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Exploring Pure Michigan: The Top 10 Places You Must Visit

I am a high school teacher in East Tennessee who grew up in Michigan. I'm also an alumn of Michigan State University.

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Places to Visit in Michigan

So, maybe you've seen them? The Pure Michigan ads, that is. The immensely beautiful and outright intriguing commercials are narrated by none other than Tim Allen, a fellow Michigander. They depict the state’s breathtaking yet underrated natural splendor that rivals anything you may see on the Discovery Channel. The Pure Michigan advertisement campaign was started in 2006 by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation in order to attract more tourists to the region. And its success has made Pure Michigan both a motto and a saving grace for the state. After the economic turmoil Michigan has experienced in the past decades, tourism has taken a larger role in recent years.

Why Visit Michigan?

But still the question remains, why visit Michigan? In two words: diverse beauty. Michigan’s extraordinarily beautiful places range from beaches and sand dunes, to forests and farm lands, to tens of thousands of lakes, some of which contain islands where horses and bicycles are the only means of transportation. In fact, in Michigan, you are never more than a few hours from a Great Lake, of which the state has four. Apple trees, blueberry farms, and cherry festivals are notorious in Michigan. And, part of Michigan runs through the 45th parallel, halfway between the Equator and the North Pole, a latitude that put a place called Bordeaux, France on the map. Here, like Bordeaux, Michigan also has several wineries that make some impressive blends, and you don't even have to leave the country to sample some of the best wines around!

Now that I've whet your appetite, let me give you a few specific places in Michigan that you'll absolutely want to go visit. Whether you've been to Michigan before or are thinking about taking a trip for the first time, you won't want to miss these incredible spots.

10. Lansing

Since I spent four years of my life in Lansing while attending Michigan State University (MSU), I couldn't resist putting this on the list. You could say that I am partial to this city. As the capital of Michigan, Lansing has much to offer to families and young people alike. There are delicious restaurants that have seemed to withstand the test of time, always drawing large crowds. These include places like Emil's, Clara's, and the Golden Harvest Restaurant, to name a few.

Then, there is the university. Founded in 1855 as the pioneering land-grant institution in the US, the MSU campus is situated in East Lansing. East Lansing undoubtedly has more in the way of nightlife and hipster restaurants that appeal to the college crowd. Be sure to try out the Peanut Barrel, Lou and Harry's, and Crunchy's. At the MSU Dairy Store, you can get cheeses and ice cream produced on campus by students majoring in a variety of health science fields. The campus itself is beautiful, comprised of a wide array of buildings and facilities spanning over 5,200 acres and serving nearly 50,000 students that attend the University. It is certainly worth a stop, if only on your way to another destination.

Beaumont Tower on the MSU campus

Beaumont Tower on the MSU campus

9. Frankenmuth

Home to the largest Christmas store in the world, Bronner's Christmas Wonderland, Frankenmuth is a quaint town that has been around for more than a century and a half. Its name is German, and likewise, most of the town's original residents were German. There is still a large population of German people in Frankenmuth, and because of this, the town has been termed "Michigan's Little Bavaria."

Frankenmuth is located on the east side of the state within what's known as the thumb region, which means that it is near many larger cities such as Saginaw, Flint, and Bay City, which sits on Lake Huron. One of the largest cities in Michigan, Detroit, is only 90 miles away. Due in part to its proximity to these larger metropolitan areas, Frankenmuth is an ideal day trip and in fact, has been voted the top day trip destination by readers of The Detroit News.

So, what to do in Frankenmuth? I have already mentioned Bronner's Christmas Wonderland, which is truly a feat of ingenuity. You must go here if you visit Frankenmuth, whether or not it is the holiday season. Of the many additional attractions, a meal at Zehnder's restaurant downtown is a must. Famous for their family-style chicken dinners, Zehnder's has been in operation nearly as long as Frankenmuth has been a city, and is currently the country's largest family restaurant with seating for nearly 1,500 guests at a time. The restaurant even claims that they serve more than 1,000,000 customers each year—and this is all from one location! If that many people eat there, it must be good.

Bronner's Christmas Wonderland has all of the decorations imaginable year-round

Bronner's Christmas Wonderland has all of the decorations imaginable year-round

Zehnder's is a famous dinner spot, serving over one million customers a year

Zehnder's is a famous dinner spot, serving over one million customers a year

8. Muskegon

As the largest city on the western shores of Lake Michigan, Muskegon consists of 26 miles of sandy beach. Like many of the cities that border the Great Lakes, the Muskegon area has numerous historical lighthouses, many of which are tourist attractions and draw crowds throughout the year. The area is also home to a couple of state parks, including P.J. Hoffmaster State Park, which offers recreational activities such as camping, hiking, cross-country skiing in the winter, and dune climbing.

Off of the sand and in other parts of the city, there are many museums and other historical attractions. These include the Hackley & Hume Historic site, comprised of restored mansions built by some of Michigan's most prominent lumber moguls of the past. In addition, from fall through spring, the Frauenthal Theater plays host to traveling Broadway productions and symphonies. Lastly, Michigan's largest amusement park, Michigan's Adventure, is found just a few miles outside of Muskegon and features more than 53 rides including roller coasters, go karts, mini golf, and WildWater Adventure, a water park featuring slides, raft rides, wave pools, and children's play areas.

The Thunderhawk roller coaster at Michigan's Adventure

The Thunderhawk roller coaster at Michigan's Adventure

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Heritage Landing at the Muskegon lake shore

Heritage Landing at the Muskegon lake shore

7. Kalamazoo

Yes, there really is a place called Kalamazoo! Located roughly halfway between Detroit and Chicago, Kalamazoo is home to a wide array of cultural activities, a vibrant night life, and arts and entertainment of all sorts. The first Friday of each month, the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo hosts an Art Hop, where patrons circulate among downtown businesses while viewing installations. The Kalamazoo Institute of Arts is a museum that often hosts popular traveling exhibits. In addition, just south of Kalamazoo, in Portage, is the Air Zoo, which displays a variety of aircraft, from historical planes and jets to more modern aircraft.

For outdoor enthusiasts, the Kalamazoo-Portage area has many parks with walking and biking trails, playgrounds for children, and outdoor venues for entertainment and family gatherings. Kayaking and canoeing are also available at some parks where creeks and rivers are found. The city of Portage has also created the Portage Bikeway, a system comprised of over 55 miles of pathways and bike lanes utilizing the roadways already created in the area. This is a great way to move about the town and see some of the local attractions.

Kalamazoo is also known for its restaurants, breweries, and wineries, all of which feature locally made products with unique twists. Night life venues abound in the downtown area, highlighting local musicians and bands on nearly a daily basis. And with a university nearby (Western Michigan University), it is no wonder this area is known for its eccentricities and cultural diversity.

Downtown Kalamazoo

Downtown Kalamazoo

6. South Haven

South Haven is a sleepy beach town on Lake Michigan just about an hour west of Kalamazoo. In South Haven you will find small eateries, bed and breakfasts, a hotel or two, a yacht and sailing club, and lots of rental properties. In addition to what you will find, South Haven takes pride in what you will not: big name businesses, restaurants, or shopping malls. There is somewhat of an outdoor mall, if you will, but it’s entirely made up of quaint specialty shops and gift stores unique to South Haven. Located on the main street downtown, these shops stretch for several blocks. Check out The Blueberry Store, Decadent Dogs, and Props for a unique shopping experience!

After shopping, grab a bite to eat at the popular downtown restaurant, Clementines, or take a walk down North or South Beach and visit the century-old lighthouse on South Pier. You'll enjoy every minute of it!

South Beach looking out at the South Pier lighthouse

South Beach looking out at the South Pier lighthouse

Clementine's restaurant downtown

Clementine's restaurant downtown

5. Detroit

It's safe to say that you are probably already somewhat familiar with Detroit, the largest city in Michigan and the 10th largest city in the US. Founded in 1701, Detroit has been given numerous nicknames, including the Renaissance City, the Motor City, Hockeytown, and, more simply, the D. The city has activities for almost anybody—sports teams, casinos, museums, entertainment, and many other attractions. What's more, most who live in Detroit will tell you that the economy seems to be improving in the area. Slowly, but surely.

Detroit gave us the automobile and Motown, and it is still a hub of innovation and forward thinking. Sitting on the eastern border of Michigan, the city is one of only a few spots where one can take a short trip and cross into Canada. And in Dearborn just outside of Detroit lies the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, both of which take visitors back to an earlier time. Anyone interested in the automobile industry should also make a point to tour the Ford Rouge Factory, just down the road from the Museum and Village.

Satellite image of Detroit

Satellite image of Detroit

Looking toward Ford Field the night of Super Bowl XL in Detroit

Looking toward Ford Field the night of Super Bowl XL in Detroit

4. Isle Royale

The largest island in Lake Superior and the second largest belonging to the state of Michigan, Isle Royale and its nearly 450 smaller surrounding islands have been designated a National Park since the 1930s. With no permanent residents living on the island, Isle Royale comprises just over 200 square miles of forest, crystal clear water, and a diverse array of wildlife. In fact, the relationship between the moose and wolves found on the island has been studied in great detail by ecologists for many years. Beyond this, there are many species of fish, reptiles, mammals, and amphibians that define the island.

To visit the island, one must take a ferry, seaplane, or other means, as it is inaccessible by roadways. The park itself is open to the public during only the warmer months, usually from April through October. While visiting, you could go hiking, fishing, boating, kayaking, or simply nature watching. Camping is also available in designated locations throughout the island.

Beach at Huginnin Cove camp area on Isle Royale

Beach at Huginnin Cove camp area on Isle Royale

Moose with calf on Isle Royale

Moose with calf on Isle Royale

3. Petoskey

Sitting on the shores of Lake Michigan's Little Traverse Bay in the northwestern region of the state, Petoskey has long been known for its beauty and spectacular views. Named a "coastal dream town" by Coastal Living Magazine, the city has much to offer tourists and residents alike. Petoskey, along with its neighbor, Bay View, have amazing architecture in the form of Victorian-style cottages. The Victorian homes are so incredibly preserved that Bay View has been deemed a National Historic Landmark. Petoskey is also the namesake for Michigan's state stone, which can be found in droves along the coastline.

Petoskey has long been thought of as a resort town; much of this city has been developed to cater to tourists. As with many of the locations I've highlighted, Petoskey is full of quaint shops owned by locals, gourmet restaurants, and one-of-a-kind attractions. Just outside the city, there are world-class golf courses, ski resorts, and snowmobiling trails. What's more, each August, the city holds a Festival on the Bay with music, children's activities, competitive games, and a promenade featuring vendors from local eateries. However, if you aren't able to visit in August, plan to visit the marina and waterfront anyway, as the sunsets are spectacular year round.

Downtown Petoskey looking towards Little Traverse Bay

Downtown Petoskey looking towards Little Traverse Bay

2. Traverse City

Traverse City could very well be called the cherry capital of the world. For anyone who loves cherries, this town is a must-see. But Traverse City has much more than just produce. Just north of the city are two peninsulas, both of which cross the 45th parallel (which, if you remember from earlier, is conducive to great wine production). It is here that you will find nearly 30 different wineries, many of which, such as Chateau Grand Traverse, are well-known throughout the Midwest and surrounding areas. Not to worry, just down the road there are also several excellent distilleries and breweries for beer lovers to try!

Traverse City is also a hub of arts and entertainment, and plays host to a number of festivals that spotlight a variety of interests. For example, each summer brings the Traverse City Film Festival, a six-day event founded by Michael Moore that highlights independent films, documentaries, and the people who work to create them. Also in July is the National Cherry Festival, which attracts an estimated 500,000 visitors each year. Clearly, this would be something to see!

Of course, Traverse City offers the typical attractions that I have so often mentioned throughout this piece. Shopping, dining, nightlife, outdoor recreation, and children's activities are just a few. Be sure to stop by Moomer's, a small, family-run ice cream shop just five miles outside of downtown, which overlooks the dairy farm where its products are made and offers a one-of-a-kind experience for patrons. Regardless of your interests or tastes, there is something for everyone to love about Traverse City.

Cherry trees in Traverse City

Cherry trees in Traverse City

Vineyards on Old Mission Peninsula

Vineyards on Old Mission Peninsula

A view of the Grand Traverse Bay during the National Cherry Festival

A view of the Grand Traverse Bay during the National Cherry Festival

1. Mackinac Island

And finally, last, but certainly not least: Mackinac Island, the little slice of heaven that embodies all that is Michigan. The Pure Michigan campaign that I mentioned earlier deems Mackinac the only truly "all natural" theme park in America. This is primarily because there are no cars allowed on the island; transportation consists of horses and buggies, bicycles, and your own two feet. Even fire trucks, emergency responders, and street sweepers are pulled by horses! Inevitably, one will feel a level of nostalgia when visiting Mackinac Island, as it appears as though the island itself has somehow managed to escape the pervasive changes that so often accompany the passage of time.

Officially designated a National Historical Landmark, Mackinac Island has been an exercise in preservation and restoration. More than 80% of the 3.8-square-mile island is part of the Mackinac Island State Park, which consists of historical landmarks, hiking, and biking trails. In all, there are only about 500 permanent residents on Mackinac Island, some even living on the state park. However, thousands more will set up temporary residence as seasonal employees at hotels, restaurants, and gift shops.

While visiting Mackinac, be sure to try a bike ride around the island. Along the way, you will encounter interesting rock formations, landmarks, picnic sites, trail heads, rocky beaches, and roads leading to the interior of the island. If you are feeling more adventurous, you can try biking or hiking on a few of the trails on the interior. You should also take some time to walk along the main street downtown, visiting shops and picking up some fudge. Mackinac is famous for its fudge, and many local vendors will even hand out free samples. But most importantly, be sure to take some time and relax on your trip to Mackinac. Soak up all that the island has to offer, and breathe a sigh of relief that you have escaped the stress of everyday life.

Main Street on Mackinac Island

Main Street on Mackinac Island

Birds eye view of Mackinac Island harbor

Birds eye view of Mackinac Island harbor

Mission Point Resort on Mackinac Island

Mission Point Resort on Mackinac Island

© 2012 laarensbak

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