30-Plus Best Things to Do in Traverse City Michigan: A Local’s Guide
Welcome to the Cherry Capital of Michigan: as a local resident, I’m Natalie Hardy of Travelovermiway.com, and I’m excited to share the top things to do in Traverse City with you!
Traverse City is located in Michigan’s Northwest Region of the Lower Peninsula and is home to miles of picturesque hiking and biking trails, endless local breweries and wineries, miles of sandy shores along turquoise blue waters, and a quaint downtown life perfect for shopping, enjoying local restaurants, and family fun!
Whether you’re looking to travel in the winter, spring, summer, or fall, there is fun to have here in all seasons.
After vacationing here for many years, and now a resident of Traverse City for the past three years, here are more than 30 things to do while visiting this incredible city. I’m sharing ideas for kids’ activities, wine tours, a romantic getaway or even just a scenic drive, so strart making your list.
Read on for ideas for planning your trip to visit Traverse City, the famous cherry capital.
Attend a Festival in Traverse City
If you’re looking for some pure Michigan fun, there’s nothing like celebrating on the shores of beautiful Grand Traverse Bay.
How about sitting on a Traverse City beach and watching a movie on an inflatable screen as the sun sets over Lake Michigan? That’s just one of the festival events. Trust us, Michigan festivals are worth the visit.
Best Traverse City Festivals
The Traverse City Cherry Festival is the event of all events here in Traverse City. This week-long festival in July has everything you need for Northern Michigan Family Fun.
From events like an air show, cherry market, health and wellness classes to classic car shows, amusement park rides, pie-eating contests, and so much more. There’s truly something for everyone at the National Cherry Festival and the bonus is that many of the events are completely free!
Downtown Traverse City’s Front Street swells with visitors, and it’s a perfect mid-summer trip idea.
More Traverse City Festivals
Restaurant Week: a week in February where you can grab delectable, curated meals from local restaurants for an incredible deal. Restaurants post their menu ahead of time which typically involves a choice of appetizer, entrée, and dessert.
Be sure and read my Traverse City Restaurant Guide for ideas on the best places to eat when you’re in town.
Beer Week: a week in November dedicated to hopping (get it) around to the local breweries and microbreweries in the Traverse City area! You can track all your stops in your Beer Week passport and markdown your favorites to revisit! You can find more about local craft beer in our Guide to the Traverse City Breweries.
Northwestern MI Fair: head to Traverse City the first week of August for a week of fun! The Northwestern Michigan Fair has been around for over 100 years and features amusement rides, numerous local food trucks, and many agricultural, livestock, and horticultural events that can be enjoyed by all ages.
PRO TIP: The Traverse City Film Festival, a popular event showcasing independent films, is back for 2022! After a two-year hiatus, this week-long festival held the last week in July returns. The festival brings films and filmmakers from around the world to Northern Michigan for the annual film festival and is a lot of fun for everyone. Who knows? You might even spot a celebrity or two exploring downtown.
Traverse City With Kids: Family Fun
Best Things to Do with the Family in T.C.
Drive-in Movie at Cherry Bowl: a perfect way to spend a summer night with the family! Head southwest of Traverse City to Honor. Two movies are shown each night, and don’t forget to grab some delicious fresh, homemade food at their diner! They also have a putt-putt course and playground for kids and families to enjoy.
See a movie at State Theater/Bijou by the bay: catch a new release at these historic theaters or watch an older movie with their 25cent movie matinees. Keep an eye on their calendar for seasonal showings and events! My favorite is around Christmas when a variety of Holiday movies are played.
Camp at the State Park: Located on the East Bay in Traverse City this is a wonderfully wooded State Park! With updated bathrooms and spacious sites, this is the perfect family trip. The State Park beach is located just across the road (with a convenient pedestrian-only overpass to allow for safe crossing).
Explore the Bay on a Traverse Tall Ship: The Traverse Tall Ship Company offers excursions out into Grand Traverse Bay on one of two sailing vessels.
The Tall Ship Manitou is a replica of an 1800s cargo schooner, and the classic sailing yacht, Scout, is available, too. You can book everything from a two-hour “Ice Cream” cruise (your kids will love it) featuring Moomer’s ice cream for everyone, to longer sunset cruises and more.
PRO-TIP: Here’s an insider’s travel tip. You can book some excursions until mid-October when the fall colors surrounding the bay light up the area. It’s a stunning time to be out on the water, and it’s a little less crowded around town, too.
Best Shopping in Traverse City MI
Village at Grand Traverse Commons: many local shops can be found in the Grand Traverse Commons, which was previously used as the Traverse City State Hospital! If you get hungry while browsing there are many restaurants, and coffee shops here as well!
Downtown Traverse City: numerous shops can be found in downtown Traverse City. Head down to Front St and walk the blocks from Boardman Ave down to Union St to browse them all. If you’re looking for locally curated gifts head to West Bay Handmade, My Secret Stash, and the Cherry Republic. For all your favorite Michigan items head to Mr. Bills Shirt Co, Momentum Outfitters, and M22. Swing by The Exchange, FLEA, and Eleven for all the perfect boutique wear.
Downtown Sutton’s Bay: drive up M22 from Traverse City and you’ll hit the cutest town on the east side of Leelanau Peninsula. Numerous shops are located along M22 in downtown Sutton’s Bay and parking is free! Make sure you stop in Poppy Thing’s for locally made items, swing by The Happy Woman for incredibly unique gifts, and stop into Bay Books and support an indie bookstore!
Farm Markets: enjoy locally grown and made products at the Traverse City Farmer’s Market. From June-October the Farmer’s Market can be found in parking lot B in downtown Traverse City on Wednesdays from 8 a.m.-to Noon and Saturdays from 7:30 a.m.-Noon. Another farmer’s market can be found in the Grand Traverse Commons year-round! From November-April the market is throughout the commons on Saturday from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., from May – October enjoy the market outdoors from 2 p.m. -6 p.m..
Resale Trail: if you enjoy thrifting and secondhand shopping as much as I do then Traverse City is the place for you! With over 15 consignment, resale, and thrift stores throughout the city, the resale trail is the perfect way to map your way from shop to shop.
PRO-TIP: Michigan’s only tea farm and shop is loacted here, in Traverse City MI. The Light of Day Organic Farm and Tea shop offers delicious tea that is grown and harvested on site. It’s a very unique spot and definitely worth a visit.
Best Museums and Galleries
Butterfly House: open from May through October to enjoy hundreds of different butterflies, insects, and beautiful flora. They host many different educational classes and presentations for all ages! This is a must-visit for anyone stopping in Traverse City.
Great Lakes Children’s Museum: so much fun can be found for kids at the Great Lakes Children’s Museum. Reservations are strongly recommended to enjoy this play-based exploration. They have numerous exhibits for children aged 1-8 years of age and even offer free online streaming events for storytime and kids’ craft lab!
Dennos Museum Center: located on Northwest Michigan Community College’s campus, their aim is to promote change and start conversations from their exhibitions, programs, and events. Plan a guided tour or simply follow a self-guided tour, make sure you don’t forget to shop in the museum store for unique gifts from local to international artists.
PRO-TIP: The Traverse City Opera House is not a museum, but it is a historical site listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This Victorian opera house now serves as a town playhouse and community gathering space.
Best Lighthouses in the Traverse City Area
Take a mini Lake Michigan Lighthouse Tour at one of these scenic lighthouses.
Old Mission Point Lighthouse – head up to the tip of Old Mission Peninsula where you’ll reach the 45th parallel and come across Old Mission Point Lighthouse. Here you can explore the lighthouse museum, hiking trails, and a beautiful sandy beach along the Grand Traverse Bay.
Grand Traverse – take a road trip on M22 up the Leelanau Peninsula, head through Northport, and continue to the very top of the Peninsula where you’ll reach Leelanau State Park. Located there is the Grand Traverse Lighthouse. You can explore the lighthouse museum, and the State Park, and even climb to the top of the lighthouse!
Empire – travel west from Traverse City toward Lake Michigan and along the shores in the quaint town of Empire you’ll find the Robert Manning Memorial Lighthouse. Next to the lighthouse is a large sandy public beach, perfect for laying out in the sun or catching a sunset.
Frankfort – is one of my all-time favorite lighthouses in northern Michigan. A large, sandy public beach stretches in front of the Frankfort lighthouse, you can walk the ¼ mile on the break wall out to the lighthouse when the waves are calm.
Best Things to do Outdoors in Traverse City
Summer in Traverse City
Bike the Traverse Area Recreation Trails: numerous trails can be found from the TART Trails but some of the best bike trails include the TART in town, which are several point-to-point paved bike trails in downtown Traverse City.
Another must-try trail is the Leelanau Trail running 17 miles from Traverse City to Sutton’s Bay, this is a completely off-road trail that is paved or gravel. It runs along with the farms, forests, and vineyards of the Leelanau Peninsula.
Kayak the Boardman River: a serene and peaceful river running through the center of Traverse City. There are numerous launch points including Boardman Lake, Brown Bridge Quiet Area, Boardman River Trail, and more. If you don’t have your own kayak, you can rent one through Kayak, Bike, and Brew TC for a unique and adventurous experience through Traverse City.
Beach hop: Traverse City has numerous sandy beaches perfect for laying out and reading a book or playing a game of beach volleyball! Some of my favorite beaches are the Traverse City State Park Beach located on the east bay, Old Mission Peninsula State Park beach located at the tip of Old Mission Peninsula at the Old Mission Lighthouse, and Clinch Park located on the west bay and is just north of downtown Traverse City, and lastly West End beach which is also located on the West Bay just a way down from Clinch Park and the marina.
Boat in Grand Traverse Bay: with two large tropical blue bays, there’s ample space for water activities. Three DNR launch sites are found around the Bays. To enter the east bay, head up M37 on Old Peninsula and find the East Bay Launch on the right-hand side. Head further up the peninsula to access Bowers Harbor and find the West Bay Launch site. The West Bay can also be accessed by M22 up Leelanau Peninsula.
Cherry Blossom Tour: come springtime enjoy walking through the cherry blossom trees on Old Mission, Leelanau Peninsula, and throughout Grand Traverse, Leelanau, and Benzie counties. Blossoms typically bloom throughout the month of May and last for about a week! Blossoms will bloom at various times throughout the region due to the temperatures so there’s some wiggle room when planning a trip
Winter in Traverse City
Go Tubing: head to Timberlee or Mt. Holiday for some winter fun of downhill tubing. Reservations are highly recommended for both locations and involve an hour-long ticket for snow tubing. No worries about hiking back up the hill they have a tow rope to carry you and your tube back up the hill.
Cross Country Ski the VASA trails: With 3K, 5K, 10K, and 25K loops with varying difficulty, anyone can find some fun on these trails! These trails are also open for hiking and snowshoeing.
Downhill Ski/Snowboard: Two moderate ski hills can be found in Traverse City, Mt. Holiday and Hickory Hills. Both are perfect for beginners and experienced skiers and snowboarders.
Hickory Hills Ski Hill only has a magic carpet and tow ropes available. Mt. Holiday has tow ropes and a chair lift available. Rentals and lessons are available at both locations!
Snowshoe wineries: what’s better than enjoying the outdoors and then heading inside for a nice glass of wine?! At 45 North and Blackstar Farms, you can snowshoe throughout their vineyards and property for free, and enjoy a wine tasting when you’re through! For a more structured event, head to TC Brew Bus for their winter snowshoe event on Sundays throughout the winter months.
PRO-TIP: The Traverse Wine Trail is a must-visit, featuring more than 18 Traverse City wineries, including the Brys Estate Vineyard, Chateau Grand Traverse, and others. Brys Estate is a 155-acre estate on Old Mission Peninsula that includes a lavender farm. Chateau Grand Traverse Winery was one of the first family-owned wineries on the peninsula. Both wineries have become popular wedding venues.
Things to Do in Traverse City Any Time of the Year
Day Trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore: Whether there is a foot of snow, or it’s 80 degrees outside, there’s never a bad season to visit Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
The visitor center in Empire is open year-round for visitors! In the spring, summer, and fall you can bike the 20-mile-long Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail through Glen Arbor. Catch a glimpse of the Manitou Islands in the distance. In the wintertime, the Heritage trail becomes a groomed cross-country ski trail. All trailheads are plowed in the winter for hiking, snowshoeing, or cross-country skiing!
The famous dune climb is a must, too. Climb the dune in summer or winter. A bonus in the wintertime: you can sled down!
PRO-TIP: Be sure and take the 7.5-mile drive on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive for some dramatic dune overlooks.
Hike the Boardman River Trail System: A 24-mile-long trail system in Traverse City along the Boardman River. This is a dog-friendly, and family-friendly trail with minimal elevation change. There are numerous trailheads. The River Outfitters rent bikes for riding along the Boardman Lake Trail, as well as paddleboards and kayaks, too.
Holiday Events in T.C.
Cherry Ball Drop: every New Year’s Eve you can head to downtown Traverse City to watch the lighted cherry ball drop and help ring in the New Year! With a live DJ and many restaurants staying open late, this is such a fun way to celebrate the new year!
4th of July Fireworks: a spectacular fireworks show can be seen over the West Bay on the evening of every July 4th. As part of the Cherry Festival, these fireworks will not disappoint. Head over to the Open Space Park, set up a chair, and enjoy the view.
Tree Lighting Christmas Parade: in November help ring in the holiday season with the annual Light Parade where Santa might just make an appearance! Traverse City lights its 35-foot-tall Christmas Tree which stands in the middle of the north side of Cass St, at the Front St intersection. Bring the whole family to this holiday event!
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About the Author-
Natalie Hardy is a writer and photographer living in Northern Michigan. She has been an avid camper and hiker for over 5 years and is the owner of Travel Over MI Way; a website focused on travel, hiking, and many other outdoor activities throughout Michigan and beyond. She is also a photo ambassador for the Michigan DNR State Parks.