The northwestern corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula isn’t exactly a traveler’s hidden gem.
After all, wealthy barons of the industrial Midwest have been “summering” at their “cottages” on this idyllic Lake Michigan shoreline in small lakefront towns like Harbor Springs for generations.
But if your last name isn’t Ford or Capone, you’re forgiven for not knowing about this vacation wonderland.
With a population of just over 15,000, Traverse City punches above its weight for the savvy travelers looking for great restaurants, hip breweries and cideries, and affordable accommodations.
Welcome to America’s Cherry Capital
Traverse City is more than just a town with 15,000 residents. It is the population center and gateway to an entire region famous for Michigan’s favorite summertime crop, the cherry.
Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City will connect you to every major hub in the country.
After you land, you have plenty of quality lodging options.
I recommend the Cambria Suites where every room is a large suite with two HD televisions. The Cambria provides a free shuttle that will take you to or from the airport or historic downtown, just two miles away.
Is He Really Recommending Eating in the Lobby of a Choice Hotel??
While breakfast is not included at the Cambria, you get what you pay for. At the Cambria, what you pay for is the best restaurant in Traverse City – Reflect Bistro.
Yes, you read that right. Reflect Bistro, located in the lobby of a Choice Hotel, is the highest-ranked restaurant in the city according to TripAdvisor.
Frankly I was skeptical myself. If I wasn’t staying one floor above the restaurant, I never would’ve checked it out.
But I’m glad I did.
Somehow the Cambria attracted a big city chef from Detroit to come set-up shop in their lobby and serve gourmet, farm-to-table cuisine.
My skepticism disappeared the moment I took my first bite of andouille sausage hash and chocolate chip pancakes.
You Won’t Go Hungry (or Thirsty) in Traverse City
Other fun places to eat include Sleder’s Tavern, the oldest restaurant in the state. If you get the dinner plate of fried Lake Michigan perch, you won’t leave hungry. I promise.
And Cousin Jenny’s serves up the best pasties south of the Mackinac Bridge. If you are not familiar with this Northern Michigan meal in a pie crust, please read about it in my road trip across Michigan’s U.P. here.
For good sandwiches and pizza, you can’t go wrong with North Peak Brewing. Oh, and they brew some pretty good beer too.
Which brings me to one of my favorite subjects…
…Michigan loves its craft beer and Traverse City has to have more places to drink craft beer than any other city in the state per capita.
The three best breweries in town are Right Brian, Workshop, and Rare Bird. I was less impressed with the beer at Mackinac Brewing, but its prime location on Front Street attracts a lot of tourists.
This is Apple Country Too
If there is anything this corner of Michigan is known for other than beer and cherries, it has to be apples.
So if you somehow grow tired of fresh brewed Michigan beer, you can stop in at Taproot Cider House and sample dozens of ciders, many of them made from local apple orchards.
Shop Til You Drop
If you are a shopper, you also won’t be disappointed in Traverse City.
Front Street is a truly bustling thoroughfare lined with boutiques and shops selling unique souvenirs, fishing gear, and lots of décor for your lake cottage.
And if you’re not a big shopper, well, you still have to check out Cherry Republic, a supermarket-sized store selling every conceivable food item that can conceivably contain cherries – and some that conceivably shouldn’t but do anyway.
Can you say Cherry Mustard?
A stroll down Front Street wouldn’t be complete without a scoop of ice cream from downtown’s best parlor, Milk & Honey.
Take Time to Enjoy the View
While it is easy to be distracted by all the beer, cider, ice cream and cherry salsa on Front Street, the real highlight of this city is only a block away – Grand Traverse Bay.
Sit for a few minutes in the Adirondack chairs in Clinch Park and watch the sun sparkle off the blue waters of the bay.
While you could easily entertain yourself for a weekend or more in downtown Traverse City, the best part of this city is that you’re within an hour’s drive of some of Michigan’s most remarkable attractions.
Hold onto Your Hat if You Want to See This Bear
One of the highlights of the region is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, where giant sand dunes tower above the wild, windy Lake Michigan shoreline.
Be sure to take the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. This 7.4 mile loop provides several overlooks including the namesake Sleeping Bear Dune Overlook, which takes you out to a viewing platform perched 450 feet above Lake Michigan and within viewing distance of the dune that gave the park its name.
And while wind erosion has shaped and shifted this dune over the years, if you squint enough, you might be able to tell why the Chippewa Indians thought it looked like a bear that had fallen asleep in the sand.
Weather conditions here can vary wildly from one spot to the other.
The day I visited in early October, hurricane force winds whipped off the surface of the lake channeled vertically up the 450 foot dune. I had to lean into a tornado of fine sand just to get down to the viewing platform.
I think I’m still picking sand out of my hair three weeks later.
Say Hi to Cherry Jerry
Fifteen miles south of Sleeping Bear Dunes is one of Michigan’s most iconic places to stop for lunch, the world famous Cherry Hut in Beulah.
The grinning, happy – yet somewhat creepy – face of “Cherry Jerry” is hard to miss as you pull up to the roadside landmark.
Since 1922, travelers have stopped here for the Cherry Hut’s famous slice of cherry pie. Pre-pie fare includes delicious cherry chicken salad and a burger topped with cherry salsa. Oh, and don’t forget a Cherry Coke to drink.
And somehow, my wife discovered $65 worth of cherry products to buy in the giftshop before I managed to get her out to the parking lot.
Even if you are full of cherry pie a la mode, a stop at Michigan’s favorite ice cream parlor, Moomers, is obligatory.
Moomers’ ice cream is deservedly famous. But my favorite part was eating the ice cream outside at a picnic table overlooking the cows that made it. A working dairy farm, the rustic setting puts the “moo” in Moomers.
Take in the Scenery on Old Mission Peninsula
One of the most scenic drives near Traverse City is through the rolling hills of Old Mission Peninsula. This 20 mile long finger of land that juts into Grand Traverse Bay is blanketed in a patchwork of cherry orchards, vineyards, and white picket fences.
Drive all the way to the end of the peninsula to Old Mission Lighthouse which was built in 1870 to safely guide 19th century mariners on the bay.
On the way back, stop for lunch and handcrafted sour beers at the Jolly Pumpkin Restaurant and Brewery.
Another fun day trip from Traverse City is up to the well-manicured lakefront towns on Little Traverse Bay.
Live like Henry Ford – For a Day
This is where industrial barons at the turn of the last century escaped the heat and belching smog of the big cities of Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee – and turned the noun “summer” into a verb.
Even if you can’t afford to “summer” at their lakefront “cottages,” you can still drive by and gawk.
Or window shop along Main Street in Harbor Springs where the boutiques here boast of their high-end locales: “New York. Beverley Hills. Harbor Springs.”
Petoskey is a bit more down to earth with a bustling downtown chockfull of fun shops, bars and restaurants. Be sure to grab a pint at Beards Brewery that features a large outdoor deck overlooking Little Traverse Bay.
Slow Down and Smell the Cherry Blossoms
Believe it or not, I managed to do all of the above in less than 48 hours.
But if you have the time to slow down and relax, there is plenty in Traverse City and the surrounding area to fill a week’s vacation or more.
Some things – like enjoying a slice of cherry pie outside at a picnic table – just shouldn’t be rushed.