Northern Michigan is a picturesque place full of recreational and cultural adventures. And Traverse City, the largest city in Northern Michigan, is the perfect centralized location to explore all that Grand Traverse, Leelanau, and Benzie Counties have to offer. With lighthouses, over 180 miles of beaches and sand dunes nearby, plus loads of small-town charm, there are so many things to do in Traverse City with kids – or without them!
Disclosure: A big thank you to Traverse City Tourism for making this trip possible. We partnered with them to highlight all of the family-friendly fun that the Traverse City area has to offer. We picked the destinations and restaurants that we wanted to showcase, and as always, all opinions are honest and our own.
Exploring Downtown Traverse City with Kids
Downtown Traverse City is a walking and shopping paradise! There are tree-lined streets, cute boutiques and specialty shops, and dozens of restaurants. While it is totally family-friendly, it would also be the perfect place to go for a date night.
We grabbed coffee (and hot chocolate!) from Espresso Bay, a Traverse City local, and hit the streets walking. It rained off and on, so we ducked into different shops to wait out the rain and check out what they had in store. Cherry Republic was a BIG hit with the kids – especially since they have samples of all things cherry!
Did you know that Traverse City is the Cherry Capital of the World?! Traverse City produces over 75% of the world’s tart Montmorency cherries. And with cherry production of that magnitude, there are LOTS of cherry orchards! I’d love to see them in May when cherry blossoms are covering the trees. Every July, Traverse City hosts the weeklong National Cherry Festival!!
Traverse City also has a great art scene – including murals throughout the city. The TC Postcard in the alley next to Kilwin’s on E Front St was a must-do for us! It features landmarks from the Traverse City area like the State Theater in the “A” as well as the beaches the area is known for, and of course, cherries!
There are many other murals to check out as you’re exploring Traverse City, with everything from hummingbirds to a cute fox! Traverse City Tourism has a great post about all of the murals downtown, including a map, so you can do it as a walking tour if you’re interested!
Lighthouses Near Traverse City
I was shocked to find out that Michigan has more lighthouses than any other state in the US (129!!). And six of them are easy to explore from Traverse City! Y’all know I love a good lighthouse, so we set out to explore as many as possible while visiting the TC area.
Mission Point Lighthouse
Built on the 45th parallel (halfway between the north pole and the equator!), the Mission Point Lighthouse opened in 1870 and was operational until 1933. This little lighthouse is a cute one! It was designed to warn ships of the rocky shoals off of the Old Mission Peninsula when entering Grand Traverse Bay.
It’s located at the tip of the Old Mission Peninsula and the drive to get there takes you along scenic M-37 through cherry orchards and vineyards. The 45th parallel is a popular winemaking region worldwide – Italy’s Piedmont region, the Rhone Valley and Bordeaux in France, as well as the Willamette Valley in Oregon, are all on the 45th parallel. And in Michigan, the Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsulas, both sitting right at the 45th parallel, produce most of the state’s wine.
Self-guided tours of Mission Point Lighthouse are available from May through November and are $5/adult and $2/child (ages 6-11). The opening hours and days of the week differ based on the season, so make sure to check their website before visiting. As part of the tour, you can climb to the top of the tower and enjoy breathtaking views of Grand Traverse Bay.
Grand Traverse Lighthouse
Located at the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula, the Grand Traverse Lighthouse is about 35 miles north of Traverse City, just off of scenic M-22. From 1858-1972, it helped guide ships sailing in the often fog-covered waters between the Manitou Passage and the Straits of Mackinac. Now fully restored, the lighthouse gives a glimpse into the life of a lighthouse keeper during the 1920s-1930s.
Self-guided tours are available from May through November and are $5/adult and $2/child (ages 6-11). The hours differ based on the season, so please check their website before visiting. Because Grand Traverse Lighthouse is located within Leelanau State Park, there is an $11 entry fee or proof of a Michigan Recreation Passport.
Point Betsie Lighthouse
Built in 1858, the Point Betsie Lighthouse was the last manned light station on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. It was fully automated in 1983 and still serves as an active navigation aid for ships passing through the Manitou Passage. Tours are available from mid-May through mid-October and are $5/adult and $2/child (ages 6-11).
The last call for tickets is at 430pm for the final tour of the day. We didn’t get to Point Betsie until right after the final tour started, so we were only able to explore the outside of the lighthouse. We had a great time watching the waves of Lake Michigan crash onto the shore and even got a bit wet – some of us (me!) more than others!
Frankfort North Breakwater Lighthouse
This one doesn’t have a tour, but it is one of the most popular places for Lake Michigan sunsets in Benzie county. You can walk out to the lighthouse along the break wall, but the waves were crashing over it, so we opted not to. Instead, we hung out on the public beach, and the kids played on the playground and chatted with the fishermen (catching steelhead!) while we waited for the sun to set.
North and South Manitou Island Lighthouses
Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to visit either of these lighthouses – which means it’s time to start planning a return trip to Traverse City! The North Manitou Shoal Light Station opened for tours this year, or you can get an up-close look at the light on the ferry that travels from Leland to the Manitou Islands. Built 150 years ago, the South Manitou Island Lighthouse was active until 1958. Now, it is part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and is open for tours during the summer. The South Lighthouse is accessible by ferry from Leland.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Named the “Most Beautiful Place in America” by Good Morning America, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is packed with beautiful views, unique hikes, and a really cool scenic drive. The Dune Climb is one of the most popular hikes in the park. According to AllTrails, it’s rated as difficult, and it takes 2-3 hours to complete the roundtrip 3.6-mile hike due to the steep sand dunes as well as the up and down nature of the hike.
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive
Somewhat short on time and unprepared to tackle the Dune Climb, we opted for the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. Like other parts of Sleeping Bear Dunes, it does cost $25 per vehicle (or a valid National Park annual pass) to enter the park.
The Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is a 7.4-mile loop through the forest and sand dunes with overlooks of the Glen Lakes, the Sleeping Bear Dunes, and Lake Michigan. While you can see a lot from the comfort of your car, many of these stops are better seen by getting out of the car and exploring on foot.
The Lake Michigan Overlook (#9 and #10) was one of our favorite stops. Here, after a short walk from the parking lot, you actually get out on the dunes, high above Lake Michigan. And when I say high, I mean high! The observation deck at this overlook (located to the right of the kids, just out of the frame) is about 450 feet above lake level. While going down the very steep bluff face to the lake is not prohibited, it’s definitely not recommended. And there is a $3000 charge if you need rescuing because you cannot make it back up the dunes.
The kids hiked around the dunes at the top of the bluff for a bit before we headed back to the car. As with any hike, always go with a buddy (or two!) and bring water!
Where to Eat in Traverse City with Kids
There are so many wonderful places to eat in the Traverse City area with kids. Before we arrived, we made an extensive list of places to try and barely scratched the surface. So like all things Traverse City, we still have more to see and do and can’t wait to visit again. I’ll do a separate blog post about all the delicious food in Traverse City, and for now, I’ll leave you with our faves!
Best Breakfast in Traverse City – Omelette Shoppe
There are two locations of the Omelette Shoppe in Traverse City, one on East Front Street and one on Cass Street. We started at the one on Cass because it’s in the more popular, trendy part of town, but the wait for a table was nearly two hours. At the recommendation of the hostess, we joined the waitlist for the Front Street location (less than 10 minutes away) and had a table in less than an hour.
We ordered an assortment of items ranging from biscuits and gravy to breakfast burritos, but the New Mexican Omelette was the star of the show. Loaded up with beef barbacoa, jalapenos, onions, green chilies, black beans, jack & cheddar cheese, avocado, sour cream, salsa, and chipotle lime sauce, it was a HEARTY omelette and absolutely delicious.
Best Dinner in Traverse City – Sleder’s Family Tavern
For almost 140 years, Sleder’s Family Tavern has been a Traverse City institution. It is Michigan’s oldest, continuously operated restaurant and is a great place to grab dinner with the whole family.
As we always do, we ordered a variety of items – a burrito, a buffalo burger, a club sandwich, cheese curds – and all were delicious! It’s a popular restaurant, so do expect a bit of a wait if you’re coming around peak meal times.
Best Ice Cream in Traverse City – Moomers
Oh, Moomers!! I’m seriously still dreaming about this ice cream! Moomers is a small family-owned business, growing out of their life on the dairy farm. Can you envision a more picturesque location for a creamery?!
And the ice cream is AMAZING! Seriously, a whole lotta love goes into making this ice cream!! They make more than 160 flavors of premium ice cream (though they’re not all on the menu at the same time) and serve them at their store about five miles outside of downtown Traverse City.
Where to Stay in Traverse City with Kids
There are plenty of places to stay in Traverse City, ranging from waterfront resorts to more budget-friendly motels as well as campgrounds – and there’s even a Great Wolf Lodge if that’s your kind of place! We stayed at 539 Bay Street, a brand new luxury condo rental, and it was a fantastic fit for our family.
539 Bay Street is located right across the street from the gorgeous Grand Traverse Bay, and all of the units have spectacular views of the lake. It’s walkable to Sleder’s Family Tavern as well as many of the restaurants on Front Street.
Every unit has a kitchen fully stocked with everything (besides food!) that you need in order to whip up a quick meal or even an elaborate feast if that’s how you’re spending your vacation. We often seek out vacation properties with full kitchens because, with a large family, it’s considerably cheaper to cook dinner – even if we use convenience foods like bagged salad kits – than to eat out every night. And breakfasts in the condo are quick and easy and save money for treats (like more Moomers ice cream!) later in the day.
The master bedroom has a king bed and a HUGE en suite bathroom, as well as a door out to the private balcony. With two other bedrooms (each with a queen bed), another full bathroom, and a laundry room with a full-size washer and dryer, the 3-bedroom unit was perfect for our family. The kids had plenty of room to spread out, but spaces like the living and dining rooms allowed us to spend time together. Do you like staying in vacation rentals/condo-type places when you travel, or do you prefer more traditional hotels?
There’s honestly so much for families to do, eat, and see in the Traverse City area. We were there for three days and still didn’t have time to see it all. Have you visited before?? Let me know your Traverse City faves and tips in the comments!!