Traverse City is one of the biggest tourist destinations in Michigan and every summer visitors flock to this small town in the northern Lower Peninsula. It’s the perfect spot for a relaxing getaway and is beloved by families, couples, and groups of friends looking for a good time. With a wide variety of things to do in Traverse City, even a short visit will make it clear why it’s beloved by both locals and tourists. Oh – and because we like to do things a little differently here in Michigan, we pronounce it TRAH-verse with a nasal-y a sound like in the word ‘bat’ instead of the normal tra-VERSE. Bonus points if you go full Midwestern and jam it all together into just TRAH-ver-city.
How to get to Traverse City
Before you can check out any of the fun things to do in Traverse City, you’ll have to make your way there. It’s located in the northern part of Michigan’s lower peninsula way on the west side. If you look at a map of the Mitten part, you’ll find the peninsula sticking up kind of where the pinky would be. Traverse City is located right where that splits off – and it’s definitely a spot you’ll want to visit.
Most visitors arrive via car so plan on driving. If you’re coming from the Detroit area or anywhere to the east, taking I-75 north to Grayling and then heading west on a series of surface roads. I won’t lie – the last part of the drive isn’t the most exciting, but it’s totally worth it when you arrive. It takes just under 4 hours from Detroit, so it’s definitely doable for a weekend, but it’s a little far for a day trip. Note that if you’re coming from south of Detroit, taking US-23 north from Toledo, OH until it meets up with I-75 will save you time, mileage, and city traffic running through Detroit.
If you’re coming from the west, you’ll take I-94 east up around the south end of Lake Michigan before picking up I-196 to take you to Grand Rapids. There you’ll hop on US-131 to Walton, MI and drive the last few miles on surface streets to get to Traverse City. If you have extra time, instead of 131, pick up US-31 in Holland, which runs closer to the coast and allows you to hit gorgeous beach towns like Ludington and Muskegon.
If you’re one of the few visitors coming from the north, you’ll cross down into the Lower Peninsula via the Mackinac Bridge and continue along I-75 to Gaylord. From there, you’ll cut over to US-131 and take that to just north of the small town of Kalkaska before finishing the drive on surface streets.
If you don’t want to drive, Traverse City also has a small airport called the Cherry Capital Airport – in case you doubted how seriously they take their cherries here. It’s located just a few miles outside of the downtown area. Delta, United, American, and Allegiant fly here, with most of the flights routing you to the airlines’ hub cities for connections.
And last but not least, if you have your own boat, you can always sail on in. You can even dock at the Clinch Marina right in town if you can get a slip.
When is the best time to visit Traverse City?
With so many of the top things to do in Traverse City revolving around the water and outdoor activities, summer is definitely the favored time to visit. However, that popularity means that hotel accommodations are often hard to snag and at peak prices. Try to plan your trip for weekdays if at all possible. I like to visit in late summer when the water in the lake is at its warmest. The shoulder season in early September is an ideal time to visit. Note that Michigan public schools don’t normally resume until after Labor Day, so the summer vacation season here tends to last a lot longer than it does in other states.
Fall is another great time to visit as the weather should still be mild. The foliage will be at its peak, and taking scenic drives to enjoy the bright colors is another great activity to add to your itinerary. The previously mentioned drive up the Leelanau Peninsula is spectacular and parts of US-31 offer great views of the lake and trees.
Things tend to get pretty quiet over the winter and through most of spring. Traverse City is located about an hour from the Boyne Mountain ski area, so it could be used as a base for that if you don’t mind a bit of a drive. Just note that you’re likely to find limited hours at shops and some restaurants until the tourist season truly kicks off in late spring.
Things to do in Traverse City
Now that we’ve gotten the logistics out of the way, let’s get on to what you’re really here for: finding out all the best things to do in Traverse City. If you like scenic views, refreshing Great Lakes swims, charming downtowns or sampling wine, you’re planning a trip to the right place. Check out everything it has in store for you below.
Relax at Sleeping Bear Dunes
While you’re visiting Traverse City you’re only about a half an hour from one of the prettiest shorelines in the United States. It’s well worth making a day trip out to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore for a chance to enjoy the scenery. Out there, you can enjoy picture-perfect sandy beaches on Lake Michigan for a day of fun in the sun. You can also take a scenic drive that winds up to the top of sand dunes nearly 400 feet tall for an aerial view looking out toward the horizon with Lake Michigan’s perfect turquoise water stretching all the way as far as the eye can see. In other areas of the park, you’ll find hiking, a designated dune to climb, and a historic village with an old Coast Guard station. The park also includes North and South Manitou Islands, which can be accessed by boat for additional hiking and camping opportunities.
Taste your way through the wineries
Traverse City also serves as the gateway to the Leelanau Peninsula. You probably don’t think of Michigan as a big wine region but this part of the state is at the same latitude as some of Europe’s most famous wine producing areas and is home to tons of small wineries. Head out of Traverse City and take a road trip up the Leelanau Peninsula to hit several of them. There is a bike trail that connects a few of them or you can take a guided winery tour so you don’t have to worry about having a designated driver. The Old Mission Peninsula also has a few options to try, so pick your favorites and plan a route!
Shop and dine downtown
With its perfect small-town downtown area, no visit to Traverse City is complete without spending some time browsing the shops or dining in the restaurants here. Downtown features a wide range of options from your standard cheap tourist souvenir shops to beautiful local boutiques. One of my favorite shops is the famous Cherry Republic store where you can get just about any food item you can imagine made with or out of cherries. You’ll also find a variety of restaurants serving all varieties of cuisine. You’re probably not expecting a great food scene in a small town in northern Michigan, but stop into one of the many dining spots downtown and let yourself be surprised.
Head out on the water
Its perfect location on Grand Traverse Bay makes getting out on the water is another one of the top things to do in Traverse City. If you don’t have your own boat, there are numerous tour companies that offer scenic rides as well as incredibly popular sunset cruises. On these, you get to head out on the water for a couple hours around sunset and watch the beautiful colors light up the sky as the sun goes down. Other options include things like kayaking and stand up paddle boarding. If you can do it on water you can find a way to make it happen in Traverse City.
Hit the beach
Traverse City is located right on the shores of Grand Traverse Bay, so you have several spots right in town to go for a swim. Check out Clinch Park, which is practically in downtown. It’s usually crowded on summer days, but it has the bonus of being close to all the shops and dining – plus its own café. Further from the city center, you’ll find Traverse City State Park’s beach on the eastern arm of the bay. There are fewer amenities here, but it tends to be less crowded and it’s not like you’re out in the wilderness. Both areas are beautiful spots for a refreshing dip in the Great Lakes.
Visit the Village at Grand Traverse Commons
Once a state-run asylum, this large complex has been renovated and refitted to become a growing and vibrant area of the city. It’s home to a brewery, winery, and other restaurants in addition to residential rentals. Guided tours are held during the day and at night for a spooky twist and visitors can learn about the history of the asylum and the patients who lived there. There are expansive grounds with unpaved trails, and the area is popular for both hiking and biking in the summer and cross-country skiing in the winter.
Drive to the Mission Point Lighthouse
Take a drive along scenic M-37 to the end of Old Mission Point Peninsula, which splits Grand Traverse Bay into east and west sections. At the very tip, you’ll find the Mission Point Lighthouse. Dating all the way back to 1870, this beautiful lighthouse has a gift shop and museum as well as surrounding parkland. There are plenty of spots to picnic or hit the beach, as well as a historic cabin to explore.
Satisfy your sweet tooth at Moomers
Nothing says summer vacation like a big old ice cream cone and if it’s a frosty sweet treat you’re looking for, Moomers is the place to go. This creamery has a seemingly endless array of flavors – seriously, their menu is dreamy – and you can get your classic cones, cups, shakes, and sundaes. If you really love ice cream (I do!) you’re going to want to try their ice cream flight which allows you to pick five of their flavors on offer and get a little bit of each one. It’s great if you have a massive sweet tooth like me or just can’t choose one to try. Tours of the shop and dairy farm are also offered so you might even get a chance to meet the cow who got the ball rolling on your ice cream. You can find this frosty heaven just a few miles from downtown Traverse City.
Visit the Dennos Museum Center
Located at the base of the Old Mission Peninsula, the Dennos Museum Center is a small museum that was founded to showcase visual and performing arts. With a variety of temporary and permanent exhibits you can revisit old favorites or check out something new on every visit. The museum’s headline exhibit is a collection of Inuit art from the Canadian Arctic region, which is recognized as one of the most extensive galleries in the United States. While you’re there, check out the outdoor sculptures created by local Michigan artists.
Attend the National Cherry Festival
Traverse City is known for its cherry production and every summer it hosts the National Cherry Festival. Dates vary, but it typically spans the week around the Fourth of July. At the festival you can enjoy classic family midway attractions as well as events centered around – you guessed it – cherries. Events like parades, concerts, farmers markets, an air show, and even zumba classes highlight the festival.
Check out the Traverse City Film Festival
Held annually in late July/early August, the Traverse City Film Festival showcases movies in downtown’s historic State Theatre. In addition to the movies themselves, throughout the festival, visitors can attend free talks with film industry professionals including actors. If you’re interested in learning about movie making, affordable classes are offered to registrants. Free public screenings of classic movies are also offered on an open air screen overlooking the bay.
I loved reading the post. You have presented Michigan and its small parts so beautifully in your blog posts.
Sand dunes and wineries? Yes please! It looks like a great place to stay for a few days, and I would definitely be getting some of that ice cream while I was there.