As a fourth-generation Michigander who has spent significant time living elsewhere, I can attest to the fact that we’re a unique bunch.
We generally have wit and a lean toward sarcasm. We also pronounce things so strangely that you’ll have to get used to our dialect. For example, you have to register your vehicle at the “Secretaryahstate” and you buy “grosheries” from the grocery store. It’s cute, you’ll get used to it.
In all seriousness, though, Michigan is a natural world wonder. It’s surrounded by and contains more than one-fifth of the world’s fresh water. Seeing an out-of-stater’s face when they witness the magnitude of the Great Lakes is priceless and swells me with pride every time. The forests here are thick and dark, and home to a variety of incredible animals, and some interesting people as well. And the cities are unique and relatively unpopulated.
Michigan is a large state with vastly different customs and cultures depending on which part of it you’re visiting. A small town in the Upper Peninsula (UP) is quite different from Marquette, the UP’s largest city, which is even more different still than Detroit, which is different from metro Detroit and even more so from the rolling vineyards of Leelanau County.
Plan the perfect trip to Michigan with these top tips on planning, etiquette and health and safety.
1. Choose the best time for your trip to Michigan
The very best time to visit Michigan is September and October. September is like a second summer, and October has the best of the autumn weather. June through August are tremendously beautiful, but with kids out of school, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a campground to yourself, which isn’t a problem after Labor Day. Also, if you’ve never heard of black fly season, you'll see them swarming on the UP in July and August. But don't worry – they don't bite.
Unless you absolutely detest cool, clear water, you’ll want to go swimming in Michigan’s lakes and rivers and you’ll enjoy it a lot more once the waters have had time to warm up, which is usually in August.
If you want to visit in the winter, to see actual winter, with all the snow it entails, you’ll have to plan your vacation for either the Lake Michigan coastline where you’ll have the highest amount of lake-effect snow, or above the 43.5 parallel. Winter in southern Michigan is unpredictable and with climate change, leans toward dwindling. You will, though, absolutely be astonished by the snow in the UP.
Though Michigan has one of the nation’s lowest rates of natural disasters, be mindful during tornado season (spring) and driving in wintry conditions.
2. A road trip is the best way to see the state
The ideal visit to Michigan would mean a road trip of its entire perimeter, following along the lakes and including the great city of Detroit. The key phrase here is “road trip,” because it’s very difficult to visit Michigan without a car. There are all manner of people who will point out different bus and train options, but the reality is that those options are generally neither cost- nor time-effective. If you fly here, you’ll want to rent a vehicle.
Even Detroit, a city with some level of public transport, is difficult without a car, let alone smaller cities and rural areas. The options are there, but they are limited and generally take more time than they’re worth to figure out.
3. Find the right coast for you
Lake life in Michigan is enjoyed by everyone in Michigan, but the east and west coasts of lower Michigan, despite being just a few hours apart by car, couldn't be more different. The sunset side, Lake Michigan, is markedly fancier. It has long been the vacation home stronghold for wealthy Chicago, Detroit and Grand Rapids families. The sunrise side, Lake Huron, while equally rich in natural beauty, has a more salt-of-the-earth vibe. You can’t go wrong with either side, but you will notice a contrast.
4. Pack your plaid and Carhartt
Flannel is acceptable attire nearly anywhere… We have dress flannels, work flannels, Sunday couch lounging flannels, church flannels, wedding flannels, casual flannels, fightin’ flannels, you get the picture. Come bearing plaid and you’ll be instantly well received. Carhartt’s Workwear has also become a fashion statement across the state.
5. Cannabis is legal in Michigan
Yes, cannabis is legal, but start small because the cannabis in Michigan is strong. If someone offers you something, and you ask them how much they would take, try taking a quarter of that.
6. Beer snobs are welcome
It’s totally acceptable to be a beer snob here. We’re in the Upper Great Lakes and we don’t appreciate pretentiousness but, that said, we do make incredible beer in this state and you should spend a few days at breweries and bars figuring out which are your favorites.
7. Bob Seger is our unofficial state songster
Sure you’ll find people here who aren’t into the Ann Arbor-born musician, but most folks have a soft spot for Bob Seger and we recommend you familiarize yourself with his catalog so you can buddy up as you belly up across this fair state. Your ability to sing not only the lyrics, but to imitate the grunts and histrionics will be appreciated.
8. If the sun is shining, everyone goes outside
If the weather’s nice, don’t expect anyone to want to be inside for more than 5 minutes. The first string of 80°F days should be called a statewide holiday as most people won’t want to do anything other than soak up the sun, fire up the barbecue and celebrate making it through another winter. This appreciation can go on through mid-July. If the temperature is above 40°F, shorts and flip flops are considered reasonable attire.
9. We are very proud of Motown
You’ll want to make sure you know Motown. We think it’s a life skill for everyone, but especially if you’ll be joining us here.
10. Get to know the locals
People in Michigan are friendly. Greeting them with a smile will get you far, and if you can make us laugh, even better. Talking about the weather is not as boring as it might be in some other places. With conditions as changeable as Michigan’s (thanks Great Lakes!) there’s never a dull moment.
11. The lakes are powerful and must be respected
The lakes, as beautiful as they are, are wild and moving entities. Be aware that people drown regularly after being carried out by riptides or being swamped by giant waves. Be mindful of inclement weather if you're out on the water in any type of boat, from a cabin cruiser to a kayak.
12. Water pollution is still a major problem
Michigan’s history as an industrially active state, unfortunately means there has been significant industrial pollution in our lakes and rivers in certain areas. This is most evident in the city of Flint, where drinking tap water is still not recommended following reports of rampant illness among city residents during the Flint Water Crisis of 2018. When in doubt, drink bottled water and research the up-to-date cleanliness of the body of water you’ll be swimming or fishing in. This is more of a concern in the cities of Detroit, Grand Rapids, Flint, Kalamazoo, Saginaw, etc. than in the wilds. Read up on Michigan’s Community Public Drinking Water guidelines.