Like many Michigan kids, I vacationed with my family “Up North” in the northern Lower Peninsula. I’ve also taken my Iowa-raised kids there to enjoy the lakes, rivers, forest and dunes.
But I never spent much time in Traverse City, the tourist region’s largest community with only about 15,000 year-round residents. I stuck to the much smaller beach towns nearby.
I finally visited “TC” recently and can confirm what I’ve been hearing from Michigan friends and relatives: Something is going on in Traverse City.
While the town remains a gateway to the great outdoors from its prime perch on Lake Michigan’s dazzling Grand Traverse Bay, it also offers big city stuff, from a dynamic food and cultural scene to happening spots including a lively downtown, repurposed former “asylum” and warehouse district.
Traverse City and its surrounding area have been gaining affluent newcomers, including creative types, telecommuters and retirees eager to live where they’ve loved vacationing — as well as developers, restaurateurs and other entrepreneurs eager to cater to them.
The city has become a media darling, landing on many a list (Best Places to Retire, Best Small Towns, 10 Best Foodie Cities) and winning big-name boosters, from filmmaker Michael Moore (a Michigan native), who started a film festival there, to chef Mario Batali, who raves about its food scene. The growth has also sparked concern over rising costs, busier roads and the possible loss of what has lured many — its small-city charm.
With this in mind, my husband and I drove to Traverse City for a long fall weekend. We had the benefit of thoughtful, enthusiastic guides — my best high school friend and her husband, who recently moved to downtown TC after years of living on the East Coast and summering in a nearby cottage.
Opting to skip the sun-soaked, festival-filled summer (when the region’s population balloons), we still ran into autumn leaf-peepers and couldn’t resist dipping into the countryside to visit the wineries and pretty towns dotting the Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas.
Most of our time, though, was spent cityside. Our friends took us to the bustling downtown farmers market (downtowntc.com) held Wednesdays and Saturdays, full of fruit and vegetables as well as locally produced vinegars, lotions, honey, almond croissants (from 9 Bean Rows Bakery) and gluten- and dairy-free delights (from Third Coast Bakery).
On Front Street, the city’s main downtown drag, lined with shops, restaurants and bars inside well-tended old storefronts, we happily browsed through the Michigan-related tomes at Horizon Books (1-231-946-7290), which also has a cafe with live music. Nearby, the Warehouse MRKT (warehousemrkt.com) offers upscale home goods at Wood + Cloth, coffee at BLK/MRKT and inventive “vegetable-forward” shared plates at Alliance (1-231-642-5545; foodforalliance.com).
We ate and drank well all over, at restaurants including the Cooks’ House (1-231-946-8800; cookshousetc.com), a Batali favorite serving farm-to-fork fare in a cozy old house downtown, as well as wineries, brewpubs and purveyors of everything from “small batch handcrafted” chocolates at Fresh Coast Chocolate Co. to dried cherries at Cherry Republic (Traverse City is the nation’s top tart cherry producer).
I was particularly impressed by the action and innovation at the Village at Grand Traverse Commons (thevillagetc.com), a former 19th-century state hospital for people with mental illness that is now a sprawling mixed-use complex with locally owned shops, restaurants and housing inside imposing Victorian-Italianate pale-yellow brick piles.
Nearby is preserved parkland with recreational trails as well as the lovely Historic Barns Park, located on a former farm where hospital residents once worked. The visitor center’s modern facade belies a rustic interior with an 1886 granary’s stone walls and former root cellar, a botanic garden and a restored “Cathedral Barn” for events.
On a crisp fall Saturday afternoon, the area was full of people and activity. We window-shopped in the indoor maze of stores called the “Mercato,” ate creative Mexican fare at the busy little cafe Spanglish (spanglishtc.com) and joined a young crowd sampling wine and hard cider at Left Foot Charley (leftfootcharley.com).
And by the end of the visit, I have to admit — at the risk of alarming some Traverse City old-timers — that I thought, “Wow, I could live here.”
More food and drink
At the Village at Grand Traverse Commons: Trattoria Stella (1-231-929-8989; stellatc.com) for contemporary Italian; Pepe Nero (1-231-929-1960; pepenerotc.com) for southern Italian; and Higher Grounds coffee bar (1-231-922-9009; highergroundstrading.com).
On and around Front Street: Taproot (1-231-943-2500) for hard ciders, salads and sandwiches; Sparks BBQ (1-231-633-7800) for a BBQ sundae; and Harvest (1-231-486-6037) for Asian and Mexican street food.
• The 91st annual National Cherry Festival is July 1-8 (cherryfestival.org).
• The 12th annual Traverse City Film Festival is July 25-30 (traversecityfilmfest.org).
• The State Theatre, a once-shuttered early-1900s movie house revitalized in 2007 for the film festival, shows small independent films year-round. Sister theater Bijou by the Bay, opened in 2013 inside a once-neglected building, shows feature films (stateandbijou.org).
• National Writers Series, begun in 2009, features conversations with leading authors (nationalwritersseries.org).
• Theater company Parallel 45 stages new works and classics (parallel45.org).
• Overlooking West Grand Traverse Bay downtown, Clinch Park has a sandy beach, marina and access to the TART Trails, over 100 miles of regional biking routes (traversetrails.org). Paddle TC rents paddleboards, kayaks and bikes (paddletc.com).
Located in the northwest corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, Traverse City is a 625-mile drive east of the Twin Cities and around Lake Michigan. Drivers can also take the four-hour S.S. Badger ferry from Manitowoc, Wis., to Ludington, Mich. ($59/adult, $59/vehicle; ssbadger.com). Delta offers direct flights from Minneapolis to TC’s Cherry Capital Airport May through September.
Where to sleep
Opened in 2016, Hotel Indigo promises “the great outdoors with an urban edge” and has a rooftop bar with great views (1-231-932-0500; ihg.com).
The 1930 Park Place Hotel also has nice views (1-231-946-5000; park-place-hotel.com).
Traverse City tourism: 1-800-872-8377; traversecity.com.
Betsy Rubiner is a Des Moines-based travel writer.