If you’re planning a visit to Michigan, you’ll want to check out my extensive Michigan Bucket List, which includes 28 of the best Michigan highlights you won’t want to miss, including touring a brewery and winery or two, taking in a game at the Big House in Ann Arbor, and spending some time in Detroit, my favorite city on the rise!
I grew up in Michigan, though it’s only over the past few years that I’ve really come to appreciate all that the state has to offer. I’ve lived in Chicago for 12 years and in another decade my time here will surpass the years I lived in Michigan and yet in my mind, Michigan will always be home.
I’m not alone in that feeling, either. Maybe all states evoke similarly strong feelings in their residents that Michigan residents feel for their states; I really don’t know. What I do know is that I don’t know any former Michigander that can resist the lure of one of Tim Allen’s Pure Michigan commercials. Watch the following video and tell me that you don’t want to immediately head to the Great Lake State yourself.
I’ve put together a Michigan Bucket List, on the off-chance that you visit someday. Whether you’re looking for city or nature, wine or beer, lakes or skiing, Michigan has it all.
This bucket list is in no particular preference order, although I have fashioned it so that you could fly into Detroit and make a clockwise circle around the state.
Michigan Bucket List
8 Mile Road, made famous in the movie 8 Mile starring Eminem, separates Detroit from the northern suburbs. I grew up at what would have been 8 1/2 mile, so Detroit was literally always the next city over. My dad grew up in the city and would frequently drive us through telling us the history of the city’s rise as a car city and then fall during the riots in the mid 60s. This is a city with a lot of history that has fallen on tough times but is climbing its way out brick by brick. (Is the blight still there? Yes, of course. But there’s plenty of beauty, too. And there’s even beauty in the blight.)
Whether you want to visit the casinos – such as the MGM Grand Detroit, grab a meal in Mexicantown or Greektown, enjoy the artistic masterpieces at the world-renowned Detroit Institute of Arts or at “The Belt,” or just spend a day on the river, Detroit is a symbol of what can happen to any major metropolitan city, but I also like to think it’s a shining symbol of hope. Helping to lead Detroit’s renaissance are the tech companies that are staking out space downtown (it has been called the next Silicon Valley), an unbelievable sports scene, fine dining establishments that are moving in and trendy shopping like Shinola. Another sign that Detroit should be on your radar of places to visit? Shake Shack just announced they’re opening up shop downtown. Shake Shack doesn’t just open anywhere!
Detroit Institute of Arts
If you find yourself in Detroit then a visit to the Detroit Institute of Arts (5200 Woodward Avenue, Detroit) is a must. The museum has more than 100 galleries featuring art by the likes of Van Gogh, Picasso, Degas, Cézanne, and the expansive Detroit Industry mural by Diego Rivera that he considered to be one of the masterpieces of his career.
Lions, Tigers, and Red Wings, Oh My!
If you love sports, you’re going to love Detroit and will definitely want to take in a game! Detroit is a big sports city. Part of the regrowth of the city has stationed Ford Field, where the Lions play, and Comerica Park, where the Tigers play, right next to each other. The Red Wings, Detroit’s Hockey Team, will soon be joining them in the same area.
Opening Day for the Tigers is one of the biggest days of the year, and they don’t call Detroit “Hockey Town” for nothing. My recommendation if you want to catch a Tigers game and see living legend Miguel Cabrera in person is to go on a Friday night and enjoy the fireworks show afterward!
This unassuming blue and white house in Detroit that says “Hitsville U.S.A.” is where Motown began and is now home to the Motown Museum (2648 West Grand Blvd). You can stand in Studio A where the biggest Motown stars recorded music until 1972. You can view the upper flat where Berry Gordy lived with his family, and take in Motown memorabilia, photos and artifacts.
Belle Isle Park
I know most people probably think of blight when they hear the word, “Detroit.” But did you know that there’s actually a state park on an island in the middle of the Detroit River called Belle Isle Park? It’s there, it’s beautiful and it’s definitely worth visiting if you find yourself in Detroit!
Fun Fact: Belle Isle was designed by the same man who designed Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted.
On Belle Isle you’ll find a zoo, conservatory, aquarium, golf practice facilities, plenty of room for biking, jogging, and walking. There’s even a beach! Be sure to stop by the James Scott Memorial Fountain for a great photo opportunity. Racing fans may want to attend the Belle Isle Grand Prix, which is held on the island every June.
Here’s something you can’t do just anywhere: From the south end of Belle Isle you can take a photo of yourself with both the Windsor and Detroit skylines in the background!
Michigan Stadium, aka The Big House
I might be a little biased considering that the University of Michigan is my alma mater, but there’s nothing like watching a football game in The Big House.
Michigan Stadium is the largest college football stadium in the country, holding just shy of 110,000 people. Game day is a religious experience in Ann Arbor, with students, alums, and other fans rising at dawn to begin tailgating. You won’t find more passionate football fans anywhere in the country. The past decade or so has been a downer for the winningest football program of all time, but fans are reenergized since the University hired alum and former football star Jim Harbaugh to be the team’s head coach.
Don’t forget to pick up a Michigan tee before heading to the game! Fanatics has a great collection, and this classic Michigan tee costs just $12.99. Don’t worry though if you head to campus without one. Just head to The M Den or Moe’s Sports Shops, which has been a Michigan institution for 100+ years!
Also, it probably deserves its own spot on this list, but while you’re in Ann Arbor don’t forget to stop at Zingerman’s Deli for one of the largest and most delicious sandwiches you will ever eat. Zingerman’s is included on nearly every list of “best delis in America” and for good reason. I promise the sandwiches on the extensive menu are worth the wait… and yes, there will be a wait.
Hell is real.
And it’s in Michigan.
I don’t know that you actually need to do anything in Hell, but you will be able to say that you have “literally been to hell and back” and all sorts of other jokes.
Hell is located pretty close to Ann Arbor (I’m sure there’s a joke in there somewhere, especially if you’re a Michigan State or Ohio State fan.).
Go on a Brewery Tour
If you love craft beer then you are going to love visiting Michigan. Michiganders take their beer – and their beer brewing – quite seriously. Eight Michigan Beers made RateBeer.com’s list of 100 best beers in the WORLD.
Two breweries that should be at the top of your list are Founder’s Brewing Co. (235 Grandville Ave SW, Grand Rapids) and Bell’s Brewery (355 E Kalamazoo Ave, Kalamazoo). I don’t drink beer, but according to my husband you need to get the Breakfast Stout (if it’s in season) at Founder’s and Oberon or Hopslam at Bell’s.
If you won’t be in Grand Rapids or Kalamazoo, don’t worry. There are breweries all across the state. If you’re going to be in Detroit, thus near my hometown of Ferndale, stop by Woodward Avenue Brewers (“WAB”). I’m pretty sure this brewery is what made my hometown a place to visit. For more breweries, check out this Michigan beer map.
Tulip Time Festival in Holland
I haven’t crossed everything off of my Michigan Bucket List, and attending the tulip festival is one of those things I still need to do. The Tulip Time Festival is held each May in the city of Holland. If you’re curious about the name, that part of the state has a large Dutch community.
More than 4.5 million tulips bloom in Holland each year, which makes it an incredibly beautiful place to be. In addition to viewing the blooms, the Tulip Time Festival features parades, Dutch dance performances, trolley tours, and more.
If you’re looking for food and drink after walking all around the city, I highly recommend New Holland Brewing Company, which is where we had our wedding rehearsal dinner. Their pizza is delicious and I’m told the beer is, too. If you plan on staying a night or two (and I wouldn’t blame you as this part of the state is gorgeous!), I recommend the CityFlatsHotel. It’s a wonderful boutique hotel and it’s where we stayed when we got married.
ArtPrize in Grand Rapids
Each fall the city of Grand Rapids hosts an international art show called ArtPrize. The show brings artists from around the globe to Michigan’s second largest city. Visitors get to enjoy ALL of the art for free and even have a say in who wins! More than $500,000 in prize money gets awarded each year, with half being decided by a panel of judges and half being decided by a public vote.
ArtPrize begins in late September each year and takes place over the course of three weeks.
While you should come for the art, Grand Rapids is a great city to visit (and I’m not just saying that because this is where most of my husband’s family lives)! The New York Times named Grand Rapids as one of their 52 Places to Go in 2016, in large part because of ArtPrize and also because Grand Rapids is known as Beer City USA thanks to its 40 breweries!
If food is what you seek – and why wouldn’t you after looking at all of that art? – The B.O.B. has a unique set-up with multiple restaurants contained within the space. I might be partial to them because they catered our wedding. HopCat is a “craft beer mecca” and their food is darn good, too! San Chez Bistro is a great date night restaurant and the Downtown Market has tons of different options, including one of my favorite bakeries, Sweetie-Licious. I recommend getting the Cheery Cherry Lemon Bomb. It’s a massive cookie that will change your life.
As for where to stay, the Amway Grand Plaza is an iconic hotel that’s right downtown.
If you’re planning on visiting the Grand Rapids area, be sure to request a free visitor’s guide!
Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum
You’ll find Michigan’s lone presidential museum in Grand Rapids. The Gerald R. Ford Museum (303 Pearl St NW, Grand Rapids) is full of artifacts from throughout Gerald and Betty Ford’s lives, and especially during his time leading this great country.
While any American history buff will enjoy a stop at the museum, I recall going with my parents a few times when I was younger and always found it entertaining. I particularly recall enjoying the recreation of the oval office. The museum isn’t terribly large, so you need not budget more than a couple of hours.
Get Cherries from Traverse City
People take their cherries very seriously in Michigan, and it all culminates in the National Cherry Festival that takes place in Traverse City each July. Traverse City’s nickname? The Cherry Capital of the World. Like I said, cherries are serious business.
If you can’t make the festival, you can still enjoy fresh Michigan cherries from a variety of U-Pick Cherry Farms, typically during July and August. If that doesn’t fit your schedule, find a Cherry Republic to stock up on more dried cherries and cherry-flavored products than you could ever possibly eat.
It’s worth mentioning that Traverse City is one of my all-time favorite cities in the state of Michigan. The city has a small-town feel, but there’s so much to do in the area between the lake, the sand dunes, the downtown area that’s filled with cute shops and restaurants, the Leelanau Peninsula, wineries galore, and all of the other small vacation towns in the area. I have big plans of retiring in Traverse City one day and recommend that everyone visits!
Sleeping Bear Dunes
It’s a rite of passage that if you’re visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes that you must at least attempt the dune climb.
Good luck with that one!
I’ve attempted it on a few occasions, but it’s one of the few things my mild asthma prevents me from doing. I used to be able to make it about halfway before I felt like collapsing from exertion and a lack of oxygen.
But you? You can totally do it! 😉 Truthfully, many (most?) people DO make it to the top! I’m told the view is spectacular up there, and that the run or roll back down the dune is exhilarating.
In all seriousness, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a treasure that’s not to be missed. ABC News even named it one of the Most Beautiful Places in America. You can spend a day swimming, hiking, canoeing, having picnics and enjoying the best of Mother Nature. Oh, and with a westward view over Lake Michigan, the sunset is not to be missed!
Fall Color Tour
While New England is known for putting on an amazing show when fall sets in, you’ll find a similarly amazing site throughout most of Michigan, but particularly as you head north.
For a drive you’re not soon to forget, go on the M-22 Color Tour, which is a 116 mile drive through Manistee, Benzie, and Leelanau Counties. If you can’t make it to northwest Michigan, the Pure Michigan website provides suggestions for 27 different color tour drives in Michigan.
In addition to being known for beer, Michigan also has a thriving wine scene! Michigan’s west coast has quite a selection of wineries, and the Leelanau Peninsula, in particular, has an impressive selection. You could easily spend a couple of days going from winery to winery, sampling the wine and enjoying the lush countryside.
The Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail features 26 different wineries, so there’s sure to be wine for everyone.
Want my personal recommendations? Ask and ye shall receive!
The best wineries in the Leelanau Peninsula:
Black Star Farms (10844 Revold Rd, Suttons Bay) • 5 tastes for $5
Black Star Farms’ Late Harvest Riesling is my favorite wine in the world. If you like sweet wine you will love it! Don’t leave without trying the A Capella Ice Wine, either. I give it an A+ and only wish it didn’t cost nearly $100 per bottle.
Also, if you’re looking for a place to stay in the area, The Inn at Black Star Farms is a popular and scenic option.
45 North Vineyard & Winery (8580 E Horn Rd, Lake Leelanau) • 5 tastes for $5
In addition to have delicious wines, 45 North is just a beautiful place to visit and their grounds are frequently used for weddings.
Another option for sweet wine lovers (there’s a definite theme in my selection of wines to enjoy) is the Peach Crémant, which is a bubbly white wine blend that’s 25% Leelanau peaches. Of course they also have traditional red and white wines, as well as other fruit-based options.
L. Mawby (4519 S Elm Valley Rd, Suttons Bay) • 2 free tastes
Prior to our wedding my now-husband and I made a trip to Leelanau to pick up all of the wine for our reception. We bought a case of the late harvest riesling from Black Star Farms and for our wedding toast we got L. Mawby’s Detroit sparkling wine. All of the wines at this winery are of the sparkling variety.
This goes without saying, but please don’t drink and drive. Please check out these chauffeured wine tours that will let you sit relax and enjoy the wines while someone else takes the wheel.
Drive or Walk Across the Mackinac Bridge
The Mackinac Bridge is over a mile long and is one of the largest suspension bridges in the world. This is the bridge that connects the lower peninsula to the upper peninsula, and even if you don’t plan on spending any time in the UP it is definitely worth at driving across the bridge for the experience.
Alternatively, you can actually WALK the bridge if you’re going to be in the area on Labor Day! I’ve been able to walk the Mackinac Bridge on a few occasions, and while I was young enough to grumble about it at the time, it’s something I hope to do again soon. Walking the bridge is free, though you will have to wake up quite early and there will be tons of other walkers.
(Pssst… Don’t sound like a tourist. “Mackinac” is pronounced “Mackinaw.”)
Visiting Mackinac Island is like going back in time, assuming they ate a LOT of fudge back in time. The island is filled with shops both quaint and touristy, restaurants, ice cream shops and fudge shops. I recommend getting the chocolate peanut butter fudge. Yum!
Cars aren’t allowed on Mackinac Island, so your options for getting around are by foot, bicycle, or horse drawn carriage. You can bring your own bike or rent one from one of the many bike rental locations on the island. As for getting to the island itself, ferries leave every few minutes from St. Ignace in the upper peninsula and Mackinaw City in the lower peninsula. (Yes, it’s Mackinaw with a “w” when it comes to the city. I don’t make these rules!)
If you have the time – and the money – the Grand Hotel is as iconic as it gets. Of course, a night at this majestic hotel will set you back about $500 per night. If you just want to check it out, non-hotel guests can explore the grounds for $10 per person.
Fun Fact: Mackinac Island is where they filmed the classic movie Somewhere in Time, starring Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
A pristine national park is what you will find in the Upper Peninsula’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. There are cliffs, beaches, forests, waterfalls and more at Pictured Rocks. It’s truly an outdoor paradise! According to Good Morning America, Pictured Rocks is America’s #1 Adventure Destination because there’s so much to do!
I’ll admit that I’m not the most outdoorsy person, but luckily there are ways that all of us can enjoy this treasure. If you’re in the area, book one of the Pictured Rocks Cruises. You’ll get to enjoy the best view of that incredible shoreline all while taking pictures (don’t forget your selfie stick so you can be in the photo, too!) and learning about all of the beautiful rock formations that line the coast. Note: Cruises frequently sell out so I would recommend pre-purchasing your tickets online.
You’re not going to find pasties on many Michigan Bucket Lists, I don’t think, but I’m including it on this one because I’m Finnish. I grew up eating pasties and a visit to the upper peninsula always meant getting a few of of the best ones in the world.
Pastie (pronounced pass-tee), is a meat pie that originally arrived in the UP via Cornish miners, but was adopted by the Finnish miners when they arrived shortly thereafter. It’s hearty and delicious. Small pastie shops line the roads in the Upper Peninsula and I suggest stopping whenever you find one. Want to know where to get the best pastie in the upper peninsula? Awesome Mitten has a few pastie destinations.
Want to try your hand at making a pastie? Check out this pastie recipe from Foodie with Family.
Kitch-iti-kipi (say that 10 times fast) is Michigan’s largest spring. The water is absolutely crystal clear and you can see the fish swimming and the sand at the bottom of the spring swirling around. Apparently the water flowing into the spring is a constant 45 degrees, which means the spring never freezes and visitors can stop by year-round.
The platform in the image above is actually a raft that visitors can use to travel across the spring. It’s on a self-operated cable system so you’ll have to do a bit of work to get out into the water.
Visiting Kitch-iti-kipi likely won’t take long, but there is a fabulous picnic area on the grounds. Also, be sure to visit the Palms Book Trading Post for an ice cream. No trip to the UP is complete without a cone or two… it just tastes better up there!
Tahquamenon Falls State Park
Regardless of what time of year you’re there, the Tahquemenon Falls in the upper peninsula is a stunning site. (Check out this photo of the frozen falls. Amazing!) The upper falls, pictured above, is one of the largest waterfalls east of the Mississippi River. The falls are in the middle of a 50,000-acre state park that includes 40 different hiking trails, 13 lakes, and 24 miles of the Tahquemenon River. You can camp, hike, fish, and canoe in this area. And don’t forget to take a few photos of the magnificent falls, of course!
Sault Ste. Marie
At the Soo Locks, you will get to see ships traverse the 21-foot drop between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. The first lock was built in 1855 and the locks remain an engineering marvel. Today more than 7,000 ships pass through these waters each year, which means that whenever you go you are sure to see the locks in action!
While in Sault Ste. Marie, you’ll also want to check out the Point Iroquois Lighthouse. While Michigan is not lacking in lighthouses, this is one of the most picturesque.
Swim in all of the Great Lakes
They don’t call Michigan the Great Lake State for nothing! Michigan is surrounded by freshwater lakes on almost all sides, which means most Michiganders spend their summers at the beach instead of at the pool. There’s always a new beach to explore! If you don’t have time to spend a few hours at each beach, you can follow my dad’s lead and find a good place to hop out of the car, jump in the lake for a minute or two, then continue on your merry way.
Watch the sun rise over Lake Huron and set over Lake Michigan
A drive across the state takes only a couple of hours, which means that you can easily watch the sun rise over Lake Huron in the east and set over Lake Michigan in the west on the same day.
Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland
Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland (25 Christmas Lane, Frankenmuth) is one of those places that has to be seen to be believed. It is always Christmas in this giant behemoth of a store. Here you can buy Christmas lights and ornaments, tree skirts, and even Santa Suits whenever you please. They’re open 361 days each year, and it goes without saying that Christmas is one of the four days they take off.
If the allure of visiting the world’s largest Christmas Store doesn’t do it for you, visiting the city that Bronner’s calls home, Frankenmuth, might. Frankenmuth is called “Michigan’s Little Bavaria,” as there are a few Bavarian-themed restaurants, hotels, and gift shops. Be sure to put Zehnder’s Restaurant on your list for a traditional family-style chicken dinner. The Bavarian Inn Lodge is my recommendation should you decide to stay the night.
Walking around Frankenmuth is a lot of fun, though it is one of the most traditionally touristy parts of the state. Just a word of warning that Frankenmuth is fairly small and can get pretty busy, especially during the summer and close to Christmas. Reservations are more or less a requirement for all meals and hotel stays.
Go Apple Picking
Michigan is the third largest apple-growing state in the country, and come fall, most Michiganders make a trip or two to an apple orchard to pick some fruit for themselves, as well as pick up a gallon of cider and some apple cider donuts. On nice weekend days, you can expect the lines to be fairly lengthy.
A couple of my favorite cider mills are Yates Cider Mill (1990 E Avon Rd, Rochester Hills), which has been featured on the Food Network, and Franklin Cider Mill (7450 Franklin Road, Bloomfield Hills), both of which are located in southeast Michigan, just north of Detroit. If you’re on the west side of the state, going to Crane Orchards and Cider Mill is a must. Be sure to try a slice of pie – it’s what they’re known for – and it’s what we served at our wedding instead of cake!
Woodward Dream Cruise
Anyone who knew me way back when would probably be shocked to find that the Woodward Dream Cruise made this list. The Dream Cruise is the world’s largest one-day automotive event, annually drawing 1.5 million people to the region during the third weekend in August. While that’s awesome for classic car buffs, it was less awesome for me considering the event originated in my hometown – Ferndale – and on my birthday weekend, no less. Needless to say, I did a lot of pouting about this event that kept everyone busy and made it impossible to go anywhere. Now though, I think it’s pretty darn neat.
Woodward Avenue (M-1), which starts in Detroit and travels through the northern suburbs, was the first highway in the nation. Makes sense, considering Detroit is also the birthplace of the car! Every year, classic car owners and classic car fans line Woodward to celebrate the classic cars of bygone days, the days when everyone would “cruise Woodward.”
If you’re a classic car fan, this is one event you’ll want to put on your calendar. The cruise is like a multi-city carnival, with classic cars driving up and down Woodward while people line the street to watch them go by. People travel from around the globe with their cars to participate in this event, and there are also myriad classic car shows throughout the area.
The Henry Ford
The Henry Ford (20900 Oakwood Blvd, Dearborn), which includes Henry Ford Museum, Green Field Village, and the Ford Rouge Factory Tour, invites you to step back in time. It’s part traditional museum and part historical recreation and will introduce you to the innovation that once fueled Detroit to become the birthplace of the automotive industry.
Henry Ford Museum includes Henry Ford’s personal collection of American inventions, as well as the bus made famous by Rosa Parks, the rocking chair Abraham Lincoln was sitting in when he was assassinated, and a cot used by George Washington, among many other items. There are trains, dollhouses, agricultural equipment, airplanes, so much more. One of my favorite exhibits, when I was younger, was their collection of billboards that used to line the roads in the 50s and 60s. Times have certainly changed!
Greenfield Village is a living community. Those who work there dress in costume and recreate life as it was back in the good old days. You’ll find a collection of authentic structures spread out over 80 acres, including the lab where Thomas Edison conceived of and built the lightbulb, the home where Noah Webster wrote the first American Dictionary, and a building where Abraham Lincoln once practiced law. Greenfield Village is a hands-on and interactive environment that’s perfect for those both young and old. One of my very favorite parts of Greenfield Village? The giant carousel.
Have a Coney Dog… or Two
Believe it or not, we have worked our way through the entire state of Michigan, covering what I consider to be the top Michigan Bucket List items. I’ll leave you here in Detroit, right where we started, where you’ll need to make the ultimate decision: Do you prefer the coney dogs at American Coney Island (114 W Lafayette Blvd, Detroit) or Lafayette Coney Island (118 W Lafayette Blvd, Detroit)?
Despite the name that makes people think they started in Coney Island, coney dogs – hot dogs covered in chili, yellow mustard, and raw onion – originated in Detroit and were likely created by Greek immigrants. Two brothers, Bill and Gust Keros, opened American Coney Island in 1919, but after a falling out Bill opened Lafayette Coney Island right next door in 1936. The two restaurants have been battling it out for top dog status ever since and most coney lovers swear one restaurant is better than the other.
Michigan is an absolutely beautiful state that has so much to offer year-round. Should you be planning a visit – or if I’ve convinced you to give Pure Michigan a chance – feel free to bookmark my Michigan Bucket List for future reference.
If you’re from Michigan or have visited before, do you think anything is missing from the list? What would go on your own Michigan Bucket List of must-visit places?