Michigan Holiday Planning Guide
A state inextricably tied to its waterways, Michigan does water activities better than almost any other place in the country--and an active Michigan vacation includes numerous opportunities to swim, fish, sail, motorboat, and canoe. Stretched over two peninsulas, the state features a long freshwater coastline, plus some 65,000 inland lakes and ponds. Michigan's major claim to fame, however, is its status as the center of the U.S. automotive industry, with the Detroit metropolitan area housing the nation's three major car manufacturers. While economic difficulties have plagued Detroit in recent years, it remains a major center of culture, the birthplace of the Motown Sound, and home to several museums and other tourist attractions. Head farther from the big urban centers on your tour of Michigan to discover a world of apple and cherry orchards, rustic towns, and picturesque vineyards.
Places to Visit in MichiganDetroit
: The birthplace of Motown, techno, and the Ford Model T, "Motor City" boasts the second-largest theater district in the country, the biggest collection of Art Deco skyscrapers, and museums exploring its pioneering role in music and the automobile industry.Traverse City
: This city has good food and wine, a local symphony, a playhouse, and several museums. The scenic lakeside location, with picturesque vineyards, cherry orchards, and sand dunes nearby, attracts outdoorsy types in every season.Upper Peninsula
: Hardwood forest carpets Michigan's northern peninsula, home to miles of undeveloped lakeshore and a handful of small towns and cities--the best place for a wilderness vacation in Michigan. Grand Rapids
: In recent years, Grand Rapids tourism has revolved around the city's 25 craft beer breweries and its Winter Beer Festival. Heritage Hill--one of the biggest historical districts in America--showcases almost every architectural style from the country's history.Mackinaw City
: Mainly serving as a connection to Mackinac Island--one of the top places to visit in Michigan--this village (despite the grand name) also houses a few curios of its own, such as an 18th-century stockade and sawmill, and an old lighthouse.Frankenmuth
: Founded in the mid-19th century by Bavarian immigrants, this small city still exhibits a strong Germanic influence. Among the Bavarian-themed attractions are shops, restaurants, a brewery, the self-styled world's largest Christmas store, and lots of architecture in the founders' native alpine style.Ann Arbor
: Home to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor caters heavily towards the young, liberal, academic crowd, with excellent museums, dozens of independent bookstores, fair-trade coffee shops, and trendy eateries, plus a jumping nightlife. Isle Royale National Park
: Tour the 265.5 km (165 mi) of hiking and biking trails that crisscross this isolated, vehicle- and road-free island, where the moose will be your only company. The shoreline offers excellent canoeing and kayaking, and nearby shipwrecks create underwater sculptures for scuba divers to explore.
Things to Do in Michigan
Popular Michigan Tourist AttractionsBronner's Christmas Wonderland
: At the "World's Largest Christmas Store," 17 ft (5 m) Santas greet you at the entrance, around 800 animatronic figures enliven the shelves, and at night some 100,000 lights illuminate the 800 m (0.5 mi) lane leading to the store.Frederik Meijer Gardens
: Over 170 sculptures by internationally renowned artists find a home among themed landscape gardens. A five-story conservatory holds a diverse range of exotic vegetation, and a modern amphitheater hosts live music concerts.Detroit Institute of Arts
: Over 100 galleries house a collection of art as diverse as it is prestigious, including Ancient Egyptian mummies, works by old European masters, a significant collection of African American art, and Diego Rivera's famous Detroit Industry murals.Greenfield Village
: Part of the Henry Ford Museum, one of the foremost tourist attractions in Michigan, this recreated historical village features nearly one hundred buildings, transported from their original location and reconstructed as a living history museum. Highlights include Thomas Edison's laboratory and the Wright Brothers' workshop.Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
: Steep sand dunes, golden beaches, shady forest, and sweeping views across Lake Michigan have led one popular television program to name this national park The Most Beautiful Place in America.Fort Mackinac
: Tours, exhibits, and regular live demonstrations bring to life Mackinac Island's history as a military outpost for the British, French, and Americans, respectively, at this 18th-century hilltop fort--the oldest building in Michigan.Mackinac Island State Park
: With no cars allowed on the island, Mackinac feels like a Michigan vacation from another era. Bikes, horses, and even horse-drawn carriages are the favored mode of transport when exploring the island's nature parks, caves, historical sites, and stores selling world-famous Mackinac fudge.Motown Museum
: Located in the Motown record label's first headquarters, this museum houses photographs and memorabilia, and gives guided tours of Studio A, where artists such as Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye recorded their hits.Arch Rock
: Known as a place of divine power to the Native Americans, this natural bridge--uncommon for the region--is one of the most popular spots for sightseeing in Michigan, located, as it is, among breathtaking scenery.Detroit Zoo
: More than 2,500 animals, representing over 270 species, find a home at Detroit Zoo, and The Arctic Ring of Life--the world's largest polar exhibit--is the jewel in the crown.
Planning a Michigan Vacation with Kids
Places to Visit in Michigan with Kids
With miles of beautiful lakeshore and acres of protected national forests, Michigan makes an ideal destination for an outdoors-based itinerary. Camping sites and picturesque scenery are found up and down the state, but the densely wooded Upper Peninsula
remains the least developed and holds the lion's share of geographical wonders, including mountains, secluded beaches, waterfalls, and colorful cliffs. On Mackinac Island State Park
, Victorian architecture and a complete ban on motor vehicles contribute to the feel of a 19th-century seaside holiday, located in the midst of an attractive state park. For an urban trip, Detroit
makes a good choice, with sightseeing and museums aplenty, plus a zoo, an aquarium, and theaters showing musicals and other child-friendly performances. If you want to escape the hustle and bustle of the state's biggest city on your Michigan trip, nearby, leafy Ann Arbor
provides plenty of interactive museums, art galleries, and theaters, centered around a pedestrian-friendly downtown area.
Things to Do in Michigan with Kids
With more beaches than the Atlantic seaboard, you can't get a more classic family holiday in Michigan than a trip to the lakeshore. Some of the best beaches are found in Holland, especially Holland State Park Beach
, where the spotless golden sands are perfect for lounging, bathing, or a few rounds of beach volleyball. Keeping with the sandy theme, the steep slopes of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
create one of Michigan's most recognizable landmarks. If you don't wear out the young ones climbing the dunes, the surrounding forest provides lots of trails for exploring by bike or on foot, and makes a scenic location for a picnic. Another classic kid's attraction, Detroit Zoo
boasts a huge collection of animals in naturalistic habitats. Don't miss the opportunity to walk through the underwater tunnel at the Arctic exhibit, where polar bears swim overhead. Kids of all ages will love Michigan's Adventure
, the state's largest amusement park, with roller coasters, water slides, bumper cars, miniature golf, and much more.
Tips for a Family Vacation in Michigan
While Detroit's tourist areas are well policed and as safe as any metropolis, large swathes of the city still suffer from crime and urban decay, so be careful about wandering off the well-beaten track. Ann Arbor is just 45 minutes drive from central Detroit, convenient for making day trips to the larger city, and its closely concentrated sights and pedestrian-friendly downtown are great for younger kids. If planning an outdoors Michigan itinerary, consider where in the state you want to visit. No matter your location in Michigan, you're never too far from some beautiful nature. The undeveloped forests of Upper Peninsula are certainly spectacular, but somewhere like Traverse City provides great access to the countryside and outdoor activities with all the benefits of a large center of population.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in Michigan
Cuisine of Michigan
While cuisine in the state hews closely to that found elsewhere in the United States, there are a few specialities to look out for during your Michigan vacation. The most distinct menu items can be found on Upper Peninsula
. Here the locals enjoy a pasty (diced potatoes, beef, and vegetables in a pastry case), first brought to the region by Cornish miners, or a cudighi (a sausage-patty submarine sandwich), introduced to the Iron Mountain region by northern Italian immigrants. Unsurprisingly, freshwater fish such as whitefish and lake perch are enjoyed throughout the Great Lakes State, but they appear with greatest frequency on Upper Peninsula menus, thanks to the region's shoreline on bountiful Lake Superior.
Michigan is known for its rich, creamy fudge, which comes in a wide range of flavors. The most famous of all hails from Mackinac Island State Park
, where locals make it by hand and leave it to cool, tantalizingly, on marble slabs in the shop. Michigan also grows over 70 percent of the U.S.'s tart cherries, mainly in the region around Traverse City
. On your tour of Michigan, you'll notice cherries creep into a lot of dishes to add local flavor, and a Michigan salad comes topped with the dried fruit. In addition to cherry orchards, Traverse City produces a lot of wine, with vineyard tours popular in the region. In Detroit
, locals enjoy a Coney Island hot dog--topped with chili, onion, and mustard--named for the Greek-American restaurants in which they originated. Two of the most famous--Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island--are situated next door to each other on Lafayette St.
Shopping in Michigan
In Michigan's larger populated centers you will find all the shopping options you would expect from a typical U.S. town or city. Not far from Detroit, Ann Arbor
boasts a notably high concentration of independent bookstores per capita, catering to its large academic population, and you'll also find many other interesting boutiques and shops. Some of the more distinctive shopping experiences can be had in towns and cities that show a strong influence from their founding immigrant population. In Holland
, for example, you can buy locally grown tulips, wooden clogs, and other Dutch-themed souvenirs. Among Frankenmuth's Bavarian shops it's hard to miss Bronner's Christmas Wonderland
, a mammoth decoration and gift store that is as much a sightseeing spectacle as it is a retail destination. But the real treat from this prominent agricultural state may just be the Michigan cherries. To try virtually any cherry product imaginable, from jams and preserves to mustards and barbecue sauces, add Cherry Republic TC Cafe
to your Michigan itinerary.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to Michigan
History of Michigan
Before the arrival of Europeans, eight indigenous tribes occupied the lands now called Michigan. In 1620 the French explorer Étienne Brûlé became the first European to visit the region, and in 1668 the missionary Jacques Marquette established the first permanent European settlement at Sault Ste. Marie. Stop at River of History Museum
during your Michigan holiday to learn about the early settlement of the region. By the mid-18th century, several trading posts, forts, and villages were scattered across the Michigan countryside, home to a few hundred European inhabitants. The most important was Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit, which grew over time into the city of Detroit.
For the next hundred years or so, multiple parties contested ownership of the region. Following the Seven Years War, the French ceded it to the British (along with all French colonies east of the Mississippi). The British then handed it over to the newly formed United States of America, in the wake of the American Revolution, which most local colonizers supported. During this period there was significant unrest with the Native American population, who were opposed to colonial rule and even fought a three-year war against the British. Despite handing over the majority of the territory to the fledgling American government, the British continued to occupy Detroit and other fortifications. They withdrew in 1794, only to briefly recapture Detroit during the War of 1812, along with strategically important Fort Mackinac
, which is now a museum holding regular live demonstrations and historical reenactments. During this tempestuous period, the region first became part of the Northwest Territory, then Indiana Territory, then finally its own Michigan Territory. It was not until January 26, 1837, after significant population growth and following a two-year border dispute with Ohio, that Michigan officially became the 26th state of the Union.
The 1800s saw rapid growth in Michigan thanks to the advent of the railroads and the opening of the Erie Canal, which allowed goods and migrants easy passage to the state from the East Coast. In the 1840s, the discovery of large deposits of copper and iron on the Upper Peninsula produced the state's first foray into industrialization, led by experienced Cornish miners. Though far removed from the theater of action, Michigan provided many troops to the Civil War, including the renowned General Custer (then a second lieutenant). Michigan's population continued to expand, and industry diversified into logging, dairy farming, and more. At the turn of the century, three major automobile makers--Olds Motor Vehicle Co., Ford Motor Company, and General Motors--were founded between 1897 and 1908, triggering a great manufacturing boom centered around Detroit, which soon grew into the fourth-largest city in the U.S. The Henry Ford
, one of the top tourist attractions in Michigan, records the history of industrialization in America, including, of course, the Detroit automobile industry Ford helped to build.
Driven by, but not limited to, the prosperous auto industry, manufacturing soon made up the majority of Detroit's economy. Subsequently, the Great Depression hit Detroit, and thus Michigan, even harder than most. The slump was compounded by the decline of the state's mining industry, as the remaining ore deposits were deep underground and costly to extract. The state only bounced back thanks to the huge demand for weapons and military vehicles during World War II. During the prosperous postwar years, Detroit made a name for itself all over again: in an unassuming cluster of converted houses, a small Detroit record label created the immensely popular Motown Sound. Today you can visit the former label headquarters, nicknamed Hitsville, U.S.A.
, where a museum houses scores of memorabilia and preserves one of the original recording studios--a must-see on any music lover's Michigan tour.
By the 1970s, deindustrialization and the decline of the American motor industry had taken its toll, and Michigan had the highest unemployment rate of any U.S. state. Since then it has expended a great amount of effort, with varying success, to become less reliant on manufacturing and the auto industry. Despite the economic hardship of recent years, Michigan, and Detroit in particular, has maintained a vibrant culture and music scene, notable for being at the forefront of the electronic music movement in the late 80s and early 90s, and the invention of techno.
Landscape of Michigan
The beautiful landscape is one of the biggest draws of Michigan tourism. Michigan sits on the U.S.-Canada border, in the midst of four of the Great Lakes--Michigan, Superior, Huron, and the tip of Erie. Two peninsulas make up the state, the lower of which is shaped like a mitten held vertically, with the thin Upper Peninsula above it, jutting out west to east from neighboring Wisconsin. Mountainous in the west, and featuring miles of untouched coastline, the sparsely populated "U.P." holds immense natural beauty. Tahquamenon Falls State Park
exemplifies the Upper Peninsula's undeveloped hardwood forests, which blanket 90 percent of the region. The lakeshore of the predominantly flat Lower Peninsula features long sandy beaches such as those near Holland
, and vast sand dunes, like at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
. The northern interior of the Lower Peninsula is also densely wooded, and you'll find cherry orchards and vineyards clustered around Traverse City
. Farther south, the forest gives way to open farmland and a few rolling hills.
Holidays & Festivals in Michigan
Along with the rest of the U.S., Michigan celebrates several public holidays throughout the year, such as Christmas, New Year's, Independence Day, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving. In addition, the state fills the calendar with a wide range of festivals, ranging from internationally renowned cultural events to small-scale celebrations showcasing local flavor. In Detroit, the International Jazz Festival (the largest free jazz festival in the world) and Movement (an electronic music festival) provide a big boost to Michigan tourism. Numerous smaller festivals celebrate the heritage of early immigrants to the area, such as the Tulip Festival in Holland
, and the various Bavarian-themed festivals that Frankenmuth
hosts. In 2012, Grand Rapids
was named Beer City U.S.A., in part thanks to its Winter Beer Festival.
Michigan Travel Tips
Climate of Michigan
The Great Lakes moderate the temperature in Michigan, taking the bite out of winter and cooling things off in the summer. As a result, the state has a temperate climate, though the seasons are well defined, so you can plan your Michigan holiday at any time of the year. The Upper Peninsula is generally cooler than the Lower by about 5 degrees Celsius (or 10 degrees Fahrenheit). The lakes also produce a lot of cloud cover in the state, and during winter there are two bands--on the western shoreline of the Lower Peninsula and the northern shoreline of the Upper Peninsula respectively--that see up to two or three times the amount of snow as elsewhere in Michigan.
Transportation in Michigan
The Lower Peninsula is well connected by road and rail, especially in the southeast around the Detroit Metro area. Within most Lower Peninsula cities you should have no problem getting around without a vehicle of your own, but a car would be useful if you plan on visiting a lot of different coastal towns during your Michigan trip. You will find a car more or less essential on the Upper Peninsula, as the small and widely spread out towns lack comprehensive infrastructure. The Mackinac Bridge connects the two peninsulas by road, but there is no rail connection between them.