Michigan lies in the Upper Midwest, part of the Great Lakes region. Most famous for its nickname as “The Great Lake State”, Michigan shares borders with four (Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Superior) of the five Great Lakes.
In addition to the extensive freshwater coast, the state is well reputed for its automotive and Motown history. Evolving from an industrial powerhouse to a busy tourist destination, this state will dazzle you with its big cities, lakeside landscapes, and underrated attractions. Michigan also boasts great comfort foods and a state shape that resembles a mitten.
Whether sticking to the most well-known city of Detroit or heading out into the rural countryside, Michigan will keep you on your toes as you venture to all of the local highlights. Of the many diverse attractions, some of the most visited areas include Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, and Mackinac Island.
Livin’ La Vida Michigan
History of the “Great Lake State”
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Michigan was inhabited by tribes of Algonquian people. The three largest nations called Ojibwe, Oddaawaa/Odawa, and the Boodewaadamii/Bodéwadmi all lived peacefully under the Council of Three Fires, which was a loose confederation. Spread throughout the land, tribes lived in all regions of the territory.
French voyageurs were the first Europeans to explore the area during the first half of the 17th century. However, Europeans didn’t establish a permanent settlement until 1668. The first founded settlement was called Sault Ste. Marie. Shortly after two satellite settlements called Saint Ignace and Marquette were established by 1675.
Throughout a large portion of the 18th century, France maintained control over large sections of the land. Building the Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit on the strait between two lakes, they were able to resist British intrusion. Surviving off of fur-trading and shipping, the French also built Fort Michilimackinac for more control.
However, after conflicts with Native Americans and the British, France lost control and were forced to give the land to Great Britain in 1783 as part of the Treaty of Paris. At this time, the territory was part of the British Province of Quebec. The United States would win and lose control of the territory during the early 1800s, until gaining permanent control in 1813.
With the population steadily growing, Michigan would become the 26th state in January 1837. At the time of gaining statehood, the territory was disputed by Ohio. Called the Toledo War, the conflict ended with Toledo remaining a part of Ohio, while Michigan gained the Upper Peninsula. Since becoming a part of the US, the state has flourished with its economy most famously driven by automobiles.
Attracted by the automobile industry, Detroit became a city of immigrants and migrants. The diversity made Detroit a true melting pot of culture. Some of the most recognized American car brands that are manufactured in Michigan are Ford, Dodge, General Motors, and Chevrolet.
Capital City of Lansing
Named as the state capital in 1847, Lansing is currently home to a population of 112,644 (as of 2020 census). The sixth largest city in the state, the capital is known for being in the “Mid-Michigan””region of the state and has earned the nickname as “The Heart of Michigan”. As the capital, Lansing is a big hub for education, culture, government, commercial, and industrial endeavors for the state.
As a major metropolitan city, visitors will find a diverse array of activities to enjoy in Lansing. Explore local history, culture, art and landscapes, all ages will find something to enjoy on their trip. A few of the busiest attractions are the State Capitol Building, Michigan History Center, Potter Park Zoo, Old Town, Abrams Planetarium, and the Turner-Dodge House.
Surrounded by nature, there are also places to escape from the urban chaos and head towards quieter landscapes. Close to the heart of the city is Hawk Island Park, which has a lake and various trails, as well as a little beach and volleyball courts. Passing through the city is the River Trails, which runs along both the Grand and Red Cedar Rivers. With sections crossing downtown, less trafficked spots include portions of wetlands and woodlands.
There are also special events and seasonal festivals that are held throughout the year. For those that want to see the city during a special occasion a few of the most popular special events include the Capital City Film Festival, MSU Science Festival, Michigan BluesFest, Apple Butter Festival, and the Common Ground Music Festival.
Detroit, “Motor City”
The largest city with 639,111 residents as of 2020, and by far the most famous, is Detroit. Situated along the Detroit River, the city is a major port that connects the Great Lakes to the Saint Lawrence Seaway. It’s world known for its automobile industry and to this day, the “Big Three” (Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler) manufacturers are still headquartered in Detroit.
Although the city has had a rougher reputation in the past decade, Detroit is slowly recovering as it regains a lively atmosphere. Renovations of old buildings are bringing new entrepreneurs, artists, and tourists to the city. Additionally, there are plenty of historic and long established attractions that are worth visiting.
Some of the top attractions are the Detroit Temple, Belle Isle Island, Detroit Historical Museum, Henry Ford Museum, Motown Museum, the Eastern Market, New Centre Park, Detroit Zoo, Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Automotive Hall of Fame. One of the busiest areas in the city is the Riverfront, where visitors can spend their time walking, dining, shopping, or enjoying special events.
Grand Rapids, “Furniture City”
Grand Rapids sits on the Grand River, just 25 miles from Lake Michigan. It’s the second largest city in the state with a population of 198,917 people as of 2020. Called the “Furniture City”, Grand Rapids has historically been a major center for fine furniture manufacturing. Currently, five of the leading office furniture companies in the world are headquartered in the city.
Boasting a vibrant atmosphere, visitors will appreciate the diverse mix of attractions from the arts, culture, outdoor areas, food, drinks, and shopping. The city was also the childhood home of President Gerald Ford and there are a few spaces dedicated to the late leader.
Places that are worth checking out are the Meyer May House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Grand Rapids Public Museum, Grand Rapids Art Museum, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, Fulton Street Farmers Market, Heritage Hill Historic District, and the Downtown Market. Nature themed highlights include the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, John Ball Zoo, and the Blandford Nature Center.
Ann Arbor, “Tree Town”
Surrounded by dense woods, Ann Arbor is frequently called “Tree Town”. Supporting a population of 123,851 as of 2020, it’s the fifth largest city in the state and home to the University of Michigan. Originally founded in 1824, the city has now become a busy tourist destination.
Younger crowds are drawn to Ann Arbor’s bustling streets where you’ll find a variety of restaurants and bars. For the non-partying crowd, the picturesque setting of the city means that you can enjoy its homey charm. Filling the metropolis are shops, museums, parks, vineyards, and unique venues.
Some of the top things to see in Ann Arbor are the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, Hudson Mills Metropark, Kerrytown, the University of Michigan Museum of Art, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, Lillie Park, and the Domino’s Farms Petting Farm.
Mackinac Island, A Historic Tourist Island
Mackinac Island is among the busiest tourist attractions in Michigan with summer crowds swelling into the thousands. Originally called Michilimackinac, the island is 4.35 square miles and it sits in Lake Huron on the Straits of Mackinac. Nearly 80% of the island is preserved by the Mackinac Island State Park, while the rest is dedicated to historic sites, Fort Mackinac, and resort communities.
Some of the oldest areas of the island include Colonial Michilimackinac, which dates back to the 18th century when fur traders established a village. Preserved at the site are 16 buildings that now house exhibits and demonstrations. Another historic area is Fort Mackinac, which has been fully restored from the 18th century. Open to the public, interesting exhibits include the Port Hospital and the Post Guardhouse.
Other areas worth checking out on the island are the historic downtown, Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, and the Original Mackinac Island Butterfly House & Insect World. Additionally, one of the most unique ways to experience the island is by taking a carriage tour.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Stretching for 35 miles along the east coast of Lake Michigan is the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Featuring amazing habitats that range from beaches to forests and dunes, the national lakeshore is a busy attraction for Northern Michigan.
To see some of the best views, the 7.4 mile long Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive loops through a Beech-Maple forest and along various sand dunes. Along the way, there are 12 viewpoints that offer gorgeous panoramas of the lake and shoreline.
Visitors may also want to see the Manitou Islands (North and South), which can be accessed by public ferries or private boats. Additional attractions include the Point Oneida Historic Farm District and the Glen Haven Village.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Another stunning place to go is the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, which is on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula on Lake Superior. Natural features that are found in the area include dramatic rock formations, sand dunes, and waterfalls.
To the northeast of the city of Munising, there is a 15 mile long stretch of shoreline that is famous for its brightly colored sandstone cliffs. The cliffs can reach heights of up to 200 feet and they feature various caves and arches.
The best ways to see the national lakeshore is by driving along the local highways, traversing the North Country Trail, or sea kayaking. Although most visitors will want to enjoy the summer weather, winter activities like cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and ice fishing are also offered.
Palms Book State Park
Another hotspot in the Upper Peninsula is Palms Book State Park. The park’s main feature is a natural spring called Kitch-iti-kipi (“big cold spring” in Ojibwe). About 200 feet across at its widest point, water levels at the spring fluctuate with its deepest point reaching 40 feet.
Year-round, the water temperature hovers around 45℉. While swimming and fishing in the spring is not permitted, visitors can take a hike or the self-guided observation raft to view Kitch-iti-kipi.
The Henry Ford
Automobiles are ingrained in Michigan’s history and one of the best places to learn about vehicular technology is referred to as “The Henry Ford”. Located in Dearborn, it’s actually a trio consisting of Greenfield Village, the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, and the Ford Rouge Factory Tour. All three are conveniently located within a 250 acre park and described as “must-see”.
Greenfield Village focuses on history with many exhibits focused on the 1800s. Visitors can ride in a Model T or stroll through the working farms. Museum workers are dressed to the times in period costumes as they host interactive exhibits.
At the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, visitors will learn all about the history of America’s greatest creations.
Finally, the Ford Rouge Factory Tour offers a glimpse at the present and future as visitors can see what models are currently in production.
Hidden throughout Michigan are amazing attractions that take visitors from the hearts of bustling cities to the calm of dense forests and the beauty of freshwater coasts. With a surprising amount to offer, this state will captivate you with its diversity and splendor. Whether you’re going to educate yourself, enjoy outdoor recreation or want to experience the local culture, it’s hard not to fall in love with the Great Lakes State.