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Cultural Tourism in Traverse City, Michigan

Video Clip: Roaming Historian in Traverse City

When I told people that I was going to Traverse City, my trip elicited enthusiastic responses. “I love their food scene!” “I’ve heard the beaches are spectacular!” Acclaimed for their idyllic location on Lake Michigan, Traverse City offers something for everyone—including history buffs. The area has neat historical experiences, beautiful scenery, mouth-watering dishes, fine wines, outdoor adventures, and much more.

I arrived in town on the last day of the National Cherry Festival—just in time to see the parade. People lined the sidewalks of Front Street in the downtown area to celebrate the town’s agricultural heritage (it’s been growing cherries since missionary Peter Dougherty planted the first orchard in 1852) and its present as Michigan’s leading producer of sweet cherries. As a float honoring coal miners paraded past, I reflected on the rich labor history of the area. Lumbering, canning, and agriculture all made major contributions to the economic development of Traverse City. Through these industries, fortunes were made and the town expanded. I couldn’t count the droves of people in attendance, even the governor walked in the parade.

The Cherry Festival is a week-long celebration in a picturesque location along Grand Traverse Bay. A carnival, food vendors, artisan stands, entertainment, and fireworks ensure that festival-goers will not long for excitement. Kids will be thrilled with the rides and games, while adults can enjoy beverages in the beer tent. I enjoyed the plethora of incarnations of the cherry—from salsa to jam to a particularly tasty cherry barbecue sauce that complemented my pulled pork sandwich perfectly. From a picnic table, I dined on cherry-based products while watching sailboats float by. Wandering around the stalls of the festival, I encountered baskets of the star itself. The cherries in Traverse are truly the sweetest I’ve ever tasted—their dark, red skin at the peak of ripeness.

If you don’t come during the festival, there are still many sites to see, adventures to be had, and relaxation to enjoy. My husband (the Roaming Historian photographer) and I were the guests of Sugar Beach Resort on East Grand Traverse Bay. The friendly staff offered us a balcony room designed in a nautical theme with tranquil blues and greens. The views from our balcony were breathtaking; waking up each morning, I could see the Bay and felt an immediate sense of calm. The room was nicely appointed, the beds comfortable, and the bathroom had plenty of counter-space (a big plus for me). The beach is a star with lots of loungers, umbrellas, tables, and activities. For a detailed description of the resort, click here. The resort experience energized me every morning so that I could explore Traverse City’s history and gave me a peaceful place to relax after a day of sight-seeing.

The Downtown Area of Traverse is a lovely place to start a shopping adventure amidst historical charm. Located along the Boardman River with tree-lined streets, the area has a village-like feel. Occasionally you might encounter a fountain, while park benches give weary shoppers reprieve. Many of the stores are housed in architecturally-rich, 20th century structures. The shops have something for everyone—Michigan-made products, culinary delights, antiques, toys, books, and more. There are several restaurants downtown, as well as the State Theater where a celebrated film festival is held annually. To cap the trip off, drop by the City Opera House. With its vaulted ceiling and frescoes, the 1892 Victorian venue provides an elegant place to enjoy a show.

A few streets over from the shops, is “Silk Stocking Row” (Sixth Street)—a residential district with brick-paved roads and lined with magnificent mansions. The area is perfect for wandering along and thinking about the history of the area. You can view the former home of lumber baron and founding father, Perry Hannah. Hannah House (now a funeral home) is an ornate, Queen Anne-style house built in 1893. With its turrets, wraparound porch, and elaborate carriage house, it is an architectural masterpiece. Across the street (322 Sixth St.) is the History Center of Traverse City. Partially housed in the former City Library that was endowed by Andrew Carnegie in 1904, the museum’s exhibits include displays on Native Americans, railroading, cherries, and other industries.

From the Sixth Street residential area, visitors are not far from the former Northern Michigan Asylum. Opened in 1885, the main building and outbuildings have been excellently preserved. When constructed as a psychiatric facility, the state designed it on the Kirkbride Plan that emphasized moral treatment of its residents. Patients enjoyed beautiful surroundings, communal activities, and were allowed to contribute to the self-sufficiency of the facility through gardening and other types of work. Now The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, the area conveys a real sense of community and provides a peaceful and unique retreat within the urban area of Traverse City. The buildings house private residences, merchants, restaurants, and more. I enjoy wandering the grounds, especially when an event of some kind is going on.

Located on Lake Michigan, Traverse City has a rich maritime heritage. The Great Lakes Maritime Academy has historical exhibits open to the public. For a hands-on experience with the area’s shipping and fishing past, I love to drive up Old Mission Peninsula to the lighthouse. Driving along Peninsula Drive is so scenic with the Bay on one side and the grand homes on the other, it’s difficult to pay attention to the road! The views don’t end when you leave Peninsula Drive, M-37 takes you over hills and by cherry orchards and vineyards. On my way to the lighthouse, I like to stop at the Old General Store. Operating since the mid-1800s, the store offers an arrayof goods for sale—from soda to antiques, you can find most of your general needs here. The Old Mission Lighthouse (1870) is magnificent to behold. The crystal-clear water is shallow for quite a distance out, but rocky so some type of foot-protection feels welcome on the tootsies. Wading out gives you the best view of the lighthouse, but you can also tour the inside for a small sum and the view from the top is well worth the money. On the grounds is also the Hessler Log Home. Built in the mid-1850s, this little cabin provides a nice glimpse into the past. Tip: The area is a great place for a picnic, bring some goodies with you and enjoy an amazing view while you dine. On the way back to Traverse City, I highly recommend a stop at Chateau Grand Traverse (the oldest winery on the peninsula). The vineyards are a spectacular sight and the tasting room pours my favorite Riesling! It’s a first-class winery that is welcoming and unassuming. The staff are approachable and knowledgeable, and the wines are top of the line. On the road, there is a scenic turnout where you can stop and survey Chateau Grand Traverse’s property and see for miles to the Bay. I feel like I am on top of the world.

Eateries: Traverse is a foodie’s dream and its wines, craft beers, and distilled liquors have national renown. Here are a few of my favorites:

Sleder’s Restaurant: There is dining and then there is the experience of dining in a restaurant with a past. Sleder’s has the latter in spades. Open since 1882, the eatery has been a local favorite for 133 years. Ask for their history when you go and make sure to look at the walls—there is a funny 1939 letter to the owners from the police chief reporting that a wife wished that they wouldn’t serve her husband liquor anymore. We had a tasty burger and fries (freshly cut daily).

Trattoria Stella (a.k.a. Stella’s): Located in the former state psychiatric hospital, this Italian restaurant has never failed to impress me—with its food or its history. Their menu changes regularly, but they always have freshly-made pasta dishes and hubby always orders the “red” pizza—it never disappoints.

Amical: Located in the downtown area, this French bistro has broccolini and chicken crepes that keep me coming back for more.

Doug Murdick’s Fudge: I never leave town without stopping by and picking up some of this chocolately goodness. You can watch them make the fudge on huge marble slabs! Served in slices, it melts in my mouth and always makes me wish I had purchased more.

There are many other great places to eat and things to do in Traverse City. There are loads of outdoor activities: kayaking, boating, and jet-skiing to name a few. Traverse has every reason to be boastful, yet the people are unpretentious and visitors are welcome with typical Mid-West hospitality. It’s a first-class travel destination that you don’t need to dress up for. The town celebrates its heritage and invites travelers to be a part of its community and that is why I keep going back.

Disclosure: We were guests of the Sugar Beach Resort, however, all views and opinions expressed regarding our stay are my own.

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