Located in the heart of America’s Great Lakes region, Michigan boasts the longest freshwater coastline in the country. Its name is derived from the indigenous word for “large water” and, as such, aquatic activities like fishing, kayaking, sailing and scuba diving are at the top of traveler’s Michigan bucket lists. Landlubbers will also have plenty to do thanks to an abundance of forests and farmland, featuring a multitude of scenic drives, recreational trails and U-pick orchards to explore. Make sure to swing through a few of Michigan’s cities as they each harbor a wealth of innovative museums, top-notch restaurants and notable historical landmarks to experience in-between outdoor adventures. With so many fun and free things to do and see, let this roundup help you plan your family vacation or romantic getaway to this underrated vacation destination.
Named for its location on the Grand River in western Michigan, this is the second-largest city in the state and home to some of its most famous museums and cultural offerings, like the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum, Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Meyer May House. In addition to art and history, Grand Rapids is nationally acclaimed for its craft beer scene and offers an “ale trail” featuring 46 breweries and almost 20 distilleries, wineries and cideries in the Beer City USA region. Don’t miss Brewery Vivant, which gets rave reviews from both travelers and locals alike for its European-style beers, quality food and unique location inside a former funeral home chapel, complete with original woodworking; and Founder’s Brewing, one of the nation’s largest craft brewing operations popular for its outdoor patio and in-house selection of seasonal brews. If you’re eager to sip as many suds as possible during your visit, book a stay at the Holiday Inn Grand Rapids Downtown hotel whose Beer City package includes complimentary breakfast, two souvenir pint glasses and a beverage cooler. Download the Culture Pass for just $20 for even more discounts including free access to an array of the city’s top attractions including the Grand Rapids Art Museum, John Ball Zoo, Grand Rapids Public Museum and the Circle Theatre.
If you’re craving a locale to help you slow down and enjoy the simple things in life − like enjoying an ice cream cone or piece of fudge while watching the sunset − put Mackinac Island at the top of your Michigan bucket list. Travelers flock here to bask in the island’s scenic beauty and peaceful atmosphere, especially in the summer months (although it is accessible year-round). You’ll arrive by ferry or airplane and explore by foot, bicycle or horseback on this vehicle-free island, which spans less than 5 square miles, the majority of which is encompassed by the Mackinac Island State Park. You can also call Mackinac Island Taxi for a lift via horse-drawn carriage, one of the destination’s most popular activities. Fort Mackinac and a historic downtown district lined with restaurants and shops is located on the south side of the island providing a hub of activity, while the north end offers a remote respite with a nature center, hiking trails and scenic picnic areas. After poking around town, venture onto the 8.2-mile Lake Shore Boulevard which encircles the entire island offering sweeping lake views, a glimpse of the Mackinac Bridge (one of the longest suspension bridges in the world) and access to a variety of iconic limestone formations, such as Arch Rock, Sunset Rock and Devil’s Kitchen. The historic Grand Hotel boasts an on-site golf course, outdoor swimming pool and stables, plus numerous elegant dining outlets.
From shopping in the Village at Grand Traverse Commons to exploring the sandy shoreline of the Grand Traverse Bay to expanding your mind at the Dennos Museum Center, an indoor-outdoor art collection located on the campus of Northwestern Michigan College, Traverse City is one well-rounded town. Booking a room at the Hotel Indigo Traverse City will put you in the center of the action and just steps away from Clinch Park, the city’s hub for lakeside activities including sand volleyball, swimming, a marina and beach. Known as the Cherry Capital of the World, Traverse City is home to the National Cherry Festival, a weeklong celebration in July where attendees can buy baked goods, participate in pit-spitting contests, and enjoy live music, parades and fireworks displays. This area also has numerous “U-pick” fruit farms in its vicinity such as the Third Coast Fruit Company, a sixth-generation family orchard on the Mission Peninsula that visitors say makes for a fun, family-friendly summer outing. Given its close proximity to Lake Michigan, Traverse City is set amidst two American Viticultural Areas: Old Mission Peninsula and Leelanau Peninsula. The Traverse City Wineries provide travelers with more than 40 wineries to explore. Wine enthusiasts may want to book a guided tour or peruse our list of the Best Traverse City Wine Tours.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park and Lakeshore
Located near the town of Empire, this natural oasis protects 65 miles of rugged Lake Michigan shoreline famous for its towering bluffs topped with fields of deep sand and tall grasses. To understand where the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park and Lakeshore got its name, head for the Dune Center Bookstore where you can partake in the popular “Dune Climb,” a fun-for-all-ages scramble in the sand. More adventurous types can venture further onto the Dunes Trail, a strenuous 3.5-mile trek to the bluffs with rewarding vistas of the lake and the Manitou Islands, which visitors describe as “breathtaking” and “inspiring.” The islands are also managed by the parks service and can be reached via ferry ride for access to even more hiking trails, pristine beaches and backcountry campsites. Recover from your adventures at the nearby Homestead Resort, which provides a wide variety of lodging options and a beach club on Sleeping Bear Bay.
Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park
(Courtesy of Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park)
This acclaimed year-round attraction has a whopping 8,000 five-star reviews on Google, with travelers praising everything from the park’s botanical variety to its sculptures to its museum shop. The Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park’s annual spring butterfly display invites guests to mingle with some 7,000 butterflies of all sizes, colors and countries of origin. Families with children also love the interactive Lena Meijer Children’s Garden where kids can dig, climb and splash to their heart’s content. Other popular exhibits include the 15,000-square-foot tropical greenhouse, a farm garden showcasing heirloom vegetables and an 8-acre Japanese Garden. In addition to horticulture, the park also flaunts a 300-piece permanent sculpture collection featuring artists from around the globe, including Auguste Rodin and Edgar Degas. A tram tour is available to help visitors navigate the 158-acre facility for a small fee. The Country Inn & Suites by Radisson is just a 5-minute drive from the garden and offers an indoor pool and complimentary breakfast.
Address: 1000 E. Beltline Ave. NE, Grand Rapids, MI 49525
Start your visit to the “City of Trees” with a tour of the iconic University of Michigan campus and all of its cultural counterpoints. Afterwards, head north to Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown Market for lunch and shopping, where you can browse a unique array of artisan goods, clothing boutiques and eateries. The historic district also hosts an array of family-fun events, such as the year-round Ann Arbor farmer’s market, which has been running for more than 100 years. After getting your fill of flowers and foodstuffs, continue north to the Huron River, which winds through the city offering scenic beauty and recreation space throughout. At Argo Park you can watch kayakers and tubers bob and splash through a series of small rapids called the Argo Cascades, or rent a boat and test the waters for yourself. Guests of the Residence Inn by Marriott Ann Arbor Downtown appreciate the hotel’s friendly staff, location and complimentary breakfast.
The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation
(KMSPhotography/Courtesy of Henry Ford Museum)
Located halfway between the major cities of Grand Rapids and Detroit, this world-renowned museum is dedicated to the life and work of one of the state’s most celebrated American business tycoon and icon. Visitors recommend allowing at least 2 to 4 hours to fully experience the vast collection planes, trains and automobiles housed here, including historical artifacts such as the secret service limousine that John F. Kennedy was riding in at the time of his assassination and the bus that made Rosa Parks famous. Car buffs will want to spend even more time on the accompanying Ford Rouge Factory tour which walks you through the evolution of American motorsports and manufacturing, from design to assembly. If the weather is nice, continue your exploration of the ages in nearby Greenfield Village, a time-warp “town” comprising seven distinct districts replicating different eras spanning 300 years. Round out the experience of this “Disney World of museums” with a stay at the historic Dearborn Inn by Marriott, which sits on the former site of the original Ford Motor Company.
Address: 20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn, MI 48124
Drive Scenic Highway M-22
This 116-mile stretch of road hugs the coast of Lake Michigan from Manistee County to Traverse City, showcasing vibrant communities, scenic natural and recreational areas and endless lake views, and offers a wide variety of free things to do along the way. From Manistee, drive north on US-31 for about 6 miles, then turn left on M-22 North. After passing through the quaint towns of Onekama and Arcadia, look for the turnoff for Inspiration Point where you can climb the stairs to an observation deck overlooking turquoise waters, which visitors say is a nice place to stretch your legs and enjoy breathtaking views, especially at sunset. Continue on to Point Betsie Lighthouse, a picturesque National Register of Historic Places landmark in operation since 1858, where you can take a tour and even stay overnight in the Keeper’s Quarter’s apartment.
If you’re feeling a bit peckish (or, rather, pick-ish) take a short detour inland towards the town of Beulah which is surrounded by U-pick orchards, such as Baatz Blueberry Farm and roadside farm stands, like Sorensen Farms, offering an array of fresh, seasonal produce. Next, you’ll travel through the stunning Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park, offering a plentitude of hiking trails and beaches to explore. In Leland, be sure to stop for a stroll along the canal and to poke through the colorful shops, art galleries and eateries in the tiny historic village of Fishtown before continuing towards the northernmost point of the Leelanau Peninsula. After stopping to see the Grand Traverse Lighthouse in Leelanau State Park, where visitors enjoy climbing to the top of the structure for unobstructed views of the Manitou Passage, you’ll turn south and finish your drive along the bay to your final destination, Traverse City.
(Courtesy of Michigan’s Adventure)
The state’s largest amusement park is located in Muskegon, just 8 miles from the shores of Lake Michigan, providing stellar scenery from the top of the park’s Ferris wheel. The park’s signature ride, Shivering Timbers is a wooden roller coaster, which is the longest and fastest in the state. The ride is even more thrilling when ridden at night. Families with young children will want to head to Camp Snoopy, a new addition featuring smaller rides, an interactive play structure and serene landscaping for a child-friendly theme park experience. Kids of all ages rave about the WildWater Adventure water park section to beat the summer heat, featuring seven body and tubing waterslides, three wave pools with various intensities, a lazy river and a multi-level aquatic playground with slides, geysers and a tipping bucket for serious splashing. Both portions of the park are included in ticket prices, with options to add on dining, cabana and “fast lane” packages. You can walk to Michigan’s Adventure from the adjacent Duck Creek RV Resort, which offers both cabins and RV sites for rent as well as entertaining amenities like a swimming pool, miniature golf course, arcade and lake with paddling sports.
Address: 1198 W. Riley-Thompson Road, Muskegon, MI 49445
Despite having a reputation as being a little rough around the edges, the Motor City harbors many worthwhile cultural attractions, historical landmarks and fun things to do. If you’re short on time in Detroit, you’ll be hard-pressed to choose between a visit to the world-renowned Detroit Institute of Arts, the Michigan Science Center or the Motown Museum, home to the recording label that produced award-winning sounds by the likes of The Temptations and The Jackson 5 throughout the 1960s, giving it the nickname “Hitsville U.S.A.” Taking a stroll along the 3-mile Detroit International RiverWalk is one of the best free things to do around town, where visitors are delighted to discover a waterfront carousel, public artworks and views of Canada across the Detroit River. The nearby Eastern Market is another popular activity, where you’ll encounter local purveyors for fresh produce, handmade soaps, fine meats, bakeries, craft beer, flowers and more spread across the historic 43-acre compound. Although the market is free to enter, it will be almost impossible to leave without doing a little shopping at this sprawling public marketplace − the largest of its kind in the country. For easy access to some of the city’s top dining and entertainment outlets, including the Fox Theatre and Detroit Opera House, book a room at the hip Shinola Hotel in downtown.
Pictured Rocks National Seashore
This rugged gem, located on Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula region, provides year-round access to adventurous activities like hiking, snowshoeing, paddling, fishing, camping, ice climbing and more for outdoor enthusiasts. In addition to being the first national seashore established by the parks service in 1966, this natural beauty boasts 42 miles of primitive shoreline and 100 miles of trails leading to geographic wonders like sandstone cliffs, gushing waterfalls, sand dunes, pristine beaches and dense Northwood forestland. The park also hosts a portion of the 4,700-mile North Country National Scenic Trail, the longest of all backpacker “thru-hiking” trails in the country. If hiking isn’t your thing, hop on a ferry with Pictured Rocks Cruises company in the nearby town of Munising for a 3-hour guided tour of some of the park’s most famous rock formations and landmarks, like the Miner’s Castle rock tower, the vibrantly colored Painted Coves, the 70-foot-tall Spray Coves waterfall and the historic East Channel lighthouse. Also located in Munising is the Holiday Inn Express Munising-Lakeview with an indoor swimming pool, sauna and outdoor patio overlooking the lake.
Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary
(Courtesy of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary)
This 4,300-mile aquatic preserve in Lake Huron contains the remnants of almost 100 historic sunken boats in an area known as “Shipwreck Alley.” Travelers recommend visiting the free Michigan Maritime Heritage Center, the park’s basecamp in the nearby town of Alpena, to learn about the history and evolution of commercial shipping and vessel construction via interactive exhibits. Or, embark on an educational expedition in a glass-bottom boat tour to view an underwater collection of artifacts, which are well-preserved due to the lake’s frigid year-round temperature (tickets can be purchased at the heritage center). Adventurous souls who are experienced with navigating sensitive ecosystems can get even closer to the shipwreck sites by snorkeling, scuba diving and kayaking. The Holiday Inn Express & Suites Alpena-Downtown is conveniently located just across the Thunder Bay River from both the heritage center and boat tour company.
Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail
Michigan is a fertile farming region known for producing everything from cherries to wooden furniture. It might surprise you to know that despite its bitter cold winter weather, the climate is actually ideal for growing grapes for winemaking. Although the state is home to several notable wine regions. The most famous wine region − Lake Michigan Shore AVA located in the southwest region near Kalamazoo contains the majority of its vineyards, including the St. Julian Winery & Distillery, the oldest and largest operation in the state. The wine trail itself features 15 wineries and tasting rooms, and provides an interactive map for easy navigation. Visitors love the Lemon Creek Winery for its array of varietals, including some ice wines made from the on-site orchard, and the Round Barn Estate for its picturesque scenery and live music events. Blended with bucolic scenery and enticing events, such as live music and beach parties, this area is an ideal destination for a girl’s trip or romantic weekend getaway on your Michigan bucket list. A stay at the AAA four diamond-rated Inn at Harbor Shores, located a short walk from the lakefront in the town of Benton Harbor, provides a central jumping off point to explore the wine trail.
Often referred to as simply “The U.P.” this unique geographical region is characterized by expansive forests, access to three of the Great Lakes (Lake Huron, Lake Michigan and Lake Superior) and unparalleled year-round outdoor recreation with more than 1,000 miles of coastline to explore. The 5-mile Mackinac Bridge transports travelers across the Straits of Mackinac to the city of St. Ignace, which welcomes visitors to the peninsula with an interpretive historic boardwalk, bustling marina and downtown district full of shops and restaurants. Visitors love the Breakers Resort, located near the ferry port, for its lake views and beachfront restaurant. Most of the peninsula’s millions of acres is made up of national forest land prime for hiking and mountain biking, such as the Hiawatha and Ottawa national forests; wildlife refuge and wilderness areas; and national parks, including the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and the Keweenaw National Historic Park. This latter attraction is situated in the remote northwestern region of the U.P., an area historically known for its copper mining operations. Visitors to the park recommend taking the guided tour of mine and rave about the rugged beauty of its surroundings.
This mesmerizing geographic attraction, interpreted as the “Big Spring,” is tucked into Palms Book State Park located in the central region of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The natural spring spurts some 10,000 gallons of freshwater per minute from the ground, evidenced by the bubbles that glug to the surface of the crystal-clear pool. Visitors can pull themselves across the water on a rope-propelled raft and peer down to see fish and limestone formations beneath the surface. Amazingly, the strikingly azure waters maintain a 45-degree temperature year-round, never freezing over even in the winter. Travelers say this is a “must see” attraction but warn that the small space becomes crowded during the summer high season. The Comfort Inn in the nearby town of Manistique provides a nice jumping off point for exploring this area.
Address: M-149 (a mile north of the county road 455 junction), Manistique, MI 49854
University of Michigan
Touring the University of Michigan campus is one of the best free things to do while visiting Ann Arbor. The 3,200-acre campus is bisected by the scenic Huron River which serves as the northern border for the school’s Nichols Arboretum, a community oasis featuring 3.5 miles of walking paths through lush gardens, including the largest peony garden in North America. The university has many other cultural attractions also open to the public, like the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History and the University of Michigan Museum of Art, praised for showcasing a wide variety of artists and offering free admission (a $10 donation is suggested). Sports fans won’t want to miss a glimpse inside the massive Michigan Stadium, also known as the “Big House,” a legendary college football landmark and historical institution. The Graduate Ann Arbor Hotel has a modern, university club vibe and an on-site cocktail lounge within walking distance of campus.
Address: 500 S. State St., Ann Arbor, MI 48109
Detroit Institute of Arts
This museum is recognized as one of the best art museums in the country due to its impressive collection of more than 65,000 artworks on display across 100 galleries. Visitors to the Detroit Institute of Arts describe their experiences here as “amazing” and “unforgettable” and mention that the European-style building itself is also a thing of beauty (they also warn that it is enormous, so be prepared for a lot of walking). The 658,000-square-foot compound features centuries of paintings, sculptures, photographs and antique furniture from around the globe, as well as a contemporary outdoor sculpture garden. Free guided tours are offered daily. The Hotel St. Regis Detroit has hosted numerous celebrities since its opening in the 1960s, and was renovated in 2020 to reveal a sophisticated, modern design.
Address: 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit, MI 48202
View the Northern Lights
You don’t have to travel to the Arctic Circle region to experience the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, because it is possible to see this atmospheric phenomenon in certain parts of Michigan. The best viewing spots are along the northern shores of the Upper Peninsula region in remote areas with dark, clear skies, like the Pictured Rocks National Seashore or the mining town of Copper Harbor, perched on the northernmost point of the Keweenaw Peninsula. The Marquette area is also well-known for its views of the horizon across Lake Superior, and travelers say the Birchmont Motel will give you a front-row seat right from your room. However, the skies have been known to glow as far south as Mackinaw City, where the Headlands International Dark Sky Park is located, providing an ideal space for observing the night sky at any time. Depending on the weather, this elusive light show is most likely to appear from August to April, with the best chances occurring in the spring and fall seasons. And if you happen to miss the astronomical event, rest assured you will be treated to spectacular stargazing as a consolation prize.
The centrally located capital city is home to an array of fun, family-friendly attractions to add to your Michigan bucket list. Start with the Impression 5 Science Center, State Capitol building and Michigan History Center, featuring 26 galleries across five floors showcasing important events, aspects and landmarks in the state’s evolution since the ice age. Families with young children adore the Potter Park Zoo for its small size and neighborhood feel, offering a more intimate experience. The zoo is one of many landmarks that can be found along the 13-mile Lansing River Trail, which flanks both the Grand and Red Cedar rivers, providing nice scenery for your walk or bike ride. The trail also passes through the Michigan State University campus, where you’ll also find the Wharton Center for the Performing Arts boasting a lineup of Broadway favorites on four stages. A collection of galleries, bakeries, breweries and boutiques can be found in the revitalized Old Town district – located at the site of the city’s original settlement, founded in 1848 – offering hours of entertainment for all ages. The Radisson Hotel Lansing at the Capitol, located in the heart of downtown, has rooms with river and city views.
Thanks to its unique location at the northern tip of Michigan’s “thumb” the tiny village of Port Austin is a great place to catch both the sunrise and the sunset over Lake Huron. It is also an ideal destination for water sport enthusiasts who flock to the region to cast a line for lake trout and walleye or paddle out to see the area’s most notable natural landmark, Turnip Rock (check out Port Austin Kayak for trail maps and equipment rentals, including bikes and snowshoes). Travelers recommend Bird’s Eye Park for relaxing lake activities such as a beach, boardwalk and splash pad for kids. In town, a visit to the Village Green public square is a must for shopping, strolling and immersing yourself in the community culture. On Saturdays during the summertime, the adjacent Port Austin Farmer’s Market draws big crowds to purchase produce, crafts, flowers and snacks from more than 50 local vendors. The nearby Beachcomber Motel gets repeat guests who come for the lakeside swimming pool and private beach.