Get Outside Downtown: The Best Traverse City Weekend Vacation. Ever.

Park the car, leave the keys in the hotel and spend three days on an outdoors getaway of kayaking, biking and hiking, with awesome dining, shopping, movies and entertainment mixed in. (Did we mention snorkeling to a movie?) This is your day-by-day guide to the best Traverse City weekend vacation. Ever.

This story is featured in the September 2017 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
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traverse city weekend vacation

Oft-times, weekend escapes present unfortunate choices—decisions involving the world “or.” As in, do we want city—inventive restaurants, smart and sexy boutiques, live entertainment, captivating films …? OR do we want nature and the great outdoors—Zen of hiking, safe and breezy two-wheeling, playful kayaking, rejuvenating swimming in clean, clear, fresh water …? Well, friends, it’s time to vanquish the OR and embrace the AND of a Traverse City weekend vacation. Kayak to a downtown microbrewery. Bike to captivating eateries. Walk to keenly curated shops. Snorkel to a movie theater(?) … well, you could … And never, ever, ever, start your car until it’s time to head home.

– Friday’s Agenda – 

Today’s flyover: Park the car. Check into your hotel. Hop on your rental bikes and pedal southwest about 1.5 miles to the Village at Grand Traverse Commons. This sprawling campus of Italianate architecture and parkland was a state-of-the-art mental asylum when built in the late 1800s, but is now one of America’s most remarkable mixed-use restoration projects. Work up an appetite roaming (by foot or mountain bike) the hilly forest trails out back, and then refuel in one of the many eateries. Extend the experience by shopping the Mercato district, in the restored lower level of the campus centerpiece, Building 50.

traverse city weekend vacation

RIDE, RUN, WALK …

The hills that rise behind the GT Commons are a distilled essence of Northern Michigan forest fun. A crazy network of user trails trace up and down the hills and through the valleys of these 140 acres. Locals find ready access to trail-running nirvana (you can too), or simple solace here, walking the trails just blocks from their homes or pedaling slowly along if slow is the desire (Japanese-gardenlike creek noted). But TC’s extreme mountain bike set gathers here too, bombing down the hills, flying off jumps on the steeps and pushing adrenaline ever higher. Take it as long as you like it before heading for food.

traverse city weekend vacation

REPLENISH EN PLEIN AIR

Emerge from the trails to pickup a late lunch at Spanglish, right by the forest edge. Carnitas Tomatillo Tamales ($3 each) are made with house-roasted pork. Pork tacos are likewise delicious. Our advice: bag them up and head to the patio at Left Foot Charley, just north across the path. Pair with a glass of Murmur ($6), a mix of local pinot gris, chardonnay and pinot blanc. And stay outside … enjoying Spanglish takeout on the Left Foot Charley deck is one of Traverse City’s secret sublime moments. Don’t deny yourself. (Also: It is hard not to fall in love with Murmur. Buy a case, have it shipped, and continue on your way.)

traverse city weekend vacation

EXPLORE THE MERCAtO

Finally head indoors to investigate the GT Commons lower-level shopping and dining area, called the Mercato, a labyrinth with many gems. Sanctuary is a smartly curated lifestyle boutique, with a mix of home décor items, art and jewelry. Landmark Books (see if the rare first edition signed copy of Margaret Atwood’s, A Handmaid’s Tale is still in stock). Across the corridor is Fridrich Furs. Owner Michael Henke is a third-generation furrier and will happily share the history of his family business and stories of his father on a fox farm. Henke creates new furs and repairs old ones—all cut and sewn by hand in the Old World manner. Historic tours give an inside view of life during the asylum’s early days and offer entry to tunnels, off limits without a guide. Highly recommended: $25 for the two-hour tour. Ghostbuster fans 18 and older can inquire about the Twilight Tour ($35 per person). Make a tour reservation.

Walk the Garden Path

Don’t go inside yet. Pedal or walk south about a half-mile from Left Foot Charley to the Botanic Gardens at Historic Barns Park. Internationally renowned landscape architect firm Nelson Byrd Woltz designed the master plan for the 25 acres with five gardens, giant restored barns and other farm buildings. At one time, the asylum had 3,000 patients and grew nearly all of its own food, and this was the heart of the ag operation. Pick up a free trail map or join a guided tour at no charge. Families will adore the Backpack Program. Children borrow a backpack for the day equipped with a microscope, magnifying glass, scavenger hunt map and directions to build a fairy garden. Wheelchair accessible path. The visitor center is open until October 31.

DINNERTIME

Aperitivo—Italian for pre-dinner deliciousness—is the specialty at Ballaró, a dimly lit red and black lounge bar. Vodka lovers will appreciate the modification on the Negroni, traditionally made with gin. Giorgio LoGreco, owner and chef from the island of Sicily, fills the menu with local produce; the staple cheeses and dry-cured meats are outsourced from Italy. The lounge bar is flanked by PepeNero Ristorante, same owners but different menu. Seafood lovers should inquire about the Pesce del Giorno (fresh fish of the day), and carnivores can indulge in the Filetto Black Angus & Tartu. The all-natural grass-fed beef filet with shaved black truffles from Umbria and a Barolo wine and wild mushroom reduction is served with roasted organic vegetables ($46). Pair with a Nebbiolo or splurge on a Barolo.

Time it right so you can ride your bikes in TC’s twilight back to your hotel. The sky is colored by the water here. Take note.

traverse city weekend vacation

– Saturday’s Agenda – 

Today’s flyover: Remember, no driving your car. Start slow and easy with breakfast and a mocha downtown and then launch on one of Traverse City’s defining trails, a water trail, actually, that leads to a series of microbreweries—yes, you kayak to the breweries. Finish with some shopping, dinner and an après. Or snorkel to a movie, if you’re that kind of person.

EASE INTO IT …

No rush, but don’t sleep the day away. Grab breakfast where you are staying, then extend the morning feel with a perfect balance of chocolate and espresso: a mocha at Good Harbor. Ask for extra whipped cream; life is short. Get the outdoors vibe started by settling in at an outdoor table or strolling to the bay to sip at Open Space Park.

KAYAK THE MICROBREW WATER TRAIL

Walk to the Paddle TC headquarters at Clinch Park and ride their free shuttle with your boats to Logan’s Landing, at the south end of Boardman Lake. Your mission is to paddle to the two breweries on the lake and then continue on the Boardman River as it winds through Traverse City, stopping at various other breweries. So, word of caution needed here. Kayaking plus drunk equals danger. Stick to half-pint orders, no more than one per brewery, and go for the low alcohol brews—below 5 ABV. Also, tiny Traverse City has eight microbreweries within about a block of the Boardman water trail. We don’t recommend hitting them all unless you switch to water at some point. Also, order some food along the way—tasty offerings throughout. The order in which you will find the breweries.

  1. Right Brain Brewery, west side Boardman Lake
  2. The Filling Station, north end Boardman Lake
  3. Rare Bird Brewery, Lake Street, east of Cass Street 4
  4. Brewery Ferment, Union Street, north of 8th Street
  5. North Peak, Front Street, west of the river
  6. Workshop Brewing, Garland Street, near Hall Street
  7. Mackinaw Brewing, corner of Front and Cass Streets
  8. Monkey Fist Brewing, State Street, east of Park Street

Paddle back to Paddle TC and return your kayak. Want to do this with a group or a guide? Contact Kayak Bike & Brew, which organizes trips that include, as the name suggests, both bikes and kayaks. The microbrew water trail takes about four hours, but of course is highly dependent on your particular pace.

traverse city weekend vacation

CONTINUE THE JOURNEY WITH … SHOPPING!

Many downtown stores do not stay open late on Saturdays, so you will want to set to investigating by 4 p.m. A few suggestions to get you started:

For women: Clothing boutiques dot Front and Union Streets. Women’s clothes are organized by color at What to Wear. In back, find a large selection of jeans and pajamas, in case your suitcase got lost. Eleven for unique jewelry and relaxed, good quality clothing. Cali’s has a similar vibe, and the upstairs has home items like kitchen hardware. We like Art of Procrastination, a coffee table book about “getting things done by putting them off” ($12.95). For small, shiny and new, Miner’s North is a specialty place for engagement rings. If you visit for a bit, you will get a water bottle and a kiss, the chocolate kind.

For men: Patagonia-loving men can head to Boyne Country Sports for golf and ski apparel. Across the street is Diversions, a hat store (bountiful inventory) where you can transform your look into Humphrey Bogart or Indiana Jones. Captain’s Quarters, for men’s sports jackets or suits, or Ella’s for AG Jeans or vintage cufflinks. Continuing east: high-quality outdoor gear and clothing—Outdoor Research, Arteryx—at BackCountry North.

For kids: Sweet Pea. Check out the Tea Clothing line; Sweet Pea is the largest ambassador store in the U.S.

traverse city weekend vacationON INTO EVENING

Red Ginger Asian fusion restaurant is just cool. No need to take your vitamins with the Blood Orange Martini. Fresh-pressed blood orange purée and fresh-squeezed orange juice blend with Svedka clementine vodka and a lemongrass twist. The wide variety of legit sushi is prepared to order. Try the Red Dragon Roll. Sit at the sushi bar and watch chefs perform the sushi art. Next door is French bistro Amical, tasty and happening. Enjoy dinner items like the French Onion soup enveloped in mozzarella or save room for their Crème Brûlée, with fresh raspberries inside. If still daylight, ask for the table at the back window, with a bay view. Or continue the outdoor theme by settling in on Amical’s patio (covered, heated).

To make it a dinner and movie evening, The State Theatre is next door. Another theater option is a short stroll toward the bay through the Cass Street tunnel to the State’s sister theatre, Bijou by the Bay. For those feeling the urge to really continue the watery outdoor journey: snorkel to a movie. Dive in where the Boardman River enters the bay, about a quarter-mile east of the theater and snorkel on over. Pack a change of clothes in a dry bag and float it with you on an inflatable. Go ahead, give in to the urge.

The bar scene can be found along Union Street. 7 Monks Taproom is a favorite, with more than 50 international and local beer options in a modern casual environment. Try the Abbey Burger, topped with a Michigan blend of caramelized bacon-onion marmalade and fresh arugula ($12). Buns and other breads by artisan baker Bay Bread (on 2nd Street). Head underground to the dark and loungy Low Bar. Tune into the Prohibition Era with a Bees Knees: Sapphire Gin, lemon juice, and honey. Shaken and served up. Back on Front Street, under Gaijin, an alt scene exists at Studio Anatomy, both a recording studio and venue where you may see a surf punk band, comedian or a solo bluegrass guitarist named Nik Carman, who has played with Joshua Davis. He’s 11 years old and recorded his album down at the studio. Even most locals don’t know about this underground treasure.

Walk back to your room in the fresh air of a Great Lake harbor town.

traverse city weekend vacation

– Sunday’s Agenda –

Today’s flyover: Ride your bikes to a breakfast that channels Paris, then hop back on the two-wheelers and put on some miles (or get in a run). Grab lunch outdoors before, sadly, starting your car and driving home.

PEDAL TO BREAKFAST

Start Sunday with a fresh and brief bike ride through sleepy Traverse City streets to French bistro Patisserie Amie. Not for the hurried at heart, the cooks are on Parisian pacing, so indulge. Breakfast is served 8 a.m. till 2 p.m. Accompany a large cappuccino with an order of Eggs Benedict: two poached eggs dripping in Hollandaise sauce on top of sweet Canadian bacon ($10.50). Also, the Au Saumon: Salmon drizzled in crème fraîche, capers and greens ($9.95).

traverse city weekend vacation

AND KEEP ON PEDALING … (OR GO FOR A RUN)

Bike riders, you can take it as big or as small as you please around TC. For a pretty 5.5-mile trip on easy, flat terrain beside a lake, pedal southeast on Lake Street (the street Patisserie Amie is on) the half-mile over to the Boardman Lake Trail entry at Oryana Food Coop. Go left to cross the trail bridge and skirt the lake’s shore and then backtrack. If you’re more in the mood for a walk or a run, lock your bikes at the trail entry and go. Riders wanting more can take the TART Trail west along West Grand Traverse Bay to where it connects with the Leelanau Trail. Ride the relatively flat 17 miles (34 miles round trip) to the harbor town of Suttons Bay. Pass along woodlots, fields, vineyards and orchards (TART Trail maps). Riders comfortable on the open road can take the iconic and beautiful ride to the tip of Old Mission Peninsula, about 40 miles round-trip. Caution: Center Road can be busy. Take Peninsula Drive along West Grand Traverse Bay.

traverse city weekend vacation

EARLY DINNER OUTDOORS AND … SO LONG …

Assuming the afternoon’s pedaling has worked off the big breakfast, grab an early dinner before heading home. Keeping in the spirit of outdoors/indoors TC, ride over to The Little Fleet food truck lot and bar. Eight food trucks with such offerings at sushi, bbq pork and beef brisket sammies, juice bar, tacos, and more. Find a full bar inside.

The weekend is over. You have our permission to start your car.

traverse city weekend vacation

– Traverse City Hotels & Rental Shops –

STAY

Hotel Indigo / 236 W. Grandview Parkway / 231.932.0500
Across the parkway from West Grand Traverse Bay, Indigo is TC’s newest downtown hotel. Bay- or city-view rooms with hardwood floors, gym, rooftop bar and restaurant. Underground valet parking is $12 a night. Rooms from $249.

Park Place / 300 E. State Street / 231.946.5000
TC’s iconic 1930s, 10-story hotel, furnished in period décor, right downtown, two blocks from beach. Onsite dining and pub. Free parking. Rooms from $110.

Wellington Inn Bed & Breakfast / 230 Wellington Street / 877.968.9900
A marvelously restored 1905 neo-classical mansion, a few blocks from downtown. Breakfast included. Ask about reaching the beach through the underpass nearby—avoiding highway traffic. Free parking. Rooms from $205.

RENTALS / BIKES

Brick Wheels / 736 East 8th Street / 231.947.4274
Townies $30/day; Road or mountain $50/day; fatty $70/day. $2/mile delivery fee.

McLain Cycle / 750 East 8th Street 231.941.7161
Townies $25/day; Road or mountain from $36/day; fatty $40/day. Call to discuss delivery.

RENTALS / KAYAKS + PADDLEBOARDS

Paddle TC / 231.492.0223
Kayak $50/4 hours; Paddleboard $50/4 hours. Delivers boats to your location.

Marina Call is an author with a slight obsession with trains, food and words. She works at the National Writers Series. [email protected] / Jon-Paul Allgaier photographs lifestyle, food, product and weddings from his base in Traverse City. greyscalegroup.net.


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Article Comments

  • Eugene Jenneman

    Nice article. I would offer another fine place to visit to “feed your mind and soul” outside of downtown would be the Dennos Museum Center at Northwestern Michigan College. There is no other museum like it in northern Michigan and will be even better after the expansion is complete later this fall.