Got the travel bug but don’t want to venture too far from home — or too close to the masses? Our guide to Northern Michigan’s best under-the-radar places to eat, drink and play has you covered
By Chris Loud
Planning a summer vacation these days seems very necessary — and daunting. Why not forget the far-flung locales and stick closer to home? When done right, a trip “Up North” can knock out the travel bug, and most importantly, keep everyone safe in the process. But only if you know where to go — which is where we come in.
From spacious beaches to trails to breweries with killer lake views, here’s a local’s guide to the best under-the-radar spots to eat, drink, and play. A caveat: While we tried to focus more on lesser-known places, we’re also including some popular destinations that just have to be mentioned. In every case, the places we’re featuring have gone above and beyond to make visitors feel safe.
The Leelanau Peninsula
Carved out of a stunning slice of land jutting into Lake Michigan, the Leelanau Peninsula has some of the most spectacular terrain, beaches, and idyllic small towns in the Midwest. (On the Michigan map of your hand, it’s the pinky finger.) It’s just one of those destinations you can’t get wrong, no matter what you do. If you’re limited on time and have to choose just one place to go, start here.
Eat + Drink
A destination for Leelanau locals and visitors alike, Farm Club — which includes a garden, restaurant, brewery, bakery and marketplace — is the Leelanau Peninsula expertly distilled into one location. We recommend taking a hike or bike ride on the nearby Leelanau Trail, then hitting the Farm Club for house-made brews (or a glass of local wine or cider) paired with fresh fare sourced locally — as in, from the massive garden not far from the patio. There’s also a market with grab-and-go items, fresh produce, locally made home goods, books, and more. It’s great for kids, too, with five firepits and plenty of space for them to run around outside.
Just south of Suttons Bay, this brewery and restaurant leans hard into the woodsy northern Michigan feel. The huge beer garden is tucked into the trees and feels like a converted campground, and the top-end barbeque and tavern fare fits perfectly with the casual, slightly wild vibe. Check out the onsite grove of hop vines (used to make several of their beers), play some cornhole and then grab a seat around a fire pit or a small table in the woods — you can’t really go wrong.
45 North Vineyard and Winery
Located between Suttons Bay and the town of Lake Leelanau, 45 North is a great winery for those looking for more of a relaxed tasting experience. True to its name, the winery sits on the 45th parallel, a latitude that produces some of the world’s best grapes (it also travels through Italy’s Piedmont region and Bordeaux in France). It’s no surprise that the wines here are quality: 45 North has won more than 70 awards for varietals including Rieslings, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noirs and more.
Little Traverse Inn
This beautiful roadside inn with an upscale, Scottish/British-inspired tavern (a nod to its UK-born owner) features little outdoor cabins — known, collectively, as “Ice Shanty Village” — that can be reserved for private dining. Little Traverse Inn is a little off the beaten path (about 30 minutes outside of downtown Traverse City), but you can’t beat the drive on M-22, one of the region’s most beautiful stretches of road.
Do + See
Hike to the Beach
Locals know that the area’s best beaches require a bit of a hike. And while they may not divulge all their secret spots, a good place to start is the Leelanau State park at the top of the peninsula. Expect a beautiful forest hike that opens up to wild dunes and pristine Lake Michigan beaches.
Come summer, the inland lakes can get a bit busy. Northport Bay, a large, protected portion of Lake Michigan at the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula, boasts similar water conditions to an inland lake — but with lots of space and fewer boats. Speaking of boats, if you have one, launch it at Northport
Marina, or rent one (or a paddle board) from North Shore Outfitters in town.
Chasing the sunset is a classic Leelanau pastime: You’ll find locals gathered at remote beaches almost every evening taking in the stunning sights. If you want a spectacular, high-elevation view, check out Peterson Park near Northport, or Pyramid Point and Empire Bluffs down near the towns of Glen Arbor and Empire. If all else fails, just face west.
In the past couple years, mountain biking has exploded in the Leelanau Peninsula, with brand new trails being designed and built all over, new bike-focused shops popping up and mountain-biking classes offered for kids. One of the area’s best trails is at Palmer Woods Forest Reserve, which caters to both beginners and experts. There are plenty of hiking and birding opportunities onsite, too.
Leelanau State Park
This family-friendly campground covers the entire tip of the Leelanau Peninsula, and it has everything: 1,550 acres to explore, wooded trails to hike, Lake Michigan views, a modern playground and a historic lighthouse all within steps.
Falling Waters Lodge
This recently updated boutique hotel overlooks — you guessed it — a rushing waterfall that flows into Leland’s historic Fishtown. Expect to hear the waterfall from your room and catch amazing views of Lake Michigan. Bonus: You can walk out the door to beautiful Van’s Beach as well as Leland’s many shops and restaurants.
It’s the hub for food, drink, art, and culture in Northern Michigan — and with visitors from all over the country flocking to its beautiful beaches and bustling downtown, it’s definitely not a secret anymore. Still, it’s possible to carve your own path off the beaten path: The key to Traverse City is knowing where to go, and how to take in what this unique town is truly about.
Eat + Drink
The Workshop Brewing Company
Great beer, check. Tasty snacks, check. Open-air patio on which to enjoy both? Double check. Located in the ever-developing Warehouse District, Workshop is known for its craft beer made with Michigan ingredients and the empanadas (pastries stuffed with different fillings) designed to pair with them. Consider it the perfect sunny-day combo.
The Little Fleet
Part neighborhood hangout, part summertime party, this combination food truck/bar lot — one of the first of its kind in northern Michigan — has some of the best food trucks in the area. There’s ample room to spread out on the outdoor patio in the lot itself, and organizers have been excellent at keeping at capacity, despite The Little Fleet’s popularity.
Left Foot Charley
Located in a former state asylum that’s been converted into shops, restaurants, and residences, Left Foot Charley is a must for wine lovers. You’ll find great house made wines (mainly delicious white varietals and a few very nice reds) and hard cider, including “Cinnamon Girl,” which has become a staple on menus region-wide, especially in the fall. Enjoy a drink and some delicious small plates on their large, tree-covered creekside patio.
Earthen Ales Brewery
Earthen Ales is a beer-drinkers brewery serving up expertly made suds in a casual, no- fuss space. It’s not exactly a hidden gem, but it is tucked away near the woods (does that count?). There’s even a hiking trail nearby to burn off your brews.
Do + See
Traverse Area Recreation Trail (TART)
Traverse City is unquestionably a food-and-drink town, but that doesn’t mean you can’t squeeze in some exercise. Grab your bike and hit the TART to squeeze in some exercise while enjoying beautiful waterside views. The paved, relatively flat 10.5-mile trail can take you all over town, by the beaches, and even up into Leelanau.
Traverse City offers lots of organized excursions that combine group drinking and outdoor activities, but one of the best is the kayak and brew option. Kayaking between breweries and bars along the picturesque Boardman River is just as fun as it sounds. Do the organized guide version through a local outfitter or rent a kayak and choose your own adventure.
Family Time in Greilickville
Just north of downtown Traverse City lies the lesser-known district of Greilickville, where you’ll find an amazing beach and playground for the kiddos, complete with swings that will launch them over the water. There’s also a children’s museum, tall ships at Discovery Pier and nearby food options, making it a place you can easily spend an entire day.
The Dennos Museum Center
Need a rainy-day option? The Dennos features local and international exhibits, curated with an eye for current events and regional history. This summer they’ll be featuring a show from the Kalamazoo Institute of Art called “Resilience: African American Artists as Agents of Change,” as well as new solo artist shows and permanent exhibits, including their amazing collection of Inuit art.
Traverse City State Park
For camping with convenience, this well-maintained campground is the spot. Just two miles from downtown Traverse City, it’s across the street from a large beach and playground, and a quick bike ride away on the TART to TC’s shops and restaurants.
West Bay Beach, a Delamar Resort
This casual, clean resort hotel is one of the closest family resorts to downtown, just steps from Front Street. You’ll find waterside dining, an outdoor pool and rooms tailored to families with kids, complete with partitioned bunk-bed rooms. We suggest booking in advance.
Charlevoix, Petoskey + Boyne City
Just over an hour north of Traverse City, Charlevoix and Petoskey are teeming with hidden gems. Charlevoix’s waterside setting and cute downtown are picturesque, while Petoskey’s stately hilltop perch offers sweeping water views and an eclectic mix of shops and restaurants. If you’re looking for a family-friendly destination, Boyne City has a ton to offer, from quality casual-dining spots to some of the area’s best parks.
Eat + Drink
This downtown-Petoskey staple is the perfect place to look out over Lake Michigan while fueling up on classics like delicious fish and chips and some of the area’s best undiscovered beers, including “Oh! The Citranity!,” a well-balanced pale ale, and the Deez Nuts (yes, we know it’s inappropriate), a nutty brown ale.
Just four miles from downtown Petoskey in Bay Harbor, Mammoth (which has multiple locations) serves up spirits with a Northern Michigan touch: Each type of booze contains fresh water drawn from nearby Torch Lake. Their specialty is rye whiskey, but don’t miss the Cherry Bounce, a house-made liqueur that’s worth a taste no matter your palette.
Charlevoix beaches are only made better by picnics, and Scovies has everything you’d want, from quality sandwiches and snacks to desserts (like the award-winning carrot cake). The location is perfect, too: It’s right by the drawbridge and a short walk to the beach.
Located in a 122-year-old building, Boyne City’s only brewery serves up more than 30 excellent craft beers with a large menu of locally sourced pub fare. Need an excuse to indulge in burgers and brews? Stiggs provides free weekly meals to community members in need — so you’re supporting a worthy cause with every bite and sip.
Lake Street Market
If you’re looking for the perfect picnic fare in Boyne City, Lake Street Market has you covered with a wide-ranging menu cleverly named gourmet sandwiches, from hearty classics (try the Inspector Gadget, loaded with salami and provolone) to lighter choices (Miss Fit Attends Services). Grab an order to go and chow down in one of the nearby parks.
Do + See
Driving up the coast to towns like Charlevoix and Petoskey, you’ll see plenty of orchards, farm markets, and stands. Do yourself a favor and stop at King Orchards on US 31 north of Elk Rapids, which boasts 140+ acres of cherries (pick them yourself, or just grab a slice of pie bursting with them). And while everyone knows about the cherries, if you’re up north anytime from late August through late October, don’t sleep on apple season.
Petoskey’s Gaslight District
This historic district has more than 170 unique shops, boutiques, and galleries. Check out McLean and Eakin, a classic indie bookstore that’s been around since 1992, and Symon’s General Store, a 60-year old family run business that sells food, wine, and gifts.
Charlevoix Bridge & Canal
If you’re even casually interested in boats, walk along the canal and watch lots of them come in and out of Round Lake to Lake Michigan. The unique draw bridge opens regularly to let the taller boats and ferries through. It’s always a hit with the kids. Plus, on one end of the walk is a great beach, and the other is downtown Charlevoix, with a beautiful marina and lake view from the grassy park in town.
Fisherman’s Island State Park
If you’re lucky enough to score one of the 80+ spots (book well in advance!), you’re in for one of the area’s best camping experiences. This Charlevoix site offers are lots of beachside spots — all the better to glimpse the park’s six miles of unspoiled shoreline — and trees provide buffers between sites to make them feel more secluded and private. Plus, you’re just outside Charlevoix.
Yes, Boyne Resorts is a massive hotel chain, but their area locations have plenty of space and no shortage of activities. If you’re traveling with kids, you’ll dig the family friendly activities, from swimming, ziplining and scenic chairlift rides to making s’mores by the bonfire. There are multiple resorts in the region, so do your research to find the best option for you.