three-card poker, baccarat, and Louisiana Stud, in addition to more than 1,000 slot machines.
Check out the on-site restaurants or bars to refuel. There’s something to appeal to all tastes, including a casual buffet, a sports bar, a retro diner, and a top-class steakhouse.
- Address: 7741 M-72, Williamsburg
6. Climb the Steps of Mission Point Lighthouse
Dating back to the 1870s, Mission Point Lighthouse guided many sailors and prevented many tragedies during service. Although it hasn’t been in operation since the 1930s, it still attracts many visitors keen to climb up the steps to admire the far-reaching views.
The old building is listed on the National and State Historic. It’s well worth taking some time to explore the scenic surroundings, too, with lush vineyards and orchards. You can also sunbathe on the small beach.
- Admission: $5 ages 13+ $2 — 6-12 ages
- Hours: 10:00 am – 5:00 pm
7. Wander through The Village at Grand Traverse Commons
The 1800s Victorian-Italianate buildings at The Village were once part of a hospital. Rather than being demolished or left to decay after the institution closed, the buildings were renovated and repurposed to house a wide range of facilities.
Today, the 63-acre complex is home to offices, various stores, restaurants, cafes, and more, and the surrounding 450-acre nature-rich woodlands have several trails for walking and biking.
The inside areas are as attractive as the elegant exterior architecture, with heavy metal doors set into pale brick walls and many original features. If you want to dig deeper into the area’s past, you can book several tours, including an eerie twilight tour that takes you into underground tunnels and tells of mysterious happenings.
8. Appreciate Art at the Dennos Museum Center
Part of Northwestern Michigan College, the Dennos Museum Center contains many pieces of splendid artwork. There are regularly changing temporary exhibitions as well as the permanent collections, ensuring that there’s always something new to discover.
Including paintings, drawings, sculptures, pottery, prints, and textiles, the gallery offers plenty of diversity. Works span the ages, and the gallery features art by both national and international artists. The gallery is especially famous for its fascinating collection of Inuit indigenous art.
- Admission: $6 Adult, $4 Youth
- Hours: Wed-Sun 11:00 am – 4:00 pm
- Address: 1410 College Drive
8. Camp in Traverse City State Park
Covering some 48 acres, Traverse City State Park has a large camping area with around 250 pitches. Convenient and comfortable, the site has water facilities and electrical hook-up points, as well as picnic areas and fire pits for some al fresco dining.
Even if you don’t plan on spending the night, the park is still well worth visiting. Close to downtown, it has a section of beach along Grand Traverse Bay. Swim in the lake, soak up some sun, go fishing, and have fun on a boat ride. The park also has walking trails and a play area for kids.
9. Soar through the Skies in a Hot Air Balloon
Get a bird’s eye view of the landscapes when you take to the skies in a hot air balloon. Hop into the comfy basket beneath the huge multi-colored balloon and prepare for an amazing trip.
If you’re looking for a romantic experience with that special someone, you can book a one-hour flight with champagne to watch as the sky changes color and the sun goes down over the city. Sunrise experiences are also available.
10. Sample Local Wines at Chateau Grand Traverse Winery
Traverse City is a top spot in the country for fantastic local wines, and there are many fine wineries close to the city.
Chateau Grand Traverse Winery, located on the Old Mission Peninsula, is a top local winery where you can learn more about the wine-making process and taste delicious wines made using locally grown grapes.
Founded in the 1970s, the elegant estate is proud of its delectable Riesling wines. You can go behind the scenes on a 30-minute winery tour before relaxing in the sophisticated tasting room or on the pretty patio. It’s one of the best places to head in Michigan in the fall.
- Hours: 11:00 am – 5:00 pm
- Address: 12239 Center Rd
- Wine Tasting Cost: $7
11. Ogle the Biggest Cherry Pie Pan in the World
Another unusual attraction in Traverse City, the huge cherry pie pan on Cass Road, is 18 feet wide and 26 feet deep. This isn’t just a quirky art installation. The enormous cherry pie pan once housed an actual cherry pie!
The gigantic cherry pie was baked in 1987 by a team overseen by Chef Pierre Bakeries. Around 35,000 people enjoyed a slice of the finished pie! Michigan cherries are a source of pride in Traverse City. It’s not just locals who cherish the stone fruit as a half million visitors visit every year to enjoy the National Cherry Festival during the first week of July.
12. Take The Kids to Great Lakes Children’s Museum
The Great Lakes Children’s Museum is a fabulous place for families with young children as it is fun and interactive.
Filled with numerous hands-on exhibits and activities, the museum seeks to encourage learning and pique curiosity. Exhibits are related to diverse topics, including science, art, mathematics, and design. The enchanting story-time sessions are sure to capture the imagination too.
- Admission: $7 per person, $2.50 for active-duty military
- Address: 13240 S W Bay Shore Dr
13. Keep Fit at Grand Traverse County Civic Center
The large sports center at Grand Traverse County Civic Center is open to the public. Spread across 45 acres, the complex has something to suit all fitness enthusiasts. Outside, there’s a one-mile-long track where you can walk or jog as well as a sledding hill.
There are seven softball/baseball fields and an indoor swimming pool, skating rink, and arena. The skate park is often popular with teens, while younger visitors can have fun at the community play area.
14. Buy Fresh Produce at Gallagher’s Farm Market and Bakery
Open since 1971 and still operated by the founding family, Gallagher’s Farm Market and Bakery is a large space where local farmers and producers can bring a wide array of wares to sell to the local community.
Open from June through to October. You’ll find fresh seasonal goods as well as year-round produce. You’ll find fruit and vegetables, baked goods, artisan cheeses, homemade jams, local wines, honey, and more. Pick up ingredients for a delicious dinner or picnic. If you’re visiting with kids, don’t miss stopping by to meet the farmyard animals.
15. Feel the Harmony at Music House Museum
This unique museum is home to a large collection of musical instruments and musical machines from the past. Exhibits date from the 1870s through to the 1950s. Some items are rare, all are interesting.
Travel back through musical history and see photographs and documents relating to music, learn how musical instruments and equipment have developed over the years, and gain a deeper appreciation for craftsmanship. You will also have the opportunity to hear some of the exhibits in action.
There are ornate music boxes and early radios, jukeboxes, gramophones, and record players. See pianos, trumpets, guitars, drums, and more. A highlight is the beautiful Mortier Dance Hall Organ from 1922.
- Admission: $16.50 Adults, $5 Children, $32 Families
- Hours: Wednesday-Saturday 10:00 am – 3:30 pm
- Address: 7377 U.S. 31 North, Williamsburg
16. Sail on The Tall Ship Manitou
The Tall Ship Manitou is a striking replica tall ship, built to resemble an 1800s cargo schooner. Towering in the area, the magnificent vessel can hold more than 50 passengers. Relaxing under the gigantic sails definitely offers a different way of sightseeing around Grand Traverse Bay. Trips typically last for two hours.
17. Explore Slabtown
In the west of the city, Slabtown bears testament to Traverse City’s past. Woodworkers, sawmill employees, and millwrights occupied this part of the city, building their homes from large slabs of scrap wood rescued from the sawmills.
Many early workers came from central Europe, and the area retains a Bohemian atmosphere today. There are unusual eateries, stores, and bars, including the olde-worlde Sleder’s Family Tavern. Constructed as a workers’ social club, the 1882 establishment has kept its beautiful carved bar.
You’ll also find the Hickory Hills in Slabtown. It’s the city’s most popular skiing area, and there are eight downhill runs with skiing areas for all levels.
18. Unwind on the Beach at Clinch Park
Popular with visitors and locals alike, the 1,500-foot beach in Clinch Park is a great place for swimming and relaxing. Alternatively, rent a kayak for even more watery fun. Lifeguards watch the waters in the summer, and there are picnic tables for an al fresco lunch. You can also cycle along the well-maintained trails.
19. Enter Wonderland at Historic Barns Park
As well as being home to a stunning events venue – the Cathedral Barn – Historic Barns Park also has a large botanical garden.
Start in the Visitor Center, located in what was the granary of Traverse City State Hospital. Stroll through pretty gardens like the Native Plant Garden, the Pollinator Garden with its many bees, the Firewise Garden, the Rain Garden, and the Judith Groleau Healing Garden. Admire the views from the Overlook, have fun at the Labyrinth, and see the old Dairy Barns.
An unusual feature of the park is the grave of Traverse Colantha Walker – a world champion Holstein-Friesian cow! She was important for providing milk for the former hospital.
A real highlight, however, is the magical Fairy Trails. Feel as though you’ve stepped into the pages of a children’s fantasyland as you peer at the whimsical small houses that live the path. Dainty and cute, the tiny homes are built using wood, stone, and other natural materials, and are designed to look like dwellings for fairies.
21. Stroll along Silk Stocking Row
Located in the historic central part of the city, Silk Stocking Row is the nickname given to Sixth Street. Wander along the street, and you’ll see why – it is lined with elegant homes built by the city’s 19th-century affluent inhabitants.
Looking over the Boardman River, one of the most opulent homes was built by Perry Hannah, the founder of Traverse City. Designed like a small castle, it has turrets and chimneys, many windows, ornate stone carvings, and porticos resting on sturdy columns. Inside, the influential man apparently used a different type of wood – including birch, maple, walnut, and cherry – in each of the 40 rooms!
Where to stay in Traverse City
Best Restaurants in Traverse City
- Poppycocks: Fantastic New American cuisine that often features live jazz. Enjoy an extensive martini and wine menu.
- Bubba’s: A laidback bar is known for serving up some excellent food in a family-friendly environment. They have a menu with tacos, burgers, BBQ, and a varied beer menu.
- amical: European bistro that serves up seasonal menus in a light atmosphere. Good service and family-friendly with a kids menu.
- Firefly Restaurant: The eclectic restaurant serves up various everything, such as small plates, stir fry, sushi, and burgers.
- Trattoria Stella: A romantic Italian farm-to-table restaurant with a well-curated list from Italy and Europe.
- Spanglish: Counter-service Mexican restaurant with authentic Mexican cuisines such as tamales, corn tacos, and tostadas.
- The Filling Station: Microbrewery in a train depot that pairs their beers with housemade flatbreads and salads.
- Grand Traverse Pie Company: Cafe with a mouth-watering selection of pies and pastries. You have to try the cherry pie.
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