On Michigan’s far-flung Upper Peninsula, an unexpected world awaits. Cradled between three Great Lakes, the U.P. is filled with stunted trees, gorgeous lake views and curious shops. All of them sell the same three products: smoked fish, rolled fudge and meat-filled pasties.
For hours, you might pass by nothing at all. Those stretches, however, get broken up by some baffling encounters. After one expanse, the empty parking lot of the Snowmobile Museum pops into view. Driving through Christmas, Mich., a pair of giant, year-round Santas stand, looming much larger than this blink of a town. And when all the lakes and straight roads become dizzying, you come to the U.P.’s largest city: Marquette, on Lake Superior.
At first, the city looks unimpressive: smokestacks on the water and seediness along the outskirts. But a few blocks from the harbor — on W. Washington Street and down N. 3rd — Marquette reveals its charm. There’s a cafe on every block and a brewery for each palate. It’s also the best place to situate yourself for quick jaunts or half-day adventures. Whether you’re traveling with brand-new walkers or those who’ve accumulated too many miles on weary knees, there’s an adventure for everyone in this quaint city.
Things to do
Marquette is cycling country, and the surrounding Marquette County has myriad options. The Noquemanon Trail Network, which features a web of paths for riders of all abilities, is considered one of the nation’s best (noquetrails.org). The Iron Ore Heritage Trail, a 47-mile multiuse trail, brings cyclists along the Lake Superior shoreline, through wetlands and forests, and into historic towns (ironore heritage.com).
Those who prefer shoes to wheels should take the hike up Sugarloaf Mountain, a trail for all ages. Even my 3-year-old reached the peak with little complaint. Walkers have the option to take either the easy or the “more difficult” route to the spectacular panoramic view — a turquoise and blue collision of Lake Superior and sky, with touches of the city to the south. For a scene exploding with colors, visit in autumn.
Presque Isle Park, a 323-acre peninsula, offers a beautiful 2-mile loop that you can walk, bike or drive. At the tip of the forested park, Black Rocks offers a more daring place to launch from the cliffs. A few rocky beaches afford gorgeous views of the lake. At the end of the loop, treat yourself to ice cream at the Island Store.
For those keen on history, the Marquette Maritime Museum (1-906-226-2006; mqtmaritimemuseum.com) offers a deep dive into the region’s maritime past. Or head to the Michigan Iron Industry Museum (1-906-475-7857) in nearby Negaunee, where Marquette’s central role in the trade is detailed.
Should play be the preferred activity, Marquette is also home to the Upper Peninsula Children’s Museum (1-906-226-3911; upchildrens museum.org). Kids can also let off steam in the wooden playground along the harbor, near the old ore dock, where trains once unloaded iron ore onto the ships waiting below.
For lighthouse enthusiasts, visit the Presque Isle Harbor Breakwater Light, accessible by foot at the end of a long, rocky break wall. There’s also the Marquette Harbor Lighthouse, attached to the Maritime Museum.
Where to eat and drink
Downtown, you’ll find the U.P.’s best bites. Nearest to the harbor sits the Iron Bay Restaurant & Drinkery (1-906-273-0990; ironbaymqt.com). You can’t go wrong with fish here: Friday fish and chips is the best in town, and the whitefish soup rivals any chowder in New England. Outdoor seating overlooks the harbor and ore dock. Just as laid back and delicious is the Delft Bistro up on W. Washington Street (1-906-273-2455; thedelftbistro.com). Sandwiches, salads, fresh fish and weekend brunch are all deftly done.
Marquette has a brewery for every day of the week. The Vierling (1-906-228-3533; thevierling.com), one of Michigan’s first brewpubs, is a splendid place for harbor and ore dock views. The Ore Dock Brewing Co. (1-906-228-8888; ore-dock.com) features a steady lineup of beers on tap and performers on stage. Barrel + Beam (barrelandbeam.com) has farmhouse and barrel-aged ales. My favorite, however, is Blackrocks Brewery (1-906-273-1333; blackrocksbrewery.com). The yellow house on the corner of N. 3rd and E. Michigan streets is an out-of-place ski chalet. Surrounding the property are hundreds of old skis nailed to the fence like insistent vines. There’s a chairlift seat on the lawn and dozens of patrons encircling fire pits for live music and exceptional ales.
For a caffeinated buzz, Marquette has about a dozen coffee shops, like Velodrome, Dead River and too many to name on N. 3rd. For indecisive visitors, check out the Preserve MQT (1-906-273-2170), which serves beer, coffee and sandwiches until 2 a.m. on weekends. It’s one of the best places in the city to grab beer to go, with a Michigan-heavy selection.
Similarly, at the Marquette Food Co-op (1-906-225-0671; marquettefood.coop), you’ll find beer from across the U.P. and brought up from the mitten. You can pour yourself a coffee for three quarters if you bring your own cup. (Add 25 cents if you need to use their paper ones.) The co-op also has a quality selection of cheeses, meats and prepared foods, perfect for an excursion up Sugarloaf or to Presque Isle.
Marquette is a great base for day trips. The county flows with waterfalls — whichever way you drive and regardless of your fitness level, there’s a waterfall for you. Some of the easiest to access are Yellow Dog River Falls, Black River Falls and Warner Falls.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is one of three national lakeshores in the country (all of them on the Great Lakes). Just 45 minutes east of Marquette is Munising, where cruise ships take passengers on a two-hour ride along the Lake Superior coastline, and miles of soft sandstone cliffs reveal the beauty of erosion and weathering. The sweeping canvas could have provided a young Jackson Pollock with his cues. Adventurous explorers can kayak beside Pictured Rocks, combing through caves and beneath archways for a more intimate and exhausting pursuit (nps.gov/piro).
A half-hour south of Munising is Kitch-iti-kipi, or the Big Spring, a turquoise sulfuric pool at Palms Book State Park. A cable boat, which the children on board can operate by taking turns spinning a big wheel, glides visitors slowly across the water. From the boat, stare down through the crystal waters at carp cruising above the burbling spring. If you paid admittance to another state or national park in Michigan, your receipt is good for a week and the fee at Kitch-iti-kipi gets waived (1-906-341-2355; michigan.org/property/palms-book-state-park).
Where to stay
Missing from Marquette is a quality hotel (though it does have a Quality Inn). A few options appeal more to business travelers and parents visiting their kids at Northern Michigan University, like Staybridge Suites. Your best bet is to check out sites like Airbnb first.
Marquette is about 370 miles, or seven hours, northeast of the Twin Cities. More info is at travelmarquettemichigan.com.
Noah Lederman (@SomewhereOrBust) is the author of a memoir, “A World Erased: A Grandson’s Search for His Family’s Holocaust Secrets.”